This past weekend I took my road bike out on a long, wandering route through the Midcoast region here in Maine. The day was gorgeous - cobalt blue skies, trees blazing with reds, oranges, and yellows, and a light breeze coming off the ocean. The breeze brought with it the scent of the sea. Some here find that scent - of kelp, sea life, and wet mud - somehow distasteful or even foul. Me? Well, I think it's the second-greatest scent on earth...a very close second to the aroma of a beautiful old garden rose.
The scent of the sea lured me to pedal out to one of mud flats on Maquoit Bay. By the human clock, the time was mid-afternoon, the tide was fully out, and the low angle of the sun made the islands in the bay a study in warm gray silhouettes. Here, mudflats extend for perhaps 500 meters from shore at low tide. A few gulls picked at clams or other bits of lunch on the mudflats, while another group of perhaps 25 gulls napped on the asphalt of the parking area where I stood. They didn't ruffle a feather while I stood not ten feet from them, enjoying the view.
Several minutes passed and I noticed a small flock of shorebirds looking for a place to land near the gulls. The little group darted back and forth in front of the entrance to the mud flat as if they were one organism - the communication among the individuals appeared to me, anyway, to happen instantaneously. How in the world could a flock change direction 90 degrees, or even 180 degrees, as a single unit? Just a little mystery that perhaps someone, someday, will figure out. After a few passes by the parking area, the little group of shorebirds settled on a place to land - out on an old slab of concrete about 25 feet from where I stood.
I noticed something a little different about this group of birds once they landed - they didn't do anything. They stood in place in exactly the spots they landed, just appearing to rest. It took me a moment to realize they were probably in the middle of their autumn migration. Who knows where they had been that morning - Nova Scotia? The Bay of Fundy? Further north? A wave of amazement and appreciation passed through me. These little birds, not much bigger than a good-sized robin, had recently left their breeding grounds far to the north of here and were on their way to warmer climates for the winter. And they were powered by their own wings. No cars, buses, or planes to take them to their destinations, just an unerring sense of direction, muscle power, and a little bit of stored fat.
The migrants definitely looked tired - they stood in place for ten or so minutes, barely moving a muscle. I stood as still as possible, not wanting to disturb them, but this also let me get a good view of them. To my surprise they appeared to be Redknots! This amazed me even more because the east coast poplation is in serious trouble at the moment. Numbers of Redknots are declining rapidly due to a loss of habitat and prey species (horseshoe crab eggs) at migration staging areas. But more on that later...
After studying these little guys for about 10 minutes, a car pulled into the parking area behind me and out popped 2 parents, one dog, and 3 teens, one a boy of about 14 and two girls, about 16 and perhaps 10. The boy immediately wanted to go chase the birds, gulls and redknots both, while his father told him in a half-hearted voice to leave the birds alone. The boy called back to his father "They're just birds" and ran pell-mell right into the middle of the flock of gulls. The father and mother just turned their heads and looked the other way while, I admit, anger grew inside of me. The girls sat on rocks and looked disinterested in this whole "nature" thing. After about 30 seconds, the oldest asked if they were done and could they please go to McDonald's now?
The Redknots took off immediately and flew back and forth along the shore, seemingly confused. It appeared they really wanted to rest at this particular spot but were disturbed (rightly so) by the presence of a family of humans who didn't care. For my part, I should have marched right up to the father and told him about the redknots and their migration, how these poor birds were tired and just wanted a place to rest and eat before continuing their long journey south. I didn't. I didn't because, quite frankly, I thought I'd be wasting my breath on these 5 people. I immediately wondered if there was anyone in the US who really cared.
The Redknots flew off and I turned my bike and started the long pedal home.
The questions that I'll be exploring next are...does anyone really care? And, more importantly, why should we care? Why should we care about one bird species going extinct along the Atlantic coast? Why should we care about changes in ocean chemistry, methane levels in the air, or changing ocean currents?
This post copyight 2010, Nancy Rynes. No portion of this post may be copied, transmitted, or otherwise distributed, in any form, without express written consent of Nancy Rynes.