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Category Archives: Nature and Ecology

Why Is that Seagull Hanging Out with the Pelicans?

 

I had a break on Florida’s Sanibel Island from our Michigan snow, sleet, and polar cold  early this April . It was over 80 degrees every day, sunny and warm, so I  wandered along the Gulf Coast beach in utter bliss with my toes in the waves.

All day long  Brown Pelicans flew close to the shore, suddenly turning as if on a hinge to dive bomb schools of fish, sieving them up in their bills and  throwing their heads back to swallow.  There was a little pod of three pelicans  accompanied by a small seagull, which flew over after every dive to join them.

I wondered, somewhat sentimentally, if this was a bird/bird friendship, like the companionship of cats with parrots and goats with baby hippos you sometime see on YouTube? I asked  a fisherman what was going on, and he explained that the pelican’s explosive dive stuns schools of fish, leaving plenty to bob confusedly about for the gull to feed on.

Gulls are well-known scavengers – there were crowds of them circling and screaming around fishing boats returning to harbor, riding low with the day’s catch.  The fishermen don’t get anything out of this gull companionship; neither, apparently, do the pelicans.

I have a handy-dandy Birder’s Handbook, which includes quirky informational essays. When I got home I consulted it, to learn that the pelican/gull relationship is not bird/bird friendliness but  “commensal feeding.” A  “follower bird” associates with a “beater species”  which “stirs up the waters” like the pelican or flushes hidden food advantageously.

Birds don’t just follow other birds: the Cattle Egrets I saw along Florida highways follow tractors as well as cows, gleaning the stirred furrows; the tractors don’t seem to get  anything from the relationship.

Birds of different species sometimes flock together for mutual protection,  to  “increase the number of eyes and ears available to detect predators and [confuse] them as many individuals flee at once.”   Great Egrets hang around White Ibises not only for fish that the deep-delving Ibises stir up, but also,  being taller, they detect and warn of approaching danger.  Downy woodpeckers feed with Titmice and Chickadees to “use them as sentinels,” while  Blue Jays alert my whole back yard until (including its squirrels) they are all yelling together about a menacing hawk.

Which explains a curious intermingling of species on the Sanibel Island beach:  a flock of Sanderlings, tiny sandpipers scuttling in and out of the surf to probe for mollusks, crustaceans, and horseshoe crab eggs, will have a Plover with them; or a Willet that signals danger with a fluting warble will hang out with a group of  Ruddy Turnstones.

sanderlings (small with white bellies mid-background) in a mixed flock

Another strange thing on those beaches is how tame the shore birds are, standing around totally unperturbed by human approach. One day while I was swimming a Snowy Egret trotted from the tideline to my towel and seemed to be waiting there for me. My father, a professed pagan and ocean-lover, told us before he died that he might come back to see us some day as a big white bird, so, thinking it  was him, I  pulled my grandson from his swim to introduce them to each other.

Silly me: the next day I saw the Egret, with his big yellow feet and his wispy feathers blowing in the wind, sitting by another towel to await  commensal feeding.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Polar Bear Conundrum

 It is spring again, and I am slinging my binoculars around my neck to look for warbler “fall outs,” when dozens of colorful little bundles of pluck and determination pause to feed along our Michigan rivers in their migration from as far away as Mexico and South America. Sadly, these days it is more of a trickle  than the cascade of birds I used to see, a fact that undercuts my springtime élan with a strain of dread.

We nature lovers know that environmental despair can paralyze our wills, keeping us from working on behalf of our beloved planet. That is why I have been writing about Snow Shoe Hares and Leaping Lizards, House Finches and microscopic Tardigrades, cheering myself up with evidence of new adaptions and instances of abundance that might lessen both the extirpation and extinction of species.

Polar Bears

There is a depressing video of an emaciated Polar Bear going the rounds of social media to illustrate species depletion by thinning sea ice, so you can imagine how encouraged I was by an article in the British Guardian explaining that the decline of polar bears in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea is overridden by significant numbers elsewhere in the Arctic. Polar Bears are divided into “stocks,” or populations living in different areas; the stock in one place may decrease due to local conditions while others are stable or actually increasing,  Fact checking around, I found the total count at 26,000, up from 12,000 in 1970. Since this does not include stocks inf the vast area under Russian control (for which no data has been made available) it looks like cause for hope.

Polar Bear Counts as a Political Weapon

The problem with getting all hopeful about these statistics is that climate deniers use the rise in polar bear population to pooh-pooh “being hit over the head” by environmentalists. Here is Susan Crockford, for example, in Canada’s Financial Post: “Polar bears are flourishing, making them phony icons, and false idols, for global warming alarmists.” The article  insists that it is thickening sea ice in the Beaufort Sea that is leading to Polar Bear depletion: “There are also strong indications that thick spring-ice conditions happened again in 2014–16, with the impacts on polar bears being similarly portrayed as effects of global warming.”

Unfortunately, the Financial Post is looking at present Polar Bear populations, not future ones, which are predicted to decline as global warming advances.  Their numbers have recently increased, but the endangered designation is derived from calculations like those of Polar Bears International. which predict that the species will be extinct by 2050 because of global warming.

Where Does This Leave Us?

It seems clear that some (though not all) members of the business community will continue to deny the seriousness of climate change, using whatever rhetorical weapons they can muster.

 

They are preaching, however, to their own choir, folks whose greed for profit makes them deny proven scientific findings.

For the rest of us, facts about the loss of abundance and diversity must be faced if we are to keep on fighting for the natural world we love so much. But how can keep our spirits up amid so much evidence of species decline and natural disaster?

For me, the answer is hope, which I understand as the opposite of conviction or certainty; I am neither convinced nor certain that global warming can be mitigated,  but I hope like mad that  nature can rebound someday to its onetime glorious diversity and enormous abundance. Hope helps me take heart from good news about what is being done both at home and around the world,  but I must find ways to strengthen my heart so that I can absorb the bad news as well.

Taking heart, “dwelling in possibility” as Emily Dickinson put it, involves a summoning of strength from each other, taking courage from companionship in action, but also from an inner strengthening,  finding ways to build up my personal courage.

John Seed, director of the Rainforest Information Center in Australia, deals with the despair of his daily dealings with the lumber industry by remembering

“… that it’s not me, John Seed, trying to protect the rain forest. Rather, I am part of the rain forest protecting itself. I am that part of the rain forest recently emerged into human thinking.”

Joanna Macy, proponent of eco-philosophy and a self-strengthening ecological depth psychology, suggests each of us build up an “ecological self”:

“This greening of the self.. . involves a combining of the mystical with the pragmatic, transcending separateness, alienation, and fragmentation. It is . . .‘a spiritual change,’ generating a sense of profound interconnectedness with all life. . . .Thus the greening of the self helps us to reinhabit time and our own story as life on Earth. … the story of a deep kinship with all life, bringing strengths that we never imagined. When we claim this story as our innermost sense of who we are, a gladness comes that will help us to survive.”

I live in hope

 

 

 

 

The Hare, the House Finch and the Tardigrade

 

In my recent blog about furry little Pitas  and their trouble coping with rising temperatures,  I wondered whether they might develop thinner coats in time to avoid extirpation.

( Extirpation is the loss of a species population in a particular habitat or, local extinction.  Extinction refers to the loss of the entire species on a world-wide basis)

Since I can be cheered up by even tiny bits of hope from nature  these days, I was pleased to hear that Snowshoe Hares are not only developing cooler winter coats but, in some warming areas, discarding them altogether.

Scientists, examining hares living in Pennsylvania, the Eastern United States, and the Yukon  report  that  “In addition to finding greater numbers of the animals with thinner winter coats in the more southerly population, (they) found a small number of individuals which did not develop a full winter pelt…. Clearly adapting to present climate conditions.”   But,  they ask,  “can the hares change quickly enough to keep up with global warming?”

If so, can a similar flexibility impact the fate of other species?  One way to approach this puzzle is to take  previous periods of climate fluctuation into account. as does Lucas Isakowitz, citing Jonathan Rolland’s research on such periods.

“’You have to imagine that 40 million years ago, global temperatures were much higher, and there were tropical areas in the poles, even in Antarctica,’” said Rolland. “’As the Earth began to cool, some species evolved, while others just moved to warmer climates.’” Birds and mammals proved themselves to be better at evolving than their cold blooded counterparts, which explains why they were able to move into habitats in more northern and southern regions.”

The problem, concludes Isakowitz, is that the present global warming caused by human impact isn’t spread over millions of years,  but has  increased more and more rapidly during the last few centuries.

I  take heart, nonetheless, from  the adaptability of the Snowshoe Hare, and from  those indefatigable House Finches that have not only spread far and wide over American in recent decades but have developed mutations for  new habitats.  When they decided to nest in cities, for example, their beaks changed shape to be more useful for cracking  bird feeder seeds, while urban finch males developed  new city songs that they realized were  appealing to newly urbanized females.

Then, too, there is the lowly and  Tardigrade:

“MICROSCOPIC BUG THAT’LL SURVIVE UNTIL THE SUN DIES DISCOVERED IN PARKING LOT IN JAPAN,” reads a header in my local newspaper, touting the Tardigrade as “The world’s most indestructible species, … an eight-legged micro-animal (that) will survive until the sun dies.”

 

 

 

Nature Rising?

My old friend Helen Klebesadel created this vision of “Nature Rising” in watercolor. “In this painting,” she explains, “the flying crow contains the forest trees, representing the interconnection of all parts of nature, including the human element.”

We humans tend to forget that we do not stand above and outside of nature, but are intricately interwoven within it. This winter the northern jet stream weakened to leave us shivering in temperatures that should have remained in the Arctic, and the rest of the country has experienced horrific storms, floods, and wildfires all year long. These disturbing events have left me worried over whether enough species will be able to adapt to climate change for nature itself to survive.

There is a newly popular term, “The Anthropocene,” indicating this epoch (following the Pleistocene) when humans have overwhelmingly influenced the planet. It carries an “aren’t we awful” connotation, casting a  gloomy light upon our culpability and the possible demise of our own species along with all of the others.

Several years ago, I made the (internet) acquaintance of Claude Forthomme, an Eco-Fiction writer, economist, and a retired Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia of Food and Agriculture at the United Nations. She is Senior Editor at Impakter, a European online magazine where she has published several of my articles.

I spend a frozen January writing an Impakter review of three books about nature’s awe-inspiring intricate particulars and a fourth about human culpability and anthropocentric doom .

Here is my review, with my take on whether human beings or nature will be the greatest planetary influence in the years to come:

http://bit.ly/2EWxycs