Migration and Pollution

Posted: June 15th, 2010 under Pollution.
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Although we are over two-hundred straight-line miles from the Gulf, we are smack dab in the middle of the Central Flyway, by which birds pass north and south from their breeding grounds to their wintering grounds.   So with the first news of the oil gusher in the Gulf, my thoughts leaped past the wildlife present to be damaged by the oil immediately, to those who would be arriving from the north–exhausted and hungry–to find their migration stopovers and their wintering grounds untenable.

I  remember the public contributions to saving the whooping crane back when I was a kid living in extreme South Texas.   We had little cards (like those in some coin collectors’ books) that we filled with pennies, and sent in to help establish a refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast.  Every year we heard how many whoopers were left–the number dwindled…then bottomed out…then began to climb, one by one.    Those cranes–which most of us never saw, as they didn’t fly over us, but to the coastal marshes–were in a sense our cranes.  As the numbers climbed, we knew our contributions had helped.

Putting my pennies in those cardboard forms–collecting milk bottle tops and other items to earn money for the cranes–was my first awareness of citizen involvement in conservation, preservation, wildlife issues.

We don’t see the cranes fly over us here in Central Texas until late October through mid-November, most years.  Mostly it’s sandhills, great long skeins of them, filling the air with their calls.  Once (when I had no camera with me, of course) a sandhill flock had eight whooping cranes flying in a cluster on its margin.   Larger than the others, wheeling in their own tight little group when the larger flock wheeled to find and rise on a thermal…the first whoopers I had ever actually seen.  And one spring migration, a single whooper decided that a stock pond only a few miles away was a good place to rest and clean out the frog population.  I saw that one, too, driving back from a visit to my husband’s mother–saw it gleaming white in the dusk, huge and rare.

Sandhills and whoopers winter along the coast, feeding in marshes and farmland that used to be marshes.  In a good year (the last two years have not been good)  they feed on invertebrates–crabs, for instance–with high nutritional value and face the spring migration to their breeding grounds in good shape.  In a year that’s bad for young blue crabs, they eat whatever they can find–often not enough.    Besides cranes, geese and ducks and shorebirds and songbirds and raptors all flow south, funneling into Texas from any northern point east of the Rockies (some who “should” take the eastern flyway take the central instead) and concentrate along the Gulf Coast–some to winter there, some to make their way farther south.

For some people,  fall begins with leaves falling from the trees.  For me, it begins with the first southward migrants, no matter that it’s still summer here (and will be for two months more.)   I’ve photographed songbird migrants in August.    Fall just began this year, before summer even arrived.   A radio-transmitter-marked long-billed curlew left its breeding grounds in Nebraska June 13 and as of the 13th was in Gray County, Texas.    Now.  Before the summer solstice.

Last winter, “Bailey” wintered just across the border into Mexico, utilizing coastal marshes and feeding at the edge of the Gulf at low tide.   The Nebraska Long-billed Curlew Satellite Tracking Project attached transmitters to two female curlews, but “Sandy” disappeared from the trace last October.   Why is Bailey back so early?   Did she breed?   (Did the antenna sticking out of her back act like a pocket protector full of technical pens–did the male curlews think she was nerdy?)  Did she lay?  Were the eggs fertile?  Are there young curlews?   We don’t know that.  We don’t know nearly enough about the lives of migratory birds.

But one thing we do know is that Bailey and other long-billed curlews will be returning to the Gulf Coast.  Behind them, one species after another and several together, will come the hundreds of species and tens of thousands of birds that have been flying that route for millenia.   The shorebirds and the waterbirds, the songbirds and the raptors.  And the shorebirds and waterbirds will come to the beaches, the long sandy stretches where they can find the little shellfish they pluck from the waves…and to the salt and brackish and freshwater marshes.

Year after year they’ve come, and year after year humans have destroyed their habitat with construction and diversion and draining and filling and damming of rivers that used to flush the estuaries and bays with fresh water.   Our human trash–our sewage, our agricultural runoff, our fishing lines and nets and old tires and 50 gallon drums with residues of everything toxic, our boxes and newspapers and dirty diapers and medical waste and on and on now litters every beach, is caught here and there in the marsh vegetation every high tide.   It comes down the rivers…it floats ashore from ships and drilling platforms.

But the birds always come.    Too high to see, often, over our place, but easy to hear if you’re outdoors.    Going back and forth to college on the bus, I saw them twice a year, the huge flocks rising off the coastal prairies, prairies now become housing developments and industrial complexes.   They come back, they forage for whatever they can find whether it’s healthy food for them or not, and they fly away in early spring.    They’re only birds, after all.  They can fly only a few hundred miles a day, not an hour.    They don’t understand that some humans care about their survival and others say “Let evolution take its course” when what they mean is “It would cost too much to save them and they’re in our way.”

The thing about bird migrations that have been in place for ten thousand or more years is that you can’t explain anything to the birds.     You can’t say to the blue geese, the snow geese “The Gulf’s not safe this year–go somewhere else. ”   You can’t say “Stay way from the coast and the marshes and we’ll give you some corn over here instead.”   You can’t tell the last stubborn survivors of the once vast flocks of whooping cranes that they must not go to the coast…that they must not eat what lives in those marshes because even if the crabs and snails are alive…they’re toxic.

So the cranes will come, and the cranes–at least some of them and quite possibly all the remainder–will die.   It’s certainly not the first species we’ve killed off, and it certainly won’t be the last.    And some people will say “At least we’ve got pictures” or “People are more important than any damned bird.”   People who have given up reality to live through their television sets.   But.   But I have seen whooping cranes in the air, and sandhill cranes, and the clouds of snow geese rising from the ground.  I’ve heard them.

In A Man for All Seasons, a play about Sir Thomas More,  he is betrayed by a man he had known a long time–a grasping climber–and the man does it to gain political advantage and personal wealth, an appointment in Wales.  More quotes the Bible “What will it profit a man to give up his immortal soul for the whole world” and then says “But for Wales, Richard!?”    This came into my head when I read that the long-billed curlew is already back in Texas and remembered the abundance of coastal wildlife–not just those that breed here,  but the great crowd of migrants and winter residents.    And the whooping cranes.

We may lose it all–the fish in the sea, the crabs and the shrimp and the oysters once so abundant, the birds on the shores and in the bays and estuaries and marshes.    “And for oil, people!”

Well, no, maybe not just for the oil.  For convenience, for comfort, for all the new materials made of petrochemicals…but most of all, for money.    When the clouds and skeins of wings are gone from the spring and autumn winds, and the calls of the wild geese and the cranes no longer lift eyes to see them against the blue which is far less blue…we’re left with paper…which an artist can fold into paper cranes that do not fly, and do not call.


  • Comment by Claire Eamer — June 16, 2010 @ 2:19 pm


    Thank you, Elizabeth.

  • Comment by Barb — June 16, 2010 @ 8:13 pm


    One of the most heartfelt and eloquent scribs I’ve read recently on the unpublicized fallout from this oil disaster. And I will admit I needed a tissue or three by the time I reached the end of your post.

    Thank you so much.

  • Comment by tuppence — June 16, 2010 @ 8:51 pm


    Yesterday I heard one of the Texas Reps declaiming about how the oil companies were the only group with the expertise to regulate the industry, and how we MUST continue with deep water drilling. Then I heard that one of the BP recovery ships had been struck by lightning. Mother Gaia sure is annoyed with all the monkey-fleas that are infesting her skin.

  • Comment by Kip Colegrove — June 16, 2010 @ 9:43 pm


    I have watched the sandhill cranes (and their tag-alongs) mass along the Platte River in Nebraska. It is a sight that stays with you. To face the likelihood that this extravagance of creation, good in itself and good for us, will soon cease, brings grief indeed.

  • Comment by Elizabeth Barrette — June 16, 2010 @ 9:51 pm


    Alas! This is well said. I’ve linked to it on my LiveJournal, where I’ve been sharing news about the BP catastrophe and what people can do about it.

  • Comment by elizabeth — June 16, 2010 @ 9:57 pm


    Kip: With sandhills we’re lucky that some of them winter in New Mexico, not on a coast at all. IIRC, that’s the smallest of the populations, but it’s there. Florida now has some whoopers as well as sandhills, but the entire Gulf is at risk from this oil.

    Tuppence: The Texas legislature is a danger to self and others. The current Texas governor is as bad. And the Texas Board of Education is one reason these people are unable to learn or reason. Which one of our tarnished sterling reps were you listening to?

    Barb & Claire: thanks.

  • Comment by elizabeth — June 16, 2010 @ 10:09 pm


    Thanks for sharing it around.

  • Comment by Tuppence — June 17, 2010 @ 3:52 pm


    I think that I may have been Joe Barton, who has further distinguished himself today accusing the President of ‘shaking down’ BP, and apologising for it!
    I suggest a vacation in a small fishing village in the Niger Delta for him – where he would be required to eat the fish (if any ) that are caught there.

  • Comment by elizabeth — June 18, 2010 @ 9:18 am


    He has to catch or grow anything he eats. Personally. With equipment he can make with his own hands. And no entourage.

    Or better yet–set him adrift in a small boat in the Gulf. He can eat the dead fish, birds, etc. that he finds in the oil slick.

    But I think I’d rather go out and photograph bugs than think about Joe Barton. Bugs are at least a functional part of the ecosytem. Brainless politicians are a waste of plants’ photosynthetic capability.

  • Comment by elizabeth — June 18, 2010 @ 11:19 am


    Just saw a TEXBIRDS post that Bailey, the long-billed curlew with a radio transponder, has reached the Gulf coast in South Texas (yesterday, maybe Mexico today) and another post reporting the sighting of four long-billed curlews in the Corpus Christi area yesterday. So maybe Bailey’s not the only “early” migrant this year.

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