On a Sunday swoop, driving faster than my usual highway speed, aimed at the hold-out of another rare visiting bird, I felt a late-coming reward due for all my own relentless routines and labors--all the days when these art endeavors and my various promotions feel of petty consequence. Faring off to an auspicious encounter with the ancient is a familiar feeling to birders as they head out to cross county and state lines, by car, train, bike or plane in response to a sighting that would mean a life species added to a private list. Birder's adventure-lust is a kind of yearning for a rarity in the long stretches when nobody's reporting any special sightings, often as a result of monotonous weather. It can be stormy weather that whips birds in from faraway. We don't know how to be at home contented with the same resident bird neighbors: Canada geese, English sparrows, sooty shearwaters out at sea. Isn't it in a way an act of worship, going to bear witness to a long-adapted life form brought into the world through all the bravery and discomfort tied to the process called evolution?
Last week-end's bird quarry was a pair of vermilion flycatchers over in Becker County, in Minnesota's northwestern quadrant, and would take me across five counties including a stretch of the Chippewa National Forest. Deer season opener was on, so an unusual number of trucks and a few modest cars lay at trailheads along the highway as if whispering nose to nose. For me it had been since early May that I last listed a new bird, down by the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, the ruff observable at long range across a lot of warm bottomland overlooking Minnesota River mudflats.
A sweeping National Audubon bird study released in 2014 concluded, based upon projections of temperature, rainfall, vegetative changes and other alterations in climate that by 2080 over half, or 314 out of 588 species of North American birds will lose more than fifty percent of their customary range. Out of those 314 threatened species 126 are classified as climate-endangered, and projected to lose more than fifty percent of their accustomed range as early as 2050. Abstraction from these trends serves as a reminder that powerful, prevailing conditions (climates) do, even in a lifetime, phase one into another, and that a force on earth so manifold and exponential as people do drive those conditions. Then what happens when the people-force divides, as it does, into sub-forces of clashing priorities? How well do we cherish the wild birds, more or less of which are archetypes, treasured emblems or voices of a place, in our minds?
Maybe one-hundred to three-hundred of our continent's bird species seem as irrevocably slated for extinction as each one of us is in a tinier time frame--each species, each life. My reaction for this road trip is to bask in an aura of fleeting joy, meanwhile as my aging Toyota hybrid tears along as if piercing the lake country, slowing through farm towns that seem to belong to other times of different but comparable threat compared with our times. And maybe a rush of mortification absorbs enough human hearts, the prospect of these losses tearing across us like a rip from earliest memory to a prospect of no more iconic wildlife--if the Vermilion flycatcher is not on the list of 314 climate-threatened birds because it hails from a hot latitude far to our south, our loon and Bohemian waxwing, our great grey owl and sundry favorite locally-breeding birds are. A few devotees to these creatures, to pristine places or lands and seas with their character facing peril will be standing up out of a welter of angry sorrow and saying: this kind isn't gone yet or this place still looks how I remember it. Right now we're taking a breather in a kind of temporary contentment at how, in due time and in the comradeship of recognizing an increasingly desolate future thousands of us got our president to rule against the latest mother of all transcontinental pipelines, the Keystone XL.
Restoration of places is an option sometimes taken on as a mission; I can't forget the story of Hanna Mounce, featured in the early-autumn 2015 issue of Audubon magazine. She coordinates the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project and works with a crew replanting seedlings of trees typifying the lost dry, upland forest that once supported Hawaii's rarest bird, of which only a few hundred diminishing individuals remain. A forest restored for one species holds the promise of saving any number of others. In more desolate times ahead, if cultures internalize the sense that a community's birth rates as well as death rates are best held in check to ensure abundant living for members who are and may yet be, the recreation of habitat full of complementary trees, shrubs and soft-bodied plants may well become a therapy, a discipline, and a vocation, lots like horticulture or silviculture throughout the ages.
Restored, protected tallgrass prairie, Becker County, Minnesota
I celebrated a distant old friend's 55th birthday and the rejection of the Keystone pipeline by observing the nearly-adult vermilion flycatcher along a metal pasture fence, in late morning sun and 55 degrees F. Though he wasn't close to my position looking through a window, the flycatcher was spectacularly lit, red as fake blood as he blurted from nabbing insect prey midair back to his perch on barbed wire; viewing conditions could not have been sharper. Among the few people present there was lively conversation and the thrill of thin, early bonds formed between folks otherwise unlikely to meet but of a common mind-set. Then my hurtle back eastward, out of prairie country into what remains of wooded acreages and lakes known for ice-fishing and cracking, dry cold in all the winters in memory.
Vermilion Flycatcher Minds his Business - 5x7" original watercolor on semi-glossy Yupo polypropylene paper $50
Life appears fair to the extent that it offers the various kinds of sustenance, and one of these is getting back to visit the source of what means most to us in our weariness and numbness, often what never changes but presents itself as a constant, a built-up thing or a living thing that reproduces seasonally true to its kind. The vermilion flycatcher and other surviving species of birds are that, are in bird books and illustrations going way back into history, and though they are in that way a constant, some of them offset the impending era of extinctions by showing up where and when least expected, like a vanguard of some other trend that we cooperatively could set in motion.