by Rob Tiller
It took me a long time, but I finally faced a tough fact: if you really want to see wildlife around here, you have to get up when it’s still dark. I adjusted my routine recently, and instead of starting the day with a gym work out, I’ve been grabbing my camera bag and tripod and pushing up to one of Raleigh’s parks.
Shelley Lake has been my primary target these last couple of weeks. I’ve been watching squadrons of Canada geese and mallards practicing their flying, while I try to figure out how to catch them in the early light. From time to time, a great blue heron or great egret scoots by. I heard a report of a bald eagle there last week, but haven’t yet seen it.
There are a lot of smaller birds, which I know mostly from listening rather than seeing, since they are masters at concealing themselves in the leaves. A few years back I put some effort into learning some birds’ songs, and with the fall migration coming soon, I’ve been refreshing on that skill. There are several apps I’ve found helpful, including ones from Audubon, Cornell, and Merlin.
The more I listen, the more I realize: the birds are communicating. That is, they aren’t mechanically repeating a programmed sequence; they’re sending out messages. Ornithologists have ideas about some of the messages, like alarm calls, but we’ve still got a lot to learn about their systems.
Being a bird cannot be easy. There’s always competition from other birds, and killer predators, like hawks and cats, can come out of nowhere. And then there’s the problem of human activity.
I was saddened, but not really surprised, at the report last month that bird populations had dropped precipitously in the last 50 years. In North America, there are 29 percent fewer birds, or almost 3 billion less than there were. That’s a lot of dead birds! The reasons are complex, but ultimately they have to do with us — our destruction of habitats, our use of pesticides, and of course, the environmental changes related to our irresponsible use of fossil fuels. All this bird destruction is terrible for the birds, obviously, but also for us and other creatures. Birds are important parts of ecosystems, spreading seeds, controlling pests, and pollinating plants. And of course, they’re beautiful. So, another wake up call to change course.