The Eastern Bias Writing Project
I grew up without seasons. Here in Southern California, there is no winter, summer, spring, or fall to speak of. There is only the rainy season and the fire season. It makes for some especially violent small talk and drama every fall, but is a poor replacement for the romance of the East.
And 2,500 miles from New England, in a small town in Southern California, Eastern romance was alive in my elementary school. In first grade, we learned about the seasons. We went through the motions and sang the songs: fluttering hands for snow in winter, move your fingers this way for blooming flowers for spring, flick your wrist for summer rains and fall leaves. But I grew up during the drought, and the only thing I watched change from year to year were the color of the hills. They would change from brown to light green after a light rain, and then change back to brown a few weeks later, when the rain had ceased to return. Seasons were a legend. The girl who had moved here from Pennsylvania would talk wistfully about the great rains they got there, and secretly, we were all jealous.
So, in our elementary school class, in Southern California, we sang about the seasons, the snow, and the flowers and the leaves, but our teacher never talked about the fires or the rain of Southern California. She only pointed out that the sycamore trees planted at the front of the school changed from green to red for the fall, and lost their leaves for the winter. “We’re in a Mediterranean Climate,” she said, and the whole class repeated the word Mediterranean after her, “medd-it-ter-rain-eon.” We learned that Orange County was basically just warm and dry the whole year, and we had none of the excitements of the first snowfall or May showers. When I first found this out as a fact, I was disappointed. That winter, my friends and I sang “I’m-hoping-for-a----green---- Christmas.” This help up until 5th grade, when I was shocked by a peer mentioning that birds did, in fact, migrate in California. There was surely no need, with our year-round Mediterranean climate.
But anyone more observant than 5th-grade-me would see that seasons do bring real changes to California besides fire and water. I began tracking seasons through birds. Anyone who observes nature closely will realize that animals are far better indicators of the season than calendars or the name of the month. Birds sense the minuscule changes in climate that tells them a cold front will be coming here, or a warm front there; their clocks tick with the stars and sun and sky and with each tick an impulse tells them to stay longer, then begin preparations, then, finally, leave now. And at the same time, a thousand other birds across the nation feel the now. Like clockwork, spring rolls around, and with it, a massive influx of colorful little birds. Then with winter, the sparrows and finches. Every year, some Easterners leave up their hummingbird feeders through frost and wind in hopes of attracting a stray Rufous Hummingbird. A few succeed.
Here in California, with our Mediterranean climate, winter becomes a melting pot of Eastern, Southern, and Northern birds. I once led a rarity chasing trip for a group of young birders. "There's a Thick-billed Kingbird, Black-throated Green-warbler, Laughing Gull, Summer Tanager, Iceland Gull, Yellow-crowned Night-heron, Nelson's Sparrow, and a Hepatic Tanager," quipped my San Diego friend. He was not excited. For many of the birds, this was likely not their first year wintering in Southern California, and the kingbird in particular had been returning for 7 years. Afterwards, I mentioned to a friend on the East that disappointingly, we had missed most of our target birds and only got 3 out of the 8. "THREE!" he exclaimed. "That's like, how many rarities we have in the state right now!"
For any birder hoping to add some winter excitement to their week, then, a good strategy is to look closely through the historical winter records, then revisit each location hoping to rediscover a returning bird. To nobody's surprise, a Tufted Duck that was found in Orange County last year was found this year. I speculated on how many years it had been coming to this random patch of the river, undiscovered. In terms of ducks, it's not new: a Falcated Duck returned for a number of years to Northern California before it inevitably changed wintering locations or died.
It's given rise to a classic adage: "Think of all the rarities that haven't been found." The picture of hundreds of rarities waiting to be found gives a lot of space for the mind of the imaginative birder to wander. My mind was one of them, and often, I would find myself chasing a fictional Lucy's Warbler or Roseate Spoonbill, only to wake up with chagrin.
All these ideas are lovely in my head, but reality has little time for dreamers. For the birders, there's rarities, fame, and listserv fights, not fictional Lucy's Warblers. For the birds, there's survival. Winter brings rain, and the rain falls on the mountains as snow that flows down into the earth and gives live to the wildflowers and seeds and insects. To a Lucy's Warbler, the amount of rain in a winter matters far more than the GPS coordinates they've been spending the last few winters. And it matters far more than whatever silly listserv fights birders have, for the touch of rain on a desert is a magic that no human has ever been able to recreate. It pulls up the withered plants and straightens their roots. It freshens the air and darkens the soil. With it, comes wet, fluffed feathers, and shivering cold, but afterwards the birdsong flows through the air like liquid gold, ten times as sweet. With rain, comes life.
Spring migration ebbs and flows with the rains. Birders are keen at detecting this. There are no fallouts on the West -- but on a good year, it seems like the birds arrive in a never-ending stream, one after another, ten in a single bush, the air tinged with birdsong. And just as quickly as they arrive, they fade off into the mountains of the Sierras, or little riparian patches along Californian rivers, where they sing and breed and molt and prepare for the next season. This is the summer lull, of July , and California is not special for having it. All across the nation, summer is dead month, better suited for looking at dragonflies and damselflies than birds.
The question of the summer lull leads me to believe that perhaps I have been too quick to write off the climate of the East as a myth. California does not differ so much when it comes to the movement of the birds, after all. We both have our spring migration and our fall migration, and our Willow Flycatchers always only arrive after May, and our Pine Siskins always arrive in the winter. But then late summer rolls around. New England becomes ablaze with the explosion of a thousand red-leaved trees, and California becomes ablaze with a thousand wildfires. The gray skies and damp air of the rainy season becomes a cherished memory; rain, everybody whispers, as if in the midst of the the summer the skies would sardonically decide to shower upon us.
Birds have wings. They can fly from the fire.
The Eastern Bias Writing Project
We were standing by an abandoned house in the middle of a desert. A shotgun shell fell out of my hand. Ten miles away, I could hear a gun firing. In the rafters, there was the sound of a flurried wings of a dove. The sounds of the previous inhabitants echoed through the house; a toilet seat, half-a-sink, half a chimney. I wanted answers, but in the radiance of the desert sun, there were none. The walls were peppered with holes from people who had walked a mile out into the hot desert to shoot bullets into the pathetic one-story one-room house, floorboards and walls fracturing and foundation crumbling, chimney split in two. I had no gun with me, and we were not here to revel in destruction. We were here to see birds. Five hundred feet northeast of the house and a hop over a barbed-wire fence away, two thrashers perched upon a palo verde plant, and three hundred feet away, a male Lawrence’s Goldfinch began singing on top of a salt-cedar. A Gambel's Quail bellowed from on top of a black shrub. We paused momentarily to celebrate our success, then stepped back over the fence and carved “2017, CRTH” (“CRTH” short for the Crissal Thrashers we had seen) into the side of the house, below the “2k15” and above the “2011,” wondering what the person who had discovered birds here had been doing in such a foresaken place. The sun was hot and the birds faded away. Still, we lingered around the house, circling it, observing the mark we had inflicted on it proudly.
Then, reluctantly, I began tracing our path back. Three hundred feet to the right, imprinted softly in the sand, lay the tracks of an ATV, a human, a jackrabbit, and several whiptail lizards. I could see the track of the birder. What was he doing, when he discovered the thrashers here? Was he a researcher, a wandering hiker, a teenager who came to shoot holes into the side of the house? There were three hundred spots more in the desert here where Crissal Thrashers sung from the top of palo verde trees. But no one had discovered them yet.
89 degrees Fahrenheit. Wind: 16MPH, East. Cloud cover, 0. Today, I’m chasing a Le Conte’s Thrasher, but it looks like he’s escaped me. All that’s left is little footprints in the sand. Then the sound of more wind, and a few grains of sand being blown nilly-willy, and sun, and nothing, the desert left gaping wide open with a wide hole, with trails between mesquite strands streaming out where the thrasher could have run on indefinitely. What an appealing image, the one of a thrasher running forever - like the mouse on Tom and Jerry - with a soft pattering of feet, always out of the birder’s reach, occasionally peering over a sandy dune with a soft black eye, a tail cocked up, flashing an attractive cinnamon butt to any females who may be watching him run by.
It’s a puzzle, where exactly a thrasher could run to, here in this desolate land. This is what we call driveby county in Southern California. Ask the average Californian what you can find here, and the answer will involve either of two options: rattlesnakes and scorpions; maybe, if you’re lucky, a desert tortoise. But this is no place for birds or mammals. Anything that is not prickly or dry is sure to wither up and die in the desert.
And so it is with great puzzlement that I find the desert is always calling my name. I have no birds, no thoughts of birds at all on my mind -- all the same, thoughts of wide open sands and the tumbling sun are stuck on my mind. There is no delicate walk in the woods, appreciating the greening buds and sweet perfumes; walking too long in the desert is a death spell. There is only a grueling two hours long drive.
In the desert, there are no California Towhees prancing on lush sprinkled lawns .It is with this thought that I manage to feel a tinge of sadness as I am about to pass the Mountains of the East.
The sadness is always replaced with excitement. Throughout my childhood, the Mountains in the East of the county have been a magical barrier. Pass those mountains, and clamoring suburbia is turned two-hundred years back, into broke-down and rustic towns, with lovely names like 29 Palms and Mecca, a version of One Hundred Years of Solitude in reality. The mountains themselves are, among an earthquake of houses, a last reservoir of the great wilderness of the West. On a clear day, I like to climb the ridge above my house and name off the peaks. Today, I’m driving through them. The rain has turned them from their usual shade of brown to a dainty green, then the green again turns to a burnt brown as the highway rolls down the hills into the dry basin of the East itself. The color changes are a sign that the destination is near.
If the landscape doesn't give away your location, the heat soon will; it is unavoidable, seeks your attention, arouses your persistent discomfort, impossible to temper, deathly to an unprepared individual . Even in the cool confines of an air-conditioned car, the desert is dangerous. Getting lost while driving in the desert is an impossible feat: for a hundred miles, a single highway will stretch across the landscape. But gazing out the window, at the rat-tat-tat repeat of the mesquite plants and Joshua trees, it's easy to lose yourself. One plant, two plants, three plants, one hundred plants, the steady rolling of car tires. Stopping to get gas. Then more mesquite plants. For those who manage not to zone out, the plant life shifts ever so slightly with a few hills on the road. Then, the small thud of car tires as they screech to a halt. You've arrived. Your brain may be only half-awake now, the steady thumping of the desert highway having brought it to a lull.
Something about the desert emanates lethargy. It’s an animal sense, that tells you, in the heat and absence of water, spending too much energy is unwise. Humans come armed with their waterbottles and cans of sunscreen, but our senses our dulled nonetheless; to hike on a desert afternoon is to walk in a silent film, a dream. Out here, it’s important to arrive early to properly appreciate the sanguine beauty of a desert sunrise, when your eyes are still clear and your ears sharp. The birds, too, are hidden by the heat of the afternoon. To look for them you must keep your efforts before the sun hits the midpoint of the sky.
And early it is: 7:00 AM sharp, the temperature not yet rising to the nineties. I have the impulse to look for thrashers today. The shy Crissal Thrasher, with its mellow brown body and pale eyes, is only rarely encountered this far West. Instead, I'll be looking for the expected species, the pale Le Conte's Thrasher.
With its gentle countenance , oversized head, and softly drooping bill, the Le Conte's Thrasher is the closest to cute as a large bird can get. When running with its tail cocked and legs working in a flurry, it makes a comical picture -- the stereotypical image of a thrasher. Yet, it's a scene few birders ever get to witness: in the stretches of the barren desert the thrasher calls home, only those with luck and persistence cross paths with a thrasher.
I wish I could say I had a strategy to look for thrashers. Instead, I walk slowly among the shrubs, focusing my eyes between them, hoping to catch a glance of a tail here, or a foot there. Maybe an ill-uttered call will give away a hiding bird. But in the desert, sounds are hard to hold on to. Before you can sharply tune in on them, they have dissapeared, dissipated in the wind the sand.
Perhaps the thrashers have the same impulse as I. To run, to move with the wind and sun, along the roads of the desert.
The truth is, regardless of what I would like to believe, thrashers are not so mobile. They tend to keep the same mates, in the same territory, year-after-year. And herein lies the secret to finding a thrasher. Once an area with thrashers is found, there is a good chance to anyone who seeks to find one that they will still be there; through years of drought, rain, heat, cold, a thrasher will persist. It has no need to drink: water from insects suffice enough for its desert-adapted metabolism. The Le Conte's Thrasher is the survivor of the bird world.
Few expected to find it thriving in a world so alien to humans and other birds, and so, for years after its discovery, it was coveted as a rare bird. Now it is desired by birders as a so called "specialty bird." Between then and now, it has become no less prized. The desert remains unconquerable as ever, and so the thrasher remains unconquerable too, most running their entire lives without so much as a peek from a human, as most humans run their entire lives without so much as a peek at a thrasher.
And so it is with a sense of respect for the desert that I give up today's thrasher chase. The Le Conte's Thrasher has eluded me today. It is time to run along on our own different lives, the thrasher along the mesquite tracks, me, down the I-5 freeway. Another day, we may cross paths.
J.C. and Katelyn gave each other The Look.
“You can’t hang this weekend….because you’re going….BIRDING?” Jacey wore an expression of disbelief on her face. "What's birding, anyway?"
My other friend was quick to join in. “That’s so stupid. And nerdy.”
I was quick to laugh their snide comments off. We would wait---the three of us---and compare jobs in thirty years. “Yeah, let’s see where we all end up in the next decade. Me--out in the wilderness, working an awesome job with wildlife and nature and all, and you guys in your little cubicles living your dream job of playing out one of the characters in The Office.” More glares and rolling of the eyes from the two.
On the inside, however, an old feeling of disappointed hurt resumed a familiar pathway down to my heart. These were the low points of birding: letting what other people thought of your passion get through to you, despite what society--teachers, parents, culture--had taught you about the brilliance of “individuality” and standing out in a crowd. Often I would stay awake at night, thoughts of self-acceptance and questions on replay in my mind. Why was I mortified when a teacher mentioned to the entire class that one of my hobbies “birding?” Was it the incredulous stares, the sarcastic murmurs, the vicious gossip...or was it just simply me, socially conscious; sensitive to criticism; a 14-year old teenager dreaming to be simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary?
But I’m not here to dwell over the social downsides that birding might have unintentionally wrought, I’m here to celebrate its highlights. The events, that once passed, bring to light the subtle ways in which birds matters. The way birds quietly shift lives. How a glimpse of something as simple as a House Sparrow or Red-tailed Hawk can nudge a despairing soul in the right direction. Through all my memories, that of a ailing girl in Junior High sticks out the most to me, a candle lit in a room of dimming daylight.
I was Denilla’s only friend.
Bereft by a family falling into the shambles that are drugs and alcohol, and with a dad whose name was heard only in conjunction with the words “car crash,” and “hospital,” Denilla’s struggle with depression was constant and she suffered from bipolarism, alienating what used to be close friends of hers. And with something so simple as a point towards an Ash-throated Flycatcher, or two Great Egrets standing on the cold branches of a tree by a creek, her mind was kept adrift on our long walks through the fields and roads of our school.
“What’s that bird?” I pointed a finger towards a large black and orange sparrow.
Denilla was cautious. “Spotted Towhee?”
“Great!” I felt the proud inklings of a teacher having successfully taught a pupil.
Soon enough, she could identify a few more species--mostly the distinctive species. Something about the Bushtits and California Towhees, their plainness, perhaps, made them hard to identify. But in the larger picture, such things hardly matter. The only thing that matters is that in one way or another, birds brought a tiny sliver of happiness into Denilla’s life. When she moved away to a place far, far, away; far from me and our creek and our field and her life, I like to think that she carried that small slice of birds with her into the next chapter of her life. I like to think that every time she spotted a House Finch or Great Egret her mind would throwback to this year, the year of 2013, the year of running along creeks listening to Bewick’s Wrens and Ash-throated Flycatchers. I could be dead wrong. But that’s I like to think: that birds are still her guardian angels.
Angel had set the stage. As I submitted the slippery slope of high school, all my field guides that had been long forgotten in the dust of disuse disappeared, having been immediately thrown by me at any friends who piqued the slightest interest in birds. Strangers whom I had conversed with for seconds were sure to know at least one thing about me: me and my birds. I became the go-to bird person -- an injured hummingbird, a yarn of a Rock Pigeon that lived in someone’s yard, the one time someone saw a “yellow” bird -- the steady flow of bird traffic gradually rerouted towards me. And until a year later, my heart didn’t skip a beat as I navigated it. For it is true, that the spirit of a beginner birder burns brightly with a desire to share knowledge, and simmers with enthusiasm impossible to suppress.
To this date, I believe that this spirit, this attitude, is the difference between a good birder and a great birder. And there is not a doubt in the world that for a split second in a short window of time, my world was on fire with it. The spirit that organizations such as the ABA embody. The spirit to make change. The spirit to change the world for the better for both birds and man. The spirit to share knowledge, and in the process, touch someone’s life, the way a single Spotted Towhee and Ash-throated Flycatcher touched Denilla, the way birds can touch the lives of anyone who lets them in. Yes...with this spirit alive in us, bird lovers around the world will work together to make the world better for man and bird, one lonely soul at a time.
Today, the Earth is spinning.
A bird will quietly slip into a crack, turn to dust, and will be forgotten by the Earth.
And only one of the 8.7 million discovered species on our planet might know and remember that it ever existed. Sometimes that one species even makes an effort to find that bird. Cling to its memory.
that it is there.
For, with memory that passes we, too, fear.
will remember us when we are gone.
Who will remember us when we are gone?
Certainly not the birds.
Here are just a few of the notes I made while monitoring Tree Swallows at the man-made San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Southern California this year.
The beginning of the season is always tedious. A plethora of measurements need to be taken, and the time it takes to monitor is dragged up by a hour or two.
This time isn't without its excitements, however. Nests often exhibit unexplained anomalies: this year I have observed two nest boxes with gymnosperm nest material, specifically an exotic introduced type of juniper. This seems to be an odd choice when much more conventional nesting materials are readily available. I wonder if the acidity or some other property of juniper may be responsible for the decision -- yet another topic to be marked for further research!
The Tree Swallows have begun the lengthy process of egg-laying and incubation. While monitoring at this time of the year, I'm always doubly excited to open the box, with high hopes that my fingers will lay upon warm eggs or an incubating bird rather than feathers and grass.
There is one nest box (A47) here that always strikes me as strange. Upon my approach to this particular box, a swarm of four or more swallows immediately springs from the surrounding area and raises a ruckus above my head. The nest also has an unusually large amount of eggs - six --which, in our population of Tree Swallows, is slightly out of the realm of a normal-sized brood.
It is rather far-fetched, but I wonder if brood parasitism such as that which happens with Barn and Cliff Swallows is going on here, or even something along the lines of cooperative breeding. I will have to mark this down as another mystery to investigate the next season.
Most of the nest boxes are now well on their way to raising a successful brood, except for C nest boxes, which have had been a great deal of trouble recently. Two nest boxes of Tree Swallow have took on it upon themselves to be rivals. Such aggression is rare in our population of Tree Swallows, likely since both food resources and suitable nesting locations are ample (the habitat near the C boxes seems just as good as any!).
A few weeks ago, the parents of one nestbox destroyed the eggs of another. The nest of the attacked box remained inactive, so last week someone recommended that I clean it out. Now, I have returned this week to find that the attacked Tree Swallows have built a poor and improvised nest--2 centimeters tall, with loose construction and few feathers--and laid two eggs on it. Given the gentle conditions and climate here, I will not be surprised to see the eggs hatch and chicks fledge successfully.*
*Postnote: They did.
It’s my last day in Alaska. Soon I’ll be returning to Southern California to again monitor the Tree Swallows of San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. Today, I visited a lagoon near Anchorage and was pleased to notice a smattering of active swallow nest boxes throughout the boardwalk. What was not so pleasant was the voracity the swallows attacked me with. While I was simply standing on the walk ten feet away from a fledgling, a Tree Swallow came within centimeters of my face in its vicious dive-bombing attempts.
While the Tree Swallows back home dive bomb me as well, it it much more gentle and usually ends after the first two weeks or so of the season. They certainly do not come as close to my face and with such a venomous attitude as the Alaskan Tree Swallows did. I suspect the aggression of Tree Swallows varies greatly on the mildness of the environment. Alaska, even in summer, is a far harsher place than Southern California for Tree Swallows to nest, full of frequent bad weather and potential predators.
San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary is full of provided and constantly monitored nesting sites, in which there are always a dozen boxes left over. Since it is a located in the middle of the city and suburbia, it also lacks predators.
It's nearing the end of the season. With the banding of the last few nests has also come a strange phenomenon. Last week when I checked next box B26 to to see if the large chicks had fledged yet--they should have, but had not-- a juvenile Tree Swallow (with yellow gape and all) assaulted me. I guessed the young birdling was defending relatives, having fledged earlier than its siblings, or been a member of the previous brood of B26.
This week, however, when I banded D01, which is a nest box right next to B26, I was again confronted with a frantic juvenile Tree Swallow, who was far more concerned about me than any other swallow in the vicinity. Long after the parents had left, the juvenile continued to circle around me and utter alarms. D01 has not had a previous brood.
In all my cynical anti-anthropomorphism, I doubt that this was an act of altruism. If the attacker was indeed the same bird as the one that defended the adjacent nest box, an explanation might be that inexperienced fledgling Tree Swallows are anxious of “predators” in general, as they might be threats to multiple nest boxes, not just that of a neighboring nest box. In that way, driving away a predator from another nest box before the predator reaches their own could be advantageous.
Until the origin and number of the protective juvenile(s) are clarified, I'm afraid this conundrum will have to remain a mystery. Either way, the fact that a juvenile Tree Swallow shows concern for anything other than its belly is intriguing.
I am watching.
Nothing is allowed to stand out here; everything inevitably blends into the landscape. Even the pigeons, with their animated struts and creaky wingbeats, flock together into a gray undefined mass of metal and concrete.
I like to sit by these stairs sometimes, watch as a stream of footsteps rub the white walkways to gray. I like to watch as people walk by, arguing about things that will not matter in ten years, exchanging boredoms, texting trivialities, fuming or sobbing over an atrocity that they will surely blow over tomorrow, or next week, or next year.
I watch them traveling up and down, and up, and down, the walkway eroding millimeter-by-millimeter with every dozen steps dealt to its surface; every day, thousands of footsteps pattering along dim horizons as the birds sing and the clouds sail and the leaves wave their greetings and goodbyes, the ancient mother of the land humming in the background, ignored.
And there I sit, with the land.
It’s chilly today. Crystals of frost spring up every time my foot brushes the perfectly manicured lawn.
A Cooper's Hawk lands in the middle of the parking lot to quench its thirst. A creek of soapy water flows through dust and tar to end its journey in a broken drain.
A halt. A honk. The sound of unhurried wing flaps as the hawk flees from an impatient driver. Silence.
The lightposts are a battleground. A troop of cackling grackles raises ruckus, followed by an angry troupe of crows mobbing a raven. The crows give up after the raven proves to be unbudgeable. I note a similar scuffle went on here between some students just yesterday.
People prod their phones as I methodically label the types of grackle calls and tally down the order and number of each type of call. My homework is now a scribble of the grand Great-tailed Grackle orchestra. It’s okay, my teachers are used to it.
It may be a metropolis built for man here, but the birds sure don't think so. After decades of combat with urbanization, they have adapted. Now they arrive in droves.
I continue to watch them, the birds and the people.
Some people walk up and down those steps, and down and up, and up and down again. Some of those people have given in; I see it in their face, their weary countenance, their tired manner. Given in to everything life is rumored to be infamous for. Stress. Loneliness. Hopelessness. But it’s impossible for me to give in to these things; I have another problem at hand.
It’s the birds. My life is too far gone with the birds, and I know that even in a city that never rests, if I look high enough, I can make out something.
Can they see the fire in my eyes, the tenderness in my gazes to the sky? It's too late. I’m crazy.
I am birdwatching.
Travelers see this land as a pockmark on Earth’s pristine face. It’s the center of unconcern, definition of indifference. And the average traveler who must traverse through it is doomed to boredom. Unworthy of his attention, Montana’s rolling prairies and South Dakota’s gentle knolls are already out-of-focus in his mind, fading into a vague bokeh of memories. When he stops to rest, he closes his eyes, and the landscape is closed with them. The acres of dust and grass he has bypassed are dark. Inside his mind, senses are stifled, only the occasional whispered words of "where to" and "next stop," breaking silence.
If he only knew the prairie’s secret: that after a hundred miles on a lonely road, there is no magic greater than putting your ear to the land of the grass and listening to it whispering its soul.
The grass is no longer grass. Instead, each blade is the core of creation, beginning with the mellow gurgling of the meadowlarks, then rising with the confident tinkling of a thousand billion Horned Larks humming from within the roots of the grass in a great chanting chorus, then accelerating to a frenzied climax until the final rapid trumpeting of a triumphant Long-billed Curlew stuns the prairie to silence, only floating calls of longspurs left drifting through the air like fog to touch the ears of the listener gently and lull him further into the hymn of creation. As the chorus fades, an eerie buzz emanates from the heart of the land and hangs through the air and over the roads. And the observer slips further into his surreal afternoon dream.
Yet, as wondrous as the sweet prairie melody is, what the observer hears is a shred from centuries ago. 150 years ago, before the grasslands of North America were dimmed by the silence settlers from the East brought with them --- what magic the land must have held, and what magic we will never know of...
...perhaps we will just have to be content to stop by the road on a breezy prairie morning, roll down the window, and dream.
This article is to be featured in the April issue of the Birding magazine.
It’s Thanksgiving Day. Instead of preparing to argue about Trump at the dinner table, I’m in my own political conundrum: I’m at the Salton Sea. No turkeys are to be found, unless you count the lines of pelicans and gulls scattered across the water. In fact, nothing remotely reminiscent of pilgrims and feasts is in sight. I glance out at the Sea as the sun rises, at the pink and purple swabs fading in and out of the glowing water, mesmerized by gentle flow and ebb of birds flying from their roosts to their feeding grounds for the day. It’s hard for me to fathom that all this is disappearing—and the Salton Sea is disappearing, as the sound of crunching salt under your feet is quick to remind you. Piles of dried fish, held in their death throes by the salt, are an ominous memento mori omnipresent among the noisy birds and tourists. I pick one up and run my fingers up and down the browned scales. Embarrassingly, I feel a distant pang of hunger - it’s Thanksgiving, after all. However, it’s also a gruesome reminder that nothing lasts forever—including the Sea.
When you’re in the throes of the spell the Salton Sea casts on you, it might be hard to understand why anyone would be overjoyed at its disappearance. Yet there are plenty who are. “Salton Sea Disappearing? Good Riddance,” reads one blog post written by a self-declared wildlife lover. Others call for the opposite, pushing for intensive conservation efforts to be directed toward the Sea and its shrinking coasts.
Part of the controversy is explained by what many view as a sketchy history: For all its wondrous biodiversity, the Salton Sea is not all natural. Its accidental creation was a blip by the California Development Company’s attempts to construct an irrigation canal—the Great Diversion of 1905—which helps explains the raging disagreements on what to exactly do with the Sea. And raging they are: Triumphant victories for the Sea, such as a recent granting for $14 million to Salton Sea conservation, alternate between dismal blows in what is a constant and costly battle that the Sea doesn’t have time to fight.
And yet all this takes place under the radar: public opinion on the Sea is next to nonexistent. To get an idea on what people thought of the Salton Sea, I surveyed two groups of people -- one: dedicated, knowledgeable, bird lovers, and two: my peers in a Southern California high school, all top students in academia. The results were unanimously disappointing. Straight A students, who, though they had a passing interest in nature, were self-declared stewards of the environment, knew little of the Sea. “Wait, does the Salton Sea even exist?” one student, the top of his class, queried, while others knew nothing other of the sea, other than the fact that it was there. Birders fared only slightly better. Although the greater part (unlike my peers) replied that they cared more about the Salton Sea after reading information provided in the survey about wildlife viewing opportunities, most knew nothing of its conservation. Many had heard of the Sea on the TV and news only in the context of the recent earthquake threats. Of course, those who live far from Imperial County, where the Sea is located, are somewhat justified in their ignorance. But for a place that’s supposedly a once famed recreation and wildlife area, the coverage on its conservation seems to have had pitiful reach.
Part of my trip to the Salton Sea this Thanksgiving was to reminisce on the issue myself. From the quiet Northern shores, to Salt Creek, a place renowned for overwintering Yellow-footed Gulls, to the south tip of the Sea, where Burrowing Owls and Mountain Plovers hide in the agricultural fields and Bermudagrass, one thing is clear to me. If a single word summarizes the Salton Sea, dead, which survey participants listed as a descriptor more than any other word, certainly isn’t an option. Besides being a hotbed for birds found elsewhere in California with difficulty, such as Neotropic Cormorant and Stilt Sandpiper, the Salton Sea provides the Californian wintering ranges for birds such as Wood Stork and Sandhill Crane, interior breeding ranges for birds like the California Brown Pelican, and migration stopovers for millions of birds passing through Imperial County, not to mention that prized rarities such as Black-tailed Gull are liable to pop up. But listing these species does nothing. You have to be there; standing, at the Sea, or kayaking, or your preferred methods of transport, and you have to see to believe; you have to watch five-thousand Ring-billed Gulls, five hundred Whimbrels, and fifty Cattle Egrets lift off an agricultural field, and a thousand Sandhill Cranes and three hundred Snow Geese fly over with a great ruckus, and line after line of hundreds of pelican flying from roost to feeding ground, to know that is alive. What the Salton Sea is not is alive and well. Underneath the seeming paradise of the sea lurks a sinister hand. Avian botulism, encouraged by algae and massive amounts of tilapia corpses, is quick to kill. In 1996, 15,000 birds died from botulism, including 1,900 California Brown Pelicans. As the unstoppable tilapia dieoff continues and bacteria festers in their corpses, colonies are pushed closer and closer to the verge of outbreak.
For those bird lovers who enjoy the Salton Sea so much, and for those who look forward to visiting it in the future, then, the dilemma remains: whether to support the challenge of its conservation with vigor, or to simply enjoy the sea for what it is, while it still exists.
Most birders, when confronted with this question, appear to be in agreement. The situation seems simple -- what could be so controversial about preserving a critical bird area? Sure, the Salton Sea is no Disneyland for the average tourist, and its desert-meets-Central-Valley persona may not be too appealing, but what other birding place in the nation has the same uniqueness; the same special biodiversity? And they’re right: conservationists share a general consensus on the importance of the Salton Sea for birds from pelicans to terns. But the important question to ask is why the Salton Sea has become so important to bird conservation. Surely the birds that inhabit the sea today weren’t just nonexistent a century ago, before its inadvertent birth. Had humans actually (accidentally) done something right for the environment this time?
The answer is not so simple. First, the creation of the Salton Sea coincided with the elimination of over half of California’s wetlands, which left many bird populations with nowhere to go. With more direct implications for the Salton Sea was the deterioration of the Colorado River delta. At its height, the delta was a conservation hotspot supporting bird populations far exceeding the sea. When it dried up, those populations that relied on it for food, breeding, wintering, and migration made the switch to the Sea as their new home. Some -- including one aforementioned birder who says “good riddance to the sea” -- insist that conservation of the river delta is the real important problem at hand, and trying to save the Sea would simply divert water that should go to the delta instead. On the other hand, restoration of the river delta takes time, and time is something the birds of the Salton Sea do not have. Those who have been to the Sea, walked on its receded shorelines and orange pools littered with dead fish, and wondered why are the birds are still here, has probably felt that tug; that sense of urgency.
The time to make a decision is running short.
Already, pesticide-laden agricultural water flows into the Salton Sea at a dismal rate, threatening the protected wetlands at the south end of the sea and leaving 13,500 train loads worth of salt behind each year. Yet, in a mocking Catch-22, this runoff (as well as some leach water also from farmland), is what keeps the Salton Sea’s water level stable now that Colorado River water has hit its capacity. This year, the future of the sea has been rewritten: as a new 2017 measure, inflows will go to San Diego instead of their current destination to the Sea, fated for luxuries like bathrooms and swimming pools. To further add insult to injury, though conservation of water and tech improvements in farming -- farming that relies on the favorable microclimate the Sea creates -- is a good thing, it has cut on the inflow rates that keep the water levels up. It’s a paradox of wildlife, agriculture, and urban development, and noone has any one good plan to solve it. Even those who agree that the the drying up of the Sea is a mistake to be avoided at all costs disagree on how exactly to accomplish that goal.
Wildlife lovers aren’t the only ones concerned about the future of the Sea, however: health officials and residents have more to fear. At the bottom of the Sea’s bed lies a layer of muck laden with toxins such as DDT and highly concentrated PCP, built from decades of contaminated agricultural inflows. The drying water threatens not only to release a torrent of dust that could cause breathing problems, but also all the century-old chemicals lodged in it. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen what can happen when dust and chemicals from agricultural inflows is blown in the air. In 2014, the East Basin of the Aral Sea dried up after having existed for 600 years.Centuries worth of polluted soil immediately blew onto the surrounding fields, causing a host of problems for the farmers, who suddenly found their crops in danger of contamination, and residents, who faced breathing problems. To avoid a similar precarity with the Salton Sea, scientists are racing to implement bioremediation programs to remove all the toxins from the muck at the seabottom. The future looks bleak: at the current rate the Sea is disappearing, they may not be able to remove enough in time.
But as always, doing something is better than doing nothing. The conservation of the Salton Sea is not impossible. Preserving the sea would require neither massive importations of Colorado River water or drastic farming revolutions. Instead, simple measures that are both easy and low-cost can be taken to help preserve the dwindling waters. It starts at home: the locally organized Red Hill Bay Restoration Project blends dilute Alamo River water with salty Salton Sea water to create a more habitable environment, while other efforts restore wasting wetland habitat for birds and fish. These programs offer inhabitants of the Sea temporary relief as rising salinity encroaches onto livable conditions.
Long-term solutions are sadly not so simple. All fingers point to the Colorado River when it comes to saving the sea. Yet, anyone who has studied the complex politics of Colorado water usage realizes that when it comes to a decade-long solution to saving the sea, the river is not where to look. It is not only unnecessary to import large amounts of Colorado River water to the sea, but impossible following a 2003 contract between California and other states called the Qualification Settlement Agreement (QSA) cutting down on the amount of Colorado River water allocated to California. Many also hold the opinion that any Colorado River water shuttled to the sea would be far more useful going to the Colorado River Delta, which, if restored to its former heights, would support far more wildlife than the sea. With the Colorado River no longer an option, a solution for the sea seems hard to come by, but hope can be found in a surprising place: the Qualification Settlement Agreement itself. The QSA wasn’t just a cutdown on Colorado River water: it also promoted water allocation to the sea through the local agricultural organization, Imperial Irrigation District. Further water projects by the IID and other bodies are the last measure for the sea. The sea is parched, and it will take every drop of water it can get, agricultural or otherwise, for its future.
And what that future is, is still unknown. As conservation efforts stall, the Salton Sea creeps along in its slow death. From the moment of its birth, the sea was at once both a anomaly and a continuation in a long series of sporadic flooding of the Salton Basin. Its role is unclear; its existence and place in the world an issue far more complex than what it appears to be the case on the surface. The fight to save the sea is, too, a tangled web that may be broken at any minute; a careful balance between agriculture, ecosystem, urban development, public opinion, and recreation. Go there this year. See the birds, the scenery, the strange beauty. Celebrate the birds and cherish the memory. You may be witnessing the last decade of the Salton Sea as we know it.
Postnote: This article was written in November 2016. Since 2017, articles enacting Salton Sea inflows to be redirected to San Diego urban development have already taken effect.
I grew up without the sweet sentimentality of the East. All the literature talked about tracking grouse footprints or hunting or buck shards in the snow, but there were no grouse here, and no bucks, and definitely no snow, and therefore no literature to be written. There was never just become a nature writer. You had move to New England, in a little cabin in the snow, and then only could you become a nature writer like Bernd Heinrich or Julie Zickefoose. Not suburban Orange County, where I grew up in a comfortable home, with not even a leak roof or broken ceiling fan to tragically describe.
Even here, Eastern bias didn’t fail to find me. The kitschy decals in my childhood bedroom depicted a brilliant Blue Jay, standing majestically next to a noble Eastern Bluebird, wrapped up with a responsible Northern Cardinal. The whole triad was morally infallible. It was enough to build a child’s character up to the second grade.
And from the second grade and onwards, I did grow. I grew with the bittersweet sound of nonexistent cardinals and American Goldfinches. Among young nature lovers, I was not alone. I beg to ask the question of why children in California call Scrub-Jays “Blue Jays.” “Because they’re blue!” is the stupidly obviously answer - yet, if you ask a child here what a Blue Jay looks like, they’ll imagine a picture somewhat like this:
The image of a Scrub-jay likely doesn’t even leap to mind. And everyone knows what a robin looks like, but why? Robins are scarcer here than Hooded Orioles, which no young child here can comfortably draw, but you can bet they can imagine what a Baltimore Oriole looks like -- and no, not just because of the baseball team.
I live to relive the romance of Manifest Destiny. The romance of the Western wilderness did not end after Lewis and Clark, and it did not end after the era of transcendentalism. We just simply stopped writing about it, in favor of the reliably charming maple forests of the East. The oak forests and gleaming oceans of the West are alive as ever. Let us write about it.
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