Sunday, September 23, 2012

Invisible Bird Food in the Foliage

On a gorgeous end of summer day, I visited the wildflower garden of a local nature center with the intention to capture with my camera some of the wildlife, flower visitors, in particular. Unfortunately, I realized on arrival that I didn't feel well and needed to rest. So I stretched out on a bench under a gazebo, using my handbag as a pillow.

I rediscovered a simple truth: If you remain still and silent, nature comes to you and shows you things that you would have missed otherwise. A toad peeked from under the next bench, remaining in the moist coolness and shadows. Birds sang, flew, and dove into the foliage to emerge again, perhaps near me. A butterfly almost bumped onto my face.

Finally, one of those confusing fall warblers, a Wilson warbler perhaps, landed just ten feet from me. I am hopeless at identifying those drab olive and yellow little fellows. It proceeded to browse delicately from a jewelweed. I wondered what food it could find there. Some detective work was in order. I rested a little longer and then I got up to investigate.

I saw some holes on the leaves. Insects had been feeding; but they were long gone judging by the scar tissue around the wounds. Still the possibility remained that a similar leaf feeder was present when the bird landed. No way to know, though. Also, I couldn't guess whether the long-gone eater had been a caterpillar, sawfly or leaf beetle larva. My detective skills are severely limited in this respect.

Further observation led me to the mummified body of an aphid, not worthy of a bird's attention; but a clue nonetheless. Where there is one aphid, almost invariably there are more. It didn't take me long to find clusters of fat juicy green ones under the leaves of the jewelweed. I would have never noticed the well hidden aphids if the bird had not brought them to my attention.

Although I cannot be sure, I suspect that this was the morsel that the warbler was after. The insect life in the garden is rich and mostly out of sight. It feeds the birds, more skilled than us at spotting this nutritious resource. And thus, the web of life goes on.

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© Beatriz Moisset. 2012

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Turtles, Shorebirds, and Us

The sun rises above a Florida beach. Dark creatures the size of sand dollars scurry across the sand toward the water: baby turtles, born in the last few hours and rushing toward the safety of the ocean. Many others have taken this road from nest to water line through the night. Darkness provided relative protection from hungry predators. These latecomers face a danger that grows by the minute.

Hundreds of shorebirds have taken notice of the bounty and even invited others with joyous screams. They skillfully dive, beaks and claws at the ready, picking up one delicious morsel after another. Many of the newborns fall prey to the hungry mob, but others pass through the gauntlet and reach the safety of the waves.

You tell me that you worry about the turtles and fear for the survival of the species after reading that populations have been declining steadily. So you chase the birds away.

I tell you that the turtles have been laying eggs on these shores for eons. Birds have been helping themselves to the feast for just as long. They have not driven the turtles to extinction, and they are not likely to do so. They have succeeded in molding the turtle's physiology and behavior, though. That is why most baby turtles emerge at night; that is why they make a dash toward the water; that is why they are shaped the way they are. If raccoons were more abundant than birds, turtles would respond to the nocturnal predation and eventually most of them would emerge during the day rather than at night.  

Nature tends to keep things in balance. In its cruel arithmetic, most babies are not supposed to live. To maintain the turtle populations, all it takes is two hatchlings reaching adulthood and reproducing for each egg-laying female. And each female lays hundreds of eggs not once but many times in the course of her lifetime, most of them doomed to die without reproducing.

No, I say, the most serious threat to sea turtles doesn't come from predators. It comes from us, humans. Pollution, electric lights, heavy beach traffic, both by foot and by vehicles, pets on the loose, fishing nets, human-caused climate change . . . all these things combined put turtles and many other creatures at risk of becoming extinct.

I love the spunky baby turtle and its determination to survive. I also love the graceful seabird that preys on the innocent little turtle. I love all creatures and enjoy their beauty. But I love the web of life even more. Its exquisite quality is hidden from ordinary sight. Understanding it takes observation and careful thought. The marvelous intricacy of the web of life connects all creatures and makes possible their existence. So, you and I would do better to ignore the predatory birds. Instead, let us work together in preventing or mitigating the ecological damage that all of us continue to inflict on the planet.

Beatriz Moisset. Oct. 2012

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© Beatriz Moisset. 2012