Saturday, April 28, 2018

In Praise of Vacant Land

Growing up in Portland, Oregon in the 1960s and 1970s, I spent my lonely childhood exploring the forests, fields, and vacant lots around our neighborhood. Maybe it was the time period, maybe it was the culture, but I was allowed to roam freely for the most part. Not today. Our vacant parcels of land, whatever their size, have gone from implicit invitations to traverse them to extreme possessiveness and a clearly uninviting nature full of fences and other explicit boundaries and "no tresspassing" postings. I long for the good ol' days.

It would be an interesting exercise to plot a timeline of American land use over the centuries, from the frontier to current efforts to shrink public lands. Some things stand out from my own education, both formal and subsequently informed by "alternative media." We clearly usurped indigenous peoples in our effort to conquer the wild landscape and settle what were apparently chaotic ecosystems prior to our arrival as European colonists. Resource extraction went from individual mining claims during the Gold Rush to mountaintop removal for coal, to fracking done by faceless corporations. We tamed forests through logging and fire suppression.

If you believe that to have value, a given parcel of land must provide an economic return, then you are starting with the wrong premise.

Eventually, individuals with great foresight and appreciation of wilderness brought us the concept of parks, wildlife refuges, and roadless wilderness. Then came Aldo Leopold's land ethic, and Garrett Hardin's The Tragedy of the Commons. Our population boomed in post war celebration, and prosperity seemed boundless. The interstate highway system replaced the railroad as the way to move freely about the country, unfettered by fears of peak oil. Everyone could have everything, including their own piece of real estate. We could feed ourselves, recreate, work, and live, all in different locations. Sprawl was not the name for subdivisions back then.

Where once land was appreciated on several levels, today there is but one consideration: financial gain. If you believe that to have value, a given parcel of land must provide an economic return, then you are starting with the wrong premise. Land already has value as the ecosystem engine that keeps us breathing, keeps us grounded, keeps our minds resilient and stokes our creativity, awe, and curiosity. The idea that human activities enhance the value of land is a corruption of economics that ignores biology. I have personally never seen a natural landscape improved by the addition of a strip mall or suburban housing project. Indeed, such projects diminish the value of land at best.

Undeveloped acreage is protected the way ranchers protect their cattle before they take them to the slaughterhouse. The average lot is merely reserved for something "better" at some future date.

Today, the vacant lands of my youth are protected from children, and all other innocent and worthwhile interests. Undeveloped acreage is protected the way ranchers protect their cattle before they take them to the slaughterhouse. The average lot is merely reserved for something "better" at some future date. I ask what could be better than wildflowers, the hum of bees and songs of birds? What could be better than an unofficial playground for our wonderfully wild, exuberant children? I never got curious about illicit drugs because I was curious about insects and reptiles and other wildlife. I was able to satisfy my inquisitive nature precisely because I had places I could go, safe or not, where I could find and observe other organisms. This is saying something considering that I am an only child who was raised mostly by an overprotective single mother.

Vacant lots are only as much of a blight as we allow them to be, at least in urban settings. Why not take that weedy block and turn it into a butterfly and bird garden, or even a community garden that feeds people as well as wild things? Grow something other than another concrete and steel building. Density and infill are not dirty words. Apply them humanely and shrink your city's sprawl. Leave the larger pieces alone or manage them for all the biological services they provide us. Leave them for the kids.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Eagle and the Flycatcher

Taking to the road in search of birds is usually a rewarding, relaxing experience, but sometimes it can be a roller-coaster of emotions. Such was the case on April first when my wife and I set out over the plains east of Colorado Springs in mid-afternoon to take advantage of a sunny, cool, day. We had no idea what was in store for us.

More on him later

We drove south down Interstate 25, and took the exit for Hanover Road, as we have done countless times. We quickly got one of our target birds, our first Turkey Vultures of the year for El Paso County. A whole kettle of them was circling over fields adjacent to Fountain Creek. The rolling shortgrass prairie here is studded with cholla cacti, which are sometimes so thick as to create a stubby forest of the spiny succulents.

Farther out on Hanover Road we saw a vehicle pulled over on the shoulder, and a woman looking at what first appeared to be a chunk of retread from a truck tire. We slowed, and I noticed that the rubber debris had feathers. "Oh, wow, that's and eagle" I said to Heidi, and we pulled over ourselves. Walking back, I greeted the woman and asked if she was a wildlife officer or someone assigned to pick up deceased raptors. She said no, she lived in the area and had seen the Golden Eagle flying in this vicinity earlier in the day. She had found it in the middle of the road, as indicated by residual downy feathers still adhered to the pavement by dried bird blood. She had placed the corpse where it now lay.

Maybe my coping mechanism for tragedies like this is to immediately begin thinking of how to make the best of a bad situation. It was an adult bird, as I could best determine by lifting a wing and finding no white patch like the juveniles have. We hoped it was not on a nest, but at this time of year that is a distinct possibility. This was a freshly-killed bird, no rigor, though it had clenched talons on one foot.

Note: Possession of a dead bird of prey, especially an eagle, or even its feathers, is a federal offense. Taking the bird ourselves, even with the best intentions for depositing it, was not an option. Ever the quick-thinker, Heidi suggested we call a friend who has experience with this kind of thing. Miraculously, out in the middle of nowhere, we had a cell phone signal. I dialed our friend and luckily she picked up. She promised to do her best to track down a state official to go and fetch the body. She would call back with a verdict one way or the other. My phone did not ring. Heidi found she did have a voicemail message, and we listened to that. Success! There was no Colorado Parks & Wildlife person on duty, but the state police would find someone and we would get a call from whomever it was.

A couple minutes later my phone rang and an off-duty officer was on the other end. We described our location, even with GPS coordinates thanks again to Heidi, and he told us it would take him at least twenty minutes to get there. Bear in mind this is Easter Sunday. I told him we would wait....

Surprisingly, traffic was not entirely absent from this rural stretch of two-lane road, and we wondered if each approaching vehicle was "the guy." Most cars and trucks barely slowed, some rushing past at speeds well in excess of the posted limit. That might explain the dead eagle, and I wondered to myself why no one bothered to ask if we were broken down. Check that, one older gentleman in a pick-up did pull up next to us to make sure we were all right.

About thirty minutes after my phone conversation with the wildlife officer, another truck, approaching from the opposite direction we expected our hero to come from, slowed down and pulled a u-turn behind us. I asked if he was here for the bird and he confirmed it, displaying his badge upon exiting his vehicle. He had brought his wife with him. She is even more experienced with birds than himself, he informed us. So began "CSI: Ornithology."

One thing that puzzled us all was that the entire tail of the eagle was missing. The wildlife officer suspected that someone had yanked the tail feathers, which are prized in Native American cultures for ceremonial dress and rituals. There was a blood trail. More feathers on the other side of the road, but the bird's wings appeared to be almost undamaged, so there was another head-scratcher. Examining the carcass revealed just how extensive the damage was. A broken leg. Massive injuries where one wing joined the body. The blood on the bird's hooked beak could well be its own.

Much to our surprise, another birder friend of ours pulled up, having recognized us and being curious as to what all the commotion was about. She greeted us warmly but quickly breathed a sigh of sorrow at the reason for our roadside gathering. As we wrapped up our crime scene investigation and climbed into our car, Heidi told me that our birder friend was returning from seeing another spectacular bird, this one still living, just down the road.

"They saw a Vermilion Flycatcher?" I asked incredulously. Yep, a male, too. This is a pretty common southeast Arizona, along the Rio Grande, and the Gulf Coast. This far north? Not so much. The bird was hanging out behind the fire station in Hanover. It had been there pretty much all day. We arrived to find one of Colorado's foremost birders on hand with a spotting scope, dutifully pointing out the bright red bird to the steady parade of "chasers" who flocked to the location for their own viewing pleasure. This gentleman is absurdly generous with his time. He has more patience than a saint.

Heidi and I could have had a supremely awful afternoon had our most memorable experience been coming across that eagle. We owe it to friends, and the bird gods, for providing us with an exhilarating "upper" to end our day. No one promises that pursuing your passion is always going to be a positive thing, but if you do the right thing in the face of the worst circumstances your favorite pastime can deliver, then you will still be rewarded. It may not always turn out the way our Easter excursion did, but you can at least sleep well in the aftermath.