National Geographic : 1993 Jun
We pile into the car and dash for the next of 50 stops on our 24 1 /2-mile long circuit of Calvert County, wedged in the tidewater region of Maryland between the Chesapeake Bay and the lower reaches of the Patuxent River. What a difference a half mile makes! Woodlots and mead ows have replaced suburbia, and the wood thrush with its boldly spotted chest has overshadowed its red breasted cousin. "The thrush alone declares the immortal wealth and vig or that is in the forest," proclaimed Thoreau. Few who have heard its ethereal song would disagree. It is June 18, height of the nesting season hereabouts, and this is the month when 2,200 amateur ornithol ogists-from desert borderlands to treeless tundra-join in the annual North American Breeding Bird Sur vey (BBS). Organized in 1966 by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the BBS tracks changes in bird popula tions by yearly roadside counts along permanent routes. And if a sense of urgency now attends the exercise, it springs in large part from recent readings of BBS data showing major population decreases of migratory songbirds that nest in forests east of the Mississippi but winter in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Many of our birds of summer appear to be in decline. To find out why they are disap pearing and what is being done to save them, I traveled to their summer homes in the deciduous forests of northern New England and the Mid west and to their winter haunts in the mangrove swamps and rain forests of the Caribbean and Central America. For several months I spoke with people who are studying the lives of songbirds and searching for ways to slow the most destructive influence on them-loss of habitat. I would LES LINE was the editor of Audubon for 25 years. He has written, photographed, or edited some 30 books on natural history and conservation. SCOTT GOLDSMITH'S photographs have illustrated several Soci ety books and TRAVELER articles. come to know the black-throated blue warbler as intimately as the everyday cardinal that nests in my front-yard spruce, and I would discover many other causes for the birds' decline but no simple way to stop it. Saving our migratory songbirds may be tie most daunting task ever faced by American conservationists. But everyone I met agreed that the effort must be made, even if success is elusive, because to allow them to decline further is to accept as inevita ble the impover ishment of our ecosystems. One might reasonably ask whether we couldn't live without these birds. But why would we want to? They are worth attempting to save for no other reason than the pleasure people find in watching them, listening to them, studying them. A lifelong passion for ornithology often begins with an encounter with a special bird. Roger Tory Peterson, the bird-watching legend, calls it "the spark." He tells a story about John Burroughs, one of the 19th cen tury's most famous naturalists. One spring day in the late 1840s when Burroughs was a boy, he spied a tiny bird neatly patterned in blue, black, and white. It was a black-throated Silence of the Songbirds Reflecting fowl weather, a National Weather Service radarin Slidell, Louisiana,picks up clouds of songbirds migrating across the Gulf of Mexico in April. Each dot representsabout 20 birds.Analyses of 25 years of radardatashow dramaticallyemptier skies over the Gulf.