There are two kinds of people – that’s beyond simplistic, but for the sake of the column, play along with me here, OK? Those for whom seven months of winter is not nearly enough, and those who believe that is actually seven months too many.
A group of us who most definitely fall into the latter category have been filing an ineffective protest of sorts for the past quarter of a century by annually leaving town for several days in search of someplace warm.
To be more specific, somewhere without a hint of snow.
All right, somewhere we can golf.
This January we joined the hordes of Minnesotans who flock to the Fort Myers-Naples area and were greeted by record or near-record temperatures. Sometimes you just have to grin and bear it.
But because man cannot live by golf alone, this year we took a well-deserved day off – to reconsider our contributions to the game – and sought out the Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, described as a journey into the heart of the Everglades ecosystem. It features a famous two-and-a-half-mile boardwalk out into all sorts of Florida terrain, including the “largest old growth Bald Cypress forest in North America.”
Much like redwoods, those trees tower over the wilderness that National Audubon has preserved, standing 130 feet tall and 25 feet around.
It was a welcome change of pace, and a way to immerse yourself into the region’s distinctive surroundings full of native plants and animals. It was also supposed to feature “a wide variety of wading birds, songbirds, raptors and the fabulous Painted Bunting.”
However, we weren’t even an hour into our peaceful stroll – a good walk not spoiled – when it dawned on us: Where were the birds?
It turns out plenty of others have been noticing that birds seem to be in shorter supply across the country.
Last fall, an international team of scientists led by one from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology found the number of wild birds in the U.S. and Canada has declined by close to 30% since 1970. That translates to a startling loss of more than one out of every four birds over the last 50 years.
Ben Eckhoff, an area naturalist with the DNR based in Lake Carlos State Park, said the study pulled in so much data that its conclusions were fairly cut and dried. While the disappearance of nearly 2.9 billion birds over five decades was unthinkable to many, it didn’t catch Eckhoff by surprise.
“Unfortunately, being in the field that I’m in and with the research and articles I’m reading, it wasn’t so much an eye-opener for me,” he said. “It makes sense.”
The annual Christmas bird count that Eckhoff supervises locally can produce encouraging results from year to year. But those numbers can be deceiving if more people participate, or if it occurs during cooperative weather such as this year (the event was postponed due to a snowstorm that would have caused very different results).
“In general we are seeing fewer birds around, and that’s noticeable even in the summer out at the park,” he said. The past decade or so that has included the nesting birds that they can bank on every summer.
According to the study, the grassland bird population was cut in half since 1970. The greatest losses were felt by common birds, the ones we are most likely to notice. More than 90 percent of the total bird loss stemmed from just 12 families, including sparrows, blackbirds, warblers and finches.
Viola Riggle, president of the Prairie Lakes Audubon Chapter, has noticed the decline here, too. She participates in the project feeder watch and said the numbers seem lower, with fewer species.
“We’ve done the bird count for 10 years here, and we don’t see the snow buntings, the horned larks,” she said. They used to come in big flocks and gather along gravel roads in the winter. “We just don’t see them anymore.”
Both Riggle and Eckhoff believe better days are ahead. Eckhoff sees a fix with habitat restoration. Minnesota has 75 state parks, and they have native or restored prairies that are providing an oasis for the prairie and grassland birds that are suffering, he said. “There’s chances to fix this problem with habitat restoration.”
Riggle is encouraged by the success of conservation efforts for waterfowl and eagles. “That’s why we need to continue as community members to fight for the habitat,” she said.
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“It’s Our Turn” is a weekly column that rotates among members of the Echo Press editorial staff.