Sailing S/V Mir through remote Raja Ampat has been like traveling back in time to a wilder, less-peopled world.
Underwater in Raja Ampat. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation
I spend a lot of time imagining what this planet was like even just a few centuries ago, before people began altering Earth’s living systems on a global scale. Human beings have been leaving their mark on the lands they inhabit for millennia, even causing extinctions, but it wasn’t until recently that the long reach of mankind has begun to affect nearly every corner of this globe, including the oceans, which were once thought too vast to deplete.
When I hike near my home in coastal California I often imagine scenes of what it used to look like there: scenes of stumbling upon an entire pride of mountain lions bent over an elk kill, their golden faces wet with blood. All around the cats are bald-headed California condors, shaggy in their oversized coats of black feathers, hopping and grunting and looking comically-huge as they wait with impatient eyes for a chance at the spoils. I imagine the Central Valley when it was still a vast wetland, and how the temperature must have dropped when the sky went black with migrating birds in the spring and fall. I imagine the lowland grizzlies that could get fat all year round without ever needing to hibernate in those temperate climes, lolling on their enormous woolly backs on a beach after a feast of elephant seal. Those bears must have been mythically huge.
By 1924, grizzly bears were completely eradicated from California. It’s disturbing how short a time it took people to tame this world, leaving only vapors of its original wildness. I seem to always be on the lookout for that untouched place, that glimpse into what this planet was like before our species watered it all down, and I’ve perhaps come closer than ever before to finding traces of that old world this past month as we’ve sailed Mir across remote Raja Ampat.
After leaving our friends in Mansuar, the crew aboard Mir headed towards the island of Wayag in northwestern-most Raja Ampat. Along the way we crossed the equator, and in the matter of a millimeter we sailed from summertime right on into winter.
Wayag is stunning and otherworldly — a vast and meandering mass of uplifted karst limestone islands surrounding countless bays and brilliant turquoise lagoons. The islands are green with vegetation, some are long and peninsular and steep, while many are small and stand alone, their grey bases all pocked and jagged and eroding into the shapes of mushrooms where they meet the ever-gnawing seas. Some are pointed in the likeness of arrowheads, and many are circular and rounded, like gumdrops.
Wayag Island. Photo by Nadia Low (and her drone), Biosphere Foundation
On one of our first mornings in Wayag I paddled for hours through a vast shallow lagoon that was full of young black-tipped reef sharks, presumably enjoying a respite from the big, bad ocean beyond. The lagoon was also speckled with hawksbill sea turtles who would watch with calm curiosity from below as my paddleboard approached them, probably thinking it nothing but an average bit of jetsam. Once I was right above them they would rise to the surface with the utmost mellowness and poke their pointed faces above the waterline where they would momentarily gawk at me in bewilderment before darting away in a frenzied panic.
“Holy Tortuga, there’s an enormous sunburned monkey on that thing!”
Paddleboarding in Wayag. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
One evening, I paddled through the narrow opening of another lagoon, this one deep and emerald and surrounded on all sides by thick jungle and the eerie booms of spice imperial pigeons. It felt like I was paddling through a freshwater lake instead of a salty lagoon until I’d get close enough to the shore to see a blue-spotted stingray zip past me, or a coral bommie haloed in reef fish. Here, a glimpse into that untouched world I’m always searching for.
Most mornings we would randomly choose one of the nearby mushroom islands to scuba dive around, and we were never let down by our picks. The reefs were pristine and fanatic with sea life. We saw corals that looked like enormous bouquets of oversized roses, and others like thick, bony bramble patches. Some were huge brains with labyrinthine channels, and others opalescent fingers. There were vast areas of reef that resembled a thousand small fists raised proudly in protest, and coral bommies that formed underwater mesas and plateaus and buttes, and others that appeared nebulous as they waved and swished with sea fans and soft corals. All of them were engulfed in a profusion of fish life of every color and size and shape, some so wildly patterned it seemed only a nonconforming second-grader could have painted them.
Titan triggerfish. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation
I experienced many operatic moments where I would be skimming above a reef with the sunlight feathering down all around me and tornadoes of fish above me and baby sharks darting through curtains of massive barracuda, and I would feel something that is becoming more and more elusive to me: hope. Hope that this world may actually be resilient enough to weather us humans.
Happy reef. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere FoundationA wobbegong shark camouflaged against the seafloor and surrounded by reef fish. Wobbegongs are ambush predators, meaning they stay still and hidden until prey swims close enough for them to strike. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere FoundationA many-spotted sweetlips resting in a coral. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere FoundationHawksbill sea turtle and Captain Laser. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation
We had a cookout on a small beach near our anchorage on one of our last evenings in Wayag. In the wee hours of the night I was lying on my back in the sand looking up at the stars; it looked as if the Milky Way had touched down to fill the entire channel of Wayag Bay with thick, woven starlight, so close it seemed I could reach up and swirl it with my fingertips. I paddled back to the ship that night beneath that frenzy of stars and with each paddle stroke the water around me burst with bioluminescence — that starlight of the sea — and I felt like I was rowing right through the cosmos. I finally understood how the Polynesians had been able to read the night sky like a map; a map that was not only above them, but that they were navigating straight into. Once again, even if only fleetingly, I had found another piece of that old world.
That’s not to say that this part of Indonesia is actually untouched — far from it. At times we’ve seen what look like flowing rivers of trash caught in narrow current lines that flow past our ship uninterrupted for hours: plastic bottles, flip-flops, bags, food wrappers, even an entire television. And though the coral is faring much better here than it is in many other parts of the tropical world, we’ve still witnessed plenty of anchor damage, signs of dynamite fishing, and corals that look unwell and stressed from disease, excessive nutrients in the water, and bleaching. Anyone who came here even thirty years ago would probably tell you it’s trashed now; three-hundred years ago and Wayag Bay must have been boiling up to its banks with sharks and rays and turtles. But even now, even in the year 2018, it is still sacredly beautiful here, and the ecology remains intact enough to act as a nursery to repopulate our depleted seas with corals and fish and sharks and turtles, if we could only just leave it alone, if we could only just let it be the blazing technicolor wilderness that it’s always been without mussing it all up.
Raining fish in Raja Ampat. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
After leaving Wayag we slowly made our way back to the town of Waisai on the island of Waigeo, where we are currently resupplying for our voyage back to Bali. Along the way the beauty continued: late one night in the Bougainville Strait we watched bottlenose dolphins riding our bow; their torpedo-like bodies completely encapsulated in electric blue bioluminescence. And one morning at sunrise, manta rays breached off our stern through the apricot-lit water as we weighed anchor in the Dampier Strait.
But it seems time has had its way with us — as it’s wont to do — and after all the planning, the researching, the imagining, and the effort, we’re already getting set to leave Raja Ampat. Luckily for us, we have a month to get to Bali, which means we can take our time and keep exploring along the way, as well as stopping at Moyo Island for a few days to visit the Biosphere Foundation’s “Friends of Moyo” project.
To anyone who has been keeping up with this blog and is curious, yes my back is better, and thank you for your concern — what a relief to have gotten well so I could go back in time in Raja Ampat and get a taste of a world that once was, and a world that I would like to see return.
Blue-spotted stingray hiding beside a heart-shaped Acropora coral. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
Please keep following along on the rest of our adventures here, and to learn more about the Biosphere Foundation, visit our website at: https://biospherefoundation.org/
The Bloodvein River, one of many significant rivers, streams and water bodies within Pimachiowin Aki. Photo Jeff Wells.
It’s part of what may be the largest single block of intact forest in the largest intact forest landscape left in human history and the largest remaining landscape of southern boreal forest left in Canada. Millions of birds fly north from tropical climes to nest here every summer filling the rich forests with a symphony of song. Woodland caribou, moose, wolves, trout, whitefish, walleye and so many other living creatures thrive in its woods and waters year-round.
It is called Pimachiowin Aki and it is and has been for thousands of years, the ancestral homeland of strong and vibrant Indigenous communities.
Those communities came together some years ago with the provincial governments of Manitoba and Ontario to start the long and sometimes difficult process to place these lands on the world stage as the Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Site. In the first ever proposal of its kind, the Pimachiowin Aki communities and governments, insisted that the landscape be simultaneously considered and designated for both its cultural AND its ecological values.
Such a request initially sent the international governing bodies that decide on World Heritage Site designations into a bit of a tizzy. They weren’t sure how to handle such a dual consideration of values. But to their great credit, they found a path forward to honor the request of the Pimachiowin Aki communities.
The path wasn’t necessarily an easy one, perhaps a bit like trying to hack a new portage through a thick stand of spruce beside a boreal forest river within Pimachiowin Aki itself! But the people who have lived for thousands of years in that landscape have hacked through many a seemingly impenetrable stand of spruce. A tough pathway through international designations would certainly not be enough to stop them.
That many-year journey started and led with both steely determination and gentle persistence by forward thinking Indigenous leaders of the First Nations of Bloodvein River, Little Grand Rapids, Pauingassi , and Poplar River has finally achieved its goal. Together with the governments of Manitoba and Ontario, these First Nations are working to ensure a healthy future for both the Indigenous people and the birds, caribou, moose, fish and all wildlife and plants and the forests, lakes, rivers, and wetlands of the more than seven million acres found within the landscape of Pimachiowin Aki.
That fact has been formally recognized as UNESCO has now (as of July 2018) designated Pimachiowin Aki as an official World Heritage Site for both its globally significant cultural and ecological values.
Congratulations leaders of Pimachiowin Aki and thank you for your vision and strength. You truly are a beacon of hope in today’s complicated world!
Fairy slipper or calypso orchid from near Aikens Lake, Manitoba in Pimachiowin Aki in May 2011. Photo Jeff Wells.
A yellow-crowned night heron stalks fiddler crabs in a salt marsh near Norfolk, Virginia.(Photograph: Bryan Watts)
Thalia, it’s called, this upscale neighborhood in Virginia Beach that’s lined with red brick ranches shaded by tall loblolly pines. The community is a few short miles from the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. Bounded on the west by Thalia Creek and on the north by the eastern branch of the Lynnhaven River, Thalia is a magnet for human homeowners seeking proximity to water.
It’s also become prime real estate for salt marsh-loving yellow-crowned night herons.
Yellow-crowned night heron in Norfolk, Virginia, just after arriving for the nesting season. (Photograph: Bryan Watts)
Herons in the ‘hood
Like other waterfront spots in the Virginia Beach-Newport News region, “almost every house here has a yellow-crowned night heron nest in its loblolly pines,” says Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology, an organization under the aegis of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
Watts is in the midst of a breeding season census of the herons. The resulting data are the linchpin in a study of the herons’ response to the earlier start of spring. The project runs from 2015 through 2018, “but it really began more than 50 years ago,” says Watts, “with the work of the former first lady of Virginia, the late Constance DuPont Darden [1904-2002], who recorded yellow-crowneds’ comings and goings for more than a decade. She left behind an amazing data set on these birds.” Watts is comparing his observations with Darden’s.
Spring is coming sooner not only to the Virginia coast, but to the entire North American Coastal Plain, a region that stretches along the sea’s edge from Texas to Massachusetts. The North Atlantic Coastal Plain was recently named the world’s 36th biodiversity hotspot.
In one corner of that hotspot, Virginia Beach’s Thalia, the loblollies shoot skyward, shading houses – and yellow-crowned night heron nests. “In full nuptial display, the yellow-crowned night heron is one of the most exquisite of all North American wading birds,” wrote A. Sprunt, Jr., in a 1954 edition of Florida Birdlife. “Its soft grays and white crown and cheek patches seem to typify the elfin character of the cypress gloom.”
Although no cypress trees loom over Thalia, the loblolly canopy has the same darkening effect. As Watts states in a chapter on yellow-crowned night herons in the 2011 publication The Birds of North America, “Although occasionally breeding on coastal islands, this species most often inhabits forested wetlands, swamps and bayous of the deep south where poor lighting seems to be the most reliable characteristic.”
Thalia and other neighborhoods in Norfolk host families of yellow-crowned night herons. (Photograph: Bryan Watts)
Homeowners, human and avian
“Poor lighting” couldn’t be more welcome. It’s 7 a.m. in late July, and already temperatures are in the 90s. Watts and I make a loop around Thalia in his truck. We easily find heron nests. The splatters of whitewash below give them away. With more than 30 nests, Thalia boasts the largest colony of yellow-crowned night herons in Virginia.
Some Thalia residents take issue with the herons’ presence “due to the ‘fouling’ of roofs and anything else that’s below the nests,” says Watts, “but most enjoy watching the birds raise their young.”
Yellow-crowned night herons frequently build nests in wooded neighborhoods with parklike appearances and open understories such as those beneath loblolly pines. In Virginia, colonies in residential areas make up more than 80 percent of the yellow-crowned night heron population.
“Pairs seem to prefer to set up housekeeping over rooftops, driveways and roads,” says Watts, leading to some interesting bird-human interactions. Cars parked beneath nests, for example, may be covered with shells from the birds’ fiddler crab meals.
A heron nest is usually placed away from a tree trunk on the outermost fork of a limb. I look straight up at a bundle of sticks above the corner of Dale and Thalia Roads and wonder why it doesn’t come crashing down. The nest’s three young herons, their bodies still more fuzz than feather, seem oblivious to the 50-foot plunge awaiting the merest misstep.
Flimsy as it is, the same “structure” may be used for years. Nests may last an indefinite period without maintenance. “The human houses should be as lucky,” quips Watts.
A parent bird does some nest remodeling, adding a stick here, a branch there. (Photograph: Bryan Watts)
Early arrival of spring – and herons
In 2015, the first year of Watts’ study, yellow-crowned night herons arrived and laid eggs more than 20 days earlier than pairs Darden recorded in the same area in the 1960s. In 2016 and 2017, the trend continued. Each year, the herons arrived and laid eggs a full week earlier, on average, than in 2015. Watts is analyzing this year’s data; the direction, he says, is likely to be the same.
What’s driving the change? There’s a clue in the Thalia neighborhood’s location.
Once upon a time, the locals say, Thalia was “swampland.” Indeed, the marsh plant Thalia, a genus of six species found in aquatic habitats from Illinois to Argentina, may have given the area its name.
A male mud fiddler crab defends his salt marsh territory. (Photograph: Bart Paxton)
Lure of the fiddler crab
Today the mucky marshlands that surround Thalia are home to fiddler crabs that roam over the mudflats, the males waving large claws in a fiddling motion to attract mates, keep intruders at bay or ward off predators. Fiddler crabs live in burrows in the mud, moving onto the flats to find food – bits of algae or decaying marsh plants – when the tide is low. In winter, fiddlers stay deep below the frost line in mud-covered burrows, then in spring emerge by the thousands….
…to the sight of yellow-crowned night heron legs slowly stalking them across the mudflats.
All yellow-crowned night herons are crab-eaters first and foremost, feasting on crabs adapted to their specific locales.
Along the Atlantic Coast, says Watts, “the life of a yellow-crowned night heron is spent in pursuit of one thing: fiddler crabs.” The birds’ hunting times are scheduled at low tide when the crabs are accessible. The herons stalk fiddlers in salt marshes, “running them down on the mudflats,” says Watts. “Females gorge on fiddlers for energy to produce eggs, and breeding pairs feed the crabs to their young.”
The yellow-crowned night heron is primarily an equatorial species, “with four of the five living forms confined to tropical latitudes,” Watts says. The Virginia yellow-crowneds are in the group that migrates north and south with the warm weather each year. The herons’ return in spring is tuned to their crab prey.
When the thermometer rises above 59 degrees Fahrenheit, fiddlers emerge from their burrows and scuttle across the mudflats. “The date in spring when the temperature passes that 59-degree threshold is getting earlier,” says Watts, “extending the season of fiddler availability. Yellow-crowneds appear to be adjusting to the shift in season.
“We have no idea, however, how the birds are aware when the fiddlers are coming out. It’s a total mystery.”
Yellow-crowned night herons “live for crabs,” scientists say. (Photograph: Bryan Watts)
Yellow-crowned night herons are so crab-dependent that more northerly populations, including herons in the Virginia Beach area, depart in the fall when fiddlers return to their burrows for the winter. That happens when the temperature drops below the 59-degree threshold. Then the herons fly to subtropical and tropical latitudes where crabs are active year-round.
For reasons that aren’t clear, yellow-crowneds extended their range northward in about 1925. Although the expansion seems to have leveled off in 1960, the yellow-crowned night heron is rated a species of Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Could climate change affect the herons and their prey enough to change that designation? It’s too early to tell, Watts says.
One indication: where crab populations are faring well, yellow-crowned night herons may be, too.
In the 1980s, Watts and colleagues conducted a study of Virginia yellow-crowneds’ preferred meals. The scientists collected and identified more than 2,000 crab claws under nests, and found that three species – the mud fiddler, red-jointed fiddler and white-fingered mud crab – made up 94 percent of the herons’ diet. The sand fiddler, ghost crab, blue crab, mole crab, toad crab and common mud crab accounted for the other six percent.
There must be a fiddler crab here somewhere. A yellow-crowned night heron waits for an unwary crab. (Photograph: Bryan Watts)
Doyenne of the night herons
The crabs are found in the shallows of salt marshes and mudflats, a fact well-known to Constance Darden. She was passionate about yellow-crowned night herons and their prey. A keen observer of the herons’ habits, Darden kept detailed records in the 1940s and again in the 1960s of their spring arrivals and fall departures in the Norfolk area. She wondered whether the birds might be arriving earlier each spring, and leaving later each fall.
Darden carefully watched the herons from her Norfolk residence in Algonquin Park along Crab Creek, a tributary of the Lafayette River. In 1946, the first yellow-crowned nest appeared on her property. Later, a colony of the birds nested there.
For Connie, as she was known, the heronry became the site of hundreds of hours of birdwatching.
Leftovers from yellow-crowned night heron meals collect beneath the birds’ nests. (Photograph: Bryan Watts)
Basis for new research
Darden’s careful recording of the birds’ habits gave Watts the basis for his current study. “Her invaluable dataset is now housed at the Center for Conservation Biology,” he says.
In the May-June, 1947, issue of The Raven, the journal of the Virginia Society of Ornithology, Darden wrote that “this heron remains in our coastal section from late March to early October. The first nest known to us was found in our yard in Norfolk in a [loblolly] pine tree a few paces from our porch.”
Another nest, noted Darden, “was found in my neighbor’s yard, which embraces the small growth of pines bordering a cove of Crab Creek. This creek is well-named, for it contains an abundance of swimming and fiddler crabs, the latter making up a large part of the diet of these herons.”
The late ornithologist Witmer Stone of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia discovered that a quart of fiddler crab shells was often found beneath a yellow-crowned nest. But Darden made her own deductions. “My guess would be that at least three times that amount lay under our tree,” she reported.
Soon after, Darden left Norfolk for more than a decade. She returned in the early 1960s and picked up her story of the herons. Throughout the 1960s, Darden kept careful track of yellow-crowneds’ comings and goings.
“In closing,” she wrote in The Raven, “I shall report what I saw the afternoon of October 17th, 1960. A number of constant ‘quock’ cries brought me running out on our point. Several yellow-crowned night herons were circling the water round and round and one or two more joined them until there were six adult and two immature birds in the group. A laughing gull chased one of the birds and it flew into the marsh, but the others left together heading down the creek to the south. Apparently the start of fall migration.”
More than 50 years later, Bryan Watts hopes to answer Darden’s long-standing questions. The clues, he says, are buried in the muck.
Crab vs. heron: which will win? (Photograph: NPS)
Versions of this article appear in BirdWatching and Oceanography magazines.
Hundreds of canvasback ducks flock to open water on a cold winter morning on Chesapeake Bay. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
“They came back,” says biologist Donald Webster. “This year.” His voice has a wistful note, wondering if the king of ducks, as the beautiful, crimson-headed canvasback is known, will return to rule Chesapeake Bay again next winter.
In parka, gloves and hat, Webster, waterfowl coordinator for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), raises his binoculars near a seawall that runs along the Choptank River near Cambridge, Maryland. The lookout where the Choptank meets the Chesapeake is a mecca for wintering canvasbacks and other ducks.
“Canvasbacks, the waterfowl everyone comes to see, are usually here by Christmas, sometimes by Thanksgiving,” Webster says. “They stay through March, then they’re gone, heading north to nesting grounds.”
Canvasbacks form large groups in winter, especially in areas near food sources. Here, on Chesapeake Bay. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
Skeins of waterfowl
On this early March morning with calm winds and temperatures that hover around freezing, the canvasbacks’ red heads stand out against winter-dark waters. The ducks glide near the seawall, where a dozen photographers jostle for a quintessential shot of an iconic Chesapeake duck. “This spot is known as the ‘wall of shame,’” laughs Webster, “because it’s almost too easy to get great waterfowl pictures here.”
Chesapeake skies fill with ducks – canvasbacks, buffleheads, greater and lesser scaup, and many others – from December through March. The bay is the Atlantic Coast’s most important waterfowl migration and wintering area. The Chesapeake and its 19 major tributaries, including the Patuxent and Potomac rivers, provide winter habitat for 24 species of ducks as well as Canada geese, greater snow geese and tundra swans on their annual stopovers.
“Long-term worsening of the Chesapeake’s water quality, however, and loss of habitat, especially the grasses so many of these birds depend on, have contributed to declines in wintering waterfowl on the bay,” says Webster.
Canvasbacks in a spot along the Chesapeake that’s protected from winter winds, and where aquatic grasses are ready-to-eat. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
Seesawing duck and grass estimates
According to a 2016 estimate, the most recent available, some 97,433 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) remain in the bay and its tributaries, down from historic levels that may have reached more than 600,000 acres.
There’s good news, however. The 2016 estimate is an 8 percent increase over 2015, and more than twice the SAV in 2013.
In 2011, Chesapeake SAV fell to 48,195 acres, a result of the effects of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. The storms sent a flood of sediment downstream and into the bay. Conditions since, which have been relatively dry, reduced the flow of grass-smothering sediment and helped the SAV recover. More sunlight has reached submerged grasses, allowing them to flourish. In turn, SAV filters runoff, helping keep Chesapeake waters clear.
Several birds watch a canvasback diving for dinner. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
SAV: A canvasback’s best friend
As recently as 1950, half the continent’s population of canvasbacks – more than a quarter million — wintered in Chesapeake Bay, relying on aquatic grasses as a favored food source.
During Colonial times, as many as one million canvasbacks may have spent wintertime on the bay. In the 19th century, the ducks’ abundance and, to many, good taste made them a favored selection in many East Coast restaurants, says Matt Kneisley, regional director for the Northeast Atlantic Flyway at the Delta Waterfowl Foundation, a waterfowl conservation and hunting organization.
The birds congregate in large flocks on open waters, leading to easy -– too-easy — harvesting. At the end of the 19th century, commercial hunters with batteries of weapons went after rafts of canvasbacks, often killing dozens with one shot. The ducks were shipped by boxcar to markets from Baltimore to Boston. Such “market hunting” was outlawed with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
“Canvasbacks were a favored quarry of market hunters because their meat was considered the tastiest of all the ducks due to their consumption of wild celery,” writes Guy Baldassarre in the 2014 edition of Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America.
Adds Kneisley, “Large beds of wild celery, a canvasback favorite, once attracted thousands of these ducks to an upper bay area known as Susquehanna Flats.” The decline in the Chesapeake’s water quality greatly reduced the amount of wild celery bay-wide, however.
The ducks switched their foraging efforts to small clams on the Chesapeake’s shallow bottom. A less nutritious diet of shellfish such as Baltic clams may affect canvasbacks’ winter survival rates, scientists believe.
Canvasbacks shed water after diving for food. How many of these ducks winter on the Chesapeake? To find out, scientists conduct an annual count. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
Annual bird counts, Webster says, “give us a very good picture of how declines in SAV have affected wintering waterfowl.”
Half a century ago, four to five million ducks, geese and swans spent time on Chesapeake Bay during the winter. Now, that number is less than one million, according to results from the 2018 Midwinter Waterfowl Survey. The nationwide count has taken place annually since the 1950s.
Along the Chesapeake and nearby Atlantic coast, aerial survey teams of pilots and biologists from the Maryland DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service make visual estimates of the region’s waterfowl. In 2018, the teams counted some 1,023,300 ducks, geese and swans, higher than the 812,600 birds observed in 2017 and above the 5-year average of 851,980.
“Cold weather and accompanying ice and snow to the north will typically push birds south as they search for food and open water,” says Maryland DNR Wildlife and Heritage Service director Paul Peditto. With December’s frigid temperatures and iced-in lakes in northern states, ducks were on-the-wing to points south.
Estimates of Chesapeake canvasbacks in 2018 were 60,000; in 2017, 75,100; in 2016, 19,800; and in 2015, 64,200. Sixty years earlier, in 1955, 225,450 canvasbacks were sighted. The last time the canvasback count exceeded 100,000 was in 1967: 133,100.
Nonetheless, says Webster, “Chesapeake Bay is one of the best places on Earth to see waterfowl in winter, and as they migrate in and out in late fall and early spring.”
Most waterfowl migrate along corridors, the well-known “flyways.” Four major routes pass through the United States: the Pacific Flyway, which runs north-south along the West Coast; the Mississippi Flyway, which leads from the bays of northern Canada and the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico; the Central Flyway from northwestern Canada to Central America and the Yucatan Peninsula; and the Atlantic Flyway, which funnels waterfowl from central and eastern Canada along the Atlantic Coast to Florida. Chesapeake Bay is a major duck stop along the Atlantic Flyway.
A lone canvasback hen in a crowd of potential suitors. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
Many of the Chesapeake’s wintering ducks began life in the prairie pothole region, which extends from the Midwestern northern tier states into Canada. There, about half North America’s ducklings hatch.
When the Wisconsin ice sheet of the last glacial period retreated northward some 15,000 years ago, tens of thousands of landlocked icebergs were left in its wake, writes Michael Furtman in On the Wings of a North Wind: The Waterfowl and Wetlands of North America’s Inland Flyways.
These small icebergs melted into the soil. As they faded, Furtman states, “they became the foundation of the prairie potholes. An estimated 10 million glacially carved depressions once pockmarked the landscape of the prairie pothole region of the United States and Canada.”
As climate warmed, the potholes evolved into a habitat so enticing that more than 130 bird species have used a single pothole in one year. Ducks were likely among the first residents. With millions of potholes from which to choose, waterfowl had plenty of room to find nesting sites.
“The diversity of potholes, ranging from small spring ponds to large permanent wetlands, provided ducks with the habitats necessary for each stage in their breeding and brood-rearing cycles,” Furtman states.
But as undisturbed land in the region gave way to agriculture, the number of potholes decreased, especially over the last 40 years. In North Dakota’s pothole region, where as many as 100 of these basins per square mile once existed, “60 percent of the original five million acres of wetlands has been lost,” Furtman reports. “Ninety-five percent of that loss is attributable to agriculture.”
Will the Chesapeake always welcome wintering canvasbacks? (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
If increasing agriculture isn’t challenge enough for waterfowl, rising global temperatures may result in more frequent and severe droughts in the prairie pothole region. The effect on breeding ducks would be devastating, says Webster.
“Decades ago,” he remembers, “the Chesapeake was full of canvasbacks. But no more. I’d like to see the days come back when canvasbacks’ red heads bobbed on the water as far as you could see.”
Canvasbacks and the many other ducks that winter on the Chesapeake have come a long way, Webster says. “The least we can do is show them some hospitality by making sure their environment — here, and on their breeding grounds — is healthy.”
Otherwise, the spectacle along the Choptank River may vanish, the seawall indeed becoming a wall of shame as the last canvasback’s wingbeats fade into silence.
The last Chesapeake canvasback? We need to do our part to help the “king of ducks” grace the bay each winter. (Photograph: Paul Bramble)
Residents of the city of Thompson in Manitoba, Canada, have largely accepted the presence of wolves, as artwork on a Thompson building shows. (Photograph: Voelker Beckmann)
For the first time in history, the majority of humans lives in urbanized areas; more than three billion people reside in cities and suburbs around the world. As we’re moving into town, wild canids — wolves and coyotes, foxes and jackals — are right behind us. Or we’re behind them, sometimes claiming turf they’d already staked out.
In Moscow, feral dogs ride the subways, while halfway around the globe in Madison, Wisconsin, red foxes tunnel under garage floors to dig dens. Red foxes in Fairfax, Virginia, go them one better, stealing newspapers from suburban front porches, perhaps to line their domiciles, or, as one homeowner quipped, to read up on prime real estate in the neighborhood.
Urban canids may provide endless “can you believe?” tales, but they’re also the subjects of growing scientific interest, so much so that researchers have coined a term for these city- and suburb-dwelling carnivores: synanthropes.
An onlooker watches the antics of red foxes at a den in downtown Madison, Wisconsin. (Photograph: Arti Wulandari)
Life in the big city
Synanthropes demonstrate how quickly wild species can adapt to the pressures of living in unnatural habitats, says wildlife biologist David Drake, director of the Urban Canid Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Beyond adapting, synanthropes are evolving. Some researchers believe that urban areas are accelerating evolution. Changes that would usually take centuries are happening in decades. For example, urban red foxes in Israel have higher survival rates and smaller home ranges than their country cousins.
In fact, our presence may have shortened the distance canids and other mammals roam by two-thirds, according to one study. In areas with large human “footprints” – places we’ve heavily influenced — the mammals’ maximum range averaged about 4.3 miles. In low-footprint areas, it was 13.7 miles.
Some species fare better than others in our shadow. Medium-sized canids such as coyotes and red foxes, also called mesopredators, are often “urban adapters.” Much of their success stems from their diets; they’re far from picky eaters. They trot along carrying everything from discarded fast-food wrappers to fisheries by-catch that washes ashore. The elimination of large predators, such as wolves, from cities has provided urban adapters with abundant food sources and given them free rein.
When populations of apex predators like wolves decrease, mesopredators such as red foxes and coyotes often increase.
“Europe is currently experiencing a dramatic expansion of a new mesopredator, the golden jackal, across the continent,” says ecologist Miha Krofel of the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. The golden jackal is a native European species. For millennia, however, its range was confined to Europe’s southern fringes. Now it’s increasingly colonizing new areas, with reports of its arrival in the Netherlands, Denmark and Estonia.
The likely reason: wolves. Or more precisely, says Krofel, the lack of them. Gray wolves once were – and in many places, still are – persecuted by humans. At one time, wolves existed throughout Eurasia, but little by little were driven into remote areas, opening the way for species like golden jackals.
Wolf approaching: Dirt piles in Isanti, Minnesota, attract local wildlife. Residents say wolves sit atop the piles for better views of the landscape. (Photograph: Larry Hogie)
Wolves once again at the door
The situation may be changing again. Protection of gray wolves is increasing their numbers in parts of Europe and North America. Wolves frequent landfills in Israel, Italy, Romania and Canada. In Canada, they follow dump trucks carrying trash, timing their appearances to that of the trucks.
In France, wolves were eradicated by the 1930s; now they’re creeping back. Today some 360 are in the country. The French government has announced a plan to allow 500 wolves nationwide by 2023. Farmers can apply for funding to protect sheep and other livestock wolves might hunt, but compensation is contingent on measures like electric fences being installed.
“Biologically, wolves can and will live almost anyplace people will tolerate them, and that will vary with local culture and politics,” writes David Mech of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center and the University of Minnesota in a 2017 paper in the journal Biological Conservation.
Mech wasn’t expecting wolves to stake out territory almost in the backyard of his University of Minnesota-Twin Cities office. But that’s exactly what happened.
In the spring of 2015, gray wolves showed up near Isanti, Minnesota, 45 minutes from downtown Minneapolis. According to Mech, it’s the farthest south in the state a pack has been seen in recent history. The wolves have thrived on the area’s abundant deer.
Isanti resident Larry Hogie digs soil from ponds on his property, which he forms into mounds of dirt for sale to gardeners and horticulture centers. One day Hogie glanced at the edge of woods near his home…and a gray wolf looked back. Since then, he’s spotted wolves four or five times. “But I don’t think many of the wolves are around any longer,” Hogie says.
Mech believes there may be one or two left. He and University of Minnesota colleagues hope to study them. “We’d like to find out if wolves could exist on a long-term basis so close to the Twin Cities,” he says. Adds Hogie, “For that to happen, we need to learn how to live in peace with predators.”
Villagers in Slettas, Norway, share their territory with wolves. (Photograph: Trond Løvmo)
Tracks in the snow
The residents of Slettas, Norway, are trying to do just that, says biologist Barbara Zimmerman of the Scandinavian Wolf Research Project.
Since 2011, a wolf pack has shared its territory with Slettas villagers, sometimes passing by their houses. Zimmerman and colleagues discovered that the wolves give wide berth to homes during the daytime, but come closer at night — at certain times of the year. The reason? The wolves’ moose prey. In winter months when snow piles up, moose find vegetation to nibble on in open areas around houses.
“In March when the snow is at its deepest, the wolves spend one-third of their time near houses, despite the fact that this zone makes up only 18 percent of their overall territory,” says Zimmerman. “Eighty-six percent of moose killed by the wolves during one month, March, have been within 500 meters [550 yards] of houses, compared to zero to 40 percent the rest of the year.”
Knowing that it’s not people per se, but the movements of moose that are bringing in wolves “may help villagers coexist with them,” says Zimmerman. “This pack has been there a long time, and its leaders are elderly now. The female is 11 years old, and the male, 8 years old,” the equivalents of human grandparents.
The Slettas pack, however, is on a Norwegian hit list of wolves to be shot in early 2019. “Norway has set a limit on how many wolves are allowed in the country at one time,” Zimmerman says. “By this standard, there are now ‘too many’ wolves, and the Slettas pack is scheduled to be taken out.” But when a pack is removed from its territory, new wolves almost immediately move in, Zimmerman and other scientists found.
The Slettas villagers have become tolerant of the wolves, believes Zimmerman. “Otherwise,” she says, “they would have done something about them long ago.”
Torbjorn Lange, deputy director general of the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment’s Section for the Management of Species, says that “a final decision has not yet been made as regards the future of the Slettas pack. The regional authorities decided that the pack should be culled. The decision has, however, been appealed by numerous organizations.”
The final order, Lange says, will be given by his agency, the Ministry of Climate and Environment. “It is expected that the decision will be ready in advance of the hunting period that starts on the 1st of January,” he says.
Is there a way out? Humans and predators can successfully share the landscape, researchers maintain. In areas where wolves and other carnivores might prey on livestock, for example, attempts to reduce the threat, such as installing electric fences and enlisting the help of livestock-guarding dogs, can facilitate a cease-fire. In the case of the Slettas pack, “villagers rarely if ever see the wolves,” says Zimmerman. “The only marks of their passage are tracks in the snow.”
In Serbia, golden jackals each year remove tons of animal waste and millions of rodents that are crop pests. (Photograph: Miha Krofel)
Symbiotic urban canids?
Can there be symbiotic canids? Yes, say some biologists.
Waste management is a challenge around the world, including in Europe. Dusko Cirovic of the University of Belgrade and colleagues discovered a solution almost in front of their eyes: wild canids in the neighborhood. As they reported in a 2016 paper in Biological Conservation, golden jackals are serving as unpaid trash collectors.
The researchers estimate that in Serbia alone, golden jackals annually cart off more than 3,700 tons of animal waste and 13.2 million rodents that are crop pests. The biologists found that the monetary value of the jackals’ waste removal is greater than half a million euros per year.
The results, says Cirovic, “show that these carnivores are of great value to human communities.”
Can we coexist with wolves and their kin? We already are.
Wolves have been glimpsed near Isanti, Minnesota, not far, as the wolf roams, from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul. (Photograph: Larry Hogie)
Portions of this article appeared in International Wolf magazine.