fieldnotes

 

Resurrection
Buried Treasure

In 1963 floodwaters from a newly constructed dam had just begun to drown one of the West’s most spectacular canyons, and Sierra Club executive director David Brower was already flagellating himself for letting it happen. “Glen Canyon died, and I was partly responsible for its needless death,” Brower wrote that year in a book called The Place No One Knew. The legendary environmentalist had supported the Glen Canyon project in the 1950s after federal authorities had agreed not to build another dam, in Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument. The deal, which Brower later called his “greatest mistake, greatest sin,” would haunt him for the remainder of his life.

Today, six years after Brower’s death and six years into a sustained drought across much of the Southwest, the massive blue-green reservoir, commonly known as Lake Powell, has shrunk by up to two-thirds, exposing once again a magical world with hundreds of twisting red-rock canyons and towering, 140-foot sandstone cliffs along the Utah–Arizona border. Conservationists who have been fighting to drain Lake Powell for the past decade are now calling for Glen Canyon to be designated a national park. “Glen Canyon is unlike any place on earth, and it needs stronger protection,” says Richard Ingebretsen, president of the Glen Canyon Institute.

The National Park Service already manages the canyon but over the years has emphasized such popular recreation on Lake Powell as waterskiing and houseboating. But the receding water levels have uncovered ancient Indian ruins, and helped revive habitat in the canyon for yellow-breasted chats, vireos, and other wildlife, including bighorn sheep, which are returning to the high cliffs. Because the dam helps power booming cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas and provides water to this arid region, the chances of it being decommissioned are remote. “The Southwest is growing like crazy,” says Barry Wirth, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which sets pool levels at Lake Powell. “Keeping our reservoir full is like an insurance policy.” 

While the extended dry period has eased in some areas and Lake Powell’s water levels are rising, recent studies from the University of Washington suggest that the Bureau of Reclamation’s best efforts may not be enough to keep the manmade lake full in the long run. Projected impacts from global warming, such as a decrease in snowpack and an increase in evaporation in the Rockies, will likely limit the amount of available water in an already arid desert climate.

Such scenarios may well render Glen Canyon’s return inevitable. “You don’t have to drain Lake Powell, but designating Glen Canyon a national park would certainly make it easier to protect,” says Dave Wegner, a former biologist with the U.S. Department of the Interior and a current board member of the Glen Canyon Institute. National parks often get more funding and have loftier preservation goals than national recreation areas. And park proponents like Wegner contend that the power needs can be made up by other sources, such as Lake Mead, downstream from Glen Canyon, which offers an alternative storage area reservoir. Instead of struggling to refill Lake Powell, a 1.25-million-acre park would protect the canyons, wildlife, and archaeological resources that would otherwise be drowned.

—Dan Oko

 

Recovery
Last Chance

After years of political and legal wrangling, the fate of the northern spotted owl still hangs in the balance. A landmark agreement between conservationists, the timber industry, and the state of Washington is expected to strengthen protections for the federally threatened bird by preserving 45,000 acres of primarily second-growth forests on state lands, and by implementing a logging plan for other significant tracts of such forest that will result in no net loss of suitable habitat during the next decade. The accord stems from a lawsuit brought by a coalition of environmental groups, including Audubon and the Washington Environmental Council, which had charged the state’s Department of Natural Resources with insufficiently protecting spotted owl habitat. Nina Carter, Audubon Washington’s executive director, notes that there are other beneficiaries besides the totemic owl. “This settlement,” she says, “is important to the 37 vulnerable species of birds that depend on Washington’s forests such as the northern goshawk, marbled murrelet, and white-headed woodpecker.”

In the early 1990s the Clinton administration shielded 24.4 million acres of federal land from chainsaws, operating on the assumption that the owl, whose population is estimated at between 5,000 and 8,000 pairs, would face an annual rate of decline of one percent throughout its range. But the government’s most recent demographic study reports that the average annual decline is actually 3.7 percent. “This is much worse than we thought,” says Carter. Besides habitat loss, biologists have cited new threats to the spotted owl’s survival: West Nile virus, sudden oak death and other tree diseases, and—above all—the westward invasion of barred owls, a closely related species that often displaces spotted owls and sometimes kills or hybridizes with them.

The spotted owl faces particularly acute pressures in Washington State, where its population has plummeted 30 percent to 50 percent during the past decade, to an estimated 1,000 breeding pairs. Biologists contend that preserving habitat on state and private lands is now nearly as important as doing so on national forests. To that end, the Seattle and Kittitas Audubon chapters have recently threatened a lawsuit against Weyerhaeuser, the private timber company that owns or leases more than a million acres of forest in the state and has been logging in and around spotted owl nest sites. Their goal is to create pressure that will lead to another settlement like the one reached with Washington officials. Says Alex Morgan, Seattle Audubon’s conservation director, “There’s been an awakening that it’s not all about the federal government, and that state and local lands are critical for the recovery of these species.”

—Daniel Butcher

 

Q&A
Family Jewels

The second book by Bob and Vera Thornton, Chasing Neotropical Birds (University of Texas Press, 2005), is not only deftly written and beautifully photographed, it’s one of the most accessible works on this spectacular avian group. The Thorntons, a prominent Dallas couple, are enthusiastic conservationists. Audubon queried them about their adventures in the rainforests of 11 different countries of Central and South America.

—Frank Graham Jr.

Audubon: Which came first, cameras or birds?
Bob: Early in our marriage we decided to get into photography rather than golf or something else. First it was landscapes, plants, and assorted wildlife. Then one stormy day on the Texas coast we found ourselves in the midst of a classic fallout of migrating warblers. Here we were with all of these beautiful birds at our feet; we took pictures of them and were hooked.
Q: Then warblers were your first love?
Vera: Our first book was Chasing Warblers in 1999 [also published by the University of Texas]. The titles of our books tell the story. We chase birds—into the forest, into the swamps.
Q: When did you start chasing birds in the neotropics?
Bob: About 15 years and 125,000 miles ago. We were on a trip to South America when we realized that was where the birds are. We decided to chase a wide variety o f species, ones we thought special.
Q: What criteria did you use?
Vera: We chose a sampler, birds that we considered gorgeous, or that demonstrated fascinating behavior, or that had a kind of mystique because of their rarity.
Q: For example?
Vera: One approach was to choose a big five—scarlet macaw, resplendent quetzal, keel-billed toucan, Andean cock-of-the-rock, and everybody’s choice, the harpy eagle. We bagged them all!
Q: In fact, you have spectacular pictures of 116 species in your book.
Bob: Yes, we were very fortunate, getting great advice on locations, times of year, and local guides from many knowledgeable people: Robert Ridgley, Victor Emanuel, Steve Hilty, and other orni-thologists. We snapped pictures of birds that are rarely seen, like the black-crowned antpitta, zigzag heron, bare-necked umbrellabird, and, of course, the harpy eagle.
Q: There must have been risks involved in chasing the birds.
Bob: We describe being rushed by peccaries, encountering a fer-de-lance and a bushmaster, and rope-climbing to the canopy of a giant laurel tree.
Q: And was it worth it?
Vera: Every minute. Focusing on gorgeous birds at close range, yes, but also experiencing the most remote places on the continent—the Tandayapa Valley in Ecuador to photograph the club-winged manakin and plate-billed mountain toucan; wading through an army-ant swarm in Panama; and crouching quietly in a lek of the Guianan cock-of-the-rock in Suriname.

 

 

Global Warming
As the World Dries

Kenji Yoshikawa was browsing through old photos from Council, Alaska, where he was working as a research professor in water resources at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. One from 1904 struck him as odd. When he compared a recent shot of the same spot, he saw that two prominent lakes in the background had completely vanished, as if they had been airbrushed away. His curiosity piqued, Yoshikawa compared satellite images of tundra regions, where he noticed what looked like the same phenomenon—lakes shrinking and vanishing. Eventually his informal survey helped initiate a broad study comparing satellite imagery of nearly 11,000 Siberian lakes over a 30-year period, between the early 1970s and 2004.
That research, led by Laurence Smith, a geographer at UCLA, and published in the journal Science, documented 1,170 lakes that had decreased a total of 359 square miles, and 125 lakes that had disappeared altogether. “Speaking hydrologically, a reduction of 10 to 11 percent of lakes in 30 years is extraordinary,” Smith says.

Scientists in Canada and Alaska report similar results. Larry Hinzman, deputy director of the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks, recently examined a set of 23 lakes on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula and found that 21 of them shrank during a 50-year period. “Global warming is certainly at work,” says Hinzman. “This phenomenon is particularly prevalent in areas of discontinuous permafrost where soil temperatures are within a degree or two of thawing.” Even in regions characterized by deep, persistent permafrost, sometimes hundreds of feet thick, a thaw of several feet can be enough to drain a lake. “All you need is a channel in the right spot,” Hinzman says.  

Looking ahead, Hinzman sees the transition from “wet tundra and lakes to a savanna-like plain” as a real possibility. “This is a major migration and nesting territory for Asian and North American bird species,” he says. Millions of birds, from sandhill cranes and Arctic terns to pipits and longspurs, nest and fledge their young in the northern latitudes. “A drying trend would have a huge impact on the viability of this habitat for these species and other tundra wildlife.”

There are human consequences, as well. Many northern communities depend on lake water for drinking supplies, fisheries, and other resources. Peter Schweitzer, an anthropologist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, recounts the story of one of his students who, in 2005, traveled with a native family to a favorite lake they visited every year to hunt and collect edible plants. When they reached the spot, they were astonished to find that the entire lake had drained away in just one year. “This isn’t simply about a few lakes drying up,” agrees Hinzman. “What we’re seeing is very rapid change in the north, with global climate implications.”

—Alan Kesselheim

 

 

© 2006 National Audubon Society
 

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DISPATCHES

Wild About Organic

In a crowded, increasingly urbanized world, farms and other working lands provide essential habitat for many wild animals. Organic farms are even better, according to a comprehensive study documenting how much such farms enhance biodiversity. “We looked at a very large sample of sites throughout England,” says Rob Fuller, a biologist with the British Trust for Ornithology and one of the authors of the four-year study. “Plants in particular seemed to show big and probably quite rapid responses to organic farming.” When the herbicide-suppressed plants return, they create more habitat for wildlife to recolonize these areas. As a result, the study found, organic farms have 105 percent more plant species, 48 percent more spiders, 62 percent more winter birds, and 75 percent more bats than their nonorganic counterparts. Fuller now plans to investigate the exact mechanisms in hopes of replicating them on conventional farms. So the next time you’re food shopping, you might want to bear in mind Fuller’s conclusion: “A modest increase in organic farming could be quite beneficial to wildlife.”

—Frank Bures

 

The Bronx Is Spawning

The alewife, one of two silvery species of river herring native to eastern North America, is back in the Bronx River after a 350-year absence caused by dams that stopped the fish from returning to their spawning grounds. In March the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection transplanted 200 alewives from Connecticut into New York City’s only freshwater river. The return of the native fish follows a decade-long ecological restoration of the Bronx River by a coalition of environmental groups and government agencies, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. “For many years the Bronx River was a dumping ground, a virtual dead zone for wildlife,” says U.S. Representative José Serrano
(D-NY), who helped secure federal funding for the effort. Today he boasts that the river has been transformed into “an urban oasis, a refuge from the concrete and steel of the city” and will be “a treasured resource for generations to come.”

—Daniel Butcher

 

Daddy Big Jaws

Daddy longlegs are harmless, but this one might give you nightmares. Among the more than two dozen new animal species found recently in the caves of California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks is a bizarre version of the daddy longlegs that everybody knows from lazy childhood summers. This one has jaws as big as its body—about a third of an inch—which allows it to eat larger prey than its small-mouthed counterparts living outside caves. The National Park Service and Texas-based Zara Environmental, a consulting research firm, completed an intensive three-year survey of 30 caves last year and found more new creatures hiding out than expected. “We thought we would find some new species, but we were really pleasantly surprised at 27,” says Joel Despain, a Park Service cave specialist for the past 13 years. In addition to the daddy longlegs, Despain and others catalogued pseudoscorpions (which look like tiny imitations of true scorpions without the fearsome rear end), spiders, millipedes, centipedes, and other invertebrates never described by science, although some had been spotted previously creeping through the parks’ more than 240 caves. Adaptation to cave life leads to unique traits, so most of the creatures are blind, lack pigmentation, and have longer antennae and legs to help them navigate the surrounding darkness.

—Todd Neale

 

Lusty Whales

Researchers in Australia claim to have unlocked one of nature’s great mysteries: Why do whales sing? It turns out that humpbacks near the Great Barrier Reef do so for one main reason—sex. Joshua Smith, a marine biologist at Australia’s University of Queensland, has found that though female humpbacks don’t actually sing, male songs can be heard up to 12 miles away and can last as long as 22 hours. They are “likely an important courtship display,” Smith wrote in an e-mail from a ship in the Southern Ocean, where he was observing whales. That’s not to say the humpbacks are wooing life partners. “When a male is singing and a female is present, it is not like that male is courting that female for life,” Smith wrote. “The function of song would be more for immediate reproductive benefits, more like a one-night stand.”

—Frank Bures

 

Billion-Dollar Building

Once it’s finished in 2008, the Bank of America Tower, across the street from the New York Public Library’s main branch, is projected to be the most environmentally responsible high-rise office building ever constructed. The $1 billion, 55-story skyscraper is on track to achieve the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum rating, the highest possible designation. To meet LEED criteria, which are based on the principle of environmental sustainability, developers must build primarily from recycled or recyclable materials, including salvaged steel and lumber; recycle water and other resources; and use lighting, heating, and cooling systems that conserve the most energy. Among the Bank of America Tower’s cutting-edge features are insulating floor-to-ceiling windows to stabilize temperature while letting in natural light; waterless urinals; low-water-use toilets; and a system to collect and reuse rain and wastewater, which is projected to save more than 10 million gallons per year.

—Daniel Butcher

 

Wax On, Wax Off

Early this year the Vintage Car Club of New Zealand hired 40 members of a local karate club to protect vehicles participating in one of the group’s rallies. The event, which took place in a mountain village near Mount Cook on New Zealand’s South Island, celebrated the centennial of the first automobile to visit the area. The martial artists were not guarding against thieves or vandals but flocks of keas, an intelligent, mischievous species of parrot native to the high alpine country of the South Island, which was the beautiful backdrop to the Lord of the Rings films. Keas, a protected species, are intensely curious about shiny objects, and there are reports of the parrots flying away with such items as silverware, watches, and jewelry clutched in their talons or beak. The birds’ sharp claws and bills have also damaged cameras and scratched and chipped the paint on cars. The Department of Conservation has advised that the best way to discourage such behavior is to avoid feeding the birds, so that they are not encouraged to congregate in populated areas. The rally’s organizers hired the karate experts to use kicks, jabs, chops, and any other moves to thwart the birds—without hurting them.

—Daniel Butcher

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