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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pit Stops for Migrating ShorebirdsThreatened by Growth

Air Date: Week of

Every spring, millions of West Coast shorebirds migrate north along a route known as the Pacific Flyway. Commentator Nancy Lord reflects on how development along this path may endanger the shorebirds’ future. The migrators need open space to rest along their route. If that habitat disappears under buildings and pavement, the shorebirds may be close behind.


LORD: Over the past few weeks I've watched trumpeter swans cruise on the lakes still chunky with rotten ice, then fly off to be replaced by courting redneck grebes.

CURWOOD: Commentator Nancy Lord.

LORD: I've listened to the mournful cries of sand hill cranes and the two-tone song of a single varied thrush. But nothing marks the advent spring here in coastal Alaska better than the stopping off of huge flocks of migrating shore birds. Sand pipers, dunlins, dowagers, turnstones, these mostly small and mostly brown birds, all legs and long beaks, are unspectacular except in their numbers.

At high tide they congregate along the shoreline, as thick as cobblestones, waiting and resting. As the tide goes out, thousands spread over the exposed mud flats in frenetic activity, plucking tiny clams and worms from the mud, pipping so fiercely the sound is like white noise.

They're hungry, and that's why they're here: to fuel themselves for their final flights to northern breeding grounds. They've wintered as far off as Argentina and have already come a long way, flying up to 250 miles in a day and 60 hours without a rest.

It's no secret that most species of shore birds are declining in numbers due to habitat loss. The loss or degradation of any one site can devastate entire species. As I gloss [word?] the flats of what we call Mud Bay, several children are doing the same, taking part in something called the Shore Bird Sister Schools Project. Schools all along the Pacific Flyway, from San Francisco Bay to the Yukon River Delta, are tracking the bird migrations and sharing information by computer. Students are learning about the importance of wetlands and how habitat losses in a far part of the world can affect the birds they see in their own yards.

The small children this day seem more excited about the seagulls than the shore birds, but that's certainly a start. By appreciating our feathered neighbors at all, they're already ahead of many adults. Our city leaders haven't yet been convinced of the value of designating Mud Bay as a critical habitat area. They can't even agree on banning vehicles from four-wheeling over the mud flats.

Other children are watching the birds through scopes and delighting in a dowager. If they never saw a dowager, never knew its name or its long bill and cinnamon front and the facts of what it eats and where it flies from and to, how could it matter to them if the dowager ceased to exist? Now that they do know its name and habits, I'd like to think the dowager, and maybe even the surf bird, will have a better chance at being here next year, and in ten years, and when these same children are old and gray.

CURWOOD: Writer Nancy Lord is a commentator for Living on Earth. She comes to us from member station KBBI in Homer, Alaska.



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