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Rich Bard

Rich Bard photo courtesy of Rich BardRich Bard is a wildlife biologist who began his career as a zookeeper. Having spent most of his adult life moving around the country working with various wild animals, he settled near the coast of Maine in 2004. Amid the striking beauty of this remote region, he passes the time with his family, hiking, snowshoeing, gardening and watching the tide ebb and flow.

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Shorebirds: A Miracle in the Flesh
Thursday, 17 July 2014 00:00  |  Written by Rich Bard | Blog Entry

Willet photo by J Mita StudiosAlbert Einstein said, "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."

Personally, I believe we are able to flip back and forth between these two extremes, though we tend to take most of the natural world for granted most of the time. Predictable natural phenomena, like gravity, the homing instinct of a honeybee and a six-year-old boy's fascination with butts become hum-drum, everyday occurrences. Every now and then, though, we hold up one of these miracles to the light, take a good look and become lost in the vast mystery of our natural world.

Shorebirds, species with wonderful names like dowitcher, whimbrel, willet, curlew, yellowlegs, phalarope and sanderling, but including more mundane names like plover and sandpiper, have begun their southward migration. As soon as possible following their brief breeding season in the arctic, adult shorebirds head for warmer waters. The young of the year will proceed separately, in their own wave that follows the adults, after spending a few extra weeks maturing and strengthening in the northern summer.

The birds that find their way to Maine pause on the coast for a couple of weeks, taking full advantage of the largess of the cold waters of the Gulf of Maine to pack on the fat reserves they'll need for the next leg of their journey. Though individual birds are small and easily overlooked, flocks feeding on mudflats can number in the thousands. They fly like a school of tropical reef fish, turning and dipping as though of one mind. Their contrasting colors, light below and dark above, flash as they turn en masse, confusing predators and making it hard to pick out one bird.

As a group or individually, the birds decide when the time is right. The barometric pressure is just so. The winds are from the right direction. Maybe they just can't wait a moment longer to feel the equatorial sun on their wings. I don't know. But at some point, every bird (not the concept of a bird, but a real, live, feathered individual, let's say it’s a semipalmated sandpiper, his real name, his history and his destination known only to him) decides that now is the time.

He takes off from a mudflat not far from where I sit right now, and heads out over the Atlantic Ocean. He won't lower his five-inch-tall body to the surface of the planet—not to eat, sleep or rest—until he reaches the Caribbean Islands or the coast of South America. He will fly 2,000 miles or more in about two days.

His journey, once begun, cannot be averted. If he failed to accumulate enough fat reserves to complete the oceanic crossing, he will drop from the sky exhausted and drown in the ocean. If he makes it, he will face countless other daunting challenges in the 11 months and two weeks or so before he once again appears in my binoculars, anonymous to me as an individual bird, but part of a welcome wave of migrants who once again remind me of the miracles that nature and evolution have produced.

Not surprisingly, I have a hard time fully wrapping my head around the epic journeys undertaken by shorebirds. Of course, if we take Einstein's dictum to heart, we have to consider just as extraordinary the heroic odyssey of the blue-spotted salamander, which is relegated to life underground for most of the year. On a warm, rainy, spring night, she rises to the surface and drags her three- to five-inch body up to 120 meters to a shallow depression in the forest, filled with the melted snows of the previous winter... but that's a miracle to appreciate some other time.

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Comments (1)add
Written by Anneliese , September 14, 2009
Wow, just wow!!! These are hardy critters. I'm also continually awed by what nature gifts us in the form of her amasing creatures...
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