Tomorrow the New Jersey legislature will consider a bill that will either protect or destroy 15 acres of state park land where a neighboring golf course wants to build 3 golf holes. The showdown between those who love public parks and nature versus extremely rich developers is well described in the New York Times: Golf Club for the 1 Percent Wants to Seize a Migratory Bird Habitat.
I don’t know how the fight will play out in human terms but I’m sure of one thing. In the end the sea will win.
Caven Point Natural Area is a sandy peninsula on the Hudson River in Jersey City, NJ, a migratory bird stopover and nesting site so sensitive that the area is closed April through September to leave the birds in peace. American oystercatchers, shown above, are some of the cool birds you can see there.
Though it’s part of Liberty State Park, Caven Point Natural Area (yellow circle) is not contiguous to it.
Liberty National Golf Club is one of the most exclusive golf courses in the US with an initiation fee of nearly half a million dollars. The course has breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline which you may have seen on television last August when Liberty National hosted the PGA TOUR’s FedEx Cup Playoffs from August 6–11, 2019. This photo, uploaded by Redi-Rock International in 2015, gives you an idea of the view.
To us humans, Nature is the backdrop to the protests, letter writing, legislation and legal battles, but Nature will be the foreground in the years ahead. Climate change and sea level rise will engulf Caven Point and part of the existing golf course. It is already happening.
This map of the Caven Point area from NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Viewer shows red where the highest high tides inundate the land today. This doesn’t include the 5-foot wall of water that washed over the area during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
If the ocean rises 3 feet, as predicted for this century, Caven Point will become an island, ponds on the existing golf course will overflow (green) and the end of Liberty National’s parking lot near the clubhouse will be underwater every day (green).
Even if it doesn’t rise three feet very soon …
“Nobody’s debating that sea-level rise is happening. It’s back to how much, how fast,” Helen Amanda Fricker, a glaciologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told me. Even the most optimistic scientists have recently increased their low-end estimates, she said.
(photo of American oystercatcher by Tony Bruno. Caven Point walkway by Bill Benson on Flickr, Liberty National Golf Course by Redi-Rock International on Flickr, maps from New Jersey State Parks and NOAA Sea Level Viewer; click on the captions to see the originals)
For thousands of years people have known that certain sand dunes make a low humming sound, the musical note of G, E or F. It occurs when the sand is moving but you can force the sound if you slide downhill. Why does it hum?
A decade ago scientists at CalTech studied two humming sand dunes in California to answer that question. They found that for the sand to sing, the grains have to be all the same size, the dune must have a slope greater than 30 degrees and be over 120 feet tall, and the sand must be dried under the desert’s summer sun. It was very hot work.
The humming sound occurs naturally when the sand moves but that doesn’t happen on a predictable schedule so the CalTech team forced the sound. Dr. Melany Hunt explained,
Usually we would trigger it by having a number of people slide down the dune in unison. We always called it ‘Science by the seat of our pants.’
Sweep(noun): In sports, a sweep is a series in which a person or team wins all games.
During the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count (CBC) last Saturday I saw every member of the crow family that occurs in Pennsylvania. I had a Corvid Sweep in my own city neighborhood!
Twenty corvid species can be seen in the US. but Pennsylvania hosts only four: blue jay, American crow, fish crow, and common raven. Blue jays and American crows are common, but until this century ravens and fish crows were quite rare in Pittsburgh. This year’s CBC tallied 7 ravens and 10 fish crows in the 15-mile circle, swamped by the presence of 10,000 American crows. (*)
The ravens (Corvus corax) were a real surprise. A group of four circled up and played in the sky over Hazelwood Greenway. I heard them call as they landed on the tallest thing for miles around — the radio tower next to Calvary Cemetery. Woo hoo!
Fish crows (Corvus ossifragus) are probably under counted in Pittsburgh because they’re hard to identify. They look just like American crows though slightly smaller. The only reliable way to identify a fish crow is by its nasal voice. If he doesn’t speak we don’t know who he is.
For sheer spectacle, though, nothing beats the winter crow flock coming in to roost. Claire Stales and I counted 10,000 from the roof of a parking garage near Trees Hall and we know we under counted, perhaps by half. This year the flock didn’t pre-roost west of us and, because buildings block the view, we never saw the crows that stream in from the Allegheny Valley and Shadyside.
But we did stop by the area of Bellefield, Bayard and Bigelow where 3,000 to 4,000 crows spend the night. This year they’ve abandoned Pitt’s campus, only two blocks away, and I think I know why. On December 18 at 5:00pm I was counting crows flying from Schenley Park toward Pitt when I saw the new resident female peregrine, Morela, escort them away from campus. Aha!
Though the report was depressing there were two bright spots that provide hope and can guide us from grief to action. The report includes this happy news: Ducks increased 56% and raptors 200% thanks to our intervention.
Ducks were in such steep decline in the early 1900s that hunters banded together to reverse the trend. The main cause of decline was habitat loss — the disappearance of wetlands — so they worked to pass wetland protection laws in the U.S. and Canada and migratory duck protection in Mexico. People gave of their time and money to build wetland habitat for waterfowl, especially through Ducks Unlimited. Their effort paid off.
Meanwhile, by 1970 peregrine falcons were extinct east of the Mississippi and bald eagle populations had crashed. The cause was a pesticide — DDT — that was outlawed in the U.S. in 1972. With Endangered Species Act protection and the work of recovery programs, peregrine falcons and bald eagles made a stunning come back.
The recent decline in North American birds has its root in the same problems we solved for ducks and raptors: habitat loss and pesticides. We solved it before, can do it again. We can turn our grief into action.
Our actions can be small scale or large — from our own backyards, to local schools and parks, to the national level.
On a local and national scale we can work to restore habitat and reduce pesticides through conservation organizations and our local Audubon and birding clubs (see list at end).
And finally, we can work to change attitudes toward nature and we can vote. Wetland protection and pesticide laws were key to saving ducks and raptors. Every level of government — from school board to nation — makes decisions that affect birds.
After an interval of grief, we’ll have a lot to do. We can do it. We just have to try.
(red-winged blackbird photos from Wikimedia Commons; 7 Simple Things from Cornell Lab of Ornithology; click on the captions to see the originals. Ring-necked ducks by Steve Gosser, peregrine falcon by Peter Bell)
p.s. Pittsburghers, here are some land and bird conservation organizations, mostly local:
In the past several years my friends and I have noticed it. We expect to see a lot of birds at our feeders and on migration but something has gone wrong. We rarely see so many, sometimes almost none. There are fewer birds than there used to be.
The declines are uneven across species and regions. Grassland species have been hit the hardest with more than half gone. Boreal forests have lost a third. 617 million wood warblers are gone.
The research team, led by Kenneth V. Rosenberg of Cornell University, analyzed many data sets including Breeding Bird Surveys, Christmas Bird Counts and US Fish and Wildlife Surveys. The most poignant proof came from a non-human counter — radar data of nocturnal spring migration. Across the U.S. from 2007 to 2017 weather radar saw a 14% reduction in our bird population.
The heaviest losses occurred in the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways (blue and green on map).
Pittsburgh’s radar station was in the top 20% of locations that lost birds.
Here’s just a sample of the decline in species since 1970:
Tony Bledsoe was an instructor and lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh for 31 years and such an inspiring teacher that his students rated him “One of the best professors I’ve ever had.” In 2006 he won the Tina and David Bellet Teaching Excellence Award as Outstanding Undergraduate Teacher in Arts and Sciences at the University, voted by the students themselves.
Tony was a friend and a behind-the-scenes advocate for birds at the University of Pittsburgh. I first met him in 2001 when he offered to help me establish a peregrine nestbox at the Cathedral of Learning. Tony read my PABIRDS report about peregrines in courtship flight and knew there was no suitable location for them to nest. I wanted to install a nestbox but had no idea how to approach the University. Tony knew who to call. He worked behind the scenes to find people to champion the peregrines within the Administration. By February 2002, with Tony’s help, the nestbox was in place. Dorothy and Erie raised their first chicks that spring.
Tony provided scientific background on peregrine behavior within the University and beyond. In March 2007, when Erie killed an intruder peregrine at the nestbox, he was interviewed by John Tierney of the New York Times for an article about the peregrine fight: Peregrine Smackdown: Stay Away From My Dorothy!
The house in the video above was inside a landslide zone on Semicir Street overlooking Riverview Park. Add water and … the house collapsed!
The bedrock at fault is Pittsburgh redbed, a claystone that disintegrates into smaller and smaller pieces if exposed to pressure when it’s wet. Redbed is usually under pressure because it’s underneath solid rock and overlying soil. Add water to a steep slope and you have a landslide.
This sandstone boulder on the Bridle Trail in Schenley Park was part of the escarpment above it until the redbed layer beneath it gave way.
Here’s a future landslide on the Lower Panther Hollow Trail. This sandstone boulder, high above my head, will fall some day because the slow drip of water over the boulder has disintegrated the underlying redbed. Notice the reddish crumbled stones.
I had read that Pittsburgh redbed disintegrates when wet but I wanted to see for myself so I gathered some redbed rocks and ran an experiment.
Thousands of years ago these small crumbles were a much bigger solid rock but water had already acted on them. Will the crumbles disintegrate in the presence of water and pressure? I kept some rocks dry and soaked others for a day. Here’s my experiment.
Add water and pressure to Pittsburgh redbed claystone and … Watch out below!