Monthly Archives: July 2017

A season of birds

Ducklings in Corte Madera Marsh in Corte Madera, California by Betsey CrawfordSpring began with a small avalanche of ducklings. Next door in Marin is the Corte Madera Marsh, a remnant of a vast area of marsh, estuary, and mudflats that once formed the margins of San Francisco and San Pablo Bays. For the most part, these wetlands now hold houses, Route 101, schools, hospitals, office buildings and shopping centers. But over 1,000 acres have been preserved along the eastern edge of the city of Corte Madera.

An old railroad bed maintained as a dike to prevent flooding creates a lagoon that is a haven for shore birds. The dike has a wide gravel trail on top, so you walk right into the heart of their world. Ducks and geese are regulars, as are egrets, especially in the fall, when pelicans also show up. Black-necked stilts wade the edges on their long, jagged legs. An oyster catcher flies by occasionally.

A season of birds-white pelicans in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey CrawfordThere are great blue herons, though I’m more likely to see one taking off then standing in the marsh. Endangered rails breed here, but I didn’t see any this year. Hawks hover and dive. Dark sparrows flit along the edges of the paths. Red-wing blackbirds announce spring from the tops of reeds.

The first family of ducks showed up before Easter and were quickly followed by another, and another. There were at least ten broods as the season progressed. The sheer adorableness of this cascade of ducklings was so addicting that I began to walk along the lagoon almost every day. As the earlier-born grew to adolescence, a new, tiny bunch would be zipping across the water like bugs, coming to a screeching halt, turning around and zipping back to their mother. When not moving at top speed, they were constantly flipping themselves over. Practice, I assumed, for their later bottoms-up feeding. 

A season of birds-black necked stilt with four eggs in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey Crawford

Black necked stilt, Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California

They preferred the narrow canal that leads off the lagoon, so they were close at hand. There was one goose family, but it stayed in the larger pond, and could only be seen clearly with binoculars. Later in the season, black-necked stilts suddenly began squawking and dive bombing me as I passed. So I knew that they, too, had babies to protect. Sure enough, tiny balls of feathers on minute sticks of legs were investigating the edges of small pools, tucked away from the other bird families. Stilt parents are far fiercer than ducks, but they have a harder, chancier job. They have fewer babies at once, and their eggs, laid on the gravel on the edge of the water, are precarious. The only two stilt families I saw close at hand had one and two chicks.

A season of birds-black necked stilt chick in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey Crawford

Black necked stilt chick, Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California

Without a population of predators like fox or snapping turtles, the duck families prospered. They lost some babies to hawks, one family getting down to five from a start of twelve. Their mother seemed to have disappeared, and I worried about them until they grew up. All families lost some little ones, except for one, which had a goose attached. From the time they were bits of fluff until they were fully grown, I never saw them without their goose. She clearly saw herself as a guardian. It was she who hung back for the wayward duckling — and there is always a wayward duckling — when the others moved on with their mother. She even shepherded a duckling from another family, who, lost and madly chirping, realized it had been left behind. The goose made sure all was well before rejoining her brood. 

 

I was fascinated by this menage, which seemed to be a great success. If I had any doubt about the efficacy of having a goose as part of a duck family, it disappeared one evening when the whole feather armada was softly gliding by me. Mother ducks have a quiet flow of chirps and clucks when they want to warn their family. The goose, however, when spooked by someone walking on the other side of the canal, honked like mad. All thirteen ducklings instantly scooted ahead, seeming to skim right across the top of the water, each leaving a wake.

Ducklings grow up satisfyingly slowly, by bird standards. But by the beginning of July they were all grown up. I was somewhat consoled by the stilt babies, though they, in contrast, grew much faster. As I was mourning my loss, black-crowned night herons suddenly showed up, standing stock still at the end of the canal, silent and brooding, apparently unafraid of humans. They breed in a small pond across the highway, so perhaps these were the young beginning their exploration of the world. Several egrets seemed to settle in for the summer, picking their way in slow motion along the shore, stopping, making a lightning jab into the water, and coming up with a small fish held in their beak.

A season of birds-black crowned night heron in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey Crawford

Black crowned night heron, Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California

That I could enjoy living among these birds is a testament to conservation efforts. These marshes have been under assault since the gold rush and early lumbering days, which drove tons of sediment down rivers, into the bays. As with many things in our rush to control and build on top of nature, we didn’t understand the importance of wetlands until we realized — often too late — their role in absorbing flood waters, in providing the bottom elements of the food chain for fish, in buffering inland areas from the constant flux at the edges of large bodies of water, in the life cycle of birds. 

In the nineteenth century, pioneers used to marvel at something the Native Americans had known for millennia: spring and fall skies darkened by the numbers of migrating birds. Flying from forest to forest, meadow to meadow, marsh to marsh, millions of birds would make their way north and south along great flyways for breeding and wintering. At the farthest ends of their range, in the Arctic and in Patagonia, for examples, wild, open spaces still abound. But along the way, their stopping places have lost ground to houses and offices, been broken up by roads and parking lots. Forests have been cut down. Marshes have been filled to make them buildable.

A season of birds-Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey CrawfordBird populations are in decline without their familiar habitat. In the 1980s, when I first moved into my house at the eastern end of Long Island, in New York, the springtime calling and singing of birds would wake me at five AM with delightful, uproarious bedlam. By the time I left twenty-eight years later, that had ceased.

In the Corte Madera Marsh, however, the breeding population is larger than it was a century ago, when egrets and herons were hunted so their feathers could decorate hats, the wetlands were already being filled in for buildings, and the railroad had cut through it. Designed for wildlife and flood protection, the restoration of my bird-filled marsh was the result of a trade made when a local shopping center was constructed. Once a dredge spoil dump for the Army Corps of Engineers, the restored pond not only houses birds that have nested there historically, but new ones, like stilts and the occasional tern, have started breeding there. 

A season of birds-egret, Corte Madera Marsh flying over the Corte Madera, California by Betsey Crawford

Egret, Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California

While restoration can’t recreate the original complexity of an ecosystem millions of years in the making, and is no substitute for preservation, it has a crucial role in fostering the health of our earth and its creatures, including us. Even — perhaps especially — in the midst of urban areas, where we tend to be cut off from the both the solace and importance of the natural world. When I took the picture below, Route 101 was buzzing with commuter traffic at my back. Just south of where I stood is a shopping center. At night, in the preserve across the pond, homeless people take shelter. Human life, in all its complexity, is teeming here. 

Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey CrawfordThe lagoon matters. I stopped to speak to a maintenance man at the pump that lowers the water level when storms are expected. “People call and complain,” he said, “if the water stays low too long.” He was resigned, but I was delighted. It means that the people rushing by are noticing, relishing the links to the larger natural world the preserve supplies.

Beyond the immediate pleasures of blue sky reflecting in still water, birds floating and flying, the marsh and pond are fed by far vaster forces: the ebb and flow of the bay, the power of the rivers flowing into it, the cold depths of the great ocean beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. In addition to their immediate visual delight, the birds, descendants of dinosaurs, connect us to the mysteries of deep time, as do the plants on the edge of the pond, evolving through eons to clean the water, create breathable air, feed the birds. These are the wider gifts of preservation and restoration, and the rewards of the work we do to insure them.

A season of birds-black crowned night heron in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey Crawford

Black crowned night heron, Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California

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Treasuring bees, saving the world

Bees love tall thistle (Cirsium altissimo) shown with a bee, Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri

The invitation came from Susan Friedman, whom I met on the weekend with Joanna Macy, and whose native plant gardens were part of Retaining Paradise. The Work that Reconnects workshop was held at Canticle Farm, an urban farm in Oakland, a more or less rectangular open space created by combining the yards and gardens behind a collection of houses. During the weekend the bees swarmed, meaning that the queen, responding to pressures in the hive, led a large number of her subjects out to form a new one. For an afternoon, thousands of bees hung in a mass on a sturdy tree branch, while scouts went looking for new sites. In the meantime, a beekeeper on someone’s speed dial was called to put the swarm into a new hive box and take it to another farm. 

This extraordinary event led Susan, already thinking about having a hive on her property, to find a class on beekeeping. Though it had never occurred to me to do such a thing, when she asked me if I was interested I immediately wrote back, ‘Of course.’ So there we were, on a hot June Saturday, in a demonstration garden a couple of blocks from San Francisco’s City Hall. Our teacher, Mark, was an utterly engaging bee geek, who punctuated his opening talk with continual delight at the intricate, fascinating life of the bees he is clearly passionate about. 

Bees love prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Konza Prairie Biological Station, Flint Hills, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) Konza Prairie Biological Station, Flint Hills, Kansas

Though I had no expectations about my fellow students beforehand, I was surprised at how young everyone else was, starting with Mark. We were a small group, but still, the idea that there are six young, urban professionals interested in spending a golden summer day learning about keeping bees was very heartening. Because keeping bees is, in it’s broadest sense, keeping the world. 

Bees were here with the dinosaurs. The relationship between bees and flowers is 130 million years old. Starting in the paleolithic era, cave drawings all over the world include scenes of figures climbing ladders to get honey, buzzed by a swarm of bees. People have written about their fascination with bees and the joys of honey ever since the alphabet was invented. But they may not survive the world we have created. And we may not survive without them. 

Bees love camas (Camassia quamash) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Camas (Camassia quamash) Tubbs Hill, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Mark took us through the basics of hive life: the development of the queen and her prodigious task of laying up to 2000 eggs a day. The myriad, unceasing tasks of the female workers who do all the work of the hive. They tend the queen, feed the young, forage for and store nectar and pollen, make honey, create wax, clean house, vibrate their wing muscles to regulate temperature. All lives are brief: queens can live for five years, though are considered productive for three. Workers live about a month and a half. The far fewer male drones, whose only job in life is to fertilize queens from other hives, die in this task or by being ejected from the hive at the end of the summer. So, to keep the hive going, new life needs to be constantly fostered.

Their work ethic is prodigious. One pound of honey means that 10,000 bees have flown 75,000 miles in short segments, visiting up to 8 million flowers. A good forager will have brought back a total of 1/4 teaspoon of nectar in the course of her life. She’ll also bring water, and pollen collected on her bristly hairs or in pouches on her legs. As she flies from flower to flower in search of nectar, she leaves some of her pollen load on the next flower she visits, and picks up more, performing the crucial task of pollination as she goes.

Beehive frame with honey, covered by beeswax, in the upper right. In the lower right are cups with white larva, and capped cups that house the pupae. You can see the glint of light on the cups holding nectar, on its way to becoming honey. The larger cups at the bottom right are for drones. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Bees on a beehive frame with honey, covered by beeswax, in the upper right. In the lower leftt are cups with white larva, and capped cups that house the pupae, from which will emerge adult bees. At the top center, you can see the glint of light on the cups holding nectar, on its way to becoming honey. The larger cups along the left hand frame are for drones.

The highlight of the class was donning bee suits and opening the hives. Bee boxes with portable wooden frames of comb long ago replaced the round, impenetrable beehives that meant bees had to be killed to harvest honey. We pulled out the hanging frames and watched the bees at work. Mark suggested dipping the end of a twig in the honey and holding it to the bees’ heads. The tiniest imaginable red tongues zipped out to lick it off. He showed us the queen, which he had marked with a green dot.

All this time the bees were very calm. We were well covered, though I was soon unconcernedly pulling my gloves on and off to take pictures. But after a while the bees began to buzz and fly more dramatically, the result of getting too warm on that hot day, and anxious about the well-being of their tribe. So we closed the boxes again.

Bees love wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

Our class was not about native bees. Beekeeping is devoted to the imported European honey bee, Apis mellifera, whose communal lifestyle and behavior make it a mobile pollinating force for agriculture, and a prolific source of honey. But all bee populations are excellent pollinators, some native ones far more so than the honey bee. All are losing ground dramatically. In the last 120 years, we’ve lost half of our native bee species. There is no one cause, and the problem, though far more acute now, was first noted in 1860. 

Even then, loss of habitat to growing urbanization and industrialization, along with widespread clearing for agriculture, were among the culprits. Since World War II, intensive farming has done away with the old hedgerows between fields, full of varieties of wildflowers and brambles. Vast fields of wind-pollinated grains have no flowers for bees to forage. Vegetable farmers largely harvest crops like lettuce and radishes before they flower and go to seed. That leaves fruit and nut trees, and vegetables that develop from the ovaries of flowers, like squash.

Bees love western wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Western wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

But even in places where such crops are abundant, as in the Central Valley of California, bees are rapidly losing ground. When they don’t kill the bees directly, pesticides, especially the neonicotinoids introduced in the 1990s, damage their nervous systems, impairing their ability to navigate and forage, thus weakening the whole hive. Any loss of vitality leaves bees prey to mites and fungi that can devastate the colony.

Monoculture is another issue. The almond groves in the Central Valley bloom for three weeks. Before and after, if there are no native hedgerows, and no flowering ground covers, there’s nothing to keep the mostly non-colony-forming native bees in place. The honey beekeepers load their hives onto trucks and move them to the next crop, a potentially stressful lifestyle that may also be impacting those bees.

Bees love red monkey flower (Mimulus lewisii) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Red monkey flower (Mimulus lewisii) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

What would life without bees be like? From a human perspective, we would lose most flowers, most fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee, tea. Our diet would consist largely of grains and meat from animals that eat those grains. Without clover and alfalfa, the dairy industry would falter, and beef prices would skyrocket. We would have lettuce for salad while the seed supply lasts, but no cucumbers or tomatoes, and no oil or vinegar. No jam or jelly, no strawberry shortcake in June, no pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. No lemonade or orange juice. Our most nutritious vegetables — like broccoli, carrots, onions, kale — would be gone.

Cotton clothing would disappear. Our gardens would be green. No more fields of wildflowers. The 20% of flowers pollinated by butterflies, beetles, and hummingbirds would still exist, but butterflies are also disappearing. All ecosystems would eventually diminish as bee-pollinated plants died off in alpine meadows, grasslands, forests, wetlands, deserts. The ability of these systems to regenerate soil, filter water and clean the air would be impaired, endangering more and more plants. Eventually, all living things could be under threat.

Bees love smooth aster (Aster laevis) taken at a rest stop planted with native plants in Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Smooth aster (Aster laevis) at a rest stop planted with native plants in Wisconsin

Thus the loss of bees is far more than a human problem. Because of the threat to agriculture, farmers and scientists the world over have been working to figure out why we’re losing bees and what to do about it. But though the solutions are challenging, and the sudden collapse of colonies devastating, it isn’t hard to figure out why bees are struggling. We’ve produced a planet that is inhospitable to them. And, as I wrote when contemplating the loss of lichen to climate change, a world that’s inhospitable to our fellow inhabitants may soon be inhospitable to us. 

Instead of trying to harness the bee to our needs, we would do better catering to theirs. If we create a world where they can flourish, chances are far better that we will, too. Among the answers: organic farming and gardening. Bee friendly hedgerows dividing farm fields and native flowering groundcovers among crops. Regenerative agriculture. Sustainable development. Preservation and restoration of habitat. Gardening with natives — the plants native bees evolved with — like the bee-loved flowers accompanying this post. This is the quilting together of restored habitat I wrote about in Retaining Paradise

Bees love strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus fendleri) Cross Canyon, southwest Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus fendleri) Cross Canyon, southwest Colorado. There is a bee dedicated to pollinating cactus flowers.

In the end, it all depends on how we think about these things. We can choose to look at the world from a bee’s point of view, or a forest’s, or a river’s. Or from the perspective of an intact ecosystem. By and large, our culture and economy don’t support this way of seeing. We contemplate a meadow that took 4.5 billion years to evolve and see it as a potential shopping mall. We see driveways and houses and swimming pools. As understandable as this view might be, given our culture, and to some extent our needs, it’s destroying the world we depend on.

Without bees, flowers may never have evolved. Without flowers, and their nutritious fruits, we may never have evolved. We share over a third of our genes with bees. Our connections with our fellow beings, as with the planet we all arose from, are profound. What if instead of seeing bees as merely useful, or fascinating, or in the way, we could see them as kin? With such a shift in vision, gardening, farming, and habitat restoration become ways to foster the vitality of our cousins as well as ourselves. We become a vast extended family — flowers, fruits, bees, soil, water, humans — weaving the fabric of life together.

Bees love blue wild iris (Iris missouriensis) taken in Monticello, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Wild iris (Iris missouriensis) in Monticello, Utah

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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