Birds have fascinated me for as long as I can remember, and my knowledge and love for them has only steadily increased over the years.  People interested in birds can be broken down into two groups, often overlapping:  “birders” and “birdwatchers.”   Birders are folks who are primarily concerned with observing as many different species as they can, adding each new sighting to their “life list.”  Some of you may have seen the movie, “The Big Year,” starring Owen Wilson as a totally obsessed birder, and revealing the great lengths (and expense) to which the most fanatic birders will go to identify rare species.  Although I have never personally met anyone that nutty, I do know people who go on “birding vacations,” and/or travel hundreds of miles to see a bird they have not yet listed.  I don’t consider myself a birder, though I admit to having flown to Haines, Alaska, in 1980, to see the world’s largest concentration of Bald Eagles at the Chilkat River delta.
The Bald Eagle population in the lower 48 states was precariously small then.  In 1963, there were 417 nesting pairs in continental USA, not including Alaska.  These birds had been in decline due to the widespread use of the insecticide DDT, until it was banned in 1972.  It was learned that DDT weakened the eggshells of eagles and other birds of prey, causing most eggs to be squashed in the nest by the parents. Thanks to that ban, the Bald Eagle has made an outstanding comeback, with estimates of over 15,000 pairs!

Eagle in Oquossoc Stephanie Chu-O’Neil

Maine alone now has well over 400 pairs, equaling the population of the entire country in the the 1960’s!   As a kid in Rangeley, I never saw any eagles, but we were delighted to see one recently fly overhead, while having lunch at the Parkside’s patio, no longer unusual.
It was their scarcity that enticed me to go to Alaska.  My friend, Norman Smith, who was the director of an Audubon sanctuary near me, knew more about birds than anyone I had ever met.  He could not only instantly identify any bird that zoomed by, but also tell you what gender and age group.  He told me about the annual gathering of thousands of Bald Eagles in Haines, Alaska in November.   I was skeptical, but I trusted his judgement.  And yes, there were over 2,000 Bald Eagles visible from one vantage point at the Chilkat River.  The whole trip was terrific, and worthy of a future column in itself.
Although I have a life list of bird species I have seen, I don’t pay much attention to it, and consider myself to be a “birdwatcher,”  someone who just enjoys birds.  It doesn’t matter what species, or how rare they happen to be;  birdwatchers are just fascinated with bird behavior.  We love to watch a Robin struggling to pull a huge worm out of the ground, then falling over backwards when it succeeds. Or marvel at the agility and precision of a gull or a hawk maneuvering effortlessly in a high wind.  Or being entertained by a curious Canada Jay, flying down to steal a tidbit from your plate at a campfire. The list is endless.

Pileated Woodpecker on Main St. Cindy Geller

Rangeley is blessed with a variety- and density- of birds not regularly seen in the suburbs.  One of our favorites is the regal and impressive Pileated Woodpecker. They are skittish, but there is no mistaking their raucous chattering call, or the jackhammer- like noise of one drilling into tree bark for a delectable (to them) juicy grub. Two weeks ago, while walking on Main Street, a few doors down from the Highlander office, Mrs. Geller was astounded to see a Pileated just a few feet away, busily shredding a rotting stump.  As rarely happens, she was able to get a couple of photos before Mr. Impressive flew off.
The bad- really bad- news is that more than one in four birds in the U.S. and Canada have been lost since 1970, or approximately 3 BILLION  of them, according to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.  While the lab, and other ecological and wildlife organizations, are quick to blame “industry activities,”  they miss the underlying point, which is the growth of the human population.   It’s not rocket science; more people need more housing, cars, water, food, oil, natural gas, lumber, and everything else.  And producing all that stuff requires lots of land and energy, not to mention the pollution it creates. Birds are among the most susceptible to all this. The world’s thirst for oil has led to ecological disasters, like the Exxon Valdez and the Deepwater Horizon, from which bird populations have only recently begun to recover. Unfortunately, rushing headlong into unproven alternative energy sources is not the answer.  Hundreds of thousands of birds are maimed and slaughtered every year by wind turbines, but you won’t hear about that from the nature groups.  The National Audubon Society, in a burst of blatant hypocrisy, has stated that “such losses are acceptable, when weighed against the “clean energy” the turbines provide.”   Oh, well- what can one expect from a bird protection organization that named itself after a guy who shot each and every bird he studied?’
When God urged people “to be fruitful, any multiply,” I doubt that doing so at the expense of every other species on Earth was what He had in mind…….

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