Welcome to Paradise
One April day a few years ago, Columbus writer and birder Bill Whan witnessed a bizarre happening that demonstrated the thin and shaky toehold birds have on life.
He was in the Dry Tortugas after a cold front accompanied by a stiff north wind had passed across those little islands.
During the ensuing day or two, hundreds of migrating warblers had found what they might have thought was a safe haven on Garden Key, the site of the Fort Jefferson National Monument.
"The problem was," Whan said, "the wind remained so strong that what little insect-life was there in the first place was either blown to sea or quickly consumed. There are few if any trees and bushes on the island so the birds ended up fluttering around on the ground."
"There is an old fountain," Whan continued, "that dribbles water into a moss-covered basin located within the hexagonal brick walls of the fort. The basin was surrounded by as many as two dozen cattle egrets and do you know what they were doing? They were eating warblers! Mostly redstarts, but also Cape May, Palm, Black-and-white, and Blackpoll warblers."
The small birds were attracted to the water to get a drink and the possibility of finding a few aquatic insects. The egrets with their sleek tan-streaked plumes and dagger-like bills, were like evil knights in a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Anthropomorphic? Yes. But not as a way of pointing out the appalling fact that nature is unforgiving to her zillions of minions - including migrant birds.
The event illustrates the untold dangers that small birds confront in their comings and goings. The mortality rate is so high, the dangers so many, it's truly a miracle any of them survive. Out of necessity, fecundity is the order of the day.
Another instance of gulls devouring warblers happened during the spring migration of 1997 at Padre Island, Texas. Red and Louise Gambill told me about it. There had been a huge fallout of migrating neotropical birds. Exhausted, they had descended to the ground, probably hundreds of thousands of them, warblers, and tanagers, and Indigo Buntings, so thick it looked like the ground was strewn with blue flowers. And, the predators, notably gulls, were feasting on the brightly colored little birds until they could eat no more and, once gorged, just stood around staring at the survivors.
As many a philosopher and poet has commented, life and death are partners: As Henry David Thoreau might have said, they march to the same drummer.
Once at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge a companion and I watched as a little Pied-billed Grebe foolishly dabbled closer and closer to a Great Black-backed Gull which was standing in the shallow water of one of the impoundments.
The wily gull acted out one of the animal kingdom's oldest ruses, pretended to be preoccupied, avoided eye contact with the grebe.
Then, so fast the grebe didn't know what was happening, the gull had grabbed him by the neck. That was the end. The rest was just a matter of killing him by strangulation and drowning.
I was leading a hike in the Clear Creek Valley a few years ago when a male scarlet tanager flew into a tree not more than 20 yards in front of our group. The bird was bathed in sunlight and its vivid red plumage seemed almost incandescent. With head tilted back, he poured forth his husky, melodious song.
A lady dressed in Banana Republic tans and browns standing beside me whispered in my ear, "Tom, only God could make a bird so beautiful."
The words were hardly out of her mouth when a Cooper's hawk came out of nowhere, like greased lightning. It hit the tanager with an audible thud, a whirlwind of beautiful feathers exploded into the air and the hawk flew away with the dead and broken body of the tanager.
My companion was dumbfounded, at a loss for words and, I swear, her face was as pale as the hankie she pulled from her purse.
I put my arm around her shoulders to comfort her. For a moment I was at a loss for words. Then, softly, I said, "Welcome to paradise."