Chronicles

Temperamental Mother Nature
by: Mike Lushington  

            The geese have returned. For the past week now I have been hearing them every day as they fly over home to and from the estuary. They spend much of the day at this time of year in the big clover and alfalfa fields in back of here, where they stuff themselves on the rich second and third growth. Nights, they retreat to the estuary, usually over to the vicinity of Escuminac Cove on the Quebec side.

            Sooner or later I will be wanting to get a close look at some of the flocks to see if I can determine the number of young birds present. Apparently this was a disastrous year for many birds that nest in the high arctic. Preliminary numbers indicate that nesting failures amount to ninety percent or higher for most species of shorebirds and waterfowl.

            Disturbingly enough, what seems to have happened up north merely mirrors our local situation. Many of our own nesting birds have also experienced extreme hardship in raising their young in this cold, wet, and backward summer that we have just endured.

            I conduct a breeding bird survey each year back on the old Benjamin River road at 5:00 AM, sometime in late June or early July. Every year, I know that the first eight or nine stops of the survey will be murder because of the clouds of black flies and I go prepared to cope as best I can. I did not need any fly repellent, protective netting, or heavy clothing this year, though - there were no bugs. There were few birds either, especially of those aforementioned species that rely on flying insects for their food.

            By late July, reports were beginning to filter in from across the province. Observers everywhere were beginning to notice the same thing: they were still seeing a few adult birds, but very few fledglings of any species. I should mention that even birds that rely on seeds and fruit for their food as adults use insects as their primary source of nourishment for their young because insects are so rich in protein. Some birds (robins and chickadees are two obvious examples) find food from sources that are not affected too seriously by the weather, but most birds rely on those pesky critters - mosquitoes and blackflies - that we love to hate. (Ironically, there seem to be lots of them around right now - when we should be rid of them for another year - and too late to be of much help to the birds.)

            Several people have mentioned instances of nesting failures to me. they watched birds make nests, go through the process of laying eggs, brooding them, and then seemingly abandoning them without hatching fledglings, or without bringing any fledglings through to independence. In almost every instance, I would bet that the reason was simply because the parent birds knew that they would be unable to feed any young and that they faced a serious enough problem in staying alive themselves. In the eminently practical and heartless ways of nature, they seem to realize that if they survive they will get a chance to breed in another year, or even later on in the same year (some of the sparrows are just now getting a later crop of young off the nest) but if they die in trying to save young birds, everything is lost.

            Most populations, both here and in the arctic, will rebound after a year or two. Still, one has to wonder just what further surprises Mother Nature has in store for us as she begins, it would seem, to become more and more temperamental after a long run of relative peace and stability.

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