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Birding in the time of climate change

Are nature lovers who pursue experiences of the natural world becoming the new buffalo hunters?
A snowy owl stops on a sign along a jetty in Missouri during December 2011.

A snowy owl stops on a sign along a jetty in Missouri during December 2011. Howard Arndt via U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Kansas City District)/Flickr

Sometimes neighboring news stories speak to each other in ways their authors and editors never imagined. Take the front page of the Northwest section in Sunday’s Seattle Times. In the upper right corner: a charming column from Danny Westneat about a pair of ardent birders who’ve achieved a record “Big Year” for Washington state. By crisscrossing the state throughout 2012, Sherry and Arden Hagen recorded 370 bird species, 11 more than the previous record holder and about 40 more than actually reside here. (The rest were just passing through.)

On the same page: a report by Lynda Mapes on the damage that a warming climate will cause to Seattle’s shorelines, sewerage, water pipes and other low-lying infrastructure. It doesn’t mention that rising sea levels will inundate much larger areas of flatter, less-protected estuaries such as Port Susan, Grays Harbor and the Skagit Delta.

The connection: Those rising waters may eventually create new upland marshes and tidal flats, but initially they’ll obliterate some of the richest, most productive bird (not to mention fish and shellfish) habitat in the state. And rising seas are just one of the ways that a warming climate threatens birds here and worldwide.

Audubon Society scientists analyzed 40 years of Christmas bird counts and found that 177 species — 58 percent of the nation’s widespread species — had “shifted [their ranges] significantly north since 1966.”  But many grassland species were stranded; they were much less successful than forest and feeder birds at finding new northern habitat, because development and agricultural development had already swallowed it. Research by Audubon California concluded that 80 species there would likely see “significant climate-driven reductions in their geographic range over coming decades.”

Here in Washington, transportation — mainly automotive — produces about half of carbon dioxide emissions, the prime driver of greenhouse warming. The delightfully obsessed Hagens logged 31,531 driving miles chasing those 370 species, not counting however many boat and air miles their quest also entailed and however much they drove in their nonbirding lives. Certainly there may be worse reasons to drive that much. But there’s no free carbon lunch.

The sad fact is that fuel-guzzling nature lovers — not just birders but divers rushing to see the great reefs before they bleach and mountaineers scrambling to beat the melting glaciers — are the new buffalo hunters and cod catchers. In the act of pursuing the natural treasures we cherish, we contribute to their destruction.

I feel the allure myself, of course. I’d love to be flying off to Hawaii or the Caribbean right now to dive among the fading reefs. Even Audubon is complicit: It touts the birding movie The Big Year and, by implication, globe-trotting birding in hopes they’ll “awaken new audiences to the amazing world of birds.”

The same argument has been used to justify any number of destructive practices, from trophy hunting to keeping elephants in zoos: It will teach people about the natural world. When do the costs justify the benefits? What kind of calculus can tell us what sort of Big Years and grand tours the planet can afford?

I don’t know. I just know that we forget to ask the question when we reach for our wetsuits and binoculars.

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget Sound; Love, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics. Scigliano also works as a science writer at Washington Sea Grant, a marine science and environmental program based at the University of Washington. He can be reached at eric.scigliano@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jan 16, 5:07 a.m. Inappropriate

And our region's pro-immigration policy is incompatible with our region's purported environmental policy. We cannot have our cake and it it, too. There is no free carbon lunch.

BlueLight

Posted Wed, Jan 16, 6:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you. I had exactly the same reaction to the birding article. And yet tomorrow I take a plane ride to Mexico for a vacation - can I justify that because I keep the thermostat low, take public transit, grow trees, buy offsets?

I don't know.

Saratoga

Posted Wed, Jan 16, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks Eric,
While there are many similar wows to consider, like enviros who worked to elect Inslee taking a break in Mexico after the elections, the Audubon example is particularly interesting, because, as you suggest, the organization advocates and facilitates behavior that is at odds w/ the org's values.

While enjoying the natural world is an important avenue to developing an appreciation and ultimately the motivation to protect it, I'm wondering how organizations can modify what they're doing to better align outcomes w/ values.

One example that comes to mind is online tools that facilitate carpooling among a membership. Another example that I'm seeing small evidence of is transit-assisted hiking.

Again, thanks for highlighting the issue and delivering it gently.

Posted Wed, Jan 16, 12:58 p.m. Inappropriate

"Are nature lovers who pursue experiences of the natural world becoming the new buffalo hunters?"

I always thought that the passenger pigeon was the better metaphor. In fact, a few years back I toyed with the idea of starting a travel company called Passenger Pigeon Tours that would offer last-chance visits to disappearing environments and their inhabitants: "See it while it's still here."

Or something like that.

woofer

Posted Wed, Jan 16, 4:04 p.m. Inappropriate

poor little blu lite. Always the downer. Maybe poor little blu heavy is better. So important to the future of life on earth that we have such an extraordinary guardian of the public good. God bless little blu heavy.

Posted Wed, Jan 16, 9:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Hey, Eric... 200,000 immigrants "from abroad" came to Washington between 1995 and 2000. The average household in Washington uses 300 gallons of water a day and 1,680 kilowatt hours of electricity a month.

Assume 4 people per household.

200,000 / 4 = 50,000 households

50,000 households x 300 gallons of water per day = 15,000,000 gallons of water per day

50,000 households x 1,680 kilowatt hours per month = 84,000,000 kilowatt hours per month

How much does the average household drive? How much garbage does the average household produce? How mush wastewater?

Pull the thread, Eric. Do the math. Are you reporting for the environment or The Party?

BlueLight

Posted Sat, Jan 19, 5:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Actually, the avg Washington household uses 13,000 kWh a year -not anywhere close to 20,000 annual kWh. the avg Puget sound household uses about 5500 gallons of water a month - not 9000.

Saratoga

Posted Thu, Jan 17, 3:31 a.m. Inappropriate

God bless again little blu heavy for reminding us of your importance. What a whiz you are at those numbers. Hoping that there are no little blu heavys running around, because according to my poor math skills that would be adding to the destruction of the environment too. Vasectomies for all, but of course, dear little blu heavy, not on the government's dime, and of course, dear little blu heavy, not at a hospital or doctor's group that are non-profits. I know that you would never allow that. Oh, and dear friend, I know you would not ever want to vacation in another state or country, because by gum, you would never want to impact their environment with the added pressure of your presence. Have a nice day, riding your bike I am sure from place to place, and please remember to recycle.

Posted Fri, Jan 18, 12:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Dear swiftylazar: We get that you don't like what BlueLight writes. Message received. Loud and clear. One of the more appealing things about Crosscut's comments section, until now at least, has been the relative lack of disagreements turning into personal attacks. Please help us all keep it that way. Thanks for your help.

Posted Fri, Jan 18, 9:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Snoqualman: thanks for your comment. When our friend ceases his vituperative attacks and has something oroginal to say it will be a delightful day for us all. Crosscut over the last seveal years has been filled with his attacks, personal, and to groups as a collective whole. Belittling responses to mindless ndividuals who constantly condemn others in harangues are in my mind virtuous and not censorship. Of course, some might suggest ignoring petty and vacuos ideas espoused in a reader's comments section might be the wiser option. Perhaps. It was kind of you to write a defense, but some need no such thing. Be well.

Posted Mon, Jan 21, 8:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Swify and Blue take the fun out of my life. I have always wondered about eco tourism and the environment. Now I can't even flush the toilet with a clear conscience. At least the bird immigration flies here under their own wing power.

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