Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Keen Eyes

On a crisp day last week, we ignored the tufts of clouds threatening possible afternoon rain and drove thirty minutes straight uphill to Harvey’s Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is not an unusual past-time for us, when we feel we want to get away from the hustle and bustle of city living, but for the next few weeks, Harvey’s Knob will not be as quiet. What is bringing out the crowds? Why, the hawk migration, of course, and it’s a regular bird watcher’s party.

When we arrived, the parking lot was filled with people in their camping chairs, dogs at their feet, telescopes and binoculars trained to the skies. Everyone waved, happy to greet us, and a quick hello got us all the hawk counting statistics we needed to know for the day and most of the facts on last year’s counts from Virginia to Mexico and back again.

People from all walks of life had left their daily grinds to cluster on this particular scenic overlook. Apparently, bird watchers on similar mountain ridges across this vast continent join in hawk counts from mid-August all the way through late November. One couple said they planned their annual vacation around the hawks. They come to Harvey’s Knob every year, leaving jobs as a fire fighter and a school teacher to help HMANA, Hawk Migration Association of America, with their annual count. This year, they will spend two weeks of October in Veracruz, Mexico where the fire fighting bird counter reports, eyes sparkling, that they can see five to six million hawks fly by in one day.

The excitement is contagious. Groups of school students, retired businessmen, a police officer, and several medical professionals spent an enjoyable afternoon with us trading bird watching stories and information on good locations to see Raptors from Alaska to Florida. I found myself teaching some of the students and my mother some tricks on finding the birds with the lenses of their binoculars. Other volunteers patiently described where we all could see the sixth Bald Eagle of the day in a distant break between two fronts of clouds. Everyone, no matter how old or how experienced, felt the thrill when they joined in counting the day’s largest kettle of three hundred Broad Wings as they silently circled over our heads. Imagine our surprise when the day’s count for this one species at this one overlook totaled 3,604.

These stout bodied, brown and beige hawks are one of the first Raptor species to go, leaving their summer breeding grounds in the forests of North America in late August to mid-September. The Broad Wings are not an easy species to observe during their summers here. You will rarely see more than a glimpse of one circling overhead looking for prey. But, they become much easier to spot when they congregate to begin migration. They travel in groups called “kettles” that can number up to thousands of birds, and the groups get larger as they draw closer to their winter habitats.

A recent study by Cornell University used satellite transmitters attached to Broad Wings’ backs to track their migrations. The study found they averaged 111 kilometers or 69 miles a day and traveled over 7000 kilometers to the tropical forests of Central and northern South America. But, once they arrived in their wintering grounds, they inhabited very small ranges staying in territories that averaged just one square mile.

So, if Cornell is tracking these birds, why do they encourage so many volunteers to assist HMANA with their hawk counts? Well, one reason is that birds can be used as indicator species. That is to say, one can study data about their population numbers to track environmental trends and find potential problem areas. With migratory birds, the data collection becomes increasingly difficult when their ranges span continents. But, so too does the importance of knowing their status increase, because knowing if these species' populations are healthy could help scientists identify and address potential environmental issues before they can effect human populations over the many countries where the birds live and migrate.

How does one go about helping with the HMANA Hawk Migration Count? Well, that part is easy. Go to http://www.hmana.org/ to locate a watch area near you. Bring binoculars if you have them, but often you’ll find people with an extra set who are willing to share. You’ll want sunglasses, sun screen, and a comfy folding chair. No prerequisites and no experience necessary, just bring yourselves, your willingness to learn, and your keen eyes.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Endangered Emeril

Emeril is not just the name of a famous gourmet chef, but also the name of a famous endangered Green Junglefowl, an Asian rainforest chicken. When we first laid eyes on this beautiful iridescent green and blue bird at the North Carolina Zoo, we all agreed he looked too fancy to remain nameless. Then, his bright pink and purple crest fell lopsided over one eye like a French cap and someone said, “Bang! It’s Emeril, the gourmet chicken.” The name suited, and he became our aviary emissary for teaching the public why it’s important to protect the rainforests. What really surprised me was how much that little guy taught me.

For instance, until I started to research Junglefowl, I had no idea that all of the domesticated poultry we use today originated in the rainforest with these birds. Not only poultry, but most domesticated livestock including beef cattle also originated there. Of course, I knew that most of the fruits we eat like bananas, mangos, pineapples, all came from the tropical forests, but I didn’t realize that so too do most of our staple foods like corn, wheat, potatoes, and rice.

And let’s not forget the greatest unofficial food group, that of caffeine. Coffee is still grown in the rainforest because the climate is the best for producing the most beans, and in fact, one who is interested in helping to stop some of the deforestation can easily purchase shade grown varieties from their local Starbucks or the grocery store. This means the plants are grown by companies who no longer clear cut the forest to plant their crops, but grow them under the canopy. Tea is also a rainforest product discovered in Asia. But, the greatest of this food group is the Cacao bean from Central and South America, the very one that makes all things chocolate. Interestingly, this bean is also the oldest recorded form of human currency, once used by the indigenous people to trade for gold and other valuables.

Speaking of gold, we come to one of the many reasons the forest is still disappearing at an alarming rate. Many of the gems, chemical compounds, and minerals we rely on today are mined in the rainforest, including gold, sliver, iron, diamonds, emeralds, and amethysts. The compounds found in abundance in these forests make every day items like plastics, computer chips, and cell phones. Rubber comes from the resin of a certain type of tree, as does chicle for making gum, copal for making varnish and printing ink, and dammar for making lacquer. I look around my office and I am astounded by how much I use from the rainforest every day, right down to the antique wooden desk where I sit, the aluminum can I drink from, and the computer I use to type this article. Even the Peace Lilly and the Christmas Cactus I have to brighten up the space are both rainforest plants.

It is perhaps the plants which are the most important reason for protecting these resourceful areas. The medical industry still relies heavily on plants from these forests to treat many of the worlds most deadly and aggressive diseases. For instance, the only effective treatment for Malaria comes from the Quinine plant. Although, several synthetic drugs have been created, all of these have lost their potency over time, and the industry has had to return to the plant time and time again to treat this disease. Ironically, mosquitoes originally lived only in the high canopies of the forest, and had we humans not cut the trees down, these Malaria infested pests may never have moved to our level, and we may never have needed the Quinine plant.

Regardless, Malaria is not the only disease doctors treat from rainforest plants. The National Cancer Institute says seventy percent of all plants used in cancer treatments come from the rainforest, and new plants with amazing properties are still discovered every year. The Aglaia leptantha of Malaysia has been found to effectively kill twenty types of cancer cells in laboratory tests, including those that cause breast cancer, brain cancer, and melanomas. The WWF says, in the last twenty years 422 new species of plants were discovered in Borneo alone, and most have yet to be tested for their medicinal properties.

Now, if these things don’t make us want to place a higher importance on protecting the rainforests, let’s look at some really important basics for the survival of the human race. The rainforest is home to fifty percent of the plants on earth. We all know that plants create the very Oxygen we need to breath. If the rainforests continue to disappear at the current reported rate of an area the size of a football field every second, or 31 million football fields a year, will there still be enough Oxygen to sustain us all? The rainforest also acts as the world’s thermostat by regulating its temperature and weather patterns. Perhaps all of the strange weather and catastrophic storms we have been witnessing have something to do with the clear cutting of huge areas of said thermostat.

But, things grow fast in the jungle, right? Won’t it all just grow back? Unfortunately, the soil is very thin in these areas and the amount of rain produced is astounding. For an example, one fifth of the fresh water of the world is found in the Amazon Basin alone, and that water comes from the rains. So, clear cut forest equals vulnerable soil that is washed away very quickly leaving nothing but barren rocks. It seems absolutely plausible that if we continue to destroy the rainforests without any thought for the future, we may just find ourselves on the same endangered list with Emeril and his Junglefowl family.