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Uplifting stories for spring bird migration

March 14, 2018
By JUSTIN A. LEVINE - Outdoors Writer ( , Lake Placid News

Even if you've had bird feeders up in your yard all winter, attracting chickadees and blue jays, the arrival of spring often makes people keep an eye out for the common robin and other returning avian friends. But birds have faced a number of perils over the years that have driven some to the brink of extinction.

A book published in 2016 takes a look at the challenges, successes and people who have dedicated their lives to studying and saving iconic birds in New York such as the bald eagle and peregrine falcon.

"Flight Paths: A Field Journal of Hope, Heartbreak, and Miracles with New York's Bird People," by Darryl McGrath examines the trials and tribulations of these efforts in the Empire State. McGrath focuses on six species, all either threatened or endangered, and the people who work to save them.

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"In three years of accompanying bird researchers on field work, I saw people sit for hours in freezing cold, endure primitive living conditions for weeks at a time at research stations, band birds atop bridges and 100-foot trees, and hike remote trails at dawn in bear country," McGrath writes of the human subjects. "I have yet to see an out-of-condition bird researcher; most look ready for master-level athletic competitions."

The book starts off with relatively good news, following the rebirth of bald eagles and peregrine falcons after DDT wreaked havoc on the birds in the 1960s and '70s. Telling the story of Tom Cade, a researcher who worked on falcon restoration, McGrath dives into the astounding success of Cade's captive breeding program at Cornell University in Ithaca.

"Cade told Cornell that the breeding program idea would be coming with him, and that Cornell would have to put up a building to house it if the school wanted him on its faculty," McGrath writes. "Cornell agreed and as Cade began to plot the captive breeding program, he and everyone else who had been at the Madison conference knew they might already be too late, and that the peregrine falcon might actually disappear from North America in the span of one human generation.

"The project had the feeling of a great challenge - an expensive trial-and-error proposition with few guidelines. But if the captive breeding program was successful, the reward would be the sight of peregrine falcons once again diving through the sky as though they owned it."

Cade's research and breeding efforts were a success, and along with other endeavors, resulted in the re-establishment of peregrine falcons across New York. In fact, the state Department of Environmental Conservation recently released a report on peregrines in New York, and although breeding numbers were down last year, there are stable populations in the northern Adirondacks and Lake Champlain and Lake George regions.

And while Flight Paths has its share of happy endings, there are threats to other species of birds that are still ongoing.

One such species is the Bicknell's thrush, a small, gray bird that nests in the dense, stunted evergreens situated atop Adirondack mountains. McGrath says it is one of the rarest birds in the world.

"Researches do know that habitat in the bird's wintertime homes in Haiti and the Dominican Republic has declined in recent decades because of deforestation, the direct result of urban areas expanding into the surrounding mountainous regions," McGrath says. "The summertime world of the Bicknell's thrush, atop some of the highest mountains in eastern Canada, New England, and upstate New York, would seem to be the safest and most remote place imaginable [But] climate change has already set in motion a slow shift that could permanently alter this alpine setting, as the trees that need cooler temperatures to propagate - the same trees the Bicknell's thrush needs for its nest - succumb to a different climate."

To better understand the somewhat intangible threats to the Bicknell's thrush, McGrath tells the tale of two scientists studying the birds through tracking devices. The researchers have to catch the birds to retrieve the data, and they do so at the summit of Mount Mansfield in Vermont and during the winter on Hispaniola. McGrath easily conveys the joy and heartbreak of when a tagged thrush gets caught again. Or not.

Despite the ongoing threats of development, loss of habitat and climate changes, McGrath ends her book on a high note.

"The bald eagle's day came June 28, 2007, when Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced that the bird would be removed from the federal list of Endangered species in late July," McGrath writes. "In 1963, when the bald eagle population hit a low point the continental United States had only four hundred and seventeen nesting pairs. In the early summer of 2007 the bald eagle population in the United States numbered more than twenty thousand birds."

Some of the species highlighted in Flight Paths are still facing threats, but bald eagles and peregrine falcons - while largely safe, population-wise - are still being studied. The folks involved with the restoration of these species don't want to backslide, and are willing to put in the time and effort required for successful field work. The book ends with a scene that would have been unimaginable just a couple of decades ago.

"As he walks the ground beneath this last nest, a sound above causes him to look skyward," she writes. "A peregrine falcon that has a nest on the nearby bridge spanning the Hudson dives at one of the adult eagles, shrieking an angry challenge to the much larger bird that has strayed too close to the peregrine's chicks.

"The peregrine dives and screams; the eagle circles and retreats. A short hike away, commuter traffic moves across the bridge as the afternoon sun lights the water."

Flight Paths is very readable, and would hold the interest of people who are not birders. By including the personal stories - the happy and the heartbreak - McGrath has turned out an eminently readable tale of redemption.



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