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A Sense of Loss, and Some Hope for the Future

A review by Sanford Sorkin

North on the Wing: Travels with the Songbird Migration of Spring, by Bruce M. Beehler

Smithsonian Books, 2018

264 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14864

Many books tell interesting stories; very few inspire us. Bruce Beehler’s North on the Wing corrects any simplistic notions we may have about avian migration and conservation in North America. There are serious lessons to be learned here, and unfortunately, most are accompanied by dire warnings. But even though we worry about the effects of our current abuse of nature, the beauty of what remains inspires hope for the future.

Beehler’s hundred-day journey following the northward migration of over 300 bird species echoes the trip taken by Nellie and Edwin Way Teale in 1947, subject of his 1951  North with the Spring. Beehler’s route was not entirely identical to that taken by the Teales, but it included visits to several of the same sites and meetings with local conservationists.

Beehler’s birding goal was to see all of the eastern wood warblers in a single season. His account of the trip captures its relatively leisurely, contemplative pace, in welcome contrast with the frantic scrambling related in Big Year narratives. Beehler starts a bit farther west than the Teales, on the Texas coast, and continues north to Canada. Characterizing the entire trip as just the search for neotropical migrants does not do justice to the breadth of the overall narrative. At every camp along the way the author treats us to vivid descriptions of the birds, combined with extensive and knowledgeable accounts of the trees, plants, flowers, amphibians, reptiles, and dragonflies he comes across. And Beehler introduces us to the people he meets, who are often the conservators of the land all these species depend on.

It is no surprise that changes, large changes, have taken place over the decades between Teale and Beehler. The reader is invited to visualize the birds’ migratory path today, and compare it to what it once was. Birds have serious problems: Ground cover is lost, woodland composition changes, forests are logged. Today they—and we—also face the political challenge of balancing a comprehensive view of conservation with the environmental denials of our government. There is no doubt that industry, climate change, and population growth play a significant role in reducing protected acreage and limiting the resources available to migratory birds—but never in recent memory have politicians been so eager to defund conservation programs and gut environmental defenses. We are seeing an increase in offshore drilling, the undoing of migratory bird protections, and the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accords. Sadly, nature holds a distant second place in Washington today.

Inevitably, Beehler’s comparison of present-day habitats to their condition just decades earlier creates a sense of loss. But this book should not leave anyone with only thoughts of despair. Every generation shares a bit of envy and nostalgia for the idyllic “way it was.” On every leg of his journey, Beehler also introduces us to the beauty that has survived.

At each stop, Beehler gives us a comprehensive review of the neotropical migrants he encounters. We also get a good idea of where we might want to dine next time we find ourselves at one of these locations. And we meet people, most of them involved in conservation, education, and the fundraising and financing that make conservation possible.

To begin the trip, after a three-day drive from his home in Maryland, Beehler pays an April visit to a banding camp on Mad Island, a Nature Conservancy preserve in coastal Texas. Beehler describes the banders’ diligent work and the less than hospitable conditions they face: It would seem that the best advice to visitors is to bring insect repellent. Beehler’s account of the work conducted on Mad Island points to one of this book’s implied focuses, the close connection between conservation and the conservation education necessary to a better appreciation of what we have.

At the other end of his journey, Beehler makes his way to “where the paved roads end” in northern Ontario. The overall number of bird species heard or seen was lower than expected. But the author’s eye-opening encounters with the human residents of these remote areas dispel any preconceptions we might have about how people concerned with survival value wildlife. Elsewhere, on the jack pine breeeding grounds of the Kirtland’s Warbler, he visits First Nations hunting camps; a successful moose hunt, in competition with the local wolves, will supply meat through the winter. The wolf and the moose, majestic animals both, are viewed quite differently by people who need food and by tourists in search of a memorable picture. Bertrand Russell made the same point when he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1950: “If one man offers you democracy and another offers you a bag of grain, at what stage of starvation will you prefer the grain to the vote? Such questions are far too little considered.” Just substitute “environmental protections” for “democracy.”

Reading as a birding enthusiast and photographer, I found that Beehler’s description of each stop along the birds’ (and his) migratory pathway made me want to pack my gear and get outside. How many others will feel that way? Books like this can bring more people, younger, energetic people, into the fold and help them forge a stronger connection to nature and its preservation.

Still, basic questions remain. How far down the slippery slope must we slide before we recognize the need to stop? What should we expect from the agencies that were created to protect our heritage and that of our children? Should we be acting more forcefully today to ensure a healthy environment for ourselves and for the birds and other creatures in decline? What would happen if there were no longer stewards of the land? Fortunately, we have writers like Bruce Beehler to inspire our answers.

Sanford Sorkin has been a birder and photographer for the past 10 years. Since retiring from teaching at Temple University in Philadelphia, he has had time for trips to Central America, the Lesser Antilles, and England, and to many part of the United States. Sorkin is a frequent lecturer at bird clubs and schools in New Jersey.

Recommended citation:

Sorkin, S. 2019. A sense of loss, and some hope for the future [a review of North on the Wing: Travels with the Songbird Migration of Spring, by Bruce M. Beehler]. Birding 51(1): 67–68.

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Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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