What We Can Learn About Saving the Planet from Watching the Birds

Come Fly Away

Kirtland’s warbler in Michigan - Photo by Joel Trick
Photo by Joel Trick
Kirtland’s warbler in Michigan

The prospect is daunting, at first. You've got to find a bird with your naked eye, a tiny bird that weighs about as much as three sheets of copy paper. And you've got to pick that bird out of a teeming forest of limbs and leaves. Only then do you grab your binoculars or arena-rock telephoto lens and zoom in on the little creature's morning activities. More often than not, the bird is just being a bird.

When you're talking about birding, the verb "occur" comes up frequently. "Birding" is the other dominant action word, the commercial descriptor of modern birdwatching. It's important, for instance, to know the seasonal circumstances for when a particular warbler species might "occur" in a certain area, like Magee Marsh in the corner of Lucas County in Northwest Ohio. It is there, in Magee Marsh, that thousands of avid birders from around the world congregate each May to see a vast spectrum of migratory birds occurring in the lush cypresses and cottonwoods and assorted low-slung shrubbery lining Lake Erie. It's the Biggest Week in American Birding.

click to enlarge Prothonotary warbler at Magee Marsh - Photo by Jack Moore
Photo by Jack Moore
Prothonotary warbler at Magee Marsh

There's something very special about the road into Magee Marsh in early May. Hundreds of cars trickle in off State Route 2, taking heed of the warning to drive slowly and watch out for snakes and frogs along the asphalt. Coasting processionally, the line of vehicles stops now and then so that eager families can lean out of windows and snap a quick shot of an elegant roadside egret. Their marvel can't be contained. The Biggest Week is finally here.

The land now called Magee Marsh (pronounced Meh-GEE Marsh) has been a reliable stopover point for birds migrating north from exotic locales like the Andean mountain range in Peru for thousands of years. The annual licensed event began earnestly only in 2009, thanks to the growing popularity of recreational birding and the alarming rate at which the Earth's climate is changing, raising more than few questions about the future health of bird populations. It's impossible to ignore the fact that some of the birds seen during the Biggest Week — a whole gamut of tiny Old World warblers, most especially — might not ever be seen by the great-grandchildren of the folks congregated there this year. The whole point is you've got to get there to witness this slow planetary history on display while you still can.

Tom Bartlett is here to do just that. It's 10 a.m., and he's seen 76 species of birds at Magee Marsh so far today. That's not bad, and surely more than you or I would see on a typical Saturday morning. But Bartlett's a pro, and he was expecting more. "Buy me some birds, because it's slow," he jokes to a friend below him.

 Bartlett is sitting on top of a metal platform about 12 feet off the ground. He's got his binoculars at the ready, and he's here to count as many birds as possible while raising money for the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. It's Tom Bartlett's Big Sit. Five or six birder pals post up in lawn chairs beneath him, and a crowd of curious onlookers and question-askers orbits the scaffolding. The group is startled into action when a warbler is spotted high in a tree about 50 yards out, but it's just a Blackburnian. Bartlett already got that one this morning.

 "It's gonna be a long afternoon," he says with a smirk. "I should have brought some gin."

 Bartlett's been sitting up there and watching birds for 23 years. Not the whole time, of course, but from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. one day each year, Bartlett climbs atop this thing and scouts feathered friends for charity — $1 per species, along with thousands of dollars in pledges from fellow birders. He's only taken a bathroom break a few times.

 The Big Sit is a fun spin on fundraising, to be sure, but there's a more basic element at work for Bartlett and for this year's 2,000-plus Biggest Week registrants. Bartlett returns year after year to Magee and countless other favorite spots because there's an inherent enjoyment in communion with birds. They're a lot like us, after all. I ask him what he likes best about birding. "Just being outside," he says. "Just being outside."

click to enlarge The boardwalk at Magee Marsh has a mecca-ish quality in spring. - Photo by Eric Sandy
Photo by Eric Sandy
The boardwalk at Magee Marsh has a mecca-ish quality in spring.

I figure that Bartlett's got some work to do, so I trundle off journalistically to the famed Magee Marsh boardwalk. Mid-morning is like the peak of birdwatching around here, so the carefully upkept mile-long boardwalk is absolutely flooded with birders. There's a mecca-ish quality to passing beneath the arch and wandering marshward. Before I came here, an article about the Biggest Week claimed that warblers would be "dripping" from tree limbs. I adjust my eyes accordingly.

The boardwalk is a panoply of American characters: squat middle-aged men with camo caps turned backward lean into massive telephoto lenses, capturing in a flurry of clicks a tree swallow that's turned into the mid-morning light just so; quaint Amish families, armed with the latest in optics gear (high-tech stuff without the electronic fuss), point out chestnut-sided warblers flitting preciously on a branch up high and reel in anxiously constrained children; a young daughter rides aboard dad's broad shoulders, not entirely realizing yet just how powerful these early family vacations will prove until she winds up accepting a full-ride scholarship for UC-Berkeley's ecology program many years from now; a retired couple, hair white with age, embrace quietly against the wooden framework first constructed 28 years ago for precisely such calm enjoyment; an elderly woman is scooted forward on a wheelchair, her face the absolute epitome of childlike wonder and hiding, perhaps not very well, the nagging fear that this might be her last trip to Magee for the birds.

It's a rush of passion, and I take my time navigating the throng. It's pretty clear that I haven't the faintest clue what I'm doing, armed only with a friend's Bushnell binoculars and a fresh paperback copy of the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America. I leaf through dumbly with each passing warbler, trying to note keen distinctions between Tennessee and Nashville.

click to enlarge Tom Bartlett scans the skies for birds May 13 during the Biggest Week in American Birding. - Photo by Eric Sandy
Photo by Eric Sandy
Tom Bartlett scans the skies for birds May 13 during the Biggest Week in American Birding.

Along my walk, I meet Cheryl Gomez, longtime birdwatcher (not necessarily a birder, she tells me) who lives right here in Northwest Ohio. After a childhood of family camping vacations, her love for the outdoors developed into a thematic backdrop as she grew up. The springtime migration ritual is as much clockwork for her as it is for the birds. She's walking alone on the boardwalk, slowly taking in the sights. "It's pure relaxation," she says. "It's like going back to being a kid and not having to work."

She only recently started really studying birds, preferring rather to simply observe them as fellow travelers on this planet. "They're like old friends," she says, and we part ways.

Clumps of birders break up the walk, with particular warbler sightings drawing a major pause in the proceedings and bringing maybe a dozen or so people at a time to gather and peer through lenses of all sizes at a tiny bird singing a gentle tune within a tree. There's something enigmatic about it all.

 I return to the Big Sit to see how things are going for Bartlett.

 "I'm up to 80 now," he tells me.

 His friend fires up from the ground: "Oh, you look a lot older than that!"


Birdwatching as a deliberate recreational activity dates back to the 1800s, when there were just plainly more birds around to watch. Estimates are nearly impossible to verify, but biologists generally agree that there are between 200 and 400 billion birds on the planet these days. Those numbers have most assuredly dropped since the Victorian birdwatching days, when the activity had more to do with collecting eggs and shooting for skins than idyllism and conservation.

 In 1889, the early stirrings of commercial birding were brought to being by Florence Bailey, who at 26 published the progenitor of U.S. field guides: Birds Through an Opera Glass. "Wherever there are people there are birds, so it makes comparatively little difference where you live, if you are only in earnest about getting acquainted with your feathered neighbors," Bailey wrote in her introduction, drawing a contrast in spirit to the booming plumage markets of the time. She saw birds as vital and curious residents of the planet, like old friends.

 "When going to watch birds," she continued, "provided with opera-glass and note-book, and dressed in inconspicuous colors, proceed to some good birdy place, the bushy bank of a stream or an old juniper pasture, and sit down in the undergrowth or against a concealing tree-trunk, with your back to the sun, to look and listen in silence. You will be able to trace most songs to their singers by finding which tree the song comes from, and then watching for movement, as birds are rarely motionless long at a time when singing. ... If you have time for only a walk through the woods, go as quietly as possible and stop often, listening to catch the notes which your footsteps have drowned. Timid birds may often be attracted by answering their calls, for it is very reassuring to be addressed in one's native tongue."

 And that's more or less the whole of it. Watching birds is a lot like playing chess, in that it's easy enough to grasp at the start and it hasn't changed much over the years. But it's the depth beneath the surface that offers the richest nutrients.

 Around the same time that Bailey's book was published, an adolescent Franklin Roosevelt was prowling the forests of his childhood estate, examining baby-blue robin's eggs and meticulously documenting the birds of leafy Dutchess County, New York. (As a teenager, he tended to prefer Frank Chapman's Birds of Eastern North America in the field.) Much later, he would be elected four times to serve as the U.S. President, whereupon he would gently nudge the country progressively toward its impending environmental coming-of-age.

“It’s pure relaxation. It’s like going back to being a kid and not having to work.” —Cheryl Gomez

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 As Roosevelt grew up, a group of conservationists incorporated the National Audubon Society in 1905. The whole idea was to intervene on the massive slaughter of birds, to protect them against what was very clearly a predator species. Those who chose to protect birds realized that this could only be accomplished through study and conscious observation paired with conservationist effort. Simply by virtue of watching birds, not merely seeing them, a civilization will become more engaged; the Audubon spirit insists that communion with wildlife will play an important role in staving off climatic entropy. Audubon chapters have sprung up all over the world, including right here in Cleveland.

 The 20th century rolled on with an increasing awareness of ecosystems and their victimhood at the hands of industrialization. The ramifications of human influence on the planet slowly became clearer, and we collectively realized that the next dramatic swing in climate trends would be a big one. The U.S. National Park Service, founded in 1916, grew expansively under various presidents to accommodate the public's interest in protecting a diversity of wildlife. (Parks like Yellowstone and Cuyahoga Valley make for optimal birding.)

click to enlarge Black-throated blue - warbler at Magee Marsh - Photo by Rodney Campbell
Photo by Rodney Campbell
Black-throated bluewarbler at Magee Marsh

By now there are more than 50 million birders in the U.S, and it's arguably among the fastest-growing outdoor hobbies. Conde Nast Traveller called birding "2017's unlikeliest craze." Out on Magee Marsh, the activity was compared on more than one occasion to Pokémon Go, with the central caveat being that this is real life. These creatures are all just out there, available for nearly unlimited cataloguing. Tune in more closely during your brief morning walk to pick up the newspaper and you'll immediately realize that birds claim true mobile freedom over the entirety of Earth's domain. It's remarkable. Haven't you always wanted to fly?

Birders compile "life lists," enumerating via honor system the species they've seen. Upon the news that a rare Kirtland's warbler is spotted in southern Michigan, birders from around the U.S. will drop what they're doing and fly down the freeway to catch a glimpse before the elusive "life bird" heads to other climes.

It's stuff like this that keeps the placid hobby competitive and American in spirit, and lends an almost social-media gamesmanship angle to the fun. How many did you see at the Biggest Week this year?

But the late Joseph Hickey, a legendary ornithologist, squared the point simply: "Birdwatching is much more than this. It is the art of discovering how birds live."

When global peregrine falcon populations began declining in the mid-20th century with no clear explanation, Hickey, a lifelong birdwatcher, organized a peregrine falcon conference in Madison, Wisconsin, where other devoted birdwatchers shared their observations on the bird's state. The resulting effort — the formation of the Raptor Research Foundation — helped bring about the national ban on DDT and, eventually, restore the peregrine falcon population so robustly that the International Union for Conservation of Nature no longer lists the species as even remotely threatened.

Hickey wrote about the experience in 1965. In a book review for Science magazine, George Lowery referred to his work as an "examination of a worldwide disaster." He staked a firm claim: "[Hickey's] book might well be a classic — the handwriting on the wall for all mankind. Although it is specifically concerned with the biology of the peregrine falcon and its raptor relatives, it could foretell our own fate if the contamination of our environment continues at the present rate."

And it all began with a little bit of curiosity and a decent set of binoculars.


"You never know what's going to show up out here," Greg Miller says with a smile. He's wearing a thick pair of headphones connected to a small microphone on top of his Biggest Week cap. From there, Miller can cut through the universe of background sounds and distill the springtime song of a bay-breasted warbler 100 feet in the air. Nearby, the gentle waves of Lake Erie lap at the shoreline.  

The Magee Marsh boardwalk is certainly the most famous landmark here, but the grounds sprawl outward into the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and Metzger Marsh. You can slip away from the hubbub of the main event and walk into Ottawa, where a stony path meanders alongside the aptly named Crane Creek.

Greg Miller offers birding wisdom to a group at Magee Marsh. - Photo by Eric Sandy
Photo by Eric Sandy
Greg Miller offers birding wisdom to a group at Magee Marsh.

 Miller is leading a guided walk around the area, which is about the only way a rookie birdwatcher will be able to get anything meaningful out of an excursion like this. He's also sort of a legend in the birding community; he was portrayed by Jack Black in 2011's The Big Year, also starring Steve Martin and Owen Wilson. During the walk, Miller regales a few of us with the story of Jack Black's first bird (a red-winged blackbird). The two had gone on a walk together, so that the actor could get a sense of his subject in the field. When Miller pointed out the bird, Black peered through his lens and asked where the red wings were. As the bird took flight, its colorful wings spread out against the trees — and here Miller delivers a spot-on impression of Black letting out a nasally "Ooooohhhh" upon the sighting.

 Miller's eye guides our group through a litany of migratory species. My first bird is a Baltimore oriole, and it's a particularly stunning sight. It's the first time I'm able to pick a bird out of a tree and zoom in with my binoculars and hover, briefly, while I watch the little orange-blazed bird perch anonymously above us. I feel a crest of pride, much like knocking my first double into deep center way back in Bay Village Little League. This is not the last sports metaphor that occurs to me throughout the weekend.

 We're well into the Biggest Week at this point, and the event's early bad weather has pretty much totally subsided. Birds are starting to arrive en masse, though a northerly wind has pushed the migration cycle back a bit. There are fewer birds here than in years past, I'm told. The vicissitudes of the planet have consequences. Overhead, parties of blue jays fly back and forth constantly along the north shore. They've arrived at the marsh only to find an expansive lake up ahead. "They're uncertain," Miller says, and so they fly along the shoreline, a group of hundreds, debating in committee mid-flight.

 We see a number of special birds on our walk: blue-headed vireo, prothonotary warbler, black and white warbler, red-headed woodpecker. I just miss out on the northern parula high in a sycamore that everyone else seemed giddy to glimpse.

 Without somebody like Miller to point out the intricacies of bird taxonomy and context, I'd be totally lost. At times I'm painfully aware of how many birds others are seeing, and how quickly they can identify the sing-song melody of a yellow warbler, sight unseen. It's daunting at first, like trying to get a grip on how a single person's actions can impact the world. A young Charles Darwin confirmed his own suspicions about life on this planet by watching the finches on Ecuador's Galapagos Islands. The people joining me on this walk weren't imbued with the powers of mystical birding wizardry at birth; they learned the interface of Earth slowly and with a patient and passionate dedication.

 "You have to think like an insect," Miller says. One person in the group responds: "Is that the secret to life?" We never do get an answer.

 It occurs to me that I'm enjoying the Biggest Week more than I thought I would. I've been an outdoorsy type for years, mostly through hiking the trails of the Cleveland Metroparks, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and elsewhere on vacation. But in all those treks, the birds have passed above and beyond me with little notice. Walking along Crane Creek with Miller and a group of maybe 20 birders, I'm noticing time slow down in a way that it hasn't in a long time for me.

 I mostly don't know what I'm looking at out here, these tiny, idiosyncratic things flitting about on tree limbs. But as I tune in I can at least discern the very nature of it all, a creature minding its own way through life according to an intrinsic order. They don't need to be watched, and still they don't shy away from their place in the vast ecosystem of Earth. The planet works because birds play their role.

 Things were getting very weird in America as I planned this trip, and I realize now that I was looking for something smaller, something more innate to place my faith in. It wasn't long before the Biggest Week that the U.S. Senate installed sundry climate skeptics and fracking expansionists into prime Cabinet spots. I didn't want to dwell on it, but there was something unavoidable in all the dire warnings of public lands sell-offs, natural gas pipeline construction and national monument downsizing. Like a lot of people, I was having trouble deciding what I could do to improve our lot. America was less organized than ever, clearly, and certainly in danger. Without thinking much about it, birds just seemed to make more sense.

 It's like naturalist John Burroughs put it: "I go to nature to be soothed and healed and have my senses put in order."

I stayed away from Twitter while I was birding at Magee, though I couldn't help but sneak a look at the official Biggest Week account, if only to see what others were seeing. Right as I landed, a staffer at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory tweeted a promising warbler sighting: "Face melting views of Chestnut-sided on MM boardwalk about 50 yards down from tower on w entrance." At the time, this was a remarkably relatable announcement.

"What makes that boardwalk so special," Jack Moore tells me, "is the fact that there you are on this 1-mile boardwalk, and you have a concentration of birds that are, like, five feet from you. Some of them will fly right in front of your face, and they don't care that you're there by the hundreds. It's the concentration of birds in one place that makes northern Ohio so special this time of year." Moore and his wife have been coming out here for the past few years. They picked up birding as a hobby because it combined their love of nature with an interest in neat technology, like top-notch DSLR cameras and lenses. It's fun.

Nature tends to bring together people in ways that few other enterprises do. There are no teams once you're out in the forest.

 "I don't think you would find any birders who are climate change deniers or people who are indifferent to the environment," Moore says. "I've always had this appreciation of the wilderness."

 As my group leaves Crane Creek, we spot a black-crowned night heron perched on a low-hanging branch, right above the water. It takes a moment to pick him out of the flora, but through the eyes of the binoculars there's no mistaking the image of pure, stoic peace.


We've done a real number on the global climate, we humans, and it's starting to become visible. You can look to all corners of the ecosystem for proof, but the bird populations right here in North America tell the whole story easily enough. In sum, 314 of the 588 bird species on this continent will lose more than half of their migratory habitat range within 60 years, all things being equal, making those birds "climate endangered" and at risk of slipping into the history books for good, according to a landmark 2014 Audubon report.

 Audubon's vast network of conservationists, ornithologists and scientists collectively conducted a seven-year scientific investigation into how the shifts in North American climate will affect the lives of birds. Point-blank, climate change is the single most significant threat to birds, outstripping the deadly effects of turbines, skyscrapers and house cats. A simple line of thinking insists that the only way to protect birds — and us — is to mitigate our impact on the climate and, honestly, to first acknowledge it. Turning off the lights in tall business towers at night helps, but it's a drop in the bucket. Audubon's 2014 report doesn't mince words.

"Shrinking and shifting ranges could imperil nearly half of U.S. birds within this century," it says.

 The planet's been lucky enough not to have too many bird species slide into extinction lately. Mostly, birds have been driven out of existence by things like predators — and humans make for terrific predators. The last great auk, for instance, was killed in 1844 by a man in Scotland who thought it was a witch.

 What's worth a pause is noting how much climate data was readily available, stretching back decades, thanks to the casual and recreational observation of birds. Birdwatchers helped speed up the otherwise sluggish pace of wildlife habitat awareness and conservation simply by engaging the natural world for fun.

 Audubon began holding its annual Christmas Bird Count in 1900, getting people involved across North America to catalog the whereabouts and trajectories of birds. With more sophisticated data metrics and technology — and wider participation — the 116th Christmas Bird Count this past winter set a number of records. Beset by El Niño climate patterns during the time frame, 76,669 birders still tackled 2,505 "circles" across North America and logged almost 60 million individual bird sightings into the history books. (The El Niño caused most species to disperse more widely across the continent, making for a lower overall count than usual. Audubon points out that it's not necessarily a sign of declining populations, but rather a simple cause and effect cycle that happened to land on a low note last winter.)

"[Hickey's] book might well be a classic -- the handwriting on the wall for all mankind. Although it is specifically concerned with the biology of the peregrine falcon and its raptor relatives, it could foretell our own fate if the contamination of our environment continues at the present rate." - George Lowery

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 Birdwatching became birding, which became, in many ways, an active conservationist effort. The second iteration of the Audubon study is already under way, and Christmas Bird Counts will continue for years to come.

 "It's really important new information," Stuart Butchart, head of science for BirdLife International, told Audubon after the study was completed. "It shows us which species we need to be most worried about, and it helps us understand the whole suite of new challenges that these species will be facing in the future."

 The Audubon report posits that the scarlet tanager could lose up to 94 percent of its summer range, if climate trends are not halted. It's a bird that is not currently listed as critically endangered, and yet its habitat could drastically diminish in the years ahead. By 2080, the report shows, the scarlet tanager may spend its summers entirely in Canada. And if trends continue, where will it go then?

 The problem is that as the tanagers' summer range shifts northward, its population will need to fly farther during spring migration. That takes more time, which will lead to the birds arriving later than normal, which may result in a diminished or altogether different food supply once they land.

 Furthermore: "A study of 35 North American warbler species found that the range of occurrence of seven of the species has shifted significantly north in the past 24 years, by an average of 65 miles," according to Nature Canada. "None of the birds shifted to the south." With weather patterns shifting more dramatically, migratory birds are losing the rhythm of the seasons. Elsewhere, imagine seabirds being pushed into landlocked territories.

What's true of birds is true, of course, of us.

"Birds are important because they keep systems in balance: they pollinate plants, disperse seeds, scavenge carcasses and recycle nutrients back into the Earth," wrote Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation for the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi Flyway. "But they also feed our spirits, marking for us the passage of the seasons, moving us to create art and poetry, inspiring us to flight and reminding us that we are not only on, but of, this Earth."

 After the Biggest Week, I started incorporating birdwatching into my hikes. On a recent trek out to the Salt Run trail in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, I was fortunate enough to spot a scarlet tanager high up in the trees, a small blaze of red perched quietly for a moment. To be honest, it was the first bird that I had identified wholly on my own, apart from, like, robins. There was an accomplished joy in that, coupled with a sense of dejection that this bird might not always be safe in this park.

 By 2100, based on an amalgam of scientific estimates, anywhere between 25 and 56 percent of all known bird species will be "functionally extinct," which means that those species will have dwindled to populations that no longer play a significant role in the ecosystem or that those species' populations have no real hope of ever growing back to significance. (Since 1500, only about 150 species of birds have gone extinct. That rate, experts say, is about to increase dramatically in the decades ahead.)

 "On average, the 48 songbird species we investigated were falling out of sync with the timing of spring green-up by 5 days per decade," according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "Some species were becoming increasingly mismatched to their environments by double or triple that rate. ... New research shows climate change is altering the delicate seasonal clock that North American migratory songbirds rely on to successfully mate and raise healthy offspring, setting in motion a domino effect that could threaten the survival of many familiar backyard bird species. Spring is coming earlier in the east and later in the west, and birds are struggling to keep pace."

 The consequences will be widespread.

 We need to, as Audubon's Michelle Nijhuis puts it, "begin to reduce the severity of global warming and buy birds more time to adapt to the changes coming their way."  

That means immediately pumping the brakes on natural gas and oil drilling in forest-rich southeast Ohio. That means tuning into the messages that birds are sending us — by watching them — and responding in our own roles. An ecosystem is all about cooperation, right?

 "A good many birds rely on cavities," another Biggest Week guide told my group. "That's why it's a good idea to leave something up for them," like a birdhouse or a backyard feeder.

 All throughout the Biggest Week, I'm realizing my own naked rookie status, my own environmentalist leanings growing pale in comparison to the world around me. I'm realizing how daunting is the task at hand. Thankfully, I'm also realizing there's already a roadmap.

At Magee Marsh, I silently commit to doing more birdwatching once I get back to Cleveland.


The wind is whipping fast around the row of trees lining the Lake Erie shore. Several volleyball teams bump and set their way through early-morning league play as the group of birders organizes itself around Jen Brumfield's spotting scope. She's trained the lens on a line of double-crested cormorants sitting on the breakwall, and we all sort of peer in, one by one, before the birding event begins in earnest.

"I'll go through torrential downpours for birds in my spare time," Brumfield said when I first met her at Rocky River Nature Center the week before. She leads mostly weekly birding outings, including a 12-hour bus excursion in mid-June across Amish country, over and along the rolling terrain due east of downtown Cleveland. It's Metroparks policy, however, to cancel public events when lightning strikes. Thankfully, we don't run into this problem.

Wendy Park is one of the best birding sites in Ohio, Brumfield says, which surprises me. It's basically just a small, overlooked woodlot to most Clevelanders, sandwiched between the bar at Whiskey Island and the iconic drawbridge at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. The old Coast Guard station stands proudly against the horizon. Brumfield lives nearby, and she comes down here every morning to scout the birds. In 2012, she broke the record for the most bird species seen in Cuyahoga County with 270. (She saw 53 species on Jan. 1 alone, including a snowy owl at the airport.)

Brumfield is a naturalist's naturalist and the sort of Metroparks representative who speaks clearly to what William Stinchcomb identified when he first laid out the park system 100 years ago. She commands an attentive audience when she does these birding walks, from excitable children to intrigued retirees and everyone in between. When a small killdeer wanders across the grassy knoll near our group, she trains the spotting scope and we all take a gander. A few people jot the name down in small notebooks for their own life lists.

To the average human, birds are undoubtedly just part of the desktop screen of life. Gulls soar haphazardly over parking lots and offices in downtown Cleveland, and more than a few jabbering blue jays nest collegially in our backyards each summer. Each state has its own state bird, and here in Ohio we pause now and then when a cardinal flies by.

To know birds is to be aware of grander, more sweeping tides in Earth's business. The vast migratory infrastructure isn't flawless or untouchable; the lives of birds fit into a broader narrative about where we're all going, and they tell us quite a bit about our own limited existence.

"A positive experience right there makes somebody then take glance or be more conscious of something," Brumfield says of her outdoor education work. "Little do people know anymore that we're conscious! We can make decisions and not just go with the flow!"

The whole point, Brumfield argues, is that a simple engagement with nature can prompt action down the line. It's easy to see that she's not simply spinning PR for the Metroparks' impressive roster of outdoor activities, because there's earnestness in her voice with each sentence. All it takes is that sort of "Aha!" moment to turn an otherwise detached passerby into a citizen of the world, such that the next time a plot of public land is up for sale or a drilling well is proposed down the street, he or she might actually do something about it for the betterment of the community. It's a chain reaction, and it might just start with an afternoon of birdwatching.

"And the issues are monumental," Brumfield says. "You can sit at home and flip through Facebook and go, 'Oh, god! Oh, god!' You know? Or you can do that and then get out and do a couple things. It is possible. When you look at the matrix of action and you break it down into the smallest actions possible, a grandmother driving her grandson to an Audubon meeting — her saying yes and bringing him to that meeting, as opposed to no — that's another connection. Whereas if she would have said, 'No, not this time,' you wouldn't have had that whole idea sprout. In outdoor education, our goal is to take any number of tools in our belts ... and offer these things to help create that weave of interests."

 We wander around the small patch of trees for a while, and Brumfield tells us of the impending seasonal idiosyncrasies, the birds that we might expect to see this summer and during the lustrous fall migration that we would do well not to miss.

 By the time we all gather at Wendy Park, it's been about a month since the Biggest Week event. I've been thinking about this vast problem, the planet's health, every time I see a bird dash precipitously close to the hood of my car, and it's hard to shake.

 "I cannot fathom a greater connection to Earth appreciation than birds," Brumfield says. "Besides — I will say this — gardening. Everybody loves flowers.

 "If you look down through history at their flight — they're powerful, they're free," she continues. "They're unique. They're beautiful. There's something about birds that reaches through all emotions, all intelligences, all interests."

 Before we all head to our cars, drawing collars tight against the wind, a great blue heron appears from a strip of reeds near the Whiskey Island marina and flies out toward the breakwall, a soft, hazy sun backlighting its broad wings and determined path.

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Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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