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Chalk Mountain, between a rock and a nesting place

November 4th, 2008

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Every spring, as sure as the sun warms the cedars and the birds flock back from Mexico, Lee Clauser leads a stealth group of intense adults dressed in khakis and boots to the edge of a wild thicket near his house in north central Texas.

They creep into the brush, quietly unloading their weapons of mass observation.

Putting binoculars to eyes, they look, and listen, for the brilliant Golden-cheeked warbler, and for the reclusive Black-capped vireo. Both songbirds are listed as endangered in the United States, their nesting grounds having been narrowed to a strip of Texas Hill Country that supplies just the right shrubbery and old-growth cedars. The birders, who come from Fort Worth, Dallas, New England, the Pacific Northwest and beyond, know that catching a glimpse of one of these delicate creatures is a rare treat.

“People have come from Europe to see those birds, both species. For birders all over the world, it’s a huge deal,” says Clauser, a retired banker and life-long bird rescue and rehabilitation expert.

“Texas is the only place in the entire world that they nest,” confirms Gail Morris, president of the Fort Worth Audubon Society. “They require certain junipers and ash and that habitat is just not available anywhere.”

The Black-Cap (estimated population 6,000) and the Golden-cheek (estimated population 21,000) have been listed as endangered for nearly two decades, according to government records. The reason for their decline and the biggest threat to their recovery is one and the same: Loss of habitat to residential and commercial growth.

In Texas, exurbia, agriculture and industrial pursuits – cement plants, landfills, gas drilling – have encroached on the birds. . . and are poised to claim even more of them. The forests favored by Clauser’s bird groups occupy land adjacent to a proposed gravel pit that would bring rock blasting and mining nearly certain to affect the vireo and the warbler.

A Story Echoed Everywhere

Sadly, it is a common story, replayed across the globe. From Sumatra to China to the United States, animals are being crowded out by residential sprawl and human “improvements” to the land. The answer — to hold the line on the growth – has proven difficult to impossible in many cases.

“Habitat loss is the biggest driver of species endangerment in the world,” says Colby Loucks, deputy director for the Conservation Science Program at the World Wildlife Fund. And it’s hard to fight, whether the animal in immediate harm’s way is a Texas songbird or a Pacific sea turtle.

Civilization is crashing into natural places such as the Baja region of Mexico, where massive tourist expansion is projected to bring a ten-fold increase in population, imperiling not just the sea turtles that nest there, but the region’s freshwater, which supports the wildlife and the people, Loucks said.

It’s happening, too, in central China where roads and railroads designed to bring development to the mountainous wilderness, are carving up the ancient byways used by the Giant Panda to migrate to new bamboo forests. And it’s happening in the Appalachians, where mountaintop coal mining is filling valleys with slag and pollution, stifling stream life, lacing the ecosystem with mercury and heading straight for our tap water.

Scientists like Loucks, and others, are increasingly stressing the big picture: That we need to preserve our planet’s biodiversity and recognize the inter-connectivity of animals and plants, large and small, because we’re all perched on the same slippery slope.


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