I pull out my old Nikon 8x binocular. As I wheel it into focus with my index finger, I’m amazed by the lush detail of the scene that crystallizes before me: a quarter mile away, the undevelopment is now right in front of my nose. Spanish moss covers many trees almost completely; a scarf of it drapes even a dead tree trunk–devoid of branches or a canopy–standing alone in the field. It dances like a mink’s tail around the dead tree and sways in the breeze below the live ones. Another tree is covered in shelf fungi invisible to my naked eye. Dragonflies dart through my field of view. A large bird flaps through the canopy, partly under cover. I catch sight of its wings. Red-shouldered hawk? Great blue heron? Can’t tell from here.
I scan to the left of the dead tree with its dancing mink scarf, a sort of flag marking where the earth has been bulldozed and where it hasn’t. My eyes immediately roll over a small Caterpillar, wheeling back and forth across the mud that will soon be another hundred and ninety apartment units. There will be a “nature trail” in this new development, a trail through what remains of the preserve near the eponymous apartment complex in which I live…and from which I observe. Clangs of metal against metal, metal against rock, intermittent bleeps of large vehicles backing up, and rising dust all waft my way.
Later this week, I leave for work in the morning and see a thick fog blanketing the preserve. Incredible: the construction crew is working in spite of zero visibility. Bulldozers and other large vehicles move through the white blur, only their tops visible.
It wasn’t like this a month ago. A month ago, before I moved into this complex, it was untouchable preserve as far as the eye could see. Nobody told me about this planned construction project, but I was told that it’s illegal to trespass, illegal to touch the creatures or to mess with the preserve in any other way. An old tree with beautifully gnarled branches, just beyond the fence, housed a family of Eastern bluebirds. One of the first things I saw upon moving in was that the tree had been felled. Its corpse has since been removed by the construction people. About a week later, I saw an adult female and a juvenile bluebird, perched together on the fence across from my window, but I haven’t seen them since. I doubt that I will; their home has been destroyed.
The animals don’t come out while all this din and destruction is going on–from 6 am to 6 pm six days a week–so I wait patiently until Sundays roll around to start looking for them. On Sunday, I use the binocular again: a pair of falcons–narrow wings, nimble flight–exult in the wind. They hover occasionally, scanning the ground for food. One of them lands on the dead tree with a sudden flash of blue wing and orange tail: American kestrel. A flock of white ibis in V formation soon come into view overhead. As they approach, I see their decurved bills clearly. I scan back to the tree and see a much bigger bird of prey there than the kestrel, one with a red breast and bright yellow legs: an adult red-shouldered hawk. The kestrels have resumed darting this way and that, presumably for insects. Behind the dead tree, another bird of prey flies low over the tall grass; northern harrier?
A couple weeks later, a heavy storm rolls in and floods the preserve. I wake up to a flood lake. Laughing gulls fly over, diving to skim the surface for food. Egrets and herons comb the shore. Much later, several American avocets in winter plumage fly in, wade for a few minutes while combing the shallow lake for invertebrates, then fly out together.
One morning before work, I see a giant leopard moth caterpillar near the roof of my porch. When I come home from work, it’s on the floor. Later in the night, it’s crawling all over the porch, presumably trying to find a place to hibernate for the winter. Before bed, I see that it’s found a cozy spot under my bedroom window, near my front door. The following morning, it’s gone. I haven’t seen it since. Another night, we see a female ox beetle in front of my apartment door. Other days, near sunset, a pair of crested caracaras–long-legged, long-necked–flap and soar over the preserve on their way to who-knows-where.
This place is wild, but it would be wilder with the woods intact, without this scourge of construction. Another wooded tract, near a busy intersection just beyond my apartment complex, now has a sign in front of it saying that a gas station is coming up, “with major fast food.” There are “For Sale” signs on other private woodlots in this largely-undeveloped area.
Land laws seem to allow owners of private wildernesses to pave them for profit. There are many gas stations around here and many fast food joints. America has a serious, growing problem with obesity and diabetes. Gas stations are notorious local polluters of air and groundwater. Do we really need more ways to pollute and to grow fatter? Greed is intrinsically short-sighted and therefore destructive in the long view.
Two Months Later:
Last week, the construction crew chopped the dead tree down. I’ll never again see the kestrels swoop down from it, return with an anole, then alternate picking at their catch and making eye contact with me through my spotting scope. Nor will I see the resident red-shouldered hawk drying its wings again after a heavy rain. Another unit of richness and diversity in this urban landscape has been deleted.
Many species need unbroken tracts of land to thrive, but undeveloped land is becoming increasingly fragmented as humans develop it for commercial purposes. I first learned about land fragmentation when I got into birding in my fourth year of medical school. I learned that migrating birds have fewer and fewer places to rest during migration because of worsening fragmentation of wilderness in the US and elsewhere. I even started a blog celebrating urban undevelopments–parts of cities that remain undeveloped–at the end of medical school. Then internship started and I stopped working on it because I was too busy. Recently, a beautiful documentary, The Messenger, highlighted the growing plight of songbirds throughout the world. The idea is that if songbird populations collapse, civilization could collapse, too.
I completed internship, residency, a year as a hospitalist, and a fellowship, and I’m still just as concerned as I was when I started that blog. Even though I worked eighty-hour weeks, I tried to remain committed to my local conservation organization, Friends of Rose Canyon, when I lived in San Diego. The city planned to widen an existing road and to build a new bridge through the canyon in which I–and many others–hiked, jogged, mountain-biked, and birdwatched, but years of pressure from concerned citizens blocked those projects permanently. California’s High Speed Rail Authority seriously considered Rose Canyon as a thoroughfare for a high-speed rail between San Diego and Los Angeles, but we opposed that, too.
I learned from those and other experiences that conservation is an endless, complicated struggle. Traditional conservationists believe in preserving biodiversity for its own sake, while a newer generation of conservationists believe in harmonizing human interests with conservation by putting a price tag on natural resources, analyzing impact with financial calculations, and trying to balance negative impacts with positive ones in a way that’s both profitable and more-or-less ecologically sound. Both viewpoints are controversial. My personal belief is that both viewpoints are valuable and that one may be more appropriate than the other, given the particulars of the situation. (Other perspectives may also be valuable; the more perspectives available to you, the more accurate your analysis will be.)
I just moved to this part of town and feel the need to get involved. Perhaps there are environmentally-conscious organizations here that regulate sound decision-making in sensitive situations. Perhaps there is no one at the regulatory wheel and private landowners can do whatever they want. I’ll find out soon. This is not my area of expertise, but I do know that if we were all mindful stewards of our local ecosystems, we wouldn’t have an environmental crisis in the world today.