In its April 26 issue, Newsweek (what’s left of it) had a Back Story piece that asked, “Has anything gotten better since that first Earth Day?”

The feature noted, “Much has changed since 1979, which saw both the first Earth Day and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. While we’ve made progress in some respects, we still have a long way to go to create the cleaner world those ’70s environmentalists dreamed about.”Newsweek considered pluses (acid rain, the ozone layer, air pollution) and minuses (climate change, endangered species, toxic substances, energy use, solid waste). Effectively dealing with devastation that can be and is caused by hydrocarbons released above and below ocean waters didn’t make the list.

Newsweek may have to revisit that piece. The accident with a deep-sea oil-drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico is releasing presently unchecked large volumes of oils daily into the ocean. The Exxon Valdez tanker had a finite quantity of oil aboard; the BP well is an open faucet on an enormous supply. The Exxon Valdez was in an estuary; the gulf has many more square miles of open water and miles of delicate shorelines and wetlands.

As of Friday, as I scribble these remarks, the potential for a truly major environmental disaster exists.

Imperils. Threatens. Is inevitable? People doing anything and everything onshore, on land, on and under the waters. Some people undertaking the important work of fixing blame and pointing fingers. Some people setting up to try to help affected animals, birds, all manner of organisms – an often heartbreaking task punctuated with luck, with an occasional life saved.

End of April, early May. Migration time for so many bird species that cross the gulf (if they make it) and depend upon the gulf coastal wetlands for actual survival. Breeding season for turtles, fish, aquatic mammals. Had to be now, hey.

None of the above, to be sure, is any news to you, I’m certain. The explosion on the BP was 10 days ago today. That was bad, was deadly, but the aftermath, the continuing release of hydrocarbons, is a slow-motion horror story.

Accidents happen. Accidents will always happen. Accidents happen because if anything can go wrong, it will. So declaimed a famous engineer, a Mr. Murphy. Believe him. Since accidents will always happen, it is imperative that people don’t cheat on maintenance or initial design and construction of their machines and plants and operations. Luck runs out.

In truth, one particular oil drilling operation is leaking, a lot. No doubt oil is leaking from other drill holes in the world, for there are thousands and thousands of such holes in the crust of our planet. The present BP accident is a big one, deep down underwater and hard to secure, happening at a critical time for wildlife (as if there’s a good time) and threatening the livelihood of so many human inhabitants. Had to be.

Field Notes: Collecting and recording data on birds, in particular long-distance migrants, is always useful and important. Perhaps never more than this year. Will the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster affect resident and certain migrant birds anywhere – or everywhere – in North America? Collecting actual data will tell us.

Realistically, one expects, with dread, that the oil slick will kill a lot of birds and other species. And since some bird species migrate more or less en masse, they are vulnerable to large losses to some particular event.

Now, our residents and migrants here in the northern Rockies may not suffer much from the gulf mess. One way to find out is for us to observe and report birds through Project Backyard Jackson Hole, Nature Mapping, and various avenues such as International Migratory Bird Day at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, conducted by Grand Teton National Park, and Susan Patla’s Bird Day on the South Park elk feedgrounds at 7:30 p.m. on May 15. Remember that the “common bird” observations often reveal most about bird populations and trends, about the environment.

Locally, we are now smack in the peak of migration of lots of bird species. We’re also at a time when many birds are already nesting, some feeding young. It’s not an off-season for animals; it’s quite busy instead. Bison puppies are popping up, and other mammal young will be exploring soon. And don’t forget wildflowers for pleasure.

A few highlights. A dozen long-billed curlews in a group (Mormon Row, Drew Reed, April 26). Drew also noted a tundra swan in South Park. On April 26, Leine Stikkel remarked that numerous osprey pairs had completed nest repairs and were mating. Ann Keller saw two white cranes in South Park on Thursday. Her report has been passed on to the crane biologists for confirmation. Scattered sightings of flickers, white-crowned sparrows, Cassin’s finches, yellow-headed blackbirds, and a scattered few yellow-rumped warblers.

Of special interest is the discovery by Megan Ruehmann of two strutting sharp-tailed grouse in Jackson Hole in Grand Teton National Park. Never previously recorded. It should be revealing to learn if the species can prosper here; it does over the mountains in Idaho.

The Jackson Hole Bird Club will meet at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday at Jackson Town Hall. Regular meeting featuring wildlife observations, socializing, refreshments and a presentation by Lori Iverson, recreational and education services representative for the National Elk Refuge. Lori will describe current and projected projects slated for the elk refuge and its immediate surrounds.

Free, open to all and welcoming.

© Bert Raynes 2010

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Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature and its many ways.

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