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Willem Lange: We Took Flight to Check on the Condition of Grassland Birds

Grand River Valley, Ontario

The week began with an airline I’d never heard of and an airport I’d never dreamed I’d be using.

A few years ago some friends and I rode the elevators to the observation deck of the CN Tower in Toronto, where you can test your nerve by walking on a glass floor (instant vertigo) or around the roof outside (strong intimations of mortality). Looking down, I watched small turboprops taking off and landing from a tiny airstrip on an island a hundred yards offshore of busy downtown Toronto. Its runways stretched the width of the island, rather like an aircraft carrier. I checked it out. It’s named Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport in honor of Canada’s leading World War I flying ace — the Canadian equivalent of Baron von Richthofen. Billy won so many honors and medals that if he’d fallen into the water in his uniform, he’d have drowned for sure.

You get to shore and back from the airport on probably the world’s shortest ferry ride. Its off-ramp dumps you into the heart of downtown. The TV crew I was working with stopped briefly to shoot an “open,” introducing viewers to what would follow, and then it was off to the hinterlands of southern Ontario. As usual, the crew, who are one generation younger than I, set up the GPS navigator on the dashboard and followed its spoken instructions — “Turn left onto Route 19 in zero.point seven kilometers” — through the metastasis of cosmopolitan Toronto and westward toward the farmlands of the Grand River Valley.

Although I knew they’d programmed the GPS for the correct destination, I found it very unsettling, as I always do, not to know where we were. We had no map, except for the rudimentary and minimally helpful one that came with the rental van, and whenever I asked, “Where are we?” the guys up front simply pointed to the screen of the navigator. We were a little yellow arrow on a purple line that wavered and flickered on a vertical axis. We might have been in Montana (as we will be in a couple of weeks, following the same purple line). I have difficulty following orders I don’t understand; so without the context of passing towns and bodies of water, I spend long trips with these guys distrusting the calm female voice on the dashboard.

My doubts notwithstanding, she got us reliably to our destination: a Best Western hotel. (The term “motel” apparently has lost favor, probably seeming déclassé, and now applies to strings of tiny cabins or double-decker lines of rooms favored for SWAT team surprises in CSI or Law and Order.) This one was located on the edge of the town of Fergus – another place I’d never heard of — in the neighborhood of a Walmart, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and Subway.

Fergus, as you might guess from its name, was settled by Scots farmers, who built sturdy and practical houses and commercial buildings out of the local beige limestone. The town’s original name was Little Falls, which is why it’s here: water power. Its mills are long gone, and its warehouses now are given to pubs perched at the top of its gorge walls. We’ve dined twice at the Goofy Newfie, but only once at the Brew House, whose waitress did not smile at my sallies at humor. I probably should have essayed at humour instead.

The river flows south about 175 miles into Lake Erie, dodging invitations from Lake Huron and Lake Ontario. For long stretches it meanders in big loops through flat glacial till and huge fields that stretch to the horizon; in others, it has carved spectacular limestone gorges. From the pedestrian bridge over the gorge at Fergus, it looks pretty trouty. A nearby fly fishing shop with guide service confirms the impression, and a quick Google of “grand river ont fishing” produces photos of happy guys in waders holding 2-foot-long brown trout. Again, who knew?

The crew and I are here on the first leg of several trips around North America to interview and film birders, biologists and others concerned with the general decline in the numbers of various grassland bird species and the disappearance of their habitat all over the continent. Grassland birds flourished as the forests were cut down during European settlement, but with the regrowth of forests in the East, they’re disappearing there. In hay fields where they do best, the switch to multiple annual cuttings has disrupted their nesting cycle. Most farmers can’t afford anymore to leave their hay uncut until the birds have fledged their broods. Thus, the bob- olink and eastern meadowlark have achieved the dubious distinction of appearing on the “threatened species” list.

We’ve talked to a traditional farmer — Percherons and soybeans — who’s more modern than his commercially minded neighbors. He manages habitat for grassland birds and powers his barns with a solar array, one of dozens we’ve seen here. We’ve talked with the president of the Ontario Home Builders Association, who also serves on an environmental board, and is engaged in forming coalitions of both constituencies to preserve prime breeding habitat for migratory birds. And we’ve spent a couple of days tramping through the fields of the 13,000-acre Luther Marsh Wildlife Management Area, an impoundment that feeds into the nearby river.

We’re with a field team led by Rosalind Renfrew of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies in Norwich. After setting up mist nets in the fields and baiting them with a broadcast of a male bobolink song, they’re banding, weighing, measuring, taking blood samples and removing year-old geolocators from birds that have wintered in South America. Their sharp eyes are an inspiration to those of us used to seeing only “birds.” I’ll probably never again look at one I don’t recognize without running to an identification manual. Which is really why we’re here: to learn so that we can, in our turn, educate, and maybe save at least a little bit of what, unwittingly, we’re losing.

Willem Lange’s column normally appears on Wednesdays. It’s running today because of a technical error. He can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.