By KEVIN PROFT/ 3.20.2013 - Many believe when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in the 1960s to publicize the devastating effects of chemical insecticides and herbicides on Earth’s ecosystems, environmentalism as we’ve come to know it was born. Like Carson, I often find myself simultaneously in awe of Mother Nature’s creations, and greatly anxious about their future in a world increasingly impacted by humankind's decisions. Our March outing, first to see the erosion happening at Matunuck Beach and then to nearby American Woodcock mating habitat got me thinking, once again, about the often quirky and always interesting ways of nature, and the sensitivity of the balance in which it hangs.
“There used to be an additional 40 yards of land and beach hear before you hit the water,” said Abel Collins, Program Manager for the R.I. Sierra Club. Ten of us stood on the narrow ribbon of sand dividing land and sea at Matunuck Beach. Abel, a native of Southern Rhode Island, remembers days when there were sizeable dunes dividing the beach from the land beyond. In those days the sandy beach sloped gently down to the waters edge leaving the dunes far in its wake, and providing ample space for sun worshipers and Frisbee players to avoid confrontation.
The beach we saw during our March outing was unrecognizable from the beach Abel described. It is narrow and steep. The dunes have been washed away, and more frequent severe storms such as Irene, Sandy, and Nemo have eaten away at the land those dunes once protected. As storms repeatedly pound away at Rhode Island’s southern coast our state is being carried into the sea one chunk at a time.
The battle line between the ocean and the land is distinct. It looks like a wavy cliff – in some places only a foot high, in others 6 feet – with sand at its base and scrubby plants along its crest. Roots belonging to climate change’s next victims stick out of the exposed stratified wall of soil searching for the land they used to inhabit. The battle line only marches in one direction: inland; once a chunk of soil is taken by the Atlantic, there is no way of getting it back. Foot by foot, the line advances.
Scattered along the beach is what seems like strangely sited infrastructure. A telephone pole sticks out of the sand. A house propped up on cinder blocks hangs over the edge of the soil ledge that separates beach from land. A stone’s throw away, a public road is falling into the sea. “Why would people have built that here?” I asked myself automatically before remembering that when the telephone pole was erected, the house was framed, and the road was paved the sea was a comfortable distance away.
When politicians speak about climate change, if they speak of it at all, they often make the case that it will have terrible affects on future generations; it is our moral obligation to our grandchildren to set things right before it’s too late. That telephone pole, those houses, and the crumbling road reminded me that it is not our grandchildren – not even our children – we need to fear for. Climate change is here today, affecting all of our lives in very tangible ways.
Watch a video created by a Sierra Club volunteer about the erosion happening at Matunuck Beach.
Every year, from March to May, the American Woodcock puts on a magnificent mating display. He takes flight at dusk, climbs to an incredible height, then spirals back to earth while singing a unique song – all to impress the local lady woodcocks. South County’s staggered woodlands and open fields provide the woodcock with perfect mating grounds – they take cover in the trees during the day, then emerge into the open spaces to display at dusk. Woodcock outings are held by groups all over New England every year to let people get out and see the bird’s crowd-pleasing ritual in action.
Frustratingly, the Rhode Island Sierra Club has developed something of a reputation for messing up this outing. Since at least 2011 we’ve dragged people out, promising woodcocks, only to stand in a windy field in the chill dusk of March waiting for a glimpse of feathers or the sound of birdsong that just doesn’t come.
Going into this years woodcock outing I feared we were in for another disappointing evening. Afterall, we’d changed nothing; we were going to the same place, during the same week, at the same time as last year. To add to my anxiety it was freezing, and like people, woodcocks apparently don’t like hanging out in the cold.
As the sun was setting, we walked from our cars to the familiar spot, an open field surrounded by forest on three sides. The walk wasn’t far and before long we were standing in precisely the same place we had stood a year ago – eyes and ears alert. Then we waited. And waited. And waited.
The sun set in a brilliant burst of orange. It silhouetted a hawk sitting on the peak of a barn roof in the distance. It was beautiful, but not what the outing’s attendees had come to see.
Bruce Hutchings, who likes woodcocks enough to have had one tattooed on his calf, seemed hopeful. He said that despite the cold weather, the habitat was perfect and he thought we might get lucky. I appreciated his enthusiasm, but simultaneously thought to myself that the R.I. Sierra Club would remain the butt of all woodcock related jokes for yet another year.
While we waited we learned that Bruce used to lead woodcock outings for a different organization in Massachusetts. He crouched near the edge of the woods, listening.
“What are we listening for?” someone asked.
“It’s kind of a ‘peeet’,” Bruce replied.
We all tried it out. “No, it’s more nasal than that. ‘Peeeeet’,” corrected Bruce.
“Peeet,” we all mimicked.
“What do they look like?” someone asked a few woodcock-free minutes later.
“Well, they are small and brown, and walk kind of like this,” said Bruce, demonstrating the strut of a woodcock – butt out, neck extended, hands on hips with elbows imitating wings. He looked like a giant turkey to me.
Before I knew it, everyone on the outing was offering their best woodcock impression, strutting and “peeting” like champions. I was pretty sure this would go down as the most humiliating R.I. Sierra Club woodcock outing yet. I imagined the Outings Committee meeting that we would have in February, 2014 - “remember last year when all those people came to our outing to see a woodcock but had to settle for pretending to be birds instead, just to keep warm.”
It was about this time that half our group succumbed to either cold or boredom and headed back to their cars. “We’ll catch you at Ocean Mist,” they called over their shoulders, “good luck,” they added halfheartedly.
We decided to try our luck in the next field over. We stumbled through the growing darkness, crossed between a gap in a classic Rhode Island stone wall and found ourselves in much the same situation we’d been in moments before: cold and forlorn.
Conversation transitioned to heading to Ocean Mist for a post-outing beverage, but then we heard it.
For a moment I thought Bruce was playing a trick on us, throwing his voice to another part of the field. One look at him told me I was wrong. He was back in the zone – perfectly still, every muscle tense, like a deer that senses danger.
Before long we heard it again. “Peeet.” Then again, from a different spot. Then again. There were woodcocks all around us! I have never been so happy while standing and shivering in a dark field.
Over the course of the next 20 minutes we watched two or three woodcocks repeatedly perform their mating rituals. They climbed out of sight into the night sky, their wings making a strange fluttering noise, then spiraled earthward while singing and landing in the same spot they’d taken off from. Each bird had staked out its ground and the competition to woo a lady to its territory had begun.
Each time one of the birds took off it got harder to see it through the darkness and eventually, we could only hear them as they flew. Finally, we decided to head back to the cars and Ocean Mist for a celebratory drink.
Somehow, we’d managed to escape embarrassment by the skin of our teeth.
Before we all went our separate ways that night, I thanked everyone for coming. “I never doubted they’d show,” I told them confidently.