A Cape Cod Notebook 5/29/07

listenKilldeer at the Mall

By Robert Finch

Ordinarily, a shopping center is not the place I go to see shorebirds-or any birds, for that matter. In fact, my nature-receptive equipment seems to shut down automatically in such places, and I resign myself to a purely human environment for the sake of practical errands. But one day several years ago, in late May, my expectations were surprised. I was walking across the warm, back-topped parking lot of the Cape Cod Mall when I heard above me a loud, insistent, wild chittering. I looked up into the bright sun, and saw the white, streamlined forms of two killdeer wheeling high above the Mall, sweeping and circling and uttering a steady stream of sharp staccato calls: tic-a-tu tic-a-tu tic-a-tu. The birds flew together in wide graceful patterns for several minutes, never ceasing to call, and then dropped down and disappeared in a bare field behind the Mall. The killdeer is a large plover, 8"-9" long, readily identified by a distinct double neck band around its white throat. During nesting season, many people have observed the killdeer's famous "broken wing" act, where the bird feigns injury and gives dramatic alarms calls that are designed to lure the intruder away from its nest. Killdeer were once common breeders on the Cape and Islands, but they were caught in the wholesale slaughter of shorebirds of the latter 19th century. By 1900 they?d been exterminated as a breeding bird in Barnstable County. With state and federal protection they've managed to recover much of their off-Cape range, but they are still uncommon here even as migrants, so I walked across the road into the field where they had landed to have a closer look. This "field" was one of those ecological deserts created when a commercial piece of land is totally stripped of its living cover and sits to await its fate as a storage garage or a steak house. But such sites are not inhospitable to killdeer. These birds have been known to nest on golf courses, gravel roads, between railroad ties, and even on the roof of a race-track grandstand. I found the two killdeer in a corner of the lot, going through a variety of courtship antics, facing each other, bobbing and wagging their tails, then racing off again. I began to examine the ground more closely and discovered it was not such a desert after all. Among the debris of beer cans, plastic bags and Styrofoam cups there were patches of cypress spurge and even some birdsfoot violets. Scattered cherry trees, scraggly but blossoming, had survived. And in one corner of the field a stand of young pitch pines had seeded in. Fluttering around the pines were some delicate common blue butterflies, and among the branches of this dwarf forest I heard the rising notes of a prairie warbler. The killdeer seemed like the embodiment of nature's opportunism, retracing their ancient patterns of courtship and reproduction over barren lots and automobiles. They had led me to evidence, in this unlikely place, that all nature is incorrigibly opportunistic and intrinsically resilient. The small but tenacious manifestations of life I'd found there - flowers, trees, birds, insects- seemed to say that we humans cannot so easily destroy any place utterly. There is a force constantly at work, reseeding, reclaiming, recovering even the most gaping human wound, heedless of both the developer's ambition and the environmentalist's despair.