Tag Archives: extinction

The Original Elves

West coast of Iceland along Snaefellsnes Peninsula

West coast of Iceland along Snaefellsnes Peninsula

 

The stiff Icelandic wind picked up as we made our way across the lava plain at Hellnar. As the day turned into late afternoon, dark clouds gathered beyond the rocky cliffs. In the boulders’ lengthening shadows, I could almost make out the huldufólk—elves, the “hidden people”—that most Icelanders secretly believe in. In this raw country, the huldufólk will let you know if you’re on their rocky turf as you try to build a road or other human construction; they’ll break your equipment or otherwise harass you until you come to your senses and change your plans.

Elvish Icelandic topography

Elvish Icelandic topography

Valdimar Hafstein, Professor of Folklore and Ethnology at the University of Iceland, says that in this land, “elves represent nature in the heart of culture; the places attributed to them are wilderness in the midst of cultivation. These places – rocks, hills, ponds – are taboo, they must not be fished in, messed with, moved or mowed; they must not, that is to say, be brought into culture.”

Indeed, Iceland feels like a land where natural magic pervades human settlement. It’s a land of rainbows, land of waterfalls, land of light and mist.

Land of rainbows and waterfalls: Gullfoss, Iceland

Land of rainbows and waterfalls: Gullfoss, Iceland

2015-9-23_5748-sunset-at-stykkisholmur-copy

Land of light and mist: sunset at Stykkisholmur, Iceland

Land of magical light: Aurora Borealis over Stykkisholmur, Iceland

Land of magical light: Aurora Borealis over Stykkisholmur, Iceland

In Iceland, the earth literally splits to show what is hidden elsewhere in the world. The jagged rocks that tore our boots as we walked were born of inner fire, of the slow dance of plate tectonics. East of our hike, the majestic valley at Thingvellir (Þingvellir, as the Icelanders write it) runs north-south through Iceland’s center. Its serene lakes and narrow clefts mark the boundary between two massive tectonic plates that are sailing slowly apart, allowing hot magma to well up from the earth’s interior. When the deep molten flow emerges from the rift, it cools to form the basaltic rock underpinning our trek.

Thingvellir Rift Valley, Iceland, looking north. North American Plate is on the left, moving west; Eurasian Plate is on the right, moving east.

Thingvellir Rift Valley, central Iceland, looking north. North American Plate is on the left, moving west; Eurasian Plate is on the right, moving east.

Iceland is the only place where the Mid-Atlantic Rift comes to the surface; usually it’s deep underwater. This makes Iceland a rare large landmass in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—so it’s a sought-after waystation for migratory birds. Most of them had left for gentler winter climates by the time we arrived, but still we encountered Eurasian Oystercatchers, Black-bellied Gulls, Redwings, Redshanks, and other new-to-me species.

* * * * *

To catch our breath and warm up before we began the last leg of our coastal hike, we stopped at Hellnar’s Prímus Kaffi. Enjoying exquisite hot chocolate and hearty soup, we saw yet again that Icelanders clearly have their priorities straight:

2015-9-23-5540-We just have each other

“We Just Have Each Other.”

Refreshed, we resumed our hike over the rough terrain. We were aiming toward Londrangar, whose volcanic spire looked like a Valkyrie’s Valhalla.

Londrangar, Iceland

Londrangar, Iceland

On rocky crags jutting out of the stormy sea, Greater Black-backed Gulls noisily claimed dominion. Common Eiders paddled through the waters below while cormorants flapped heavily above them. As usual, I was the last along the trail, slowing to photograph this unique landscape.

Suddenly I saw Jess and Rob start to wave frantically at me while putting a finger to their lips for silence. Moving as quietly as I could toward them, I saw why they were excited: a stunning Arctic Fox, virtually hidden among the boulders, chewing on the last remains of a gull. When he stood up, I could see  his thick brown fur, made to withstand the winter here near the Arctic Circle, and his penetrating yellow eyes  sharp with intelligence.

Arctic Fox with "fangs" of gull feathers

Arctic Fox with “fangs” of gull feathers

We froze in place, riveted by this rare encounter. Arctic Foxes aren’t endangered, but they’re smart at blending into the landscape, so we were lucky to spot one. Most photos I’ve seen of Arctic Foxes show them as white, with dark brown eyes, so I felt even more fortunate to spot a “blue-morph” individual. You can probably guess that the white version is better adapted to disappear against the snow and ice at the higher elevations of inland Iceland.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6c/Arctic_fox_in_snow_%288425302866%29.jpg/512px-Arctic_fox_in_snow_%288425302866%29.jpg

Photo credit: USFWS/Keith Morehouse. ]CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But here on the coast, where the climate is milder—meaning the temperature only goes down to around 20°F—this fox’s darker color will let him blend with the boulders, helping him sneak up on prey.

Arctic Fox on the prowl

Arctic Fox on the prowl

He can make a good living here on the coast because he thrives on seabirds and marine invertebrates. And that also means he’s likely to deal well with climate change: he’s a generalist in a robust, resilient habitat. His home provides abundant resources and will keep providing even when other habitats become more difficult. Other Arctic Foxes in less isolated northern places, like Russia and Scandinavia, may have a tougher time as animals from more temperate places move into their warming homes, competing with the Arctic Foxes for prey.

* * * * *

As Iceland’s only native land mammal, the Arctic Fox is Icelanders’ closest local natural relative. Might these sturdy creatures of lava and lichen be the original elves of Iceland, hidden from human perception, living in crannies and crags alongside people’s less earthen homes, with ancient wisdom in their shining eyes?

Arctic Fox, Iceland

Arctic Fox, Iceland

Wherever we live, the landscape is replete with secret elven spirits. My Pacific Northwest beaches hide hermits, my forests hold birds who disappear—literally—into the woodwork, and high-altitude shrubs in the Cascades Mountains host hungry grasshoppers.

Your home’s land has its spirits as well, alive and thriving beyond or beneath human perception. But as far as I can tell, most of our local elves, unlike the huldufólk of Iceland, aren’t able to turn away bulldozers, reroute roads, or set climate policy. That’s where we come in, defending nature in the heart of culture, as Hafstein put it: being their voices as we learn to dwell with foxes and other elves, honoring homes of all forms, preserving some wilderness in the midst of cultivation on our changing planet. The elves need us, because after all

We Just Have Each Other.

Southern Summer Silence

Eastern beginning of the Routeburn Track

Eastern beginning of the Routeburn Track

Strange but somehow familiar, the late-summer New Zealand forest rose around us as we began our backpack along the Routeburn Track, one of the country’s famous Great Walks. The trail rose gently through the woods, a purring stream beside it carrying water towards Lake Wakatipu, where we’d started that morning. The giant beech trees’ slightly foreign shapes, combined with an understory whose plant population we didn’t know, made for a shift in illumination compared to our Pacific Northwest forest: a slightly bluer tone, a distinctive light-pattern on the forest floor, perhaps.

Beech forest-east side of Routeburn. Photo: newzealand.com.au (click on photo for website).

Red Beech forest-east side of Routeburn. Photo: newzealand.com.au (click on photo for website).

Typically, and happily, the slowest hikers on any trail, we were a little chagrined to find an equally slow older couple keeping us company, and they probably felt the same way. Fortunately, they stopped even more often than we did, looking for birds—particularly the Blue Duck, they told us, which can most likely be found in rushing waters such as those in the stream below—so we shortly had the trail to ourselves.

Rob on swinging bridge over the Route Burn (river)

Rob on swinging bridge over the Route Burn (river)

Normally I’d spend much more time birding than hiking, but the Routeburn is a 28-mile, 4-day hike, and I knew we had a big elevation gain toward the end of today’s segment, so I wanted to keep moving while I still had the fresh energy of morning.

One of my photographic goals for this hike was the challenging Rifleman (Titipounamu, in onomatopoeic Maori), a quick little bird who darts about in the shadows, making tiny little peeps that are at the top of most people’s hearing range. (Make sure to take at least a quick listen to these recordings, to give yourself a feel for what it’s really like out there.) On the trail, I’d often hear a pair of them calling nearby, but they’d be gone before my camera could focus.

The elusive Rifleman - captured at last!

The elusive Rifleman – captured on camera at last!

The lower-pitched counterpoint tones of South Island Tomtits (miromiro) also accompanied us as we made our way to treeline.

South Island Tomtit. (Photo taken on Stewart Island)

South Island Tomtit. (Photo taken on Stewart Island)

South Island Tomtit on Routeburn Track

South Island Tomtit on Routeburn Track

We made our way upward for several hours through glorious glacial scenery.

View from near Routeburn Falls Hut: Routeburn Flats and Humboldt Mountains

View from near Routeburn Falls Hut: Routeburn Flats and Humboldt Mountains

Glacial landscape near Harris Summit (plus a tired but happy hiker)

Glacial landscape near Harris Summit (plus a tired but happy hiker)

Finally the welcome sight of gray-painted paneling greeted us through the thinning woods, and we were glad to offload our packs (which seemed to have mysteriously gained weight with our increased elevation) onto a pair of top bunks in the Routeburn Falls Hut. I dug my camera back out to photograph whichever bird species might show up, then we wandered slowly and ouchingly around the hut area, sitting for a while by the eponymous Falls and marveling at the pools’ clear deep green. I didn’t get any bird photos that evening but was looking forward to taking more during the next couple of days’ hiking, which would be mostly above treeline.

Routeburn Falls

Routeburn Falls

Spectacular Southern Alps landscape spread out alongside us as we contoured our way down from the Harris Saddle toward our next destination, the McKenzie Hut, seven miles away. The weather was perfect: 70’s, with a light breeze on our cheeks to keep us cool and bug-free. Close to the pass, the piercing calls of a small flock of Keas rang through the sky, then faded as we gradually descended along the glacial valley wall. We were far above the one road we could make out in the far distance, so the background sound was the pure distant rush of waterfalls across the deep valley.

Hollyford Valley from Routeburn Track

Hollyford Valley from Routeburn Track

Above our last stop, the Lake Howden hut, a magical hobbitish woods greeted us, sprinkled with the now-familiar voices of Riflemen and Tomtits, who kept us company for the next couple of days as we finished the hike. We reveled in the absence of civilization’s noise; the relative silence, broken by our companionable bird species, felt meditative.

We found out afterwards that it was the silence of death.

In your mind, add together the three bird calls you’ve listened to so far (Rifleman, Tomtit, and Kea), and add in a couple of imaginary ones for the birds I probably heard but couldn’t identify. Now, compare that to this recording of the dawn chorus in Abel Tasman National Park. That’s an approximation of how the Routeburn forest might have sounded before humans came on the scene: an auditory glimpse of the Pleistocene.

Even in 1770, Captain Cook’s naturalist Joseph Banks, describing the New Zealand dawn chorus in January 1770, could write:

This morn I was awakd by the singing of the birds ashore from whence we are distant not a quarter of a mile, the numbers of them were certainly very great who seemd to strain their throats with emulation perhaps; their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable….

Having evolved in the absence of land-based mammal predators, New Zealand bird species (of which an astonishing 70% are endemic) developed nests that are now exquisitely vulnerable to the huge numbers of mammal predators—rats, stoats, possums, feral cats—introduced first by the Maori, then by Europeans. Some species, like the enormous moa, were hunted to extinction by the Maori, and all of them are presumably affected by continuing habitat loss due to bush clearing and draining of wetlands. Tragically, a full third of New Zealand’s marvelous bird species may have been irrevocably lost since humans arrived. Beneath the stunning scenery, below the silver birches, a stealthy army is systematically devastating the sylvan songscape.

Our first week in New Zealand, we’d visited Ulva Island (an islet off Stewart Island, New Zealand’s southernmost “third island”), whose 670 acres have been transformed into a native bird and plant sanctuary through dedicated efforts at pest eradication. With the expert guidance of Matt Jones of Ulva’s Guided Walks, there we encountered several previously-eradicated species that now populate the island: Yellowheads, South Island Saddlebacks, Stewart Island Robins.

Yellowheads, Ulva Island

Endangered Yellowheads (mohua), Ulva Island (Call of the Yellowhead)

Endangered Saddleback tearing bark in search of bugs, Ulva Island

Endangered South Island Saddleback (tieke) tearing bark in search of bugs, Ulva Island    (Call of the South Island Saddleback)

Endangered Stewart Island Robin (banded for research), Ulva Island

Endangered – but friendly – Stewart Island Robin (toutouwai; banded for research), Ulva Island       (Call of the similar North Island Robin)

But we didn’t realize how precious the complex bird chorus of Ulva Island really was until we grasped the gaps in avian companionship along the Routeburn. If our early trail companions had found the Blue Duck they were searching for, they wouldn’t just have seen a cool duck; they would have seen one of at most 2500 individuals remaining in the world. It’s the only known member of its genus, and those numbers are declining still further. (If I’d known that, I might have spent a lot more time looking for one.)

Coincidentally, my book group’s reading when I returned to Seattle was a biography of Rachel Carson, who drew attention in the 1950’s to the Silent Spring threatened by DDT. In New Zealand, we witnessed a silent southern summer.

Fortunately, contemporary Kiwis love their birds. Every morning just before the 7 am news, Radio New Zealand starts your day with bird songs. I saw a total of two cats outdoors in the entire country. Stoat traps are regular occurrences along the trails. Roadkill was so plentiful as we drove the winding pavement that I had to wonder if drivers were actually aiming for the creatures. Of course, I squirm at all that killing; I can’t help feeling fond of any fuzzy creature I encounter, even knowing the devastation some have innocently wrought on the bird life I also love.

Can New Zealand turn its southern silence into song-filled spring? It seemed that every local organizations and guiding business we encountered sponsors predator-trapping programs, as well as those run by the Department of Conservation. Getting rid of rats is tough enough on small islands such as Ulva and Tiritiri Matangi, near Auckland; freeing birds from predators on the huge main islands of New Zealand is another thing altogether. But as another bird lover wrote:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all.
–Emily Dickinson

That “melodious wild musick” is surely worth the effort.

Bellbird in song, Ulva Island

Bellbird (korimako) in song, Ulva Island (Song of the Bellbird – truly exquisite)