I submitted a proposal for a National Geographic Explorers grant in July and expect to hear back in November about the results. The idea behind the proposal is to follow spring songbird migration from the gulf coast of Texas/Louisiana, up the Mississippi River corridor, to the boreal forests of northern Minnesota. This idea was inspired by many different things, but was finally cemented in my mind by the book ‘North on the Wing’ by Bruce Beehler.

Why do this? Well, for one, songbird migration is a marvelous spectacle to behold. Each spring, over a billion birds cross our southern border to settle into their breeding sites across the country and into Canada. As they do this, their songs transform the soundscapes of ecosystems across the continent. And it doesn’t just happen in far off, wilderness locations. It even happens right in our own backyards, yet so many of us are unaware and even worse, don’t care. Nature deficit disorder is real and it’s pushing our natural areas to the brink.

Because of our ignorance and ambivalence, we miss meaningful chances to connect with these beautifully colored songsters. This is a shame not only because of their beauty, but also because so many of these species are declining, threatened with numerous challenges from climate change, pollutants of various types, habitat loss, predation from cats, etc… As a result of these challenges, well over half of these species are threatened, with many facing the dire prospect of extinction. One day you may never be able to witness the spectacle of mass songbird migration!

And this is what I propose to document. For two months I will follow the migratory waves as they make their way from south-to-north, across six distinct ecosystems (coastal plain, bayou, temperate coniferous forest, temperate deciduous forest, tallgrass prairie, and boreal forest). I will capture the sights and sounds of these birds as they orchestrate some of the most brilliant and unique dawn and evening chorus, focusing on visiting protected lands within the National and State Park systems, as well as National Wildlife Refuges. I will also contrast the sights and sounds of adjacent unprotected lands that have felt the wrath of climate change, habitat destruction, and pollution, all in order to document the power of conservation.

Within each of the six major ecosystems, I will also focus on highlighting a representative bird species that is of conservation concern. These species will act as the face of the ecosystems, giving people specific identities to cling to should they happen to venture out to explore these places. For each of these six species, I will record singing individuals as they make their way to the shores of Louisiana, up the Mississippi River, and as they settle into their breeding territories, documenting their use of the land via intimate photography.

But here this is the exciting part of the project! Along this same route and in these same ecosystems, I will also speak with people who are also struggling for similar reasons as these birds, all in an attempt to highlight our shared struggles. I’ll talk to Cajun and Vietnamese fishermen in the bayous of Louisiana to discuss how the loss of coastal marshes and land have impacted their livelihoods. I’ll stop in towns that have been ravaged by climate change fueled superstorms such asthe tornado that hit Joplin, MO. And I’ll speak to people living alongside the waterways of northern Minnesota who have dealt with the negative impacts of the mining industry. And all the while, I’ll ask people about their relationship with nature and migratory birds, focusing on the changes in the sights and sounds of nature they’ve noticed in their lifetimes.

Finally, I am really making a point to speak with the underrepresented and the unheard. I aim to offer a platform for these groups to speak out about the atrocities human actions have had on their lives and what they consider to be their prospects moving forward. I want to understand their struggle by listening to their stories. And most importantly, I want us to see how our negative actions towards the land and inaction towards protecting it have dire consequences for not just these birds, but for all of us.

There’s a lot more to it than what I’ve detailed here, but that’s the meat of the idea. I’m really excited about the project and proposed products. I’ve not been able to stop thinking about this project for the better part of 8 months now. Now all I can do is what and hope.

P.S. the next few posts will likely be about this project or other projects I have in mind should the funding not come through. I hope that’s cool with you. 🙂

2 thoughts on “North on the Wing

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