The longest day of the year has inspired rituals and celebrations for as long as our ancestors turned their eyes to the sky in wonder. If you go outside at dawn on June 21 it is not hard to believe all nature joins with us in marking the rhythms of life and courses of lights through the skies. The air is full of birdsong.
True, their behaviour is regulated by hormones and genetics, but so is the human mind. Our recognition of the change of seasons may be little different from theirs. In fact, I suppose our agrarian, urbanized, technological society has dumbed down and damped our appreciation of the natural forces that shape our world.
Each year I celebrate Summer Solstice by participating in the international Breeding Bird Survey on or near June 21. Today I am on the road traveling to the place where I will run my route tomorrow or the next day. It depends on the weather because I must go on a morning without rain or wind. I must get out of bed at 3:45 to reach the start of the route a half hour before sunrise. It is always worth the effort to hear timeless music and watch sunrise over the Muskoka and Haliburton highlands.
Citizen scientists like myself study birds because they are easy to see, hear and identify—also because they inspire joy. However, they also serve as valuable indicators of the health of ecosystems. A decline in populations of aerial insectivores may indicate humans are relying too heavily on pesticides. A diversity of bird species suggests habitats rich in trees, flowers, seeds, fruits, bugs and rodents. They serve as colourful, musical ambassadors for other more obscure citizens of the landscape.
A photo essay on National Geographic’s website this week draws attention to a thoughtless slaughter of songbirds that occurs every year in the Mediterranean. In places like Cyprus, birds are netted illegally and indiscriminately as a snack to be sold at local markets.
To most people in North American culture, where wild birds nowadays are usually accorded a kind of reverence, this brutal tradition seems inconceivable. Yet it speaks of a general human short-sightedness about any natural resource. We tend to exploit things as long as we can, by which time we have produced irreparable damage. The stuffed passenger pigeons in our museums bear mute testimony to this.
This bird below is an olive-sided flycatcher, not the loveliest of birds but one I have been fortunate to hear on several occasions during the Breeding Bird Survey. The first time, it was a life bird for me, which means my first observation of a new species for my life list. The species is declining along with other aerial insectivores. It is hard for city birders to find because it summers in northern coniferous forests.
I share it because it is plainer than many bird species. It is out of sight and out of mind. To me it is a treasure. The sound of its voice makes my heart beat faster.
So how are you celebrating the Summer Solstice today?
Olive-sided flycatcher photo courtesy of Andy Reaggo and Chrissy McClarren via Flickr Creative Commons.