Envoy: Carriers

There are only about 4,500 people living on the tiny island of Heimaey, and each summer they have the rather unique distinction of being outnumbered by puffins, nearly a thousand to one.

The people know Heimaey as the home of Iceland’s most important harbor. They also know it to be the largest island in a volcanic archipelago called Vestmannaeyjær that lies about six miles off the mainland’s southwest coast, where Heimaey lies north of the smaller islands of Alfsey, Brandur, Suðurey, Surstsey. Puffins, who tend to be deaf to concerns of commerce and unintimidated by pronunciation, care only that Heimaey is an excellent spot to lay eggs. People have lived in the village on Heimaey for well over a thousand years, and puffins have almost certainly been coming here for longer than that.

Puffins live at sea for most of the year and return annually to their burrows onshore for the warmer months. For whatever reason, the cliffs of Heimaey have long been prime real estate in the puffin world. The birds return to Vestmannaeyjær in enormous masses late each spring, whereupon they immediately set to the tasks of courting, mating, and tending to the resulting eggs. In mid-summer the eggs hatch, and the rest of the adult puffins’ season is spent attending to the shrill demands of the infant chicks—known, rather adorably, as pufflings.

It should perhaps be pointed out that pufflings may in fact be the cutest living things in the world. They’re downy, wide-eyed, and almost perfectly round, and even when they’re finally large enough to toddle out into the world on their own, they are still only about the size of very young kittens. Their voices have not yet hardened into the groaning yawp of a full-grown puffin, and their audible communication consists almost entirely of a light, agreeable peeping.

They mature quickly though, and during the last weeks of summer, the chirping balls of waddling fluff wander out of their burrows and amble clumsily off of the island’s cliffs to leave Heimaey in their first flight. It takes them straight into the ocean, where they’ll stay at sea for a year or two. They learn quickly to fish and to fend for themselves, and within two months of their freefall from the Heimaey cliffs, many will have flown over a thousand miles to the waters off the coast of Newfoundland. Some years later, they’ll return to Vestmannaeyjær, and will again and again after that: puffins mate annually, and tend to continue the practice throughout their thirty-year lifespan. This naturally results in a stupefying output of pufflings for one island. But that first step, getting off of Heimaey on one’s first try, is harder than it seems.

 

When the pufflings emerge from the burrows, their parents have often left already, leaving their offspring’s fate to the centuries of preprogramming that ought to be guiding the baby birds instinctively into the ocean. They leave at night, and appear to use the moonlight’s reflection on the water to set their course. This, alas, does not always work out. Pufflings are sometimes not as savvy as Nature might have ideally had them, and each night, hundreds of the young birds become confused, disoriented by the lights of the village. They crash-land into the human settlement on Heimaey, whose innumerable dangers range from cars and trucks to predators and starvation. Furthermore, the pufflings are trapped and helpless on flat ground, unable to fly at their young age without the benefit of a cliffside drop to start from.

And so, during the weeks in late summer when the pufflings are making their migration, the children of Heimaey come out every night in droves to rescue the wayward ones, the birds that spiral into town by the dozen every hour. They sweep the street corners with flashlights and load whatever befuddled pufflings they can find into cardboard boxes, in which they transport them home for a night of recuperation. The next morning, the rescued puffins are brought to the seashore, pointed vaguely westward, and thrown wildly, wings flapping, into the sheltering sea. This is by now a longstanding tradition on Heimaey, recently formalized and endowed with the endearingly clunky label “Psyjueftirlitið með Brúsi Bjargfasta.” This translates literally as “Puffling Patrol with Milk Jug the Rescuer,” but in fact refers to the author Bruce McMillan, to whose name the closest phonetic equivalent in the Icelandic vocabulary appears to have been “Brúsi” (“milk jug”).

In 1995 McMillan published a photo essay for children called “Nights of the Pufflings,” which brought international attention to the young puffin rescuers on Heimaey.  In addition, the Psyjueftirlitið is partially intended as a way to gather information about the birds so that they might be better served in years to come. Rescuers are asked to register and weigh each bird they find, to note the animal’s condition and the date, time, and location of its discovery.

The last photos in McMillan’s book are of some small, cherubic Icelandic children releasing pufflings into the ocean. In the first, one of the birds is cradled in a girl’s arms and looking around contentedly. In the second, a young boy on a beach is crouched like the center on a football team, holding between his legs not a ball but a confused and yet strikingly unperturbed puffling.

The final image is of a girl on the release of this same motion. Her hands are over her head and in the distance ahead of her a recently-flung puffling is twisting, rearranging itself some twenty feet above the ocean. The bird may not look very confident at the moment of the shutter click, but its wings have awkwardly unfolded and it’s looking straight ahead and it’s angling down into the vast blue expanses of where it meant to go in the first place.

 

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On Cape Cod, baby sea turtles hatch from eggs buried on the beaches and skitter down into the water at the mid-summer moment when they finally sense it’s warm enough to do so. The distance from the nests to the surf can be a long trek for a tiny turtle, but in most places, scores of helpful volunteers manage to arrive just in time to help the hatchlings along to the ocean, watching as the young reptiles paddle cheerfully off into the sea. For a while, it’s a great place to be, and the turtles grow quickly while feeding in Cape Cod Bay over the next few months. But their lives are very quickly complicated by the fact of New England seasonality.

The waters off Wellfleet in December are nowhere anyone wants to be, particularly if you are cold-blooded. As such, it is common practice among the turtles to migrate south each fall with as much haste as their species can muster. But each year, a surprising number of the juvenile reptiles either forgets to migrate or just can’t figure out how. Their body rapidly assumes the temperature of the water around them, they go hypothermic, and many die. Others drift to shore, where they lay helplessly, running the risk of being eaten or worse.

Luckily, Cape Cod is home to many who care deeply about this sort of thing. The hypothermic turtles are scooped lovingly up from where they lie on the beach, or are swept up from the frigid waters of a Massachusetts winter into rowboats and Boston Whalers to be ferried ashore. The volunteers spirit the turtles away to rehabilitation centers running all the way from Woods Hole to Maine, where they are treated for their symptoms and slowly warmed back to life. After the winter has softened into spring and then summer, the turtles are discharged and brought back to the outer Cape, where they are returned to the water in the hope they can get it right this time.

In the winter of 2008, five Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, members of the most endangered species of sea turtle in the world, were beneficiaries of this practice. And on a cloudless day in late July, they were ceremoniously released back into the water in an event attended by throngs of cheering onlookers. Two had been equipped with alien-looking, antennaed satellite tags that would allow their post-release wanderings to be monitored by the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. The affair was covered by media ranging from the Cape Cod Times to Smithsonian Magazine, on whose website one can watch a video that sets the turtle’s release to some of the most soaring, triumphant orchestral music ever heard.

In it volunteers, their arms clamped around the wriggling Kemp’s Ridley’s, emerge one by one from a crowd of board shorts, sunglasses, and straw hats, and carry their charges down to the lapping water. They lay them on the beach and the turtles lift their hoary heads to the shoreline and crawl purposefully toward the ocean. This takes a while.

Their unhurried walk home goes off more or less without a hitch. In one case, one of the turtles gets knocked back by a few waves, gives up, and opts instead to sit stubbornly on the beach to the certain frustration of the assembled crowd; it has to be picked up and manually tossed into the surf by an embarrassed volunteer. The others are more resilient, however, and as violins fly skyward and cymbals burst joyously on the soundtrack, they trudge into the churning ocean like tanks into battle. And the crowd, unexpectedly attentive, watches admiringly until the last turtle, the radio antenna on its back slicing neatly through the gentle waves, has disappeared once again into the sea.

 

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The Trans-Canada Highway plows straight through Alberta’s Banff National Park. In the beginning, it wasn’t a very serious concern: this section of the highway was designed as a quiet two-laner, a means for a leisurely drive through one of the most scenic places in North America. But as Canada grew, so did the highway, which has since become a vital link between the country’s east and west. Over the last thirty years, parts of the road strung through Banff have out of necessity been pumped up into a very serious, four-lane, divided highway. In a National Park, the road now looks somewhat out of place.

Canada approached the highway-twinning matter delicately. Recognizing the importance of keeping important habitats connected, they poured money into developing ways for animals to continue going about their lives with minimal impact from the human construction. As a result, there is now no other location in the world with as many or as many different types of wildlife crossings as Banff. The crossings range widely, from fifty-meter wide overpasses to tiny concrete tunnels, and they can accommodate everything from insects to grizzly bears.

As part of the highway project, the park also developed a groundbreaking system of video-monitoring the crossings around the clock, which has collected a record amount of data about the animals’ migration habits. Since the full-time monitoring program started in 1996, Banff has counted hundreds of thousands of times that eleven species of large mammals have used the crossings. The animal crossings have been a resounding success by virtually every measure.

To promote the projects, a page was set up where a visitor to the Parks Canada website can peruse a series of photos, taken with the remote sensing cameras, of various animals utilizing the crossings. In one, a family of grizzlies clambers over an earth-covered overpass; in another, a wolf slinks through a concrete tunnel. A third shows a pair of deer at the entrance to the Redearth Creek Underpass, an elliptical, metal culvert. Behind them is the large rock bed and three-meter-high ungulate-proof fence that the park installed to corral them into the tunnel and protect them from the screaming four lanes that here fall just out of frame.

One deer is beginning to proceed on through the tunnel, but her partner has paused. She is looking quizzically off to the side, to the fence, to the boulders, almost as if she is wondering what else she could possibly be expected to do under the circumstances.

 

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The British Hedgehog Preservation Society is headquartered in Shropshire, England, whence it issues leaflets about hedgehog awareness, newsletters illuminating recent hedgehog-related research and news articles, and the occasional catalog of hedgehog paraphernalia (the “Hogalogue” perennially features themed neckties, cookie cutters, and stationery, among other hedgehog must-haves).

The BHPS is far from being a passive, everyday fan club, however, and when a systemic threat to the well-being of their beloved erinaceids is perceived, they have been known to leap into serious action. Such was the case in 2006, when the society went to war with the McDonalds Corporation over the treacherous shape—that is, one misleadingly inviting to a hedgehog, who stands a chance of being trapped inside after venturing in for residual ice cream—of the restaurant’s McFlurry dessert containers. Society members searched roadways for the containers and carried many captive hogs back into the wild where they released them by hand. But, as the newsletter lamented that summer, “it will never be known how many were never found at all.”

The petitioning went right up to September of 2006, when McDonald’s made the following announcement:

 

“In consultation with the BHPS [British Hedgehog Preservation Society], we have undertaken significant research and testing to develop new packaging for our McFlurry dessert that addresses this issue. We are delighted to announce that we have now introduced a new lid with a smaller aperture for our McFlurry dessert. The smaller aperture of the lid has been designed to prevent hedgehogs from entering the McFlurry container in the unfortunate incidence that a lid is littered and is then accessible to wildlife.”

 

The new McFlurry containers hit British McDonald’s locations within days of the press release. In the time since, the Society, arguably the local authority on such matters, has not reported a single hedgehog found trapped inside an ice cream container.

 

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“One night, there were so many woodfrogs coming down the hill that I could hear it,” Steve Parren says, and even over the phone you can tell his eyes are widening in memory of the experience. “It was cool and freaky at the same time, you know, hundreds if not thousands of animals bounding down that hill at once.”

Parren is the state biologist for Vermont, and the hill he describes is near his home in Monkton. It’s wooded and undeveloped and it folds down into a marshy wetland. The adjacency of these two environments amounts to some sort of utopia for salamanders, frogs, and their kin. An unbelievable number of species are now in the eons-old habit of spending the colder part of the year upland and summering in the marsh. The Monkton-Vergennes Road cuts directly through this habitat. On nights in early spring when the rains come, thousands of animals, having finished their winter term up on the hill, skitter down en masse to the wetlands to breed. And they just get massacred.

There’s a curve in the road as it rounds the hill, making it hard for motorists to see the parade of creatures making for the wetlands (especially on the damp nights that the animals favor for traveling). And the recent uptick in traffic along the Monkton-Vergennes Road from cars avoiding the construction on nearby Route 7 doesn’t help the body count either. “You always see dead things by the side of the road there,” a younger Monkton native notes when it’s brought up. “Not just the amphibians—and there are a ton of those, to be sure—but coyotes, raccoons, I saw a fox once. There’s a lot of emotionally salient death that happens there.”

The state biologist obviously loves these animals, and you can tell it pains him to deliver the statistics he’s been collecting about the site for the last two decades. “We have well over a 30 percent death rate at that one site,” Parren sighs. “Every single night, literally hundreds of animals get run over, just in the space of about eight-tenths of a mile. A couple of years ago, I’d estimate we found one thousand dead animals in that spot over the course of two nights. It’s just unbelievable.”

 

And so for more than twenty years, Parren and a motley band of like-minded conservationists have assembled on wet spring nights to carry all of the frogs, salamanders, and other wetland-bound fauna safely across the road by hand. For years it was just him, but these days there are a few others with an interest in the creatures’ safety. Now, for about three or four weeks every spring, a group of between three and six volunteers assembles in the mist or fog at around ten at night. Defying their own safety, they crouch in the dark and the mud alongside the Monkton-Vergennes Road, picking up spotted salamanders, peepers, newts, and frogs, and carrying them over to where it is safe.

After years of fighting for it, Parren and his fellow conservationists finally won a grant from the Federal Highway Administration to go toward the construction of a box culvert (not unlike the ones in Banff) under the road, a setup that would corral the animals through an appealingly dark and damp underground passage to the wetlands on the other side. It’s a contentious project: not all Vermonters are thrilled to see the transportation funds go toward salamander safety, but the volunteers are delighted. “Even with upwards of eight or nine people out there, a lot of amphibians are getting hit,” one of them told Vermont Public Radio shortly after the grant was awarded. “So they definitely need some other help. The hand-carry method is not sustainable.”

There are still a lot more funds to be tracked down though, and Parren doesn’t expect that they’ll be able to break ground on the new culvert (he’s ultimately hoping for many of them, maybe even like ten) until the fall of 2011 at the earliest. While building something like this into the design of a new road would be pretty simple, trying to retrofit a two-lane state highway running through central Vermont (not an area known for an abundance of convenient alternate routes) is “a bit harder,” he admits.

“It’s really just a tragedy, the fact that something as arbitrary as a change in how humans get around can so dramatically upset the way that these animals have lived for thousands of years. Now it’s just the changes in human traffic patterns that are putting all of these countless species in severe danger of local extinction.” It’s this sympathy and understanding that brings him back again and again to the roadside on rainy nights in March and April. Parren and his fellow volunteers have carried amphibians for decades now. All of it has been to protect a way of life, one now critically endangered by environmental changes that fell well beyond any of those creatures’ control or even comprehension.

 

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While the oldest part of Heimaey has been around for 12,000 years, most of its northeastern corner has only existed since 1973. In that year, Eldfell, a innocuous hill to the east of the village, surprised everybody by blowing tons upon tons of ash across the island and setting in motion a lava flow that would very nearly necessitate Heimaey’s permanent evacuation.

For months, the lava seeped over and around the island, swallowing Heimaey’s built and natural landscape and throwing the fate of its all-important harbor into serious peril. Five thousand people fled the island in fishing boats and several small propeller planes sent from the mainland; an extensive arsenal of water pumps was assembled and deployed by the Icelandic government in a desperate effort to hold back the advancing lava.

Within five months, the island had grown in size by one-fifth. Over 400 homes had been destroyed. Their owners, faced with the choice to stay or go, had emptied their houses, swept the floors, and in some cases even watched helplessly as the shells of the places where they had so recently lived were crushed and consumed by ash and molten rock.

But even as the lava came, the prop planes and fishing boats carried the evacuees safely to the mainland. And the pumps did hold back the lava, at least enough to preserve most of the village and commercial access to the harbor. And after it was all over, the boats and the airplanes reassembled on the south coast of Iceland and loaded up the people who had been forced to leave and carried them all back home.