Paper Chase

Paper Chase

With the holidays over, it's worth noting that each year America's mailboxes are clogged with 20 billion catalogs, many of them made from trees logged in Canada's boreal forest.  To see what's at stake for birds, our writer ventures to a region so biologically rich it's called "North America's Amazon."

By T. Edward Nickens/Photography by Per Breiehagen
Published: January-February 2009

Beyond a 20-foot-tall bulwark of boulders, we find Kawitos Lake and clear paddling through the last hours of daylight. Later that evening, we huddle under a tarp as rain dimples the lake. With a backpacker's folding spatula, I gingerly flip walleye fillets that sizzle and pop in a half-inch of oil. Wells perches on a log, tallying up the day's work. "Sixty-six species," he murmurs. "Impressive." And it's not just the variety of species that's remarkable but the density of so many of the bird populations. "Every place we stopped," he says, "we picked up a couple of Tennessee warblers. Do that from Alaska to Newfoundland, and you end up with millions of birds. And that's just one species."

For the next two days we paddle long miles beside lakeshore curtained with black spruce trees, their lower limbs draped with green mosses and gray lichens. The occasional beaver pond or meadow winks through the trees like light through a cracked door, but the woods are mostly a tangle of standing trees, fallen trunks, and crisscrossed boughs, darkened with shadow. In other places, massive lightning-strike fires have left behind skeletal trees and bare rock outcrops like the bones of long-vanished giants. I relish the wide-open views of Kawitos Lake, punctuated with tiny, rocky islets fringed with spruce trees. Common terns and mallards hunker down as we quietly drift by. Bonaparte's gulls cling to rocky shores. These are the only gulls that nest almost exclusively in trees, and an estimated 95 percent of the world's population breeds in the boreal forest. They wheel low over the water, mobbing baitfish, I can only guess, as the miles pass under the canoe. Wells and I fall into a pleasing, unspoken cadence--plant the paddle and pull, time and time again, inching across the boreal.


Somewhere overhead, a cartwheeling flock of white-winged crossbills courses above the tree canopy as I scramble for binoculars. Most of North America's white-winged crossbills breed in the Canadian boreal, using their signature bills to pry open cones and lap up as many as 3,000 conifer seeds in a day. Sighting one is a coup for any American birder.

Wells doesn't even flinch. He calmly jots down "WWCR"--the ornithologist's abbreviation for the species--and cocks his head to one side. The pencil moves again: "SWTH." A Swainson's thrush. Now a magnolia warbler. Ruby-crowned kinglet.

It is our last full day on the water, and we're partway through a circumnavigation of Triangle Lake. Wells wants a deeper portrait of the boreal's breeding bird communities than our stop-and-go sampling system has afforded. We've beached the canoe for recordings at three different spots, all within a few miles of one another.

This sampling site is deep in black spruce woods, where birds zip through the canopy, cling to aspens, and call from unseen perches. It's like a three-ring circus; I don't know where to watch. Within 60 seconds Wells has identified 13 species by sound. Breeding birds, he explains, function better if they are in a neighborhood with lots of other birds. "We are just beginning to understand the complex social dynamics," Wells whispers. "There's a lot of hanging out to see who the best singers are, a lot of scoping and checking out and decision making about who will make the best mate."

He's deeply worried because this vast landscape is being reordered before scientists fully grasp how breeding birds use it. "We're messing with the boreal forest without much knowledge of what we stand to lose," Wells says. "We can't predict the ripple effects these changes will have."

We take our last sound recording from the most scenic stop on the trip. From the top of a 50-foot-tall slab of granite, the Albany River shimmers like pewter, spreading east and west, its shores armored here and there with cliffs. On the far side of thousands of square miles of forest, the serrated horizon is edged with old-growth black spruce, snaggled and fanglike. Wells snugs down the headphones and slips into his familiar, trancelike state of auditory detective work.

Beside him, I simply stand and soak it all in. I hear the nasally toot of a red-breasted nuthatch, and a Swainson's thrush sing its rising, fluty chant. And then there's the unmistakable carol of the white-throated sparrow, whose whistled song brings a bit of the boreal to backyards across the eastern half of America--Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada!

The birds are singing, breeding, feeding. Raising young and laying on the fat for the long flight south. For a full week I've been buffeted by the dichotomies of Canada's boreal forest, alternately awed by what is already lost and the possibility that yet remains in its untouched and unfragmented reaches. Looking out from this rocky aerie, the choices offered by the scene at my feet seem easy: Forget the 20 billion catalogs, the sales solicitations, the last-minute-shopping fliers. Instead think of the unfathomable bounty hidden in these trees--nests and eggs and barely fledged chicks. The true gifts from Canada's boreal forest are the ones that arrive on feathered wings.

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