It may not be a seagull

Shorebirds are easy for casual observers to ignore. Gulls are white and fly; ducks are black and bob; sandpipers are so tiny, here-and-gone, they’re unreal. Anyway, shorebirds come in such transient, distant flocks that they disappear into Nature like the wind and the waves.

The Coastal Center at Milford Point, run by the Connecticut Audubon Society, teaches Milfordites and other visitors to see more. The exhibits and activities, especially for children, open eyes to the real character and individuality of avian species native to Long Island Sound, or, just as important, species migrating through.

Two examples prove the point: A program to protect piping plovers who nest on Milford’s beaches; and the Osprey Cam, which each year shows a pair of osprey hatching and raising their young.

These educational services alert the public to various species’ particular traits, while at the same time emphasizing the common migratory pattern of their lives. Milford’s piping plovers winter along the Gulf of Mexico, the southern Atlantic Coast and the Caribbean, while local ospreys leave every fall for the Caribbean and South America.

(Grassland or forest birds can migrate too, but, in general, shorebirds migrate more frequently and farther.)

Humans like to think of globalization as a recent sign of advancement for our species, but birds achieved globalization eons before we existed.

Humility toward other species, apart from being inherently virtuous, promotes human survival. If we accept other species’ problems as our own, we can pick up their early warnings. For instance, researchers have realized that monitoring shorebirds can, in effect, map climate change: Wherever known piping plover habitat is lost due to sea-level rise, alarms can be raised to protect or prevent human development behind it.

Researchers also see shorebirds as “canaries” for ocean pollution. They prefer experimenting with birds as proxies instead of fish or marine mammals: First, because, while shorebirds disperse over a wide range picking up toxic chemicals through what they eat, they return to central breeding areas where they can easily be captured, tested and released; second, because pollutant levels have less natural variance in shorebirds’ bodies than in the bodies of fish or marine mammals: Thus, smaller sample sizes can yield significant results.

In the past, DDT, certain other persistent organic chemicals, and mercury have all been detected via shorebird monitoring, and subsequently banned. But chemicals can last for years after bans, and new chemicals are always being introduced, so monitoring remains important.

A considerable pollution problem in the future will no doubt be contamination-by-plastic. Seabirds mistake bits of plastic for food and have been found with huge body-burdens of plastic alone; an additional burden comes from toxic chemicals adsorbed onto the plastic from seawater.

If the birds don’t die outright from the plastic, then the attached chemicals sicken them. That’s a wake-up call for humans.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull was yesterday’s sentimental fiction, and has been forgotten, but Sentinel Seagull is today and tomorrow’s environmental scout, and deserves attention.