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The Santa Rita Mountains in southern Arizona.
Photo by Russ McSpadden.

The Santa Rita Mountains in southern Arizona. Photo by Russ McSpadden.

The Center for Biological Diversity: Saving Life on Earth

It started with a bird.

In 1989, three young men in their early twenties met in New Mexico’s Gila wilderness while surveying owls for the U.S. Forest Service. After the trio – Kierán Suckling, Peter Galvin, and Todd Schulke – turned up a rare Mexican Spotted Owl in an ancient ponderosa pine, the Southwest’s famous old-growth resident, they learned that the tree – and indeed the whole area – was about to be felled in a massive timber sale. After bringing the news to their Forest Service manager, they were told the service’s own rules on protecting sensitive species wouldn’t stop it from going ahead. There were only around 2,000 Mexican Spotted Owls left in the world. United by a love of wild places that brought them together in the first place – Suckling was a doctoral student in philosophy, Galvin a conservation biologist in-training, and Schulke a wilderness educator – they did the next logical thing: they brought the story to a local newspaper and thereby cut short their Forest Service assignments.

Mexican Spotted Owl, an endangered bird of rocky canyons and old-growth mountain forests. Photo by ©Robin Silver.

That tree never did come down. But they could see there was a logging free-for-all across national forests, especially in the heritage lands of the Southwest. This was going to be a full-time job. With Dr. Robin Silver, a Phoenix emergency room doctor and nature photographer, they formed the group that would later become known as the Center for Biological Diversity. One of their first acts? Petition the federal government to list the Mexican Spotted Owl under the Endangered Species Act, a 1973 law which allowed for organizations and individuals to demand protection for endangered or threatened animals and plants. 

Armed with a close reading of the Act, they decided to base their fight against logging, and, in short order, mining, fossil-fuel drilling, and cattle-grazing, on the twin pillars of law and science to win sweeping, legally binding protections for endangered species. It was either that or their extinction. As Silver would say, “There’s four billion years of evolution at stake.”

Almost 35 years later, it is no understatement to say the Center for Biological Diversity has changed the environment of the Southwest, making sure its last old-growth stands remain while working to undo the harm done to its deserts, rivers, mountains, and grasslands. They’ve done so with a bare-knuckle approach that begins with forcing federal agencies to manage public lands with wildlife in mind, according to laws like the Endangered Species Act, instead of the extractive industries with which they’ve historically aligned. In their early years, working out of a dusty shack in New Mexico, their lawsuits and fearless activism earned them death threats and the hatred of ranchers, miners, and federal officials.

They were successful, though. Multiple lawsuits finally got the Mexican Spotted Owl listed as threatened and secured it eight million acres of critical habitat. The owl was one of 50 Southwestern species for which the group found scientific evidence indicating that they were endangered, and their legal actions forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list 25 of those. The Forest Service also rewrote every forest plan in the Southwest, and its timber industry dramatically shrunk.

The Center’s reputation and reach has grown from there: to the entire West, then across the country, and now internationally, from the North to South Pole and including the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. It now has 1.7 million members and supporters. To date, the Center has secured Endangered Species Act protections for 742 species and more than half a billion acres of protected critical habitat. They file more than one lawsuit a week and have a success rate of more than 90 percent. 

Sonoran Desert. Photo by Bob Wick, courtesy of Bureau of Land Management.

Alabama is one of America’s most biodiverse states, with landscapes ranging from its Gulf Coast migratory pit-stop to plateau country in the north, from coastal plain to mountains, and in between the rolling plains of the Black Belt region. Except Ansel Payne, the executive director of the 75-year-old Alabama Audubon, believes relatively few birders and nature lovers are aware of that – a realization he himself came to only fairly recently.

“I think the truth is, if people were only thinking about birds and nature, this would be on every birder’s wishlist,” he says. “There are just too many good things to see in one spot. Where else can you see Cerulean Warblers and then drive a couple hours and see Painted Buntings and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers?”

He pauses. “Nowhere!”

Payne moved to Alabama in the summer of 2015 after his wife received a professorship at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He grew up in West Virginia, an hour north of Charleston, attended college in New England, and continued his studies at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. A year into his Alabama residence, he got a job as a naturalist for Alabama Audubon, and months later became its outreach director. He’s now a champion for the state and its birds.

Dave Ewert doing field research in The Bahamas, where Kirtland's Warblers winter.
Photo courtesy of ABC.

“I was hesitant to move here, frankly. Here’s the thing, though,” he says. “People have to overcome what they think Alabama means to them. That’s our history. I wish people would recognize the complexity of the state, and how so many of the terrible stories of American history happened here, but also the heroic response to those terrible stories also happened here.”

Birmingham Audubon Society, as the organization was known when Payne joined (he led its name change last year), had been run by dedicated volunteers until 2013, but with significant support from the estate of a local family, it has grown its staff and its ambitions. With federal and state money, too, it opened a field office on the Gulf Coast to manage the protection and monitoring of beach-nesting birds there. Payne became executive director in the spring of 2018; their staff is now up to 10 employees, with several coastal biologists plus a conservation director.

“I think we’re developing a reputation as a national leader among Audubon organizations,” he says.

LaFond saw the need to do something. In 2010, while volunteering on a local winter raptor survey, she learned about a large parcel of farmland that was going to be sold and subdivided into tract housing, fragmenting the unbroken habitat that grassland birds need to survive. A few years earlier, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) had purchased almost 300 acres of critical habitat within the IBA in Fort Edward, and they were considering protecting another 180 acres, but town officials opposed further acquisitions. The state did not pay taxes on the land – although it was open to it, since it did so already in the Catskills and Adirondacks – and the town worried about that financial loss.

LaFond realized that a non-profit land trust was needed. She founded the Friends of the IBA, which would later be renamed Grassland Bird Trust, and in 2011 the organization held its first event, a Winter Raptor Fest. More than a thousand people showed up at a large dairy barn in the middle of snow-covered grasslands. Buoyed by this support, LaFond sprung into action. 

Part of that reputation comes from their efforts to make Alabama Audubon more representative of the state. For decades, Payne says, the organization would run field trips to the Black Belt Prairie Region, or Black Belt, a crescent-shaped, biologically and geologically distinct area that extends from southwestern Tennessee through east-central Mississippi and then across central Alabama. The Black Belt owes its name to its rich soil but also the agricultural slave economy that grew there because of this fertile land. Later, Civil Rights struggles played out in towns like Selma and Greensboro. Today, it remains extremely poor.

“This region is characterized by weathered rolling plains of relatively low relief developed on chalk and marl of the Cretaceous Selma chalk,” according to one ecological assessment. “Historically, the natural communities of the Black Belt consisted of a mosaic of various hardwood and mixed hardwood/pine forests, chalk outcrops and prairies.”

Kirtland's Warbler. Photo by Joel Trick, USFWS.

To learn more about the organization and its efforts, as well as to contribute directly, please visit the Grassland Bird Trust website or click the donateb  

They are rising to face the dual crises of extinction and climate change. In 2019, a United National report found that one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction due to habitat loss, climate change and other human activities. In North America, biologists have predicted that two-thirds of bird species face a similar fate. This mass extinction is entirely caused by human civilization – which means humans can work to stop it. The Center’s strategy is based on biocentrism rather than anthropocentrism. 

“All of our work flows from our deep care for all species (humans included) and their habitat, recognizing their value and inherent right to exist and thrive,” says Lori Ann Burd, its environmental health program director.

Much of that work coalesces around the Endangered Species Act. “It’s one of the most effective wildlife laws on the planet,” says Russ McSpadden, the Center’s Southwest conservation advocate.

In a 2016 review of bird recovery under the Act, the Center found that 85 percent of bird populations in the continental U.S. had increased or stabilized while under protection, and the average population increase of all listed birds was 624 percent. Endangered birds were much more likely to have increased or stabilized than sensitive but unprotected ones – a worrying takeaway for even common species. The Center’s findings showed that the Endangered Species Act not only protects imperiled species but moves them toward recovery: “the Act’s ultimate goal.”

Distinct and endangered western subspecies of Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Willow Flycatcher rely on healthy desert riparian corridors like the San Pedro River.
Yellow-billed Cuckoo photo by Larry Smith; Willow Flycatcher photo by Andrew Weitzel.

Since 1967, 120 bird species have been listed as threatened or endangered. Currently, there are 99 and four more proposed for listing. Through petitions and lawsuits, the Center has secured protection for 24 birds, says Noah Greenwald, its endangered species director. Those include the Mexican Spotted Owl, California Gnatcatcher, Lesser Prairie Chicken, and subspecies of the Willow Flycatcher, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. The Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, that subspecies, and the Lesser Prairie Chicken are proposed for listing once again in response to the Center’s petitions, with protections to be finalized in the next year.

“If there’s life to defend, the Center for Biological Diversity will be working to protect it,” a recent report noted. The range of that work is incredible. A very partial accounting of their victories of just the last couple years includes blocking an open-pit copper mine in jaguar habitat in southern Arizona, putting an end to cattle grazing on several desert rivers and wetlands, forcing the withdrawal of a gold mine in northern Arizona and a gypsum mine in Montana, and successfully challenging with other environmental groups the Trump Administration’s attack on longstanding migratory bird protections. 

But the hard-won successes are never the end of the story. “Public lands have to be constantly defended from really egregious extractive projects,” says McSpadden, who lives in Tucson and joined the Center in 2012. Forty-two percent of Arizona’s land, for example, is federally owned. “We’re constantly following these projects like whack-a-mole. We beat one of them and then another pops up.”

Russ McSpadden, the Center’s Southwestern conservation advocate, in the Santa Rita Mountains. Photo by Stu Williams.

In 2022, the Center and allies succeeded in blocking oil and gas leasing on 2.2 million acres in Colorado, home to Gunnison Sage-Grouse. They’ve recently launched a lawsuit to protect the Lesser Prairie Chicken from fossil-fuel drilling, agriculture, and drought in their habitat in southeast Colorado, eastern New Mexico, and the vast southern Great Plains. They also took to the courts this spring to oppose a livestock association’s attempt to derail listing the western subspecies of the Willow Flycatcher under the Endangered Species Act.

The list of endangered or threatened species they’ve recently won protections for is long, from keystone carnivores like gray wolves to snakes, salamanders, butterflies, freshwater mussels and plants few people will ever see or hear of, like the Phillip’s agave or the thick-leaf bladderpod. Birds, though, are often a focus of their legal battles. They’re easy to rally behind, especially in the Southwest, where “Sky Island” mountains rise out of the Sonoran Desert floor in a birdwatchers’ paradise.

The Santa Rita Mountains, one of the Madrean Sky Islands, in southern Arizona. The sky islands are isolated ecosystems of high-altitude pine-oak woodlands separated by the lower elevation Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. They host an incredible diversity of life forms and include Madera Canyon, one of the premiere birding locations in the world. Photo by Russ McSpadden.

For many beloved species, like the Red-faced Warbler and Elegant Trogon, these mountain ranges, which extend from northern Mexico to southeast Arizona, sit at the top of their continental range. In the Sky Islands, the ecosystems climb over 9,000 feet from desert scrub to a Canadian-like forest with Douglas-firs, with the birds and plant biomes changing with each thousand feet elevation gain.

The birds most at risk in this region are those which have unbreakable ties with these ancient and geographically unique places: Northern Goshawks with old-growth ponderosa pines, Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls with saguaros, a genetically distinct population of Greater Sage-Grouse with the eastern Sierras, and the western subspecies of Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Willow Flycatcher with healthy desert riparian corridors.

The bi-state Sage Grouse, a geographically isolated and distinct population of Greater Sage-Grouse, perform their spectacular mating dances exclusively in the eastern Sierras of Nevada and California. Photo by Jeanne Stafford, courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Theirs is not the sepia-toned desert wasteland of old Westerns. In the real Southwest, where McSpadden works, the biodiversity is off the charts. “It’s a wild and delicate mix of biotic communities that come together here,” he says. “It’s truly magical.”

In this region, animals of the Rocky Mountains from the north, such as black bears and mule deer, mix with those of the Sierra Madre from the south – jaguars, ocelots, javelinas, coatimundi. McSpadden has placed wildlife cameras all over the Southwest, especially the borderlands of Arizona and New Mexico, and the footage he collects – along with his photographs from his backcountry travels – have found a large audience on Twitter. On one of his cameras, over a canyon seep, a Mexican Spotted Owl came in each night to attempt to catch the bats flying in for a drink. The owl was successful once or twice for every hundred tries.

Wildlife camera footage of a Mexican Spotted Owl hunting bats in southeast Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains. Video by Russ McSpadden, courtesy of the Center for Biological Diversity.

It’s McSpadden’s job to monitor the gravest threats to these wild places, and besides the usual culprits, some are more subtly dangerous: urban sprawl and habitat fragmentation because of mega-developments and highway expansion, the spread of invasive grasses in the Sonoran Desert which are causing wildfires, and excessive groundwater pumping from depleted aquifers. Many of these issues come together in Arizona’s San Pedro River, the last free-flowing desert river, a unique and rare undammed gem that begins just south of the border and runs north for almost 150 miles until it empties into the Gila River.

The San Pedro supports one of the richest assemblages of biodiversity in North America, and it is one of the most studied rivers in the world – ecologically, hydrologically, archaeologically – because so much life depends on it. People have lived along the river for at least 13,000 years. Over 400 species of birds have been found in its watershed – close to half of all North American species. Every spring, millions of birds track north up its cottonwood-shaded banks, an oasis also populated by 84 species of mammals, including jaguars, and native endangered fish. “As a bird migration flyway, it’s unparalleled in the region,” McSpadden says.

Golden-winged Warblers nest in young forests, or brushy wetland openings within mixed-age deciduous forests, also known as early-successional habitat. The types of disturbances that once created these gaps in a forest, like blow-downs or local wildfires, rarely happen anymore. And it isn’t only Golden-winged Warblers that have suffered, but other fellow travelers like American Woodcock and Ruffed Grouse.

A decade ago, a coalition of agencies and organizations identified the Golden-winged Warbler as an urgent priority and created comprehensive plans to reverse its decline. ABC answered the call for action, securing funding to hire foresters who would restore or create their preferred habitat. With a grant from the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund, ABC hired a forester to work on state, federal, and tribal lands. And in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, ABC has partnered with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a federal agency that provides incentives to private landowners for proper forest management. ABC’s team is now up to seven foresters.

For these animals, desert riparian habitats are the difference between life and death. In 1988, Congress made the San Pedro the nation’s first Riparian National Conservation Area, a protection, however, that covers only about a third of the river’s length. The San Pedro was once one of several rivers that cut through the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, but excessive groundwater pumping dried up those peers – a development that makes the San Pedro that much more important today. 

The Center’s been in active litigation practically since the group’s founding to prevent a similar outcome for the San Pedro. For two decades, it’s been engaged in legal action against Fort Huachuca, an Army base near the upper San Pedro whose groundwater pumping plan was recently rejected by a federal judge for the fourth time. The river is the only source of water in the area, and the 50,000 people who live there continue to pull more from it than it receives in rainwater, creating a burgeoning water deficit. 

“The groundwater pumping of the Fort’s off-post population is killing the San Pedro River and the endangered species that depend on it,” Robin Silver, one of the Center’s co-founders, said recently. “Instead of doing something about it and downsizing the Fort, the Army has chosen to fabricate environmental clearance studies and manipulate federal wildlife officials. Now that it’s been handed yet another defeat, maybe the Fort will finally take action to protect the last free-flowing desert river in the Southwest.”

The San Pedro River supports one of the richest assemblages of biodiversity in North America. Photo by ©Robin Silver. 

Without the Center and its environmental allies, this desert jewel wouldn’t stand a chance. In 2021, they were able to block a planned mega-development that would have brought 70,000 permanent residents to the desert and further devastated the river’s aquifers. This August, they won a commitment by federal officials to keep trespassing cows out of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area after they had crushed the fragile streamside vegetation for years.

It’s victories like these that inspire the Center’s staff to keep going. 

“I have to stay optimistic, perhaps despite how I feel on a day-to-day basis,” McSpadden says. “As depressing as the extinction crisis is – and as depressing as it is battling mines and border walls – I couldn’t imagine a better way to keep my optimism than joining lawyers, activists, and biologists on the frontlines of this fight.”

It started with a bird.

In 1989, three young men in their early twenties met in New Mexico’s Gila wilderness while surveying owls for the U.S. Forest Service. After the trio – Kierán Suckling, Peter Galvin, and Todd Schulke – turned up a rare Mexican Spotted Owl in an ancient ponderosa pine, the Southwest’s famous old-growth resident, they learned that the tree – and indeed the whole area – was about to be felled in a massive timber sale. After bringing the news to their Forest Service manager, they were told the service’s own rules on protecting sensitive species wouldn’t stop it from going ahead. There were only around 2,000 Mexican Spotted Owls left in the world. United by a love of wild places that brought them together in the first place – Suckling was a doctoral student in philosophy, Galvin a conservation biologist in-training, and Schulke a wilderness educator – they did the next logical thing: they brought the story to a local newspaper and thereby cut short their Forest Service assignments.

Mexican Spotted Owl, an endangered bird of rocky canyons and old-growth mountain forests. Photo by Robin Silver.

That tree never did come down. But they could see there was a logging free-for-all across national forests, especially in the heritage lands of the Southwest. This was going to be a full-time job. With Dr. Robin Silver, a Phoenix emergency room doctor and nature photographer, they formed the group that would later become known as the Center for Biological Diversity. One of their first acts? Petition the federal government to list the Mexican Spotted Owl under the Endangered Species Act, a 1973 law which allowed for organizations and individuals to demand protection for endangered or threatened animals and plants. 

Armed with a close reading of the Act, they decided to base their fight against logging, and, in short order, mining, fossil-fuel drilling, and cattle-grazing, on the twin pillars of law and science to win sweeping, legally binding protections for endangered species. It was either that or their extinction. As Silver would say, “There’s four billion years of evolution at stake.”

Kirtland's Warbler. Photo by Joel Trick, USFWS.

Migrating Lesser Yellowlegs and Long-billed Dowitchers forage in temporary wetlands near Indianola, MS. This pop-up habitat was created by farmer James Failing and Delta Wind Birds (DWB) by flooding a recently harvested corn field with recaptured surface water. Photo by Mark Dolan.

During their rounds that fall, however, Hoeksema spoke to farmers who had received money from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, to flood their lands and create shallow water and mudflats for ducks and shorebirds. Flooding farm fields is a time-honored tradition in the Delta, but usually in the winter, for duck-hunting season. These pop-up wetlands were different: the funds came from the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, in which the Coast Guard sold the oil it skimmed off Gulf waters. The proceeds went to new bird habitat to ostensibly offset the coastal devastation.

But this program, called the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, was about to end, Hoeksema learned. So this group of birders decided to start their own nonprofit organization to help pick up some of the slack. They called it Delta Wind Birds.

DWB volunteers brave the mud to study shorebird stopover times at agricultural research sites in the Mississippi Delta, where DWB is creating temporary wetlands on crop fields for migratory shorebirds. From left to right: Ryan Phillips, Emma Counce, Cullen Brown, DWB board member Kristina Mitchell, and Norah Bruce. Photo by Mark Dolan.

Next they needed a logo. One Saturday that September, heavy storms rolled through and grounded migrating birds on their southbound flights. Hoeksema hoped to spot a bird that had eluded him over many years, the Hudsonian Godwit, a large shorebird with a long upturned bill. These birds breed on grassy northern tundra and then fly close to 10,000 miles to winter near the tip of South America. On this journey connecting the ends of the earth, they occasionally stop over in the Delta to rest and refuel, but usually only when forced to do so by inclement weather.

His group arrived at nine in the morning at the catfish ponds of Chat Phillips, a Yazoo County farmer who had received funds from the oil spill. He gave them permission to go around, and coming up the rise of one impoundment, they spotted a pond with large shorebirds going in and out. Dozens of Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbills flew overhead.

Hudsonian Godwit at the Phillips Brothers' catfish ponds. Photo by Jason Hoeksema.

Gene Knight, a veteran birder in the group, pointed toward a large gray wind bird with a long bill surrounded by dozens of skinny-legged American Avocets and several hundred Black-necked Stilts.

“You know who that is, right?” he asked Hoeksema.

“Who?”

“HUGO,” Knight answered, using the four-letter banding code for Hudsonian Godwit.

Hoeksema snapped photos, and this bird in flight became the logo for Delta Wind Birds.

It was an auspicious sign for their new group. Hoeksema became its president, and it slowly made inroads in the Delta. Taking a working-lands approach to conservation for migratory birds was gaining momentum in the field; in 2013, the Nature Conservancy began paying rice farmers in California’s agricultural Central Valley to create temporary wetland habitats for a few weeks each year. But this was a challenge in the Delta; one major issue was water. Hoeksema said they couldn’t justify pumping groundwater and adding to the growing depletion of aquifers there. They had to find landowners who had existing sources of surface water and were willing to pump it onto their fields after their crop harvest.

DWB President Jason Hoeksema & USGS biologist T.J. Zenzal set a mist net on agricultural land near Indianola, MS. Photo by Mark Dolan.

They had some success, especially partnering with duck hunters who could control water levels on their recreational properties, where former catfish ponds had been repurposed as wildlife habitat. But their first crop farm partner was James Failing, a third-generation corn and soybean farmer who had infrastructure in place that channeled excess water into a reservoir. In early September, 2018, Delta Wind Birds paid him to pump some of it onto his fields, creating temporary ("pop-up") wetlands. Hoeksema was reminded of the uncertainty any gardener – or plant scientist like himself – feels in that moment before realization. “When you plant seeds there’s always this little bit of mystery about whether they're going to grow, and it’s always a bit of a miracle when plants pop up.”

At Failing’s farm, the shorebirds popped up alright – or came bombing in, as Failing put it to Living Bird in a 2021 article. Within 24 hours Killdeer arrived, followed by Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and soon hundreds of shorebirds were feeding on tiny invertebrates in the flooded fields. Least, Semipalmated, Stilt, and Pectoral Sandpipers gathered in bunches. “How quickly they can find that ephemeral habitat is amazing,” Hoeksema said.

DWB volunteers set a mist net to capture shorebirds as part of a radio-tagging study to track stopover patterns. Photo by Mark Dolan.

For the next three seasons, Hoeksema and several graduate students and Delta Wind Birds volunteers studied the birds that came through each fall and even some that stayed through the winter. In 2020, a backyard fire-pit conversation with his friend and Delta Wind Birds co-founder J.R. Rigby, and his neighbor Jason Taylor, an aquatic ecologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research service, broadened their research on Failing’s farm. 

Taylor thought this flooding might reduce the downstream nitrogen pollution that results from the use of fertilizers and then creates harmful algal blooms, oxygen depletion, and large dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. They found that the pop-up wetlands on Failing’s farm removed 30-40% of the excess nitrogen that would have entered the waterways; their research also showed benefits to the soil and a small but meaningful bump in Failing’s soybean yield.

Thanks to this research, Taylor and Hoeksema secured a three-year, $1 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to expand to four farm sites in 2021. For Hoeksema, who once considered a career in ornithology, birds and bird conservation had now merged into his academic life. This year, efforts began to start tagging birds at the sites to determine their length of stay at the pop-up wetlands, and Hoeksema’s had conversations with staff at the NRCS, which is part of the USDA, about making government aid available to other farmers who want to flood their fields in the fall.

But this program, called the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, was about to end, Hoeksema learned. So this group of birders decided to start their own nonprofit organization to help pick up some of the slack. They called it Delta Wind Birds.

Next they needed a logo. One Saturday that September, heavy storms rolled through and grounded migrating birds on their southbound flights. Hoeksema hoped to spot a bird that had eluded him over many years, the Hudsonian Godwit, a large shorebird with a long upturned bill. These birds breed on grassy northern tundra and then fly close to 10,000 miles to winter near the tip of South America. On this journey connecting the ends of the earth, they occasionally stop over in the Delta to rest and refuel, but usually only when forced to do so by inclement weather.

His group arrived at nine in the morning at the catfish ponds of Chat Phillips, a Yazoo County farmer who had received funds from the oil spill. He gave them permission to go around, and coming up the rise of one impoundment, they spotted a pond with large shorebirds going in and out. Dozens of Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbills flew overhead.

Hudsonian Godwit at the Phillips Brothers' catfish ponds. Photo by Jason Hoeksema.

In addition to conservation, education and outreach are important parts of DWB’s mission. Here, participants in DWB's annual Winter Grassland Birding & Sparrow Identification Workshop explore Sardis Waterfowl Refuge in northern Mississippi. Photo by Mark Dolan.

On top of this conservation work, Delta Wind Birds also recently completed the purchase of a 14-acre parcel of bottomland hardwood forest on the shore of Sky Lake, a natural oxbow lake with thousand-year-old bald cypresses, some of the largest and oldest on earth. Prothonotary Warblers nest in their cavities. Delta Wind Bird’s Sky Lake Nature Reserve is now open to the public, with a canoeing and kayaking launch, and they would like to add a boardwalk and observation platform. From its beginning, Delta Wind Birds has conducted field trips and bird ID workshops, and these educational activities come out of its mission to promote a bird-rich region that is first known as the birthplace of the blues.

With a little luck, say a rare shorebird that shows up at a Delta Wind Birds site and sends a buzz through the birding community, recognition of the area’s ecological importance might begin to grow. Hoeksema is still waiting for another Hudsonian Godwit. He hasn’t seen one since that memorable day in 2013, so he had to settle for a tattoo of that bird on his left forearm. 

Jason Hoeksema leads high school students on a bird walk to observe nesting Prothonotary Warblers among old-growth bald cypress trees at the Sky Lake Boardwalk in Humphreys County, MS. Photo by Mark Dolan.

“I’ve been lucky enough to see Black-tailed Godwits in Europe and Bar-tailed Godwits in Oregon, but Hudsonian Godwit is almost a ghost bird for me now,” he said. “But it’ll happen again one of these days.”

As long as the reach of Delta Wind Birds continues to grow, the chances of that look good.

To learn more about the Center for Biological Diversity, as well as to contribute directly, please visit its website or click the DONATE button below.

Our newest collection celebrates the Center for Biological Diversity, a non-profit organization working to protect the lands, waters and climate that birds and other species need to survive.