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Molnar: Tiny Travelers

03/21/12 5:55PM By Martha Molnar
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(Host) Commentator and former New York Times reporter, Martha Molnar, is a public relations and freelance writer who moved to Vermont.  On a recent trip to Galapagos, she was awed by the birds there, but more by the familiar warblers than by the exotic blue-footed boobies.

(Molnar) It's hard to believe, in Galapagos in December, that you're still on the same planet as Vermont. Huge frigate birds, blue-footed boobies and birds with outrageous tails fill the air. Fat sea lions slumber on the sand, their young suckling noisily. Piles of iguanas warm on rocks. Tortoises weighing hundreds of pounds meander through the grass.

Most amazing of all is that the animals, even the birds, including those with fledglings, don't move when people approach or stand around nearby chatting. The animals here evolved without natural enemies, so they're completely without fear. I could look one of Darwin's fabled finches right in the eye - even if I couldn't tell its bill from that of another.

And these animals are mostly silent. Except for the occasional bellowing of a sea lion, not even the birds bother to make any sounds. When there's no one to warn away, there's no need to waste energy making noise.

So imagine my surprise when the musical sound of warblers pierced the stillness - utterly familiar, yet here so startling. Warblers! The same birds that populate our summer woods! Miniscule and dull compared to the showy local population, they were flitting around and seemed shockingly vocal on these calm and silent shores.

It had taken us three separate flights totaling nine hours on humanity's speediest means of transportation to reach these islands. These little birds, some five inches long and weighing less than an ounce, traveled that same distance propelled only by their tiny wings and the drive to find the insects they depend upon. Traveling thousands of miles over water, much of their flight was non-stop. And here they were, our woodland neighbors, greeting us with their familiar song.

OK, so maybe these were not the very same warblers that will reappear in Vermont in May, lay their eggs, and raise their young before leaving again. But that didn't diminish the wonder of seeing them in the Galapagos.

Too bad, I thought, that after such an arduous journey they can't just rest and renew their energies, lolling about like the native birds. Too bad they apparently don't realize that nothing will attack them and that food is plentiful, right there within a beak's reach; that having evolved in our frenetic world, they must act accordingly wherever they are; and that they can't just live the easy life, bathed in sea breezes and perpetual summer. Come to think of it, why do they have to spend so much time and energy flying back and forth?

Well, the experts say that food is actually more plentiful in our woods in spring and summer, and with more food birds can breed more easily.

But I think it's for another reason as well. When we northerners are shivering our way through rain, snow and cold, gray air, Galapagos and the rain forest are certainly attractive to both birds and humans. But who can resist our spring?
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