First Annual Long Island Natural History Conference


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Changes to Our Flora and Fauna
Peter Alden
(Keynote Address, 11:30-12)

Our landscapes and habitats and their distinctive mix of plants and animals have changed over the eons. Our planet has had colds and high temperatures like any malaria victim but on a much slower gradual basis. Sudden events such as the Yucatan asteroid long ago, the arrival of intelligent bow & arrow and spear-hunter tribes fanning out south to Tierra del Fuego, and more recently the arrival of Europeans with guns, germs, and steel have each had a dramatic impact.

This program will focus on the 1800’s, 1900’s and 2000’s. By the mid 1800’s our steel axes and saws and ploughs and guns resulted in a vastly different landscape that nourished our great nation. The northeast was heavily forested when the pilgrims and following boatloads landed in the 1600’s. Within two centuries our ancestors removed almost all our woodlands and replaced it with endless farms and pastures and orchards.
Many larger carnivorous and herbivorous mammals and some once common birds were exterminated completely.

Great Plains birds and flowers flooded east to the man-created prairies and open landscapes as we cut virtually every tree from Plymouth to Omaha for our organic crops and farm animals. Today re-virgining forests have sprung up over most abandoned farms. Endangered species lists of grassland and open-country birds and other life forms dominate such lists when in fact many were only here temporarily.

Major new issues have come up in the 1900’s. There has been an enormous increase in the numbers and ranges of medium and large mammals due to a drastic decline in hunting and trapping. White-tailed Deer have gone from being a threatened species in 1900 to a major nuisance. Due to a lack of large carnivores (wolves and cougars) and less trapping the medium-sized carnivores are thriving and having large impacts.

Neither Darwin nor Thoreau in the mid-1800’s found invasive alien plants and animals (and pathogens of all sorts) to be a major concern beyond the rats that exterminated defenseless island creatures worldwide. Accidental introductions of some invasives from overseas along with intentional introductions have gone haywire. Insect pests from abroad have devastated some crops providing huge markets for all the new poisons we’ve created such that little of our food is safe except for rare and expensive organics. Some popular garden plants from the Far East and Europe have become invasive alien pests. Learn which are the worst and some of their impacts.

Bird feeding may not be all that good an idea in the long run. Feral and loved house cats are still allowed outside and kill hundreds of millions of our native songbirds. The major issue of man-accelerated climate change has already begun to impact the outdoor world. Studies done by Thoreau in the 1850’s and replicated recently show that many flowers are blooming earlier and birds are returning earlier by a week or more, backing up meteorological data. Some of our southern species moving poleward is due to feeders, some to climate change. What took a hundred million years to deposit in the Carboniferous is now being crazily dug or pumped up to end up in our atmosphere and oceans in just 300 years!

Peter Alden is a pioneering ecotourism guide who has scouted out and led many of the first birding and natural history tours worldwide. He has lectured and been field naturalist on over 300 birding trips, safaris, cruises, and private jet trips to 100 countries on the 7 continents and the 7 seas for 50 years.

He is a former VP of Lindblad Travel and has worked many years for groups such as the Massachusetts and National Audubon Societies, Overseas Adventure Travel, TCS Private Jets, Harvard Museum of Natural History, Road Scholar/Elderhostel. He is a popular lecturer on numerous ships such as the Sea Cloud, Ocean Princess, Clelia II, Polar Star, Ocean Pearl, Lindblad Explorer, Yorktown Clipper, and many others.

In recent years he has also focused on biodiversity issues in eastern North America, giving lively talks on the invasive alien plant crisis (and the role of birds in their spread), the ups and downs of our birds, changes in our flora and fauna, and the pros and cons of bird feeding. He gives about 50 lectures a year to all sorts of groups from universities, schools, garden clubs, land trusts, retirement homes and conservation/travel groups.

In 1998 and again in 2009 he organized the world’s first Biodiversity Days with Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson where 2,700 species were found by hundreds of invited experts within 3 miles of Thoreau’s Walden Pond. He also was hired to organize the world’s first government -sponsored Biodiversity Days for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs with free guided nature walks in 300 towns statewide.

As an author he has sold over 2,000,000 popular nature guides including the National Audubon Society regional field guide series. His best selling book is the Audubon Field Guide to African Wildlife (almost a half million sold so far). His “Finding Birds Around the World” in 1981 was the world’s first planet-wide birding travel guide.


© 2012 Long Island Nature Organization, Harbor Electronic Publishing