500,000 sandhill cranes roosting along the Platte River.
One million wildebeests migrating across the Serengeti plains.
Ten million bats emerging from a Texas cave.
Literally uncountable masses of mayflies hatching along a beautiful spring creek.
Perhaps nothing captures a naturalist’s imagination quite like the world’s great herds, flocks and swarms.
There’s something beyond words when you see a herd of animals that stretches to the horizon in every direction, as is the case with the Serengeti’s wildebeest, zebras and gazelles.
And accompanying such a great herd is a full range of other life: from the big scavengers like lions and cheetahs, to scavengers like vultures and jackals, to the much smaller beneficiaries like dung beetles.
All survive due to the massive concentration of prey.
But such sightings can also remind us what we’ve lost. After all, giant concentrations of animals used to be everywhere… just a normal part of a landscape. Can we save those that are left?
I once stood on a remote section of Assateague Island and watched a massive flock of snow geese that took 45 minutes to pass — an awe-inspiring sight.
Once upon a time, such abundance of waterfowl was taken for granted, with similar flocks — even larger flocks — stretching across the Chesapeake Bay, throughout the prairie pothole country of the Midwest, indeed across most of the North American continent.
Most of those waterfowl flocks are gone, just as are most of the 30 million bison that once roamed the plains, the migrating salmon that turned lakes red in Idaho, the billions of passenger pigeons that darkened the skies.
Now it’s imperative that we conserve what we have left. It’s not always easy.
Great concentrations of animals offer the illusion that such abundance does not need our help. That’s hardly the case.
In the 1990’s, millions of the weird-looking saiga antelope roamed the Russian and Central Asian steppe. Their population was widely considered secure. In less than two decades, just 50,000 remain.
Bats are disappearing due to the white-nose fungus; sharks disappear due to overfishing.
The reason many animals congregate in large numbers is to migrate, which means they need large swaths of habitat — sometimes across thousands or even millions of acres.
But it’s easier to protect that habitat now than to try to restore wildlife populations once they’re gone.
Of course, when you ears are echoing with the cries of millions of birds in the Galapagos, or when you’re standing underneath 10 million bats as they flicker out of a cave, looking like thick smoke stretching across the Texas Hill Country, you don’t think of loss or opportunity or even conservation.
You just enjoy the moment — the sheer exuberance of so much wildness all around you.
Such inspiring spectacles are still a part of our world. The question is: Do we have the will and foresight to protect these natural treasures?
(Photo: Millions of bats depart Frio Cave, Texas. Credit: Matt Miller)