A Life Focusing on the Environment
"There's a yellow-crowned night heron … and a willet off to its right," says Milan Bull, surveying the generous salt marshes at the mouth of the Housatonic River. He spots them straight away, with naked eyes. The birds are at least 100 yards away, and it takes a visitor, who fancies himself a birder, forever to locate the nondescript willet with the aid of 8-power magnification.
We leave the observation deck at the Connecticut Audubon Society's Coastal Center at Milford Point and meander across a spit of land toward Long Island Sound and a barrier beach shared by many shore species.
Here, the birding is easy, almost wanton in its sensual display. Least and common terns wheel above, chasing one another, while oystercatchers — black and white with long red bills — and both yellow- and black-crowned night herons stalk the mudflats. Great egrets, white as snow, and reddish-brown glossy ibises fly over a stolid semipalmated plover. The nests of endangered (and musical) piping plovers are protected by chicken wire enclosures, and, of course, an osprey hovers above it all.
"Miley" Bull of the Connecticut Audubon Society has been watching the birds here for 60 years. He grew up right across the mouth of the river, on the Milford mainland, and tagged along with his father on frigid mornings fishing, crabbing or duck hunting. Along the way, his father would point out the birds. They once spied an osprey, which around 1960 was a rarity, and he told Miley to take a good look because it soon would be extinct.
"Nobody cared about the marshes back then," Bull recalls. "People would plant rows of evergreens so they couldn't see the mudflats from their houses. They didn't want anybody to know they lived near a swamp."
The state certainly didn't care about marshes. In the late 1940s, Connecticut was planning to route I-95 directly across Milford Point's wetlands — dissecting its lush habitats of mudflats, tidal pools and grassy hummocks. But Milan Bull (the elder) and his fellow duck hunters did care. They rose up to complain and, remarkably, they prevailed: The highway migrated north and a place teeming with birds and aquatic life was saved for their children and grandchildren.
Miley Bull graduated from Milford Point and the local schools and enrolled at the University of Connecticut in the late 1960s. His adviser suggested that the ticket to a desired career in wildlife management, given that jobs were scarce, was volunteering and networking. It was good advice: By graduation in 1972, his summer gigs had morphed into a full-time position with Connecticut Audubon, where he has been ever since — most recently serving as its senior director of science and conservation.
In addition to his bachelor of science degree in wildlife management from UConn, Bull earned his masters in biology from the University of Bridgeport. He is a member of the Citizens Advisory Council to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and was a founding director and past president of the Connecticut Ornithological Association. He and his wife, Cathy, live in Fairfield and have two grown children.
One of Bull's many duties is to write and solicit articles for the annual Connecticut State of the Birds, which he edits. It's a well-researched, data-packed, yet eminently readable report card on our stewardship of the natural world (www.ctaudubon.org/state-of-the-birds). How the birds go, so goes the environment. A can-do optimist, Bull says that progress is clear although there is still much people can do to aid avian species.
"One of the biggest success stories is the overall return of our raptors since 1962 — when Rachel Carson wrote 'Silent Spring' and helped to get [harmful] pesticides banned," he says. "I remember as a kid looking in the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds and seeing the bald eagle and thinking, 'I wish I was around when they were here.' Now we have, what, 25 pairs nesting in the state. It's incredible. We have peregrine falcons nesting on bridge abutments in Milford, and other species that were rare — like red-shouldered hawks, Cooper's hawks and osprey — are now fairly common. I mean the raptors have come back with a vengeance."
But not all species are thriving and one of the purposes of the annual Connecticut Audubon bird report is to make politicians, conservation organizations and the public aware of things that can and should be done, whether it's to limit the use of pesticides that deplete avian food sources, or to manage various habitats, like vanishing scrubland that is home to declining species in the state, such as blue-winged warblers, rufous-sided towhees and yellow-breasted chats.
Even success stories are not unalloyed victories. For example, Connecticut's woodlands have returned in force during the past century and with them bird and animal species, like bears, turkeys and moose. But not all woods are good places for even woodland birds to nest; fragmented forests can actually be an attractive nuisance to some species.
"Wood thrushes are mature-forest birds that are declining," Bull reports. "Studies have shown that they need nearly 500 contiguous acres of unbroken forest to increase their populations. When they nest in smaller tracts interspersed with houses and roads and even fields, they are more susceptible to predation from raccoons or cats or having their nests taken over by cowbirds."
Bull's optimism does not blind him to the challenges Connecticut birds — and its other species — face in a warming world where, just as an example, he has seen sea levels rise markedly at Milford Point in his lifetime.
"In the past when sea levels changed, salt marshes could migrate with the rising water, he says. "But there's no place for them to go today. We've hardened the whole shoreline. If the marshes get flooded, they will disappear and with them all of the species we see out there today."
As remarkable and diverse as Connecticut's natural places, like Milford Point, remain given the density of human population and development, it is worth noting that one of the nation's most affluent states spends less than half of 1 percent of its annual budget caring for its environment.
Connecticut has historically been among the chintziest of the 50 states in this regard and in the current budget each taxpayer is contributing a pittance, roughly $10, to the DEEP. How this is possible with Connecticut's diverse "outdoor community" is anyone's guess: In addition to hunters and fishermen, three residents out of every 10 report watching the birds here, according to one survey, and the Connecticut Audubon Society alone is 10,000 members strong and growing.
It is worth noting that bird-watching isn't for the birds: In 2011, birders spent $41 billion nationally on their pastime and accounted for more than 660,000 jobs. Connecticut boasts an all-time "bird list" of nearly 400 species, and people come here and spend money to see them. For example, the late Roger Tory Peterson, the Moses of modern birding, moved to Old Lyme because of its magnificent marshes and bird life.
Among Bull's "duties," if that is the right word to describe things he loves to do, is to lead groups on wildlife and birding safaris in Connecticut and to exotic locales, like Tanzania and the Galapagos Islands. He understands the context of Connecticut's ecosystems in a world that is slowly but relentlessly getting warmer, drier and more crowded, where in many places not just bird populations but human ones are at the mercy of deteriorating environmental changes.
He remains guardedly optimistic: "We can solve our problems, but we have to start soon."