The Right Place for a Robin

Today I had another one of those moments where the universe put me in the right place at the right time. I had spent the better part of the week conducting a professional development workshop for teachers, training them how to use birding and ornithology to teach science concepts and integrate them with other courses. These workshops, which take place over the course of four days and three nights at a North Georgia state park, are lots of fun, but intense, starting with a bird walk at 7:00 AM and ending with a documentary about birds at 8:00 PM. One of the highlights of the workshop was taking a bird walk with a few of the teachers during our afternoon break and seeing a fledgling Blue-headed Vireo hidden among some low branches, an unexpected gift we would have completely missed had we not heard its faint begging calls and paused to take a closer look. You’d think after four days of doing little but looking at and talking about birds, I would have had my fill of birds for a little while, but luckily for another little fledgling, this wasn’t so.

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Fledgling Blue-headed Vireo

At the conclusion of the workshop, I drove over to my parents’ mountain house about an hour away to spend the night with my parents and my two children, who were spending the week with their grandparents and attending day camp. The next afternoon, while running an errand with my parents at the grocery store, I noticed the sound of birds chittering above the parking lot. When I looked up swallows were circling. Nearby, more than 25 Barn Swallows were perched on the roof of the building, and several nests were tucked up under the eaves. Since we needed to hurry back to pick up the kids from camp, I couldn’t spend a lot of time observing, but I did snap a quick photo of some nestlings before leaving.

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Barn Swallow nestlings

In the evening, as I passed by the grocery store on my drive back to Atlanta, I decided to pull in for one last look at the swallows before making the drive home to go to work the next day. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, I noticed a small fluttering movement in the shrubbery along the side of the road. Unable to resist the temptation to have a peek at what I assumed to be a fledgling, I decided to pull over to have a look. A baby American Robin was flapping its wings while the parents circled and called anxiously, but the bird didn’t seem to be able to move. When I stepped closer to have a look, I saw that the poor bird had his foot tangled in some thread that was snagged on a bush.

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Fledgling American Robin caught on a bush

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Removing the thread

Fortunately, a nice clerk inside the grocery store loaned me a pair of scissors, and once I relocated the baby (who at this point must have been following his parents’ orders to stay stone still), I quickly cut the thread that was caught on the bush. Removing the tangled thread from the bird’s foot was more complicated as it was tightly wound around the bird’s ankle and toes, and I worried that the constriction may have caused injury. The bird’s parents flew about making a fuss, but the baby was quiet and didn’t struggle. I think he knew I was helping. Fortunately, once the baby was freed, he was able to perch in the nearby tree where I gently placed him. The parents immediately flew over, as did a Gray Catbird, who must have wondered what all the racket was about.

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Back where he belongs!

As I mentioned in my previous post, birding forces us to slow down and be attentive to our surroundings, be they nests hidden under the eaves of a grocery store or a small flutter or call from a nearby bush. Even when the birds aren’t cooperating, being outdoors with a birder’s frame of mind will bring unexpected and incredible discoveries and gifts. I guess you could say that baby robin was lucky that I drove by with my eyes open for birds, but I’m the one that was richly rewarded.

**This experience serves as a good reminder of the importance of not littering, even when we think that an item is small, harmless, and/or biodegradable. Sadly, far too many animals suffer needlessly or die slowly and painfully by becoming ensnared or stuck in our castaway items like six-pack rings, fishing line, aluminum cans, glass bottles, etc. Marine life suffers when they ingest trash like balloons, plastic bags, and other disposable plastic items. Please dispose of trash responsibly.

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What Birding Has Taught Me

As I write this, I am flying back to Atlanta, having spent the weekend in Summit, New Jersey for my 25th high school reunion. Excited as I was to spend time with old friends and to visit old stomping grounds, perhaps the highlight of the weekend was escaping the dinners and the small talk and going birding with one of my oldest and dearest friends in our old neighborhood. Although I spent the first 18 years of my life in New Jersey, I don’t recall having any curiosity about the birds in my backyard. It must have attracted them, with its towering old trees and expansive lawn surrounded on all sides by thick tracts of rhododendron. Just beyond our fence lay hundreds of acres of woods, part of the Watchung Reservation. I suppose I could identify the pigeons and crows seen in town, as well as a few of the regular backyard visitors like cardinals, blue jays, robins, and mourning doves, but I certainly didn’t know about warblers or vireos. Visiting my hometown with a greater awareness of the birds around me was immensely rewarding. Strolling along the streets in my old neighborhood, I was treated to spectacular looks at Baltimore Orioles and Black-and-white Warblers. The Blue-winged Warbler at the nearby Audubon Sanctuary was a life bird for me. How fun to see Black-capped Chickadees and note their different song. By looking carefully for the birds, I also noted many other beautiful things about my hometown that I took for granted growing up.

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Baltimore Oriole–what brilliant color! How did I overlook this bird growing up?

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Blue-winged Warbler. Like many warblers, these insectivores are elusive and in constant motion. You have to look carefully and be patient to see them.

I only discovered the joy and excitement of birding a couple of years ago. Feeding injured and orphaned birds at AWARE Wildlife Center spurred me to want to learn more about them. I attended Bird Fest at Unicoi State Park in the spring of 2012, and I was hooked after the first bird walk. I was astounded that the small group of knowledgeable and convivial birders on that walk spotted 45 species in just one morning (and now realize that was a respectable, but not exceptional number). How could I have been so oblivious for so long?! Now I never leave the house without my binoculars, and my birding adventures have taken me from such birding hot spots as Dauphin Island in Alabama to Denali National Park in Alaska. I study my field guides and keep eBird lists. My yard list for my tiny suburban backyard in Tucker is currently at 50 species.

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Getting ready to release a Northern Parula (a warbler species) at a banding station on Dauphin Island. What a spectacular bird and memorable experience!

Birding makes life so much richer. It teaches us not only about birds, but also teaches us many other life lessons and skills. Birding teaches us to be in the moment and enjoy what is right in front of us. It demands us to slow down and pay attention to our surroundings–to notice the dappled sunlight in the trees, to hear the birdsong in the air, to feel the rustling wind on our face. It helps us to recognize the interconnectedness of all living things and the importance of protecting natural habitats. Birding also helps us to sharpen our observation and recall skills. In order to identify a bird, we must quickly process a lot of information–color patterns, call notes, the shape of the wings and bill, and so on. Such sensory workouts help develop mental acuity and keep our brains active. In addition, birding entices us to explore new destinations, from the park down the street to remote corners of the earth, enabling us to take in ample fresh air and beautiful scenery. From New Jersey to New Zealand and beyond, birds allow us to admire and enjoy all of the beauty and diversity of our remarkable planet.

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Looking for birds forces us to slow down and notice details about our surroundings–like the sunlight in the trees at my local park.

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This Pondhawk (seen during my recent trip to Dauphin Island) would have been easy to miss!

Having some reflective time during this trip to my childhood home reminds me how significantly my life has been enhanced since I really discovered the birds around me. I invite you to pay closer attention to the birds around you. I’d be surprised if you didn’t find that your life is enriched when you do.

Note: Earlier this year, I started working as the Director of Education for Atlanta Audubon Society, a dream job that allows me to share my passion for birds and nature with others. This piece was originally written to share in the AAS newsletter. I encourage you to find an Audubon chapter in your area and get involved. Audubon chapters often provide free bird walks and other opportunities to learn and to gather with fellow nature lovers, and they do important conservation and advocacy work.

A couple of great articles about the benefits of birds for further reading:

http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/blogs/can-bird-songs-boost-your-brain

http://us.cnn.com/2014/05/30/opinion/doherty-save-birds/index.html?sr=sharebar_twitter

Aloha (Goodbye!) to Plastic Bags!

Have you heard the incredible news that HAWAII has become the first STATE to BAN the use of PLASTIC BAGS at checkout counters?! The ban has already been enforced on the islands of Kauai and Maui, and the ban goes into effect on the Big Island of Hawaii next week. The most populated island, Oahu (home of Waikiki Beach and the state capital, Honolulu), will comply with the ban by July of 2015. In honor of this monumental step, I thought it would be a good time to post about some of the measures my family and I have taken to eliminate plastic bags (and other plastic items) from our lives. I rarely bring plastic bags home from stores, and I haven’t purchased any plastic storage bags in many months. I hope I will never again have the need. It’s not so hard to do.  Here are a few ways to get started:

Invest in reusable containers for school or work lunches:

Options include reusable sandwich bags, hard-sided containers, and thermoses. I found some great, dishwasher safe options at The Container Store, but several other options are out there if you do an internet search for reusable lunch containers/bags. We love Lunchskins bags for sandwiches, and the stackable stainless steel Ecolunchbox is a great option for a variety of foods. I often send dips or yogurt in the small dipping container (which comes with its own lid), accompanied by fruits, granola, veggies, or chips on the side. Don’t forget the reusable cutlery, and skip the juice boxes/pouches and send a reusable water bottle or thermos, too!

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Reusable sandwich bags by Lunchskins.

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My kids love using an Ecolunchbox. Don’t forget the reusable cutlery! This bamboo set includes chopsticks for added fun!

Reuse what you have:

If you’re like I am, you probably have a drawer devoted specifically to plastic storage bags. There’s no reason not to reuse the ones you already have after giving them a good soapy wash. I find that I rarely have a need for the bags anymore, but when I do, after using them I turn them inside out, wash, dry, and put away for use again. To aid the drying process, my son created a drying rack for me with Tinker Toys, which was a great way to put his creative skills to use!  In addition, numerous grocery items we regularly purchase come in plastic bags that are easy to clean and reuse, like the bags from bread loaves and tortillas (which often have the added bonus of being resealable).

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Plastic bag drying rack created with Tinker Toys.

BYOB — Bring your own bags:

By keeping several totes under the front seat of my car, I’ve finally gotten into the habit of bringing my own bags to the grocery story. The habit took some practice (and many dashes back to the car when I’d forget), but I am faithful about it now.  I also keep a compactly folded reusable tote in my purse to use when I am shopping at department stores or other retailers. When I forget to put it back in my purse, I simply try to refuse a bag whenever possible. I know I’ve looked pretty funny coming out of QT with my arms overloaded with milk, ice cream, juice and other miscellaneous items!

Now that I don’t have a steady stream of plastic grocery bags coming into the house, I’ve had to find other ways to dispose of our cat waste, but there is never a shortage of plastic bags around (sadly). Plastic bags from bread, chips, and other snack foods are perfect for pet waste!

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BYOB – bring your own bag! Not only to the grocery store, but to other retailers as well. Many bags will fold compactly and slip into a pocket in your purse.

Keep a few straws and reusable utensils in your car, and bring your own take-home containers to restaurants:

Keeping reusable straws and utensils in your glove compartment saves plastic when you are grabbing a quick meal on the go. (When dining out, my family always refuses the straws, but they are handy in the car). On a recent road trip, my family each brought our own reusable bamboo straw to use when we stopped for lunch. Once we got to our destination, we washed the straws in the dishwasher and returned them to the car. (The same company that makes the straws, Brush with Bamboo, primarily sells bamboo toothbrushes, which my family has also adopted in lieu of plastic ones.) Like the straws, the cute pink spoons I reluctantly took awhile ago when we stopped for frozen yogurt one afternoon now stay in my glove box to be used whenever we stop for a frozen treat. I’m still working on trying to remember to bring my own reusable containers to restaurants for leftover food. Maybe they’ll find a spot in my car next!

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Reusable straws and utensils stay in the glove box of my car.

Hopefully, we are all aware of the tremendous harms that plastics have on the environment, as well as the fact that recycling them only postpones their impact on the earth, as well as degrading it in the process. If you haven’t watched the heartbreaking footage of the birds on Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean, you need to see it: http://www.upworthy.com/people-should-know-about-this-awful-thing-we-do-and-most-of-us-are-simply-unaware. In addition, who has not yet seen the horror stories (like this one here–http://csglobe.com/gray-whale-dies-bringing-us-message/#comment-1911) of  animals like whales and sea turtles who suffer painful, slow deaths after ingesting plastic items inadvertently or mistaking them for food?

I loved the opening to the recent Huff Post article about the big news from Hawaii and will share it here as my hopeful conclusion:  “Imagine a future where endless balls of plastic bags aren’t jammed underneath the kitchen sink, where the idea of a “plastic bag holder” is as quaint as a CD rack, and where that famous scene in “American Beauty” prompts children to ask their parents about the bygone days of plastic bag pollution.”

Can you picture it?!?

What measures have you taken to eliminate plastic bags and other plastics in your daily life? Please share your ideas here!