Monday, July 17, 2017

Hooded Orioles: My 200th Bird of 2017

I am an ardent list-maker.  I love lists of all kinds.  Grocery lists, packing lists, to-do lists.  Lists of trails hiked, books read, birds seen.  So naturally, I have a "Life List" of bird species I've encountered in the wild.  This year I decided to see how many different species of birds I can see in California in one calendar year: my own "Big Year," scaled-down to more manageable proportions. 

I am happy to report that as of July 14, 2017, I have recorded 200 species of birds in California since January 1, 2017. 

My 200th bird was one I have looked for unsuccessfully several times this year: a Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus).  More than once, I've stood and watched a palm tree not too far from where I live that was reported to be a Hooded Oriole nesting site.  And more than once, I've turned away without a new bird for my list.

Hooded Orioles are birds of the southwest, inhabiting open woodlands of sycamores, willows and cottonwoods trees.  But perhaps the most important arboreal element for suitable Hooded Oriole habitat is the humble palm tree.  These birds almost invariably choose nesting sites in palms, literally sewing their hanging nests onto the undersides of palm fronds by poking holes in the thick leaves and pushing fibers through to create stitches.  In the southwestern United Sates, desert oases and suburban yards landscaped with palm trees are good places to look for this bird.

Much like the success Anna's Hummingbirds have experienced in expanding their range to follow landscape plantings of flowering ornamentals, Hooded Orioles have expanded their range north as ornamental palm trees have been planted in cities and suburban neighborhoods.  (As of 2017, Hooded Orioles can be found in suburban areas as far north as Arcata, California.)  This explains why I found my Hooded Oriole not at a lush desert oasis, but in a suburban backyard in Santa Rosa, California.

The credit for spotting the bird first goes to Eric.  We were visiting family in Santa Rosa over the weekend, relaxing in the backyard, when Eric pointed out what looked to him like a Yellow-headed Blackbird (which are the same colors and a similar size and shape - a respectable guess, especially since the two species are both in the blackbird family, Icteridae).  Because we were nowhere near suitable habitat for Yellow-headed Blackbirds (and possibly because I was otherwise engaged... jumping on a trampoline...) I didn't even look for the bird right away.  But a few minutes later, a flash of brilliant yellow caught my eye and I saw it: a beautiful , unmistakable Hooded Oriole!  Even without binoculars, there was no mistaking this bird.  Luckily, my camera was on hand, and I managed to snap a few photos.  I watched the pair of orioles for the rest of the evening as they foraged in the trees, flying from tree to tree and always returning to their chosen suburban palm tree.

One of the neat things about birding is the element of surprise.  You never know when you'll see something really special.  You may visit the confirmed nesting site of a certain bird, wait there for an hour and never see anything, only to have that same bird fly directly into your path in a completely unexpected place.  Such was the case with my Hooded Orioles!

For those who are interested, at the end of this year I will publish a list of all the bird species I encountered in 2017!

Friday, July 7, 2017

Kick the Plastic Habit: Plastic bags and other single-use packaging

A mother sea otter attempts to remove a plastic bag from her pup.
Photo credit:

As residents of this beautiful planet we call Earth, we are charged with its stewardship.  Regardless of nationality, economic status or religious beliefs, we are all temporarily tethered to this breathtaking sphere of rock, suspended miraculously in space.  From the earth, we all derive life-giving sustenance: clean air, pure water, nutritious food.  We bathe in its waters, feast on its abundance, and revel in its beauty.  The care of our planet and our finite resources should be the easiest thing in the world (no pun intended) for us all to agree on.

And yet... we are clearly failing, somewhat miserably.

Worldwide, one million plastic bags are used every minute.  In one year, our world of brilliant, talented, beautiful human beings manages to use 500 billion single-use plastic bags. 

For what purpose?!  To carry items (also wrapped in plastic) a few yards from the trunks of our cars into our homes.  How have we come to this?!

Americans alone use 100 billion plastic bags every year.  That's just over 300 bags per person each year!  Multiply that by all of your family members, young and old alike, and that adds up to nearly 1,500 bags used by the average American family in one year.

The vast majority of these bags are used for just a few minutes before being discarded (or waded up under the sink or... stuffed into the space beside the refrigerator??  Who does that?!  I've seen it more than once...).  A shocking number of these bags end up in the ocean, where 80% of the plastic pollution has entered the water from land-based sources.  (Next time it's windy outside... notice the magical way plastic bags can travel great distances as they drift on endless air currents.  You may suddenly realize the ocean is closer than you thought.)

Photo credit: One Green

About one percent of plastic bags are actually recycled.  (Good job, Average American Family, on recycling those 15 bags per year!)

One plastic bag may take up to 500 years (or more) to degrade; but plastics do not biodegrade, or return to the earth; they never go away.  Instead, plastics photodegrade, which means they continue to break down into smaller and smaller pieces, persisting in the environment (and the food web) as microplastics. 

California's recent plastic bag ban, enacted in November of 2016, is certainly a step in the right direction.  The flimsy single-use grocery bags are hopefully becoming a thing of the past (though as I just mentioned, they're still going to be around for a long, long time).  Stores now sell "reusable" plastic bags at checkout, which are basically just thicker single-use bags.  They're intended (and certified) for 125 uses, but I've already seen plenty of them littering the roadways in my area.  They represent a loophole and are far from ideal.  And in my opinion... we need to look toward phasing out other plastic packaging and wrapping as well - sandwich bags, plastic cling wrap, etc.

Photo credit: Sierra

Happily, there are plenty of easy things you can do at home to help the environment, and using reusable shopping bags has got to be one of the easiest.  The initial investment is small; you might already have a seldom-used beach tote or basket laying around that will work perfectly well as a shopping bag.  Reusable mesh or fabric produce bags are excellent as well. 

Shopping for favorite items sans plastic packaging gets a little bit more complicated, but do what you can.  Of course, the holy grail of the plastic free quest is a massive selection of affordable foods in bulk bins.  I would love to pop into my local grocery store, armed with my assortment of reusable bags, and fill them with all manner of staple goods - beans, rice, cereal, nuts, crackers, etc. - for a reasonable price.  And if this is a reality for you, then be thankful!  (I'm jealous.)  Where I live, a small-ish town in California's Central Valley, this kind of grocery store set-up is difficult to find, especially for those of us trying to stretch our dollars (as most of us in the valley are, by the way).

Bulk bin heaven: how all grocery stores should function.  This is the stuff of dreams, my friend!
Photo credit:

But, let us not lose hope.  There are a few key ways to reduce your plastic consumption:

1.  Use reusable grocery bags.  Use them at every store you visit, for every purchase.  Keep them on your person at all times so you will remember!  (They make neat little bags that fold up inside themselves for convenient storage in your purse or pocket.)

2.  Use reusable produce bags.  Those little filmy produce bags at the grocery store hold even less potential for future use at home than regular grocery bags.  Plus, they're a pain to open; just don't bother.

3.  Avoid plastic packaging.  Choose loose potatoes, onions, oranges and apples instead of those that are prepackaged.  Select items in glass or paper/cardboard packaging instead of plastic, since glass and paper both have more recycling potential than plastic. 

Maybe you'll think of this seal the next time you reach for a neat little mesh bag of oranges at the grocery store.
Photo credit:

4.  In the kitchen, find viable alternatives to plastic sandwich bags, Ziploc bags and plastic wrap.  There are plenty of food storage alternatives to explore, like reusable sandwich bags, bees wax fabric wraps, and glass food storage containers (ranging from lidded bowls and traditional Tupperware-type containers to trusty glass jars - either the canning type, or pickle jars you have washed out!)

5.  As a last resort, if you absolutely must buy plastic packaging, take care to recycle it properly
Recycling - or more accurately, downcycling, since the material loses quality as it is recycled - is never the perfect solution, but it's better than nothing.

Pay attention to the plastic resin codes, the triangular symbols on all plastics.  Just because a plastic has the "recycling" symbol doesn't mean it's recyclable!  The numbers inside the triangle indicate the type of plastic and it's potential for recycling. 

Best plastics in terms of health and recyclability:
Number 2 (HDPE, high density polyethylene: white or colored plastic, like milk bottles, shampoo bottles, and plastic grocery bags - these can be downcycled)
Number 4 (LDPE, low density polyethylene: soft, flexible plastic, like squeeze bottles)
Number 5 (PP, polypropylene: hard, flexible plastic, like yogurt containers and other "tubs")

*Number 1 plastics are middle-of-the-road in terms of both health and recyclability.  Avoiding them is best!  And yet, this type of plastic is extremely prevalent.  Number 1 plastics are PET, polyethylene terephthalate; they are designed for single-use only, and further use can cause chemical leaching.  This type of plastic is tough and clear - the type that makes up our despised plastic water bottles and other bottles, including salad dressing bottles. 

Avoid these plastics:
Number 3 (V or PVC, polyvinyl chloride: this is arguably the nastiest plastic out there, and takes numerous forms, from the well-known PVC pipes and garden hoses, to shower curtains, plastic toys and plastic cling wrap.  It's not easy to recycle and contains the most dangerous chemicals.
Number 6 (PS, polystyrene: the infamous Styrofoam, which crops up in packaging, cups, take-out containers, egg cartons, cd and dvd cases and more.  Plastic cutlery is also number 6.)
Number 7 (OTHER, or commonly PC, polycarbonate: a catch-all category for all the plastics of mysterious origin that have wormed their way into our lives.  Best to leave these alone as often as possible, though that is difficult since this category encompasses such ubiquitous things as sunglasses and car parts, acrylic and nylon.)

Now, I'd like to make a caveat.  The use of plastics isn't all bad.  My laptop, phone and camera?  All partially plastic.  Plenty of life-saving medical instruments and supplies?  Plastic, or made up of some plastic components.  Certain nifty lightweight camping and backpacking pieces of gear that I enjoy using (like my four season tent, backpack, sleeping pad and fleece sweater)?  Definitely synthetic products.  But these things are all destined for long and useful lives when we care for them properly and change our throw-away mentality.  (My five-year-old laptop is still kicking, much to the disappointment of the guys at Best Buy.)

The point is, we must be wise in our stewardship of plastics (and the oil they are derived from) just like any other resource.  Single-use items of any material are generally unwise, wasteful and unsustainable in the long run.  Should plastics be avoided entirely?  Well, sure, that would be great.  But it's unlikely to happen. 

A more realistic goal is to phase out the plastics that are the easiest to live without.  At the top of the list of utterly unnecessary plastics are plastic bags (and other plastic packaging), plastic bottles, all types of take-away cups (like coffees and fast food sodas), and straws.  Take the Plastic Free July challenge this summer and see what habits you are able to change.

Below is a [somewhat graphic] photo of the stomach contents of a Cuvier's Beaked Whale that died after ingesting 30 plastic bags and other pieces of plastic.  I'd love to tell you that finding this story was difficult since this sort of occurrence is such a rarity, but a quick Google search will yield plenty of results of this nature.  Plastics in our oceans has become a huge epidemic.

photo courtesy of

Somewhere around one million sea birds and 100,000 mammals (whales, seals, etc.) die each year from ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic pollution.  And I haven't even mentioned the effects of plastic pollution on human populations around the world!

Plastic removed from the stomach of a dead Cuvier's Beaked Whale.  Read the full story here:
photo courtesy of

A few simple lifestyle changes have the potential for dramatic positive results.  It wasn't that long ago that plastics and single-use plastic bags and packaging were unheard of!  And yet, folks managed to live perfectly productive, fulfilled lives without them.  Let's imagine a world where we carry groceries in reusable bags and wrap our food and other products in sustainable materials, like paper, glass and fabric.  Let's imagine a world where children don't have to swim through scummy layers of plastic in their local waterways, where whales, turtles and birds don't die of starvation from stomachs full of plastic.

Check my facts and learn more here:
and here:

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Kick the Plastic Habit: Plastic water bottles and other single-use beverage containers

I'm a few days late (blame another beautiful camping trip!) but... Happy Plastic Free July!!! 

Single-use plastics have become a HUGE problem in recent decades, persisting in the environment indefinitely and posing life-threatening hazards to wildlife.  Even if you don't care about the sea turtles, birds, whales and the like, realize this: plastics do not "break down."  They break up into little pieces, and those little pieces become part of the food chain.  If you remain unconvinced... surely you can relate to the feeling of disgust that comes with seeing plastic trash covering our roadsides, beaches and other wild areas.

The premise of having of Plastic Free July (or summer, or life!) is simple: Refuse the single-use plastic items in your life.  They have GOT TO GO.  All of them.

This sea turtle died after trying to eat a plastic bag, which turtles commonly mistake for jellyfish. 
(Photo courtesy of

Single-use plastics have become so ubiquitous in our convenience- and consumer-driven culture that I would wager you hardly notice them anymore.  If we were to be completely strict (or honest with ourselves) everything from toothpaste tubes to bottles of motor oil count as disposable plastics.  But for the sake of simplicity (and scaling down to a manageable task), my next few blog posts will focus on the most commonly used and abused throw-away plastics.

A sea bird, dead after getting its beak stuck in a plastic bottle cap.  (Photo credit: 

By the way... the graphic photographs will keep coming until my point is made, with no apologies; we must see these images and face what we've done.

Coyote in New Hampshire, dead after getting its head stuck in a plastic jar (Photo credit: NH1 news)

A line-up of the top single-use plastic offenders includes the following:

Plastic bottles and other single-use beverage containers (think all fast food and coffee shop drinks)

Plastic packaging of all types (it's truly everywhere, and it is all equally despicable)

Plastic bags (grocery bags, Ziploc bags, etc.)

Plastic drinking straws (utterly unnecessary, and a much bigger problem than most people realize.  Learn about it at Plastic Pollution Coalition and The Last Plastic Straw.)

Balloons (Visit Balloons for more information on these nefarious pollutants) and other single-use or easily broken party supplies (think plastic table cloths and cheap plastic party "decorations" and favors)

Single-use plates, cups, bowls, knives, forks, spoons, etc.  (It's disgusting to me that we have reached a point where "elegant" disposable plastic tableware is successfully marketed and so highly praised.)

But today, I'll target my most dastardly and despised foe: I'm looking at you, plastic water bottles! 

Photo credit: Environmental Investigation Agency

Walking the dogs the other day, I paused to let a large delivery truck rumble past, holding my breath against the inevitable cloud of exhaust that followed.  Painted in bright colors on the side of the truck was the logo and advertising slogan of a popular bottled water company.  And I was struck by the insanity of the situation before me. 

Here we are in America, a wealthy, developed country, with far, far more than we need to meet our physical needs.  We have layers upon layers of brilliant infrastructure designed to deliver clean running water to our homes and businesses - even to our outdoor faucets, sprinkler systems and swimming pools.  Our water is tested regularly and kept safe - for drinking! 

The small miracle of this infrastructure and the technology that goes along with it is not lost on me.  It is astounding.  It is beautiful.  It is something to be thankful for. 

We turn on the tap and life-giving water flows freely.  We are entirely without fear or even passing concern for the water's cleanliness, safety, drinkability. 

And yet, Americans will happily pay 2,000 times more for their water to come packaged in little, clear, petroleum-based single-use plastic water bottles.  Two thousand times more! 

According to Business Insider, in 2012 (the most recent data available), Americans spent $11.8 billion dollars on bottled water, an increase of 6.5% from the previous year.  That 11.8 billion dollars bought 9.7 billion gallons of water - all in plastic bottles.  If you do the quick math, this puts the cost per gallon at $1.22. 

But let me remind you that a huge amount of additional resources are behind the bottled water industry; it's not just about the water.  The plastic for the bottles and the fuel to ship them across the country are the two most obvious examples of additional resources consumed in the bottled water industry - and both are derived from oil.  According to estimates by the Earth Policy Institute, more than 15 million barrels of oil are used every year to make plastic water bottles for the United States alone.  And that's just for manufacturing.  Add in fuel to transport bottled water to stores... and fuel to transport empty bottles to recycling facilities, or more likely, incinerators and landfills.... and the number skyrockets.

Which brings me to my next point: recycling. 

"I recycle all of my plastic bottles," you say.  As you should.  Recycling is not an entirely useless endeavor... but it is far, far less sustainable and redeeming than most believe.  The quality of recycled plastic is less than that of virgin material and continues to degrade with each subsequent recycling...
until one way or another, all plastic is eventually destined for landfills and incinerators, or to persist as minute particles in the environment and food web (especially in our oceans).  When you can, choose glass, which can be recycled nearly indefinitely without losing quality, or sustainably sourced paper products, which can also be recycled or composted.

Simply not buying plastic bottles and therefore decreasing the demand for them will do far more good in the long run than recycling ever will. 

We should not have to spend money and resources to "recycle" items that should never have been manufactured in the first place!

"More than 60 million plastic bottles end up in landfills and incinerators every day – a total of about 22 billion last year. Six times as many plastic water bottles were thrown away in the US in 2004 as in 1997."  - Container Recycling Institute

In 2004, America's national recycling rate was 17%.  One in six plastic water bottles was recycled.  So clearly, even you faithful recyclers are grossly outnumbered.

Photo credit: Parley for the Oceans

Sometimes I do despair; I can't help but wonder what have we done?  How did we get to this point without noticing - or caring - about the damage our throw-away society has created?  How can we possibly go back to fix the damage and change our atrocious habits?  Why does it seem that no one else sees the problems I see?  Why do so few seem to care?

And, most importantly, what are we to do?  Am I saying we must all dehydrate?  No, of course not!

Reusable water bottles are a thing of beauty as well as convenience, once you get the hang of them.  Believe it or not, we humans have done quite well over the millennia without single-use plastic water bottles.  From hunter-gatherer-era flasks made of animal skins, to metal Civil War era canteens, to modern favorites like stainless steel canteens and BPA-free Nalgene bottles, we have always found a way to carry water, our most basic need.  I assure you, it can be done!  All it takes is a very little bit of training and discipline. 

Rocks, shells, driftwood, seaweed: the only things that should be littering our beaches! 
On this particular beach walk, I picked up (and disposed of) assorted plastic bags, balloons and their strings, bottle caps,
flip flops and a broken iPhone, in addition to plastic water bottles.

Start the Plastic Free July challenge today by swapping your plastic water bottles for reusable ones, and refuse to go back! 

If cost seems to be an issue, your first step is to do some quick math: add up how much you spend in one month on bottled water (and soda and juice and tea and......).  Step two is even easier: don't buy the bottled water (or other beverages) and save that money instead.  It will add up surprisingly fast.  (Plus, it's a fact: if something is a priority for you, you will find both the time and the money for it.) 

Finally, just do it: buy yourself, your spouse, your kids and your dog all reusable water bottles! 

To ensure that you use your new water bottles, keep them filled and chilled in the refrigerator, just like you  would plastic bottles of water.  (Never let them hide in kitchen cabinets!  This is not where you store other refreshing bottled beverages, is it?)

Grab a bottle on your way out the door, every time you head out the door.  Leave yourself a note if you have to in order to remember at first; it will take time to become a habit, but you'll get there.  Tuck your bottle in your purse, backpack, briefcase or gym bag.  Maybe stash an extra bottle in your car or at work.  Acquaint yourself with drinking fountains and the handy water bottle filling stations that are happily gaining popularity.  Then, enjoy the taste of guilt-free refreshment all day.

Read more about how I combat waste in the kitchen here.

Check my facts and learn more here: