Kayaks, Nesting Birds, and…Trash

Even my kayak has a birding bumper sticker!
Even my kayak has a birding bumper sticker!

We finally got our kayaks in the water this weekend, and it was looong overdue. This spring has been so full of birding and travel that we had let our beloved kayaks sit neglected in the garage. When I realized last week that it was almost July and we hadn’t been on the water yet, that was all the motivation I needed to plan an immediate outing.

When we first got our kayaks three years ago I started a notebook where I write about each lake we kayak on — how big it is, how busy it is, if there are motorboats there, if there’s a beach, if it’s noisy, if there are shady banks for taking refuge from the sun, if the birding is good there…stuff like that. That might sound like a weird thing to do, but when you go to so many different lakes you start to forget the details of each one. I also look back through photos I’ve taken on each outing to help refresh my memory when we’re trying to decide where we want to go that day. My notes for Bald Mountain’s Trout Lake said: “70-acre lake with great birds, few other boats, lots of dragonflies, small beach. Water at boat launch sort of slimy.” (That last bit matters because with kayaks you have to walk them into the water, so if the water is gross it can be unpleasant.)

We knew the day was going to be very hot, so we headed out as early as we could manage; we were on the water at Trout Lake by 9:30. Luckily the water at the boat launch was much clearer this time. And there was nobody at the beach either, so it was nice and quiet. Well, except for the constant rifle shots from the nearby shooting range…sigh. I’ve noticed a theme in Michigan state and county parks: Wherever there’s a nice nature area, there seems to be a shooting range nearby. I think there should be a law that shooting ranges have to be indoors so they don’t disturb the peace. I don’t see why they have to be open-air shooting ranges, do you? But I digress….

There was one other couple launching kayaks right behind us, but aside from them there was only one other boat on the lake. Very nice. As we started to paddle out, I immediately saw the resident pair of Mute Swans with their two adorable cygnets. We gave them a wide berth and headed to the far shore.

Mute Swan with cygnets. The other parent is just out of the photo frame.
Mute Swan with cygnets. The other parent is just out of the photo frame.

I remembered a little cove where I’d gotten lots of good dragonfly photos last year, so that’s where I went. As I rounded the bend into the cove, the first thing I saw was this:

Helium-filled balloon with ribbons tangled in the lake
Helium-filled balloon with ribbons tangled in the lake

Yes, that’s one of those horrible mylar balloons floating in the water. Just in case you don’t know about the dangers of these balloons, you might want to take a look at BalloonsBlow, an organization dedicated to making people aware of the harm these balloons do to the environment and to wildlife. I’ve seen some very sad photos of birds and other animals who died after getting tangled up in the ribbons or after eating pieces of the balloons. It just shouldn’t happen.  I doubt that anyone who’s aware of this issue would plan a balloon release, no matter what the occasion. There are always environmentally-friendly options for celebrations that don’t involve litter and unnecessary death; you just have to care.

So I made haste to the waste and grabbed that balloon out of the water, stashing it behind my seat for disposal at shore. And not 10 feet away I saw a fishing lure dangling from a tree snag (you can actually see it in the photo above). I started to wonder if my entire morning would be devoted to picking trash from the lake instead of birding and enjoying nature. So I untangled the fishing line and stashed it behind my seat too.

By this time Eric had continued on exploring the lake, no doubt wondering what the heck I was doing back in that little cove. I caught up with him and he had just spotted an Eastern Kingbird sitting on its nest overhanging the water. My photos didn’t turn out, but he got some good ones with his new Canon SX50 — this is his pic. What an amazing thing to see! I wonder about the survival possibilities for any eggs laid in a nest exposed to the hot sun like that; it doesn’t seem the best place to build a nest. I hope they manage to fledge some babies there.Nesting Kingbird bald mountain 01 by Eric (800x600)

I always feel so privileged to get such an intimate glimpse into a bird’s life that it’s hard to restrain myself from getting too close or staying too long. But I forced myself to move along  after less than 30 seconds, afraid that I might scare her off the nest.

The beach started to see some activity around 10:30 or so, but it still wasn’t too noisy. We paddled the full perimeter of the lake and saw more great birds: more kingbirds, some Baltimore Orioles, Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers, a gorgeous Red-tailed Hawk, a Gray Catbird singing boisterously, and even an Eastern Bluebird. I also watched a male Red-winged Blackbird feeding his recently-fledged young in the grass along the shore. I couldn’t get a photo of that but did manage to shoot a pic of the second youngster waiting up in the trees.

Fledgling Red-winged Blackbird waiting to be fed
Fledgling Red-winged Blackbird waiting to be fed

We headed for shore around 11:30 as it started to get uncomfortably hot out on the lake. We got another look at the cygnets as we passed, but didn’t dare get too close to those ferocious swan parents.

Trash I pulled from the lake
Trash I pulled from the lake

This is a photo of all the trash I collected from the lake: the orange mylar balloon, the fishing lure, a green inner tube floating toy, and a soda can. As sad as it was to see all this junk in the water, it felt really good to pull it all out of there. Next time maybe I’ll leave the binoculars at home and just take a trash bag….

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Diversity and Tree-Hugging

I came across the website for the Fledging Birders Institute (“FBI”) the other day, noticing that they’re preparing for a conference to promote diversity among birders. Here’s what they say in describing the reasons this is necessary:

As of 2009, more than 35 percent of Americans fall into “non-White” categories such as Hispanic, African-American,
Asian, and Native-American. Yet, even generous measures of demographics show that “non-Whites” comprise significantly less than 10 percent of the birding community. Clearly, birding
does not look like the rest of America. Such disproportionate homogeneity exacerbates already problematic threats to the sustainability of the birding community, the birds’ habitat, and, by extension, the birds themselves.

(From: http://www.fledgingbirders.org/CFABpurpose.html)

The FBI also runs a very successful program called the Fledging Birders Challenge, in which groups of kids cooperate to see how many species of birds they can find in their schoolyard or local community in a month. Isn’t that a great way to get kids interested in birds and conservation?

The diversity conference reminded me of a book I’ve been making my way through called Colors of Nature: Cultural Identity and the Natural World.  It’s a collection of essays by authors of various ethnic and cultural minorities about their perspectives on environmental and nature issues. One of the essays that really stuck with me is called “Confronting Environmental Racism in the Twenty-First Century,” by Robert Bullard. He argues that poorer communities — often those of minorities — are discriminated against in subtle ways like unequal enforcement of zoning and pollution laws. He gives some specific examples of instances where poor communities are taken advantage of by polluting corporations. But just when you start getting sick to your stomach from all that negativity, he gives the good news that some of these communities are beginning to fight back, oftentimes winning.

Every time I drive through the south end of Detroit on my way to Ohio, there’s a section where I have to hold my nose because the pollution is so bad. And while I’m driving through trying not to breathe, I look at the homes I’m passing. Those people breathe this air 24/7. And obviously, if you could afford not to live in a place like that, you wouldn’t. So this is a clear instance of the poor having to suffer worse living conditions than those with the means to live elsewhere.

Ok, to end this on a more positive note I want to tell you about one last essay from Colors of Nature. This one is by Nalini Nadkarni, a woman of mixed heritage (Indian/Hindu and Brooklyn/Jewish parents). She writes about the impact of trees on her life, from childhood through her professional career as an educator and researcher in forest ecology. She links trees to meditation through the shared process of breathing; trees “breathe in” carbon dioxide and “breathe out” oxygen. She says, “Knowing this, in those dark times, I could merely look out at the maple tree in our backyard and be reminded that I am connected to other living things.” I like that. As I write this in the shade of our large cottonwood tree, watching the birds flitting around on the freshly-filled feeders and birdbath, I’m comforted by the thought that the tree is giving all of us life-sustaining oxygen. And it makes that hard work look so easy.

Go out and hug a tree today, won’t you?