Thursday, September 28, 2006

Top 10 Ways to Help Wildlife

Here are 10 things we can all do to help wildlife, both locally and globally.

1. Reduce greenhouse gases by driving fuel-efficient cars. Global warming is destroying wildlife habitats at an accelerating rate, from polar bears on melting ice caps to marine life in overheated ocean currents, to breeding songbirds whose seasonal insect prey emerge at the wrong time, to mountain ecosystems restricted to higher and higher altitudes as temperatures rise.

2. Live close to where you work and shop. Walk, bike, use mass transit. These habits not only reduce greenhouse gases from vehicles, they also reduce your reliance on roads. Roads chop up animal habitats, breaking up animal populations into isolated groups too small to sustain themselves. Car collisions are also a leading cause of wildlife deaths.

3. When you choose plantings for your yard, choose native plants that feed wildlife. To find out what plants are native to your area, see the section on the National Wildlife Federation web site about creating a wildlife habitat in your yard. Or google "native plants" plus your state. Many states have a "Native Plant Society"; also, most areas have nurseries that offer some native plants. Examples of native plants that feed birds are dogwoods, persimmon trees, mulberry trees.

4. Keep cats indoors. Housecats kill about one billion small mammals every year, and at least 400 million songbirds every year, just in the United States. Many of our songbirds are migrants who are already in trouble from deforestation of the tropics. Cats kept indoors have a much longer life expectancy and are much less likely to have accidents leading to expensive vet bills.

5. If you are serious about helping wildlife, don't eat fish. Modern fishing practices, such as blastfishing, "long lines", and gill nets, kill much more than the targeted fish species, including marine mammals and seabirds such as albatrosses and puffins. The "bycatch," thrown back dead, often exceeds the targeted catch.

6. That includes farmed fish. Many fish farms are enclosures at sea. Antibiotics, antifungal agents, and dyes to color the fish's flesh are dumped into the fish enclosures, but only a fraction of these substances stay in the enclosure. The remainder drifts out and pollutes ecosystems in the vicinity. If you must eat fish, check the "Oceans Alive" website for guidance.

7. Don't buy anything made of wildlife body parts, including traditional medicines, belts, shoes, carvings, gifts, novelties, dried sea creatures in surf shops. If you're not sure what it's made of, ask, and ask again.

8. Don't buy wild-caught pets of any kind. If you must buy pets that we usually think of as wild animals, make sure the animal was bred in captivity. This includes lizards, snakes, turtles, birds, primates, and just about anything else. The blackmarket trade in wildlife and wildlife parts is second only to the trade in illegal drugs as the most lucrative blackmarket enterprise on the planet. It's depleting many wild populations. The nation that imports the most primates each year? The United States. We import 20,000 primates per year, many of them wild-caught, because wild ones are cheaper.

9. Eat fewer animal products. And choose pastured animal products. Factory farming is extremely damaging to the environment, which means wildlife habitats. Livestock gobble our grains, thus requiring a lot of land to raise grains for them. Controlling the waste of 50,000 animals on a factory farm is impossible. Even the best-managed waste lagoons leak, quite legally, into rivers and streams and well water.

10. When you make choices in favor of wildlife, be vocal and visible about it. If your community holds public hearings about land-use decisions, go and speak out in favor of saving county properties as nature preserves. Support your local land conservancy. On a day-to-day basis, tell store managers how wildlife concerns affect your buying decisions. Ask your Home Depot and other nurseries to carry native plants and tell them why. Ask your neighbors to keep their cats indoors. Write a letter to your newspaper. Grassroots efforts like these can make the difference!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Top 10 Eco-friendly Diet Choices

Here is my list of the top 10 eco-friendly diet choices.

1. Buy local food. The average food purchase at a grocery store travels 1500 miles from its source to the grocery. A survey of the stickers on "fresh" produce at my nearby Harris Teeter supermarket in North Carolina turned up yellow bell peppers from Holland and red bell peppers from Israel. When I asked the produce manager if any of the produce was local, he said most of it was from South America. The transport of food from other countries, or across the US, uses fossil fuels and generates greenhouse gases.

2. Buy produce from farmers who don't use pesticides. Pesticides are not only dangerous to our health, they poison animals and ecosystems around the agricultural fields, as well as downwind and downstream of sprayed fields.

3. Buy produce from farmers who don't use chemical fertilizers. Runoff from chemical fertilizers is the biggest single source of nutrient pollution in streams, rivers, and groundwater.

4. Choose foods with minimal packaging. Paper packaging creates demand for wood pulp from pine plantations, which are displacing Southeastern native forests. Leftover dyes from the manufacture of packages find their way into our streams and rivers. And most packaging winds up in our landfills.

5. If you consume dairy products, buy from a farmer who uses sustainable farming practices. If this isn't possible, buy certified organic dairy products. This means the cows' feed was grown without pesticides.

6. If you eat meat and eggs, buy products that came from pastured or grass-fed animals. Animals at pasture don't generate the waste-management problems that animals in confinement do. Pastured waste is assimilated back into the soil naturally. In contrast, waste from factory-farmed animals is liquified and stored in vast "lagoons," then sprayed over cropfields, much of it washing into streams and rivers.

7. If you can't buy pastured meat, buy organic meat. The animals' feed was grown without pesticides, and their waste is not laden with antibiotics and hormones. When animal waste washes into streams and rivers, the feed-additives in their waste also enter the aquatic ecosystem.

8. Eat seasonal produce, even in winter. When you buy produce that a local farmer grows in winter, such as greens, you are helping the farmer stay in business year-round, selling locally grown foods in his own community. You are supporting small-scale local farmers who are much more likely to use sustainable farming methods than are farmers on huge farms with corporate contracts.

9. Eat less meat. The average American eats 246 lbs of meat per year, far more than any other country. In the U.S., 66% of our grain goes to livestock, a very inefficient use of our agricultural lands. Feeding the grain to people directly could feed up to 10 times more people than feeding the meat to people. Or, another way of looking at it - we could stop converting natural lands to agricultural lands if we made more efficient use of the farms we have now. The U.S. population will reach 300 million in October, and will increase another 19% by the year 2025.

10. When you choose foods for environmental reasons, be vocal and visible about it. If you're eating out with friends, tell them why you're not eating a fast food burger (fast food burgers are often made of poor-quality Latin American beef grown where rainforests used to be). Ask your local supermarkets and favorite restaurants to carry local, seasonal, and organic foods. And when they do, thank them. Tell them how tasty it was!

Making just small changes, even a couple of days a week, can have a big impact. It doesn't have to be all or nothing to be effective!

Caption: A typical factory hog farm: the farm's 40,000 hogs are raised in the six long buildings on the left. Each building is longer than a football field. The pool is the waste lagoon for their liquified manure. The round buildings are for feed and feed additives. Photo courtesy of USDA.

Sally Kneidel, co-author of Veggie Revolution.

Friday, September 15, 2006

My Top 10 Eco-Peeves

These are the top 10 environmental offenses that bugged me this week.

The list includes things in my own immediate world: home, work, shopping, and moving around town. And, btw, I don't claim to be innocent or above reproach. The ones I contribute to are the ones that bug me the most! Change is not easy.... I have to start small and chip away at it.

1. My neighbors' Siamese cats on the prowl for prey.

2. Too many gas-guzzling cars on the road, most with one driver.

3. Weak mass-transit options in my city (Charlotte).

4. Smog problems in my city because 61% of the city's electricity is from coal-fired power plants, and because we have no real mass-transit options, and few of us live close to where we work.

5. Streets that are wider than necessary, and sidewalks and driveways not made of paver stones (with openings for water to pass through). All this impervious pavement destroys streams and stream wildlife, by preventing rainwater from percolating through soil. Pavement-runoff into storm drains feeds streams with too much water, too warm and too fast.

6. Lawns lawns everywhere. Lawns are our 5th biggest "crop" and they serve no real purpose at all.

7. Manicured ornamental non-native yard plants. Shrubs and lawns that require trimming use up fossil fuels, generate landfill waste, and generate air and noise pollution. Yards planted only with native plants need no care, no trimming, no watering. With careful selection, native plants can nurture wildlife.

8. Green peppers in the grocery store from Israel or Holland. Apples in the grocery from Washington state. What?? What's wrong with North Carolina apples? Why don't grocery chains buy local food?

9. Carts at the grocery store loaded up with Tyson chicken and Food Lion eggs and Jimmy Dean sausage. These animals produce way more waste than all the people in the United States and not an ounce of it is treated. It's liquified and sprayed on crop fields, where it washes into rivers and streams. Veggie Revolution spells it all out.

10. Citizens who trust that everything President Bush tells them is on the level.

Okay readers. Argue with me. Or tell me what I should add.

Yard Drama: A Story of Housecats, Chipmunks, Rats, Ivy and Native Plants

I didn't mean to have a yard full of rats. Not that I object to rats on principle - but the novelty has worn off.

Just two short months ago my beloved Notch was the queen of the realm, with her empire of underground passages and 22 holes in my front yard. Notch is a ferocious chipmunk who rolled and beat up any other chipmunks and any rats that ventured into the yard. She was fearless. She spent every afternoon in the middle of the yard, sitting straight up on her haunches like a meerkat, surveying her turf. When she pounced on intruders, fur would fly in a wild tussle....then the victim would scuttle off, utterly defeated. Notch would once again assume her surveying posture, until at dusk she retreated below.

I loved her. She was everything I wish I was. The fearless part, I mean. I couldn't help but root for her. She's so tiny! But she knew what she wanted and she wasn't afraid to just lay it on the line. "Bring it on" seemed to be her motto.

I took to leaving a raw unsalted peanut or a piece of walnut at the opening to her main hole, just once in a while, as a token of my esteem. Occasionally she would come up and take it while I was still within a few feet of her hole. I know I shouldn't have done that. I never should have. It's bad bad bad to feed wildlife under any circumstances. I don't know why I succumbed to temptation.

But it probably wasn't the peanuts. It was probably the birdfeeders that drew the rats. We had a sunflower feeder and a suet feeder over the ivy. Yes, English ivy covers about a third of our front yard - the part that's too shady for grass to grow. I know that English ivy is bad too. It's an introduced plant and worse, it's a very aggressive invasive species. I mean, it was here when we moved in - I didn't plant it. And while we're at it, listing my crimes - I know that even having a lawn is not an eco-friendly choice. If and when I get real about putting my wildlife-promotion ideas into action, I will get rid of the grass and put in a native meadow, or a native woodland. I mean to. We've gotten advice about how to do it, which I've posted about. It's just a lot of work, and....are we gonna move or not? I don't know.

Anyway, we've been seeing an occasional single rat for a couple of years....just one. Way in the back of the back yard. Under the backyard bird feeder and maybe near the compost. Although theoretically the compost is in a rat-proof container. Just one rat for years.

Until I started working at the front window on the book that's due this fall. I like looking at the front yard while I work. So I got to keeping the suet feeder and the front yard seed feeder full all the time, for the birds. But birds are messy. Suet and seeds were constantly dropping into the ivy. That's probably why Notch defended her territory so fiercely. It was only a few feet from the ivy patch.

And then Ken (husband) a few times threw handfuls of birdseed into the back yard, trying to get rid of some milo seed he'd bought on sale that the birds don't like. We started noticing more than one rat in the back yard. Then before long the rats discovered the gold mine of bird-feeder detritus in the front ivy patch, and then, then....there were a lot of rats in the front yard. They live in the ivy, mostly, so we only see them occasionally. But we can see the ivy rustling....if you look close where the ivy is moving, you can spot a rat.

Now these aren't Norway rats, the kind that infest houses and carried the plague and all that. I'm talking about cotton rats, Sigmodon hispidus. Or hispidis, I forget. They're rounder, have blunter snouts, furry tails - not naked tails like icky Norway rats. Cotton rats are actually quite charming native woodland mammals. They have no more desire to live in a house than a gray squirrel or a raccoon does.

But here's why I'm irked about the rats. We went on vacation in late July-early Aug, and when we came back, Notch was gone. I was sure the Siamese cats across the street had eaten her, and I grieved. But then I saw her one day. She came through the yard, and it was her, torn notch in her ear and all. No mistaking that damaged ear. But she was obviously a visitor. She looked around and then left, for the neighbor's unmanicured shrubby area. What the heck?

I noticed a few days later that some knucklehead creature had tried to drag a huge bundle of pine needles into one of the holes that had been Notch's. A couple of days later we met the knucklehead - a dadgum cotton rat. In Notch's hole!! Acckkk!

The yard seems totally out of control now. I stopped all the feeders. (The next door neighbor has several, no one's gonna starve.) I'm moving the the little waterbowl into the backyard, a few feet every day, so any critter using it will still be able to find it. During the dry part of the summer, everyone used that water bowl. Notch used it, and all the rabbits that ate our garden like it was a cafeteria, they used it too. The rats and squirrels used it. And the songbirds used to literally stand around the bowl waiting their turn, in July. The bowl is only big enough for one bird at a time, and they often liked to bathe in it. But my wildlife viewing days, while at work in the front window, are over.

I don't know where Notch is now, I hope she's still alive. I'm convinced the ivy has to go. To get rid of the rats. I mean, yes they're native, but my mammal field guide says they reproduce every 6 weeks, with an average litter size of 6! (Chipmunks reproduce only twice a year.) I don't want a yard teeming with rats, even cotton rats. I've gotten advice on how to pull up the ivy without spraying herbicides. Just dig. A little bit at a time.

Meanwhile we have a new chipmunk. He stands on top of the brush pile in the back of the back yard and chirps all day long. Sometimes he goes up into the gutter downspout and chirps for hours. A barred owl and a Coopers hawk have been hanging out in the backyard, drawn by Chuck's chirping. (The chirp sounds like "chuck.") They want to eat him. They want him badly.

I love Chuck already, because....he's wild, he's fearless, he looks like Notch. But if the owl or the hawk eat him, that's okay. They were here before we were, before people took over the world. They're native predators and rodents are their native prey. Unlike house cats, who are not native, and who threaten wildlife survival because of their unnaturally high numbers. The cats are not entitled to my chipmunks.

Meanwhile, I'm left with rat-viewing as my only wildlife option, at least from the front window. Maybe I can move my worktable around to the back somehow, and watch the drama with Chuck and the owl and the hawk. I'll root for him, but if the owl eats him....I won't mind...too much.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Orcas, Habitat Loss, and American Meat Consumption

In yesterday's post, I said that 70% of biologists believe we're in the middle of a mass extinction of wildlife species. I also said that 75% of the extinctions are due to habitat destruction by human activities. A lot of those activities are related to the way we eat.

Here's an example
I thought about that when I read in the NY Times yesterday (9/8/06) about the clash between fishermen, farmers and developers on the one hand, and environmentalists on the other, over the 90 resident Orca whales in Puget Sound in Washington state. The article featured the community of whale-watchers and researchers on San Juan Island, a place we visited a month ago. I had a post about the island's whale supporters, and the whales themselves, on August 17.

The conflict over these Orcas is a prime example of how our fixation on animal protein (248 lbs of meat per person per year in the U.S.) leads to habitat destruction for wildlife. Habitat includes animals' food sources, as well as their breeding territory, etc. One of the main threats to the Orcas is competition with the fishing industry over salmon. Another major threat is livestock farmers, and farmers raising grain for livestock, whose agricultural runoff pollutes the Puget Sound and the coastal rivers where salmon spawn.

Simply stated, our appetite for salmon is a threat to the whales. And to other marine and coastal wildlife that depend on salmon, such as bears and eagles.

Our appetite for meat is a threat to wildlife throughout the country - to every animal species whose survival depends on water quality, or on the continued existence of woodlands and prairies and wetlands that we instead convert to agricultural lands to feed our meat habit and our growing human population.

A Whale Lawsuit
Farmers and developers have filed a lawsuit to strip the Orcas of their endangered status. The protection of water quality in Puget Sound, as critical habitat for the Orcas, will interfere with farmers' and developers' efforts to provide us with the meats we clamor for, and with coastal real-estate development.

We can exercise control over so much with the simple act of eating. Every meal selection gives us an opportunity for grassroots activism. We don't have to be eating that salmon, or any salmon. We don't need to eat 248 pounds of meat per year. The average meat consumption per person in the world's developing nations is only 66 pounds per year. We're way ahead of even the European countries in our demand for meat. See Danielle Nierenberg's paper "Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry," available from, for more details about global meat consumption. The article isn't free, but if you're really interested in understanding how global patterns of meat consumption impact the environment, it's worth the $7.

I'm not asking everyone to give up meat altogether - I don't believe that's a realistic goal. We'll never be a meatless nation. I'm asking that we eat less meat. We don't need meat every day. Our book Veggie Revolution is about cooking without meat (including recipes) and about the benefits of eating less meat - benefits to our health, to the welfare of farmed animals, to the environment, and to wildlife. Wildlife is, to me, the most precious gift our planet has to offer.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Mass Extinctions of Wildlife Related to Our Diet Choices

Mass Extinction Underway...
A mass extinction is a catastrophic, widespread, or global event that wipes out 25 to 75 percent of existing species. Most of the mass extinctions that occurred prehistorically — before humans evolved — resulted from global climate changes that killed thousands of species and left behind those able to adapt to the new conditions.

According to a recent survey, 70 percent of biologists believe we are in the midst of a new mass extinction. Although the Earth has experienced other mass extinctions before humans evolved, biologists point out two important differences between the current mass extinction, and those of the past:

1) This mass extinction is taking place in a very short period of time, during a few decades, rather than over thousands or millions of years.

2) We are eliminating or fouling many environments, such as tropical forests, coral reefs, and wetlands, that in the past fostered the evolution of new species during the 5 to 10 million years after a mass extinction.

What’s Going On?
The destruction of habitats by humans is responsible for about 75 percent of the current extinctions. Another major cause is unregulated hunting and fishing. The introduction of nonnative species such as wild boars, Gypsy moths, and European starlings is another leading cause of extinctions.

How Are Extinctions Related to Meat Consumption?
The production of meat requires much more land than producing an equally nutritious amount of plant protein. Because most Americans eat animal products two or three times a day, we devote a hefty portion of our land to either grazing livestock or raising grain or hay to feed livestock. About 40 percent of all land area in the United States is used for grazing livestock for our dinner tables.

Consider this. In the United States, we feed 66 percent of our grain to livestock. But the rest of the world feeds only 3 percent of their grain to livestock. If we weren’t eating so much meat and dairy and eggs, think of all the agricultural land that could be restored to its natural state as forests, prairies, and wetlands. We could also slow the conversion of natural lands to agricultural lands. Our population here in the U.S. is still growing rapidly and our food production will have to increase. This year we reached 300,000. By the year 2025, just 18 years away, we'll add another 50,000 people to the United States population! See, or International Data Base, for more information about that.

The adoption of a vegetarian, or better yet, a vegan diet would vastly improve the outlook on the future for both humankind and wildlife.

Is Our Diet Making Us Healthy and Happy?
About 65 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. We also have high rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, colon cancer, and other ailments related to a diet high in meat, eggs, and milk fat. We’re not healthier.

But are we happier? No. Although our consumption of resources has doubled since 1957, the proportion of Americans who report they are “very happy” has remained the same.

But Wait…
Raising livestock doesn’t have to take so much land and cause so much pollution, if done on a smaller scale. Only a few decades ago, manure naturally fertilized crops and enriched the soil, rather than winding up in “waste lagoons” that leak and spill into rivers. Livestock consumed crop waste and kitchen waste. Animals and people maintained a balance. It’s only since the production of meat, milk, and eggs has become industrial in scale that it has begun to damage the Earth so severely. The damage includes ocean habitats and fish populations as well as land ecosystems.

The average American eats 248 pounds of meat a year, far more per person than any other country. It’s not possible for everyone on the planet to have that much meat. We would need four more Earths to raise enough livestock and fish, if everyone on our planet ate as much meat as Americans do.

The Union of Concerned Scientists says that our American diet is second only to our transportation as our most environmentally damaging consumer activity. We can make better diet choices for a sustainable future.

The loss of countless plant and animal species is at stake.

See our post of September 9 for an example of a wildlife population that's threatened by our consumer demand for animal protein.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Puffins and Whales Endangered by Fishing Industry; Online Guides to Choosing Healthiest Fish

Did you read "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in high school? The albatross in the poem is an omen of bad luck for the writer and his ship, but in reality the albatross is the butt-end of some god-awful bad luck dished out by the fishing industry. The albatross, a magnificent bird with a wingspan of up to 7 feet, is one of many oceanic birds in serious trouble from the massive-haul fishing techniques of today. Among other seabirds whose luck is running out are the colorful and beloved puffins.

We were lucky to spot a couple of Tufted Puffins and many other seabirds on a recent trip to Washington state and Vancouver Island, B.C. I posted an account of the birds and their habitats, written by Alan Kneidel, on September 1.

Many of the seabirds we saw were in the family Alcidae. Alcids spend their lives floating on the ocean and swimming underwater for fish - birds such Tufted Puffins, Pigeon Guillemots, Rhinoceros Auklets, Common Murres, and Marbled Murrelets. These birds can and do fly, but most of them come ashore only to breed. You can see these seabirds from the ferries of Washington and the B.C. coast, or from coastal cliffs. They look a bit like black and white ducks floating on the water, except that most have narrow pointed bills rather than duck bills. That is, except for the puffins. Puffins have huge, showy, red and gold bills that make them popular subjects for photos. A puffin can catch a dozen or more little fish at once in its bill. The Tufted Puffins are a rare sight, though. We were very fortunate to spot the two that we did from remote Cape Flattery - a naturalist we talked to on a ferry said that he had seen only one Tufted Puffin in the last 12 years! They are listed by Washington state as a "species of concern." A government website says "more data" is needed on the status of Tufted Puffins before adding them to the list of endangered species.

Tufted Puffin from cliffs of Cape Flattery, Washington, Sally Kneidel

So the alcids - the puffins, murrelets, etc. - are seabirds that you can sometimes see from shore and from ferries.

But other seabirds, called "pelagic" species, seldom come close enough to shore to see them from a ferry or a cliff. These include birds like albatrosses, shearwaters, and petrels - and some of the alcids as well. To spot these birds of the open ocean, you have to hire a boat to take you on a "pelagic" birding trip far offshore. Ken and Alan (husband and son) have been on a few pelagic trips.

All seabirds of the Pacific Northwest, both coastal and pelagic species, are feeling the impact of the fishing industry. But some more than others. As we learned while visiting the salmon-fishing village of Sequi, on the northwest corner of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, the Marbled Murrelet is endangered because of "gill nets." Gill nets are intended to snag fish by the gill covers when they swim into the net and try to back out. Groups of nets can be tied together to stretch for 3000 meters! In the coastal straits off the n.w. Olympic Peninsula near Sequi and Neah Bay, gill nets are submerged to catch salmon, as the fish head for one of the 20+ rivers in the area where they spawn. One Sequi fisherman told me that gill nets trap much more than the local target species, salmon. The "bycatch" or unusable catch includes other fish species, seals, sea otters, and diving seabirds such as the Marbled Murrelet. All of the air-breathing species are killed by drowning; many of the fish bycatch are killed too by the hauling-in process, and are thrown back, dead. Gill nets are also commonly set in open waters, where they catch and drown porpoises and whales. For more about gill nets, see the Cetacean Bycatch Resource Center

Marbled Murrelet, endangered by gill nets

"Longlines" are another fishing technique that is endangering offshore pelagic seabirds such as albatrosses, shearwaters, and petrels, as well as whales, dolphins and porpoises. A longline is a fishing line up to 60 miles long, with up to 30,000 shorter lines with baited hooks trailing from it. Seabirds often take the bait, and are then dragged underwater and drowned. For more about the dangers of longline fishing and what you can do, see the Cetacean Bycatch Resource Center and the American Bird Conservancy. The ABC has published an online document about the impact of longline fishing on seabirds. The document, entitled "Sudden Death, Longline Fishing: A Global Catastrophe for Seabirds," reports that 64 species of seabirds have been killed in longlines worldwide, and that 23 of these species are in danger of extinction from mortality due to longline fishing. This report concludes, on page 13, with a list of measures you can take, as a citizen, to protect wildlife from longline fishing.

Researcher placing a small bird band for identification on an albatross's leg

One thing we can all do, which I don't think the document mentions, is to eat less fish. After what we've learned about global overfishing while researching our new book (from Fulcrum in 2007), I don't eat fish anymore, period. If you must eat fish, check out one of the frequently updated online guides to environmentally-friendly fish selection, and fish that have lower levels of mercury and other heavy metals in their flesh. You can find these guides at Oceans Alive, Audubon's Living Ocean, and Environmental Defense.

Friday, September 01, 2006

In Search of Northwest Birds

In August I posted some info about the wildlife of the Pacific Northwest that we spotted on a recent trip to Washington state and Vancouver Island, B.C. I wrote about humpback whales, mountain goats, harbor seals, and the best place to spot Orcas. We saw a lot of birds too - oceanic and shore birds and mountain birds. I'm not a real bird expert though. So I asked my son Alan, who's 20 and has been an avid birder for some time, to write something about the birds we saw. Well, birds he saw. He was much more determined than I was in tracking down birds he wanted to see, venturing far out onto rocky coastlines, walking long distances, etc. Anyway, for you bird fans, here is Alan's account of the birds on the trip.

Alan Kneidel at Cape Flattery, Washington

Alan's words:

"From July 25th to August 5th, 2006, we spent time in Washington state and British Columbia, Canada. In this land of diverse habitats, I spent most of the time birding. We traveled briefly to the Olympic Peninsula, jutting into the gray and crashing Pacific. We went to Cape Flattery, the most western point in Washington, where the moist forests contained flocks of Golden-crowned Kinglets and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Hermit Thrushes, and the cryptic Pacific-Slope Flycatcher. Emerging onto the Cape, the trail halted at a stunning overlook of vertical cliffs, sea caves, and foggy waters. Peregrine Falcons perched on stunted spruce, while Tufted Puffins, Rhinoceros Auklets, Pigeon Guillemots, Common Murres and Glaucous-winged Gulls traversed the narrows. Bald Eagles let out their raucous calls, as they soared above us, unseen through the fog. Staying in the town of Sekiu, we woke to scattered Marbled Murrelets in the bay, a threatened species of seabird.

"The next days, traveling into British Columbia, we headed to Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island. I was in search of the famous 'rockpipers' of the Pacific coast. These are a group of four shorebirds that are only found on remote rocky outcroppings revealed during low tide. Black Oystercatchers ruled the rocks, while slender Wandering Tattlers bobbed at the water’s surface. Black Turnstones sat invisibly against the rocks, until they burst into flight, showing their stunning pied wing pattern. We couldn’t find the Surfbird, despite extensive searching. Perhaps it was a bit too early in the migration season for them. In the rainforest that grows right up to the beach, flocks of Wilson’s, Townsend’s, and Orange-crowned Warblers were abundant. Inquisitive Stellar’s Jays investigated, while Red-breasted Nuthatches and Brown Creepers stayed hidden in the canopy.

"Our third stop was on the San Juan Islands. Here, against the backdrop of Killer Whales and stunning scenery, Harlequin Ducks swam through the kelp beds. Flocks of Surf Scoters passed by. A sign of the increasing fall shorebird migration, Greater Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers, and Spotted Sandpipers showed up.

"Our final stop was to Mount Baker, back in Washington State. Here, we were immersed in the Cascades, where towering evergreen forests give way to the alpine tundra. Vidler’s Alpine and Mormon Fritillary butterflies poured over the stunning array of alpine wildflowers. American Pipits perched on skree slopes, holding guard over their territories. Common Ravens announced their presence overhead, as Gray Jays posed within a couple of feet. After traveling in the tundra, we walked back down through the forests. Here, the secretive Red-breasted Sapsucker was found, along with the shadowy Varied Thrush. Spruce Grouse walked boldly along the roadsides, as American Dippers fed through the torrents of the Nooksack River."

Thanks, Alan.

Alan mentioned that we were on the lookout for several days for Surfbirds, one of the group of birds known as rockpipers that he mentioned above - birds of rocky coastlines. We never did see the Surfbirds, although Alan and his dad sure gave it a go. We were also on the lookout for Varied Thrushes, which are supposedly quite common in Washington. Every park ranger or birder we asked said oh sure, you'll see them. So we kept looking. Finally, on our last day, the day we left the state, we were driving down a 12 mile gravel road, down from the trailhead of the Skyline Divide Trail at Mount Baker, looking at robin after robin who kept flying up from the road (robins look a lot like Varied Thrushes) when finally, finally, a Varied Thrush showed itself in the middle of the gravel road. At first we thought - another robin. But it started its odd bobbing, with its tail up in the air like a wren, and then we saw the band across the chest. A Varied Thrush! Thank you little bird. A nice goodbye to our trip.

Greater Yellowlegs, Pacific Rim National Park, Vancouver Island by Alan Kneidel

See our post of September 4 for information and links about seabirds threatened with extinction by the fishing industry's gill nets and longlines. That post also includes links to online guides to help you choose fish for your dinner table in a way that minimizes your health risk and protects the most threatened fish species.