Nature is for Everyone

In my efforts to get outside and enjoy nature, I regularly explore the woods behind my property. I run laps around my neighborhood. I have been known to stop in the middle of the sidewalk to stare at the sky searching for a bird, or peer awkwardly at a plant, post, or wall to try to identify an insect. Aside from occasionally laughing to myself about how ridiculous I must look, I’ve never really given these things a second thought. Recent events that have occurred here in the United States, namely the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot while running through a neighborhood and the weaponization of race against Christian Cooper while he was out birding in Central Park, have led me to realize that my ability to do these things without fear is an example of privilege.

The fact that someone would be seen as suspicious, or even dangerous, simply by being present in a space with black or brown skin is truly horrifying. I wish that I were a better writer with more eloquent words to share. I wish that I knew how to be a better ally. I wish that I had more answers. I don’t have any. But I’m using the few small words I can put together. I’m listening and learning. And you can, too.

This week, a group of individuals have come together to create and celebrate Black Birders Week from May 31-June 5 on Instagram and Twitter. I am not affiliated with the organization at all, but their public Instagram account states, “Recent events have shed light on the obstacles and potential dangers Black people face while enjoying outdoor recreation. Nature is meant to be enjoyed by everyone. During #BlackBirdersWeek, we are uplifting Black birders and nature enthusiasts to show that diversity in outdoor recreation exitsts.”

You can follow @blackafinstem on Instagram and Twitter to learn more about the events taking place this week, and follow the hashtag #blackinnature to hear from some amazing individuals across STEM fields. Black lives matter. Representation matters. And nature is for everyone.

Environmental Optimism: Looking for the Helpers

From the plastic pollution to climate change to animal extinctions, environmental issues can feel overwhelming. How do we stay positive in the face of negative environmental news? We can start by looking for the helpers.

Mr. Fred Rogers once shared a piece of advice from his mother on dealing with catastrophes. “Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers.” Unfortunately, the helpers don’t often get much attention, but finding the helpers in our environmental crises reminds us that there is hope. Here are the stories of a few that have had an impact on me over the years.

You may have seen the headlines that scientists estimate that plastic in the ocean will exceed fish by weight by 2050. Boyan Slat, a Dutch inventor, is working to change that. I first heard of him back in 2013 when I learned through my co-workers about this teenager that was going to save our oceans. Slat founded The Ocean Cleanup project at just eighteen years old. I have been following his work since then, and it has been such an encouragement to watch the progress. The organization has been developing a system that can be deployed into the ocean to collect and retain plastic on the surface of the water, and has tested two models. Although the system is not yet fully functional, The Ocean Cleanup has a goal of achieving a 90% reduction of floating ocean plastic by the year 2040. While you may find conservationists split over his approach, Slat’s creativity, passion, and determination are inspirational.

Another organization that I learned about through my work is the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center (GRACE) in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Persevering through challenges such as civil unrest and the Ebola virus outbreak in 2016, the hard-working, passionate GRACE staff, made up of members of the local community, give their time and effort to provide care and a safe space for Grauer’s gorillas that have been rescued from poachers. They also work to educate the local community about this critically endangered species. Knowing that there are people like this fighting for endangered species around the globe is a huge reason to hope.

You don’t have to be a teenage prodigy or dedicating your life to the conservation of a species to be a helper, though. One of my constant inspirations (in all areas of life) is my own mother. Several years ago, she took online classes to learn about the impact of environmental issues on global health. Since then, she has sought to make changes in her own life, even making the commitment to buy a hybrid car to reduce her carbon footprint. I have friends who are actively taking steps to reduce their waste, growing their own food, volunteering their time to conservation organizations, and even starting their own eco-friendly businesses. They remind me that helpers are everywhere, doing things large and small, to positively impact our planet.

So, as Mr. Rodgers said, the next time you feel bogged down by the state of the environment, remember to look for the helpers. And, like my mother, don’t forget to be the helper, too.

Photo by Akil Mazumder on Pexels.com

What are some of your favorite conservation organizations? How do you seek to be an environmental helper? What are some other ways that you keep from being overwhelmed by environmental news? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Finding Joy in the Everyday

As an introvert, self-proclaimed homebody, and a lover of routine, quarantine life has not been as draining on me as it may be for others. However, even for me, the days and weeks of sameness, isolation, and uncertainty have taken their toll. I find myself battling my own thoughts, questioning my ability to make an impact, and feeling that I am stuck in a rut in all areas of life.

Fortunately, nature provides a much-needed boost. I know this to be true for myself, but more and more evidence seems to show that this is true in general. Spending time in nature is good for us, physically and mentally. For me, even just a few minutes outside helps me to remember that there is so much beauty, even in dark times, and that we never know what joys the future will bring.

Photo and description from the Merlin Bird ID app

A few days ago, I was struggling under the weight of a tough day and missing family members that I haven’t seen in months. After feeling particularly low, I decided to take a minute to rest on my back patio. I was treated to the usual chorus of bird songs. Then a song cut through the air that I hadn’t heard before. The unfamiliar trilling call was immediately cheering on it’s own, but also awakened my sense of excitement and curiosity. Something new to explore! My bird ID apps helped me to discovery that this new caller was likely a small warbler called a northern parula. A common bird, but one that was new to me, and one that I’ll be listening for from here on out.

It sounds almost silly as I write it, but that small moment was enough to remind me that what we are going through isn’t permanent. Each day is a new day, even when it feels the same. That day, it was a new birdsong. Last night, it was the familiar, soothing sound of a thunderstorm. Today, it was taking the time to count how many robins I spotted on my afternoon run (five). None of these were extraordinary moments, but all of them were simple joys. There’s a beautiful, living, changing world right outside the door. We just have to remember to look for it.

An Unexpected Encounter

One of my initial motivations for creating this blog was to encourage others (and myself) that exploring and appreciating nature doesn’t have to be a big production. You don’t have to climb a mountain, travel to a national park, or thru-hike the Appalachian Trail to experience the nature world (although all of those things would be amazing). It is simply about remembering to notice that bird outside your window, or maybe taking a second to appreciate those wildflowers while walking your dog.

With that thought in mind, I wanted to share my unexpected nature surprise from this evening. I went out to cut down a plant that had grown up between my deck boards (did I mention I hate yard work?), and as I pulled out one of the pieces, I met this little guy:

Now, I am no snail ID expert. I have no clue what species this is, and I don’t know anything about its natural history. I uploaded my photos to the iNaturalist app (a great tool for getting to know wildlife around you), so hopefully I’ll be able to learn more down the line. For today, it was enough to just spend a few minutes observing and enjoying an unexpected encounter.

Look closely to see the slime trail! A snail’s mucus allows it to travel on vertical surfaces or even upside down.

Did you have any fun nature moments today? Feel free to share what you saw or did in the comments. And if you happen to be a snail expert, please let me know what I found!

Star Wars: Fighting for the Dark Side

May the Fourth be with you! I am a huge Star Wars fan (rest assured I have been binge-watching the entire saga on Disney+ as I write), and what better day than Star Wars day to write about the stars—and the war we must fight to protect our night sky.  Every Star Wars film kicks off with a shot of space—a dark expanse filled with stars. It is a sight that sparks inspiration and imagination, but is one that far too few of us can see from our own planet anymore.

A couple of weeks ago, I was enjoying the sunset from my back patio (not quite Luke’s iconic dual sunset on Tatooine, but still pretty great). As the sky darkened, I noticed the appearance of one bright star. As an aside, later research told me that this “star” was actually Venus—how cool is that? But, as the sky grew darker, I realized that I wasn’t seeing a single other star come in to view.

Venus appears in the darkening sky to the west

Now, to be fair, last night I went out in my backyard closer to midnight and was able to pick out maybe twenty or so stars. Perhaps I would have seen even more if I had stayed out longer, or if it had been a new moon. Still, it was a far cry from the 2,500 stars it is estimated we can see from earth. Living near a big city, my night sky views are less than impressive, thanks to what we call light pollution. The glow from streetlights, signs, and exterior lighting all come together to overpower the night sky, obscuring all but the moon and the brightest stars and planets.

The sad thing is that I can’t even really grasp what I’ve lost. There are fewer and fewer places where we can escape the interference of artificial lights to truly experience the majesty of a starry night. I can’t remember the last time that I was able to personally witness a sky full of stars. There are any number of reasons to help fight against light pollution (artificial light disorients sea turtle hatchlings and migrating birds, not to mention the energy costs of unnecessary lighting), but for me, the loss of stars is the loss of an opportunity to connect as a global community, be inspired by the natural world, and experience the wonder of Creation. Do you remember in The Force Awakens, when Rey finally gets off of Jakku after living her whole life on a desert planet? As Han brings the Falcon in to land on a forested planet, we can feel her awe as she says, “I didn’t know there was this much green in the whole galaxy.” I imagine I might have this same feeling stepping outside under a full night sky.

Of course, we cannot simply do away with all artificial light. The International Dark-Sky Association has a wealth of information about simple steps that individuals and businesses can take to reduce light pollution. The basic suggestions taken directly from their website include making sure that your lighting:

  • Only be on when needed
  • Only light the area that needs it
  • Be no brighter than necessary
  • Minimize blue light emissions
  • Be fully shielded (pointing downward)

You can head on over to their site for plenty of other specifics on the impacts of light pollution, how to pick appropriate lighting, and other ways that you can help. You can also look for good stargazing spots near you by exploring their International Dark Sky Places program.

I titled this post Fighting for the Dark Side. But in this case, fighting for darkness really is fighting for the Light: finding balance and harmony with the world around us. And, personally, I’d take a sky lit up with stars over an artificial city glow any night.

A breathtaking view
Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

How is the view of the stars from your part of the galaxy? Do you have a favorite stargazing spot? Feel free to share in the comments!

A Slacker’s Guide to Sustainable Living

If you are looking for ways to live a sustainable lifestyle, there’s no shortage of information out there on different things you can do. From making your own cleaning products to planting a pollinator garden to making sustainable swaps, trying to be eco-friendly can sometimes feel time consuming and overwhelming. But, while those things are important, living for the planet doesn’t always have to be about doing more. For those days when you want to save the planet, but also don’t want to get off your couch, here are a few ways that you can actually do less and still be an environmental superhero.

Cut out the yard work

Lawn maintenance can be a time-consuming task, and it tops the list of my least favorite chores. Fortunately for me, conservationists agree that well-manicured lawns do nothing for the environment. Where we see healthy, bright green grass, native wildlife sees a wasteland without any native food or shelter. Those dandelions that so many people spend time and energy to remove can be a good early source of food for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. To top it off, the pesticides and fertilizers we use to keep that grass growing and weed free are detrimental to insects and cause chemical runoff in our waterways.

Dandelions are a potential food source for pollinators
Photo by Ela Haney on Pexels.com

In the fall, many of us are used to raking and bagging fallen leaves to be hauled away. However, once again, conservationists are encouraging us to skip raking and leave the leaves as a natural source of shelter for insects. Fallen leaves also return nutrients to the soil.

Leaving the leaves can provide winter shelter for wildlife

So give yourself a break: let those dandelions grow and those leaves fall! If you get some weird stares from your neighbors, just tell them you are doing your part for native wildlife.

Skip the sorting

Confession: I have not sorted a load of laundry during my entire adult life, be it by color or fabric or item. If it isn’t a hand-wash or dry clean item, it goes into the machine in cold water. During my college years, I skipped out on sorting laundry in order to save those precious quarters. These days, I just plain don’t want to waste the time and energy to sort. Once again, though, there is a real environmental benefit to this lazy habit. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, about 90% of the energy used by your washing machine goes towards heating the water, and only 10% to actually running the washer, so washing on cold is a huge energy saver.

Stop sorting your laundry to save time, money, and energy

A couple of laundry bonus tips: do laundry less often! Make sure to wait until you have a full load before running your machine. Newer machines may use anywhere from about 5 to 25 gallons of water per cycle, and older machines will use even more, so those energy and water savings add up over time. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet come up with an environmental reason to avoid folding socks, but if you want a step to skip when it comes to drying your clothes, ditch the dryer sheets. It’s a small thing, but it keeps an unnecessary single-use item from going to the landfill.

Give yourself a nature break

Okay, so maybe this last one is technically doing something (and for that matter, doesn’t necessarily have a direct impact on the environment), but it is still a great excuse to use when you just don’t feel like getting that closet cleaned out. And, after all, getting outside is what this blog is all about, right? Putting away your to-do list and letting yourself spend even just 20 minutes outside in nature is a great way to clear your head and unwind. Plus, you may just find yourself inspired and energized to find more ways you can help protect our planet!

Take some time to relax in nature
Photo by Kaique Rocha on Pexels.com

Do you have other ideas to add to this list? Share in the comments!

Running with a Cause

“We are all connected in the great circle of life.”

So says Mufasa to his son, Simba, in Disney’s The Lion King. The more time that I spend in the field of conservation and environmental education, the stronger I see this truth. I write about backyard wildlife so much because I think it is easiest for us to connect with what we can physically see, hear, and touch. But it is important for us to remember that we are part of a global community and our actions have the power to impact wildlife from our own doorstep clear to the other side of the world.

This Saturday, I will be participating in a virtual half marathon. Thanks to the hard work of an amazing friend and co-worker, my run through my neighborhood will be helping cheetahs in Africa in their race against extinction. I will be running as part of Team Cheetah, working to raise money and awareness about these awesome animals.

Capable of reaching speeds of up to 70mph (imagine being able to run as fast as a car on the highway!), cheetahs work hard to survive each day. Not only do they face natural competition from other, much larger, predators, but there are growing threats from habitat loss as human populations grow, conflict with farmers, and poaching. Fortunately, so many people are working to help. Team Cheetah is running in support of the Cheetah Conservation Fund. Based out of Namibia, this organization works on all fronts, from helping to protect lands, helping farmers protect livestock, and rehabilitating cheetahs rescued from wildlife trafficking.

If you would like to help support our team, you can donate here: Sara’s Team Cheetah Fundraising Page

Giving money isn’t the only way to support conservation efforts, though! So, if donating to a stranger’s fundraising page isn’t your thing, please take a moment to explore the Cheetah Conservation Fund website. You can learn more about cheetahs and the amazing work that CCF does, and keep spreading the word. Every little bit helps to get cheetahs across the finish line.

Getting to Know Your Neighbors, Part II

In my last post prior to taking some time off from the blog, I wrote about one way to get to know your wildlife neighbors in winter. Now, spring has sprung here in the Midwest, and since so many of us are finding ourselves at home more than we’re used to these days, I thought I’d kick off my blogging with another post about what I’ve been doing to learn about the creatures that share my backyard.

I am fortunate to have plenty of trees to scan for bird sightings

I have been taking advantage of the warmer weather to try to improve my backyard birding skills. I’ve struggled to get into birding as a hobby before, armed with my trusty binoculars and a field guide, but it can get overwhelming. This time, I’ve been taking advantage of two apps from Cornell University that have been game changers for me.

The first app is the BirdNET Android app, which analyzes bird sounds to identify the species (kind of like a Shazam for bird songs). While it isn’t 100% reliable, it is a great tool to start learning to identify calls, and is great for all the times that you can hear birds, but can’t spot them. This app is a newer find for me, and it has been so fun and helpful: I usually have a chorus of birds going in the trees behind my house, but can rarely spot anything. Even when I do, my amateur eye rarely has time to process what I’m seeing before the bird flies off again! I love that the app stores my submissions so that I can go back through all the birds I’ve heard and work on learning the calls. If you don’t have an Android device, you should also be able to upload audio recordings at https://birdnet.cornell.edu/ for identification.

The second app has been around for a while. The Merlin Bird ID app not only functions as a digital field guide, but allows you to identify birds by submitting a photo, or by answering questions in the Bird ID Wizard. It also allows you to simply look through bird species in your area, and provides natural history, photo galleries, and audio libraries. You can read more about this app here: https://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/. It is available on both Apple and Android devices.

In recent weeks, I was able to identify blue jays, cardinals, northern flickers, and a red-bellied woodpecker both through the BirdNET app and by visual ID. The BirdNET app also identified calls of Carolina wrens, white-breasted nuthatch, and American goldfinch.

If you try these out, let me know what birds you are seeing and hearing!

Getting to Know Your Neighbors

When you move into a new home, you might spend some time worrying about your new neighbors. What if they play their music too loud? What if they don’t keep up with their property maintenance? What if they get mad at you for not keeping up with your property maintenance? More often than not, though, having neighbors is a good thing. I’ve had some wonderful neighbors who helped me pull weeds, allowed me to use their fence line, and call the utility company when a waterline broke while I was away. I’ve also had the bass-booming-at-midnight neighbors. More often than not, though, I share an occasional smile and nod with them, and we all live our separate lives.

Most of us might not think as much about our furry, feathered, or scaly neighbors as we do our human ones, but becoming more aware of the wildlife around us can help us to appreciate and enjoy our natural world and become better neighbors.

While you might think that spring or summer would be the ideal time to spot wildlife, I find winter to be a great time to get out and explore, and in some ways, an easier time to get started. Since many species might migrate or hole up for the winter, identification can become easier. Bare trees can allow for easier visualization of birds, and snow covered ground provides a blank canvas for our wild neighbors to leave their clues behind.

Not a fan of the cold weather? Understandable. The thought of bundling up and clomping around in the snow to try to catch a glimpse of some animals might not sound super appealing. I am a warm weather girl, myself, but I started my winter wildlife watches by convincing myself to step outside for 5 minutes to see what I could see. I got in the habit of walking around my yard for a few minutes after coming home from work. Here are some of my finds:

Do you recognize this little guy? This is an Eastern Bluebird, a beautiful red, white, and blue bird found year-round throughout much of the eastern United States. I’m sure they were around all year, but this was my first time spotting one!

Tracks can be tough to identify in deep snow, but prints in a thin snow cover (coupled with a good field guide) are a great way to determine who has been hanging out in your yard. Do you recognize any of the tracks from some common backyard visitors? The top photo shows squirrel tracks. While the toes weren’t clearly visible, the pattern of the prints, coupled with the fact that they led right up to a tree, helped me land on squirrel, rather than rabbit.

The bottom two photos technically don’t belong to wild animals, but they do illustrate a helpful tracking tip. The photo on the right is from my own dog. This is a fresh footprint in light snow, so you can clearly see the four toes and the claw marks above each toe. Now compare that print to the photo on the right. Those are footprints from my neighbor’s cat (who apparently comes to visit my house during the day). Do you see the difference? Size, of course, but also note the lack of claw marks on the cat prints. Since cats have retractable claws, you won’t see the marks on their prints. While these examples are from domestic animals, it holds true for their wild counterparts: you will see claw marks on prints from coyotes or foxes, but not bobcats, for example.

What is the benefit from knowing your local wildlife? It can help us go from being the equivalent of those bass-booming neighbors to the ones who help you shovel your driveway. Once we know who is out there, we can start learning about their needs and their lifestyle. Small changes like planting native plants for birds and butterflies, avoiding pesticides, and providing sources of shelter can make a huge difference for your community of native wildlife. Remember that we moved into their neighborhood, not the other way around.

Are you interested in learning more about the wildlife in your backyard? Do you want to learn how to become a better neighbor to your wild counterparts? Consider visiting the National Wildlife Federation to find out how to provide food, water, and shelter for a variety of species, and even officially certify your backyard habitat: https://www.nwf.org/Home/Garden-for-Wildlife/Wildlife.

Snow Day

Is there anything better than fresh snow on a quiet morning? How is it that snow makes me feel both peaceful and energized at the same time? As I crunched through my backyard to take these pictures this morning, I had such a sense of calm, but also a tingle of anticipation.

For what? Who knows. Perhaps it is just the change of scenery. A white, bright, fluffy coat over the soggy grass and faded leaves. A fresh start.

If only I could hang on to those feelings while shoveling the driveway. The struggles of winter!

Is it snowing where you are? Any snow lovers or haters out there?