Earth Day Resolution

EarthDay-November 24, 2012-DSC_0728 v2jh

The trailer for the documentary “Trashed” opens with a spectacular view of the Earth from space. The narrator begins with the words: “From up here our planet looks perfect. It’s only when we look more closely that we start to see some of the results of our consumption…”

EarthDay-February 24, 2013-DSC_1121 v2jhThe same is true of Lake Lewisville… From a distance it too looks beautiful. However, upon closer examination the damage of our negligence is clearly seen. Trash, litter and general pollution are constant companions when visiting the lake and the sheer volume can sometimes be overwhelming. This blog was started with the goal of being a catalyst for change. The hope being that through words and images, that others would become aware of the situation and take positiveEarthDay-December 23, 2012-DSC_0949 v2jh action. However, creating a blog doesn’t really do anything to improve the condition of the lake – a blog is a virtual medium, after all. If tangible results were the desired outcome, something additional would be required.

I associate the lake with fresh air, good times and a chance to be at one with nature. I was prepared to EarthDay-January 27, 2013-DSC_1047 v2jhinvest a substantial amount of energy into making a positive difference, but I didn’t want the activity to diminish my enjoyment of the lake. I also didn’t want to commit to something that was so onerous that I would burn out after a short period of time. In the end, I found the answer in the concept of leaving an area in a better condition than it was found.
EarthDay-December 24, 2012-DSC_0956 v2jhThe volume of trash is such that the actions of one person on any given day are not going to make a significant impact. Only long term, repeated actions and the involvement of others will truly make a difference. However, with each visit I can certainly pick up and carry away a small amount of garbage. Further, it does not matter whether trash is pickedEarthDay-November 24, 2012-DSC_0773 v2jh up at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of a lake outing. In fact, making trash the focus of a trip or paying too much attention to it during an outing has the potential to ruin the adventure. The commitment I decided to make is to pick up trash at the end of each visit. In general, I start picking up anything I can find when I’m 15-20 minutes away from my car. It is surprising how much garbage can be removed in those final few minutes at the end of an outing!

It is with those thoughts in mind that I want to recognize an organization I recently discovered while driving to work (I saw their billboard sign on the side of the road). The name of the group is called “ReverseLitter.com” and they are also working to clean up litter. Their website is full of good information and they promote an interesting call-to-action called the “Ten on Tuesday” pledge. Although my approach to cleaning up the environment is a little different, we are both in pursuit of the same goal.

Pledges, commitments and promises to improve remind me of New Year resolutions. Many people begin each year with resolutions to make positive changes in their lives and, with Earth Day 2013 just passing, I wonder if we are in need of Earth Day resolutions. What is your Earth Day resolution? What can you do to make a positive difference? What will you do to leave your part of the world in a better condition for future generations?

Reference
1. Earth Day Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth_Day
2. Trashed Film Trailer: http://vimeo.com/41514228
3. Trashed Film Website: http://www.trashedfilm.com
4. ReverseLitter.com: http://www.reverselitter.com

EarthDay-April 01, 2013-DSC_1200 v2jh

Winter Beauty

Something I find very compelling about Lake Lewisville is that, despite being man-made and located within one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States, when her natural beauty is revealed it can be breathtaking.

On a bright winter day in early January, I decided to take the kayak out and reconnect with the lake. With no wind to ripple its surface, the water was like glass – a perfectly polished mirror reflecting the deep blue sky. There were very few people out that day and, with the wind and water being so still, the noise from the nearby interstate highway was the only real reminder that I was still in Dallas and not a truly remote and wild area.

This video was made from images captured using a GoPro Hero 2 and an iPhone 4. Production work was done on an iPad 2 using 1st Video software from VeriCorder Technology.

Winter. from Justin Huffaker on Vimeo.

Learned Behavior

I saw it happen recently while visiting a local Costco warehouse. A mother and her young daughter were walking up to the store. The child ran ahead, grabbed a shopping cart and began climbing in. Once inside, the girl noticed a discarded clear plastic bouquet bag lying in the basket area. She quickly reached down, grabbed the bag and tossed it over theLitter-November 18, 2012-DSC_0721 vSmall v2jh edge where it fluttered to the ground and began to blow away. Mom gave a reproachful shout, chased and caught the bag. She then brusquely pulled the girl out of the cart, handed her the bag and sternly pointed to the trash.

As glad as I was to see simple environmental knowledge being passed from one generation to the next, I began to wonder about our internal wiring and natural tendencies. There are many behaviors that seem counterintuitive to young children that make perfect sense to adults. Don’t run in the house, toys must be shared with others, demonstrate good manners and that people should be treated with respect are some of the early lessons that everyone learns. It seems we must also be taught not to litter.

Remember Ranger Rick, Woodsy Owl and Smokey Bear? Sometimes parents are aided by fictional, cartoon characters in teaching their children good conduct in the wilderness. Woodsy Owl is famous for his “Give a hoot, don’t pollute!” message and Smokey Bear is legendary for his statement that “Only YOU Litter-November 18, 2012-DSC_0700 vSmallcan prevent forest fires.” Of course, the hope is that cartoon characters will appeal to a young audience and their Earth-friendly message will be retained throughout life.

Education often takes a lifetime and message reinforcement is sometimes needed. Since the 1950s, advertising campaigns and television commercials have been used on both a national and state level to remind people of basic Earth etiquette. Quite possibly the most famous anti-pollution television message featured the crying Indian. Originally released in 1971 as part of a national campaign, the commercial was wildly successful at raising awareness of the tragedy of pollution and, more importantly, establishing an emotional connection with the issue. During the late 80s and early 90s, the state of Texas implemented a very successful anti-littering campaign featuring celebrities from Texas and the phrase, “Don’t mess with Texas.” According to Wikipedia, “The campaign is credited with reducing litter on Texas highways roughly 72% between 1986 and 1990. The campaign’s target market was 18-35 year old males, which was statistically shown to be the most likely to litter.” A commercial featuring blues rock legend Stevie Ray Vaughan was the first installment of this campaign and was one of the most popular versions.

Despite their effectiveness, the popularity of these campaigns is only momentary. Inevitably, attention and commitment fade as time passes. As I travel through my tiny corner of the world on foot, bike and kayak, I am stunned by the presence of so much litter. It is so ugly, wrong and out-of-place; I find myself asking, why? Why do people litter? Isn’t it self-evident that litter and pollution are wrong? Why are campaigns like those previously mentioned needed in the first place? Catchy slogans like “Keep America Beautiful” and “Don’t Mess with Texas” only go so far. What breakthrough in our social consciousness is needed so that there is less litter not more?

References
Television Campaigns
1. Keep America Beautiful featuring Susan Spotless PSA – YouTube
2. Crying Indian PSA #1 – YouTube
3. Crying Indian PSA #2 – YouTube
4. Crying Indian PSA #3 – YouTube
5. Stevie Ray Vaughan PSA – YouTube
6. Confederate Air Force PSA – YouTube
7. Woodsy Owl PSA #1 – YouTube
8. Woodsy Owl PSA #2 – YouTube
9. Smokey Bear PSA #1 – YouTube
10. Smokey Bear PSA #2 – YouTube
11. Smokey Bear PSA #3 – YouTube
12. Smokey Bear PSA #4 – YouTube

Wikipedia
13. Keep America Beautiful
14. Litter
15. Don’t Mess With Texas
16. Woodsy Owl
17. Smokey Bear
18. Ranger Rick

The Bluebirds

Unexpected Discovery
In the early spring of 2012 I was very fortunate to be able to closely observe the lives of a family of Eastern Bluebirds. I had just upgraded my camera to a Nikon DSLR and one of the lenses I purchased was a 70-300mm zoom lens. Looking for a subject to test the lens, I headed for one of the nearby lakeside parks of Lake Lewisville.

Bluebird Arrowhead OakArrowhead Park is not a large park but it is an interesting one with craggy oak trees, many different plants and a variety of wild birds. For no particular reason, most of my previous visits to Arrowhead had been in the wintertime. Several times while exploring the park I had seen a flash of bright blue out of the corner of my eye, the bird always just out of sight as I turned to get a better view. I didn’t know what kind of bird I was seeing in those brief glimpses but I had ruled out blue jays since they are so gregarious and noisy and, therefore, easily seen. Eastern Bluebirds are not rare in North Texas; however I had only one previous sighting and wondered if they were responsible for creating the mysterious blue flashes.

Bluebird BirdhouseOn this trip to Arrowhead Park I certainly had no expectations of seeing an Eastern Bluebird and wasn’t even thinking of photographing birds at all. After arriving at the park, I pulled my car off the road and, while sitting in the car, began shooting different trees and one of the birdhouses. I was testing different camera and lens settings and was admiring the photographic results when I saw a flash of blue in my peripheral vision. I turned to see a male bluebird as he was flitting back and forth in the branches of a nearby tree. Not wanting to frighten the bird away, I sat unmoving in my car and didn’t attempt any photos, being simply content to watch the bluebird and admire his coloring.

Eventually I began to slowly move and position the camera. Although the bluebird kept a wary eye on me, he was not deterred by my presence and went about his business hopping through the branches of the tree and making short flights to the birdhouse. Gradually I came to realize that my car was acting as a blind and was allowing me to shoot photos and use binoculars without disturbing the bird. After about an hour I decided to leave, counting myself lucky to have finally solved the mystery of the blue flashes.

Bluebird Male Perching

Boy Meets Girl
The next weekend I returned to Arrowhead Park not really expecting to see the bluebird again. I parked off the road near the same birdhouse and after a few minutes a male bluebird landed on its roof. Having seen a bluebird for only the second time the previous weekend I couldn’t tell if it was the same bird but he looked very similar. He was curious and would tilt his head quizzically and watch me from the roof of the birdhouse or from the branches of a nearby tree. I had been watching him for about 30 minutes when a second bird landed nearby. This bird was not as colorful but did have the same shape and color patterns. I realized I was looking at a female bluebird!

Bluebird Pair CourtingThe two birds noticed each other and began chirping back and forth. They made several brief flights together often landing next to each other, pausing for a few moments and then flying off again. After about an hour of this behavior, they disappeared and I did not see them again. I left the park and went home to review the photos I had taken. Although I had some nice shots, I realized that in order to shoot high quality photos of such tiny birds I would either need a lens with more magnification or I would need to get closer. Getting closer seemed problematic due to the location of the birdhouse and the fact that I did not want to disturb the birds by parking a car within close proximity. I had been parking approximately 50 feet from the bird house and this seemed to be about the minimum distance the birds would tolerate.

When I returned the following weekend I found the two birds energetically engaged in nest-building. In alternating sequence, the male would arrive at the birdhouse with sprigs of grass in his beak to be followed shortly thereafter by the female. While perching at the circular entrance hole of the birdhouse, the birds would poke their heads (and sometimes bodies) inside and carefully place the nesting materials. When the male would fly off the female would appear, repeating the same sequence with her grass and leaves. This activity continued for about an hour; then, like the previous weekend, the birds abruptly vanished.

Bluebird Female Nesting

Problem Solving
I had been sitting in my car on the side of the road for approximately 2 hours. The temperatures had been cool and there were very few, if any, people in the park. An SUV approached and as it neared I could see that it was a park ranger. The park ranger was very cordial and friendly but informed me that I was not allowed to park my car on the side of road. This news presented a problem. My car, while acting as an effective blind, had also provided a comfortable and stable environment for holding the camera and taking photos. I needed a solution because I did not believe that the bluebirds would tolerate my unshielded presence so close to their home. I went to a local sporting goods store and discovered the answer – a small, portable, camouflaged hunting blind.

The birdhouse was very quiet when I returned the next weekend. In fact, things were so quiet and still that I was afraid that something had happened to the birds. I pulled my new bird blind from the trunk of the car and approached the birdhouse to begin setting it up. I realized immediately that the bird blind would allow me to get much closer than I ever had been able to get with my car. After setting up the blind, I sat and waited. After about 45 minutes, the male bluebird flew to the small tree next to the birdhouse. The female lifted Bluebird Chickadee Intrudingher head from within the birdhouse, hopped to the opening and flew out. No movement and no sound came from within. After a time, a Carolina Chickadee flew to the entrance of the birdhouse. In a flash of bright blue, the male bluebird charged the chickadee and frightened the “intruder” away. I saw this same protective behavior repeated when a small Bewick’s Wren landed, unsuspecting, on the roof of the birdhouse. Approximately 15 minutes after having departed, the female returned to the birdhouse and hopped back in. The male disappeared shortly thereafter and I did not see any more activity during that visit.

Bluebird Male GuardingMy visit the following weekend was similarly quiet although I did have one interesting discovery. Eastern Bluebirds have a very distinctive call. The Audubon Birds application for iPhone describes it as follows: “Call a liquid and musical turee or queedle. Song a soft melodious warble.” To me it sounds like a bubbling chirp that starts high and trails off quietly, a very pleasant song. As I was sitting in my bird blind, I could hear several different bluebirds calling in the distance. On a whim, I pulled out my iPhone and turned up the volume. I started the Audubon Birds application and played a couple of the bluebird songs and calls. Almost at once the male bluebird appeared. He flew to the birdhouse hole and frantically looked all around for the would-be intruder. He checked inside the birdhouse to ensure that everything was ok. After being satisfied that no threat was imminent, the male bluebird flew away. I tried the same experiment again about thirty minutes later and saw the same frantic, protective behavior displayed by the male. Not wanting to upset the bluebird family and unintentionally cause a problem, I did not play the bluebird calls again within such close proximity to their home.

New Additions
Bluebird Female FeedingThings were very different when I returned for my weekly visit on the next weekend. Spring was in the air; trees were budding, grass was growing and bluebird babies had arrived. The female was out of the birdhouse and both she and the male would take turns flying in worms for the babies to eat. Landing at the circular entrance to Bluebird Male Feedingthe birdhouse with a juicy worm for a meal, I would hear tiny excited “peep peep peep” sounds as both male and female reached inside to feed the babies. Sometimes the female would disappear inside the birdhouse and then fly out a short time later with a white ball of an unknown substance in her mouth. My suspicion is that this was waste from the babies and that the mother was simply cleaning house and flying it away. As I had seen in prior visits, all activity would cease at the birdhouse sometime around mid-morning.

My next weekly visit to the birdhouse was to be the last time that I would see the family together. The babies were much bigger and I was even able to get a shot of one of their very serious and stern-looking faces peering out at the world beyond their home. I stayed Bluebird Baby Watchinglonger on this visit than on previous trips, relaxing in my bird blind even when the feeding activity stopped at the usual mid-morning time. I stepped out of the blind and walked the short distance to my car for some water. The park has several large parking lot lights to illuminate the area at night and power is delivered through elevated power lines. When I began the return trip I looked up and saw both the male and female bluebird sitting on the power line behind the blind watching the birdhouse. Sitting on the power line in this manner gave the birds a tremendous view of the birdhouse and also placed them out of my sight when seated in the car and the bird blind. It’s possible that when the morning routine ended each day that both birds would perch in a location such as this to protectively watch for any threat to their babies.

I didn’t see any new residents of the birdhouse on future visits to Arrowhead Park. I did, however, see and hear many bluebirds flying through the trees and brush. It is amazing how one can go through life ignorant and blind to the world around them. But, once eyes are opened, new perspective is gained. That’s how I feel about the bluebirds. Now that I know what to look for and where to look, I see them all the time. Now that I know what their unique song sounds like, I hear it frequently and it easily stands out from other birdsong in the forest. I feel truly fortunate to have had, for a brief time, this small look into the daily lives of these wild animals. Being able to watch the bluebirds meet, build a nest and raise their family was a true gift.

Reference
Additional information that may be of interest.
1. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology – All About Birds: Eastern Bluebird
2. Audubon Guides for iPhone: A Field Guide to North American Birds

Bluebird Pair Courting 2