The Greater Yellowlegs, a splashing sandpiper on stilts

The Greater Yellowlegs

I watched this beautiful bird at the beach the other day – a Greater Yellowlegs. He flew in from the south and landed right in front of me on the beach, apparently unperturbed by my presence. Usually, when I’ve seen these birds, they are somewhat skittish and wary of noises and people, typically flying away if approached. In fact, the Seattle Audubon states they are “often the first species to sound an alarm when a perceived threat approaches” and are more shy than other shorebirds.

I never want to disturb birds while watching or photographing them, so I was rather glad this was the perfect encounter. I was already sitting silently on a washed up log when he flew in, watching him as he at first stood in the shallow water, his yellow legs poking out of the surface. Then, he circled around, cheeping, and flapped his wings in the deeper water. He made quite the splash, literally! I wasn’t quite sure what he was up to, wondering if he was spooked or snagged on something. I watched to make sure he wasn’t caught on some piece of plastic litter or having other trouble, but he eventually settled down and preened his feathers for a while before flying off to the south.

I’ve been seeing quite a few of these birds recently as they stopover at rocky coasts and beaches on their way south for the winter. They are a type of sandpiper and can be difficult to differentiate from the Lesser Yellowlegs. Right now, they are making their way south from their breeding grounds in northern Canada where they breed in marshes. While they are not endangered and have a steady population (as far as we know), they are classified as Climate Threatened by Audubon due to predicted instability of their summer range in boreal Canada. However, their winter range is predicted to vastly expand, although I can’t help but wonder if they will displace other birds in doing so like Barred Owls?

Last week, I watched a few moving through the shallow water catching small crabs to eat. They move so gracefully and effortlessly through the water when I know there are lots of crags and rocks down there that I’d be slipping and sliding on.  I still remember the first time I saw one last year up north on the island; I was very excited to meet an interesting new shorebird!

check out those yellow legs and feet underwater!
Caught a crab!

Encounters like this are what I most love about bird-watching. Quiet moments shared between just you and the bird. I often feel a connection deeper and more raw than one I might share with another human being. I feel grateful to get to watch them, even for just a little while. I wonder what they get up to when we’re not around and how much farther he has to go on his southward journey and if he’s going to make it there and back again.

Finding a sanctuary of serenity in nature

29683405430_7f8d4bd620_o.jpg

When I start feeling down, its time for a walk. Sometimes, I spend a lot of time thinking about why the world is the way it is and how it came to be that way. I think about all the worst things; people who cheat and lie, who corrupt and take advantage of others. The way the world revolves around money, the fragmentation of the habitats with cookie-cutter houses and cement. I start to hate the very pavement I am walking on and again, that part of me wonders if I could just run away and leave it all behind. I wonder if I am the only person who thinks this way. Why does everyone else seem to just accept the world as it is?

DSC06117.JPG

I go to the beach, where I can watch birds and feel the sun and listen to the leaves swishing in a gentle breeze and lose myself in nature. At least for a little while. It helps me forget the imbalances and injustices.

I can see the simplest beauty that we are surrounded by in nature. Its so much better than the manufactured thing. When I reach the beach, a lone Great Blue Heron stands on the shoreline. He looks small somehow with his neck is hunched down as he stands still, then lurches forward to catch a fish every now and again. And for a while, its just him and me.

In the distance, I can hear bald eagles making noise at their nearby neighborhood nest. Just as I am about to go check them out, I see a swirl in the water and a head pops up. Its a river otter. Then, another head surfaces and I stop to watch the pair for a while. Off to my right, I notice a large crevice in the rocks I’d never seen before and I wonder if they take refuge and nest there or not.

I watch them for a while as they bob up and down, swishing their long tails and head towards the rocks before turning back again and swimming away out of sight. I move on to the bald eagle nest, where the juvenile is perched on a branch alone; the parents must have just left. I head down to the nearby beach and sit on a rock.

DSC06103
my Purple Martin pair

Suddenly, a pair of Purple Martins start circling low in the air around me, making me a centrepiece. I am amazed to be so close to one of my favourite birds and I watch them, enraptured. But soon I start to worry I am stressing them if they have a nest nearby (though I see no nestboxes or even good-looking spots for them nearby), so I move away and give them space, just in case.

I find a bald eagle parent across the water, perched on a rock. He returns to the nest, then comes back again. There’s a rush of emotions that comes with watching. As the bald eagle parent leaves the nesting tree and flies low over the beach, the purple martin pair chatters loudly, perhaps agitated, and fly in circles, swooping and diving. Is this to distract a predator from their nest or to warn their young? I don’t know, but it seems somehow connected. Black Oystercatchers chitter and fly away in a tight group and ravens squawk and dive-bomb the eagle as soon as it perches atop a tree.

Its funny to think all of this happens within a mere few moments as one bird flies out to fish. Does anyone else take notice or I am watching my own private nature documentary? I want all of them and their young to survive; I can’t possibly pick sides. They each have a value and a purpose in the balance of nature, predator and prey.

In the quiet morning, with just the gentle swish of waves and the sound of the birds, the serenity is contagious. In between, the moments of action are exciting. Sometimes, I wish these moments could last forever.

 

October birding around Victoria on a wonderful weekend

Between work, shorter winter days and looking after both my foster kitten and Amber, I’ve not had much time for birding lately. Its unfortunate because I find great peace and contentment in getting outside for a walk, whether I see interesting new  birds or familiar old ones.

Back in October, however, I had what I called a birding jackpot of a day out birding followed by a second good day of sightings. After a brief lull of not getting out birding like the one I am stuck in now, I was pretty excited about my days out.

Harlequin Ducks

It must be winter up north already because my first exciting sightings included some familiar friends from last winter: Harlequin Ducks! There was a a whole group of males in breeding plumage as well as a few females not far off from the rocky coastline. Later in the day, I got a very up close look at a pair in a little, less visited cove (one of my favourite spots) and was truly struck by their beauty.

Harlequin Duck, male
Female and male Harlequin Duck dabbling for food together. They were synchronized in their bobbing up and down.

Not far from the group of Harlequin Ducks were four Grebes, but one of them looked distinctly different than the other three. I think the trio were Horned Grebes in non-breeding plumage who where reminiscent of a trio of Horned Grebes I saw in the same spot earlier this year looking spectacular in breeding plumage. The fourth Grebe I suspect was a Common Grebe, but I can’t say for sure. I’ve not had enough experience with grebes to know for sure.

Horned Grebes non-breeding plumage (?)
Harlequin Ducks and my mystery grebe

I saw a couple of Anna’s Hummingbirds about and two of them posed long enough for me to photograph them. Flitting among the driftwood and in between rocks was a lovely little Song Sparrow that no one else seemed to notice amid the spectacular views of Mt Baker and Haro Strait. That’s all right with me: I quite like having the birds all to myself.

the ever beautiful Anna’s Hummingbird perched in a little bush
Song Sparrow scurrying on the coastal rocks

With the arrival of some of our wintering birds like Harlequin Ducks, I was surprised to find Cedar Waxwings still hanging around, fluttering between treetops in big groups with a couple of American Robins among their number.

Cedar Waxwings fluttered among the treetops, identified by their distinctive black eye masks.

Posed on a rock above the water, I was delighted to see a Great Blue Heron not far from a Belted Kingfisher who didn’t stick around for long before speeding away with its distinct song. Only a few moments later, a Northern Flicker landed in its place as a Hooded Merganser swam into the little inlet. Away off on a rock-island was a group of sleeping Black Oystercatchers – the biggest group of them I’ve seen in this area yet! That day also brought me regular year-rounders like Spotted Towhees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Bald Eagles, Common Ravens and Canada Geese as well.

Great Blue Heron at rest
Belted Kingfisher unfortunately looking right at me…
Moments later, a Northern Flicker touched down briefly after the Kingfisher flew away.
A large group of Black Oystercatchers

The second day of my weekend, I felt really lucky again! I went off to Whiffin Spit in Sooke and the first thing I saw was a pack of sea lions hanging out offshore together! I could even hear them loudly calling among one another. There were juvenile European Starlings still hanging around along with Brewer’s Blackbirds. I saw my first Black Turnstones of the season and Harlequin Ducks gathered together on the gentle waves.

Sea lions rafting together offshore at Whiffin Spit.

I feel I’ve come a long way in the last year, not only as a birder but in my life as well. Many of these birds took time for me to identify last winter! I even remember mistaking a Spotted Towhee for an American Robin but was incredibly confused because they didn’t look like the robins I remember out east. I’ve learned so much in the last year, but there is still so much to learn, which is one of the many joys of birding!

A juvenile European Starling hopped along the rocks with Brewer’s Blackbirds.

I started with some easier bigger birds, like  herons and osprey, then worked on shorebirds at the beginning because they tend to stay still longer. Over the summer, I tried to focus on songbirds and practiced my photographing on chickadees and House Sparrows whenever I saw them.

Black Turnstones livin up to their name.

Now my goals are to learn gulls, as I have completely neglected them so far because “they all look the same to me.” (How embarrassing…) However, I know I will learn the small differences in time if I take the time to learn.

Orcas in the Seymour Narrows at Ripple Rock in Campbell River, BC

Last week, I mentioned my first ever whale sighting as well as my first orcas, but I didn’t elaborate on the orcas yet. Up in Campbell River in July, my partner and I decided on a hike to Ripple Rock which overlooks the famous Seymour Narrows, a narrow shipping passage connecting Johnstone Strait in the north to the Strait of Georgia in the south.

It lies east of Vancouver Island and was once a dangerous passage due to shallow rocks lurking out of eyesight below the water’s surface which caused tidal eddies to form. There were many shipwrecks there until the undersea rocks were blasted in 1958 and is said to be the largest non-nuclear explosion in history.

Today, the hike to Ripple Rock is an enjoyable seaside hike through coastal forest. We were told that whales are commonly seen from the top, but did not dare to believe we would have such luck.

View of Seymour Narrows from Ripple Rock: Menzies Bay to the right, narrows to the left.

But when we reached the top, we hardly even took in the view when we saw them…a pair of orcas, their tall dorsal fins distinguishable even from a distance off in the water coming from Menzies Bay on our right. I could not believe our luck! Just the day before, I saw my first whale ever and now, here were two orcas swimming down the channel in front of me. This time, I had a chance to grab my camera.

Two orcas in Seymour Narrows near Campbell River, BC

Slowly, they made their way closer to us and for a time, they seemed to be hardly moving at all; as if they were having fun just floating in the current. The pair moved further off closer to Quadra Island and then all of a sudden, another pair turned up right in the water in front of us!

Orca seen from Seymour Narrows

They were so close we could hear them breathe. This orca stayed floating almost still in the water below us for a while, before he suddenly disappeared beneath its dark surface. I will never forget what it sounded like, seeing the way they moved through the water so effortlessly with grace.

I always dreamed of being able to see whales from land, not because I don’t like boats because I love them, but because I never want to pay for a whale watch tour again. It feels wrong stalking them and tracking them the way they do; I’d rather see them for free, for real and by my own luck. And I finally did. I’d hoped to see wolves on our trip, but I never expected to see whales…note the plural! Somehow, that weekend was full of the magic of seeing whales and to me, Campbell River will remain in my memory as a hub for whale sightings. I feel so lucky we had the chance and the right timing to see these magnificent creatures.

Seymour Narrows from Ripple Rock with Quadra Island across the passage

Summertime nest observation: Osprey, Bald Eagles and Great Blue Heron

Summer is in full swing here in Victoria – the cicadas are buzzing, the flowers have bloomed and many birds are caring for their young. Last week I was quite lucky to stumble upon a few new nests, as well as checking up on the old ones.

These are exciting times at the Osprey nest I’ve been watching on and off. Around mid-June, the chicks hatched and on June 22, I saw three wee heads poking out from the nest! I’m so excited to be watching them thrive and grow throughout the season this year after only discovering the nest late last summer.

Three little Osprey chick heads poke out from the nest while mum watches over

All the pair’s hard work repairing and working on the nest starting in April has certainly paid off. Three chicks also hatched last year, but only two fledged.  So far, this year’s three are doing well and I am very hopeful for them!

Last week I went to watch to find lots of action underway! A third Osprey was in the area, seemingly agitating the mother who continuously called out and eventually gave chase to the intruder. A third Osprey had been sighted periodically throughout the pair’s courtship and nest-building; I wonder if this was the same one.

Dad-Osprey finally returned to the nest area and settled on a nearby light-post. Soon, he was swooping and diving and calling loudly in an impressive flight display chasing off the third osprey, and the happy family was safely tucked into their nest once more.

Dad returning to the nest area
Dad setting off to chase away the third Osprey
Osprey family all tucked in the nest

My second visit last week saw more activity – lunchtime! Mum and babies were calling out hungrily from the nest until dad swooped in with lunch – fish, of course! It must be very hard work fishing for four family members and yourself. Its no wonder only two chicks fledged last year.

Patiently waiting for lunch
“Fish again, dad?”

In a setting entirely different from the sports field, but still not far from human activity, I found a Bald Eagle nest hidden up a tree.

Bald Eagle nest

So far, I have seen no chicks, but it looked like they were busy building up the nest in preparation and giving it lots of attention. I’ve only ever once before seen a nesting pair of Bald Eagles, so I am very excited about this!

Carefully placing a branch in the nest (above) while their mate looks on, presumably supervising the nest-building

I really hope to see chicks here in the future. Bald Eagles are a rare creature out east where I grew up, but B.C. is home to a huge population of these sea-eagles. Sometimes I find it funny that I have seen far more of them here than I have in its iconic home to the south, the U.S. I saw one fly low over my backyard the other day; something I have never seen before and will not soon forget!

Bald Eagle pair at their nest

On the weekend, I spotted an Osprey nest at another sports field. Its so interesting that Osprey do not seem to mind the noise and boisterousness from the games going on below. I didn’t spy any chicks from the angles I could view from, but here’s hoping there are some more on the way!

Another Osprey nest found at another sports field.

Finally, I observed a Great Blue Heronry which used to house many more nests in the past until the nests were decimated by bald eagle predation.  It appears to be bouncing back, though, with a number of nests hidden in the boughs of trees with tall herons perched atop branches looking every bit as graceful as they are in the water.


Unlike Osprey, Great Blue Herons are incredibly sensitive to human disturbances and will abandon nests as a result. However, their chicks are also vulnerable to predators like bald eagles. While Bald Eagles and Osprey tend to mate for life, Great Blue Heron pairs remain together only for the season and will seek other mates in the following years.

Despite their differences, all three of these birds rely on fish as a huge part (or the only part) of their diet. That means the success of each species is intrinsically linked with the health of the ocean. While individuals may thrive in an ideal nesting site or decline from human disturbance or predators, as a whole, how will they survive challenges like dwindling fish from over-fishing, plastic pollution and ingestion or toxic chemicals moving up the food chain?

Did you notice the common link between these challenges are humans? Only we can change our habits, our behaviour, our society, in order to protect the environment from ourselves. Next time you reach for that plastic bottle of soda at the store, order fish for dinner or put pesticides on your garden or lawn, think about the impact of your actions and choices. Think about the Osprey, think about the Great Blue Heron. Remember Rachel Carson and DDT in Silent Spring. Think about the ocean. It belongs to all of us, human and creature alike, and as such each one of us is responsible for its well-being.


More reading and resources
Overfishing.org explains what overfishing is, why it is a problem and what you can do to help.
Participate in a Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup to remove garbage and debris from the coasts. Remember it is always better not to pollute, litter and use single-use plastics in the first place.
Observe a nest at OspreyWatch and log your observations to partake in citizen science.
Seven ways you can reduce ocean pollution right now

Birds at the rocky coast: a variety of species from Auklets to Vultures

Going down to my the rocky coast and nearby beach is one of my favourite places to go for a walk and watch birds. Last  week while near the shore, I heard a high-pitched “kill-deer kill-deer” repeating over and over. Carefully gazing among the rocks, I spotted the Killdeer at last. I find they blend in so effectively and move quickly, sometimes making them hard to spot if you aren’t paying attention.

Killdeer very dutifully watching over its baby

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement. It was a Killdeer chick running around and eating and being watcher over by its parent. What a tiny chick, he looks too small for his long legs, but soon enough he’ll grow into them. Killdeer typically lay 4-6 eggs per brood (Cornell), so I wonder if the others hatched successfully as I only saw the one. They live on Vancouver Island year-round (Sibley, 2016), but I’d never know it as I see them far more often in the spring and summer.

Killdeer chick exploring the algae-laden rocks exposed by low tide

Further along, there were a number of non-native European Starlings, from juvenile to fully-fledged adults with their iridescent plumage.

European Starling

I went through pages and pages of my Sibley guide and lots of googling photos before I finally identified the Juvenile European Starling. I would never have guessed these were the same birds, from drab gray to a beautiful glossy black that shimmers green, blue and purple in the sunlight. I’d love to see a molting juvenile halfway between each later in the season.

Juvenile European Starling

As I moved a little further from the coast, perched in a nearby tree was a Brown-headed Cowbird. They just have lovely blue-green sheen to their feathers and a distinct brown head, thus their name.

Brown-headed Cowbird

House Sparrows chattered and scurried about on the ground and perched in trees. Just like European Starlings, House Sparrows were introduced to North America and found great success in this opportunity, becoming especially common birds in urban areas. They often have a bad reputation because they take over nesting areas other native birds would use, such as Purple Martins and Tree Swallows (Cornell). Even so, I enjoy watching them flit about.

House Sparrows
House Sparrow at a nest box potentially taking over a potential nest site for native species like Tree Swallows.

Moving back toward the water again, I spotted an interesting diving bird floating on the surface who periodically dove underwater for minutes at a time. I spent a while sitting and watching this aptly-named Rhinoceros Auklet with his funny little horn. This was my first ever auklet, who just happened to be the largest of western auklets, living along the west coast of North America year-round (Sibley, 2016). Despite this, I was immensely surprised and excited to see one!

Rhinoceros Auklet

Then I began to worry about the little Killdeer chick when I saw a large bird overhead, but breathed a slight sigh of relief to see a Turkey Vulture hovering above. As they primarily scavenge for food, I’m hoping a tiny Killdeer wouldn’t attract this raptor’s attention. Turkey vultures have to be one of my favourite birds to watch; they are simply amazing.

Turkey Vulture

First, they are HUGE with wingspans up to 6 feet (Sibley, 2016)! Second, I will never stop being fascinated by the way they hover and tilt, rocking unsteadily back and forth on their powerful wings as if floating on thermal updrafts high up in the sky. Finally, they are a crucial part of the ecosystem by cleaning up when they eat rotting carrion. Their biology is fascinating in that they can digest these carcasses without getting sick (Cornell). How clever is nature to have created such a well-working system?


References
House Sparrow, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Killdeer, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Sibley, D.A., 2016. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, Second Edition.
Turkey Vulture, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Hunt of the Great Blue Heron

I took a walk to a nearby rocky beach on a sunny afternoon and spotted a Great Blue Heron along the rocky shoreline. While they have a loud, squawking call that has startled me in the past when a heron was hidden from view, this heron was silent and still. He was hunting. Or rather, fishing.

Great Blue Heron, long legs beneath the water’s surface, hunting in the shallows

Standing still, towering over the calm surface of the water, the heron watches and waits. A silent hunter, he moves slowly and deliberately, with every step planned and taken with a ballerina-like grace. With impeccable eyesight, he scans the water below for any brief movement of fish and then strikes quickly. Their eyesight is so keen they can even hunt during the night if need be (Cornell).

I watched him repeat the process above a number of times, catching at least four or five of these what I believe are hagfish or an eel. After capturing a few small fish, he later managed a much larger one, though with it was a bit of a struggle as the fish kept winding itself around his beak. I recorded a video of the struggle and hunt you can watch at the end of this post. I wondered why he didn’t try piercing it with his beak or hitting it on the rocks. Perhaps he is a younger, less experienced heron.

In flight, Great Blue Herons are easily identified by their characteristic S-shape formed by their neck and their long, slow wing flaps as if they are never in a hurry to get anywhere. They are the largest wading bird in North America, standing at 1m tall (Species At Risk) but weigh only 2 to 2.5kg (SFU).

Great Blue Heron in flight

I admit I see Great Blue Herons all the time around Vancouver Island, but they still fascinate me as much as the first time I saw one. They weren’t always so common, though. Like their top predators, the Bald Eagle, heron populations suffered from the effects of DDT (SFU) and they are still vulnerable to other pollutants in the marine environment. Although they have recovered somewhat, they remain a species of special concern on Canada’s Species At Risk List.

Another factor in their decline is that their young are particularly at risk to Bald Eagle predation (SFU). While they are usually solitary creatures, Great Blue Herons form large nesting colonies high up in trees, hopefully hidden well away from prying eyes and predators. They are very sensitive to human disturbance and sadly, often nest in areas near bustling human activity which leads to nest abandonment (Species At Risk). A good example is the Great Blue Heron colony in downtown Vancouver’s Stanley Park which you can quietly watch from home live on webcam.

Great Blue Heron perched high in a tree, perhaps watching over a nest.
They are majestic and beautiful, and admittedly a little bit awkward looking. They remind me of a creature from another age altogether, perhaps belonging in the Jurassic period.

My video below shows my experience observing the heron hunting described at the beginning of my post.

MAH05894

References
The Great Blue Heron, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The Great Blue Heron Species At Risk Profile
Simon Fraser University’s Heron Working Group

Home again on familiar ground at sea level: some shorebirds and swallows

Being home again on Vancouver Island means being surrounded by the sea again…just how I like it! I love the mountains for the green expanse of trees, the varying landscape and little lakes, but there’s something about the sea that draws me like so many humans before me. The first time I saw the ocean at 18, I was amazed by its sheer expanse and the rolling of the waves on the shore. In short, it was everything I always dreamed of.

I’m lucky to live where I am and I try to enjoy the local shore as much as possible while I can. Spring was well underway when we returned with new flowers were blossoming upon our return.

Iris
Forget-me-nots

I saw, once again, a large group of birds far from the shore all clustered together. I’d seen them twice just before we left and could not work out what they were. The distance from shore certainly didn’t help. They were black and white with distinct white patches around their eyes.

Long-tailed Duck far from shore stretching the limits of my camera’s zoom!

Yesterday, at last, I worked it out – they’re diving seaducks, the Long-tailed Duck! To add to the confusion, they were previously called Oldsquaw. I guess I found the downside to buying used field guides. As a beginner, I was uncertain as some of the population range maps I’d seen didn’t include the Long-tailed Duck in my region, or only “rare” or in winter. However, I’ve seen others report them in the area as well, which is reassuring.

Now that I know them, they are quite distinct. As I watched them, they all dove  underwater at once, moving as one fishing unit. It was really quite fascinating! They breed in the Arctic and winter further south (though every map I look at is different), so I suspect they were passing through on their way north.

Despite another early spring this year, the wintering-over Buffleheads are still in town. I had expected them to move on before I returned, but I suspect they won’t linger much longer. I’ll miss these little ducks but I look forward to their return again in the winter.

Bufflehead (male)
These female Buffleheads I managed to photograph while landing reminded me a bit of the courting display of the grebe.

I spotted two Marbled Murrelets, a new species for me and I knew they were a murrelet right away by their body shape and size, though at first glance from afar my first thought was loon. The distinguishing feature, for me, is the neck is white all the way to the nape.

This seabird, a relative of the puffin, breeds along the cost of the Pacific Northwest up to Alaska. Interestingly, unlike other seabirds, they nest far from the coast in the branches of old-growth conifer trees and are threatened by the loss of old-growth forests.

Marbled Murrelet

Swallows are some of my favourite birds and I get very excited anytime I see them. The way they dive and flit about so quickly while feeding in the air is so entertaining  and interesting to observe. It makes it very difficult to photograph them, however and I just managed to get one good photo of this Barn Swallow I saw the other day.

I didn’t see any before I left on my trip, so I guess they returned from South America to breed while I was away. Barn Swallows have, overall, adapted well to human occupation and now almost exclusively nest in man-made sites where they previously nested in caves.

Barn Swallow mid-flight with distinct forked tail

Finally, I happily watched a Black Oystercatcher quietly foraging among the rocks for mussels and other intertidal shellfish while being badgered and followed by a crow on the shore. As if they don’t have enough to face with loss of good habitat and pollution. I almost never see oystercatchers alone and, sure enough, once I looked around I found another just downshore.

Black Oystercatcher with a meal
Look at those pink legs!

I shot a brief video of the Black Oystercatcher foraging among the rocks and eating. Its shot hand-held so a bit shaky, but the best I can do!

MAH05437

Resources
Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds Pages on the Long-tailed Duck, Marbled Murrelet, Barn Swallow and Black Oystercatcher

Are we living in the ‘Plasticene’? & all the plastic in your life

Recently, I finally got around to watching the 2009 documentary Plastic Planet by Werner Boote. I’ve been interested in learning more about how plastic is made from oil, the potential health dangers of all the plastic surrounding us not to mention the environmental repercussions. Sure enough, after watching it, I found a new article about how the earth is becoming a plastic planet.

I was both fascinated and horrified about how many plastic products are actually a part of my daily life! Not only the regular things you might think of, like kitchen utensils, ziploc bags and food containers, but also your clothing, nearly every food from the grocery store is packaged in plastic, cables and wiring, the refrigerator and there is probably plastic in the shower and the window frames. Everywhere I look, there is plastic and soon enough, I was driving my significant other crazy as I pointed out everything around us that was plastic!

DSC03140 (2)
All of the plastic water bottles in my house…and one lonely Sigg.

Watching this doco, I learned while the main components of plastic itself are not harmful, the unknown additives from manufacturing have known toxic health effects. Two common additives you may have heard of are Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates; both are endocrine disruptors. Boote had his blood tested as part of the doco and they found measurable amounts of BPA in his blood. However, I wouldn’t get too excited about BPA-free plastic because chances are, it is just being replaced with a different toxic chemical! (Time to get rid of all my BPA-free bottles…)

To be fair, let’s  take a step back and think about how plastic has benefited us, too. It keeps food fresh and prevents illness, it is hugely important in healthcare and its helped along the digital age of technology we are in…okay, that’s all I can come up with. And on the plus side, only 4% of oil production goes toward producing plastic, which is considerably less than I thought.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
This water certainly looks clean, but how much plastic is hiding under the surface?

Plastic in the ocean
Besides the health effects, I am more concerned with environmental effects. Of course, now we all know how long it takes plastic to disintegrate and that we ought to recycle it, but there is already so much plastic in the environment its become a huge problem. Sea turtles are facing a huge struggle by ingesting plastic in the ocean.

We all know about the garbage in the ocean, is it any wonder its killing the creatures who call it home? Plastic is a big problem for sea turtles because they get tangled in it and drown or ingest it intentionally (thinking it is jellyfish) or accidentally which makes them very sick, causes intestinal blockages leading to starvation and an inability to properly digest food. (Source)

Aside from the plastic crisis, turtles are facing other threats from ending up as by-catch or on someone’s dinner plate, dealing with pollution and habitat disturbance to dealing with people like these idiots.

DSC02951 (2)
Some turtles accidentally eat plastic instead of jellyfish.

And its not just sea turtles. Staggering numbers of seabirds are also ingesting plastic and dying. Here is a collection of sad and disturbing photos of dead albatross found all with plastic in their stomachs. Even environments far from large human populations we might typically think of as being pristine contain plastic debris. In 2012, a group of researchers discovered the first plastic found in the Southern Ocean.

mollymawk Apr 2012
New Zealand mollymawks, a type of albatross. How much plastic is in their stomachs?

But maybe the majority of people won’t really care until the marine plastic epidemic starts affecting us…but it already is. If you eat fish, its highly likely that fish contains tiny plastic fibers which you are now eating, too. Just another great reason not to eat seafood.

Perhaps someday geologists will look back and call the era we are living in the ‘Plasticene’…

Looking around your home – how many plastic items do you see? Does it surprise you?


If you want to do something to help besides using less plastic in your daily life and ensuring your plastic is recycled responsibly, please look into helping or donating to the Sea Turtle Conservancy.