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I am a freelance, nonfiction writer who cares about the environment, individuality, creative expression, and simplicity. I'm glad you've found my blog, and I hope you'll join in the conversation by leaving a comment. Disagreements are allowed, even encouraged, but cruelty, vulgarity, and slander is not.

Uncloaking the Invisible Sorrow

September 27th, 2013

The Eastern Phoebe is not a particularly beautiful bird. Gray on top, white on bottom, its markings are rather bland. With a lack of melody in its song, I can't image the Phoebe inspiring any classical symphonies. Still, one had become my favorite backyard resident, and it wasn't because of its looks or its voice. I loved it because of what it did. As a member of the flycatcher family, it caught flying insects.

And now it's gone, and I'm sad.

I first began seeing what appeared to be a single Eastern Phoebe every spring, hunting from the empty wash line where it would perch in search of insects. It would dive into the air or down to the grass in order to grab a morsel, which it would quickly eat upon returning to its post.


© Russ Campbell*

For three years in a row, it came back every spring, but then it would disappear as the weather warmed. This year was different, though. It didn't leave. To my amateur birdwatching eyes, it seemed as if it was going to stick around and call my yard home. I watched its aerial antics almost every afternoon as I sat outside to drink my coffee or eat my lunch. And whether or not that one bird was to blame, I was not plagued by insects this year, a fact for which I would thank the quiet hunter when I would say to it out loud, "I love having you here."

But yesterday, while mowing the lawn, I found an Eastern Phoebe laying dead in the yard. Sudden sadness was made worse from two assumptions:. 1.) It was the exact same bird; 2.) It died because of my sliding glass door's window.

You see, I know window glass kills because of a professor who has been studying the issue for years. His name is Dr. Daniel Klem, Jr., and he works in the Department of Biology at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. Nearly every article written about the topic of birds vs. windows will reference his name, because his research and dedication is extensive. Together with his assistant Peter Saenger--who is president of my local Audubon chapter--Klem has enough field data to prove that birds cannot see glass. (Click here to see my article of 2010, written for a commercial audience.)

Thankfully, there are measures you can take to prevent the loss. Klem is working with manufacturers to develop and test window-film products that can be applied to expose the surface to flyers without blocking a beautiful view. I've seen parachute chord or ribbons hanging vertically in front of a window at regular intervals to keep birds away.


Image courtesy of the Fatal Light Awareness Program

I also try:

•Window decals. Klem and other experts will warn you that they don't work, but I have found some success with them by using multiple decals on one window, and the one time I took them down, I heard a crash within hours, proving to me that they at least make a difference.

•I keep a curtain pulled across one-half of my sliding glass door at all times.

• I got rid of my bird feeders. I miss watching the birds, but I don't miss the fatal collisions that once occurred. And I certainly don't miss finding cats hunting underneath. I leave the seed heads on the plants in my yard, allow wildflowers to grow, and try to provide as much ungroomed, natural habitat as possible, so the birds can forage for seeds and insects the old-fashioned way.

• I keep my screens on the windows all year long. This is the most effective since my screens cover 100% (top to bottom) of the house's windows (with the exception of a bay window and the sliding glass door).

Still, with two windows unprotected, collisions happen. And rarely does a bird survive one even if it temporarily flies away. After yesterday's experience, I will keep trying to illuminate the danger that window glass clearly is. (Click here for additional suggestions.)

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If you walk outside at dawn on a spring morning, you'll hear an orchestra that will lead you to believe we have birds aplenty. But consider the impacts of car windshields, energy generation turbines, and roaming house cats, and you begin to get a glimpse of the extensiveness of man's impact on the songbird population. Then, add in the odds that every building with an uncovered window kills at least one bird a year--more than all other threats combined after habitat loss--and it becomes hard to imagine just how many there really should be.

And even if you have no interest in birds, you cannot ignore the possibility that this decline may have helped the spread of the mosquito-born and tick-born disease.

If I sent the bird's body to Saenger, he could dissect it to determine the cause of its death. Hemorrhage probably. I had heard the crash, actually. It was the night before. It woke me at 3am. I don't know for sure that the noise was the Phoebe . . . why would it be flying after dark? But I examined the door closely and found a small smudge of yellowish gray downy flakes, like the color on top of the adult Phoebe's head.

So I am sad. It is likely that my house was the culprit. Now I can only hope that the bird successfully raised a family nearby, one you can bet I'll be watching out for next spring.

The wash line.

And thank you Dr. Klem and Peter Saenger for a lifetime of work on this issue. We will never know how many birds you've saved, but we are grateful for the knowledge and the chance to make an informed difference in the lives of our feathered friends, ones that are truly missed when they're gone.

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*http://www.birds.cornell.edu/netcommunity/page.aspx?pid=1636

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Tapped out or tuned in?

September 20th, 2013

When John Rogers of Keystone Conservation Trust asked me to join another planning committee, I groaned silently. I needed more paid opportunities, not volunteer ones. Tempted to say no, I decided instead to see what it was all about first. I'm glad I did.

Don't get me wrong; there is a lot to be said for saying no. Many of us scramble to do everything for everyone but ourselves. However, there are times when saying yes is right, too.

When I got to my first committee meeting, I found that the individuals involved were dedicated to their task. This wasn't just some well-intentioned-but-ineffective group; these people had a goal, one that was directly in the line with the mission of their work as well as my own: to inspire people to take part in the good health of the environment in which they live. Now, more than a year later, I and my fellow committee members are once again ready to see the results of our work. On Saturday, September 28, the The Green Lane Park Bird and Wildlife Festival will take place for the third time.

We have reached the moment when we begin praying for good weather, checking lists twice, and packing up materials for hauling to the site. Come 12 noon, people will arrive to find games for both kids and adults, hayrides, artwork, music, demonstrations, and even a bird calling contest.

The event will take place alongside Deep Creek Lake, near the amphitheater.

A scene from the start of the 2012 festival.

It couldn't happen without the committee any more than without the support from sponsors, vendors, volunteers, and most importantly, Pennsylvania Audubon and Montgomery County's parks department.

For me, a communicator, the best part is and will be the spread of information and the conversations that get started. For instance, last year, representatives from three local municipalities (Marlborough, Lower Frederick, and Upper Salford Townships) were there to promote and explain their participation in PA Audubon's Bird Town program. (Related article). Better than any newsletter or blog post, residents and leaders were able to stand face-to-face and talk about why they believe a healthy, natural wildlife habitat is good for people, too.

Lower Frederick Township's display included a place where kids could make a peanut-butter-pine-cone bird feeder.

I created a video slideshow to give those who missed last year's event a glimpse of what went on.

Looking back, I remember my initial, reluctant response. It's easy to feel maxed out and unable to take advantage of opportunities when they come around. It's wise to limit the number of volunteer activities when there are bills to be paid. Meanwhile, it's also important to engage in the things that energize you. It helps to ask yourself a few questions before responding to invitations such as John's:

• Is this something I need to do?

• Is this something I like to do?

• Is this something I aught to do?

When you can say yes to all three, you should say yes to the opportunity at hand. More often than not, the results will be positive ones.

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From barren to green, engaged citizens made a difference.

September 13th, 2013

Did you ever wish you could do something to fix a serious problem where you live? Have you ever tried? Did you feel like giving up? This week I'm posting a story that proves it's worth it to keep trying. Some of you have seen it on my Facebook page already. I wrote it for Blue Ridge Outdoors, a magazine that covers outdoor recreation, micro breweries, and music festivals (three of my favorite things!). With a love for nature, the magazine also publishes environmental-issue-related stories, especially those in which engaged citizens have pitched in to solve a problem.

I grew up near Palmerton, PA, where my published story takes place. Over the years, I've watched with interest as an entire mountainside turned from completely barren to wonderfully green. I had to dig into the pre-digital archives (circ. 2000) to find these "before" photos of the scene.

The view from the Blue Ridge showing the Lehigh River and the barren mountainside

Glenn sits in a scene void of trees, in a place that should be as lush as the Delaware Water Gap.

In my quest to find out what had happened, I got to meet and talk with the lead man on this citizen-action, non-profit managed, simple-solution project that was anything but simple to carry out.

Click here to read the article.

The whole story could fill a book. Bound by a limited word count, this online article is just a summary. Don't hesitate to ask if you have any questions, or better yet, take your family on a trip to the Lehigh Gap Nature Center to learn more, right from the source. While you're there, you can see the "after" scene for yourself. And if you go, don't forget your hiking boots.

Meanwhile, do you have memories of Palmerton and the gap? Please share them in the comments below.

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You stink, bug.

August 30th, 2013

My organic garden is doing fairly well this year. The plants are fighting off most of the pests on on their own, without my intervention, with the exception of the stink bug. It injects its mouth parts into one tomato at a time, just deep enough to cause a wound that usually spoils the entire fruit. Then it moves on to the next. That's why the stink bug is described as a tarnish bug.

Thank you DK_snaps from Flickr Photostream

The spread of the stink bug in Pennsylvania shows just how fortifying smell can be. It doesn't bite you, spray deadly poison, or hide inside a tough shell. The stink bug remains unfettered for one reason: it stinks. Few predators want to touch it, including the human kind.

It seems some people are more attuned to the bug's odor than others. It took me a while to discern the smell. My good friend, meanwhile, has always been able to detect it, seemingly from a mile away. She never squashes a stick bug when it gets in her house. She prefers to catch it and release it outside, not because she's compassionate to bugs, but because she gags on the aroma of its carcass.

Based on the stink bug's behavior, I'm pretty sure it knows that. If I reach for one, it might take a few steps aside, but it does not flee. It lumbers away so slowly, as if it is saying, "I dare you to mess with me." If it feels really threatened, it will release its fluid, just in case I don't know about the essence of what I'm dealing with.

A skunk has the same attitude.

Thank you vladeb from Flickr photostream.

The skunk's smug behavior earns it a top rank on the list of common vehicular casualties (a.k.a road kill). It expects the car--like other animals in the kingdom--to avoid it. And what driver in his right mind wouldn't try?

When the drivers don't miss, vultures will fly in to take care of the mess.

Thank you Kathy from Flickr photostream

Because vultures do such a wonderful job of eating up the dead animals they find laying around, their excrement smells horrible. Some people think that a vulture smells worse than a skunk. Described as a combination of ammonia and sewage, their fragrance is magnified when they congregate for their nightly roost. The number of birds in just one tree can climb to as high as 300. For defense, their weapon-of-choice is vomit. What better way to ward off an attack than to puke when a perpetrator approaches? Horrible-smelling puke, no less. Humans are legally prohibited from killing these migratory birds. Even so, once the vulture hatches and grows up, it has few to no predators.

Better than talons, teeth, or tentacles, more effective than bullets, barbed wire, or booby traps, a good stink can really keep a body safe.

Now, if I see a stink bug on one of my tomatoes, it gets squished, stench or no stench. I'm not afraid. I do, however, run from skunks, and I would never take a nap under a vulture roost. Now that DDT is banned, all three species are thriving despite a lack of a aggression or physical shield. In this world of insecurity and fear, maybe we should reconsider the guns and burglary systems and just develop a good offensive scent. I didn't feel like taking a shower today anyway.

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Recognizing Millennials

August 23rd, 2013

I read an opinion piece earlier this month, and the words haven't left my mind since. It appeared in Lehigh Valley Business, and being a business journal article, it offered business-management advice. The writer, a consultant for manufacturing companies, suggested ways to recognize and reward today's young employees. The piece began with results from a recent study wherein the Millennial generation was evaluated. Four paragraphs of bad news followed. In summary, a general lack of professionalism, work ethic, teamwork, buy in, and focus was being found in the majority of newly hired college graduates.

Sharp-edged words described the poor attitudes that will soon make up more than 50 percent of the American workforce. Then, the author laid out a strategy for employers, urging them to adjust their recognition programs to meet changing expectations. ("Managing Millennials: It's all about immediate recognition.")

He wrote of the need to cater to them. Key points included ways to appease a desire for instant gratification, pluck egotistical strings, and tap into a sense of entitlement. He recommended giving instant, "broadcastable" applause to fit the impulse to brag on social networks. He suggested customized rewards that match each person's particular taste. For this type of employee-recognition program--one undoubtedly more complicated than the last--an investment in software could help to provide the structure needed to achieve such a specialized strategy.

It wrapped up stating how this advanced outlook could motivate Millennials, keep turnover to a minimum, and increase productivity, because it aligned with the "needs, preferences, and values of today's new professionals." On the surface, that sounded great. Underneath was a severely problematic foundation.

If you're a business manager, you don't have time to instill qualities that should have been taught at home a decade ago. And it's quite sad that colleges are not properly grooming kids for the workforce. I remember after Enron collapsed from executive selfishness--after suicides were committed and fortunes were lost--it was suggested that colleges require students to undergo ethics training so they understood the risks of putting personal gain before the organization's. Did that not happen? Is that not still relevant?

Meanwhile, if you're a blogger who writes about simplicity, long-term thinking, community mindedness, and slowing down, you can't see the benefit in encouraging such "values" as selfishness, instant gratification, and a lack of discipline.

Why should the older generation--undoubtedly wiser by virtue of having experienced more of life's lessons--invest in building a culture that is opposite of what those lessons taught? How will our communities strengthen if we support the polarization of the individual? What is the benefit of catering to traits that, in my opinion, should be shunned?

If all goes well, I still have half my life to live. In the first act, I watched awareness for our planet's health build, acceptance for diversity increase, and life's most important qualities (peace, community, connectedness) grow in popularity. I get excited when I hear young people express their views on recycling, community gardens, sustainable living, and social change.

Still, a person's work has a profound impact on their lives in general, and none of those positive views will shine through if we allow personal pursuits to overshadow teamwork or if ego becomes more important than constructive criticism. We cannot untie work ethic from "social goals, environmental practices, cultures, and public missions," goals the article said are important to this new breed. This concerns me because, as I age and eventually exit the workforce, the second act of my life will depend on the path professionalism takes, whether I care to admit it or not.

At work or at home, if even the oldest and wisest among us have trouble slowing down, showing compassion for others, and appreciating every moment for all that it is worth, how are we to help the Millennials do the same? And what happens when we give up trying and just let the sins of speed and selfishness have their way?

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