Saturday, September 1, 2012

Long Island and the Cloud Forests of Guatemala…the Avian Conservation Connection

HOBAS is proud to announce that we will be partnering with Community Cloud Forest Conservation (“CCFC”) by providing educational scholarships, at $150 each, for two young Guatemalan women to continue their schooling beyond the 6th grade. In order to earn these scholarships, which are privately funded, each scholarship recipient must attend agro-ecology camp, where they are taught sustainable agricultural practices, conservation of the cloud forests and family planning. Young women that show leadership skills in this scholarship program are invited into teaching roles for CCFC’s “Kids and Birds Initiative” program, which is funded by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. These young women teach the “Kids and Birds Initiative” curriculum to younger students in 8 remote mountain villages. HOBAS’ scholarships would specifically support girls who are being trained as teachers.

Why are we sending girls to school in Guatemala? The answer is simple. By providing these scholarships we are doing our part to protect the birds that visit our backyards and natural areas in the warmer months and contributing to the conservation of the cloud forests that they call home. Did you ever stop to think about where the Baltimore oriole you are enjoying in your backyard spends most of his time? What many people don’t realize is that “our” birds of spring and summer are really just visitors, and actually live the majority of their lives in tropical countries such as Guatemala!

Guatemala is a beautiful country, and consists of forested mountains, glimmering lakes, and extensive wildlife. It is a biologically rich country with over 720 species of birds, many of which are familiar to us. There is a high diversity of ecosystems and in fact, Guatemala represents nine different biomes, or geographic areas, that occur from sea level up to more than 4,000 meters above sea level.

In the heart of Guatemala's central highlands are the two mountain ranges of cloud forests, the Sierra Yalijux and the Sierra Sacranix. These two mountain ranges have been designated Important Bird Areas by BirdLife International. Over thirty species of neotropical migrants that visit Long Island call the cloud forest their home in winter, including: black-billed cuckoo, yellow-billed cuckoo, olive-sided flycatcher, wood thrush, golden-winged warbler, blue winged warbler, prothonotary warbler, worm eating warbler, Lousiana waterthrush, Kentucky warbler, black throated green warbler, hooded warbler, Northern waterthrush, American redstart, chestnut sided warbler, Nashville warbler, Canada warbler, Baltimore oriole, Blackburnian warbler and Swainsons thrush. Unfortunately, bird populations are declining around the world due to a myriad of factors.

In Guatemala deforestation is the main threat to the ecosystem since the local custom is to slash and burn vegetation in the areas to be farmed. In addition, monocultures are expanding rapidly in Guatemala due to the need to produce more efficiently to be able to compete in big export markets. As we know from our invasive species problems here on Long Island, monocultures crowd out native species, threatening ecological health and diversity. In addition, communities face many other challenges, including the lack of education, illiteracy, economic and social marginalization, extreme poverty, and runaway population growth.

With this in mind, reaching out to the younger generation is crucial in preserving local habitats. Instilling a pride and love of the forest, as well as providing sustainable agricultural methods will help preserve the cloud forest. More than a just an average scholarship, this program allows students to learn human nutrition, soil conservation, organic fertilizer production, integrated pest management, basic garden ecology, vegetable production, propagation of traditional crops, fruit tree management, production planning as well as family planning. Students learn to produce healthy food in harmony with the environment and participate in reforestation projects. Young women receiving work study scholarships come from the villages that border the cloud forest. As they work and learn on the school's agroecology campus, they recognize and appreciate the beauty and value of the forest that surrounds them and become committed to conservation.

There are many things that can be done to alleviate poverty and protect cloud forests, but in undeveloped countries such as Guatemala, education is of paramount importance. Education changes lives and transforms communities. For most young women, school beyond the sixth grade is out of reach. Faced with limited resources, parents are more likely to send their male children to classes. Girls then feel they have no choice but to marry at a very young age and start producing children, thereby adding to the overpopulation of these areas.

It has been proven around the world that by empowering women, you enrich and strengthen entire communities. These scholarships provide an option that these girls otherwise would not have. This benefits humans, but at the end of the day, it benefits the birds of the forests because a thriving and healthy indigenous people will protect and conserve their natural resources.

As you feed your Baltimore oriole an orange slice, or head out for warbler madness during migration, it is very easy to forget that these birds actually spend most of their time in the tropics. While it is vital that natural areas are preserved in the tropics, it is not enough to just set aside land. We must ensure that the local people who call that land their home are given knowledge and tools needed to protect the natural resources surrounding them. Habitat can be set aside, but without the cooperation of neighboring communities, these preserves will not be protected by those who are in the best position to act as stewards. Forests will still be cut down, wildlife killed for food, land degraded and its beauty ravished by non sustainable agricultural practices. Sending children to school in order to provide them with a better life and teaching them to cherish, protect and sustain their surroundings is a vital step in the process. In conservation, like links on a necklace, every component fits together.

Migrant birds travel thousands of miles to reach their breeding grounds, making stops along the way, acting as traveling ambassadors for conservation. By helping to provide youths in Guatemala with the tools needed to farm sustainably while instilling in them a sense of pride in their land, we are working to ensure that birds are protected and have a bright future. It is all connected. We are all connected. Investing in these young women in Guatemala is investing in conservation of birds. The Baltimore oriole in your yard today might winging its way back to Guatemala tomorrow. We need to protect birds, not just on a local level, but in their winter homes, stopover sites during migration, and breeding grounds. Conservation of birds is a global effort and we hope you will support us as we do our part to protect our feathered friends in every step of their journey!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Go Take a Hike (for your health that is!)

We all know we should be exercising. We have all been told countless times that it is good for us to engage in a fitness routine; but perhaps the thought of running on a treadmill, like the proverbial hamster on a wheel, has all the appeal of watching paint dry. Or, maybe you feel you ARE that hamster on the wheel…morning after morning…watching the clock, waiting for your 30 minutes to finally be up so you can hop off and get on with your day. Well, allow me to inform you of how you can not only enhance your exercise regimen, but do it in a way that will stimulate your mind, strengthen your body and nourish your soul. It is time to take working out to the great outdoors.

Let’s talk about the benefits of exercise. You have been told it will help you burn calories and stay trim. This is true. I am sure that we have all seen the articles, headlines and news shows. Daily physical activity not only will help you maintain an ideal weight, it is vital to your health. Working out will help fend off heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and slow the aging process. Weight bearing exercises, such as walking, have been proven to help prevent osteoporosis. Studies have shown that regular exercise can help alleviate mild depression as well as antidepressants do. Exercise literally can extend and perhaps even save your life.

Hiking is an ideal exercise. The reasons are simple. It is fun, and it works. Based on research, a 150 pound person, walking at just 2 miles per hour, can burn 240 calories an hour. Add on a backpack and you are getting a terrific cardiovascular workout, while strengthening your muscles. These muscles are engaged much more than they would be while walking on a treadmill or street due to the uneven surface of trails. Add uphill climbs into the hike and you are really working those quads, glutes and abs. Hiking uphill is an incredible calorie blaster!

In addition to the physical benefits, you can also help keep your mind sharp with the addition of an activity such as birding or identifying plants and wildflowers. Studies have shown that engaging in intellectually stimulating activities can keep your brain functioning at a much sharper level. Why not try to engage your brain while you are at it? There is also an added bonus: the possibility of wildlife sightings, especially if you hike near dawn or dusk, which lends an air of excitement to your walk down the trail.

The final benefit of hiking is the sense of peace that nature brings. Connecting with the natural world is a way to retain your sanity, a way to forget, for a few hours, about the everyday stresses of life. Standing at the summit of a mountain, the edge of a wildflower filled meadow or the shoreline of a shimmering lake can fill you with a sense of awe and accomplishment. Not something you typically feel as you hop off the treadmill I bet!

It is simple to get started. As always, you should consult your physician before engaging in any new exercise program. You will need to find out what equipment is needed. Proper footwear and a backpack are essential, especially on longer or more rugged trails. Always have more water and food than you think you will need before you head out. Now, you just need to decide where to go!

The tri-state area is filled with state parks, preserves and national wildlife refuges. Long Island abounds with nature preserves and parks. The Catskill, Adirondack and Shawangunk Mountains are all within a day’s drive of Long Island. Numerous other nature preserves and parks are scattered throughout the metro New York area. It is just a matter of doing some research. Hiking can be as easy as a simple ramble through a small preserve near your home, or as strenuous as climbing the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. There are trails to be found for every fitness level.

If you are apprehensive about venturing out on your own, there are plenty of ways to participate with like minded people. Hiking clubs such as the Adirondack and Appalachian Mountain Clubs offer hikes for every fitness level. Environmental and conservation organizations, such as The National Audubon Society, Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy offer group hikes, along with birding and botany walks. Check online and see what these clubs and organizations have to offer. Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon offers a wide array of outdoor activities, ranging from bird walks to hikes to paddling trips (another fun calorie blaster). Many of you are probably not even aware of the abundance of resources and natural areas that are within a short driving distance, perhaps even in your own neighborhood.

Hiking is truly a full body experience as well as outstanding workout. Your fitness level, intellectual health and even your emotional health can all benefit from taking a walk in the woods.

The next time someone says to you, “Go take a hike!” take them up on it! It just might prolong and enhance your life.

The summit of Crane Mountain, the Adirondacks, NY

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Nature and Kids, or Children Belong Outdoors!!!

I have a question for our members of a certain age: do you remember your childhood? Do you remember growing up before the invention of computers, video games and cell phones? When playing outside was the norm, not the exception? When we were not paranoid about germs, getting dirty or playing by ourselves outside, worried about the creepy stranger lurking around the corner? When you used your own imagination and creativity to come up with games and activities? 

I do. I remember the days when I was ushered out the door first thing in the morning, only returning home in time for dinner. I also remember the joy and wonder I felt spending the day roaming the woods behind my house, splashing in the creek and yes, talking to the animals. Those woods were my playground. There were vines to swing on, a pond to explore, rocks to collect and trees to climb. I felt a connection to the world around me, as well as a sense of peace knowing that as long as the water still flowed in the creek and the birds still sang in the trees, all was right with the world. Back then, no child wanted to stay inside and in fact, being sent to your room was the ultimate punishment!

Today’s children are growing up in a completely different world than you and I did, a world filled
with mesmerizing electronic devices. Parents plop their kids in front of the television for hours on end; a convenient and cheap babysitter. Kids are fixated on video games instead of reality. They have cell phones from a young age. They carry these phones with them everywhere, yet they don’t actually talk to one another, they text. Instead of basking in the sunlight, they are indoors, endlessly staring at a computer screen. Being sent to one’s room is no longer a punishment because that’s where all the fun is.

Today’s children are so electronically connected that they have become emotionally disconnected- from one another and from nature. They don’t venture outdoors and engage their senses. They no longer use their imaginations; they no longer have to think very hard when it comes to problem solving. Why should they? There is an app for everything!

Because of this lack of outdoor time, children are suffering from what has become known as nature-deficit disorder, the phrase coined by Richard Louv in his groundbreaking book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder”. Children today are not just missing out on the fun we had as kids, their lack of a connection to the outdoors is affecting them in ways that are far more sinister. Childhood obesity is alarmingly on the rise, doubling in the last two decades, while cases of ADHD are increasing in number and the use of antidepressants in pediatric patients has risen sharply.

In addition to these frightening statistics, there are other more positive reasons why you should encourage your child to play outdoors. For example, children who have access to the outdoors are healthier, more focused and perform better in school. According to a March 2010 survey of nearly 2,000 educators by the National Wildlife Federation, “78 percent feel students who spend regular time in unstructured outdoor play are better able to concentrate, and 75 percent feel students who spend regular time outdoors are more creative and better problem solvers. Studies confirm access to nature in an educational setting has a positive impact on student focus and learning by improving attentiveness, test scores and performance.”

Other studies show that children who play outside have better self-esteem, enhanced brain development, are more creative and curious, and possess a sense of connectedness to the environment, as well as well as their communities. In addition, children who are not glued to electronic devices every spare minute of the day are better communicators, more poised and can relate to others on a much more compassionate level. The bottom line is that exposure to the outdoors is vital in the development of a healthy, smart and well rounded child.

What can we do about nature-deficit disorder? Raising a child really does take a village, and as parents juggle demanding careers with the needs of their children, it is vital that we provide options that will re-connect kids to a world that frankly, is a mystery to them. We need to instill in children that same sense of wonder, freedom and appreciation for nature that we experienced as children. We need to provide them with opportunities to explore, expand and engage.
If you are a parent, there is so much you can do. Bring your child to a park or preserve. Encourage them to turn off the screen and go outdoors and play. Take your child to an outdoor activity offered by a nature center or environmental organization. Remember your days of staying outside for hours on end and how much fun it was? Why not pass that gift down to your child? For their mental, physical and emotional health…children belong outdoors.

Stella Miller

Friday, March 23, 2012

Wildlife Observation Ethics

As so many know, venturing out into nature is good for us, physically, mentally and spiritually. As we explore the outdoors, there is always the chance that we may encounter wild animals, an exciting bonus to the day. Observing wildlife is one of life’s richest experiences and thanks to the many television shows that are now broadcast about animals, as well as the internet, the appreciation of wildlife has never been greater.

Unfortunately, bad behavior on behalf of the observers can sometimes occur. As you may have heard, a majestic all-white snowy owl had been seen on Long Island over the past winter. Unfortunately, this attention had resulted in the owl being regularly harassed by quite a number of people, so I thought it would be a good time to remind wildlife enthusiasts about proper behavior when viewing wildlife. Wild animals must be treated with respect and wildlife watchers need to behave responsibly. There is a code of ethics that we must all follow while observing wildlife, both for the well-being of wildlife and your own safety. Peeking into the secret world of wildlife is tremendously gratifying, but the following guidelines must be adhered to:

Avoid getting too close
It is natural to want to be as close as possible as you can to an animal, but this is a big no-no. The closer one gets, the more threatened and stressed the animal will feel. Keep your distance; binoculars and/or a spotting scope will enhance your viewing experience, while allowing the animal you are observing to feel more comfortable. A more rewarding viewing experience will occur when the animal is behaving naturally, without being disturbed.

Learn to recognize signs that the animal is uncomfortable with your presence
Animals are unpredictable and you need to continually be aware of the animal's response to your presence because what it might tolerate one minute could change within seconds. Some general clues to watch for are:

  • The animal runs or flies away or toward you (such as a bluff charge).
  • The animal appears nervous and keeps looking at you with head up and ears pointing toward you.
  • The animal doesn't resume its normal activity, or "settle down". Birds may chatter angrily in your presence.
  • In the case of a roosting owl, if the owl looks directly at you, it is now aware of you and could be uncomfortable.
  • The animal begins to display in some manner, such as a piping plover’s “broken wing” display.

Observe briefly
If you are looking at baby birds in a nest or an animal foraging for food, etc., remember that they are going about their day; and you are interrupting their normal behavior. Each time an animal is disturbed, it is put at a disadvantage because it has expended precious energy needed for survival. In addition, your presence at a nest or den site could alert a predator to the natal zone, thereby advertising an easy meal.

Don't pursue an animal
Never chase an animal trying to get better glimpse or photo. Don't follow animals or behave in any way that might be seen as "harassment." In addition, please keep your dogs on a lead and never allow them to “flush” birds and other animals.

Move quietly, slowly and in plain view
Loud noises, sudden movement or an unannounced approach startle animals, causing a stress response.

Use a blind if possible

Your car also makes a wonderful blind, but please, for safety sakes, remember to pull completely off the road.

Use calls, tape recordings of calls, or other device with moderation
Overuse of such devices can interrupt breeding cycles, drive birds from their territories, or make animals "call shy" so that they may not respond to the real thing.

Do not feed wildlife

Have you ever heard the phrase, “A fed bear is a dead bear”? Sounds extreme, but in many cases, it is true. Wildlife can quickly become habituated to humans. It does not take much more than one productive encounter with a human for a wild animal to associate us with food, thereby leading to potentially dangerous or uncomfortable human/animal conflicts. These rarely end well for the animal. In addition, feeding waterfowl bread and other non-nutritious foods is detrimental to their health and disrupts normal behavior.

When in large groups, try to break up into smaller groups
Small groups of people are less disturbing, usually talk more quietly, and tend to act in a more responsible way than big groups do.

Do not disturb the habitat you are in

Always stay on the trail. You could be trampling important food sources or rare vegetation.

Respect the rights of your fellow viewers
Other viewers have a right to see the undisturbed wildlife that you are viewing. Don’t flush birds or other animals, thereby perhaps ruining the chance for other observers to see it.

In summary, as ethical wildlife watchers, we must place the needs and safety of wildlife first, protect habitats, and respect the rights of others. A rewarding wildlife watching experience is one that consists of animals behaving as naturally as possible in their own environments, not reacting to our presence. Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon promotes responsible recreation and if you follow the simple guidelines provided above, your experience will be enhanced. You will know that you are behaving in a way that promotes responsible and respectful wildlife viewing!