My New Year’s resolution (Rerun alert):
A few years ago I wrote a column about finding a particular new bird for the year, a Lapland Longspur. Longspurs are not very exciting sparrow-ish birds that visit Cape Cod in the off-season. Each winter only a handful of people spot one, and I haven’t been one of those people. I will try again this year. In addition to searching for a longspur, there is something else I pledge to do this year…pick up more garbage. Yup, it’s going to be a very exciting year.
Every Sunday morning at 9:30, Ray Brown hosts his wonderful radio show, Talkin’ Birds. On one of his more recent shows, Ray mentioned a group of joggers in Sweden who have combined their love of running with their need to create a cleaner neighborhood. As the Swedes jog through town, they carry a bag along with them. When they see a piece of litter on the ground they grab it, shove it into the bag and continue on their way. This activity, known as “Plogging” (Picking up Litter while Jogging) is helping Sweden to retain its title as one of the cleanest countries in the world. What does any of this have to do with bird watching, you ask? Hmm. That’s a good question. I’m not sure myself. Oh, wait. Now I remember.
If Swedish runners can pick up trash, Ray Brown wondered, why couldn’t American bird watchers do the same thing? After all, birders move a lot slower than runners and presumably have good eyesight, thus they can spot both birds and litter at the same time. More importantly, birders tend to visit environmentally sensitive habitats. No amount of litter is good, but it’s even less gooder in wildlife areas. Consequently, Ray has been encouraging his listeners to do some “Plirding” (Picking up Litter while Birding). He even invited a handful of noted birders, and me, to a Plirding brainstorming session. After the session I was motivated to pick up trash while I was out searching for the Lapland Longspur. I wasn’t going to let those Swedish joggers show us up. But alas, trash picking and birding are much harder to do than I thought.
My first Plirding endeavor was on the tip of Morris Island in Chatham. I was following a flock of Ruddy Turnstones, when I came upon a Mylar balloon tangled in the seaweed. I untangled the string, popped the balloon and then realized problem #1: Where do I put it? I wasn’t prepared for that, so I stuffed it into my pocket and quickly discovered problem #2: the mess. My fingers were now covered in wet beach sand. I didn’t dare touch my camera or binoculars with my now dirty hands. I eventually rinsed them off in a tide pool, only to immediately find another balloon and then another. I soon had so many balloons hanging out of my pockets that I looked like I had mugged a clown. With my pockets filled, my Plirding venture was over for the day.
Learning from my first mistake, I brought a bag along the next time I went out. There would be no stuffing my pockets with trash on this day, which was spent on a Truro beach watching gannets dive for fish. Once again, there were more balloons (Is Cape Cod just one big birthday party?), plus water bottles and lots of rubber bands, likely from lobster boats. Every time I came upon a piece of plastic I stuffed it into my bag. Problem #3: the wind. Whenever I put the bag down to look at a bird, the wind blew the bag down the beach, spilling its contents as it went. Grrr. Back to the drawing board.
If I was going to be the Cape’s first, and at this point only, Plirder, I would have to come up with a better way to carry trash without interfering with bird watching. I thought about a backpack, but taking off a backpack every time I picked up something would be a pain. What about a fanny pack? No, no, no! I don’t care how important a social cause is, I’m not going to be seen wearing a fanny back. I’d rather donate a kidney…or two. Speaking of people who wear fanny packs, why do they always wear them in the front? Don’t they know where their fanny is?
I spent the next few weeks trying to come up with an acceptable way of collecting trash, while at the same time being able to carry and use my birding equipment. Then it hit me…a messenger bag. Messenger bags are perfect. They hang to the side, not on the back, or on the fanny or on the front fanny. A messenger bag has plenty of room for trash and even a place for gloves, so I can grab gross stuff without about messing up my pretty hands. With a messenger bag and gloves, I was now ready to start the New Year picking up beach garbage. Talk about a dream come true.
It’s no secret that our refuse, especially in the ocean, is a huge problem for wildlife. Each year thousands of mammals, turtles and birds die from ingesting carelessly discarded plastic. The average citizen can’t be expected to clean up the oceans of the world, but it doesn’t mean we should step over the balloons, bottles and bits of fishing nets that wash up on the beach everyday. Whatever plastic we remove from the beach today means less plastic will wash back out into the ocean on the next high tide.
Doing more Plirding is my goal for the New Year. If you are looking for me, I’ll be the guy on the beach with the camera, binoculars and messenger bag. I’ll even tell you if I’ve finally managed to see a Lapland Longspur. However, if you are wearing a fanny pack, just keep walking. Even a trash picker doesn’t want to be seen near one of those.