Saturday, March 28, 2015

Carbon Offsets and Green Travel Birding

(I hesitated to include this article on the blog, but I think it is relevant, so here goes.)

I had earned travel miles on my credit card and a great friend had offered to let my family and I  stay at his vacation home (left) situated adjacent to a Trent Jones Golf Course in a gated resort (Estrella del Mar) just south of Mazatlan. How could I say "no," when the whole family was able, and enthusiastic, to go? How could I refuse when Military Macaw, Tufted Jay and other "life birds" were only a short drive away?  But, how could I justify it environmentally? Maybe I should have just cashed in my credit card miles and politely declined?

I had heard of "carbon offsets" that companies promoted to cancel out the negative effects of travel by plane (the worst), automobile, train, or bus. I had heard that they made sense, or that they were a scam (for example companies had taken money and pledged to plant trees which was never done), or that they were well-intentioned but ineffectual. I understood the basic concept that one purchased a carbon offset which would theoretically take as much greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere as was produced by the form and distance of travel employed on a trip (or in daily life), but I needed more proof.

I did an internet search for the purchase of carbon offsets. I found websites which discussed carbon offsets and rated companies that sold offsets - based on complicated criteria that are explained on such websites: like These websites ranked Native Energy (a U.S. based company - my preference) as one of the top rated companies selling carbon offsets.

I checked out Native Energy's website,, and was impressed by the projects they funded, the success of those projects and the percentage of offset money that went directly to the funding of the projects. For example, when I took this trip, purchases of offsets helped finance the building of the Wewoka Biogas Project (Oklahoma). This project supported Commercial Brick Corporation's use of methane gas from an adjacent landfill, to replace the natural gas used by the company to fire the clay bricks and structural tiles they manufacture and sell. The burning of the methane had the added benefit of converting the methane to carbon dioxide - a less harmful greenhouse gas than methane.  The offsets I would buy, paid for the installation of vertical gas wells into the landfill, blowers to push the gas to brick kilns, and the retrofitting of the kilns to burn methane. This project was slated to be completed very soon.

On the website, I entered my plane flight from the U.S. to Mexico and back, as well the approx. miles driven in Mexico. They calculated the atmospheric carbon produced by each of us on the plane flight (.829 tons! ).  We would fly from L.A. to Mazatlan on June 12 and return on June 18. It all looked good. I decided to do the trip! (We drove 660 miles in Mexico and the atmospheric carbon carbon produced by driving 660 miles in Mexico was .323 tons. The cost of the total carbon offset was $60.)

It was a relaxation trip for the family, but how could I not bird as much as comfortably possible while there? I started with the drive from Mazatlan,  where we saw the spectacular Black-throated Magpie Jay. At the resort, I found Mangrove Swallow, Cinnamon Hummingbird and Rufous-bellied Chachalaca. A walk to the nearby river mouth had Yellow-crowned Night Herons eating crabs in the sand, American Oystercatchers, and nesting Least Terns. I took a harrowing drive over and up into the nearby mountains, which offered up real treats like Flammulated Flycatcher, Sinaloa Wren, Tufted Jay, Red-headed Tanager, Brown-backed Solitaire, Golden-crowned Emerald, Blue Bunting, Golden Vireo and my "target bird" - Military Macaw! A family trip down to the wonderful birding site of San Blas offered a whole group of new birds, including Boat-billed Heron (pictured) along the river, Plain-capped Starthroat, Masked Tityra, and others. This may not have been true green birding, but the purchased carbon offset did lessen the impact!

     The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society jointly launched eBird ( in 2002. Since then, it has slowly taken off with many serious birders. With the advent of smart phone birding apps, it has become even more popular. I recently started contributing bird checklists to eBird and I'm really enjoying it.
     This bird-sighting website can be very consistent with green birding. For example, it encourages local birding by designating bird "hotspots" (a spot approved by eBird, based on the number of bird species seen there, proximity to other such hotspots, etc.).  Each hotspot includes adjoining lands/neighborhoods as well. I have a half dozen such hotspots within walking distance of my home. I am especially lucky because my house is within one! (I counted the Pine Siskin below, at my house, on an eBird checklist.) Most people should have (or can establish) one or more hotspots within walking distance of their home. (See the website above for details on how to do that.)
     The eBird program further encourages green birding by allowing participants to designate local "patches." I have designated the hotspots in my small town as my local patch. I then compete with other patches for total number of species for all time, the current year, and the current month. At the time of this writing (March 28, 2015) I have 116 species for my local patch, for the month of March. (Some participants have designated really large areas (e.g. Orange County) as a local patch!) But you can still see how you rank with other local patches by deleting such huge "patches".
     The eBird website basically works like this: You bird for whatever distance and time you want on each occasion (in a designated hotspot or your own personal location which is not a designated hotspot). You then submit your bird sightings, which are reviewed by an eBird expert for accuracy before being posted on the website. Others can access your sightings of birds made at the hotspots. You can share your sightings from your personal locations (not eBird hotspots) with people you so designate.
     I find that it's especially easy to use a bird app, on my smart phone, when preparing an eBird checklist. I open my app (BirdLog North America), which then lists the local hotspots and my personal spots. I pick the one I want to bird at, and a checklist of birds for that location comes up automatically. I list the numbers of each bird species I find, as I bird. When I am done birding, I go through the list once to make sure it is accurate and complete. I then add some other quick information, and I submit the list to the website. I can later review my data on the website and make any additions or corrections, if necessary. (Some long-time birders are not using the app, but I can guarantee that it saves much time when compared to the traditional method of taking notes on paper and later sitting down at your computer to enter the information!)
     While eBirding is fun, it also serves a very important purpose. The data submitted makes for a sort of national bird data base. The numbers so acquired over time, can then be used to map the occurrence and the dates of bird species (which might be helpful, for example, to show the effects of global warming). The data can be used to track of the number of each species, to see how a species is doing, and so on. It is much like the annual Christmas bird count, in that the bird data can be used to show many things. Unlike the Christmas counts, though, eBird data covers the entire year. Therefore, it is potentially a much more complete and valuable set of bird data than the traditional Christmas counts!
     So have some fun green birding, and contribute to science!