While I was scanning the shoreline skies of Penobscot Bay, an approaching aerial object caught my attention. It was the right size for a large bird, perhaps an eagle. But the wingless object wasn’t flapping or gliding, propelled instead by a brisk southwesterly breeze. My binoculars soon resolved the mystery: it was a cluster of red, helium-filled party balloons. I stood pondering where they would eventually land, as the bundle moved steadily seaward. The likely odds would favor some offshore island or distant ocean touchdown a hundred miles beyond. We must acknowledge, after all, that “whatever goes up, must come down” … somewhere. Thankfully, the widely practiced, traditional releases of hundreds of balloons during special celebrations have diminished to some extent in recent years.

Occasionally we learn of tragic outcomes from waste plastics ingested by sea life, from whales and other ocean mammals to fishes and sea turtles. And although we generally don’t think much about marine debris, entanglement of animals is one of the main environmental impacts of ocean wastes; 36% of seabird species are now known to become entangled in plastic litter. Entangling materials, such as trash bags, six-pack rings and stranded fish netting, are occasionally incorporated into nests. The issue is further compounded if bits of lethal plastic materials are mistakenly fed to chicks. Fortunately, the entanglement risk is less frequent (10%) for freshwater birds, but discarded fishing gear, monofilament line, lures and sinkers can take a toll. Once I recovered a soft, fist-sized ball of monofilament line with attached rubberized hooked lure within the fallen debris of a collapsed eagle nest.

More recently, I encountered a female red-breasted merganser wearing a bridle of stretchable strap around her head and throat areas. An active diving species, mergansers are susceptible to encountering underwater obstacles. The affected duck had hauled out on a harbor float, apparently resting and recuperating from an abrasion on her lower belly. I was unable to approach or capture the bird to relieve its situation. But with targeted mitigation measures, including proper disposal of plastics and unused fishing tackle, maybe we can reduce manmade hazards for future wildlife.

On the land-based side of things, we regularly note nighttime junk deposits of worn-out tires, mattresses, sofas and such along our roadways. No doubt, these are messy scenes, but they may exert less impact on wildlife than the smaller items. Shrouds of plastic strands stuck in tree branches, such as single-use plastic bags, are common sights along coastal roadways, too. And most any birder has probably mistaken them for birds of various types.

It’s no secret that birds frequently include human-made materials in nest construction, as natural materials are substituted with remnants from plastic bags, scraps of paper, aluminum foil and myriad other materials. Some have suggested that such materials serve to break up the natural

outline of nests, reducing their detectability, and possibly reducing parasite numbers in the nest. Since the main objectives of nests are to protect the egg from potential danger and control temperatures for incubating eggs, are these affected birds actually the exploiters, or the survivors, of our modern society? So I’m leaving this thesis to conjecture.

This week’s column will not resolve the long-term challenges faced by birds in a changing world. But perhaps it can lead us to be mindful of how our personal daily practices can impact the natural world.