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California is a pretty amazing place for many reasons, and one is that we have a lot of different species and subspecies of salmon! The Sacramento River, for example, is the only major river in the world that has four distinct subspecies, or runs, of Chinook Salmon!

Salmon are such amazing creatures! They are so important to the ecosystems in which they live, and they have been so important to human societies for so long that they get a lot of attention, and rightly so. And, when their populations are not doing well, ecosystems and human societies feel the impacts.

Two adult Coho Salmon migrating up a river. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch), sometimes called Silver Salmon, are one of the species found in California. They are a species that live in the ocean for most of their lives, but then migrate up rivers and streams along the north and central coast of California to breed and lay their eggs in gravel beds in the upper watersheds. In addition to being found in California, Coho Salmon are also found breeding in rivers and streams along the Pacific coast of North America all the way to Alaska, and the Pacific coast in northeastern Russia as far south as northern Japan.

When they do this epic migration, how long it takes, where they lay eggs, how long those eggs take to hatch, what the young salmon need to survive and for how long, when the young salmon migrate down river and into the ocean, and how long they live there before returning to the river of their birth are all important aspects of Coho Salmon biology that need to be understood if restoration efforts are to be successful.

The grant program I manage funds salmon recovery projects, so I am writing this blog post in part to help myself understand the life cycle of the Coho Salmon so that I can make the best decisions I can when deciding what projects to fund. So, with no further adieu…

The Coho Salmon life cycle in California:

In January, adult female Coho Salmon will lay between 1,500 and 3,000 eggs each in a gravel nest, called a redd, in a stream in the upper watershed of a river system. After mating and laying eggs, the adult Coho die (more on this later).

Many of the eggs are eaten by other aquatic animals, but generally between 200 and 300 hatch. This takes between 50 and 70 days depending on water temperature.

A stream in the upper Navarro River watershed in California where young Coho Salmon spend a bit over a year feeding and growing. Photo: A Birding Naturalist.

Once they hatch, these young Coho Salmon spend approximately a year living in shallow areas of streams where they can hide amounts rocks and large woody debris and prey on smaller fish and aquatic insects.

After about 14 months living and growing in these shallow streams, the 50 to 100 surviving young salmon, that are now called smolts, begin to migrate down stream in spring. Their color changes. They loose the bars and spots that helped them to camouflage in the upper watershed streams and turn onto a bright silver color. Internal changes also occur with their gills and kidneys transitioning to be able to survive in salt water.

Once they reach the ocean in summer, the smolts spend about a year-and-a-half feeding and growing into adult salmon. Adult Coho commonly grow to about 18 lbs in weigh and 24 to 30 inches in length.

Beginning in December, the now three year old Coho Salmon begin their migration back up the rivers and streams. This first involves a transition period to allow their gills and kidneys to transition back to tolerating freshwater. The adult Coho also start to become more and more red in color as they migrate up the rivers. Once the adults are accustomed to freshwater, they begin swimming upstream, guided by scent and triggered by stream flow volumes, back to the upper watershed streams where they hatched.

Then in January, the one to four adults that have survived all the way to this point from all those eggs that were originally laid find a partner, mate, the females lay between 1,500 and 3,000 eggs each in a gravel nest, called a redd, and then the adults die. Unlike some other salmon species, Coho Salmon breed one time and then die. No adult Coho preform a return migration to the sea.

While the completion of the life-cycle of a Coho Salmon with the laying of eggs and death is the end of the individual salmon’s life, it is just the beginning of the lives of many other organisms and has effects that ripple out across the ecosystem. The dead adult salmon are important food sources for aquatic animals (such as crayfish, caddisflies, and rainbow trout) and terrestrial animals (such as bear, river otters, raccoons, and eagles). The decomposing adult salmon bring nutrients from the ocean in the form of their own tissues, and deposit those nutrients in mountain streams and rivers. In this way, they serve as an important source of nutrients, basically fertilizing the soils of the forests of the upper watersheds.

Coho Salmon are amazing animals with an amazing life story. I am very happy to be doing work that will help to provide the habitats and water they need to allow them to continue it to the next chapter.

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This week, I am attending the Localizing California Waters conference that is being held just outside Yosemite National Park and is organized by a group called Watershed Progressive. It is a great event and I have been learning a lot and meeting some really passionate people in the water world of California.

One of the talks I attended was about beavers and their role in ecosystems and habitat restoration (which is huge!). But one part of that talk was a particularly crazy story that I wanted to share. It is about parachuting beavers! And yes, this is a true story!

As humans expanded into new areas in the 1940s they began to run into beaver conflicts. One growing community in Idaho had a problem with a particular community of beavers that were routinely damaging houses and other property. These humans complained about this beaver community, and eventually it came to the attention of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Beavers are native to the western USA, but they had been largely hunted out during the 1700s and 1800s for their fur. Therefore, there were large areas of the Idaho wilderness that had been beaver habitat, but had no beavers. This gave the Idaho Department of Fish and Game an idea for a solution to the human-beaver conflict. Take the beavers, and move them into some remote wilderness areas. But, this raised a problem: how were they going to get beavers into these remote areas? The answer? Drop them out of planes!

Crates, each containing a single beaver, dropped with parachutes into the Idaho Wilderness. Photo: Boise State Public Radio.

That’s right, in 1948, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game constructed a bunch of specially designed crates that would hold a beaver and protect it as it dropped through the air, and then would break open when they hit the ground. The crates also had parachutes attached to them.

A beaver emerging from its opened crate after a parachute-assisted landing. Photo: KTVB 7.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game then safely trapped the beavers that were causing problem for those humans. The result was a total of 76 captured beavers. These beavers were loaded into the specially designed crates, the crates were loaded on to planes, the planes were flown out over remote areas of the Idaho wilderness, and then the crates with their beaver passengers were dropped out of the planes and allowed to float down to the ground below! The first beaver to be dropped in such a manner was named Geronimo, and he and the rest of his beaver companions all but one survived their skydiving experience, and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, went on to live their beaver-y lives.

I found this story to be so hilarious and absurd! Such a huge amount of effort to protect the property of a small group of humans that had moved into an area where the beavers were already living!

I am glad that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game decided to move the beavers instead of kill them, and I will say that the beavers probably ended up in a pretty good place, far from humans and in areas that were likely to make for good beaver homes. Since the beaver had been so decimated by over hunting, these beavers may have helped recolonize some of their former range.

The story gets crazier because in the 1950s, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife decided to emulate Idaho and also air dropped beavers into remote areas of wilderness. In California, the reason for parachuting beavers into the wilderness had nothing to do with beaver-human conflicts, but instead was to help reintroduce beavers to their historic range

So, all in all, a good story. But still a hilarious and absurd one as well.

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A Douglas’s Squirrel sitting on a branch. Photo: National Park Service

In his “Wilderness Essays,” John Muir said that the Douglas’s Squirrel “…is the most influential of the Sierra animals, quick mountain vigor and valor condensed, purely wild…”

And a couple of weeks ago, while my family and I camped in Kings Canyon National Park, I got to see how some of this influence is wielded.

In the early morning, I spent a bit of time wandering through the forest around the campground. As I was exploring, and watching Mountain Chickadees and Brown Creepers and Williamson’s Sapsuckers and White-headed Woodpeckers, I heard a thud of something hitting the ground close to me. I paused and then heard another thud. I looked up and high above my head I saw a Douglas’s Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) moving through the branches of a pine tree.

The forests of Kings Canyon National Park are filled with Douglas’s Squirrels! Photo: Aaron N.K. Haiman

The squirrel was moving from branch to branch checking the various cones. It would climb out to the tips of the branches where the cones grow and carefully and quickly assess each cone to come to a decision on whether or not it was ready to be harvested. If it was ripe enough, the squirrel nibbled away any pine needles blocking the base of the cone, and would then chew through the stem of the cone.

Once it had the cone off the branch, the cone would fall from the squirrel’s mouth and plummet to the ground. At first, I thought that the squirrel had accidently dropped the cone. However, after watching this process repeat a couple of times, I realized the squirrel was intentionally dropping the cones, and attentively watching where they fell. After observing the fall of a cone, the squirrel would scamper to the next cone.

I watched this process repeat again and again for over forty-five minutes. The squirrel was very strategic in how it went about its harvest. It was clearly working its way down the tree from highest branch to lowest. It would run out a branch to check the cones on it, harvest the cones that it wanted, then run back towards the trunk. Then it would jump to the next lowest branch and repeat the check-and-harvest process. In this way, it systematically checked every branch on the tree.

In the time I spent watching it, this squirrel must have harvested and dropped at least twenty cones. In that time, it also took a break for a few minutes to stretch out on a branch and rest, it took a few shorter breaks to groom its fur, and it spent a bit of time calling out into the forest. I figured that once the squirrel had enough food down on the ground, it would come down and feast, but it never did. I had to carry on with my day, so I left the Douglas’s Squirrel to it’s.

When I returned home, I read up a bit on this harvesting behavior, and it turns out that my assumption that the squirrel would eat the fallen cones was wrong. Douglas’s Squirrels do harvest large numbers of cones, but they are for winter storage! Once the squirrel I was watching was done harvesting cones, it was probably going to come down to ground level and begin hiding all those cones away in various locations so that the squirrel can come back and dig them out once the snow is covering the ground and other food sources are scare.

Forests filled with, and shaped by, Douglas’s Squirrels. Photo: Aaron N.K. Haiman

And this is where a big chunk of that influence comes in because the squirrels never make it back to eat every cone that they stash. These uneaten cones, and the seeds they contain, are where new trees sprout, so by hiding cones and then leaving them, these squirrels are shaping the forest of the future! That is some serious influence!

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An adult Spotted Lanternfly. Photo: Wikipedia.

Are you a fan of apples, beer, maple wood furniture, or peaches? The plants that produce these products, and many more species, are at risk from a threat that is spreading across North America. What is this threat? It is a rather beautiful insect call a Spotted Lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula).

The Spotted Lanternfly was first detected in North America in 2014 when a few were spotted in Pennsylvania. Between 2014 and today, they have spread to 11 more states and are now also found in Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.

This insect, which is not actually a fly but rather a species of planthopper, is native to China, but has spread to Japan, South Korea, and the USA and is becoming a significant agricultural pest in these other countries.

In its native China, this species is not a major issue because its population is generally kept in check by several species of parasitic wasp that feed on the Spotted Lanternfly. However, these wasps are not present in the new areas the lanternfly has spread to which has resulted in their population increasing and spreading rapidly.

Spotted Lanternfly egg mass. Photo: Rutgers University.

Spotted Lanternflies do not fly long distances on their own, so adults do not disperse very far. However, the species is very effective at dispersing via their eggs. Adult Spotted Lanternflies lay their egg masses on all sorts of objects from trees to houses to vehicles. They can even end up getting scrapped off of these structures and stuck to shoes and clothing. in this way, egg masses can be transported long distances and so introduce the species into new areas rapidly.

Luckily, the Spotted Lanternfly poses no direct threat to humans or animals. However, they suck the fluids from many species of plant which can weaken an kill them. Many of these plant species are of significant economic value, and many more create extensive and important habitat for countless other animals, plants, fungi, etc. The list of plant species that are susceptible to Spotted Lanternfly infestations includes: Almonds, Apples, Apricots, Cherries, Grapes, Hops, Maple Trees, Nectarines, Oak Trees, Peaches, Pine Trees, Plums, Poplar Trees, Sycamore Trees, Walnut Trees, and Willow Trees.

Spotted Lanternfly life cycle stages. Photo: spottedlanternflykillers.com

Control efforts are underway, and extensive help from all of us will be needed to stop the spread of this insect. The state of Pennsylvania has even step up a hotline number to call and report sightings which is 1-888-4BADFLY. Control efforts include taking extra care to clean objects that could have egg masses attached to them. This is particularly important for anything passing through areas of known Spotted Lanternfly infestations. We should all make sure to clean our cars, boats, trailers, tents, clothing, shoes, and other materials if we are moving them from or through any of the above states. Without serious control efforts, the Spotted Lanternfly is predicted to continue to spread and is likely to reach California around 2033.

If you do find adult Spotted Lanternflies it is recommended that they be killed. They are fast, so we will all have to work on our reflexes. If an egg mass is found, scrape it off and put it into a sealed plastic bag with hand sanitizer (good thing we all have this around so much these days!).

So, keep your eyes open for this insect, help control their population and spread, and report any sightings! In this way we can all help to protect our forests and farms.

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Growing up in California, and often driving up to the Sierra Nevada mountains around Tahoe, I came across a valley and ski resort with a very particular name. Sq— Valley. This valley is by no means the only geographic landscape feature to have been given this name. Sq— Harbor, Sq— Gap, Sq— Mountain, are all places to be found in one state or another.

And this is a problem because this term has been used as a racist and sexist slur for a very long time, particularly aimed at Native American women. It has been used primarily by Europeans to denigrate and dehumanize indigenous women for hundreds of years.

Having this term be so common really speaks to how ubiquitous racist language is on our society. It is all around us. It is in every state. It is on maps. It is in tour guides. It is in our conversations as we talk about these places.

Secretary Deb Haaland. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior.

It is so common to encounter racist language, and the term sq— in particular, that U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, issued Secretary Order 3405 in November of 2021 which established the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force. This order recognized the term sq— as offensive. It instructed the Task Force to find all uses of the word on federal lands, and to recommend alternative names that would replace the term. A press release from Secretary Haaland that accompanied the order stated, in part: “Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands.”

The Task Force has just recently released their report on the use of this term. They found that this name has been applied to over 660 different features of federal land! The Task Force will be making their recommendations in September of 2022.

I am glad that this term is going to be removed from Federal lands. I am hopeful that Secretary Haaland will expand this anti-racist work to catalog and remove additional derogatory terms applied on Federal lands such as “redskin”, “negro”, “dead indian”, “jim crow”, and many more that are currently in use.

Sign bearing the new name of this famous ski resort in California. Photo: Palisades Tahoe.

In response to comments from many members of the Washoe Tribe, other individuals, and some historical digging by the resort themselves into the use of the term, the ski resort officially changed its name in 2020. The resort have had been called “Sq— Valley Alpine Meadows” is now “Palisades Tahoe.” I look forward to the valley itself getting a new name in the near future that better suits its beauty.

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A flock of Mallards lifting off of a pond. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Each spring since 1948 staff from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have conducted a survey of central and northeastern California to count the numbers of ducks and geese that are breeding in those areas. These counts are conducted by biologists flying in fixed-wing aircraft over the central and northern parts of California, and they form the basis of the California Breeding Waterfowl Survey. This long term data set is hugely powerful when scientists are looking at long term trends in populations and examining the effects of habitat loss, climate change, human population growth, pollution, and other factors.

Fixed-wing plane used during a breeding waterfowl survey over the Klamath River Basin. Photo: Keith Stein

The 2022 California Breeding Waterfowl Survey was just released and it’s not great. The total number of waterfowl breeding in California has declined 19% since 2019. All species were found to be in decline to some extent. Canada Goose were the least impacted with declines of 5% since 2019. Cinnamon Teal were hit the hardest with declines 54% since 2019. That means that there are only about half as many Cinnamon Teal breeding in California today as there were just four years ago! Mallard (the most common species of duck that breeds in California) and Gadwall were also hit hard with declines of 25% and 31%, respectively, since 2019.

These declines are in large part likely due to poor breeding habitat conditions. Ducks and geese need water to breed. The 2021-22 winter in California had below average precipitation across California, and the snow pack water content in California’s mountains is also below average. Such continued and serious drought conditions are resulting in less water for both natural and managed wetlands, and so to the poor breeding habitats and reducing waterfowl populations found in the survey.

Hopefully more water will fall in the state this coming winter. In the mean time, save water any way you can! The less water we all use, the more will remain in rivers, streams, reservoirs, etc. that can benefit the birds, fish, and other wildlife of California!

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About a year ago, we had a bit of an invasion in our yard. Rats, in ever growing numbers, were eating the birdseed from the feeders in our backyard (and also eating just about everything else they could find). So, to make the area less hospitable, we decided to take down the bird feeders and so remove the birdseed as a food source. Let me me tell you, I really missed having birds frequenting the yard to eat!

But it worked! We removed all the food sources we could find and trapped the rats like crazy for quite a while, and we have not seen a rat in a couple of months. So we, tentatively, refilled the bird feeders and rehung them in the yard.

Once the feeders were rehung, I was curious to see how long it would take for them to be rediscovered, and which species would be the first to notice and take advantage of this food source. For the first two days the feeders went ignored, but on the third day a flash of feathers dropped onto the pole that the feeders hang from.

It was an Oak Titmouse!

Oak Titmouse (Photo by Aaron N.K. Haiman)

The titmouse looked the feeders over from its perch on the top of the pole, and then flew off without dropping down to actually take a seed; its exit just and sudden and purposeful as its arrival. Just a few minutes later the flash of feathers appeared again, and once again there was an Oak Titmouse on the top of the pole. This time the titmouse did drop down to one of the feeders, grabbed a sunflower seed, and rapidly departed. A few minutes after that, the flash of feathers occurred once again, and again there was a titmouse on the pole. This time, it only paused there a moment before going for a seed, and while it did so, a different flash of feathers appeared! A second Oak Titmouse joined the first on the feeder, each bird took a sunflower seed, and both flew off. The two birds, very likely a mated pair, visited the feeder numerous more times that afternoon and evening.

Watching these birds appear to drop out of nowhere so suddenly is such fun! They are so filled with character and curiosity that watching them investigate the bird feeders and the rest of the surroundings is a constant source of entertainment, and they fly in so fast and with so little warning, and then leave so abruptly, that each flight coming or going is a surprise and gives me a thrill of excitement.

The Oak Titmouse pair has continued to be frequent visitors to the feeders. They have been joined, so far, by a handful of House Finches, a California Scrub-Jay, a pair of Mourning Doves, and a pair of Lesser Goldfinches.

It is hard to put into word just how happy I am to have birds back in the yard! I just hope the rats stay away.

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Ten years ago, my wife and bother both laid out reasons for why they each thought I should start writing a blog. Well, when both of these people think something is a good idea, I am smart enough to listen. So, on April 7, 2012 with a post about Swainson’s Hawks returning to their breeding grounds in Central California, the A Birding Naturalist blog was born. And I kept going and have now been writing this blog for a full decade!

For those ten years, this blog has been with me through it all. Over that span of time I conducted graduate work completing two Master’s Degrees from the University of California, Davis, my wife and I moved from Davis CA to West Sacramento CA, my wife and I bought a home, I became a dad, my wife and I bought two cars, I began working for the State of California as a Scientific Aide for the Department of Water Resources then as an Environmental Scientist for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy and now as a Senior Environmental Scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Board, I started the ABirdingNaturalist YouTube channel, and so much more.

I have spent a bit if time these past few days looking back at the posts I have written. Many themes have been consistent over the full ten years such as biodiversity, endangered species and environmental protection, taxonomy and systematics, natural history, and, of course, birds and birding. Lots of birds and birding!

Some of the themes have changed or shifted. In the early years of the blog, as I was working as a Teaching Assistant as a grad student. As such, I wrote many posts explaining college level biology concepts with the hope that my students would benefit from them. As my career has shifted and developed, that theme has shifted as well to discussing aspects of my jobs, the projects I have worked on, and some state level priorities and systems. I have also focused more on representation and inclusion in birding and science which is a shift that was too long in coming.

During these past few days of review, I also noticed that I have used this blog as a way of learning for myself. As I have started new positions or projects, I have often been introduced to new concepts. And one way that I have developed better understandings of those concepts has been to write blogs posts about them. This has helped me to deepen and clarify my knowledge, and has proven to be an incredibly useful and powerful tool. I will certainly be continuing this habitat on this blog.

Over the last decade long life of this blog, I have written a total of 292 posts. These posts have been collectively viewed a total of 85,266 times by 67,055 visitors who came from 175 countries all around the world and 97 of whom decided to become followers of the blog! I hope you all have enjoyed the blog posts, gained some fun and interesting knowledge from them, and will come back to read some more!

I am well aware that there are a ton of things we all could decide to spend our time doing, and that so many of you decide to spend some of that time reading my blog is a huge honor. Thank you! I am excited to see what the next decade contains.

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Cover of The Intersectional Environmentalist by Leah Thomas.

I just finished a book called “The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet” by Leah Thomas. This book just came out in 2022, and it is a very interesting read. The book lays out many compelling connections between the environmental movement and social justice. It explains how BIPOC individuals and communities have, and still are, being burdened with the majority of environmental costs from pollution to climate change to food insecurities. It also does a very good job of explaining some of the history of the environmental movement and the feminist movement, and it shines a light on where and how both of these movements have a history of excluding and further marginalizing already marginalized groups.

The book also explains how inequalities play out in particular industries such as the green energy and the clothing/fashion industries. This subject is especially difficult because the overall ends may be important to pursue (transitioning to more sustainable sources of energy, for example), however we as a global society must be aware of both the ends and the means matter. If noble ends are accomplished using morally questionable means, the side effects of those means will tarnish the ends and their nobleness will be diminished. To learn more about this book and intersectional environmentalism, I highly recommend the book and the website that has tons of resources.

One specific resource that I was particularly interested to learn about was a mapping tool that has been developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called EJScreen: the Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool. This is a site that has many different layers of data that you can add on or take off a map of any area in the USA. These layers include information about pollution (such as lead paint locations, ozone rates, air particulate concentrations, etc.), socioeconomic indicators (such as race, household income rates, age demographics, etc.), health disparities (such as life expectancies, heart disease, and asthma), climate change (such as wildfire risk, sea level rise impacts, flood risks, etc.), critical services gaps (such as broadband gaps, food deserts, and lack of medical coverage) and more.

This tool allows the EPA to better understand the issues facing the country and to better fulfill their mission to protect the people and natural resources of the USA. It also allows each of us to do some exploring ourselves.

By adding or taking off layers, we can look at what factors are impacting the communities we live in. Are there areas of my city that have unusually high levels of air pollution? I can click on that data layer and see how air pollution concentrations differ across the city. Are there areas of my city for which flooding is an unusually high risk? I can click on that data layer and find out. Are there areas of my city that contain a large number of BIPOC households? I can click on that data layer and find out.

And, of course, even greater power comes from this tool when several layers are overlapped on top of each other. That is when the intersectionality of these different factors comes to light. Are the areas of high air pollution similar to the areas where large numbers of BIPOC people live? Do the areas of high flood risk overlap extensively with the areas of low income households are?

When several of the data layers are combined, distinct differences in living conditions can be made visible. And once they are viable, we can all start to figure out how to address them.

If you read this book, let me know in the comments what you think. If you play around with the EPA mapping tool, let me know if you find any interesting/surprising/disturbing correlations.

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It is Black History Month, and I have been thinking a bit about what I can do as a White scientist, birder, and naturalist, to celebrate the contributions of Black members of these communities. I want to do a small part to lift up the voices of Black environmentalists, climate activists, birders, and naturalists. So, instead of writing a bunch of my own words (and in so doing lifting my own voice instead of the voices of others), I did some poking around online to find Black environmental leaders to draw attention to. Below are links to some lists of Black leaders in the fields of the environmental movement, climate activism, birding, environmental justice, science communication and education, and many other related topics.

These lists are by no means comprehensive, but they include a lot of amazing people doing amazing work. My hope is that you take a few minutes to peruse these lists, and find some individuals who interest you. Learn more about them and the work they are doing. Find organizations they lead or work for and make a donation. Follow them on social media and so support the messages they are working to spread.

So with that, enough from me. Black lives matter. Enjoy!

SF Environment – list of Black environmentalists

GreenPeace – list of 8 Black environmental activists

Solstice – list of 20 Black climate activists

The Wilderness Society – list of 7 Black birders

“This earth is more than worth fighting for.” — Amanda Gorman

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