Out Duckin’ Around…

South Dakota weather can be absolutely perfect in the spring, even on occasion when spring has only been with us for a few days.  South Dakota can also have stretches of several days where the sun doesn’t make an appearance. Unfortunately, this weekend fell into the latter category. Given my long photographic drought, I had been looking forward to the weekend, and was pretty disappointed that we didn’t even have a peek of the sun.  You can get some nice photos in cloudy, even gloomy, conditions, but it’s not ideal.  However, there have been so many waterfowl moving through that I had to give it a shot today.

I headed to western Minnehaha County and the wetlands and lakes in the area, and certainly wasn’t disappointed in bird numbers.  Waterfowl were using practically every spot of open water, from the bigger lakes, down to shallow pockets of water in wet fields. The massive goose migration is largely over in southeastern South Dakota, although I did run into a couple of small flocks of both Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese.  Duck numbers are certainly very high however, as they have been ever since the ice went out.  I spent about an hour and a half at Dewey Gevik Nature Area west of Sioux Falls, trying for duck photos.  Dewey Gevik is really wonderful for such an activity in migration, as they have a permanent blind that sits out in the water a bit, allowing you good looks at waterfowl as they feed around the blind.  I ended the photographic streak, but given the gloom, not any award winners for the day!  Still, I really enjoy sitting in the Dewey Gevik blind, and seeing waterfowl act so naturally mere feet away.  Given our hunting-happy culture in South Dakota, it’s rare to get chances such as these.

Some photos from the day:

Common Goldeneye - Bucephala clangula

A male Common Goldeneye. They’re not a species I’ve had a ton of luck getting close to around here, so gloom or not, it was nice to get a photo of one. And I mean LITERALLY one, because despite many other Common Goldeneyes being present at Dewey Gevik today, this was the only one brave enough to wander anywhere close to the blind I sat in for an hour and a half.

Ring-necked Duck - Aythya collaris

A male Ring-necked Duck. Yeah…me neither. I know what you’re thinking. “Ring-necked”? Don’t you mean “Ring-billed”? The males do have a dark brownish ring around their neck, but it’s rarely something that really stands out. They are quite beautiful ducks though, and it was nice to get a crisply plumaged male at close range.

Lesser Scaup - Aythya affinis

I guess it’s fitting that on a gloomy, dreary day, the ducks I were able to photograph were all of the black-and-white variety (at least for males). I did see Northern Shovelers, Redheads, Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Mallards, and Ruddy Ducks as well, all species with at least SOME other colors, but alas, none came within range of my lens. Thus to break up the monotony of yet another black-and-white male duck, here’s a female Lesser Scaup.

Lesser Scaup - Aythya affinis

The “colorful” duck of the day, a male Lesser Scaup. If the light is just right, you typically see a greenish tone in the dark feathering on their head. Despite the gloom today, you do see a bit of that color. Despite the black-and-white tones on all of these so far, they really are some beautifully plumaged ducks. It’s great to see them at such close range.

Bufflehead - Bucephala albeola

I love Buffleheads. They’re just so fun to watch this time of year, as they’re usually so energetic. Who DOESN’T probably appreciate that “energy” are the female Buffleheads such as this, as it’s hard for them to find a moment of peace at times, with all the male Buffleheads showing off and bothering them. Typical guys…

Hooded Merganser - Lophodytes cucullatus

Crappy photo from a much longer distance than the others on this page, but that’s the luck I have with these absolutely gorgeous birds. Hooded Mergansers aren’t the most common waterfowl we have around, and you never see them in large numbers. It’s typically a pair or two, such as this pair at a wetland in western Minnehaha County. With that crest, they’re such cool looking birds. After 15 years though of doing bird photography, this pretty much matches the best I’ve gotten of the species so far.

Gadwall - Anas strepera

Just a small part of “Weisensee” slough in western Minnehaha County, a shallow wetland that was covered wall-to-wall today with ducks. The vast majority were Gadwalls, more Gadwalls than I have ever seen before. The entire slough was populated similar to this, with Redheads, Mallards, Blue-winged Teal, and other ducks present as well. Gloom or not, it was wonderful to see so many birds today, a welcome change after a (actually rather mild) South Dakota winter.

Hearing Neil deGrasse Tyson — Science in today’s world

Neil deGrasse Tyson - Sioux Falls, SD

Neil deGrasse Tyson, speaking at the Boe Forum at Augustana University in Sioux Falls. All science related of course, getting sidetracked on some amusing other issues at times, but a great speech. My biggest takeaway…the need to restore humanity’s sense of wonder about the universe (and our own world).

We had the GREAT pleasure last night to hear Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at the “Boe Forum” at Augustana University in Sioux Falls.The Boe Forum on Public Affairs was founded in 1995, with a goal “to provide access to individuals who can address events, issues or problems of worldwide or national concern and of broad public interest.”  They’ve certainly had some wonderful speakers (and some less wonderful speakers…think Newt Gingrich and Rudy Guiliani) over the years. They’ve managed to draw some very big names, including Colin Powell, Mikhail Gorbachev, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Desmond Tutu, Vicente Fox, Sandra Day O’Connor, Pervez Musharraf, and Madeline Albright. Augustana University has just opened their new “Froiland Science Complex”, and said they wanted a “moonshot” science speaker to coincide with opening of that science center.  They certainly succeeded by managing to draw Neil deGrasse Tyson to Sioux Falls.

Tyson ended up talking for two hours, and while my son was getting a wee bit antsy towards the end, I must say that it was a very engaging, surprisingly funny, and interesting talk that kept me very engaged the entire time. There were a few things that surprised me a bit, things I disagreed with.  Given today’s political climate and how it’s affecting science, I was hoping for more content on the intersection of the two, but overall it was a terrific talk.  Some of the takeaways for me:

1968 – 1972 – Birth of the Environmental Movement — The highlight of the talk to me was a section where he specifically talked about the period of 1968 to 1972 and the profound effect it had on humanity and our country.  Apollo 8 was the first mission to orbit the moon, in 1968. As they rounded the moon, astronaut William Anders took the iconic “EarthRise” photo (bottom of this post), looking across the moon’s surface back at Earth.  The next year we landed on the moon. As Tyson noted, these events totally changed humanity and how we view our own planet.  Some very simple observations noted how little we understood our earth up to that point.  He showed a photo from Star Trek, of the Enterprise orbiting the Earth. Their depiction of Earth had the continents, the oceans…but no clouds!  Tyson gave other examples of artwork and even scientific renderings of Earth up to that point, and none of them portrayed the clouds that are always present! The sense of wonder during the space race, the first looks at our planet from space…it changed how we viewed our planet.  In the period from 1968 to 1972, you thus ended up with the establishment of the first Earth Day. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was founded.  We started cleaning up our air, our water.  We noticed the massive decline in our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, and banned DDT to save the species (a resounding success!).  The Endangered Species Act was founded in 1973.  This period STARTED the environmental movement.

Reinvigorating interest in science — The take-home point from the examination of the 1968-1972 period?  All that sense of wonder…that feeling that our Earth is a special place…that’s GONE, or at least incredibly diminished right now. Many people today simply can’t see past their own short-term guilty pleasures to even THINK about the future.  At the end of Tyson’s talk, he had a question-and-answer period. One of the questions was related to these points, and how we can get back to those days of the 1960s and 1970s where environmental conservation, where caring about our planet, really was part of the American consciousness. The answer from Tyson wasn’t related to politics, it wasn’t related to things like the March for Science coming up on April 22nd, it wasn’t related to need for better PR.  No, the answer was much more basic, and was rooted in k-12 education. We just don’t value science as much as we should in those formative years. As Tyson stated, what’s going to end up giving us a kick in the butt isn’t just a change in k-12 education, but a realization that we’re losing our economic competitiveness.  With education driven not by national-scale policy but local and state policy, the States that embrace science and technological innovation, starting in k-12, are the ones that will be competitive for industries that drive our economy. Given how much of a focus their is in this country right now on economics, money, and growth, the cynical side of me believes that it will be economic competitiveness that will end up re-igniting the interest and science and innovation, rather than any pure desire to invest in science for science’s sake.

Star Trek depiction of Earth

Prior to the famed “EarthRise” photo from 1968 and our landing on the moon a year later, humanity had little awareness of how to even portray our Earth. As Tyson noted, up until the late 1960s and the space race, this was a typical depiction of Earth (from the original Star Trek) series. Continents…check! Water…check!! Atmosphere, clouds, and weather…something’s missing! The space race had a profound impact on the way humanity viewed our own planet

Intersection of Science, Culture, and Politics — Speaking of the March on Science on April 22nd, one of the questions he received was about scientists and their role in activities such as this. Overall for the night, he really avoided politics, although there were a few timely, light jabs thrown in.  When the audience member asked this question, I thought we might finally hear his thoughts on the impact of politics on science right now. He did touch on that intersection, but it was different than I was expecting. He’s an educator, some may view him as an entertainer, but at his heart, he’s a scientist through-and-through.  His answer began by saying he was on the fence, that in his own mind, he’s still trying to decide how scientists should react in this kind of political environment.  But for the March itself, he said what he really hoped was that such an event wouldn’t be necessary.  As he hammered home all night long, science isn’t political.  Science provides its own truths, as as he stated, it doesn’t really give a damn what you think about it, what your personal, cultural, or political beliefs are.  In short, you can tell that what he’d like to have happen is that the science would speak for itself, that the knowledge and understanding we produce would stand on its own, and that humanity would return to a time where we’d base our decisions on that knowledge.  You can tell he’s struggling a bit with the issue, and is likely as bewildered as many of the rest of us as to how truth, how fact, are being ignored in the face of cultural, political, and ideological attacks. He definitely didn’t seem to have a clear answer on how scientists respond.

Human ego and science — Tyson ended his talk with a theme similar to his discussion of the 1968-1972 period, and its effect on humanity.  He talked about the “Pale Blue Dot” images, the first from Voyager One in 1990, where the instrument looked backed towards Earth and took an image representing our planet as tiny, pale blue dot in a sea of stars and emptiness.  The Cassini satellite studying Saturn provided a similar view more recently, with a 2013 image that shows Earth as a tiny blue dot hiding in the shadows below the foreground image of Saturn and its rings. The end of the talk itself was a reading of material from Carl Sagan, from his 1994 book “Pale Blue Dot”.  The following summarizes that material (a bit revised, from a talk Sagan gave that year):

We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

 

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

 

To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

"Pale Blue Dot", Cassini

‘Version 2″ of the Pale Blue Dot photo, if you will. This is from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, looking back at Earth (the small dot in the bottom right).

Religion and Science — Tyson touched on topics related to the Sagan reference all night long. In the overall scheme of the universe, we’re insignificant. We’re not “special”.  At one point he listed the 5 most common elements in the Universe.  He then listed the most common elements in a human body. The list is identical, with the exception of helium (given it’s pretty much non-reactive, it doesn’t form elements found in the human body).  The point he makes…we’re just “stardust”, made up of the same common elements found throughout the universe.  On a night when he would occasionally brush up against the edge of talking in depth about the intersection of culture, politics, and science, but never really dive into the deep end of that pool, this may have been the most “controversial” part of the talk (particularly given that the talk was at a University associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and was speaking in very “red” South Dakota). When touching on politics or culture, you can tell he tries very hard to avoid offending anyone, and he barely mentioned religion.  But as I listened to this part of the discussion, I did wonder what some of the more religious people in the room were thinking.  We’re not “special“.  We’re almost certainly not alone in the Universe, given that we’re made up of the same material as is found throughout the rest of the Universe. We live in a country, however, where a huge swath of the population is unable to separate the science, even the empirical world staring them in the face, from their religion.  In the end its a personal ideology that ends up driving the behavior and interactions of so many Americans, science (and reality!) be damned.  Overall for the night, in what would be interpreted to be a tough cultural and political setting for a science purist like Tyson, he did a great job walking the fine line of informing, without offending.

If you ever get a chance to see Tyson speak, it’s well worth your time.  He’s a wonderful speaker, with a rare ability for a scientist…he knows how to connect with people.

Apollo 8, William Anders' "Earthrise"

The iconic “Earthrise” photo, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders on Christmas Eve, 1968.

Headed back north! Geese migration

Wow…And I thought the goose migration was incredible a few weeks ago when it started. Then came the cold weather, all the lakes froze over again, and they…disappeared.

Evidently many either stayed down south or moved back down south for a while, because with the warmer weather today, the migration has been incredible. I’m working at home, sitting in my 2nd floor office, looking out the open window, and for over 2 HOURS now, it’s been a constant stream of geese moving north. Snow Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, and Canada Geese. Spring has sprung! And hopefully this time, it sticks!

Science endangered. America endangered.

Endangered ScientistsGiven the news of the day, if I were to truly do justice to the scope of the threat to our society and way of life, this would be the longest blog post I’ve ever written.  If you’re a scientist or have any interest in science, today is one hell of a dark, depressing day.  There’s absolutely no way to sugar coat it. The Trump 2018 budget outline that came out today is worse than anybody could have imagined for science, even worse than the leaks that have been coming out over the past month. The numbers would completely cripple federal science agencies, but the bad news certainly doesn’t stop there. Academic research in the United States is critically dependent upon Federal research money.  This budget strikes a double-blow, against both government science, and the academic and private-sector science that depends upon Federal grants and funding.

If the word “climate” appears ANYWHERE in your federal program’s mission statement, chances are your proposed budget is completed gone, or severely crippled. Here’s the language in the budget outline for the EPA, regarding climate-related work:

Discontinues funding for the Clean Power Plan, international climate change programs, climate change research and partnership programs, and related efforts—saving over $100 million for the American taxpayer compared to 2017 annualized CR levels. Consistent with the President’s America First Energy Plan, the Budget reorients EPA’s air program to protect the air we breathe without unduly burdening the American economy.

“Climate research programs”, any “related efforts”, any cooperative international work on climate…COMPLETELY DISCONTINUED.  It’s certainly not just EPA.  USGS research that’s NOT related to energy extraction or hazards would take a severe hit…that includes climate work, Fish & Wildlife work, hydrologic monitoring, and more.  NOAA’s Oceanic and Atmospheric Branch…over HALF of their budget would disappear, and other climate-related programs would take a major hit or be eliminated in their entirety. NASA’s budget is spared…IF it’s the part of the NASA budget that looks up towards the skies.  Monitoring our own earth? Blah…who needs it…the proposed budget whacks NASA Earth Science and cuts four satellite programs linked to atmospheric and climate monitoring. The National Institutes of Health, heretofore generally immune to partisan bickering, would suffer an 18% in funding. Given NIH grants are typically multi-year, that literally means there would be no new federal NIH grants for medical research in 2018.

This doesn’t even touch on the truly cruel, pointless parts of the budget proposal, cutting nearly all Federal arts and humanities funding, removing all funding for PBS, and even eliminating the Meals on Wheels program to help feed the sick and elderly.

This is just a budget blueprint, staking out the Trump ideology. It’s up to Congress to pass actual funding for 2018. Surely Congress is more practical about measures that could destroy America’s place as a world leader in technology, science, and research, right? Well, do YOU have confidence in THIS Congress to do any better than the Trump budget? A Congress that introduced the disaster of a replacement for Obamacare that would give $600 billion in tax cuts for the rich, while forcing 24 million Americans to lose health insurance?  A Congress where the vast majority of House and Senate GOP members vote with Trump on nearly every issue?

Do you think they’ll stand up to Trump cruel, pointless budget, and protect the innovation and technological programs that made America great? I can’t say as I’m optimistic. I don’t think it will be as bad as the Trump budget outline suggests.  But it will be bad.

What’s laughable? There are already economists coming out stating this budget will have the OPPOSITE effect of what Trump intends. Wall Street has certainly applauded a forthcoming reduction in regulation, both environmental and economic. In the long-term. Innovation, technological and scientific, plays a massive role in the American economy. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) states flatly that the budget would “severely harm U.S. innovation, productivity, and competitiveness“.  The wind industry could generate a quarter of a million jobs by 2020, but wind and other energy sources NOT related to fossil fuels take a huge hit in this budget. Rather than spurring economic growth, the only thing the Trump administration seems to care about, it’s likely that the budget blueprint will devastate the long-term economy.

In short, the Trump budget, focused totally on his ideology, will end up not only destroying science and innovation in this country, it will destroy our long-term economy.  Ironic.

Audubon artwork free for download!

Audubon Plate 186 - "Pinnated Grouse"

John J. Audubon’s “Pinnated Grouse” (Now called Greater Prairie Chicken). An example of the gorgeous artwork he created in the early 1800s.

John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America” was originally printed between 1827 and 1838, and included 435 hand-illustrated pieces from Audubon, a representation of the knowledge of America’s bird life at the time. Audubon’s work is clearly iconic, both from the bird and birding perspective, and from an artistic perspective. He certainly had his own style, definitely not photo-realistic, yet nonetheless, incredibly beautiful and representative of each species.  What I find so cool about them isn’t just the birds, which by themselves are gorgeous, but the settings in which Audubon often placed the birds. The Birds of America pieces also often included representative habitat, represented in the same fluid style. Regardless of the content, they are timeless, gorgeous works of art that stand on their own.

Audubon’s work at the time was definitely considered unique, as he developed his own technique using watercolors and sometimes pencil, pen, or pastel crayons).  The work at the time was very difficult to reproduce. Copperplate etching was used to reproduce the prints, with watercolor added by hand. He sold his prints through a subscription process, with subscribers receiving 5 prints every month. Less than 200 of these original sets were ever produced. Other editions were issued through the mid-1800s, but no edition produced more than 1,200 copies.  Needless to say, these 1800s editions are extremely valuable today.  The Economist in 2010 published a list of the most expensive books ever sold at auction, adjusted for inflation.  They had to adjust their list to avoid repeats of the same title, because 5 of the top 10 most expensive book sales EVER were copies of Audubon’s Birds of America!

As I was wasting time on Twitter earlier today, I saw a little blurb about “free Audubon prints”. I clicked on the link, and found that the Audubon site does indeed have digital scans of all the John James Audubon artwork from his famed “Birds of America”. Given their date of production, they’re obviously past copyright and considered public domain. Here’s the link on the Audubon site.

John James Audubon’s Birds of America

This is so cool!  Not only can you view each of the plates, you can download your own digital copy!!  Best of all, they’re NOT small files with limited resolution, they are very incredibly detailed, very large digital scans of the Audubon print.  Downloading “Plate 77 – Belted Kingfisher”, for example, gives you a file that roughly 6,500 by 7,900 pixels, better than image resolution provided by the vast majority of digital cameras, and capable of supporting prints of up to 2 feet by 3 feet in size! The detail is amazing, with absolutely nothing lost.  Every brush stroke, every tiny bit of feather detail is provided in these free downloaded files. The detail is so amazing that  you can see some of the tiny “flaws”, such as where some of the water-coloring goes “outside-of-the-lines” of the underlying etchings.

Do you want your own copies of Audubon’s gorgeous artwork on your wall?  You can do so very cheaply!  Download the free digital files, then go to a site like mpix.com. If you upload your Audubon file download to mpix, for example, for a mere $20 you can have your very own 16″ x 20″ copy of an Audubon print.

After downloading a few, I have noticed there are some issues with the quality of the scans. For example, when downloading the “Black-winged Hawk” (what’s now called a White-tailed Kite), it appears that some of the details in the brighter white areas are “washed out”, as you would get if you overexpose a shot on your digital camera. That’s likely an issue with the way the images were scanned, but it appears in many of the plates where white or brighter areas are evident.  Overall the scans appear to be brighter (and thus washed out in some areas) than I’m sure the original images were.  My guess is this was done during efforts to correct for white balance, to ensure that the background of some images was a perfectly pure white color.  I actually prefer the plate at the top of this post, of the “Pinnated Grouse”, as it maintains the older yellowish, warm tones of the background (as you might expect from an older print).  I hope they keep working on the digital scans, working to make them as representative of the original colors and tones as possible, but overall the scans are really beautiful and wonderful to look at.

These are SO incredibly cool. It’s also so very cool to see the history in these prints, from the standpoint of what species were called back then.  I love seeing a “Foolish Guillemot” (now Common Murre), “Rathbone Warbler” (Yellow Warbler), or “Great Cinerous Owl” (Great Gray Owl).  Wonderful history, and wonderful pieces of art to enjoy.  THANK YOU AUDUBON!  It must have been an extraordinary bit of work to scan these, and clean them up to provide such gorgeous, flawless, massively sized digital files! Here are some more examples of Audubon’s work that you can download (these are just a fraction of the original image size).

Audubon's Plate 236 - Night Heron

Audubon's Plate 366 - "Iceland or Jer-Falcon"

Audubon's Plate 12 - Baltimore Oriole

Audubon's Plate 397 - Scarlet Ibis

Meteors in your Gutter, Pollinating Crops with Drones, and more science news – Week of March 12, 2017

This week, let’s try something novel…science news, sans politics.  It seems that politicians in this country have decided we can live without science, so for one week, I’ll try a “news” post where science avoids politics.

Long-horned Bee - Melissodes

A Long-horned Bee, doing what bees do best…collecting nectar and in the process, distributing pollen. If one Japanese researcher has his way, we could soon be using drones to augment nature’s pollinators. A personal comment…let’s hope this never comes to pass.

Who Needs Honeybees when we have Drones? — A first…TWO drone-related stories in one week! While the story above about using drones to acoustically sample birds may seem practical, I admit I don’t see much of a future for this application!  Eijiro Miyako, a chemist in Tsukuba, Japan, was trying to make an electricity-conducting gel in 2007, an endeavor that wasn’t working. His concoction was stored, until 8 years later when he dropped the jar while cleaning out a drawer. Miyako certainly thinks differently than I do, because upon cleaning up the sticky substance, he wondered, “could this be used to pollinate plants”? The decline of honeybees and other pollinators is well-noted, something of potentially devastating consequences to not only natural ecosystems, but to our very survival, given the need to pollinate crops.  Miyako started working with methodologies to pollinate crops, starting out by coating ants with his sticky gel to see if their movements would attract and distribute pollen. It kind of worked, but didn’t seem practical, so he eventually started working with drones.  The drones have a fuzzy material that collects pollen and can redistribute it when the drone brushes up against another plant.  His eventually plan? Build a fleet of 100 or so drones, use GPS and artificial intelligence, and set them loose in a field to pollinate the crops. Well…I guess we all need dreamers, and given how science works, who knows what practical application may come of Miyako’s work?  But hey, how about instead of developing drone pollinators, we instead focus on preserving the natural pollinators we have now?

Norwegian Gutters Clogged with Meteors!! — Jon Larsen, a Norwegian jazz musician, has an interesting hobby.  He’s devoted much of his free time in recent years to looking through material in gutters, downspouts, and drains, searching for extraterrestrial visitors.  Tons of material from outer space enters Earth’s atmosphere every day, much of it microscopic. Larsen has searched through debris in urban settings in search of these microscopic visitors.  His passion has been published in the journal Geology, with a paper that discusses the identification of over 500 “large micrometeorites” from rooftops and other urban settings. Larsen has learned the typical characteristics of micrometeorites, stating “Once I knew what to look for, I found them everywhere”.  Next time you’re up on the roof, cleaning leaves out of those gutters, do it with a smile and a sense of wonder, because it’s extremely likely that you’re cleaning up cosmic debris along with those leaves.

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index - Great Britain

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) for Great Britain, showing relative “greenness” of vegetation at the time. Researchers are studying linkages between NDVI, tree ring width, and volcanic activity to see if vegetation is responding to pre-eruption conditions. Potentially, such changes could be used to help predict an eruption.

Predicting Volcano Eruptions from…the greenness of trees? — I believe this is a poorly written article, but the premise behind it is VERY cool for a scientist like myself who works with satellite imagery.  The title of the story is very poor and somewhat misleading, stating “Can tree rings predict volcanic eruptions”? The story focuses on the work of scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research. In 1973, scientists noted an anomaly on satellite images along Mount Etna’s flank, a streak of trees that were greener than normal.  With satellite imagery, we can measure a “Normalized Vegetation Difference Index”, a measure of live green vegetation.  NDVI measurements in 1973 satellite observations were high along a streak on the volcanos flank, and less than a year later, a flank eruption occurred right along that very streak.  These scientists hypothesized that measuring tree rings from 1973 would also show an anomaly, and thus the title of this story that tree rings could “predict volcanic eruptions”.  However, the actual results showed no difference in tree ring width during that time frame. Given the relationship between tree ring width and how “good” a year a tree has had, I can see why continued research is warranted to try to find relationships between increased NDVI greenness, and tree ring width, and see if other areas have experienced changes prior to a volcanic eruption.  As it is, there’s not much in this initial research that proves a strong linkage.

Spying on Birds with Drones — On-site surveys of birds is a time-intensive and potentially expensive endeavor if trying to systematically survey birds across broad regions. Researchers at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania investigated the use of drones for conducting acoustical surveys of birds. They tried flying a drone and extracting acoustical information from a recorder on the drone, and found that the method was able to sample bird presence for about as large a region as a human observer performing a survey.  They have some kinks to work out, primarily related to the noise of the drone masking some of the low-frequency bird noises (think cooing of a Mourning Dove), but they believe technological innovation will soon make drones quieter and more efficient at sampling bird acoustics. I admit I do kind of roll my eyes when I hear people talking about trying to use drones for photography, and for science applications, because in many cases it seems like a stunt more than an actual practical application.  Gettysburg College may be proving me wrong, as this actually does sound like an interesting use of drone technology.

American Chestnut - Wild Survivor

One of the VERY few wild, mature American Chestnut trees left in the wild. Trees such as this may be resistant to blight, and are being used in efforts to develop a blight-resistant stock for eventual transplantation in the wild. Genetic modification is also being done to introduce Chestnut Blight resistant genes in tree stocks.

American Chestnut, Returning to a Forest Near You? — I often wonder what it would be like to travel back in time, to visit locations before they were touched by man. In the United States, the entire eastern half of the country was once dominated by forest land. While forest cutting started in earnest in the 1800s and even earlier in some locations, remaining deciduous forests by 1900 were still populated by 3 to 4 billion American Chestnut trees. It is estimated that one-quarter of trees in the Appalachians were American Chestnuts.  The American Chestnut was a prolific nut producer, with mast from the trees supporting deer, turkeys, bears, and other wildlife, including the now extinct Passenger Pigeon.  In 1904 a fungal blight was discovered, a disease that eventually wiped out nearly every wild American Chestnut. Asiatic Chestnut trees were imported into the country, but with them came an Asian bark fungus that was lethal to American Chestnuts. The disease spread rapidly, killing every American Chestnut tree in its path.  It is now estimated that fewer than 100 trees of any size are left in their former range. Root systems of surviving trees still send up shoots, but the blight infects the trees as they mature, resulting in practically no American Chestnut stems over 10-years old in the wild.  This story is focused on efforts to genetically modify the American Chestnut to include resistance to the blight. 30 years of research has resulted in the introduction of a gene from wheat that makes the trees able to withstand the blight. They hope to gain approval to publicly distribute the trees within 5 years.However, it will still be a long process to repopulate Eastern forests with American Chestnut. The researchers want to cross-pollinate the blight resistant trees with native wild tree stock. Half of the offspring will be blight resistant, and genetic diversity will be much improved over the current research tree stock.  We’re at the start of a VERY long process to restore the tree to the wild, but hopefully our great-great grandchildren will be able to enjoy the same Eastern forest trees that existed prior to 1900.

10 years until “Snowball Earth” — I admit my scientist side geeks out when I read a story like this, as it’s just so cool to think of the physical changes that have, can, and will again happen to our Earth.  Of course the absolutely catastrophic consequences for mankind put a bit of a damper on that excitement!  Harvard scientists have pinpointed the circumstances that led to “Snowball Earth”, a period about 717 million years ago where the Earth was covered in ice from pole-to-pole.  Models suggest that the climate destabilization that plunged the Earth into polar hell could have happened in a blink of an eye in geologic time. Massive volcanic eruptions back then could have ejected enough aerosols into the atmosphere in just a 10-year period to initiate the rapid freeze.  Don’t worry, it’s not a single volcanic eruption that’s capable of such a long-term change, but instead the kind of massive eruptions that mankind hasn’t experienced in our history. 717 million years ago, it was a string of volcanic eruptions across what’s now Canada and Greenland that set off the freeze.  As I said, from a scientific standpoint, fascinating to think what could happen, but it also points out the fragile balance of our climate system.  “Snowball Earth” happened because of runaway cooling and feedbacks that amplified and accelerated the cooling, primarily with increased ice increasing reflectance of solar radiation in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.  Right now we’re playing a game of “chicken” with our climate system, doing the exact opposite, and removing that ice in a self-reinforcing feedback loop that’s amplifying warming.

Snowy Bison

The Bison, invasive species that forever changed North America! Well, if we were around about 150,000 years ago, they would have been considered an invasive species, one that transformed grassland ecosystems of North America.

Bison Contributing to Mammoth Decline?  — OK, my chosen title here doesn’t reflect the purpose of this research, but after reading the story it did make me curious…did Bison contribute to the decline and eventual extinction of the Mammoth? The story used DNA analysis to establish that the ancestors of North American Bison first arrived between 130,000 and 190,000 years ago.  As the story notes, in this case, Bison were the invasive species, rapidly colonizing North America and forever changing the grassland ecosystems of the continent.  It does make me wonder…if not for the establishment of the Bison as a primary grazer in North America, would the Mammoth and other North American megafauna have been better positioned to withstand climate change and the establishment of man? Interesting story, and a story that shows that not all “invasive species” are those that are introduced by mankind.

Managing Diabetes with your Sweat — Especially as a family that deals with the consequences of Juvenile Diabetes, we’re quite familiar with the frequent finger prick to check glucose levels in blood. Researchers in South Korea have developed a prototype glucose sensing and insulin delivery device that looks like an arm cuff.  Instead of measuring blood glucose, it measures glucose in sweat. It’s not just these guys, there are also other researchers who are looking at measuring glucose levels in tears. There certainly have been many technological advances and devices for testing and treating diabetics, innovations that are certainly welcome! I just wish there were some real advances on actually treating the disease, and not just the symptoms.
 

EPA, I think you lost your mission statement

I follow the EPA twitter account.  God knows why I put myself through it, given that climate-change-denying, human-embodiment-of-selfishness-and-greed (note I had first written P-O-S here) Scott Pruitt is now leading the agency. Yesterday his name was all over the news, given the interview he gave where Pruitt stated that carbon dioxide emitted by humanity isn’t a big contributor to climate change. This morning in my Twitter feed I see this gem from quite possibly the most ignorant cabinet member that any administration has ever had:

Um, Mr. Pruitt…I believe you didn’t read your job description when you accepted your position. Perhaps you’re confused and think you accepted the Department of Commerce position, now occupied by Wilber Ross (A Trump nominated billionaire…because, of course he is)? No, Mr. Pruitt, you are leading the ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY. Perhaps you want to look up what those first two words mean?

In the very short time that Pruitt has been in his position, there have already been major changes to external communications.  It’s hard to tell what’s new and has been changed on EPA web pages, but the word “Economics” is definitely popping up with increasing frequency on EPA web pages. Here’s the mission statement change for the EPA’s Office of Science and Technology:

EPA Mission Statement - Modification

No more mention of “scientific foundation”, but it DOES now include “economically achievable”.  Because, of course, that’s what’s MOST important about protecting the very air and water we need to survive…making sure the economics are sound.

Pardon my language, but Mr. Pruitt, you have no fucking business leading the Environmental Protection Agency.  The EPA is NOT a business organization.  The EPA is NOT a mechanism for lining the pocketbooks of your long-time friends in the oil and gas industries. The EPA is not focused on economic growth.

The EPA is there to ensure that MY SON and all other Americans have a healthy environment in which to live, work, and play.  DO YOUR FUCKING JOB and leave the economics to others. God knows the Trump administration has stocked his cabinet plumb full of billionaires, I think they’ll do fine worrying about “economic growth” without the VERY misplaced input from the EPA head.

 

I am DONE, South Dakota! No more “one-finger waves”!!!

Country "one-finger wave"

A photo of me giving my LAST one-finger wave as a truck goes by. NEVER AGAIN SOUTH DAKOTA!! YOU ARE NOT WORTHY!!!

We’re nice in South Dakota and the Midwest in general.  We’re polite! We’re neighborly! We’re friendly and approachable!! We’re not like those big-city folk, people who won’t look you in the eye when they pass you on the street. Heck no!! We’re GOOD folk!!

There’s definitely anecdotal evidence of that friendliness. It generally is true, when you’re in a store, a restaurant, etc., people are usually relatively polite and friendly.  It even manifests itself while driving.  Ever since I grew up and started driving in southern Nebraska, I’ve been a steady practitioner of the “one-finger wave”, the acknowledgement of a passing car with a quick raised finger.  It’s not expected while driving in the big city…you know…intimidating, scary places like Sioux Falls.  However, I drive a lot of gravel roads, and when you approach a car on a country road, the one-finger wave is almost obligatory.

We’re GOOD people in Nebraska and up here in South Dakota! That’s what people like to tell themselves anyway.  In reality? Not so much.  Yes, there’s a thin veneer of politeness, a fragile shell of general friendliness that perhaps you don’t find as much in a New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles.  But that’s all it is…a veneer, a facade, covering up the same human flaws that are found no matter where you go. In fact, it’s pretty obvious to me that there’s a level of hate, of bigotry, of intolerance that goes beyond anything I felt while living in Washington DC.  It’s pretty obvious that the veneer of “Midwestern nice” does NOT extend beyond the superficial, to anything that actually benefits society as a whole.

Let’s face it, where I grew up in Nebraska, and now living in South Dakota, where we’ve been for 24 years, the political climate is very “red”. It’s conservative as hell, with Congressional reps who are conservative Republicans, Governors who are conservative, state legislatures that are conservative. There are some more liberal pockets within the likes of Lincoln, Omaha, or Sioux Falls, but overall? They’re not even states where politicians really even have to campaign.  If you have “Republican” after your name, you’re going to win here, period.  I’m as liberal as can be, and we just had a Senate and House race this past November.  To be completely honest, I don’t remember the NAMES of the two Democratic candidates that ran in those races. Why? They’re irrelevant.  They’re just a formality, but there’s no real chance they’d win.

It’s the long-standing political climate which is why I say the politeness, that “Midwestern nice”, is all a facade.  To put it more succinctly, it’s complete bullshit.  It’s VERY evident from a political standpoint, in terms of who people vote for, what side of an issue they support, the crap that’s written every day in the local “voices” section of the local paper.  That niceness?  It ONLY is offered in superficial, meaningless situations…such as when passing someone on a country road. The reality is much uglier.  What do those who are “Midwestern nice” really stand for?  Intolerance, selfishness, and greed certainly are given much higher priority than any real, meaningful level of “nice”, of caring for your fellow man.  Let’s take Obamacare and what’s happening in Washington right now with the effort to “repeal and replace”.

In a state like South Dakota, a program like Obamacare isn’t viewed from the standpoint of how it helps the sick and the poor.  It’s not measured in terms of lives saved. No, when discussed in a state like South Dakota, the ONLY thing that matters is 1) the fact that the federal government has some role to play in it, and 2) the cost to a taxpayer and government taking “their” money. Because it’s a government program, it’s inherently bad…period. Just like in other red states, even when a “freebie” comes along like the offered Medicaid expansion from Obamacare several years back, it’s turned down without a second thought by our Republican state government, simply based on ideology.  Never mind the fact that THOUSANDS of poor and sick South Dakotans could have been covered.  No, it’s a government program, and even worse it was a government program offered under a liberal (black!!) President.

I’m done, South Dakota.  I’m done helping to perpetuate the myth of Midwestern “nice”. For a region that wraps themselves up in a warm, fuzzy facade of religious belief, conservatism, and friendliness, your actions certainly speak otherwise.  You can’t consider yourself Midwestern “nice”, yet throw a fit when government dares to tax you for programs that benefit society as a whole.  You can’t can’t be Midwestern “nice”, yet express your bigotry and racism towards anyone who’s not a white, Midwestern “Christian”. You can’t be Midwestern “nice”, yet place your own greed and selfishness above helping the sick, the poor, the needy.

Confederate Flag in South Dakota

My now MODIFIED “one-finger waves” are reserved ONLY for people like this, the wonderful, “Midwestern nice” house I pass on the way home from work. You will DEFINITELY get a very special, one-fingered wave every day I drive by. As for the rest of South Dakotans I pass by? You’ll get no such “kindness” any more.

In short, you can’t consider yourselves to be Midwestern “nice”, but ACT the way that South Dakotans typically act. What’s become ABUNDANTLY evidently over the last few months since the election is just exactly WHO South Dakotans are, and it sure as hell isn’t Midwestern “nice”.

I’m done with the one-finger wave on a country road.  Sorry, dude driving that pickup towards me, with your shotgun in the backseat, your “Make America Great” bumper sticker, your barely concealed hatred and bigotry…you will no longer receive any such kindness from me.  I now reserve my “special” one-finger waves for very special circumstances, such as the “good Midwestern folk” who live in this house I pass every day on my way home from work (photo on the left). At least you’re not hiding what you are!  More than most people I meet around here, you are VERY open in representing what Midwestern “nice” really means.

 

Breaking out of my photo doldrums – Snow Goose migration

I am in a major photographic funk.  We’re talking an industrial-strength photo drought, a big-league slump, a unlucky spell of biblical proportions. For a guy who loves bird photography, I can’t for the life of me get a photo of anything with feathers lately.  It’s been a season-long slump, lasting all winter long. The most recent failure was this weekend, where I managed to fail twice to bring home a single bird photo.  Saturday, I drove all the way to the central part of the state to look for lingering winter raptors.  I did what I normally do when I go to the central part of the state…I got up 3 hours before dawn so I could arrive right when the sun was coming up.  The sun did indeed come up.  I guess that’s good.  But it revealed a landscape utterly devoid of the raptors that are usually found there by the dozen.  It’s late in the season, and I didn’t expect December/January numbers of raptors.  But I didn’t expect nearly ALL the raptors to have left already.

I cut Saturday’s trip short, and decided to just drive back after a couple of hours of fruitless raptor searching.  On the way back, on an incredibly windy day, I saw thousands upon thousands of waterfowl migrating overhead.  Nothing I could photograph mind you…they were all high in the sky, but there were certainly huge numbers of birds. Encouraged by the sight, I thought the next day I’d head out just around Sioux Falls, to look for waterfowl.  What did I find?  Mostly frozen water, very few birds, and not a single photo opportunity.

THIS has been my winter!  I have never had so much time pass, with so few bird photos!! Even my winter passion, searching for owls, turned out to be a bust. MANY hours busting through brush looking for Northern Saw-whet Owls, and while I did catch a glimpse of one, I had nothing close to a photo opportunity.  No Long-eared Owls, a species I often run across while looking for Saw-whets.  No Short-eared Owls during my trips to the grassy areas of the state, a species I often find in winter.  No Snowy Owls…just not a great winter for them, not many reported around most of South Dakota.  Even freakin’ DARK-EYED JUNCOS, possibly THE MOST COMMON CREATURE ON THE PLANET (well, sometimes seems like that here in winter) were almost completely absent from my feeders all winter!!

After a freakishly warm few days earlier this week, most of the lakes have finally opened up, and given all the waterfowl I saw migrating through over the weekend, I thought surely the local lakes and ponds would have good numbers of waterfowl now.  After work today, I rushed home to grab my camera, and headed to the western part of Minnehaha County to canvas all the wetlands and lakes in the area.

The good news? The water was indeed open in most spots!  There were THOUSANDS upon THOUSANDS of Snow Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese migrating overhead, their squawking filling the air.  But at ground level, in the open water?  Nada.  Zip.  Zilch.  At least in most places.  I did find a couple of spots with some waterfowl, nearly all dabbling ducks. Nearly all were Mallards and Northern Pintails, with a few Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, and American Wigeon.  But even in the couple of spots where I found SOME ducks, they were having NOTHING to do with my camera.  I guess I did get a “bird photo”, if you can count a blurry, long-distance, out-of-focus shot of a boring Mallard.  But good LORD it has been a LONG time since I’ve gotten a good bird photo, something worthy of posting online.

In lieu of any good bird photos, I did grab my iPhone and shot a bit of video of the Snow Geese passing overhead (video above).  This really doesn’t do justice to the number of birds moving overhead, because at one point, there was seemingly a continuous band of birds from the southern horizon to the northern horizon, moving overhead in a steady stream.  A wonderful, incredible sight to see, and something I look forward to every spring around here.

Now if only ONE of those high-flying migrants could be kind enough to actually drop down to earth for a photo session? Sigh…for now…the slump continues.

Please, if you get a chance, contact your representative in D.C.

If you get a chance, please…send a note to your representatives in Congress regarding the new GOP proposed “replacement” for Obamacare. Specific contact info is below.

Children with Type-1 diabetes, like our Alex, LITERALLY have a life expectancy that correlates with the level of care and blood sugar control. This new bill? It includes $600 billion in tax cuts, giving the richest 0.1% an average of $195,000 a year. It CUTS coverage for the poor, and eliminates many of the protections for those with chronic illness that Obamacare provides. It cuts health care access for kids like our Alex, kids whose very LIVES depend upon quality care.  As this story from several weeks ago notes, the very LIVES of these children are at stake.

Don’t let a person’s ability to pay be the prime determinant of your access to health care. Don’t let them get away with cutting health care access, JUST TO FUND TAX CUTS FOR THE RICHEST OF AMERICANS. Here are the places to go to contact your Congressional reps (for my Nebraska and South Dakota friends)…for others, please look up contact info for your state’s representatives.

Senator Ben Sasse (Neb) –https://www.sasse.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/email-ben

Senator Deb Fischer (Neb) – http://www.fischer.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact

Senator John Thune (S.Dakota) – https://www.thune.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/contact

Senator Mike Rounds (S.Dakota) – https://www.rounds.senate.gov/contact/email-mike

Representative Kristi Noem (S.Dakota) – http://noem.house.gov/index.cfm/email-kristi

Representative Jeff Fortenberry (Nebraska) – https://fortenberry.house.gov/contact

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