Your garage: A Hummingbird’s worst enemy?

I was working in my yard this afternoon when my next-door neighbor came walking up. She knew I was a bird lover, and wanted to know if I knew how to get a hummingbird out of her garage. It may sound like an odd request to many. However, it’s one I’m getting all too familiar with. I have over 4,000 individual web pages on my South Dakota Birds website. Of all those pages, which page gets the most hits? During the summer months it’s generally not even close…it’s this blog post page from a few years ago, about a hummingbird trapped in my garage.

Once a hummingbird is in your garage, it’s not easy to get them out. My garage, for example, is quite tall, with the ceiling height a good six feet above the top of the garage door itself. Once a hummingbird comes in a garage, their instinct to escape drives them to fly upwards. They really seem to have trouble seeing the open garage door as an escape, and instead seem to always fly up towards the ceiling of the garage. For us, we’ve had two hummingbirds trapped in our garage over the  years, and in both cases, we weren’t able to get them out until they were quite tired from flying around trying to escape. Then we got them to cling to a feather duster while we slowly moved them down and out the garage door. Other people have had some luck luring them down with flowers, hummingbird feeders, or some “red” item that grabs their attention.

And that is the problem in the first place…their attraction to the color red. The item in the picture below may be the most dangerous item for a hummingbird that you have in your entire house or  yard. This is the manual “pull” on a garage door opener, what you use when the power goes out and you want to manually close or open your garage door. The problem is quite simple…garage door manufacturers seem to love making these items red in color. Hummingbirds strongly key in on the color red, associating it with flowers, and thus, nectar for feeding. If a hummingbird goes past an open garage door and sees a red item dangling down, just that attraction to the color red may cause them to enter the garage and check it out.  Once inside, if you have a garage with a ceiling higher than the top of the garage door, they tend to get “stuck”.

We have multiple hummingbirds around our yard from early May through late September. However, with one simple change in our garage four years ago, we haven’t had any hummingbirds inside our garage.  That change? Simply taking the red pull off the garage door opener and changing it to a black item. When I went over to my neighbor’s garage this afternoon, I knew what I would find…red garage door pulls.

Given how difficult it can be to get a hummingbird out of your garage, the best advice I have…prevent their entry in the first place. Check your manual garage door pulls. If they have a red pull, take it off and use a neutral colored item in its place.

Red Garage Door Pull

A typical red “pull” on a garage door opener, for release and manual movement of the garage door. So many manufacturers seem to use bright red pulls such as this. With an open garage door, this is a huge attractant to hummingbirds, who are very easily “trapped” in a garage once they are inside.

The Monarch Butterfly vs. South Dakota Politics

Monarch Caterpillar - Danaus plexippus

A Monarch Caterpillar having lunch. This was taken in a roadside ditch in Minnehaha County, South Dakota, but it’s not nearly as common a sight as it could (should) be. Ditches here are mowed, sprayed, and otherwise managed, resulting in ditches (even on rarely used gravel roads) often looking like golf courses or urban lawns.

Yesterday I birded several locations to the northwest of Sioux Falls. I traveled through not only Minnehaha County (where Sioux Falls is), but also nearby McCook, Lake, Kingsbury, and Brookings counties. When I go birding around here, I typically travel on gravel roads, to minimize interaction with other cars and reach places where I can actually stop and watch for a while. While traveling gravel roads through these counties yesterday, I was struck by the incredibly variable management of roadside ditches.

What’s that? You don’t pay much attention to the ditches when you’re driving? I can’t say I normally do either, but I was recently at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology Conference (NACCB), where there were a number of presentations on the plight of the Monarch Butterfly. They’re a species dependent upon milkweed. One of the problems is that SO much of the United States landscape is now being used for agriculture, urban development, energy development, and other uses, and milkweed is crowded out.  Even in areas adjacent or near to agricultural land, herbicides are often used for weed control, further reducing milkweed abundance.

This spring, I was contacted by researchers who were studying landscape change, and how it potentially impacted Monarch Butterflies. Specifically, they were interested in using our landscape modeling to look at future landscapes, and the resultant impacts on both milkweed and Monarch butterflies. In the model they used, they were assuming that roadside ditches in most areas were places where milkweed was likely to be found.

As I quickly learned on my drive yesterday, that characterization is clearly NOT true in many areas, and seems to be strongly driven by local politics, in terms of local land management.  When driving in Minnehaha County, I often come across sprayer trucks, actively spraying herbicide in all the ditches to keep herbaceous weeds in check.  I also often come across tractors with mowers attached, mowing the ditches close to the ground.  Yes…even for the GRAVEL roads that rarely get traffic, the ditches are treated in this manner.  The result? The ditches around here often look like a well-manicured lawn (see photos below).  Hell, they often look BETTER than my yard does!! They often consists of nearly 100% brome grass (an exotic, BTW), while milkweed stems are few and far between, and are typically relegated to small spaces where a sprayer didn’t reach.

When driving through parts of Kingsbury and Brookings counties, I was struck by the incredible difference in the ditches. Many ditches clearly hadn’t been mowed in some time, if they were ever mowed. Grasses were mixed with wildflowers, other herbaceous plants, and yes…MILKWEED (see more photos below).  Milkweed was often present in very high abundance.  The issue clearly isn’t adjacency with actively growing agricultural crops. As the photos below show, the Brookings and Kingsbury County ditches often had an abundance of herbaceous plantlife in areas directly next to corn and soybean fields.

It is possible that I just happened to drive on some gravel roads yesterday in Kingsbury and Brookings counties where no action was taken, but spraying was occurring elsewhere.  On the Brookings County website, for example, I was disappointed to find this page, that notes the county DOES spray right-of-ways with “products such as 2,4-D, Tordon 22K, and possibly mixtures of them“.  They do note on their web page that they spray in May, so clearly they don’t spray all ditches, as the photo below (with the milkweed) is on a gravel road on the very western edge of Brookings County.

During the NACCB conference, one talk I heard focused on recovery efforts for the Monarch, and plans in place to improve Milkweed abundance and improvement. Even a dead-red, conservative state like Oklahoma is taking action, with the Oklahoma highway department specifically managing ditches for Monarch and pollinator habitat. They are specifically planting wildflowers and milkweed along highways in an effort to help not only Mmnarchs, but other species that depend on these plants. The discussion at the conference was a similar “Monarch Highway” stretching from Texas up northward through southern Canada, an area with highway ditches specifically devoted to herbaceous plants, including Milkweed.

Could such a thing happen up here in South Dakota? I’ll see it when I believe it. We have such an focus on agricultural production, that I find it hard to believe they’d accept any land management action that could possibly harm that production in any way.  Not that I BELIEVE an aggressive, pro-Milkweed, pro-Monarch Butterfly agenda would harm agricultural production, but in this VERY red state, environmentalists are usually portrayed as the enemy.  For a large portion of the populous here, I have no doubt they’d view a program like Oklahoma’s as an attempt by environmentalists to meddle in local affairs.

It’s hard to imagine now, but when we moved to South Dakota 25 years ago, our Congressional delegation was completely Democratic. Hell, we had Tom Daschle as a Democratic Senate Majority Leader.  How times have changed. Serendipity may have led to the 3 Democratic Congressional delegates 25 years ago, but in today’s anti-environmentalist concerns for issues like the Monarch Butterfly as far removed from most South Dakotan’s minds.

Minnehaha County Roadside Ditch

I wish my yard looked this green, lush, and free of weeds. Driving home yesterday through northern Minnehaha County, THIS is what roadsides looked like. Even for lightly traveled gravel roads such as this one. Frequent spraying and mowing ensure a monoculture of brome grass, with nary a milkweed stem in sight.

Brookings County Roadside Ditch

In contrast to the Minnehaha County ditch, this is what I saw in many parts of Kingsbury and Brookings Counties. This ditch clearly hadn’t been mowed or sprayed this summer, and was full of herbaceous plants other than brome grass, including many milkweed stems.

 

 

 

Who’s to blame for climate change impacts? Environmental activists!!

Senator Mike Rounds (R) - South Dakota

Our beloved former Governor turned Senator, Mike Rounds. Not only did he strongly advocate for the US to leave the Paris Climate Accords, evidently he found the REAL cause of climate change…environmental activists! I wonder if he also blames them for that massive bald spot and his ridiculous comb-over attempt.

The West is burningScandanavia is sweltering. Ocean temperatures off the coast of California are the highest they’ve ever been. Clearly something is happening, right? A normal person would look at the evidence in front of them, believe their own eyes, and declare climate change to be humanity’s number one threat.  Those in the GOP are far from normal. Over the past week I’ve encountered at least two stories where those in the GOP aren’t blaming carbon dioxide levels or humanity for disasters striking the US. No, it turns out the REAL culprits are environmental activists themselves!!

The first story has been widely reported over the last day, when Orange Hitler tweeted California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!” The “logic” behind the tweet? Trump evidently believes California’s environmental and water use laws that actually let rivers, you know…FLOW…are causing a lack of water, resulting in massive fire outbreaks in the state.  I prefer this gentleman’s take on the GOP logic:

California climate and water expert Peter Gleick tweeted that Trump’s explanation was “gobbledygook bullshit” and “unmitigated crap.”

Note I attribute a blanket “GOP logic” rather than just “Trump logic”, as he’s clearly not alone in his level of delusion. When taking my son fishing along the Missouri River this past week, I looked for news about water levels.  There are abnormally high water levels in the northern portions of the Missouri River, and as a result, they are releasing large quantities of water through the turbines at Oahe Dam in Pierre, South Dakota.  The resultant downstream flooding has caused an outcry against the Corps of Engineers for supposedly mismanaging the river’s flow.  There’s only so much the Corps can can do, as the water has to go somewhere, but former-South-Dakota-Governor-turned-Senator-yet-always-clueless Mike Rounds took it one step further. So what’s causing the downstream flooding, according to our resident super-genius?

Rounds thinks climate-change driven policy choices might have caused greater challenges in balancing the mainstem dam system’s electric power and flood control functions. Arguments based on climate change have led increasingly to adoption of wind power, Rounds said, and wind power production is not uniform, because the amount of wind varies.

Yes…it’s those damn climate change activists, insisting on wind turbines as an alternative energy source. Because of them, Rounds claims, it’s much more difficult to manage water flow through the Missouri River dams. And thus…CLIMATE CHANGE ACTIVISTS ARE CAUSING THE FLOODING.

I don’t know what’s sadder…the fact that our Nation’s supposed leaders have the gall to claim environmental activists are causing environmental disaster…or that evidently 40% of Americans are stupid enough to believe them.

 

Visiting Bear’s Ears, Reflecting on Roosevelt and Zinke

Teddy Roosevelt Display - Natural Bridges National Monument

A display greeting visitors at Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah, with Teddy Roosevelt’s proclamation declaring the area as protected lands. An ironic display given the proximity to Bear’s Ear’s National Monument, and what supposed Roosevelt devotee Ryan Zinke and his Department of Interior have done to conservation efforts in the US.

In June, our family took a vacation to the western United States, visiting almost a dozen different National Parks and National Monuments. For a part of the trip we were based in Moab in eastern Utah, with two subsequent days in Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado.  On the travel day in between those two locations, we were going to Natural Bridges National Monument in southeastern Utah when we realized that Bear’s Ears National Monument was nearby. Given the controversy surrounding Bear’s Ears, we had to make a short detour to visit.

Bear’s Ears is so named for a pair of adjacent buttes thought to resemble a pair of bear’s ears.  In Navajo legend, the buttes were formed from the ears of Changing Bear Maiden, who was beautiful and desired by all men.  Tricked into marrying Coyote, Changing Bear Maiden’s brother attempted to hide her from him by cutting off her ears and changing her form. The ears became the prominent buttes for which the National Monument was named.

Bear’s Ears was targeted by the Trump administration for a reduction in size. Key to that move was Senator Orrin Hatch, who suggested the move to the administration shortly after the January 2017 inauguration.  Why reduce the size of a National Monument?  Money of course. It was thought there were some potential oil, gas, and mineral sources on some of the land.  Hatch submitted his own proposed “shapefile” (a digital boundary) to the administration, looking like a heavily gerrymandered political district, with boundaries drawn to eliminate potential resource extraction locations from the Monument boundaries. The suggested boundary was adopted largely as is.  The move was completed on December 4th, 2017, when Trump issued issued a proclamation reducing the size of the monument by an astounding 85%.

The area itself is gorgeous. On much of the lowlands around Bear’s Ears, sagebrush flats are interspersed with dry pinyon and juniper woodlands.  The two Bear’s Ears buttes themselves reach up to 9,058 feet, with heavily forested and green slopes.  It’s rugged and wild land, with little in the way of current development or anthropogenic land uses other than some grazing cattle.

Bear's Ears National Monument - Summit

A small gravel and rock road leads to a small pass between the “ears” of Bear’s Ears, giving you wonderful looks at the two rugged buttes.

There’s a rough unpaved road that leads up to the buttes themselves, allowing you to drive between the two buttes and towards the interior of the National Monument. When I say “rough”, I mean a road that you DEFINITELY wouldn’t take if there had been any recent rain, and a road that we probably had no business taking our rental car. Given the infamy of what’s happened to Bear’s Ears though, we did make the drive up.  It’s quiet and isolated…we only encountered one other car on the road (thankfully, given the narrowness of the road!). The literal quiet in places such as this is something I’ve REALLY learned to appreciate, as there are fewer and fewer locations where you can sit and enjoy your surroundings without hearing even a hint of noise from nearby transportation routes or people.  A beautiful location that we thoroughly enjoyed.

Natural Bridges National Monument is adjacent to Bear’s Ears. We spent time hiking in that Monument, and also stopped at the visitor’s center (Bear’s Ears doesn’t have it’s own visitors center). As you enter the Natural Bridges visitor’s center, you’re greeted by a lifesize cutout of Teddy Roosevelt, with a quote of his own proclamation from 1908, establishing the area as a National Monument. Irony…pure irony.  That’s what went through my mind after seeing the Roosevelt display, just after visiting Bear’s Ears.

The reason? Ryan Zinke, Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, fancies himself as a Teddy Roosevelt devotee.  From the day he started the position, Zinke has constantly compared himself to Teddy Roosevelt.  As a “fan” of the outdoors and using the outdoors for personal enjoyment, Zinke and Roosevelt may have some common ground. Roosevelt himself has a checkered past.  He’s considered an icon for conservation in the United States, while simultaneously being labeled as deplorable for his treatment of Native Americans.  Other informational signs at Natural Bridges note that Bear’s Ears is considered sacred land by the Pubelos, Utes, and Navajos…given that Zinke and Trump completely ignored the Native American communities’ history and desire to protect this land, it’s clear that Zinke too shares Roosevelt’s complete lack of respect for Native American rights.  It’s not forgivable in either case, but with Roosevelt it was more a mirroring of prevalent attitudes in the country.  Over 100 years later, you’d hope someone like a Zinke or Trump would be more enlightened (hint…they’re not).

Bear's Ears National Monument

A view of the two famed “ears” of Bear’s Ears National Monument, from the small road leading to the top. A dry sage, juniper, and pinyon pine landscape becomes more lush as you move up towards the buttes, with greener deciduous and evergreen forests at the top.

Soon after the naming of Zinke as Secretary of the Interior, Grist published an interview with Roosevelt scholar and historian Douglas Brinkley about the comparisons between Zinke and Roosevelt. Brinkley notes some similarities, stating that both were military men, both have/had massive egos, and both were “conservationists”, in that they appreciated our natural lands. Again, however, much of that “appreciation” is based not on environmentalism or even protection of a natural state, and more on the exploitation of that land for human gain.  “Human gain” can mean the hunting and fishing that both Zinke and Roosevelt enjoyed, but also means timber harvesting, cattle grazing, and mineral extraction.

Brinkley does make the clear distinction between “Conservationist” and “Environmentalist”.  The Zinke definition of “conservationist” is a far cry from the modern definition of conservationist, and in complete opposition to modern environmentalist views. Zinke has a history of touting himself as a modern-day Roosevelt conservationist, but turning a blind eye on environmental issues when push comes to shove.  When Zinke ran for Congress in Montana, he was originally given skeptical-yet-hopeful grades for his supposedly pro-environment ideology. That changed the moment he took office. His voting record consistently showed a complete disdain for conservation and environmentalism, with the League of Conservation Voters giving him  a lifetime score of a mere 4% (!!!) for their National Environmental Scorecard. Similar to the somewhat hopeful attitudes towards Zinke before he took office a DOI, I suspect the Brinkley interview would be quite different if held today, after Zinke’s anti-environmentalist views were made even more clear.

Despite Roosevelt’s well-established faults, there’s little doubt he was a true “fan” of America’s natural heritage. Roosevelt has to be rolling over in his grave based on supposed fanboy Zinke’s moves related to conservation of US lands.  Under his guidance the Department of Interior has eliminated over 2 million acres of protected lands. They’ve moved to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.   After a very successful program under Obama to establish state, federal, and private partnerships to protect the Sage Grouse in the Western U.S., Zinke and DOI have scrapped the plan and moved to expand mineral extraction and grazing on fragile sagebrush habitats on which the Grouse depends. As with much of Trump’s administration, Zinke is clearly beholden to the oil and gas industry, with conservation barely considered in any of DOI’s land management decisions. As this story from the New York Times reports, Department of Interior personally were LITERALLY asked by Zinke to prepare a summary of each National Monument in the United States, and what the oil, gas, and mineral production potentials were on those lands. 

Ryan Zinke…other than your ego and your disdain for Native American rights, you are no Teddy Roosevelt.  

It’s such a beautiful, rugged landscape. I  hope it’s kept in this state in the coming decades.  However, indications aren’t favorable, based on what’s happening at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, another Monument that was drastically cut in size by Zinke and the Trump administration.  Mere months after a reduction in size of that monument, a Canadian mining company has announced plans to mine copper and cobalt from lands that were previously protected.

Your national “protected” lands, up for auction to the highest bidder. THAT is the legacy you shall be remembered for, Mr. Zinke.

Bear's Ear's National Monument - Sign

A display at Natural Bridges National Monument, with the two prominent buttes from Bear’s Ears in the background. As the sign notes, Bear’s Ears is considered sacred land by multiple Native American Tribes, tribes which all put heavy pressure on the Trump administration and Zinke to keep the land protected.

Killing Science, $1 at a time

Landsat Image - Garden City, Kansas

A Landsat image near Garden City, Kansas, depicting the view of irrigated agriculture using center pivots. Monitoring agricultural change and productivity is one of but many applications of Landsat data, providing scientific and economic benefits to the Nation. The latest move by the Department of Interior to potentially begin charging a fee for Landsat data would devastate Earth science activities around the globe. (click for a larger view).

Nature today published a story about a Department of Interior committee studying the possibility of charging fees for data from the Landsat satellite program, data that are currently available for free.  The first Landsat satellite was launched in 1972, with 6 additional satellites launched since then. The latest was Landsat 8, launched in 2013, while Landsat 9 is scheduled for launch in late 2020.  Landsat satellites have provided continuous Earth observations for the last 46 years (!!!!), an invaluable and unmatched record for recording changes on the Earth’s surface. The number of applications of Landsat data is astounding, including monitoring forestry activity (forest harvest and regrowth), agricultural productivity, monitoring urban sprawl, quantifying changes in surface water extent in response to flooding or drought, assessing the impacts of natural disasters, mapping geologic landforms, and a host of other uses. As the Nature article notes, a 2013 committee commissioned to assess the economic costs and benefits of the Landsat program found that while the program costs the US government approximately $80 million a year, economic benefits for the country are staggering…well over $2 billion per year.

Management of Landsat has changed over the years, but USGS and NASA are the two Federal agencies currently managing the program. Until 2008, the data came at a cost to the user...a cost that historically could be quite high.  A disastrous attempt to semi-privatize Landsat data distribution in the 1990s led to costs for each Landsat “scene” (an area approximately 115 x 115 miles) of up to $4,000!  While highly valuable data for a number of applications, the high cost was a major roadblock for usage of the data. In 2008, the USGS made the decision to begin distributing the data free of charge…and usage of Landsat data grew exponentially. Before the policy change, USGS distributed a mere ~50 scenes per day.  Once the data were made freely available, usage jumped more than 100-fold, with thousands of Landsat scenes downloaded per day.  Having freely available data from the world’s premiere long-term observation platform of the Earth’s surface has since transformed Earth science.  Applications once hindered by data costs were now free to tap into the entire Landsat database.

The Nature story notes that under the current administration, the committee is considering again re instituting a fee for access to Landsat. Given the other actions of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and other administration officials with roles overseeing environmental science, it’s easy to speculate as to the real purpose of the committee.  DOI, EPA, NOAA, and other scientific agencies and programs in the Federal government have been targeted for draconian reductions by the Trump industry.  Elimination of environmental science and privatization of traditional government activities has been a major focus of this administration.  My own personal interpretation…this is a move to 1) curtail the vast array of environmental monitoring and analysis that’s occurred since Landsat data were made freely available, 2) bow to the will of industry lobbyists who wish to continue the push towards privatization of Earth observations and increase corporate profits, and 3) eventually extricate the US government from running the Landsat program and other similar Earth observation systems.

Any truly unbiased analysis of the Landsat program would label the 2008 move to freely available data as a smashing success, both in terms of economics and the scientific benefits. Returning to the 1990s and charging high fees for Landsat data access would result in an immediate, sharp decline in environmental and economic applications that use the data.  Given that the one overarching theme of the Trump administration is “corporate profit above all else”, it’s impossible to view this potential move with anything other than a highly cynical eye.

 

Birds Under Systemic Attack in the U.S. Under Trump

Young Whooping Crane - Grus americana

A researcher at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, dressed in white garb designed to emulate an adult Whooping Crane, and a young, 2-month old Whooping Crane “colt”.  Researchers only interact with the young while wearing such outfits, to avoid any human imprinting on the young.  Patuxent has played a vital role in conserving Whooping Cranes and bringing them back from the edge of extinction. Thanks to the GOP and this administration, the entire Whooping Crane program and its minuscule $1.5 million cost is being eliminated.

There are around 600 Whooping Cranes in the world, with about 30% of those in captivity. Of the few hundred birds in the wild, most breed near Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, while a smaller and more recently established breeding population is found in central Wisconsin. The species has become reestablished in the wild only due to strong conservation measures and to the diligent and long-term efforts of captive breeding and reintroduction programs such as the 51-year year effort at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. When the program started in 1966, only 42 Whooping Cranes were left. The dedicated efforts of Patuxent scientists were vital for bringing the species back from the edge of extinction.

In 2016, Patuxent scientists developed a plan that would wind down their captive breeding program, with a plan to end the program in another 10 to 15 years.  Thanks to the Trump administration, that program is now in the process of being disbanded immediately.  In a multi-TRILLION dollar federal budget, the $1.5 million U.S. Geological Survey budget for the Whooping Crane program was a minuscule drop in the bucket.  But with a GOP political ideology that’s focused on corporate profit and short-term financial gain over ANY environmental concern, the death of the USGS’s Whooping Crane program is just one small part of a sinister, death-by-a-thousand-cuts to wildlife conservation in the United States.

The proposed cuts in both the proposed fiscal year 2018 and 2019 Trump budgets are more a declaration of war on the environment than they are a sound, fiscally responsible means of streamlining federal programs. The Ecosystems mission area of the USGS is responsible for an array of wildlife research and management programs: The Trump budget proposes a 30% cut in those programs for the coming fiscal year.  Many programs are slated for complete elimination, including the popular Cooperative Research Units, a network of an onsite USGS presence on academic campuses across the US.  Designed to foster local cooperative research on wildlife issues, the entire $25 million budget for the Coop units for 2019 is likely to be eliminated. The Climate and Land Use program is being forced to change its name to “Land Resources”, with nearly ALL climate-related research eliminated (as well as much of the landscape research).  Eliminating even the WORD “climate” is a common theme in proposed budgets across ALL Federal agencies. The “Energy and Minerals” Mission Area is the one USGS mission that maintains most of its funding, but the proposed changes are startling in scope.  While funding would remain stable or even increase for mineral resource exploitation, the entire “Environmental Health” program, designed to assess potential environmental consequences of resource extraction on Federal lands, is slated to be eliminated.  In other words…we want to exploit the Federal lands that YOU AND I own, but we don’t want to even look at the environmental consequences of that exploitation.

Other agencies in the Department of Interior are also slated for severe cuts, including cuts to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service. The GOP goal is to transition the primary focus of DOI to the exploitation of our natural resources, with environmental concern and conservation efforts being severely curtailed.  The Endangered Species Act, originally championed under the GOP and the Nixon Administration, is similarly under attack, with multiple efforts in Congress underway to undermine the law.

600 Whooping Cranes on the planet.  600 birds, found in only two concentrated breeding areas, and thus extremely susceptible to some disturbance or disease event, yet while the GOP attempts to raise our military spending by a ridiculous $70-80 BILLION a year, they have the gall to point to the $1.5 million Whooping Crane cost as a “luxury” that our Nation can’t afford.  Not to mention a trillion-dollar tax cut for corporations and the rich at a time when corporate profits are at record levels.

There’s so many disgusting things happening in Washington right now that it’s hard to stay on top of all the latest headlines.  Russia-gate, potential impeachment, obvious racism and bigotry emanating from the president himself (no, this president doesn’t get a capital “p”), mass killings and gun control issues…it’s overwhelming.  Conservation stories such as these are having a hard time getting any play in the mainstream press.  With the damage that’s being done RIGHT NOW, it will likely take decades for us to recover, after what’s shaping up to be four years of continuous and widespread attacks on our Nation’s wild resources, and the long-established programs designed to protect and manage them.

I just hope birds like the Whooping Crane can weather the storm until Americans come to their damned senses.

The “melting pot” of Hawaiian birds

Just back from 10 days in Hawaii, a region with one of the most screwed-up ecosystems on the planet. As a birder, it was certainly a fun trip, as I added at least 30 “new” species to my life list. Of those 30, however, only one-third were native to the Hawaiian Islands.  No area of the United States has suffered a greater loss of native bird species than Hawaii.  The reasons are many, but they all have a man-made origin. The devastation began when the islands first became populated, and ecosystems were directly impacted by mankind. Forest clearing and the introduction of fire certainly had an impact, but other anthropogenic factors were the most devastating.

There are no native reptiles or amphibians on the Hawaiian islands, and only one native mammal, a species of bat.  However, with the arrival of man came rats and mice, cats, as well as introduced mongoose that were brought to the islands to control the rat populations.  These introduced mammals all were new predators of eggs, young birds, and even adult birds…threats Hawaiian birds had never had to deal with before. Introduced pigs, goats, and sheep devastated the natural vegetation of the islands.  Disease also has had a devastating impact on Hawaiian birds, as introduced avian malaria has wiped out entire species and devastated other species.  Introduced plant species have changed the vegetative composition of Hawaiian ecosystems, and even now, a new fungal disease has started to wipe out Hawaii’s Ohi’a tree, one of the most common and important forest tree’s for Hawaiian birds.

For someone from South Dakota, it’s thus a fun place to bird, but it’s also sobering. Hawaii has certainly become a “melting pot”, regional ecosystem experiment, where birds, plants, and diseases from all regions of the globe are thrown together…winner take all. Unfortunately it’s the native plants and animals that are losing in this experiment.

Here’s a sampling of some of the birds I was able to photograph, and a bit of information as to where these now well-established “Hawaiian” birds actually originated.

Hawai'i 'Amakihi - Chlorodrepanis virens

An ‘Amakihi, specifically, the Hawai’i subspecies. Similar subspecies are found on O’ahu and Kaua’i. This is a native species. They are one of a very few Hawaiian honeycreeper species that has continued to thrive, despite all the ecosystem changes. They were quite common on our visit to the Big Island, and I found them on both the dry and wet sides of the island.

Erckel's Francolin - Pternistis erckelii

There’s no shortage of “gamebirds” now on the big island. Many species of pheasant, quail, and other similar birds have been introduced. This was one of the most common that we saw on Hawai’i, an Erckel’s Francolin. We found them on dry grasslands on the western side of the island, forest edges, and even forest clearings in the wet rain-forests of the eastern side of the island. Nasty looking spurs on these guys…I’d bet the males use them to good effect during the breeding season.

Yellow-billed Cardinal - Paroaria capitata

20 years ago, before I started birding, my wife and I visited O’ahu. Even as a non-birder I noticed the striking Red-crested Cardinals. It wasn’t until I became a birder a few years later that I learned they weren’t native. Hawai’i island doesn’t have the Red-crested Cardinal, but they do have a similar looking bird, the Yellow-billed Cardinal. They are native to parts of South America, but were introduced to Hawai’i several decades ago. They’re not actually closely related to cardinals, they are a species of tanager. We found them in a variety of settings, all over the island, but they certainly have adapted well to a human presence. They were almost ubiquitous in and around suburban settings and parks.

Photo of White-tailed Tropicbird - Phaethon lepturus

This one was a huge surprise to me! We were visiting Kilauea’s main crater, an active crater with a lava lake at the bottom, when I saw multiple white birds streaking through the sky in and around the crater rim. I never got close enough for a great photo, but it was quite obvious what they were once I got my binoculars on them…White-tailed Tropicbirds! I certainly wasn’t expecting to find a tropical sea-bird flying around the crater of an inland volcano, but these guys actually nest on the cliff walls in and around Kilauea’s summit! They are native, and given their unique habitat choice on the island, they are one species not heavily impacted by anthropogenic activity. Their choice of nesting location shields them from the rats, cats, and mongoose that have devastated other nesting birds on the islands.

Photo of African Silverbill - Euodice cantans

One of the best places I birded on Hawai’i was on the slopes of Mauna Loa, between 5,000 and 7,500 feet above sea level. There were many native mamane trees on the dry eastern slopes, and these dry woodlands with scattered trees and grasses were wonderful for a wide variety of species. This included native Amakihi and Elepaio, but also included MANY non-native species. That included roving flocks of these guys, African Silverbills. They are a native of western and central Africa.

Photo of Red-billed Leiothrix - Leiothrix lutea

Another non-native species that was common in the dry mamane forests on the slopes of Mauna Loa…Red-billed Leiothrix. Beautiful birds, these guys were mingling with mixed flocks of other small birds, including the native Amakihi. They are native to southern China and the Himalayan region.

Photo of 'Apapane - Himatione sanguinea

Like the Amakihi, this is another of the few native Hawaiian honeycreepers that seems to still be doing well…the ‘Apapane. They are still quite common and widespread on Hawai’i. Wherever we found Ohi’a trees on the wet, eastern side of the island, we found ‘Apapane. Alas though, even the few native Hawaiian honeycreeper species that have survived are faced with devastating population losses. The Ohi’a tree on which these guys depend (shown in this photo) have been subjected to a new fungal disease that just started devastating Ohi’a populations on Hawai’i in 2010. In the few short years since, large areas of Ohi’a-dominated forest have been affected. We ourselves saw huge swaths of forests with all the large Ohi’a trees dead. So far the fungus is confined to the island of Hawai’i, but it’s a horrible development for Hawaiian birds that are so dependent upon this plant.

Photo of Grey Francolin - Francolinus pondicerianus

Another of the non-native Francolin’s, this is a Grey Francolin. These weren’t nearly as common as the Erckel’s Francolin, and they seem to be restricted to the dry lowlands on the western side of Hawai’i. I also saw a number of Black Francolin on Hawai’i, but wasn’t able to get a photo of them. The Grey Francolin shown here is native to southern Asia.

Photo of Nene - Branta sandvicensis

The state bird of Hawai’i, the Nene. We saw them flying over on occasion, but the ONLY place we ever saw them on the ground? Golf courses. Nene nearly went extinct several decades ago until captive breeding was used to rebuild the population. Despite seeing them on a number of occasions on Hawai’i, it’s not a complete conservation success story. Populations on the main island of Hawai’i are still likely not self-sustaining. As ground nesters, eggs and young are extremely susceptible to predation from rats, cats, and mongoose. Even brooding adult birds may be attacked. Without captive breeding, it is unlikely the species would survive on Hawai’i.

Photo of Zebra Dove - Geopelia striata

A Zebra Dove sitting on a fenceline. A native of southeastern Asia, these guys are EVERYWHERE on the Big Island, particularly in and around urban and suburban areas. Zebra Doves have pretty much become the equivalent of Rock Pigeons in the continental United States…a species that is found everywhere humans are found.

Photo of Yellow-fronted Canary - Serinus mozambicus

A beautiful, yet non-native, Yellow-fronted Canary. They are native to sub-Saharan Africa. We found them in a number of habitats, but particularly on woodland edges with grasses and grass seed available nearby.

Photo of Black Noddy - Anous minutus

A Black Noddy…specifically the Hawaiian sub-species, known locally as the Noio. When visiting southern part of Hawai’i, we saw them on multiple occasions, cruising in and around the coastal seacliffs upon which they nest. A native seabird that seems to still be doing quite well.

Photo of Saffron Finch - Sicalis flaveola

One of the first birds we saw after getting off the plane in Kona were a pair of absolutely gorgeous Saffron Finches near the Airport. Beautiful, found in many places all over the island, but alas, not native. They are a tanager relative native to South America.

Photo of Eurasian Skylark - Alauda arvensis

European settlers introduced some of their favorite European species in multiple locations throughout the globe. One of their favorite birds from “back home” were Eurasian Skylarks, a song known for their melodious songs. They are now well established on the Big Island, and we saw them EVERYWHERE on the grassy western slopes of Mauna Loa.

Photo of Pueo - Asio flammeus sandwichensis

For our first 4 days on the island, we stayed at an area about 20 miles north of the Kona airport. Despite driving across several parts of the dry, western part of the island in those first few days, it took THREE FULL DAYS before I finally saw a bird that was actually NATIVE to Hawai’i. That bird was a “Pueo”, the local name for the only native owl found in the Hawaiian islands. Most think it’s a subspecies of the Short-eared Owl. There was one road on the western slopes of Mauna Loa where I had incredible success finding these guys, including 5 individual owls in one 8-mile section of road one evening.

Photo of Pueo - Asio flammeus sandwichensis

Both the first and last native bird photos of our trip were of a Pueo. This was our last evening on the island, with a lone Pueo sitting on a fence post on the western slopes of Mauna Loa.

 

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.

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.
 

First video EVER of elephant-sized creature…it’s 2017 folks!!

I find it so fascinating how little we know about our own planet.  From a scientist’s perspective, it’s awe-inspiring.  It’s the realization that after centuries of scientific discovery, there’s still so, so much we have yet to discover.  Consider the video below (from the Washington Post):

A video of three whales swimming around…big deal, right?  Well, yeah!!  One of the largest creatures on the planet, and yet it’s a species that has only been SEEN by a handful of human beings.  Never before has video such as this been taken.  The True’s Beaked Whale is a mystery, an animal that’s thought to spend over 90% of it’s life submerged beneath the ocean’s surface. Natacha Aguilar de Soto, a marine biologist with the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, has studied beaked whales for many years, spending months at sea but yet rarely ever seeing ANY beaked whale species, much less a True’s Beaked whale.

However in 2013, a friend sent de Soto a video from the Azores that had been taken by science students on an excursion. The 46-second video above shows 3 adult or sub-adult beaked whales, casually swimming near the surface before slowly swimming out of the frame. De Soto was stunned to see the video of a creature she’d only hoped to see some day.  Using the video evidence, information from dead stranded whales that have been found, and other rare sightings, de Soto published a paper in the journal PeerJ that provides new insights on True’s Beaked Whales. A True’s beaked whale has never before been tagged, but other beaked whale species have been documented diving to over 9,800 feet below the ocean’s surface, the deepest and longest dives of any mammal on the planet. At this stage, so little is known about True’s Beaked Whales that overall population size and trends are unknown.  The article above however points out the dangers to similar beaked whales.  A Culver’s Beaked Whale, a close relative, was recently found dead with over 30 plastic bags in it’s digestive tract, and military sonar has also been implicated in the strandings of similar whales. The video was invaluable for the research, as beaked whales in general are so rare, that even general appearance and distinguishing between species is difficult. The research also hints at the possibility of True’s Beaked Whales actually being two different species, one in the northern Atlantic and one in the southern Atlantic. As deSoto states:

“We don’t know how large the populations of True’s beaked whale or any other species are,” said Aguilar de Soto. “The populations could decline and we would never know.”

An elephant-sized creature, one that’s shared the same planet as us for centuries, yet one that could potentially disappear without human beings ever knowing much about them.  At a time when political winds are telling one of our Federal science agencies, NASA, to stop observing the earth and instead focus on the stars, stories like this remind us how very little we know about our own planet.

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