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.

 

 

 

Climate Change is for the Birds

This morning was one of the most bizarre birding trips I’ve taken in a while. The forecast was clear skies and low wind, a combination you need to take advantage of when it happens in South Dakota. I headed up to the Lake Thompson area in Kingsbury County, South Dakota, to shoot gulls, terns, shorebirds, herons, egrets…all the wonderful water-loving birds you find up there this time of year.

I wanted to arrive just before dawn, and given it’s a 1 1/2 hour drive, I was up and on the road quite early. I knew right away something was different. Even before the sun arose, the lighting was strange. There were clearly no visible stars in the dark sky, but yet I had no doubt it was indeed cloud-free.  We had a hint of this phenomena yesterday, but this morning it hit full bore…a sky full of smoke from the fires hundreds of miles away in the western US and Canada.

Not was I was expecting when I left this morning, and it certainly changed the types of photos I went after! As usual at this time of year, there were birds everywhere. However, even after sunrise, the light was so poor that it was difficult to grab any decent photos.  It wasn’t until about half an hour after sunrise when it started to get bright enough to shoot. It’s not often you can point your expensive camera right at the sun at that time of day, and not permanently fry your sensor, but the light was so diffuse this morning I certainly could.  I ended up settling down at a wetland area near Lake Thompson, trying to shoot the numerous Black Terns against the odd, but beautiful lighting.  Not a situation I’m used to shooting in, but I was able to get some photos I thought were “cool”.

I’ve been in South Dakota 25 years now, and lived at basically the same latitude down in southern Nebraska before that. Until the last few years, I just don’t remember fire seasons out West being SO bad, that our air here on the eastern side of South Dakota was this affected.  But last year too, on one rock-hunting trip, the air was so bad that my eyes were watering and I started wheezing a bit. Something has changed!  That something most likely is due to, or at least severely exacerbated by, climate change!

Climate change is for the birds. But at least for one morning, it made for some cool photos.

Black Tern (Chlidonias niger) - Flying through smoke-filled skies

Black Tern, flying through the reflection of a smoke-diffused sun. This is at LEAST half an hour after sunrise!

Black Tern (Chlidonias niger)Highway 81 Lakes and Smoky Sky

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

Evolution in the blink of an eye…

Prairie Deer Mouse - Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii

The cool thing about science and nature is that interesting stories are all around us. The tiny Deer Mouse, shown here, has overcome long odds, with the vast majority of its historical habitat gone. However, through some remarkable, fast-track evolutionary adaptation, they’re now able to cope with their new world. Photo by Gregory Smith.

It’s been a busy last week, without any time for birding or photography.  Or blogging, for that matter. I was down in Nebraska for a few days, mixing work and pleasure. The “pleasure” part was my fantasy baseball draft in Omaha Saturday.  Our fantasy league is likely one of the longest running leagues in the country, going back to 1985 during our freshman year in college, when fantasy baseball was still very new.  What’s great about it is that many of the original league members are still participating! It’s great fun, not only the draft itself, but catching up with old college friends.

The “work” part of my Nebraska trip was participation in the 2017 Great Plains Symposium, on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Much like the baseball draft, the symposium too was like stepping back in time, as I reconnected with some of my old college professors who were participating in the symposium. The focus of the symposium was “Flat Places, Deep Identities: Mapping Nebraska and the Great Plains”.  I gave a talk one some of the work I’ve been doing, mapping past, present, and potential future landscapes in the Great Plains.  It was a great symposium, a little different kind of crowd than I’m used to.  Given the work I do, most of the conferences and symposiums I attend deal with the physical sciences. This conference melded mapping, history, socioeconomics, and other social sciences that I’m not exposed to as much.  It was quite fascinating, particularly hearing about the history of Nebraska, using maps to help tell the “story” of change over time.

As part of the symposium “goodies”, participants were given a copy of The New Territory, a quarterly magazine that focuses on Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.  I admit I’d never heard of the publication before. The content fits quite well with the focus of the symposium itself, with many human interest stories about the geography and people of the region. As a physical scientist, one piece caught my eye though. entitled “Evolution in the Cornbelt“, by Conor Gearin. The story focuses on the Prairie Deer Mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii), a common little fellow from the Great Plains that feeds on the tiny seeds of grasses and weeds in the prairies.

Researchers at Iowa State and Purdue University were curious how a species so adapted to life in the Great Plains has been able to thrive, given that >99% of the original tallgrass prairie in the region has been plowed under, converted to agriculture, urban land, or other man-made land uses. The grass and weed seeds the Prairie Deer Mouse had historically fed on were much more sparsely distributed than they were 200 years ago, yet the species is still quite common.  They started field work to assess the distribution of the nice, including setting up artificial nest boxes that the mice could use for habitation and food storage.  The results astounded the scientists.

Prior to beginning the work, it was assumed that deer mice populations would be the highest in “edge” habitat, areas such as grassy ditches, fencelines, or other “boundary” conditions where remnants of their traditional food sources may still be found.  However, they quickly found that the highest populations of deer mice were often right in the middle of very large corn and soybean fields, far from any traditional food source.  Clearly, Prairie Deer Mice had adapted to an agricultural setting, and were feeding on man-raised grains and pulses. The question was, how could a tiny mouse that was so well adapted to eating tiny grass and weed seeds shift gears and start feeding on corn and soybeans?

The researchers found historical deer mice in historical museums, creatures that had been preserved with taxidermy. Anatomical comparisons with Prairie Deer Mice from today found some stark differences.  The older specimens were well adapted to feeding on tiny seeds, with small mandibles and jaws that didn’t open very far.  The modern specimens had 1) significantly longer lower mandibles, 2) structural changes that allowed their mouths to open wider, and 3) larger upper mandibles. Accompanying the larger mandibles were more robust “hardware” for linking bone to muscle, with beefed up jaw muscles that enabled the tiny mice to feed on much larger food items than they had historically.

In the blink of an eye, geologically speaking, Prairie Deer Mice had shown measurable, obvious evolutionary adaptation in response to their new environment and food sources.  The researchers found high densities of deer mice in the middle of corn and soybean fields.  Some inevitably will succumb to the mechanical tools humans use to turn and manipulate the soil, but with such a rich, dense, bountiful food source, the mice had quickly evolved to fill the new ecological niche and feed on corn and soybean waste.

For a scientist like myself, I’m completely dumbfounded by the sheer ignorance of those who doubt science…who doubt climate change is real…who doubt in evolution.  The actual empirical evidence is overwhelming, conclusive, and “in-your-face”, for those who bother to open their eyes to the world around them. It’s a fascinating story, and the writer (Conor Gearin) did a great job not only summarizing the research, but telling it in a true story-teller’s fashion.  To me, this is exactly the kind of story, and writing style, that could perhaps help to turn the tide against the anti-science wave that seems to be cresting in the U.S. right now. Great story, and The New Territory really looks like a publication that’s worth subscribing to or picking up if you get a chance.

Grand River National Grasslands, Harding County, South Dakota

Expansive grasslands of the Grand River National Grasslands, in Harding County, in far northwestern South Dakota. Grassland habitat like this is greatly reduced in the Great Plains. However, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for one species, the Prairie Deer Mouse, who evidently can do quite well without an actual “prairie”.

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.

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.

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.

 

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