Spring signs of life, and living dangerously

Birding! I’ve actually had the chance to do a little birding lately!! With my new job responsibilities at work, I’ve been working crazy long hours. That should die down once I completely transition, but in the past month, time has been pretty precious. However, over the last week I have set aside a couple of weekend days to get out and go birding, and the weather thankfully has been pretty good the last 2 weekends.

One priority in finally getting out…going to see a Great Horned Owl nest that has gotten a lot of attention, and was only 10 miles away. Palisades State Park is a gem of a little park. Splitrock Creek runs through the park, and in some areas there are steep cliffs of our famed Sioux Quartzite that rise to 50 feet or more above the river. It’s also a popular spot for rock climbing, with multiple tall quartzite spires in the park. I’ve seen Canada Geese often use those cliffs for nesting, as you can’t imagine a better place to be protected from land predators. But a hiker a few weeks ago noticed a different nesting bird…A Great Horned Owl! She’s in a spot perfectly protected from her now adoring fans, as you can only see her from the opposite side of the river.

As the following pictures show, it’s a rather interesting situation in this particular part of Palisades State Park:

Great Horned Owl - Bubo virginianus
At first glance when you look across the river towards the nest, this is what you often see…a lone adult Great Horned Owls and….some fluff!! Sometimes she’s sitting directly on three little fluff balls, other times like this, they’re hiding behind her when the morning sun comes up and lights up her side of the canyon. She’s positioned the nest about 20 feet up the cliff wall, in a part of the canyon where the gorgeous pink Sioux Quartzite rises vertically on both sides of the narrow canyon.
Great Horned Owl nest - Feeding Chicks - Bubo virginianus
For all the nest watchers (and there seem to be quite a few, for sparsely populated South Dakota standards!), there’s often not a lot of action during the day. But on my visit last weekend, after watching the nest for about an hour, the parent bird stood up to not only reveal a couple of chicks underneath her (and one behind her), but there was also part of a bird she’d caught and had been feeding the chicks. For 30 minutes the 4 or 5 of us watching were treated to the sight of her feeding her young chicks.
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) nest with 3 young chicks
The happy family after finishing breakfast. The young are getting bigger, and some of their flight feathers are just starting to come in (you see a hint of that in the above photo). Her choice of nest site offers protection from ground predators (although the Canada Geese in the park will often fly at her to express their displeasure at her presence). However, I do worry about the chicks when they take their first flight. The canyon is narrow and steep here, with nothing but Splitrock Creek below. That first flight could be harrowing, and it could be difficult for the inexperienced chicks to avoid hitting the water below.
Canada Goose - Branta canadensis - nesting on cliff ledge
It’s not just the Great Horned Owl’s choice of nesting locations that brings some worry for the young. This is a Canada Goose who is also nesting on the cliff face. She is either the smartest goose on the planet, or one of the dumbest. Her rocky cliff ledge completely protects her from any ground predators she might otherwise have to deal with. However, her exact location…about 40 feet above the water on the cliff, and…20 feet DIRECTLY above the Great Horned Owl nest!! When the young hatch, they leave the nest almost immediately, and are tended to by the parents as they gather their own food. But “leaving the nest” in this case means making an already perilous jump to the creek below, one where the chicks have to worry about a bounce or two off the cliff face on their way down. Even more perilous for them…jumping down, and somehow avoiding the ledge and the Great Horned Owl nest right below them!

South Dakota Species Highlight: Chestnut-collared Longspur

There are some species I instantly think of as being iconic northern Great Plains species when I hear the name. Marbled Godwit. Baird’s Sparrow. Lark Bunting. Greater Prairie Chicken. When I think of driving west and north from my home in far southeastern South Dakota, and heading to the central or western part of the state, away from the mosaic of corn and soybeans that dominates my area, I think of wide open grasslands, few people, and a unique ecosystem of iconic bird species. In my mind that also includes the Chestnut-collared Longspur, a gorgeous bird with a unique dark plumage (breeding plumage males) that I almost see when I heard the name, hanging out on a barbed wire fence with nothing but grassland for miles around.

Chestnut-collared Longspur - Calcarius ornatus
Harding County, SOuth Dakota
Chestnut-collared Longspur from July 22nd, 2011 in Harding County, South Dakota. This. This is what I think of when I hear the name, a gorgeous breeding plumaged male Chestnut-collared Longspur hanging out on a barbed wire fence in a rolling grassland environment.

Yesterday I was processing bird photos (still a few years behind) and working on my website. I was working on a directory of photos I got last July in Hyde County, in the east-central part of the state, and got to one photo, and one photo only, of a Chestnut-collared Longspur. It’s not a great photo, and in fact, if it were another species where I had an abundance of photos, I might have thrown it out. I was shooting photos of shorebirds at a small wetland I’d stumbled across, when the lone longspur flew into my vision and plopped down to grab a quick drink. It was mid-day, the lighting was poor, but I grabbed a quick shot, surprised I’d seen one here, as I usually think of them as being a bird I’d find further to the east and north.

Then, as what tends to happen, I downloaded all the photos from that day, and they sat there unprocessed. I’d forgotten about that photo and encounter until processing photos yesterday, and knowing my collection of Chestnut-collared Longspur photos was sparse, I decided to keep the photo and work on the associated species pages on my website. As I was doing so, it brought to light just how rare an encounter the sighting was for me.

Chestnut-collared Longspur - Calcarius ornatus
Hyde County, South Dakota
Chestnut-collared Longspur July 5th, 2020 Hyde County, South Dakota. One quick photo grab, and the bird was gone.

Two. TWO. That’s how many “decent” photos of the species I’ve managed to grab in South Dakota in the 21 years I’ve been birding. Despite my internal impression of the species as an iconic Northern Prairie species, both my actual sightings and photographs of the species have been extremely limited.

As I started working on my dedicated species page for the Chestnut-collared Longspur, I got to the “Conservation Status” section of the page and started doing some research, beefing up my current (very sparse) content. When I first created the page for the species some 20 years ago, there seemingly weren’t any worries about the status of the species. But when I looked at the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) web page on the conservation status of the species, it was immediately clear it was a species in trouble. The species has been downgraded in status twice in recent years as numbers have started to dwindle.

IUCN Redlist status for the Chestnut-collared Longspur.
From the IUCN page for the Chestnut-collared Longspur, a history of the official status of the species in their eyes. The species status has been downgraded twice in recent years, and numbers continue to decline.

It’s wasn’t a cheery exercise reading more about the status of the species. The Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data, the gold standard for rigorous, systematic tracking of population trends over time, indicated a startling decline in the species of almost 90% from 1966 (Sauer et al. 2016). Other data sources show equally shocking declines, with estimates of >95% species loss in the Canadian portion of the Chestnut-collared Longspur range in less than 40 years, from 1971 to 2017 (COSEWIC 2019). A species that was once a common breeding bird in Nebraska, Kansas, and Minnesota has nearly been extirpated from those states, and previously robust populations elsewhere in its historical range are now gone. Clearly, it’s a species in serious trouble.

So what’s the cause of the trouble? Most sources agree that habitat loss is the primary factor in their decline. The Northern Great Plains used to be a mosaic of natural grasslands, wetlands, and riparian corridors with woodlands. Davis (2004) studied habitat needs for the Chestnut-collared Longspur and found that they required quite large, contiguous blocks of grassland to successfully breed. They avoided even what might be considered “prime” grassland habitat if the size of that grassland patch were anything less than 100 acres. With vast swaths of former Great Plains grassland converted to agricultural land uses in the last 150 years, grassland communities have been devastated, and remaining grassland patches have been heavily fragmented. In short, Chestnut-collared Longspurs can’t find enough suitable large patches of grassland on which to breed.

That downward spiral of suitable habitat continues currently, and in fact has recently intensified in parts of the Great Plains. That includes right here in South Dakota, where demand for corn and soybeans, including the uptick in demand due to biofuel use, has resulted in massive swaths of grassland and prairie land being plowed under for the first time in just the last 15-20 years. South Dakota itself is a hotspot of this habitat loss, particularly eastern and north-central South Dakota, where the rate of grassland habitat loss in recent years is actually higher than that of the well-publicized loss of tropical forest in parts of South America.

From a well-publicized study from Wright & Wimberly (2013), a graphic showing hotspots of grassland loss in recent years. The eastern Dakotas have been a hotspot of habitat loss as grasslands are plowed under and converted to soybean and corn fields.

It’s not just agriculture that’s driving habitat loss in the northern Great Plains. Energy development is front and center in parts of that range, as new methods for extracting fossil fuels have been developed in the last 20 years. The image below depicts the “nighttime lights” dataset for a portion of the northern US. These data record visible light energy from the Earth’s surface at night. Larger cities are clearly visible in the data, but…what’s the massive blob of light in sparsely populated western North Dakota?

Image from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program’s Operational Line Scan System (DMSP-OLS), generally referred to as the “Nighttime Lights” dataset. Depicting areas of visible light at night, lights from urban centers clearly dominate. However, one of the biggest signals is a sparsely populated, massive swatch in western North Dakota. Those are flaring natural gas associated with hundreds and hundreds of oil wells, as fracking technology made extracting oil possible in this region.

North Dakota is now the 2nd largest oil producing state in the country, thanks to fracking technology developed in the 2000s that has allowed companies to extract a difficult to access, but massive resource of oil in the region. There are hundreds upon hundreds of oil wells in the region, wells that may be spaced out across the massive prairie landscape, but…each well requires access, each well requires energy sources. None of this was there even just 15 years ago, but now the network of wells, roads, and powerlines has severely fragmented grassland habitat in the region.

Range map of the Chestnut-collared Longspur, overlaid with general are of Bakken Oil Formation
The species range map for the Chestnut-collared Longspur, with the general area of the Bakken Oil Formation in the cross-hatched area. The red color on the underlying map represents the breeding range of the Chestnut-collared Longspur. The location of the Bakken formation? Smack dab in the middle of it.

As the map above shows, the Bakken formation is smack dab in the middle of the breeding range for the Chestnut-collared Longspur. The area in North Dakota was developed SO incredibly rapidly, with economic considerations overwhelming any thought for habitat or environmental considerations. But for a species such as the Chestnut-collared Longspur that’s been declining precipitously and needs large, intact grassland patches to breed, oil and gas activity in the Bakken couldn’t have come at a worse time, or in a worse place.

Two. Perhaps it’s not a surprise I only have to photos of Chestnut-collared Longspurs, a species that’s “vulnerable” and fading fast. Get out there and enjoy this species while you can, as your chances of seeing it in the future may be fading.

New South Dakota “Hotspots” Page – Good Earth State Park

One of my New Year’s Resolution…less time sulking about the state of the world, more time being productive. Now when I say “productive”, I don’t necessarily mean work! No, I’m thinking more about my free time, and instead of wasting it, spending it doing things I love. Of course that includes birding, but it also includes working on my massive, out of control website, which I’ve neglected lately.

One element of my website are “Hotspots” pages, detailed information on specific birding hotspots in South Dakota. It’s been a work in progress, as it takes quite a long time to make each one of the hotspot pages! Over the last week I have completed a new one, one that was LONG overdue…for Good Earth State Park just outside of Sioux Falls.

We live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park of comparable size, that also borders the Big Sioux River and has extensive, forested riparian habitat. While I do bird there, in recent years it just can’t hold a candle compared to Good Earth State Park. Much of it for me is how the parks are managed. The Big Sioux Recreation Area has a BIG focus on camping and other heavy recreational use. As a result, they’ve really disappointed me in recent years by ripping out a lot of good bird habitat to make way for camping, frisbee golf, etc. I get it…you have to manage the parks for multiple uses, but overall in South Dakota, birders and birding are the LAST priorities for park management.

That’s what’s so great about Good Earth. It’s not managed for birding, but there’s no camping. That alone makes a huge difference, as it’s less busy and there’s much more natural vegetation. The big draw of the park for me is the variety of habitats, from upland forest, to gorgeous, well-vegetated grasslands with plenty of native plants, to riparian floodplain. The trail system is incredible as well, with several miles of very well maintained trails.

I’ll save the rest for the new “Birding Hotspot” page itself! I hope you find this useful as you consider Good Earth State Park for your next birding trip. Click below to access the page:

Good Earth State Park – Birding “Hotspot”

Add your biodiversity sightings to “iNaturalist” – Big Sioux Rec Area, Beaver Creek Nature Area

Banner page for a new iNaturalist “project” page, “Biodiversity of Beaver Creek Nature Area”. You can enter sightings of any form of life you find in the park boundaries, and iNaturalist will summarize those observations and provide an accounting of all life observed there.

Twitter is a dangerous thing for me. I’m relatively new to it, starting 2 years ago. But it’s rather addictive, and if I don’t curb myself I can spend far too much time on it. The good news…this weekend I spent very little time on Twitter, even going (gasp!) almost 36 hours without even looking at it. The bad news…it’s because Twitter itself got me hooked on another online activity.

When visiting the Black Hills a week ago, I took a number of flower and butterfly photos. I don’t really “do” butterflies and flowers, so didn’t know the ID of most, so I posted some blocks of photos on Twitter. People did help with ID, but I also got multiple suggestions to join iNaturalist. Now, I have done eBird for years, and greatly enjoy recording all of my bird sightings. iNaturalist is similar but expanded to…everything…all life that you wish to record, be it a bird, a reptile, a tree, a shrub, a bug, a fungi…anything. But unlike eBird, where you’re expected to know the species you’re entering, iNaturalist is also a platform for helping you to identify your finds. You upload a photo, identify as best you can, and other people confirm your identification, or offer a corrected identification. There’s a system in place where the “grade” for your entry depends upon matching IDs, with “Research Grade” ranking given to entries that have confirmed IDs from multiple users.

I have many, many thousands of photos over the years, mostly birds, but also other critters. I also have occasionally taken photos of flowers, fungi, and other life, but haven’t really given an ID to most. So instead of wasting time on Twitter this weekend, I spent FAR too much time entering old photos onto iNaturalist.

One feature I think is really cool about iNaturalist is that you can set up your own “project”. Your project can define an area where you can summarize observations. You can also select what taxa are part of your project. So for example, you could set up a project for your favorite birding spot, and do something like “The Birds of Newton Hills”. iNaturalist would then record ANY sighting of a bird, be it by yourself, or someone else, and summarize all the sightings of birds for that area. It’s all automated in that once the project is set up, it automatically records the sightings any one makes within your defined parameters (area, type of life, time of observation, etc.).

A cool concept! And since I admittedly get a little fatigued with bird photography, from the standpoint of taking photos of the “same old birds” (how many American Goldfinch photos do you need?), and since we live right across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, I thought why not start an iNaturalist project that records ALL life in the park? And so that’s what I’ve done, with a new iNaturalist project “Biodiversity of the Big Sioux Recreation Area“. My other most visited birding location is Beaver Creek Nature Area, just 4 miles east of where I live. I started another project for Beaver Creek, “Biodiversity of Beaver Creek Nature Area“.

Join in if you’d like! If you ever visit either the Big Sioux Recreation Area or Beaver Creek Nature Area, just start taking photos of the plants, animals, fungi…whatever life you run across in those two parks. Join iNaturalist and record your sightings. You do need a photo, and you do need to include the location of the sighting. That’s easy if you use your cell phone for the photo (or if your camera has GPS), as the location will be automatically recorded when you take the photo, and uploaded automatically when you add the photo to iNaturalist. And…that’s it! If the sighting is recorded within the boundaries of those two parks, it will automatically be added to these “projects”.

And don’t worry if you don’t know the identification of the plant or animal! That’s the point of iNaturalist. It will offer an initial suggestion based on your photo (most of the time the suggestions are very good!), and others will chime in and offer their 2 cents on ID.

I don’t need another online hobby, but…this one is a bit different! Not only did I end up starting these two iNaturalist “projects” this weekend, but each day I ended up taking long walks through the Big Sioux Recreation Area, going very slowly, and taking photos of a lot of the plants and insects I came across. It’s an online time sucker, but…it’s also an exercise routine in a way! So it all balances out. ūüôā

Give it a try and start entering your sightings! But beware, it’s fun, but a bit addictive. Here are the links again to the two iNaturalist projects I set up:

Biodiversity of the Big Sioux Recreation Area

Biodiversity of Beaver Creek Nature Area

Birding Dakota Nature Park in Brookings

Dakota Nature Park
Trail Guide
South Dakota Birds and Birding
Trail map for Dakota Nature Park in Brookings. The reclaimed landfill is represented by the large upland area on the northeast side of the park, while trails wind past the lakes and wetlands created from reclaimed gravel pits on the south and west sides. Click on the map above for a larger view.

Yesterday my son had an all-day event in Brookings, South Dakota. I drove him up, and thought I’d spend the day birding. Brookings is “only” an hour north of where we live, yet in our 25+ years in South Dakota, I’ve done very little birding in the area. Noting that birders recently had posted some nice finds at Dakota Nature Park on the south edge of Brookings, that’s where I started the morning birding.

I will be back! I thoroughly enjoyed the data, spending most of the morning walking the extensive trails around a park that’s much bigger, and much nicer, than I was anticipating. The northeast side of the park is a massive, grassy mound…the capped and reclaimed old Brookings landfill! The lowland areas south and west of here are lowland trails that snake in around wetland and water habitats that were formed from abandoned sand and gravel pit operations. There are paved trails through much of the park, as well as some gravel trails and boardwalks. There are benches, pagodas, and other structures scattered along the trails that allow for a short rest, or provide a nice place to just sit and watch the wildlife. The visitor’s center on the far southwest side of the park is wonderful as well. It’s a very nicely done building (donated by the Larson family I was told, of Larson Doors in Brookings), with displays focused on learning and appreciating wildlife. They also have some nice feeder complexes where you can just sit and enjoy the birds the come to partake.

I started at a parking lot on the far east side of the park, and just started walking unknown (to me) trails. As I walked, the trails kept going, and going, and going. Not realizing the park was so large I ended up spending over 2 1/2 hours here. Not only is there a lot to explore, but from a bird perspective, there’s a really nice mix of habitats. The ponds and wetland themselves are of course a big feature, but the trails also wind past grasslands, shrubby areas, areas of deciduous forest, and strip of pine trees on the far north side. Because of the varied habitat, the birds I found for the morning were also varied, ranging from an Osprey prowling the ponds for fish, to Savannah and Field Sparrows near the “grassy mound” of the reclaimed landfill. For the morning I found 43 species, including a number of first-of-year. For a mid-April day in South Dakota when a majority of songbird migrants and summer residents haven’t arrived yet…that’s pretty darned good for one location. (my eBird list for the day is shown below).

Despite the drive, I will be back! With such a wonderful variety of habitats, and with such wonderfully done trails and facilities, this should be a definite destination for birders who happen to be in the Brookings, South Dakota region.

Dakota Nature Park
eBird Recording
South Dakota Birds and Birding
Bird list for the day, noting 43 species. Several first-of-year, including a calling Sora and another flushed Sora (both quite early for this area), Osprey (not common in eastern South Dakota), and several species of songbirds.

Do predator control programs help gamebirds like Pheasants? (Hint…No)

Ring-necked Pheasant - Phasianus colchicus

South Dakota’s favorite bird…an introduced game bird that does have an economic impact in the state. but are predator control programs like Kristi Noem’s actually beneficial to pheasant populations? Or, in fact, is it likely to WORSEN the situation? For the scads of hunters and others who evidently have found my blog…read this post. Don’t take my word for it regarding this misguided predator control program. Take the word of Sportsmen’s groups…of outdoor magazines…of conservation groups…of the SCIENCE behind bird populations, predators, and habitat. If you truly want to save your resource and stop playing political games because you’re “liberal” or “conservative”…follow the FACTS. Then petition Noem to stop this nonsense and instead focus on habitat conservation efforts.

Wow.¬† Traffic on my blog literally shot up ten-fold since I posted about the idiocy of Kristi Noem’s predator control program in South Dakota. And with that traffic of course comes the haters, with direct emails to me, and attempted blog replies that offered nothing more than name calling. Not surprisingly, most were from hunters.¬† If you can get past the four-letter words and try to make some sense of some of the emails I’ve had, the general thought is that killing skunks, opossums, red fox, and raccoons is very helpful for Ring-necked Pheasant populations. And thus, these hunters are all for Noem’s little misguided foray into “conservation”.

Let’s look at the facts. Do you like to hunt Ring-necked Pheasants? Chances are you support groups like Pheasants Forever? Here’s what Pheasants Forever has to say about predator control programs:

Stating an investment in increased habitat is FAR more effective than predator control in improving pheasant populations, they state:

Less-expensive methods to improve game bird populations and nesting success exist. Experts have focused on the amount of habitat (composition of the landscape) and the arrangement (configuration) that increase nesting success by reducing the effectiveness of predators. Well-designed habitat projects can reduce predation by up to 80 percent.

Regarding predator control, they state it’s ineffective at helping broad-scale pheasant populations…and in fact, it may INCREASE interactions among predators and pheasants:

It is important to understand that sustained trapping efforts tend to stimulate reproduction by predators (compensating for artificially low densities) and create populations with proportionately more juveniles that wander more across the landscape thereby increasing the chances of encountering pheasants.

Overall, here’s their summary statement on predator control, and where money SHOULD be spent…on habitat restoration:

While predator removal and exclusion methods can increase nesting success on small areas, these methods are too expensive for use on a landscape basis and do not significantly increase the number of nesting birds over the long term. Through the addition and management of habitat, we not only decrease the impact predators have on existing nests, but also increase the number of nests and population size in an area. Predators will continue to eat pheasants and their nests, but weather and habitat conditions will drive population fluctuations.

What’s laughable about Noem’s program is that she ignored the advice of her own people, and ignored past research in South Dakota that has focused on Ring-necked Pheasant populations. Former Governor Daugaard held a “Pheasant Habitat Summit” in 2013 and followed up by commissioning a “Governor’s Pheasant Habitat Work Group”.¬† You know…actually investing in RESEARCH and DISCUSSION before unilaterally making a bad decision to start a predator control program. Land owners, hunters, and government personnel participated. Regarding predator control, the working group found that “When suitable habitat is available and weather conditions warrant, pheasant populations flourish without direct predator control“. Even when a misguided bounty program like Noem’s is established, they found “Bounty systems in other states have been ineffective because the origin of the predators cannot be verified”.

More information from sportsmen’s groups.¬† Midwest Outdoors published a piece on the “5 widespread myths about pheasant and quail populations“. One of those 5 myths is shown below:

Myth: Predators are the main reason there are fewer pheasants and quail.

Busted: Yes, coyotes and fox will eat pheasants and quail, and raccoons and skunks are likely culprits when it comes to raided nests. But predators don’t eat habitat, which is far and away the biggest reason why pheasant populations decline. High annual losses to predators should not be misunderstood to mean that predation is responsible for long-term upland population declines. Landscapes with good habitat often have high numbers of pheasant numbers, as well as high numbers of many potential predators.

 

The impact of predators is magnified and often pinpointed as the primary problem after habitat conditions deteriorate. Confine pheasants and quail to smaller and smaller parcels of habitat, and a predator’s job gets a whole lot easier. Thankfully, well-designed habitat projects can reduce predation by up to 80 percent. Through the addition and management of habitat, not only does there tend to be a decrease in the impact predators make on existing nests, but more habitat is likely to increase the number of nests and the overall gamebird population. And habitat for pheasants and quail comes at a fraction of the cost of other intensive predator reduction methods that are cost-prohibitive across a large area.

Just like Pheasants Forever, they note it’s HABITAT that’s the key, and if you have adequate, well designed habitat, that alone decreases nest predation by predators. And just like Pheasants Forever, they note it’s a FAR bigger “bang for the buck” in using conservation dollars to promote pheasant populations.

Another sportsmen/hunting group, Quail Forever, states the following (hint…it ‘s similar to statements from all the other groups:

Bottom line: Through the addition and management of habitat, we not only decrease the impact predators have on existing nests, but also increase the number of nests and population size in the area. This management comes at a fraction of the cost of other predator reduction methods.

MORE HABITAT, LESS PREDATION, BEST OUTCOME
Less-expensive methods to improve game bird populations and nesting success exist. Experts have focused on the amount of habitat (composition of the landscape) and the arrangement (configuration) that increase nesting success by reducing the effectiveness of predators. Well-designed habitat projects can reduce predation by up to 80 percent.

 

Programs such as Noem’s may actually do more HARM than good for Pheasant populations. For example, red fox are noted as the most effective predators on Ring-necked Pheasants, by our own Game Fish and Parks. But red fox populations are quite low in South Dakota, as they simply cannot compete with Coyotes. There’s a direct, inverse relationship between high coyote densities and red fox densities. As this story notes, hunters wrongly blame coyotes for predation on Ring-necked Pheasants, but our own Game Fish & Parks notes Coyotes have a minimal impact on Ring-necked Pheasant populations.¬†Human intervention in removing predators results in unpredictable impacts on other wildlife, and ironically, hunters calling for removal of Coyote should note that would likely HARM Ring-necked Pheasant populations, as Coyotes not only help keep Red Fox populations low, but also help control other small mammalian predators on Ring-necked Pheasant nests.¬† This isn’t just one isolated case of an unintended consequence of predator control programs. Some other studies note that predator control programs focused on creatures like red fox simply create more of an ecological niche that other predators come in and fill, such as feral cats.

The one common thread from our own GFP…from Pheasants Forever…from Quail Forever…from all groups associated with conservation and wildlife management…NOTHING has anything close to the impact on Ring-necked Pheasant populations as 1) habitat, and 2) climate. So what factors could contribute to any perceived decline of gamebirds in South Dakota. HABITAT LOSS.¬† Starting in the mid-2000s, the eastern Dakotas have seen an expansion in cropland that literally rivals rates of deforestation in the tropical rain forests.¬† Here are multiple studies that have quantified recent grassland loss in the Dakotas:

  1. Wright and Wimberly (2013) found a net loss of 1.3 million acres of grassland that resulted from conversion to corn or soybeans in five states comprising the western Corn Belt over the five years from 2006 to 2011.
  2. Johnston (2014) also used the CDL to analyze land cover trends across the eastern Dakotas and found that corn and soy agriculture expanded by 27% (3.8 million ha) during the two years from 2010 to 2012.
  3. Reitsma et al. (2015) reported a net grassland loss of 4.6 million acres resulting from cropland expansion in the state of South Dakota over the six years from 2006 to 2012.

 

I’m a scientist. I look at evidence. I look at FACTS. The FACTS couldn’t be clearer.

  1. Predators aren’t driving any broad-scale decline in gamebirds such as pheasants.¬†
  2. Habitat loss is far and away the biggest concern for gamebirds (and other wildlife) in the Dakotas
  3. Predator control problems are expensive and ineffective, with a miniscule impact compared to dollar-for-dollar habitat conservation efforts.

I’ll end with one more driving factor for the long term…climate change. As noted above, conservation and management groups all noted TWO factors that had the biggest impact on gamebird populations..habitat, and weather/climate. The climate is changing…whether you “believe” in it or not.¬† What are the potential impacts on gamebird populations in South Dakota? Let’s look at Sharp-tailed Grouse populations in the state.¬† They are found from the southern to northern border in South Dakota, in much of the western half to two-thirds of the state. They are found as far south as the Platte River in Nebraska. What about the future?

Using projected changes in both land use (habitat loss) and projected changes in climate, this (wonderful!!!) study found that your grandchildren aren’t going to be hunting Sharp-tailed Grouse. Not in South Dakota anyway.¬† The top map below shows the “current” distribution of Sharp-tailed Grouse. The areas in red in the bottom three maps? Those all show areas where Sharp-tailed Grouse will be severely impacted by climate and land use change…with a bulls-eye right on South Dakota and northern Nebraska. Three climate scenarios are shown, with “A2” being the most severe scenario, and “B1” being the least severe. REGARDLESS of scenario, this research shows that SHARP-TAILED GROUSE WILL BE EXTIRPATED FROM THE SOUTHERN TWO-THIRDS OF SOUTH DAKOTA BY 2075.

Sharp-tailed Grouse - Tympanuchus phasianellusSo please, sportsmen…if you want to preserve your resource, do ALL of us some good. Predator control? NOBODY (other than our rather clueless governor) believe it’s an effective long-term solution. You want a big bang-for-the-buck? Petition Noem’s office for habitat conservation and preservation programs. Contribute to groups that foster habitat protection. That’s a “win” for all concerned, as it not only benefits Ring-necked Pheasants and reduces predation, but it helps non-game species as well.

And if you’re like me and have a son…and if you worry about his future…play the long game as well, and start paying attention to the long-term devastation climate change is going to have in the state.

Ring-necked Pheasant - Phasianus colchicus

A young Ring-necked Pheasant hanging out on a fence post. Do you want to preserve these birds, and also end up helping ALL wildlife in the state? Stop supporting this ridiculous predator control effort, and focus the state’s attention on habitat conservation.

Landscaping MVP – Most Valuable Plant (for a birder)

Honeysuckle - Lonicera

A current view of our yard “MVP”, a honeysuckle tucked in a tiny spot next to the garage and front porch. This is a pretty typical view for a visitor to our house in the spring…greeted by a big honeysuckle that is absolutely loaded with beautiful orange blooms. Click for a larger view.

Competition this spring was high.  Who would be named MVP? The long-time, consistent performer who never lets you down? The up-and-comer, inconsistent, but absolutely glorious so far this spring?  Or perhaps some underdog, flying under the radar and gathering votes as the top two split other voters?

When we built our house 11 years ago, I had a blast doing all of my own landscaping. It’s taken a while to “build up” to a mature landscaped yard, but after 11 years, we now are starting to get some trees of substantial size, while the bushes and perennials have matured. During those 11 years, it’s been simply wonderful noticing how the number and diversity of birds in our yard has grown, as the landscaping has matured.

MVP of course is “Most Valuable Plant”, from the perspective of a birder and how attractive the plant is to birds in our yard. When I did the landscaping, I focused VERY heavily on planting shrubs, perennials, and trees that would attract birds. We have a few conifers, for cover and nesting. We have some fast growing birch, trees that have matured quickly and attracted birds, with catkins on our paper birch that are an absolute favorite for finches in the winter. I have sour cherries, viburnum, and other bushes and small trees with berries to attract birds. I have many perennials specifically chosen for the blooms that attract hummingbirds.

But this year’s¬†MVP is the same as the MVP from about the, oh…last 5 or 6 years.¬† In the front of our house, right by the entrance and front porch, is a little spot perhaps 2 x 4 feet.¬† It fits in between the curved sidewalk leading from the driveway to the front porch, and the side of the garage.¬† When I was landscaping, it was kind of a “throwaway” spot, an afterthought, without much room to do anything substantial.¬† We had a honeysuckle that we actually had indoors at our old house. Not even knowing if it was hardy, I planted it in that location, and didn’t think much of it.

To my surprise, it not only survived the winter, it absolutely THRIVED. The little spot faces the southwest, and with the garage wall blocking any of our cold, South Dakota north winds, the honeysuckle has grown and thrived beyond all expectations.¬† In that protected location, getting the full blunt of the afternoon sun and being protected from cold, the honeysuckle often starts to bud out by late March.¬† Last year, IT STILL HAD BLOOMS ON THANKSGIVING!!¬† That’s NOVEMBER in South Dakota, and an outdoor plant was still blooming!! In the spring, it goes absolutely nuts with absolutely prolific blooms (see photo above), and then continues to bloom during the entire summer and fall.

American Robin Nest - Turdus migratorius

A peek inside the honeysuckle today revealed the American Robin nest, with one hatchling and another that is still in the process of working her way out of its egg.

The reason the honeysuckle gets the “MVP” award? I’m a sucker for hummingbirds, and there’s no feature in my yard, not even my nectar/sugar feeder, that attracts hummingbirds like this honeysuckle. We live across the street from a state park, the Big Sioux Recreation Area, and I often seen hummingbirds coming from the park, making an extended stop at the honeysuckle, and then returning to the park. The blooms also have attracted other birds over the years. This spring I had Orchard Orioles that seemed to like to pierce the blooms for nectar, and I’ve also had Tennessee Warblers do the same.

The plant is also unbelievable thick and lush, with a support structure holding up the extensive number of vines. Within that thick cover, birds have often nested within.¬† The two most common have been House Finches, and American Robins.¬† This spring, an American Robin once again built a nest within the thicket of the honeysuckle.¬† I have SO many Brown-headed Cowbirds in our neighborhood, but I don’t ever seem to find cowbird eggs in the nest in the honeysuckle. I think that’s likely because of how thick it is, and how well hidden the nests are.

MVP!! MVP!! MVP!! For 2018, the long-standing champ takes the crown yet again!

 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris

Ruby-throated Hummingbird foraging at the honeysuckle.

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¬†‚ÄúFlat Places, Deep Identities: Mapping Nebraska and the Great Plains‚ÄĚ. ¬†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”.

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.
 
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