Predicting that next winter finch irruption

Pine Siskin - Spinus pinus

A Pine Siskin, a regular but unpredictable visitor in winter in South Dakota Research shows that southward irruptions of boreal finches such as Pine Siskins may be predicted from recent seasonal climate records.

Not a lot of time this week to blog, as I’ve been in pretty intense meetings all week for work.  However, it was through those meetings that I became aware of this interesting research paper.  Birders are always wondering when that next great “irruption” of boreal bird species will occur.  On occasion, boreal finches such as Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and Crossbills will move southward in great numbers from their boreal forest stronghold.  The thought is that such irruptions occur when poor “mast” production occurs, with lower conifer seed numbers than normal.  The birds thus move southward in search of food.

It’s not just boreal finches that are subject to occasional southward irruptions.  One of the greatest birding experiences of my life was during the huge boreal owl irruption into northern Minnesota over a decade ago, when Great Grey Owls and Northern Hawk Owls were seemingly “dripping off the trees”.  Those irruptions are thought to be due to a similar driving force…a loss of a primary food source…with periodic crashes of small rodent populations driving the owls southward in search of food for the winter.

The paper below (click to see it) gives an assessment of climate data to potentially predict when a finch irruption would occur.  The species studied here is the Pine Siskin, but the authors note that it may also apply for other boreal finch species that depend on conifer mast.  Cool study…

More coming next week!  Given I’m still in meetings the rest of the week and have family obligations all weekend, it’s likely the next blog post won’t come until Monday!  Click below for the study…

Predicting finch irruptions with climate information

Time to edit the website again…

Hoary Redpoll - Carduelis hornemanni

A Hoary Redpoll in my crabapple tree. For now, I can still count a Hoary Redpoll as its own species, as the AOU committee decided to hold off on a proposed action to merge Hoary and Common Redpolls into one species. Which means for one more year, I can proudly proclaim that I’ve had a rare Hoary Redpoll in my yard.

It’s damned hard trying to keep up with all the official changes on the American Birding Association’s (ABA) North American birds checklist! The ABA list is generally based on the checklist from the American Ornithological Union (AOU).  Every year, the AOU Checklist Committee considers formal proposals to change the checklist, with recommendations coming from scientists who have published research and other materials that may support a checklist change.  Every July The Auk (the journal for the AOU) publishes the changes for the year.  And every year, I either ignore those changes, or spend several months delaying any related changes to my website.

Ever since I started my website more than 15 years ago, I’ve been working on having individual species pages for each species seen in North America.  Especially when a new species is added, I try to keep up and edit my checklist and summary pages, but I admit I’m behind in doing so.  If it’s simply adding a new species (for example, if an exotic species is now established enough in the U.S. that the AOU considers it a new, permanent species in North America), it’s easy enough to add a page.  I’m fairly caught up with those changes. What’s a major pain in the butt is trying to keep up with the “order” changes.  Every year, they make changes in the official “order” that species are listed in the checklist. The AOU checklist is presented in a “phylogenetic order”, using DNA and other information to “rank” species according to their origin and where they are on a evolutionary tree.  Basically, more “ancient” species are listed first, while species more recent in origin are listed last. On my pages, for example, I still have finches “ranked” very near the bottom.  However, in recent years finches have received a “promotion”, and are now higher on the phylogenetic order list.  It’s a major change moving things around on my master species page, thus the order changes that have occurred in recent years are those changes least likely to be represented in my checklist and species pages.

Here we are in mid-December, a mere 5+ months since the latest updates, and I’m finally taking a peek at the changes.  Looks like I have more work ahead of me on my website, particularly if I want to update the checklist order.  Some highlights of the changes for the year:

  1. Scrub Jay species — I have a new species on my life list, thanks to a new species split!  The Western Scrub-Jay has been split into two distinct species, the California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii). The California species is found from Baja California northward into Washington state, and is darker with richer colors, while the interior species is found in the dry interior of the southwestern U.S. and is paler in appearance.  When a species is split like this, it’s sometimes hard to know which of the new species you’ve seen, but fortunately I have photos of the former Western Scrub Jay from both California and Arizona, meaning I’ve seen (and photographed) both new species!
  2. Leach’s Storm-Petrel split —  The Leach’s Storm Petrel has been split into 3 distinct species.  Given a pelagic species such as a storm petrel isn’t exactly native to South Dakota, it’s not one I’ve seen, but alas, it still means a needed change on my website.
  3. Changes in scientific names — I won’t pretend that I understand why scientific names of species are sometimes changed.  Most of the changes this year are for shearwater species, but I saw they also changed the Sandhill Crane from Grus canadensis to Antigone canadensis. 
  4. Substantial changes in the phylogenetic order — Of course.  Sigh.  A hard one to keep up with, and once again this year, these are changes I’ll likely ignore on my website. Especially once you’ve been birding for a while and have used the same field guide for years, it’s tough even in your own mind to mentally adjust to a different “order” of species.
  5. Redpoll species — My “best” yard bird without question was a Hoary Redpoll that showed up 3 or 4 winters ago. That winter was the only winter I’ve ever even had Common Redpolls in my yard, but one day my son looked out at several redpolls on our thistle feeder and asked “what’s the white one”?   It wasn’t exactly white, but there was a Hoary Redpoll that was very obviously different than the Common Redpolls around him.  For years it’s been speculated that the Hoary Redpoll really isn’t a different species, that it’s just a plumage variation.  The AOU committee decided for now to hold off on lumping the two into one species, so for now, my best yard bird still holds!!

Scientists find it’s all about you…

Nebraska Ice Storm

A semi full of grain partially folded in half from a wreck, near Ceresco, Nebraska on December 16th. A cold, wintry hell of a drive, through snow, wind, and freezing rain. For many people? It’s an experience that would likely reinforce their own personal disbelief in climate change. As this scientific study highlights, even in a globally connected, digital world where news and information flows freely, we truly are living in our own little personal bubbles. We seem incapable of accurately weighting the importance of an event, placing much more importance on personal experience than even established fact or collective experience of others.

We had a very interesting weekend. Our “Christmas” with family down in Nebraska was scheduled for this weekend, but Mother Nature wasn’t going to make it easy on us.  We were in a winter storm warning Friday, but managed to make it out-of-town and head south before the worst of the snow hit.  We had to deal with freezing rain in Nebraska, though, which was followed by bitterly cold temperatures.  It wasn’t quite as bad down while we were down in Lincoln, but back home in Brandon we hit -24 below Sunday morning, the coldest we’ve been for several years.  To further reinforce the “winter” theme of the weekend, when we arrived back home, we found our furnace had conked out at some point, and it was 48 degrees in the house!

An interesting and memorable weekend due to the weather, something which scientists say is likely to have a strong impact on my feelings about climate change! In a recent study, scientists found that an individual is much more likely to “believe” in climate change if they live in a location that’s experienced a lot of record high temperatures, and are more likely to discount climate change if the weather is cold and they’ve experienced low temperatures.  It’s not exactly earth-shattering research, not when supposedly well-educated and informed politicians themselves are often guilty of looking out the window and declaring climate change to be a hoax whenever a wintry event occurs.  To me it highlights a bigger picture story however…the importance of “me” and the biologic difficulties with altruistic behavior.

I saw a meme on Facebook today that focused on empathy and Republicans.  It provided several examples of noted Republicans who were strongly against issues such as LGBT rights, stem cell research, and gun control measures…until a son or daughter of theirs came out as LGBT, until one of their loved ones became desperately sick, until one of their family was a victim of gun violence.  I’m incredibly cynical about any Facebook post.  It doesn’t matter whether some meme or story leans towards liberal or conservative views, many (most?) of them are pure fiction.  I don’t know how true some of the claims were in the meme I saw today (for example, one part of it stating Nancy Reagan was against stem cell research, until her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s), but the general point of the meme certainly hit home today (a crappy day where a misogynistic, narcissistic, childish, PIG of a man was supported by the Electoral College).  People are VERY good at ignoring an issue unless it affects them personally.

It’s not just Facebook posts that I’m cynical about…I admit I’m as cynical as any person you’re ever likely to meet.  Ironically, in a blog post where I’m focusing on the role of “self” and a person’s own experiences in dictating your personal beliefs, it’s my own personal experiences that are a major reason I’m such a cynic. I’ve been on this planet for just north of 50 years now, 50 years of personally witnessing the selfishness, greed, and lack of empathy among my fellow human beings. At the small scale…the interpersonal relationships and interactions that occur among people on a daily basis…human beings generally DO seem somewhat empathetic, even kind and caring.  Most of the time when dealing with another human being one-on-one, there’s at least a thin veneer or respect that’s usually present, with “manners” and social customs dictating little gestures such as saying “hi”, holding a door open, helping someone up when they’ve fallen, etc.

That all goes to hell at larger scales, when we’re not dealing directly with another human being, but instead are acting in some “aggregate” mode.  Politics is a great example.  Let’s say Joe Redneck is in line at a grocery store, and the clerk is someone he thinks may be LGBT.  In the vast majority of cases, even Joe Redneck is generally going to be civil.  Face-to-face-, one-on-one, we’re simply much more likely to be civil, to be empathetic and kind.  What happens though when Joe Redneck votes on LGBT-related issues?  What happens in a group setting, when Joe Redneck is surrounded by others in the Redneck clan?  That civility is much more likely to disappear.

Empathy and caring for others is even much more likely to be forgotten when there’s some personal impact on an individual, no matter how minor that impact may actually be. Expanding health care coverage for other Americans?  WHOA…how’s that going to affect MY taxes or MY health care costs?!?  Climate change?!?! WHOA…why should I worry about someone 50 years from now, when a climate policy has even the slightest potential of harming economic growth NOW?!?!  Increasing funding for schools?  WHOA…if I have to pay more in property taxes then I won’t be able to get that new cell phone!!  The relative impact is often grossly exaggerated in cases such as this, with people unwilling to make the tiniest of sacrifice even if the payoff for others promises to be substantial.

Am I reading too much into this study on people’s attitudes towards climate change?  I don’t think so.  As I’ve stated out here many times…we’re animals.  We’re driven by the same biologic needs as any other animal on the planet. What’s first and foremost on our minds is nearly always going to be our own personal well-being and happiness.  Americans in particular seem to be extremely efficient in rationalizing the world around them to fit a personal worldview that is first and foremost focused on personal prosperity and happiness.  We all live in our own personal bubbles, rationalizing the world around us in such a way that minimizes guilt, minimizes any feeling of responsibility for others, and maximizes our own personal happiness and well-being.

Yes, all of this, from a story about people’s attitudes towards climate change!  Even on a cold, wintry hell of a weekend, as a scientist and as an empathetic human being who DOES worry about his child, who DOES worry about the future…it’s very easy to see past the frost on the window and know we still face a world where climate change is a daunting issue.  It’s very easy to see, if one can just look past your own personal life and bubble, and try to empathize with the bigger world around you.  As this study hints at…that’s a step most people just are unwilling to take.

In The News – Week of December 11th

Science, nature, environment, and related news from the week of December 11th…

U.S. Department of Energy

Not a great time for DOE officials (or other government agencies dealing with climate change). First they’re asked to turn over the names of all employees who work on climate change issues, and then they are given a new department head in Rick Perry who once stated the department should be eliminated.

Department of Energy says Fuck You to Trump — In a rather chilling story from last week, it was revealed that the Trump transition team sent a questionnaire to Department of Energy officials, asking them to provide a list of all Federal employees or contractors who attended United Nation’s meetings on climate change, or had attended meetings or worked on studies that relate to the social and economic costs of climate change mitigation.  This week, the Department of Energy refused to comply, stating “Our career workforce, including our contractors and employees at our labs, comprise the backbone of DOE (Department of Energy) and the important work our department does to benefit the American people. We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department.” We have an Exxon Mobil exec slated for Secretary of State.  We have Rick Perry slated for head of DOE, an agency he once vowed to eradicate.  We have a proposed head of EPA that is an avowed climate change denier.  We have a proposed head of Department of Interior that also is a climate change denier.  And with this DOE request, we have evidence that the Trump administration will actively discriminate against climate science in the Federal government, and those who do climate change work.  There’s plenty of evidence of the new administration’s inability to live in the same facts-based world as the rest of us, but the position being firmed up on climate change is especially frightening.

Rex Tillerson, Exxon CEO, proposed for Secretary of State — And in an obviously related story, Trump formally announced his intention to nominate Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, as Secretary of State.  An oil executive, with no government experience, picked to play the key role in international relations.  What could go wrong? This New York Times piece notes that Exxon has an immense stake in our diplomatic relationship with Russia, with literally billions of dollars at stake should economic sanctions against Russia be lifted or revised.  As noted from the previous story, from an environmental standpoint, the entire suite of proposed administration officials is a complete disaster for the environmental, including stated desires to move away from clean energy towards the old days of oil, gas, and coal.  Nothing exemplifies the forthcoming disaster more than the Tillerson pick.

Dinosaur Tail in Amber

A portion of a feathered dinosaur tail, found perfectly preserved in amber. Bits of feathers have been found in amber before, but what makes this find extraordinary is the presence of 8 complete vertebrate and perfectly preserved connection structures, enabling scientists to state beyond any doubt that the tail comes from a sparrow-sized dinosaur.

Human beings hard-wired to believe blowhards — Recent research has shown that people base their belief system on personal experience, but also place a heavy emphasis on the beliefs of “confident” people that they come into contact with.  As the story notes, people’s beliefs can be swayed by those displaying confidence in their own beliefs and opinions, even in the face of contradictory evidence.  In a world where “fake news” arguably became the biggest meme of 2016, clearly this study is on the mark.  Nowadays, it’s not what you say or whether it’s true, it’s how you say it.

Feathered dinosaur tail found preserved in amber — OK, enough of the depressing news from the week.  Scientists in China have made an incredible find, with a beautifully feathered tail from a pint-sized dinosaur found perfectly preserved in amber.  The tail section is small, less than 2 inches long, but contains 8 perfectly preserved vertebrate.  Based on the vertebrate and other structures in the tail, scientists can definitively attribute the tail section as a portion of a small dinosaur the size of a sparrow. The find has also been a boon for trying to understand the evolution of feathers themselves, as there are characteristics of the feathers that are very different from those in modern birds.

“Winds of sapphires and rubies” found on exoplanet — The story itself is very interesting.  For the first time, scientists have been able to find evidence of active weather systems on a planet outside of our solar system.  Gas giant “HAT-P-7b” (a catch name) was found to have extremely strong wind patterns, an effect that was observable due to shifting patterns of monitored light from the planet. Interesting story, but the headline that was chosen reinforces a major pet peeve of mine…trying to sensationalize science. No, the winds of the planet are filled with sapphires and rubies, as the title suggest.  The atmosphere is likely made of corundum, a mineral that is found in sapphires and rubies.  I understand the desire to capture the attention of a reader, particularly given that people generally have the attention span of your typical 2-year old.  But it’s enough that the mainstream media constantly sensationalizes stories (or focuses on sensationalist material).  We don’t need that kind of mindset in the sciences.

Icefields Parkway - Alberta, Canada

Athabaska Glacier and the Columbia Icefields, in Alberta, Canada. We were there this summer, and in the 15 years from our last visit, the glacier has obviously receded quite a bit. Scientists this week “confirmed” such events are due to climate change. Duh…

Climate changes causes melting glaciers — Scientists looked at 37 glaciers and for all but 1 of them, stated that there’s at least a 90% chance that their decline was due to climate change.  Well, duh.  I need to write this kind of paper, something that restates the obvious but is sure to gather a lot of acclaim and attention.

Reindeer declining due to climate change, human activity — An extremely well-studied group of Reindeer in Russia have suffered dramatic declines of 40% in the last 15 years.Part of the problem is industrial activity within their range, which has led to changes in the migration patterns, but another issue is undoubtedly climate change.  Warming temperatures can drastically alter the environment, but can also have other unforeseen impacts. As shown in another study on caribou in North America, warming temperatures have changed the phenology (seasonality) of Arctic regions.  Melting occurs much earlier in the spring, and open water exists for much longer periods of time compared to several decades ago.  Mosquito populations have boomed as a result, to such an extent that they are having a very detrimental impact on reindeer and caribou populations. Thank goodness though we have a new incoming administration that will categorically state that climate change isn’t real and isn’t affecting anything.  That should solve the problem.

Loligo_vulgaris

“Loligo vulgaris”, a European squid that is become much more common in waters of the North Sea. The “vulgaris” part sounds about right to me, because although I enjoy calamari, the idea of replacing tasty cod in fish-and-chips with this just seems a bit “vulgar” to me.

Do you want squid with those chips? — Alright, THIS is too much. Melting glaciers?  Whatever.  Reindeer and caribou disappearing?  Meh.  But when climate change starts to impact one of my favorite meals, fish-and-chips, THEN something has to be done!!  In the 1980s, squid were caught in 20% of surveys in the North Sea around Great Britain.  Now, squid are caught in 60% of surveys and numbers continue to increase.  As waters warm, not only are squid being found more often, but warmer water fish such as anchovies and sardines, are increasing.  The center of productivity of a fish-and-chips stable fish…cod…has continued to move north.  As the climate warms and squid become more common, you might have to replace that tasty breaded cod with some squid in your next “fish”-and-chips order.

Distracted while talking — What the hell, I’ll bring up another pet peeve of mine…cell phones and cars. I do wonder just how many accidents are directly related to distracted drivers, given how often you come across drivers weaving all over the road, people driving 15 mph below the speed limit and not even realizing it because they’re on the phone, people who sit there when the light turns green, etc.  As this new study points out, it’s not the fact that you’re using your hands that makes distracted driving such as this dangerous. Just conversing with hands-free equipment greatly reduces a driver’s perception and awareness of their surroundings.

AC/DC Logo

I can multitask! Air guitar while listening to Back in Black is perfectly compatible with simultaneously playing a board game.

Looking to put men in their place this Christmas?  Try some AC/DC!!! — We had family up for Thanksgiving, and one of the most enjoyable aspects was playing UNO and other games for much of the day.  Playing board or card games is something that many do over the holidays, and this study found a way for women to potentially dominate their male counterparts this Christmas.  Men were much more likely to make mistakes in playing board games while listening to music than were females.  The study noted that classical music had little effect on men, but playing something like AC/DC significantly decreased their performance. Interesting study, but I must take offense at the phrase of men being “forced to listen to AC/DC”. No one “forces” you to listen to AC/DC!  If I want play Sorry or Life or Clue or UNO this Christmas, well damn it, I also reserve the right to jam out to “Hells Bells” or “Back In Black” or “Thunderstruck” while I play!  Hmmm…maybe they’re onto something with this story…it is hard to play board games and do justice with my air guitar at the same time…

Sure about that bird ID? Maybe it’s just dyed!!

Northern Flicker - Colaptes auratus

This is a red-shafted Northern Flicker, found in central South Dakota. One tell-tale characteristic…the reddish color visible here under the tail. The gray face, and red “mustache” are also characteristic of the red-shafted color phase. Scientists have found that thanks to pigments within berries of invasive honeysuckles, some yellow-shafted flickers found in the eastern United States are in effect dying their own plumage through their diet, confusing birders who spot reddish-tinged birds.

A cool story that explains some odd-looking birds that you may come across!  South Dakota is in the middle of the country as far as “western” and “eastern” birds are concerned.  That’s great from a birding perspective, as we can often encounter species from both sides of the continent. Northern Flickers are a species that can be seen across the state, but given our geographic location, the “red-shafted” color phase (with salmon coloring under their wings) is the kind most often seen in the western part of the state, while the “yellow-shafted” (yellow underwings) is the one most often seen in the eastern part of the state.   Besides the color under their wings and tail, head markings and facial colors also differ between the two color phases.  Throughout the state, you may see intermediate phase birds, with characteristics of both phases.

A new study finds a confounding factor for identifying red-shafted vs. yellow-shafted Northern Flickers. In the eastern U.S., birders have sometimes spotted Northern Flickers with curiously reddish underwings and plumage.  Up until now, the assumption had been that some of the genetic make-up of the western red-shafted flickers must have been finding its way into the eastern U.S.  However, this study found that the issue isn’t genetics, but an invasive plant!

There are two species of an invasive honeysuckle that produce berries with reddish pigment.  This new research finds that “reddish” birds in the eastern U.S. don’t have the genetic components of red-shafted flickers, but instead have high levels of pigment from ingested honeysuckle berries.  In effect, the birds are dying their own plumage if their diet includes the invasive berries!

As the story notes, it’s not just Northern Flickers, but also Cedar Waxwings that sometimes have odd plumages due to the honeysuckle pigments. It’s another great example how a human influence, and the introduction of invasive species, can interact with native species in ways we can’t even imagine.

Climate change and bird species extinction

Lesser 'akioloa

The Lesser ‘akioloa, a Hawaiian honeycreeper species that went extinct around 1940. Two thirds of all Hawaiian honeycreeper species have gone extinct, and climate change is pushing some of the last remaining species towards extinction.

Islands are fascinating areas for studying wildlife.  Ever since the voyage of the HMS Beagle,its visits to the Galapagos islands, and Darwin’s initial conjecture about the stability and origin of species, islands have been real-world laboratories for the study of evolution  Island biogeography became a field of study in the 1960s, with a key premise that isolation of species leads to unique evolutionary paths. As a result, in isolated island environments, you often find unique species found nowhere else.

The Hawaiian Islands certainly have more than their fair share of unique wildlife, particularly bird species.  More than 50 honeycreeper species were once found throughout Hawaii, with some unique to specific islands.  Today, only 18 species survive.  You can definitely blame humanity for the loss of all these unique island bird species.  When humans spread, they inevitably also bring uninvited guests. Mosquitoes were unknown in the Hawaiian Islands, until the early 1800s.  With the introduction of mosquitoes came mosquito-carried diseases that native wildlife in Hawaii had never had to deal with.  Rats, cats, feral pigs, and goats have all also had devastating consequences for native wildlife in the Hawaiian Islands, as have many introduced bird species that compete with native birds.

Despite what the arrival of human travelers unleashed in the Hawaiian Islands, some of the unique bird species survived. Until now.  On top of all the “local” effects that come with the arrival of humans comes the cumulative impacts that affect all parts of the globe.  Some of the unique bird species in the Hawaiian Islands were able to survive is colder pockets at higher elevations, where temperatures were too cold for mosquitoes to thrive.  Climate change is having a very measurable impact on the Hawaiian Islands, however, and as a result, the elevation at which mosquitoes are found has been steady moving upward.  As a result, the isolated pockets of mosquito-free honeycreeper populations are now being infiltrated with mosquitoes for he first time.

A new study out in the past week suggests that many of these honeycreeper species could be extinct in as little as 10-years, thanks to the combined impacts of climate change, mosquitoes, and other human-driven factors.

It still boggles my mind that there are people that don’t believe that climate change exists, but as this and countless other real-world impacts show, it not only exists, but is having a devastating impact on ecosystems around the world.

A scientific explanation for men being assholes…

Asshole Men - Trump, Putin, Kim Jung-Un

Biologically, humans aren’t the only species where men are assholes. Kim Jung-un, Trump, Putin…it’s in your genes to aggressive, maniacal assholes. 🙂

A new study came out this week on Chimpanzees, examining dominance and social pecking order of female Chimpanzees, and comparing dominance strategies against males.  Social dominance for Chimpanzees is established in males by conflict.  Male Chimpanzees will actively challenge other males, with successful challenges leading to a rise in the social pecking order.  Aggressiveness and conflict…that’s what establishes your “rank”.

Females on the other hand were found to literally never establish dominance through conflict.  Instead, the study found female Chimpanzees have social pecking orders established right as they mature. After that, their pecking order is set, with the only moves up in the pecking order occurring when older or more dominant females die.  In short, females “wait their turn”, and dominance is established with time and experience, without conflict.

There certainly appears to be a lesson here! I can’t read the news any more without an eye-rolling moment, and quite often it’s related to chest-thumping and conflict that, frankly, usually just seems like it’s conflict-for-the-sake-of-conflict.  And 99% of the time, it’s my own sex that’s responsible.  As this study shows, it’s not just humans!  There’s a biologic component to aggressiveness (and may I say, stupidity) among men! (and hey, this is all coming FROM a guy…)

As is ALWAYS the case, science explains everything.  The Chimpanzee study is a great example of why we end up with men like Trump, Putin, Kim Jung-un, etc.  🙂

Science MATTERS – A lesson from Joaquin

Graphic of potential paths for Hurricane Joaquin

September 30th, just a couple of days away from Hurricane Joaquin potentially impacting the U.S. coastline, and nearly all U.S.-based models had the hurricane directly striking the U.S. coast. The outlier? The (well-funded) European model that ended up correctly predicting the path far out to sea. A repeat of Hurricane Sandy, which U.S. models also struggled with, but the European model nailed.

It’s more than a bit depressing at times lately, being a U.S. government scientist.  Funding is a big part of that, as funding profiles for science in the U.S. government have definitely been on the downswing.  For my own project, I’ve had to cut quite a few very good people over the last few years, as the funding I receive to do land-use and land-cover modeling (future and past) has declined precipitously.  There are few things more maddening than working on a project, producing something the world has never seen, something that has tremendous value in helping science and society in general cope and plan for coming climate and land-use changes…and seeing your “reward” come in the form of massive budget cuts, forcing the release of great scientists (and friends).

While the budget declines have been disappointing, what’s even worse is the public attitude towards science in general.  Science and scientists used to be revered in this country.  They were representative of progress, of leadership, of the United States’ leading global role.  During the Cold War, scientific progress itself was as busy an arena for West vs. East competition as was geopolitical competition, with the space race captivating the world.

However, in the past decade or so, science has seemingly become the enemy for many.  As the conservative movement politicized what are inherently science issues, not political issues, the public’s opinion of science, and scientists themselves, has taken a hit.  Instead of admiration, there’s a broad sector of the public that now views scientists with skepticism and mistrust.  The politicization of climate change has certainly played a big role, as political talking heads push a pro-business, anti-environment message by attacking not only the science of climate change, but the integrity of the scientists themselves.  Suddenly scientists are being portrayed as liars and swindlers, pushing climate change research only to support some mysterious hidden liberal agenda (SO hidden that even as as a bleeding heart liberal I can’t see it), or to ensure the big research dollars keep flowing (I myself would LOVE to know where conservatives think all these “big liberal research dollars” are coming from….I could use them!!!).

In the meantime, science is suffering in the U.S.  Environmental protection?  Research for clean energy sources?  Spending on environmental monitoring and assessment?  All irrelevant, as they potentially impact short-term profit margins.   It’s not just “fringe” science that’s being impacted, it’s core research and scientific monitoring that’s crucial to keeping Americans safe.

If you followed Hurricane Joaquin last week, there was tremendous uncertainty in the path of the hurricane as it lingered in the Bahamas.  Scientists use “ensemble modeling” to better characterize uncertainty in difficult to predict events, with a wide variety of models used to assess the same phenomena.  Such an approach helps to form a “consensus” of multiple models.  For Hurricane Joaquin, ensemble modeling was used to help identify a variety of potential tracks.  In theory, the most likely path is something that the majority of models agree upon.

Last week, the models were all over the map.  Even by mid-week last week, the vast majority of U.S. based models were predicting Joaquin would track northward from the Bahamas, making a direct strike on the U.S. mainland, somewhere between the Carolinas and the New York area.  Mid week, there was one model, the primary European model, that was an outlier.  The European model predicted a Joaquin would jog to the northeast, missing the U.S. coast completely.  The European model, although the outlier in mid-week predictions, was the closest to the actual hurricane path.  U.S. models performed quite poorly in comparison.

For Hurricane Sandy, there was similar uncertainty.  For Sandy, the European model (correctly) predicted the hook into the New York area, while most U.S. models predicted Sandy would curve northeastward and miss the U.S. coastline.  Again…it was the European model that was correct, with U.S. models performing poorly.

There’s a great story on the New York times on how far behind NOAA and the U.S. Weather Service have fallen in terms of hurricane forecasting.  Raw computing power is an order of magnitude lower for U.S. models than for the systems being used in Europe.  Input data is lacking, as are other aspects of model parameterization.  In short, the U.S. simply has not invested as much in basic weather forecasting and research as has Europe.

As Sandy showed, and now as Joaquin has showed….the lack of adequate research funding for science in the United States has a VERY real impact on the everyday lives of Americans.  Clearly it’s not just weather research that’s an issue. Science funding profiles are declining for nearly all fields. Keeping Americans safe from weather events, natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanoes, research on treating or curing disease, protection of our air, water, and food resources…all are suffering from lack of investment.

It’s a very curious disconnect right now, with technology-loving Americans seemingly often at war with science in general.  As Joaquin and Sandy showed, and as countless other examples have shown…there’s a real price to be paid for an inadequate investment in science.

Playing “Jenga” with nature

Ecosystems are like the game of Jenga...take one piece away you don't know what will happen.

Ecosystems are like the game of Jenga…take one piece away you don’t know what will happen.

You never know what will happen when you remove one piece of the puzzle.  Can it survive for a little while longer, albeit in a weakened state?  Or will it all come crashing down when that one piece gets removed?

Yes, I could be talking about the game of “Jenga”, something many of us have played.  But in this case I’m talking about nature.  In the journal Science Advances, research was just published that discusses a link between hawk populations in the southwestern U.S. and breeding success of Black-chinned Hummingbirds.  One wouldn’t immediately think there was much of a link between the two species.  Hummingbirds are far too small and quick for most hawk species to deal with.  They likely couldn’t capture them, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be more than a mouthful.  So how are the species linked?

As the paper discusses, there are actually three bird species who interact to affect nesting success of the hummingbird.  In addition to the Black-chinned Hummingbird, the study looked at Cooper’s Hawks and Mexican Jays.  What they found was that nesting success was much higher for the hummingbirds when they nested very close to Cooper’s Hawk nests.  The Cooper’s Hawks don’t feed on the hummingbirds, but they ARE a threat to Mexican Jays, and Mexican Jays will readily eat hummingbird eggs and young if they get a chance.  In one case, after Cooper’s Hawks left one nesting location, the researchers immediately saw Mexican Jays move in and decimate all hummingbird nests in the area.

Jenga…ala Mother Nature.  That’s what so scary when human beings start to interfere in natural systems.  One of the most publicized impacts of the removal of one species from a system is the Yellowstone ecosystem, before and after the reintroduction of wolves.  It was expected that the reintroduction would impact ungulate populations in the area, but it soon became apparent just how far-reaching an impact wolves have on the ecosystem.  Without wolves, elk and deer browsed freely in lowlands, resulting in nearly all young aspen trees to be browsed to the ground.  Aspen habitat all but disappeared in the park, but with the reintroduction of wolves, that habitat is now being reborn.  With increased aspen came more beavers.  With more aspen habitat and beaver ponds came an influx of more songbirds and other species that use those habitat.  With more wolves, there were fewer coyotes, which meant more small mammals and an increase in numbers of red fox, eagles, and ravens.

All due to the removal of one species.

Be it hawks in the Southwest or wolves in Yellowstone, the removal of one key species can have cascading impacts on the entire ecosystem.  The same certainly can be true in the “reverse” case, where a new, exotic species is introduced into the system.  As a scientist, it’s fascinating to see the incredible impacts humans have on ecosystems, both through how they manage the landscape, and in how they manage the wildlife within that landscape. As just a human being…it also can be pretty depressing to see how we negatively impact so many ecosystems.

Weather radar tracking bird migrations

Ever since I started birding 15 years ago, I had wished I could somehow link my hobby of birding, with my job as a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. I’ve finally been able to do so in the past couple of years. My work right now focuses on the modeling of future land use and land cover, taking existing land cover maps produced by satellite imagery, and using a model to project what the landscape will look like in the coming decades.  I’ve been able to take those projected land cover data and projected climate data, and look at how future bird species’ distributions will likely be impacted in the future.

Fun work!  But since I started birding, it’s been interesting to see other research related to both my initial love (my bachelor’s degree was in meteorology) and in remote sensing technologies (satellite imagery, aerial photography, etc.) that dominate my current work. Over the years we’ve had a couple of visiting scientists who have presented work on the use of weather radar to track bird migrations.  Here’s a nice feature story on the basics:

Doppler Radar Shows Bird Migrations

A cool thing to see!  I guess I’m not quite sure of the practical applications in terms of bird conservation.  Perhaps long term records and comparisons of radar patterns over multiple years could identify trends in the timing or patterns of migration.  In the meantime, it’s a neat application of a technology devised for other purposes.

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