Articles for the Month of July 2015

New Toy! And a new brand of my hobby?

Blowfly and flower

Literally one of the first few photos I took with the new lens. WHAT A LENS. The sharpness is wonderful, and I was thrilled beyond belief to be able to get such a “close” photo my first time out with it.

I have a Canon 70-200mm 4.0L lens that I’ve had for probably 10 years.  It’s an awesome lens, extremely sharp, particularly given that zooms typically aren’t as sharp as prime lenses.  The problem is that I never use it!  Well, rarely ever.  Given that I mostly shoot birds, I nearly always have my 400mm lens on the camera.  On the rare occasion I shoot landscapes (or people!), the 70-200 is too long, so I typically have on my wide angle.  The 70-200 thus only really gets used on rare occasions that I should large animals other than birds, like when we go to Yellowstone.

Well, we live 14 hours away from Yellowstone, and while we have been there a few times in recent years, it’s not exactly an every day occasion!  The lens may be 3 years between being used!  I had always wanted to try macro shooting, so finally wised up, put the 70-200mm out on eBay, and bought a Canon 100mm 2.8L IS macro lens.  I had dreams of getting some wonderful insect photos like I’ve seen other people shoot with macro!  Given what my first bird photos looked like when I started 15 years ago though, I expected there to be a very steep learning curve.  I expected my initial images to look, well…pretty bad, until I got used to the new lens and learned how to use it.

Bumblebee on bloom

A bumblebee on a flower. This isn’t even close to as close as I could have been, but I didn’t want to get too close shooting this guy. To give you some idea of the capabilities of this lens, later I tried a little sweat bee, and was able to use the lens to get close enough to have a sweat bee fill a big chunk of the frame. I didn’t expect to be able to get such small bugs in such detail.

The lens came today, and I went out in the back yard in search of insects to try it on.  All I have to say about this lens is…HOLY CRAP!  For someone that has never shot macro, the capabilities of this lens have blown me away on day one!  It has a reputation of being one of the sharpest lenses Canon offers, and I certainly have no complaints after my first photos with it.  I knew the lens was a “true” macro lens, capable of 1:1 photos (capturing a real-life object at the same size on the image sensor), but WOW, I didn’t expect to be able to get such great, close, detailed photos of small insects, without the use of extension tubes, close-up lenses, or other attachments people often use for macro.

I’m not a “buggy” person, in that I do NOT like insects or spiders in my house!  But tonight I was in hot pursuit of whatever I could find.  I ended up just sitting in the grass next to a flower bed, and trying to shoot what came by.  I’m pretty sure the species of fly shown here is some kind of blowfly?  Shooting like this sure opens up a new world.  Bugs may be “icky” to many (including me most of the time!), but I was kind of blown away by the subtle beauty and detail that I was able to get with this lens.

I already have WAY too many hobbies.  I fear that after today, macro photography may join bird photography as a hobby.  The nice thing about it…at least outside of winter, you’re ALWAYS going to have some creepy-crawlies right in your own yard that you can shoot!  I’m really looking forward to more use of this lens, and seeing what it can do.

Art by Dorothy DePaulo

Pencil drawing of Red-winged Blackbirds - By Dorothy DePaulo

A colored pencil drawing of a male and female Red-winged Blackbird, by Dorothy Depaulo. I was blown away by the beauty and detail in this piece. I love seeing the final result when an artist uses one of my photos!

I often get requests from artists to use photos for reference.  After an agreement is reached, it’s less often that I actually hear back and see the finished piece.  I always love seeing what folks can do with my photos as reference.  The creativity and different forms of art out there is really amazing.

I was recently contacted by Dorothy DePaulo, who had used one of my photos as a reference source. She sent a scan of a pencil drawing she had done of a pair of Red-winged Blackbirds.  It was one of my photos of a female blackbird that she used as reference.  All I can say about the finished result…Dorothy certainly justice to the original photo!  I was really blown away when I first opened the image.

Of course I had to check out the rest of her work on her website, Fine Art by DePaulo.  She uses a technique I had never heard of.  When she emailed she said she wanted to draw Red-winged Blackbirds, but when I first opened the image, the richness and detail seemed more than is possible with colored pencil!  On her website it says she uses colored pencil, but her surface is mylar.  By drawing on mylar, she can draw on both sides and get layering not possible with a traditional drawing on fine art paper.

Gorgeous drawing!  On the one hand, it makes me want to pick up a pencil again and start drawing, since it’s been over a year since I’ve done so.  On the other hand…I’m not sure I WANT to pick up a pencil again, as there’s no way I can reach the high bar set by Ms. DePaulo!

Science “Debates” – Not a “debate” when the other is uninformed

Sick Earth

I recently saw a study that showed 40% of people in the world have never even heard of “climate change”. What’s worse to me than the uninformed? People who have HEARD of climate change, but choose to ignore the science and instead focus on personal belief, religion, politics, or business interests.

As a scientist, there’s little that irks me more than “deniers”.  Given that I work on issues that are related to climate change, I particularly have little patience for climate change losers skeptics who choose to get their “science” from Fox News talking heads, politicians or business people with a monetary interest in denying climate change, or other such “reliable” sources. Similar losers skeptics are also obviously out there who seem to feel personally affronted on the WELL established field of evolution.  In both cases, these losers skeptics ignore all real empirical evidence, and go with either 1) manufactured and false evidence, or 2) personal or religious belief.

I’m sorry, but if you’re one of these losers skeptics, don’t bother trying to get into any kind of debate out here on my blog.  I’m a scientist.  I deal with empirical evidence.  I deal with reality.  It’s foolish to even try to debate someone who is completely uniformed, or even worse, is purposely pushing misinformation as part of a political, religious, or personal agenda.

So, “Doug” and others…If you have something REAL to contribute on a topic, I welcome your input on my blog.  FYI, pointing to targeted “skeptic” websites doesn’t count as “real” information.  What’s the point of continuing any debate?  I can point to empirical evidence and the vast collection of peer-reviewed scientific literature.  What’s the point of arguing with someone who provides links to fantasy-land “skeptic” websites with no scientific backing?  It’s akin to debating the Big Bang with my two cocker spaniels.

In short, science debates are more than welcome out here. If you’re not going to even attempt to stay grounded in the real world, take your trolling to another blog.  You will be blocked here, saving all of us valuable time.

Owl Fledgling Video

Not anything of mine, but ran across this video of an young owl having a standoff with a police officer and had to share…

Tree Nazis strike again in South Dakota

Tree cutting - South Dakota roadsides

Another one of my (former) favorite birding spots, hit by the South Dakota Tree Nazis. If they have their way, no habitat of any kind will be left in the state, and we’ll have a nice homogeneous landscape of corn and soybeans.

Sigh…this is getting old.  I went out this morning to do a bit of birding, and thought I’d try “Ditch Road” north of Sioux Falls.  It’s a spot I like to go to in the mornings.  Ditch road has a ditch that often holds water, with thick trees and shrubs on either side.  The stretch I like to bird is on the west side of the road, so there’s some nice light as I drive it in the morning.

As soon as I turned the corner on to Ditch Road, my heart fell.  Yet another of my favorite birding habitats in the area has fallen prey to the South Dakota Tree Nazis.  If you haven’t heard of the group, they’re an evil underground effort to ensure that all of South Dakota is homogeneous corn and soybeans, and that every little bit of remaining bird habitat is removed.  “Spook Road”, another favorite birding spot just east of my home town of Brandon, has also fallen prey to the Tree Nazis.

In both cases, thick shrubs and trees lining the road have been completely removed.  From the rumors I’ve heard, it’s local and county government efforts to satisfy new insurance requirements.  I’m not sure if it’s true, but I had heard that due to an accident involving someone becoming injured or killed in a vehicle strike on roadside woody vegetation, insurance companies pressured local governments to remove woody vegetation that’s anywhere close to a roadway.

Trees aren’t exactly widespread on the South Dakota plains.  Urban areas certainly have plenty of trees, but otherwise they are typically restricted to riparian areas and fencelines.  In the case of the aforementioned Spook Road, there’s about a 3 mile stretch where a small creek intermittently crosses the road, and it’s the thick riparian/roadside trees and shrubs that were removed.  In the case of Ditch Road, it truly is a very thin strip of tree and shrub habitat, perhaps 30 yards wide in total, but it’s always been a very productive birding location for me, particularly in spring when migrant passerines move through.

And now, like many of my other favorite birding locations, the Tree Nazis have destroyed it.  As the photo above shows, ALL vegetation on the side of the ditch closest to the road has been removed.  I guess I should be thankful the Tree Nazis were feeling gracious, and left the vegetation on the far side of the ditch. It’s a far too common site though in the area, with trees along fencelines, shelter belts, and other roadside trees being removed at an incredible rate.

The South Dakota Tree Nazis have many splinter groups operating in the state as well, including the South Dakota Wetland Destroyers who have been incredibly active in the last couple of years, drain-tiling and destroying every tiny remaining spot of wetland in the area.  For an area that historically was chock-full of little wetlands, I now have to drive a ways to find a functional wetland with any kind of decent birding.

I’ve got a LOT of photos on my main website that were taken on Ditch Road. After what I saw today, all of those photos may now just be a remembrance of a time when Ditch Road had decent birding, before the Tree Nazis did their work…

Ethical dilemma – What to do about cowbirds?

Orchard Oriole and Cowbird Fledgling

Another species that often falls victim to Cowbird parasitism, a Orchard Oriole.

Spring and summer are wonderful times in South Dakota. After a long winter, the weather in the spring and summer is usually fantastic, the landscape comes alive after months of dormancy, and birds return in force.  Come June and July, my yard starts to come alive with the young of the birds that breed in the area.  Unfortunately, it’s also a time where, without fail, I’ll look out into my yard at some point and see a parent of some species feeding a cowbird young.  I don’t know if they’re more prone to cowbird parasitism, but it seems most years I see an adult Chipping Sparrow trying to feed a giant cowbird fledgling that’s easily twice its size.

Human beings definitely are guilty of anthropomorphizing wild animals, treating them as if they have human emotions and feeling sympathy as you would for a human being in a similar situation.  When I see a tiny Chipping Sparrow trying to feed a big, hungry cowbird fledgling, I immediately feel sorry for the Chipping Sparrow, knowing that its nesting success for its own fledglings has likely suffered at the hands of this giant interloper.  I often know where birds are nesting in my yard.  Chipping Sparrows often use my two spruce trees or this thick juniper to build their tiny nests.  In the spring I can often look directly into their nests, and therein lies the ethical dilemma.  What do you do when you see a giant cowbird egg amidst the smaller host bird eggs?

As a scientist, you of course know that cowbirds too are part of the natural environment, and what you’re witnessing is a natural occurrence.  Cowbirds are a native species, and other birds have always had to deal with cowbird parasitism.  On the other hand, there’s also no doubt that cowbirds are more common in many parts of their range compared to historical averages, thanks to human activity.  Cowbirds have always preferred open habitats, but habitat fragmentation and creation of more “edge” habitat has resulted in increased cowbird access to many species that rarely had to deal with it before.

All true!  Cowbirds HAVE benefited from man’s alteration of the landscape!  And that’s the justification I guess I tell myself when I peer into a bird nest, see a cowbird egg, and…pick it out and destroy it.  Yes, I know I’m anthropomorphizing the situation.  Yes, I know it’s a natural occurrence, cowbirds are a native species, and they have a right to survive just as the Chipping Sparrow does.  But in my own mind, it doesn’t seem “right” when I see that cowbird fledgling following around the little Chipping Sparrow fledgling, demanding food.

And thus, I do destroy cowbird eggs when I see them in a nest in my yard.  It’s one of those things I’m conflicted about though, as even though I almost always do it when I see a cowbird egg, I also feel kind of guilty after the act is done.

Fishing and birds, a great combination!

Black Hills Rainbow Trout

My son with one of the big rainbow trout he caught. This one was at Grace Coolidge walk-in area below Center Lake.

Just back from yet another trip, but thankfully this one was ALL pleasure and no work.  My son and I went to the Black Hills for several days to go trout fishing.  The Black Hills can be incredibly busy in summer, particularly as the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis comes close.  That’s still a week and a half off, but even so, crowds are starting to build in the Hills.  The big tourist attractions and towns like Hill City and Deadwood were certainly bustling, and motorcycles were everywhere.

The thing I like about fishing the Black Hills though?  Isolation and intimate settings, even amidst the madhouse of the Hills near Rally time.  Several little reservoirs with easy access are in the Black Hills, and those can be busy.  However, with a short hike, you can always find a spot to fish alone.  The last several days were no exception, as my son and I had some truly incredible fishing, all to ourselves.

Grace Coolidge Creek walk-in area is a 3 mile or so stretch below Center Lake, with 6 or 7 small dams providing deeper pools in what is otherwise a very small stream.  Couple with the natural pools, there are plenty of spots for surprisingly large trout to be found.  We found that out very quickly on our first day when my young son caught a trout that may be bigger than any I’ve ever caught…a gorgeous, fat, 19″ Rainbow Trout in one of the dammed pools.  Despite the incredible fishing, in an entire day of walking up and down the creek, we ran across a total of 1 family hiking, and 1 other fisherman.

Even areas right next to major roads can be very productive and “isolated”.  We also spent quite a bit of time on Spearfish Creek, south of the town of Spearfish.  Spearfish Canyon is designated a “scenic highway” and the road can indeed get quite a few tourists.  However, it’s not hard at all to find a spot to fish without interruption or competition.  Spring Creek, as it flows out of Sheridan Lake, is similarly on a paved highway, yet my son and I had our pick of locations to fish.  Overall, a great fishing trip, one where we easily could have kept our daily and possession limits of 5 and 10 trout, respectively.  Most of the Rainbows and Browns we caught were 8-12 inches, but there were several over 14″ in addition to the 19″ beauty my son caught.

It wasn’t really a birding trip, but I did of course keep my eyes open while fishing. I was a bit disappointed in failing to see one of my favorite species, the American Dipper.  Last time my son and I fished Spearfish Creek, we had an active nest near our favorite pool and had fun watching the parents forage for food.  No Dipper, but we did enjoy watching an Osprey fishing the same pool on this trip, as well as many Violet-Green Swallows dipping and diving over the water in search of insects.

Another favorite species of mine in the hills are Mountain Bluebirds.  A great spot to find them is in a very large grassy area north of Deerfield Lake.  Many bluebird boxes are found on the fence posts surrounding the pastures, and we saw dozens of Mountain Bluebirds along the fencelines.

A great trip!  Back to reality, with no trips in sight…

A nerdy scientist’s assessment of risk – Tornadoes vs. Earthquakes

Tornado Risk map - Dakotas

Tornado risk map from the National Weather Service for July 17th, 2015. Sioux Falls was squarely within the 2% zone, meaning there was a 2% chance of a tornado being seen somewhere within 25 miles of your location. Somehow…we all survived.

While at a conference for work in Portland last week, my colleague and I had a nice supper with two USGS colleagues who work in Menlo Park, California and Seattle, Washington, respectively.  We had relayed the news that the night before, there was storm damage in the area, with straight line winds and tornadoes both causing damage.  The West Coast colleagues…oh…let’s just call them “Ben” and “Tamara”…were flabbergasted that we’d want to live in an area so prone to devastating storms.

Tonight, the National Weather Service put out the map I’m showing here, noting that parts of South Dakota had either a 5% or 2% chance of a tornado hitting somewhere within 25 miles of your location. Let’s do the math!  What are the odds of a tornado hitting YOUR exact location on a night like this, when tornadoes were indeed spotted?

An area with a radius of 25 miles is over 54 billion square feet of territory. What are the odds of a tornado hitting your bit of territory, with a 2% chance of one being seen somewhere in this area? The average tornado path is 4 miles, or 21,120 feet. Average width is 500 feet. The average damage path is 10.5 million square feet. Even if you’re in the highest probability area, 5% chance of one being seen relatively near, the chances of one hitting YOUR chunk of territory…0.0010%. For the 2% chance of a tornado near you, the odds are 0.0004% it will strike your exact location.

Without Warning - Oregon Cascadia earthquake Comic

An actual comic-like booklet put out by the Oregon Office of Emergency Management. Yes, West Coasters…you’re in imminent danger of being swallowed whole by a massive earthquake. Tornadoes in the Plains? They’re nothing in comparison.

Just a guess…but we probably have chances similar to this only like 4-5 times a year. If you just use the same strike probability assumptions, you thus only have, likely at absolute most, a 0.0050% chance of a tornado hitting your location in a given year.

That’s an average of about one hit on your exact location every 20,000 years. Most tornadoes are weak F0 or F1, so even a hit might not be that bad.

Now, let’s reconsider the situation for my colleagues living in California and Seattle.  This week the New Yorker ran a story about the upcoming massive Cascadia subduction zone earthquake that could hit, The story said on average, something similar to the massive 1700 earthquake thought to have hit the area occurs about once every 250 years.

Put it all together, and Seattle is 80X as likely to get walloped with a 9.0 earthquake as Sioux Falls is to get a direct hit from a tornado, and even a direct tornado hit in Sioux Falls is likely to be far, far, less damaging than any earthquake.

You are welcome, West Coast storm-haters.  I hope I have reassured you that is once again safe to visit us in stormy Sioux Falls.  🙂

Global Warming hits South Dakota

Budgerigar - Melopsittacus undulatus

A sign of global warming? Budgies hanging out with House Sparrows in rural South Dakota. I feel sorry for the guy actually, given his anticipated life span here.

As a scientist, I don’t have much patience for global warming “skeptics”.  The science, like most science, has uncertainties, but there’s no doubt that 1) the climate is warming overall, and 2) man is to blame.  I do get a little upset though with news stories that attribute specific events to climate change.  For example, overall, yes, models indicate there will be increased frequency of severe weather events, but it’s hard to specifically attribute the current California drought or an individual hurricane to climate change.

With that said…for people who have been in the same geographic area for decades, I would imagine there are many astute folks who have noticed changes in the climate, be it more precipitation, an earlier spring, or milder winters.  For us here in South Dakota?  There are CLEAR signs of global warming. In fact, the climate has warmed so much here, that Australian bird species are setting up shop in the state.

This photo is of a Budgerigard (“Budgie”) hanging out on a fence post. This is just east of Brandon, the town where I live, near Beaver Creek Nature Area.  I had to do a double-take when I saw him, but it’s hard to miss that bright green color that no other bird around here comes close to matching.  This was at a small rural home, where the Budgie was hanging out with a bunch of House Sparrows.

An escapee?  Or a sign of climate change?  CLEARLY it’s the latter.  It’s only a matter of time before other Australia species begin showing up in South Dakota.  Koalas munching on invasive Eucalyptus trees on the plains?  Kangaroos hopping around the Black Hills?  Dingos prowling through city streets?  THIS is the future we face as South Dakotans, thanks to climate change.  The budgie sighting is just the beginning…

All life should be cherished. Except spiders.

Garden Spider

The biggest spider I’ve ever seen in my yard, what I believe is a common “Garden Spider”. Pretty. Also the stuff of nightmares.

A bit off topic, but…there was a spider in the sink this morning.  Just your average-sized, run-of-the-mill spider you find in your house from time to time.  If you should find yourself in this situation, here are the 4 steps you should take:

  1. Turn the water on high and flush the spider deeply down into the drain
  2. Turn on the garbage disposal.
  3. Turn the water on as hot as it can go and run it for a bit…just in case.
  4. Pouring flaming gasoline down the drain is optional, but recommended.

I’m a nature lover.  I’ll go FAR out of my way to avoid hitting any form of life while driving.  I’ll stop and help turtles cross the road.  If I’m walking I’ll try to avoid stepping on little buggy critters.

But I draw the line at spiders, inside my house!  I’m not sure what the visceral, horrifying reaction is people (often) have to spiders.  They’re not that big.  They’re not going to hurt you.  Many people (myself included) don’t have the same negative reaction when seeing a similarly sized insect.  Yet a spider sighting in the house is a cause for immediate action in my house.

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