Articles for the Month of September 2015

Back in the swing…

Black Skimmer - Rynchops niger - Drawing by Terry Sohl

Colored pencil drawing of a Black Skimmer – Rynchops niger.

June of 2 years ago.  That’s the last time I’ve touched a pencil.  June 8th, to be exact.  I started a drawing of a Black Skimmer, a species I’d only seen a few times, and had never gotten a good photo of.  I thought I’d do a quick and dirty drawing for my website, so I started that evening. I got about halfway done before deciding to finish in the morning.

It was that next morning that I woke up feeling very achy, joints hurting, with my eyes stuck shut from being so dry.  Just like that, overnight, I was introduced to the wonderful world of Sjogren’s Syndrome.  All of my drawing equipment and my half-finished Black Skimmer drawing were put away in a drawer.  And there they lay forgotten for the next 2 years, 3 months, and 18 days.

No, “forgotten” isn’t the right word.  I occasionally remembered the drawing.  I occasionally thought about picking up a pencil and starting to draw again. But I couldn’t bring myself to do so.  Drawing, and this Black Skimmer image, were associated in my mind with the onset of Sjogren’s.  Every time I thought about starting to draw again, it brought me back to June 8th, 2013, and all the “fun” physical symptoms I’ve had since.  And thus the pencils sat for over 2 years.

This past weekend I picked them up again, and finished the drawing.  My biggest issue right now are my eyes.  Very dry, gets worse as the day goes on, which makes it hard sometimes for me to even want to keep them open, and also makes things blurrier and blurrier as the day progresses.  Not ideal for drawing, with either blurry eyes or closed eyes.  I think my drawing strategy will usually have to be doing it in the morning, or up to mid-afternoon at the latest, before my eyes start to get really bad for the day.

In any event, the pencils have been taken out of storage, the Black Skimmer has been completed (as has another drawing, which I’ll post later).

South Dakota Aurora

South Dakota Aurora

Aurora on the night of September 22nd. Not much for “moving curtains” of light, but a beautiful array of glowing colors on the horizon.

Yeah, yeah, yeah…it’s been 3 weeks since I’ve blogged.  What can I say, feeling sorry for myself again with the Sjogren’s, haven’t felt very good and haven’t felt much like going out and shooting photos.  But I have had a few good photo ops in the last 3 weeks.

This one is pure serendipity.  A week ago Sunday, I got up extremely early, at 4:00 AM, with the intention of going west to the Pierre area and doing some fishing and birding.  Serendipity, because when I got up at 4:00, I checked my phone when eating breakfast, and saw that my “Solar Monitor” app was indicating a strong global solar storm of Kp 7.  The app doesn’t say specifically whether you’ll be able to see an aurora in your location, but I know that you generally need a Kp of 6 or higher to have much of a chance to see it this far south.

That’s the theory!  But in the 22+ years we’ve been in South Dakota, I’ve never seen an aurora.  Luck was on my side on this morning though.  Before beginning the 3+ hour drive to where I was going to fish and bird, I went to a dark spot outside of town, and lo-and-behold, an aurora was clearly visible.  It wasn’t the earth-shattering, magical moving curtains of light you see in the videos, it was more a glow of subtle colors on the far northern horizon.  Beautiful to watch though on a beautiful clear night!

Just some yard critters

Burrowing Wasp

A large wasp, busy digging a hole in the mulch and dirt by my flowers. He would disappear into the hole every few seconds and come out carrying a bit of mulch, such as that in his jaws in this photo.

There are unconfirmed reports that I DO have new bird photos.  That’s right…actually photographs of feathered creatures, ala the old days when such a thing was commonplace.  I haven’t processed those photos yet though, so here’s a few photos from yesterday, just poking around the yard.

I have yet to ever be stung by a wasp or a bee. Not in my entire life.  I think I’m pushing my luck.  The wasp was a very large one, at least an inch and a half long, who was busy digging a hole in the mulch and dirt by the honeysuckle by our front door.  He wasn’t exactly thrilled that I was trying to shoot photos of him.  I sat on the front step and at first he would buzz up from the hole and fly around me a bit.  But as I sat there he seemed to get used to me.  He would disappear into the hole for a second or two and come out with a piece of dirt or mulch, so my strategy was to move ever so slightly closer to him every time he went in the hole.  It seemed to work!  Before I knew it I was within about a foot of him (the distance you have to be with the macro lens to get a shot like this).  I have no idea how aggressive this wasp species actually is, and how likely it is that it would (or could) sting you, but I figure it’s only a matter of time before I come across one that’s not so camera friendly.

The dragonfly was another nice one to get.  I haven’t gotten many photos of dragonflies yet with my macro lens.  They seem just a bit too skittish to get close enough to.  Just like with birds though there always seems to be an exception to the rule.  With some bird species, they all just seem too skittish to photograph, but then you run across the one cooperative individual who seems to break the rules.  This dragonfly was certainly as cooperative as could be, letting me snap away at close range as much as I wanted.

Some day soon, some actual new bird photos will be posted here!  I promise!  For now, click on any photo for a larger view.



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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