Articles for the Month of October 2015

An end to ultralight-led Whooping Cranes

Saw today that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is recommending and end to the use of ultralights to lead eastern Whooping Cranes on migratory flights. The image of a group of young Whooping Cranes following an ultralight in a many-day “migration” is certainly well known both within the birding world, and for the public in general.  They’ve been used for a number of years to lead first-of-year Whooping Cranes from their summer grounds in Wisconsin, to Florida.

The Fish & Wildlife Service notes that they want to get away from “artificial” methods of expanding the Whooping Crane range.  They also note cost as an issue.  As a Fed scientist, my best guess?  It’s cost that’s the biggest factor here.  I can at least sympathize with the thought of using only “natural” conservation methodologies, but c’mon.  Would we have any Whooping Cranes moving between Wisconsin and Florida, without the use of ultralights and the program associated with it? What about other species?  We’ve brought back California Condor from the brink of extinction by capturing all wild birds and initiating a captive-breeding program.  Condors are now (rarely) starting to breed in the wild, but could they survive without “artificial” programs to support their population?

It ain’t easy being a Fed scientist in recent years!  I’m sure Fish & Wildlife is in the same boat as many of us…long-term declining budgets, and the need to cut valuable research and conservation programs.  It can certainly be expensive to implement and maintain programs such as those used for Whooping Cranes, California Condors, and other “iconic” species.  There are definitely arguments that a focus on such “artificial” and expensive programs, efforts that benefit only one species, are not the most efficient use of ever-declining conservation and research dollars.

On the other hand, the public in general isn’t going to pay much attention to conservation efforts for a rare forb or insect.  The value of programs for species such as Whooping Cranes and Condors goes beyond that individual species.  When the general public sees stories in the mainstream press about young Whooping Cranes being led across the country by a person in an ultralight, it draws their interest. It makes them care.  From that standpoint, it’s money well spent, as it opens up public discussion about conservation issues in general.

The cynical side of me looks at this story and sees that the total cost for the ultralight program has been around $20 million, with some of that coming from private funds.  The cynical side of me looks at the Defense Department budget, hovering around $700 billion, and notes $20 million isn’t even enough to buy spare parts for their most ridiculously expensive fighter jet.  The cynical side of me notes that for the cost of a handful of cruise missiles, we can continue to fund a program that may help save a species from disappearing from the face of the planet.

The cynical side of me gets a little depressed seeing stories like this…

Drawing – White-eared Hummingbird

White-eared Hummingbird

Colored pencil drawing of a White-eared Hummingbird, a species that in the U.S. is found only on occasion in far southern Arizona.

A nice relaxing weekend at home (my favorite kind).  The weather this fall has been spectacular, with crisp cool nights and sunny cool to warm days.  Yesterday was a day of fishing with my son.  Not a huge amount of success, although he did tie into a big carp and got a real kick out of battling it for a while.

Today, a day at home. Thought I’d get back to drawing so got out the equipment this morning and rew this White-eared Hummingbird.  If you just looked at the species I drew, you’d probably think I lived somewhere tropical, given that I love drawing hummingbirds and other species I don’t typically get a chance to see in South Dakota.  There is a method to the madness though, in terms of choosing what to draw.  I typically draw things that I don’t have photos of!  It fills a needed gap on my regular website!  Given that I have species description pages for every species seen in North Dakota, I need some image for each, and drawings work nicely when I don’t have a photo.

I also chose a “rare” U.S. hummingbird because I have a work trip coming up next month to Tucson.  I’ll likely take a couple of vacation days on my own, and go out birding.  November isn’t a great time to look for Hummingbirds, as it’s really summer when you get the biggest variety, and most chance to see a rare one that’s made it’s way up to southern Arizona from their more normal range in Mexico.  But there will be some hummingbirds around.  This is a White-eared Hummingbird, a species normally found in Mexico, but sometimes found in far southern Arizona.

I don’t know why I don’t draw more.  It always seems like a chore to get all the equipment out and devote several hours to it.  But I’m always so happy when I’m doing it and when I’m done. I’m more pleased with how this one turned out, than for most I do.

“Longmire” disappoints! Episode 43 TOTALLY unbelievable!

Barred Owl - Range Map

Do you see Barred Owls in any part of Wyoming on this range map?

I’m not a huge Netflix junkie, but there are a few TV series that I have watched in their entirety.  Recently I’ve been watching “Longmire”, a series focused on (fictional) Absaroka County in Wyoming.  It follows the Absaroka County Sheriff’s Department, with the sheriff himself being “:Walt Longmire”.

There are four seasons of the show on Netflix, and 43 episodes.  Last night I watched the last one, episode 43.  After devoting the time to watch the entire series, after following all the individual storylines, after waiting in anticipation how some of those may play out in this episode, my impression of the entire series changed on a dime with the very first sound of episode 43.

When episode 43 starts, the scene is set at a medicine woman’s house out in the middle of nowhere, in the ‘mountains” on a Crow Indian reservation.  The first sound you hear as the scene fades in from black…an owl calling.  I’ve been birding 15 years now. I can identify anything by sight.  I’m not the world’s greatest birder in identifying things by sound, but it certainly sounded like the distinctive hooting of a Barred Owl that opened up episode 43.

The problem?  There are no Barred Owls in Wyoming!!  It’s never quite clear where the fictional Absaroka County is supposed to lie in Wyoming, but it doesn’t matter as there’s no region in Wyoming where the species is found.

43 episodes.  43 hours devoted to a show.  RUINED by careless sound editing.

Somehow, someway, I managed to struggle through the remaining 59 minutes of the show.  During that time there’s another instance where you hear the hooting of a Barred Owl.  OK, no, it really didn’t “ruin” the show for me, but it is irritating when you’re watching a movie or a TV show and there’s an “inappropriate” bird sound.  It happens a lot.  Note that if you see ANY kind of hawk or eagle in a movie, the accompanying sound is very likely to be the distinctive cry of a Red-tailed Hawk.  Sure, it’s a cool sound, a sound that helps to set the stage for a “wild” scene.  But c’mon!  When I see a circling Bald Eagle on the screen, I don’t want to hear the accompanying cry of a Red-tailed Hawk!!

Be careful, Hollywood!  We birders are watching!  Inappropriate bird sounds in entertainment could be Hollywood’s undoing!  A revolution is brewing, a revolution led to disgruntled birders who want REALISM in their Hollywood entertainment!!


Pictures! Of things with “feathers”!!

Nelson's Sparrow - Ammodramus nelsoni

A Nelson’s Sparrow, one of the rather elusive “skulkers” that moves through the area in the fall.

For a website that started out as a place to share my bird photos, it sure seems like it’s been a long time since I’ve actually posted any bird photos.  Snakes?  Check!  Insects? Check?  Even an aurora? Check!!  But photos of creatures with feathers haven’t been very prominent lately.

It’s not like I haven’t been out birding.  Since late May, I haven’t birded as much as I would over a normal summer, but I have been out on occasion.  I truly haven’t had much luck getting good photos though.  Part of the issue is 1) my reluctance to shoot (yet more) photos of species that I already have many photographs, and 2) a higher standard for what constitutes a “keeper” photo.  In bird photography, it’s inevitable that you’ll toss most of your photos (dang things don’t sit still and pose for a nice picture!), but I toss more photos now than I ever have.

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

A Red-tailed Hawk, busy feeding on grasshoppers. This guy was gorging, looking down from this fence post, dropping down to grab the sluggish fall grasshoppers, coming back to the post to consume it, and then looking for another.

I spent time birding and taking photos the last couple of days, with the intention of actually getting photos “good enough” to put on my website.  Mission accomplished!  I really love birding in the fall.  While May is a magical month for warblers and other migrants that move through, October is a month for sparrows!  Sparrows aren’t exactly high on the “must see” list for most people (even many birders), but there’s a wonderful variety that moves through in the fall.  Despite the tendency for most people to think of sparrows as rather drab birds, there are also several with truly beautiful plumage.

One of the highlights in the fall for me are finding Le Conte’s and Nelson’s Sparrows.  Neither breed in my part of the state, and I never seem to be able to find them when they move north through the area in the spring.  However, I have multiple locations where I’ve had great luck finding them in the fall, particularly Le Conte’s Sparrows.  The species is highly sought by many birders, having a reputation of being “skulky” and difficult to find.  They definitely do stick to thick vegetation, usually in thick wet meadows or along the edges of wetlands, but with patience, you’ll usually get some good looks of them as they forage and go about their business in the fall.

Savannah Sparrow - Passerculus sandwichensis

One of the more common sparrows moving through in the fall, a Savannah Sparrow. You often see loose collections of a few dozen birds at this time of year.

Raptors can also be fun in the fall, typically not so much for variety of species in this part of the state (southeastern South Dakota), but in terms of sheer number.  You tend to see concentrations of American Kestrels, Red-tailed Hawks, and a handful of others as they move through in the fall.  It also tends to be a pretty good time for photographing them, as many are first year birds that tend to not be as spooky as older birds.

Note although it’s likely too early, I spent some time this weekend bushwhacking through cedar thickets, looking for early arrival Northern Saw-whet Owls.  No luck!  But I am looking forward to their arrival.   One of the few bright spots of a chilly South Dakota winter!

As always, click on the images for larger views.



Cooper's Hawk - Accipiter cooperiiHarris's Sparrow - Zonotrichia querulaMarsh Wren - Cistothorus palustris

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.

Saw-whets are a’ comin’!!! For now, a drawing…

Colored pencil drawing of a Northern Saw-whet Owl - Aegolius acadicus - By Terry Sohl

A colored pencil of drawing of a Northern Saw-whet Owl. I couldn’t wait until they arrived for the winter, so in the meantime sat down and drew one.

Last winter was a blast.  OK, that’s not something you typically say when you live in frigid South Dakota, but I really enjoyed last winter, and am looking forward to the cold weather again.  The reason?  Northern Saw-whet Owls!! Prior to last winter, I’d seen them on rare occasion, when I went to the Pierre area. It was a quite a few years ago when birders in the area started looking for them in cedar tree thickets near the Missouri River.  It takes quite a bit of work to find one however.  Looking for Saw-whet owls typically involves bush-whacking through dense cedar thickets, looking on the ground and on tree branches for the tell-tale “white-wash” that accumulates when the little owls use the same roost day after day.

When I say I’d seen them on “rare occasion”, it was literally ALWAYS finding a bird that someone else had found.  Oh sure, I’d given it the ol’ college try.  Prior to last winter, there were a number of times that I myself would go tromping through cedar thickets in Pierre, trying to find the little owls.  I was great at finding roosts where they USED to be!  As for finding a live owl?  Not so much.

I think people always suspected Northern Saw-whet Owls were much more widely distributed in South Dakota in the winter, but actual reports were few, likely due tot he effort involved in actually finding one.  Last winter I was determined to 1) actually find my “own” Saw-whet owl, and 2) do so right here near Sioux Falls, rather than making the 3 1/2 hour drive to Pierre, where they’re known to be found.  It wasn’t very encouraging at first.  And when I say “at first”, I mean there were probably about 10 fruitless trips trudging through cedar tree thickets, looking for owls.  The story was much like my attempts in Pierre…I was GREAT at finding owl pellets and whitewash, but wasn’t finding the owls themselves.

That all changed in January when I finally found my first Northern Saw-whet Owl in southeastern South Dakota.  It was at Newton Hills State Park, and he wasn’t alone!  On that truly magnificent day, I found not one, but four different Saw-whet Owls, all in the typical cedar thicket habitat that was similar to where they had been found for years in Pierre.  At least according to “eBird” reports, these were the first Saw-whet Owls reported in this part of the state.  The rest of the winter was great, going back to visit previously found Saw-whets (they tend to have roosting site fidelity, using the same sites for many days in a row), and finding new ones.  I ended up finding a few more at Newton Hills that winter, and then also started finding them  around Lake Alvin, just south of Sioux Falls.  For the winter, at least 9 individual over-wintering owls were found.

Just in the past few days bird banders in the area reported capturing and banding the first migrating Saw-whet owls of the season.  They’re here!  Or, at least they’re starting to arrive!  I’ll probably wait a couple of weeks before heading out to actually look for one, giving them a little more time to arrive, giving a little more time for the whitewash and pellet evidence to accumulate.  In the meantime, last weekend in my excitement for the coming winter, I did a colored pencil drawing of a Northern Saw-whet Owl, using a photo of one from last winter as a guide.

I can’t wait!  The owls are coming! The owls are coming!!  🙂

Rattlesnakin! Family fun for all…

Prairie Rattlesnake photo - Crotalus viridis

A Prairie Rattlesnake, curled up in a weedy spot right next to the burrow of a prairie dog.

I had never seen a rattlesnake before until 4 years ago.  I knew Prairie Rattlesnakes were found in much of South Dakota, but not in the eastern part of the state where I live.  A fellow birder posted something that fall, about not only finding some nice birds on a prairie dog town (e.g., Sprague’s Pipits and Burrowing Owls), but also noted that after a cool fall night, there were rattlesnakes out sunning on that warm fall day.

Rattlesnakes!  An 8-year old son!  What better father-son bonding activity than going “rattlesnakin’!!” I am SUCH a good father!  First actually, we went fishing in the morning on the Missouri River, below Oahe Dam by Pierre.  However by noon, with a nice warm sun starting to heat things up, we grabbed lunch and headed for that same prairie dog town. It didn’t take long to find sunning rattlesnakes.  They hang out in prairie dog burrows (presumably abandoned ones), coming out to sun during warm fall days.  On one prairie dog mound were 4 rattlesnakes, 3 quite large ones, and one very small one that couldn’t have been more than 12 inches long.  Great fun had by all!  Photos!  A son that, well…wasn’t quite enamored as I was in seeing poisonous snakes up close and personal.

Funny…my wife and sister also both gave me a bit of grief for PURPOSELY taking our son out to see poisonous snakes.  Silly family…they don’t know good clean fun when they see it!

Prairie Rattlesnake - Crotalus viridis

Another Prairie Rattlesnake, and this guy was a big boy. Probably the biggest I’ve seen.

I hadn’t been back out “rattlesnakin” again until this past week.  No, I didn’t bring my son this time, but I did the same thing…fish during the cool morning hours, and then look for rattlesnakes as the sun warmed the ground at the prairie dog town.  Rattlesnakes weren’t out in force like they were on that fall day of four years ago, but there were still a handful to be found, including probably the largest rattlesnake I’ve seen.

So, if you’re sitting at home on a warm fall day, wondering where to have some good clean family fun, don’t forget!  Rattlesnakin’….a family activity you ALL can enjoy!!

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