Articles for the Month of October 2016

In the News – Week of October 23rd


This snowball brought to you by the effects of climate change?

A collection of bird, science, photography, and news links from the past week.  Not many bird stories this week, but some good science stories.  Click on the links for the actual stories.

“Global Warming” causing cold winters — James Inhofe, jackass senator from Oklahoma (pardon my value judgement, but the man IS indeed a jackass from the standpoint of any scientist), famously strolled onto the Senate Floor a few years ago and presented a snowball.  PROOF, he said, that global warming was a hoax! A sham! A deception, set up by evil scientists like myself!!  How can global warming be real, if snow was falling in the DC area?  Sigh. In the last decade, the term”climate change” has been used much more frequently than “global warming”, and with good reason.  Yes, temperatures are warming overall, but the impacts also impact precipitation patterns, storm severity, and atmospheric flows, meaning “warming” is just one component of climate change.  As this story point out, severe warming in the Arctic is affecting the position of the jet stream, making it more likely that “wavy” jet stream patterns will occur in winter.  As a result, winters become more variable, with cold snaps become more common as a wavy jet stream brings colder air down from the Arctic. Sorry Senator Inhofe!  That snowball you used as a prop may have been an example of the effects of climate change!!

Heading to California for a long nap — I’ve only been fortunate enough to come across bats on a  handful of occasions.  If we take a walk in the late evening, just after sunset, we’ve occasionally seen individual bats flying about. Growing up, I remember seeing them flying around streetlights at night, scooping up the insects that the lights attract. The most memorable encounter?  Moving the portable air conditioner out of my wife’s grandmother’s kitchen window in the fall…only to have a live bat plop down on the kitchen counter. We interrupted his daytime roost!! Cool creatures, that I wish I’d had more chances to see. This is a neat story about Hoary Bats, one of the bigger species in North America.  Some bats will hibernate, some will migrate when weather gets cold, but the Hoary Bat is unique in that it first migrates to California, and then settles in for hibernation.  When I read stories like this, it always makes you realize how very little we know about the world around us…

Lesser Meadow Katydid - Conocephalus

Coming soon to a dinner plate near you? No thanks!

Edible Bugs — Can they replace beef?  NO. THEY CANNOT. I have nothing further to say on the matter.

Yo Dude…Surf’s Up!! — From the realm of “pure” science that doesn’t seem to have any practical application, some research on Mute Swans, with a finding that they will sometimes “windsurf” as they move on the surface of the water.  This researcher on 3 occasions observed Mute Swans sitting on the surface of the water, then opening their wings to catch the wind and “windsurf” across the water’s surface.  The REAL story here for me, from the perspective of a scientist?  That this dude was able to get an actual journal publication about this!  Publish-or-perish, the  mantra for many scientists, and this dude was able to publish something based on what he saw during his lunch hour!  Bravo…

And you think your life sucks? — I believe I’ve seen this before, in a David Attenborough-narrated nature documentary.  The Pearlfish is a species of fish often found in sandy shallows where there’s not a lot of protective cover.  It’s solution to not getting eaten? 1) Find a Sea Cucumber 2) Enter it’s anus and crawl inside.  Lovely!  Something to think about the next time you think your life sucks…it could always be worse.

Unseen moons may be circling Uranus — My son would have some crude jokes to say about this story…

Donald Trump

Brain activity declines as lying becomes more frequent? Why am I showing a picture of Donald Trump next to this story? Must be coincidence…

Brain reacts less as lies become more frequent — Scientific proof of why this election cycle has been so god-awful!  Fact checkers have certainly been kept busy over the last several months.  As this story notes, your brain gets conditioned to frequent lying, where it reacts less as lie after lie pile up.  Less brain activity with more lying…that certainly explains Donald Trump!!  He’s been at it so long during this campaign that you can hardly blame him for his many slip-ups.

ET Phoning Earth — I hate the mainstream media at times. I understand the competitive nature of journalists and the desire to be the one to break a big story.  From an economic perspective, I get the focus on the trivial by places like CNN, as unfortunately, they’re much more likely to get a lot of “clicks” on a story about Kim Kardashian’s latest hair-do than they are to get clicks on some boring science story.  But what I REALLY HATE is how everything is sensationalized, how a story always has to be “sexed up” to make it more controversial and eye-catching.  Hence this story, with the provocative headline of “Strange messages coming from the stars are probably aliens“.  The scientists involved here also deserve some of the blame, as it’s incredibly, ridiculously premature to assign these “strange messages” to an alien source, but it’s the story in the Independent that really plays that aspect of the work.  Interesting work, but I’ll need a hell of a lot more proof of the source of this signals before donning my tinfoil hat.  There are just far, far too many things we don’t know about the universe to unequivocally associate the unknown to some alien source.

Carolina Parakeet - Drawing

Carolina Parakeets were once occasionally found here in South Dakota, so why not parrots in Siberia? This is one of the first bird drawing I did when I started several years ago.

Parrot fossil from…Siberia?  — A parrot fossil dating from around 16 million years ago was unearthed near Lake Baikal in Siberia.  This marks the furthest north a fossil from a parrot-like species has been found.  It was warmer in the Milocene when this bird was living in the region, but not as tropical as the climate where most parrot species are found.  It’s not exactly unprecedented though. In North America, our own Carolina Parakeet was found over a good chunk of the eastern United States, and there are even reports that it had occasionally been found up here in South Dakota.

Got the sniffles? Go milk a Tasmanian Devil — I believe this is sound medical advice, based on this story!  Researchers have found that the milk from a Tasmanian Devil contains peptides that are able to kill hard-to-kill “superbugs”, bacteria that are becoming immune to our most commonly used antibiotics.  I envision a world where everybody keeps their own small herd of Tasmanian Devils, faithfully milking them every morning and use Devil Milk on their morning cereal to keep sickness at bay.

Two-thirds of Earth’s wildlife gone in last 40 years — Well this is a depressing story.  A study by the World Wildlife Fund has found that almost 60% of vertebrate populations have disappeared from the wild since 1970. Numbers a dire across all ecosystems, but are particularly bad for freshwater ecosystems, with over 80% population declines.  Good. Lord.  It’s not exactly surprising, particularly the fresh-water habitat finding.  I’m a fisherman, and have been since I was a boy.  We rarely bother going fishing in eastern South Dakota any more.  The rivers are E.Coli-filled cess pools of ag runoff and animal waste, and every year more and more lakes in the region are being assigned as mercury threats, with fishermen warned to either not eat the fish or to severely limit how much is consumed.  And yet there are groups out there that want to ABOLISH the Environmental Protection Agency…something that even our Republican presidential candidate has promised to do.  It sickens me to think what we’re leaving behind for our children…

Luke Perry AARP eligible —  I’m of an age where I definitely remember 90210 and Melrose Place.  I wasn’t a big fan and didn’t watch, but my wife did, as did many other people I knew back then. Well, evidently being “of an age” where I remember 90210 means I AM FREAKING OLD!! The reason this story caught my attention? Luke Perry from 90210 turned 50 and became AARP eligible…as have I recently.  Sigh.  With that, I’ll sign off from another week’s worth of news.  Now where are my damned glasses? And cane.  And prescriptions…sigh….



Water strike!!! Living with quirky pups…


Our first dog, Grover. Grover was the first of our quirky dogs! He usually was a sweet as can be, but with an occasional “grumpy” streak. In many ways he seemed part cat, part dog, taking love on HIS schedule, while grudgingly tolerating it at other times.

Way off topic, but given recent events…a story about our history with pups seemed to be in order.  I never had a dog growing up.  My dad is a great guy, but alas…he was a mailman!  No dogs for him.  My mom didn’t like cats.  As a result, I had fish growing up, but never had something warm and huggable! After we got married and got our first house, one of the first things I wanted to do…get a dog!  We ended up with “Grover”, a wonderful, sweet-yet-simultaneously-grumpy Cocker Spaniel with a million little quirks.  Most of the time, he was sweet and loving, but on occasion, his grumpy side would kick in and he might TOLERATE your love, but he didn’t seem too enamored about it. Despite his quirks, he was a great first dog.

A year or two after getting Grover, my wife stumbled across “Cooper”, a Cocker Spaniel in need of rescue.  She went to see him at his home, where he had lived outside for his short first year of life, chained to a tree with nothing to even play with, other than an empty milkjug.  Of course when you SEE a rescue dog, you WANT the rescue dog.  We arranged to get him, and I went over the next day to pick him up. He’d never been groomed, had hair as long as any Cocker Spaniel you’d ever seen before, hadn’t been played with much…but when I picked him up and brought him to the car, he immediately jumped into my lap in the driver’s seat, and curled up.  Hence began our long, perfect relationship with Cooper “Milkjug” Sohl, a beautiful, gentle soul for whom the entire world was always a place of happiness and wonder.


Cooper, our 2nd spaniel who lived a long, healthy life alongside Grover. Cooper was the sweetest soul that ever walked the face of the earth, with nary a “bad day”, and always full of joy.

Dogs live far too short of lives.  After 11 years, Grover started having health issues.  An examination and x-ray revealed the worst…a huge tumor that wasn’t treatable.  We didn’t know how long he had left, but he continued to enjoy life, and we enjoyed our lives WITH him. After a couple of months, something I’ll never forgive myself for…I went on a business trip, doing field work up in Alaska.  We were staying overnight in a wilderness cabin, in the middle of nowhere…and my cell phone rang at 1:00 in the morning.  Stunned that there was even service, I picked up the phone, and heard the cracking voice of my crying wife.  Grover had woken during the night and was seemingly paralyzed in the lower half of his body, due to the growth of the tumor.  My wife snuggled him through the night, brought him into the vet in the morning, and he was given release from his pain.  My first dog, and I wasn’t even there for him at the end.

Cooper lived for another couple of years before he too started having health issues.  Just as with Grover, an examination found a large tumor that was inoperable.  However, we were fortunate with Cooper.  He didn’t pass until he was almost 15, and for his last couple of months with us, we were able to shower him with love and affection, before letting him go as well.  This was in early spring of 2014.

It’s heartbreaking to lose a family member, and make no mistake, dogs are family members.  My wife didn’t want another dog, at least not for a long while.  Myself?  Our house just seemed so quiet, so empty.  After a month I started casually looking at “rescue” sites, not really planning on doing anything, but being…curious.  It was during this aimless online perusing that I came across “Oscar” and “Felix”, two spaniels that had been found living in the wild. They were found living in an outside auger pipe, and thus they were initially given the nickname “The Pipe Spaniels”.  When a farmer down in Kansas first managed to coax them into his house, they were scared, wild, and painfully shy of any human contact.  After refusing to leave the relative safety of a spot under the farmer’s bed, a rescue group was contacted.  For the next two months, they were slowly introduced to human contact by a wonderful woman from the rescue group, and in June of 2014, we were introduced to the newest members of our family.

Oscar and Felix

Oscar and Felix, the “Pipe Spaniels” soon after they were rescued. At this stage, they’d huddle together in the far end of their enclosure, trying to stay as far away as possible from any human contact.

Given their background and reluctance to even touch a human being when they were first found, they had made some progress by the time we got them.  However, they were still incredibly shy, so easy to spook at the slightest disturbance, and felt much more comfortable snuggling with each other than they did coming anywhere close to members of our family.  The first month was especially rough.  Just trying to get them to go in and out of the patio door to go outside was often a chore.  We were slowly introducing ourselves to them, allowing them to get used to us at their own pace.  There were many growing pains over the first year!  After a while, they began to feel more comfortable. Instead of looking for “cover” while resting (such as under a table or chair), they started coming into the living room and feeling comfortable enough to fall asleep in the open while we were all in the room.  They were increasingly coming up for pets, and then snuggles. Trying to walk them on a leash was impossible at first, as they’d buck like broncos while on leash.  But there too, they began to trust us.  By the end of that first summer, not only did they learn to walk on a leash, but walks became the high point of their day!  Just the sight of us grabbing the leashes would send them into a butt-wiggling frenzy of  happiness. As they learned to trust us, they also started acting like “normal” dogs, following us wherever we went in the house, and often insisting on snuggling up with us no matter where we were.

It’s now been 2 1/2 years since we’ve gotten the Pipe Spaniels”.  A great story?  No doubt!  They’re wonderful, sweet little dumplings (my wife’s term), and have added immeasurable joy to our lives.  But as rescues, coming from a background “in the wild”, they are two of THE QUIRKIEST dogs on the planet.  The names the rescue group gave them, “Oscar” and “Felix” are PERFECT as they are truly the “Odd Couple” of dogs.

Oscar, Felix and Alex

This is about 3 months after we got Oscar and Felix. Despite their quirks, they warmed up to our son FAR faster than we would have ever expected.

Felix is the goofy, more outgoing one.  We’ve given him the middle name of “Tigger”!!  He’s always bouncing from place to place, looking for something exciting.  If there’s trouble in the house, you can ALWAYS bet that it’s Felix who started that trouble!  He loves to chase, he loves to play, he loves to tease his brother, and tease us!  He also is a true cuddler, loving nothing more than curling up on your lap or next to you on the couch.

Oscar’s middle name?  “Eeyore”.  He couldn’t be more different from Felix!  Everything he does is slow…and…deliberate.  Walking outside, eating, even playing…everything is done slowly and carefully.  He’s also more cautious and careful about distributing his love, which makes loving moments with him even more special.

Given their background as rescues, even after 2 1/2 years, quirks remain, one of which has recently driven  us NUTS, and is the reason for the title of this blog post.  While they generally act like “normal” dogs while with us in the house, they are often still painfully shy around new people and new situations. Fortunately they both think our son is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but otherwise, children, especially young girls, really seem to frighten them (making us wonder what they went through before the rescue place took them in). One major, MAJOR quirk…their eating and drinking habits, particularly the latter.

The first day we got them, we immediately introduced them to the back yard.  One of the first things they did…go over to the bird bath and get a good drink. Ever since that first day, they both REFUSE to drink water that’s inside the house!  The bird bath is their “go to” source of water, and no matter how thirsty they are, they will wait until they’re outside before taking a drink.  In winter when the water is frozen?  They eat snow!  No water in the bird bath in summer? They’ll lick the morning dew off the deck!  They’ll lick the dew in the grass!  They’ll look for a mud puddle!  They even turn over plastic bags or other things in the back yard to lick the moisture underneath!  It’s only on the very rare occasions where there’s no outside water source that they’d even DREAM of drinking water from the always full bowl next to their doggy beds.


Felix lounging on the couch in one of his favorite positions. Yeah…I’d say he’s learned to relax around us.

Recently, we have been very worried about Oscar.  He’s always been the “quirkier” pup, but recently he’s taken it to a new level.  About a week and a half ago, Oscar started to eat more slowly, and leave food behind in his bowl.  Soon, it was hard to get him to eat at all.  After one day where he refused to eat anything, we set up a vet appointment and started to wonder what was wrong.  I called the vet to make the appointment, then went back to try to get him to eat…something. ANYTHING!  Even ground beef, fresh chicken, and any other of his favorite treats were rejected.  He’d lick them once or twice, then ignore them.

That evening, worrying about poor Oscar and anxiously waiting for the next day’s vet appointment, a thought occurred to me.  His eating troubles began RIGHT at the time where I took the bird bath down for the winter.  The weather had been very dry, and there was little moisture outside for them, except perhaps the morning dew. In the past, both pups would VERY reluctantly resort to that yucky, disgusting tap water in indoor bowls, if no water were available from any other source.  We had just assumed that if they were really thirsty, they knew there was always an accessible bowl of water by their doggy beds!  But on a hunch, I took that bowl of water and moved it 10 feet…so it was OUTSIDE the patio door on the deck.


Oscar in one of his favorite elements…snow! Why is this one of his favorite weather phenomenon? BECAUSE IT MEANS AN UNLIMITED SUPPLY OF OUTDOOR WATER!! Allowing him to avoid that disgusting, clearly inferior “indoor” water!!

Oscar “Eeyore” Sohl, in true Oscar fashion, slowly meandered to the door when I asked if they wanted to go out. Felix did as he always does, bounding down the stairs and running all over the  yard like a mad man.  Oscar? He stopped when he saw something was “different.” “What’s this?”, he seemed to be saying, as he suspiciously eyed the water bowl in the corner of the deck.  Slowly, cautiously, with tail tucked between his legs (or what counts as a tail on a docked Spaniel), he approached the bowl, much as a gazelle would approach a watering hole when lions are around.  He took a sniff…and then started chugging water like he’d been lost in the Sahara for months.  That ENTIRE BOWL of water was gone in a couple of minutes. I look out, and a happy looking Oscar is staring back up at me, with water dripping down from his wet snout.

Could that be it?  Could that be why he wasn’t eating? Was he SO DAMNED STUBBORN about drinking water inside the house, that he was dehydrated and didn’t feel like eating? When he came back in, we offered him his food bowl…and he DEVOURED 2 1/2 meals worth of food.

What kind of pup does this?!?!? What kind of pup refuses to drink water if it’s inside the house, but will drink the same water, from the same bowl, if it’s 10 feet away OUTSIDE the house!?!?!  What kind of pup STARVES himself in some kind of silent demonstration against the evils of indoor water?!!?!?

We’re still monitoring our little freaky Oscar. I did temporarily refill the bird bath, given that we’re not supposed to get a hard freeze for the next few days.  Oscar has been drinking heartily from the bird bath and the outdoor water bowl, and is back to eating normally, just as if nothing were ever wrong!  Given where they came from and how incredibly shy they were when we first got them, they’re always going to be “quirky” little Pipe Spaniels!  But as the Great Water Strike of 2016 showed, we ARE learning to understand their freakiness!

Fall Sparrows

Le Conte's Sparrow - Ammodramus leconteii

The elusive Le Conte’s Sparrow, a species that’s often difficult to see, given their preference for dense vegetation. It’s always great to get a good look at one, much less get a clear, unobstructed photo like this.

What a beautiful time of year in South Dakota!  Yes, with leaves falling off trees, days very rapidly getting shorter, and temperatures falling, another South Dakota winter is imminent. Yes,the vast majority of insect-eating migrant birds have already passed through the state, not to be seen again until April or May.  Yes, species diversity will continue to fall from the summer and fall migration peak, to the typical winter “diversity” where anything other than a Dark-eyed Junco at your feeders is a treat.

However, one very welcome birding feature at this time of year are migrant sparrows.  There are species moving through right now that are rarely seen at any other time of year.  What’s really nice is how multiple species often mingle together.  I went birding one morning this weekend, and while it wasn’t a great trip overall, the trip was saved by one non-descript, overgrown, weedy field south of Tea, South Dakota. It’s a spot that’s been used as some kind of staging ground for road construction in the past.  Small piles of sand and gravel are scattered about, as are some smaller piles of rock and concrete chunks.  The feature that attracts the sparrows, however, is the weedy overgrowth that covers the entire area.  Just sitting in one location, I was able to find 7 different sparrow species.  Song Sparrows seemed to be the most common species, with Lincoln’s Sparrows not far behind.  There were also quite a few Harris’s Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, and Savannah Sparrows in and around this spot, as well as a handful of Clay-colored Sparrows.

Harris's Sparrow - Zonotrichia querula

Another one of my favorites, a Harris’s Sparrows. These big chunky sparrows always stand out from the crowd, not only by size, but by their unique plumage.

The highlight though were several beautifully plumaged Le Conte’s Sparrows.  Le Conte’s Sparrows are always such a treat to find.  In southeastern South Dakota, about the only time I see them is during fall migration. They are a highly sought species for many birders, although I think they’re actually not all that uncommon in migration in eastern South Dakota.  They do have a tendency to hang out in dense vegetation, however, making a good sighting something to be treasured.  I was fortunate to not only get some great, unobstructed views of Le Conte’s Sparrows this weekend, but also get some of the best photos I’ve ever gotten of the species.

A nice fall day of “sparrowing”!

Lincoln's Sparrow - Melospiza lincolniiSong Sparrow - Melospiza melodia

Living with Sjogren’s – Scleral Contact Lenses

Scleral Contacts for Dry Eye

One of the pictures a local news station took for a piece they did on my story of dealing with Sjogren’s Syndrome, and dry eye. The reason I’m writing this blog post…to let others who are suffering from extreme dry eye that THERE IS HOPE.

Off topic, and a probably the longest blog post I’ve ever done, but in a way it is directly related to the goals of my blog.  It’s science related!  It’s also directly related to my birding! But more than that, I want to tell my story, in the hopes that it can help other people who have gone through what I’ve gone through over the last few years.

There’s definitely a reason I stepped back from photography, working on my website, and blogging for almost a year.  In short…turning older sucks (I recently turned 50).  It sucks more when you get hit with a health issue.  I was diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome about 3 years ago now.  It’s not fun!  It’s an autoimmune disease that has variable symptoms, but it generally includes fatigue, joint pain, and most annoyingly for many, autoimmune attacks on the moisture glands in your eyes and mouth.  The latter were my first symptoms.  It may sound minor, but it can have a huge impact on your quality of life.  I’d learned to adapt to the dry mouth that developed soon after diagnosis, because for me, chewing gum provides great relief.  I even go to bed every night with gum in my mouth! If my mouth drys out at night, it will often wake me up, but a few semi-conscious chews on the gum and I get relief.

The eyes have been a much more difficult issue to deal with.  For 2 years, the dry eyes (my first Sjogren’s symptom) were annoying, but something I was living with.  That changed in late summer 2015, where it began to affect my vision.  I’d wake up with normal vision, but after a variable amount of time, every day, my vision would get very blurry due to extremely dry eyes.  I honestly don’t know where I’d be right now without the solution that I found.  I had no desire, or ability, to do bird photography or some of my other hobbies, and it was starting to affect my work in that there were days where I just couldn’t see well enough to work.

Starting last fall, I started working with a (wonderful!!) eye doctor in Sioux Falls, Dr. Hill, who wanted to try fitting a new kind of “scleral” contact lens. I have had glasses since I was 7, with extreme astigmatism, and although I’d tried contacts once before, many years ago, I never found contacts that would stay in the right position and allow me to see well.  Dr. Hill was hopeful that scleral contact lenses could both allow me to see without glasses for the first time in over 40 years, but also would also give me relief for my dry eyes.

Scleral contacts are larger than “normal” contact lenses.  They extend out into the whites of your eyes, with a ring of contact around the edge, but with a slight “dome” over your entire pupil and iris.  Before you put them in, you hold them horizontally with a little suction cup, fill them up with a saline solution, and then put them in your eyes while you’re looking down into a mirror. The idea?  That they will cover most of your eye, correct your vision like a normal contact, but also maintain a thin, domed layer of liquid that stays against your eye all day and relieves your dry eye symptoms.  I was skeptical at first, to say the least!  I was miserable though, was having a very hard time at work, and was willing to try anything.  Given my last experience with contact lenses, I wasn’t expecting much!

The whole experience started out rough.  Not only do I have bad astigmatism, but one of my eyes in particular was shaped very oddly.  It was very difficult to get a scleral contact lens that “fit” the contours of my eyes.  As a result, the first scleral contacts I tried would sometimes rotate spontaneously in my eye. Also, because of the poor fit, what’s supposed to be a sealed “ring” around your eye was anything BUT sealed, leading to that domed liquid layer either draining out, or being contaminated with debris from the eye itself.  My vision was NOT very good at first, as they didn’t fit right, and would become cloudy with debris finding its way underneath. They also weren’t very comfortable, and after a few hours, I always wanted to take them out.  It was discouraging, and my initial skepticism seemed well founded.

I went in for fittings and adjustments at least once a week, starting in October 2015.  By the New Year, I was still quite reliant on glasses, and was only wearing my scleral contacts sporadically. Towards the end of December, Dr. Hill told me there just wasn’t much more he could do with the kinds of scleral contacts available at the time…but, he said a new product was coming out in January that he thought just might solve my extraordinarily difficult case.

Again, I was skeptical, but tried to remain optimistic that the forthcoming new scleral contact line would work.  January came…and went, without the company releasing the new contact product.  Finally, by mid-February, the company launched the new line, a bigger scleral contact that covered more of the eye, was capable of compensating for extreme astigmatism, and provided a firmer fit that basically eliminated the possibility of the rotation issues I was encountering. Dr. Hill set up a fitting for the new line, and a few days later, I was called in to try them out. I was excited that this FINALLY might be “it”, might be the pair that fit my eyes, allowed me to see, and helped the dry eye issue.

I came in for a fitting, tried the contact, and…was immediately disappointed.  Once again, as soon as I put the contact in, I couldn’t see at all.  Dr.  Hill was puzzled, but it became apparent that the contact was rotated in an unexpected way, and thus the astigmatism correction wasn’t properly placed over the eye.  I left dejected as he took more measurements and said they’d try again. The next week, I went back for another try.

The day I went in for that refitting is a day that changed my life.  I had been quite miserable for several months by then, and had been into Dr. Hill’s office every week for several months.  I knew the routine…go in for another fitting, put in the new contact, and then have the disappointment set in as I’d immediately know it wasn’t “right”.  I went into that appt. in early March with the same mindset.  I went into what had become “my” exam room (I’d been there so often!!), sat down, and tried the new pair.

I COULD SEE!!  Right away I knew something was different, in that not only could I see EXTREMELY well, but they were comfortable.  Even during the times when the previous versions were “behaving” and I could see fairly well (which wasn’t often), they just weren’t comfortable, and I’d often have to take them out.  I sat there and waited for Dr. Hill to come back in the room…excited…hopeful…but still pessimistic that with my next blink, they’d rotate out of position just like every other version I’d tried.  But to my surprise, they didn’t budge.  Not in the least.

Dr. Hill came in, and could tell how excited I was.  He’d been used to coming in to a face filled with disappointment, but when he came in this time, I had a big smile on my face.  He started examining my eyes, sat back…and a big smile crossed his face as well.  Dr. Hill had been working extremely hard with me for several months, and it was quite obvious that I was a big challenge for him, a challenge that he was in many ways relishing!!  On that day, I think he was just about as excited as I was!  To be able to help someone with eyes as challenging as mine was certainly a big accomplishment for him, and I will always be grateful for the vast amount of time he spent trying to help.

I was the first person in the entire country to try this new line of contact lenses.  The contact lens company themselves became VERY familiar with my case, using my countless visits to help guide the fitting of other patients.  I will always be grateful not only for Dr. Hill, but for this company and new line of contacts that became available just when my need was at its highest.

I actually went HOME that day with a pair of contact lenses that worked pretty damn well!  It wasn’t perfect, as in one eye, the fit was still a bit off.  There were still 4 or 5 more visits back to the eye doctor to tweak the fit, to ensure they were snug against the eye, but not too snug, and were able to “seal” the dome of moisture inside that protected my eyes.  By early April, I was done!  We had a “final” pair of scleral contact lenses that were comfortable, that I could literally wear all day, and that PROTECTED MY EYES!  It wasn’t an easy path!  In the 6 months since I started, I had gone into the eye doctor almost 30 times for measurements and refitting attempts.  Many of those visits were 1 to 1 1/2 hours each, as they’d try a new contact, wait to see how it settled down on the eye, and then take new measurements to try again.

My eyes themselves are still incredibly dry without the contacts.  I wear the contacts from dawn to dusk, taking them out only when I go to bed.  After I wake up in the morning, I have maybe 1 “good” hour where I can see with my glasses, but soon, the dryness takes over and my eyes start to get very blurry.  But the MOMENT I put in the contacts, my vision is extremely clear, so clear, in fact, that I must say I can now see better than I ever had seen during my 40+ years of wearing glasses.  Ever since trying the newest line of scleral contacts, my eye tests showed my corrected vision was BETTER than 20/20!! I often have to refresh the liquid underneath the contacts once a day, taking the contacts out, cleaning them a bit, and refilling them with fresh saline, but that’s an extremely minor inconvenience, as in return, that little moisture dome bathes my eyes in liquid all day and makes my eyes feel (dare I say?) almost NORMAL.

With the Sjogren’s, my eyes are going to be a challenge for the rest of my life, but the scleral contacts have (literally?) saved my life.  Without them I was losing my ability to work, to play, to ENJOY life.  With them, I’m able to cope with one of the horrible impacts of Sjogren’s.  Avera and a local news station, KSFY, actually did a “medical minute” piece on my story, talking about the challenges of dry eye and telling the story of not only myself, but of Dr. Hill’s attempts to solve my difficult case.  It was quite the journey, but WELL worth it, and I hope my story gives hope to anyone else out there who might be struggling with Sjogren’s, or with other dry eye issues.

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.  🙂

In the News – October 9 – 15

A collection of bird, science, photography, and news links from the past week. Click on the links for the actual stories.

Eastern Screech Owl - Megascops asio

I think I’ve actually been pretty lucky, in that I’ve run across Eastern Screech Owls relatively often over the years, and have many good photos. What I can NOT do is attract one to my yard.

  • Attract Screech Owls to Your Yard!! — HAH!  I’ll believe it when I see it!  This piece from Birdwatching Magazine touts how easy it is to attract Screech Owls to your yard, by building and putting up a nest box.  Three years ago, I bought a box built specifically for Screech Owls.  Over three summers, many a young bird has fledged from that box!  Of course all of them have been House Sparrows, the one thing I do NOT need more of.  Hopefully some day an actual Eastern Screech Owl finds it, evicts the House Sparrows within, and justifies my purchase.
  • Coal Declines in the U.S. — One of the things that bugs me great is lying.  In the world of politics, it’s an art form.  This week, fact got in the way of rhetoric, with a study coming out that refutes those who try to pin the decline of coal, and mining jobs in the U.S., to government policy.  Coal started to decline in 2008, right when Obama was elected.  It’s his fault!! Well…no.  As this study notes, it’s basic economics and the rise of cheap natural gas.  People love to complain about cheap energy prices, but now that we have it?  They’ll find something else to complain about…
  • Get ready to add new species to your life list! — There’s been speculation for a while now that Crossbill species in North America may be split into as many as 6 or more new, distinct species.  This study provides more support for that move, using genomics to look at the rapid evolution of Crossbills that feed on pine seeds. It’s always handy when you can add a new species to your life list, without ever leaving your living room.
  • Hotter than Hell — Which, evidently must be around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, given 1) where people believe hell is likely located (think ‘down’), and 2) the estimated temperature at the center of the earth.
  • Caspian Terns Breeding near Arctic Circle — If you’re one of those that doesn’t believe in climate change, you might as well stop reading my blog altogether. As yet more evidence that strange things are afoot, scientists confirmed breeding of Caspian Terns north of the Arctic Circle…1,000 MILES further north than they’ve been found before. If it were just thing one piece of evidence…sure…could be a fluke.  Where there’s smoke, there’s fire though, and it’s getting damned hard to breath with so much “smoke” around.
  • Fires of Hell

    Ever wonder how toasty it will be when your tortured, evil soul rots for an eternity in hell? Evidently it will be around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Before you die, perhaps you should change into shorts…

    Getting away from it all (Noise, that is) — My son and I usually go fishing in the Black Hills of South Dakota once a year.  You wouldn’t want to be in the area in late summer, when the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is going on, and there are certainly tourist hotspots scattered throughout the area.  But what’s always nice about the Black Hills is that if you want solitude, you can find it. Think of the soundtrack of your daily life.  Think how rare it is to NOT have some background noise, be it street noise, a barking dog, etc.  That what struck me at one point this summer while fishing in the hills…how we were hearing…NOTHING. And it was fabulous.  As this story notes, it’s been darn hard to find a noise-free environment going back at least 50 years.

  • Hurricane Matthew Punches Above its Weight — Hurricane Matthew’s story was fascinating, because of the unusual path, its immense power as it tore through the Caribbean, and because it became an afterthought for many Americans once it avoided a direct hit on Florida. Of course, certain political stories overshadowed Matthew when it raged across the Carolinas, but more than that, it was the feeling of relief, the feeling that the U.S. had dodged a bullet.  Instead of Category 4 hurricane striking Florida, it stayed offshore of Florida and was downgraded to a Category 1 by the time it struck the Carolinas. As this story notes, perhaps we need a new rating system for Hurricanes.  Sandy too wasn’t the most powerful hurricane, but it certainly did some damage, and so did Matthew, with 18 inches of rain in parts of North Carolina.
  • Hummingbirds should listen to their parents!! — It’s rough out there for a lil’ wild critter!  Not only do they have to deal with other critters that may want to eat them, but sometimes they just don’t KNOW what they’re supposed to do to survive. That’s one takeaway from this story, that notes different individual hummingbirds use different feeding and migration strategies.  Hummingbirds that have made the migration before?  They are more strategic, Adding up to 40% onto their body weight right before making a long migratory flight.  First-time migrants? They are less strategic, tending to NOT pack on the pounds, but instead migrate south in short bursts and feeding in between.  The lesson overall…LISTEN TO YOUR PARENTS.  They know best.
  • Climate Change Doubles Western U.S. Fires — According to this study, fires overall have likely doubled in the western U.S. since 1984, due to climate change.  Overall fire increase has been even more than that, but due to other issues like fuel build up, beetle kill, ignition sources, and other risk factors.  I believe that fire risk overall has gone up.  As a scientist though, I do find it extremely, extremely difficult to attribute a certain percentage increase in fire due to just one factor, however.  There’s so many factors that drive fire risk, with complicated feedbacks among them, that I’d have a hard time stating “twice” as many fires are due just to climate change.  Good article though for highlighting the issue.
  • Dumbledore - Harry Potter

    Coming back to a movie theater near you…Dumbledore!! I’d certainly welcome it, but alas, for Michael Gambon, the actor who played Dumbledore in the last 5 Harry Potter movies, this will undoubtedly be Dumbledore when he was much younger.

    Captain Kirk was Brain Damaged — OK, maybe that’s not what this story is saying. But it IS saying that there’s a high risk of cognitive issues for astronauts spending time in space, due to cosmic rays and radiation.  Interesting study, given that this week, Obama said a government and private partnership would help us reach Mars by the 2030s.  That’s certainly a very ambitious goal, one that may be doable, but there are a lot of technical challenges to be solved.

  • Dumbledore Returning!! — Not exactly science.  Or birds.  Or really news for that matter.  But with JK Rowling’s “Fantastical Beasts” coming out as a movie in a month, it was announced that she’s working on at least 4 more scripts, for at least 5 movies in total.  There’s also talk of Dumbledore coming back to play some role in these movies!  My cynical side can’t help but scream out “MONEY GRAB!!!” with the announcement that they’re going to make 5 movies.  But my Harry Potter fandom side is loving it.



Goat Heaven

Mountain Goat - Oreamnos americanus

One of the larger Mountain Goats, moving through the heavily flowered alpine meadows above Logan Pass in Glacier National Park. Click on this or any other photo for a closer view.

I’m still catching up on processing photos from the summer, including some from our vacation time in Glacier National Park in August. Glacier was busy, so busy that frankly it lessened my enjoyment of the Park.  The Going-to-the-Sun Road is certainly a huge attraction in Glacier, and deservedly so, given the spectacular views along its winding path.  However, there’s so much traffic on a busy summer day that it’s very difficult to find a place to pull over and park.  Most of the roadside stops were full, limiting opportunities to get out and hike. When we reached Logan Pass, a high point in the middle of the route with a visitor’s center and hikes, the entire lot was full, and cars were parked along the side of the road for at least half a mile in either direction from the parking lot.  We were admittedly a bit dejected trying to find a place to park, when we decided we were going to ‘reboot’ the day, drive down to the east end of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, and take one of the shuttle buses back to the Logan Pass area.

It was a very good decision.  The shuttles can be a bit unreliable (as we found when trying to go back down to our car, having to wait for almost an  hour for a shuttle), but they freed us from any worries about having to park.  At Logan Pass there are a few hiking options, and one we decided to do went up through a beautiful alpine meadow. There’s a boardwalk that goes up for much of the length of the trail, and given the madhouse at the visitor’s center itself, we were expecting a trail that was elbow-to-elbow in tourists.  However, one thing we’ve learned in all our visits to National Parks…people are lazy!  A short stroll off the beaten path can often give you some solitude.  This wasn’t solitude, but it was manageable in terms of jostling with other tourists.

Logan Pass, Glacier National Park

A view of one of the alpine meadows at Logan Pass. The flowers were truly incredible, although in some spots the dark burgundy flowers were being thinned out by the grazing goats!

The walk itself was incredibly beautiful. The high alpine meadows were packed with blooming flowers of several different kinds.  Combined with the lush greenery and spectacular mountain views, and it was truly one of our favorite hikes on the vacation.  The trail was somewhat open-ended, with no “must see” destination that marked the end of the trail, so we just kept walking until we started to get tired.

After quite some time heading up the trail, we looked up the path and in the distance, saw some hikers seemingly moving off the path to make way for…something.  At first it was hard to tell because of the distance, but soon the small, distant white blobs on the path became recognizable…Mountain Goats!  There was a small group of about 8 Mountain Goats that were headed down the mountain towards the flowered fields, and they were bound and determined to take the path of least resistance…literally!  The goats seemingly put their heads down and kept coming down the path, hikers-be-damned.  They were still quite a ways up the path from us when the moved into the flowery fields and began to feed.

Mountain Goat - Oreamnos americanus

The youngest of the small herd of Mountain Goats, pausing to sniff the flowers. Well, actually, right after this he ate all the flowers off this plant.

We continued up the path until we were in very close proximity.  They weren’t shy, obviously being quite used to hikers on the path.  They were feeding heavily in the gorgeous alpine meadows, and seemed to especially have an affinity for a plant with deep red flowers (that’s about as far as my flower identification skills take me!).  The small group included a couple of young goats that were obviously just born that year, as well as a pair of larger adults that appeared to be dominant. The goats peacefully fed while the handful of hikers that were at that height stood or sat on the path, thrilled to see them at such close range.

As with the previous post about the Grizzly Bears of Banff, it was the Mountain Goats of Glacier that were another true highlight of the trip!

Mountain Goat - Oreamnos americanusMountain Goat - Oreamnos americanusMountain Goat - Oreamnos americanus

Banff Grizzly Bears

Grizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilis

A big Grizzly near the Bow Valley Parkway in Banff National Park. This was actually a rarity, where one of the bears we saw would look towards us on the road. For the most part, they were too busy feeding on berries to worry about observers. Click on this photo or any other photo on this post to see a larger photo version.

In continuing the theme of “summer vacation pics”…the end point of our driving vacation this summer was Banff and the surrounding area in Alberta.  My wife and I had been there once before, but we’d never been there as a family. We spent several days stationed in Banff itself, with day trips to several spots in Banff National Park, and a trip up towards Jasper on the Icefields Parkway.  The highlight of the the trip, however?

Grizzly Bears!  We’ve been in Yellowstone several times.  We’ve been to Glacier National Park two times now (after this trip).  As a family we have vacationed in Alaska, and I myself have been in Alaska several other times.  In all these trips, we’ve on occasion seen bears. One on this trip, maybe one or even two on another trip, etc.  Coming across a bear, be it a Black Bear or Grizzly Bear, is a treat even in these areas that are known for bears. They’re just not very common to begin with, and seeing one during the day in visible range is a special treat.  That’s what made our trip to Banff so special.  We saw SO many bears that on one day in particular, we almost were expecting to see bears around every bend!

On our last trip to Banff many years ago, we saw wildlife (Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Goats, Elk, etc.), but no bears.  However, we knew this year might be different, as before leaving on vacation, we had read many stories about the banner year around Banff for buffalo berries.  Buffalo berries are a favorite for bears, and tend to grow at forest edges and clearings…including along roadways in Banff National Park. We had read that the bears in the area were all down in the lowlands, gorging on berries, and that we might have a good chance of seeing one.

Grizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilis

Berry time! A good view of another Grizzly, and the berries that had them so far down in the lowlands of the park.

We saw one!  Then two…then three…then four…until we had seen seven bears in one day!!  Seven bears on August 2nd, all along the Bow Valley Parkway near Banff. The Bow Valley Parkway itself is a really pretty drive, going through dense forest and also occasionally giving you a good view of the mountains. The day before, we had been in the Lake Louise area, and had a wonderful time on a long, 6- mile hike up from the lake to a rustic teahouse.  A beautiful day on August 1st, but WOW, the people!  In the heart of summer, it’s very difficult to even find a parking spot near Lake Louise, and the area around the lake and hotel itself are incredibly busy.  Thus, when starting out on the Bow Valley Parkway on August 2nd, we expected quite a few people.  We were wrong.  The parkway was relatively quiet, so we drove very slow, scanning the forest edges for wildlife.  The edge of the forest next to the road had many fruiting buffalo berry bushes, and it certainly SEEMED like the perfect place to find browsing bears.

It was.  It didn’t take long before we saw a mini “bear jam” up ahead.  Given the quiet traffic that day, the “bear jams” typically only consisted of a car or two, and much of the time we also were by ourselves as we watched a bear.  As we slowly approached the first two cars we had seen pulled over on the edge of the road, we wondered…is it a Grizzly?  A Black Bear? Or something else?

The first bear we saw was a beautiful, large grizzly.  At first, he was perhaps 10 yards back in the forest, making it difficult to see him well, even with binoculars that we had.  It didn’t take long before the binoculars were relegated to the back seat for most of the rest of the day though, as soon the first Grizzly strolled out of the forest and started gorging on buffalo berries, just 15 yards away or so.  With all our previous vacations in “bear country”, this was by far our closest, best look at a Grizzly, so we pulled over and enjoyed watching him feed for a while.  Finally we reluctantly pulled back onto the road to continue our journey up Bow Valley Parkway.

Grizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilis

Slurp! Often we’d just see a bear plopped down on his back haunches while he/she gorged on berries.

It wasn’t a long journey!  After a mere 200 yards or so, we saw movement in the brush on the side of the road.  Another Grizzly!  For the most part the Grizzlies we saw were totally oblivious to activity on the road. They would walk up to a loaded buffalo berry bush, strip the berries with their snouts in big bunches, and pretty much strip the entire bush before moving to the next one.  On occasion they would glance over towards the road, but they had one thing on their minds…berries!  Their close proximity and casual attitude towards observers led to some great photo opportunities.

In one stretch of less than a mile, we ended up seeing 4 different Grizzly Bears.  As we continued up Bow Valley Parkway, we found two more Grizzlies, and one Black Bear who had a couple of cubs.  We also found a couple of Grizzly Bears the next day, with at least one of the two being a “repeat” from the day before.  Some of the Grizzlies had ear tags, and Bear 134 is one that we came across multiple times during our stay in Banff. It was enjoyable not only seeing and photographing the bears from close range, but also looking them up on the internet!  A search of terms like “Bear 134 Banff” would often lead to stories of an individual bear’s exploits, either during the 2016 season, or in previous seasons.

It was a special trip.  We were definitely spoiled in terms of seeing bears, and I truly doubt that we’ll ever experience so many wild bears in one day again.

Grizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilisGrizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilisGrizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilisGrizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilisGrizzly Bear - Ursus arctos horribilis


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