Articles for the Month of January 2017

My first ever endorsement of, well…anything

Scleral Contact Lens

A cross-section that demonstrates the idea of a scleral contact lens. The edge of the lens rests on the sclera, the white of your eye, while the lens “vaults” over the cornea and maintains a thin liquid bath against your cornea. For a dry eye sufferer? It’s heaven-sent.

I had a visit to my ophthalmologist this morning…not exactly earth-shattering news for most people.  Even for me it’s been almost a year since I last visited the eye doctor. The reason today’s visit was notable is because of the contrast of where I was one year ago compared to today.  With Sjogren’s Syndrome, I have incredibly dry eyes.  It goes well beyond simple irritation and the need to periodically use eye drops.  The discomfort is often unbearable, but even worse, the dryness impacts my vision. I have about half an hour after waking in the morning before I start to see double.  I can’t see well enough to participate in my hobbies of photography and drawing, but even worse, I can’t read or work on a computer.  Sjogren’s Syndrome and my dry eyes were strongly impacting my ability to do my job, or participate in what makes life “fun” for me.

A little over a year ago, I started working with a local ophthalmologist. My experience is documented in this very long blog post from last October, and I won’t repeat the entire story here. My eye doctor fit me with scleral contact lenses, a special class of “hard”, gas permeable contact lenses.  They are larger than normal contacts, “vaulting” over the cornea with the edges resting on the whites of your eye.  That vault is designed to provide a tiny gap between your cornea and the lens itself.  When you put the scleral contact lenses in, you look straight down into a mirror, hold the contacts upside down, and fill the bowl of the contact with saline solution.  When the lens is placed in your eye, it effectively seals around the white of your eye, leaving a thin cushion of fluid between your eye and the lens.

As the October post details, it was a long process getting the lenses to fit. Given the extreme astigmatism I have and the odd shape of my eyes, my ophthalmologist said there’s little doubt I’ve been he’s most challenging case (in terms of fitting scleral lenses).  And that’s aside from my Sjogren’s! Checking in a year later, it’s made me realize how much I’ve come to take the scleral lenses for granted.  Perhaps it was just the passage of time and going back to the place I spent so much time a year ago. Perhaps it was having my scleral lenses out for an hour this morning while I was poked and prodded and tested (I am miserable without them).  No matter the reason, today I’m feeling incredibly grateful that at the very moment my happiness and well-being depended upon a solution to my dry eyes, a company just happened to be introducing a new product that was a perfect solution for my difficult case.

I’ve never mentioned the company or the product itself on any social media. Given how it’s changed my life, and given the possibility that other people could potentially be helped, I do want give a shout out to company and product.  The company itself is called “Art Optical“.  They’ve been around since 1931, and have focused exclusively on contact lenses for the past 30 years.  The product that I use is called “Ampleye“.  It’s a product that allows for a lot of specialization…perfect for a guy like me with screwball, weirdly shaped eyes. A few tries with more traditional scleral lenses didn’t go well, while Ampleye was able to provide a good fit.  I wore glasses for 43 years prior to trying scleral lenses, and was worried about comfort. However, once we obtained a proper fit, the contacts were so comfortable that I simply am not aware of their presence.  Given how miserable I am without them, I wear them from dawn to dusk, with little issue.  They do start to get a film on them over the course of the day, and sometimes in the late afternoon or early evening, I’ll take them out and give them a quick cleaning.  Other than that, maintenance is simple, with traditional cleaning and storage as is done with other gas permeable lenses.

Other than the dry eye, my other major concern was my vision.  With such extreme astigmatism, I’m functionally blind without correction.  About 15 years ago, I tried traditional contact lenses, but they wouldn’t work.  It was impossible to keep them in the correct rotation, and with such extreme astigmatism, a rotation of just a few degrees meant that my astigmatism wasn’t properly corrected, and I couldn’t see.  With the Ampleye lenses, they fit “like a pringle chip” (my wonderful eye doctor’s term!).  Because of their shape, they REALLY lock into position, and after I put them in in the morning, they don’t budge all day long.  My horrible vision corrects to BETTER than 20/20, and I’m seeing with a sharpness I never got in wearing glasses for 43 years.

Why am I pushing this out on my blog?  Ever since I started down this path, I’ve come across other people with Sjogren’s Syndrome, and people with dry eyes.  Many have struggled to find relief. Eye drops, protective glasses, prescriptions to stimulate tear production…nothing has worked.  I want to let people know that there IS a potential solution to their dry eyes. If they can find a solution for my dry, screwy eyes, they can help anyone!

One other issue that’s come up with people I’ve talked to is cost.  First of all, note that I was VERY pleasantly surprised at the total cost.  For me, given how many times I had to revisit to get a correct fit, the price was an incredible bargain. Secondly, don’t give up on insurance potentially covering some or all of the cost!  For someone like me, Sjogren’s Syndrome is a disease, a disease with a systematic impact on the health of my eyes.  Dry eye in general is a health issue.  An issue of eye disease.  As my ophthalmologist this morning stated, insurance companies are increasingly recognizing the benefits of scleral lenses and are covering costs.  DON’T let a balky insurance company discourage you!  Fight it!!  And even should an insurance option fail, costs are quite reasonable for what I’ve found to be a incredibly durable, stable product.  As weird as my eyes are and as expensive as it is for me to get regular glasses, the Ampleye costs weren’t substantially higher.

After one year, my ophthalmologist said I didn’t really even need new scleral lenses today. My prescription hasn’t changed, my eye health is good (thanks to these lenses), and other than a couple of tiny scratches that are imperceptible to me, my year-old lenses are rock solid and good to go for quite a while longer!  Today however I did go ahead and order another pair, not because of durability, but because 1) I’m completely sold on the product, and 2) I’m so dependent upon these lenses that I want 2 pairs on hand for “back up”.

Any dry eye sufferers out there who’d like more information, feel free to drop me a line!  I’m NOT being paid or anything to endorse this product!  There’s absolutely nothing I’m personally benefiting from by writing this blog post. I truly just want to share my story, let people know about this product, and let people know that help may be out there for you.

6 years, 12 Whooping Cranes Shot by Rednecks

Whooping Crane - Grus americana

A young Whooping Crane in flight. As a young bird, it’s got a rusty wash on its head and spots on the wings, but even so…this is one BIG bird, and there’s really nothing like it. There’s certainly no bird that looks like this that can be legally shot in the U.S. Yet thanks to Homo redneckii, yet another Whooping Crane has fallen to a gunshot, the 12th in just 6 years. Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I sometimes wonder if the human race is actually comprised of two species. On the one hand, you have Homo sapiens.  I see the wonderful folks around me….family, friends, and co-workers who 1) care about their fellow human beings, 2) care about the world around them, and 3) care about their children’s future.  On the other hand, you have another species, let’s call them “Homo redneckii“.  Homo redneckii have been QUITE active lately (particularly around early November of last year). Homo redneckii have a strong paranoid streak.  Instead of caring for their fellow human beings and participating in societal functions that ensure overall well-being of the species, Homo redneckii are all about…themselves.  Homo redneckii don’t believe in the greater good.  They don’t believe in social structures such as “government’, “law”, or even basic morality.  Homo redneckii don’t give a damn about their fellow man, and rebel against even something as simple as paying taxes to support social programs. Homo redneckii are insecure and jealous, and sneer at the “elite” educated Homo sapiens who have clearly done better at life than themselves.  Instead of working to better themselves, Homo redneckii will instead take the easy route and viciously try to bring others down to their level.  In summary, Homo redneckii believe they can do whatever they want, that the world around them exists simply for their own personal exploitation, and the well-being of future generations means NOTHING if it might require even the tiniest of sacrifices.

As a scientist, as somebody who cares about the environment, and as someone who cares about my son’s future, the activities of Homo redneckii are often hard to swallow. It even often intersects my “safe haven” of birds and birding, the place I usually go to escape the madness of the world around me.  Today was one of those days.  A bit of backstory…

On three occasions I’ve been to the Platte River in Nebraska in March for the amazing Sandhill Crane migration.  Hundreds of thousands of Cranes foraging in corn fields, flying overhead, roosting on sandbars by the evening…it’s an amazing sight, and that doesn’t even account for the many thousands of Snow Geese and other waterfowl that are also typically around at that time.  In all the times I’ve seen Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska and up here in South Dakota, it’s always in the back of your mind that perhaps, just once if you’re lucky, you’ll see a flash of white, and a bird that’s considerably bigger than all of the others.  It’s always in the back of your mind that perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to spot a migrating Whooping Crane.

Alas, I have yet to see a Whooping Crane, other than a captive bird.  There have been a few false alarms, such as the time a couple of years ago when I saw a small flock of Sandhill Cranes flying overhead. It was from a long distance, but just behind the Sandhill Cranes was a very large white bird with dark wing tips.  WHOOPING CRANE!  That’s what first flashed through my mind, until, alas, the birds got closer and it was clearly “just” an American White Pelican.   These kinds of misidentifications are common when out birding, where you’ll initially see a bird and believe it to be a certain species, only to note it’s a different species when you get a better look. What is quite clear though is that if I ever did come across a Whooping Crane, if I was anywhere within a few hundred yards, it would be quite easy to identify.

When you’re birding, and you initially misidentify a bird, it’s obviously no big deal.  When you have a gun in your hand, it IS a big deal.  One of the most accessed pages on my entire website is a page that helps to differentiate between Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Prairie Chickens.  Do a quick google search, and you’ll find out the reason why. There are a number of hunting forums where somebody asks how to tell the difference between the two species, so they don’t accidentally shoot the “wrong” bird.  It’s not just grouse and prairie chickens, it’s also quite obvious that hunters often have a hard time telling apart duck species or other game.  Given that there may be a legal hunting season for one species, but not for another, somewhat similar-looking species, there’s obviously the potential for a trigger-happy hunter to shoot the “wrong” bird.

Evidently, there have been 12 “trigger-happy misidentifications” over the last 6 years, where hunters have shot and killed endangered Whooping Cranes in the U.S. As of 2015, there were only about 400 wild Whooping Cranes in existence.  That’s up considerably from just 21 birds in the 1940s, but they are still obviously an endangered species, and losing ANY bird is a huge loss, much less having 12 shot by “mistake”.  The latest happened just a week ago, when an adult Whooping Crane was shot and killed in southern Indiana.   This bird was an adult female, one who had just laid an egg this summer and had it hatch.  The youngster later died, but the loss of a breeding female who was able to successfully mate and hatch an egg is a huge loss for Whooping Crane conservation efforts.

Let’s dispense with the bullshit though about “misidentification”. Let’s face it…there’s no mistaking a Whooping Crane, not if it’s within range of a shotgun or a rifle.  It’s the tallest bird in all of North America, and it’s a brilliant white bird.  The only other large, white bird with a body shape and structure anything close to a Whooping Crane would potentially be a Great Egret, but 1) even a Great Egret is much, much smaller than a Whooping Crane, 2) Whooping Cranes have obvious black wing tips that would be visible in flight, and 3) IT DOESN’T MATTER if you confuse a Whooping Crane with a Great Egret, because it’s not legal to shoot EITHER species.  I’ve lost count of how many hunter/hunting related “incidents” I’ve come across while out birding in South Dakota, incidents where I’ve personally witnessed (and reported) hunters shooting creatures they shouldn’t be shooting.  I’ve come across plenty of hunters who are anything BUT sportsmen, men (yes…always men) who love their guns, love to shoot things, and don’t seem to care what they shoot.  Given that it’s practically impossible to mistake a Whooping Crane for ANY legally hunted bird, I won’t give any benefit of the doubt to any of the 12 redneck hunters who shot and killed these 12 Whooping Cranes over the last 6 years.

It was a little over 3 years ago where a Whooping Crane was shot right here in South Dakota. Jeff Blachford, a 26-year old man from Miller, South Dakota, was apprehended and charged with the crime.  Blachford was fined a hefty $85,000…a welcome change from past incidents, because other hunters who have shot Whooping Cranes have sometimes escaped ANY sort of penalty. The last time a Whooping Crane was shot in Indiana, prior to this recent event? It was just back in 2009.  The hunter was identified and fined…ONE DOLLAR. Yes, a $1 fine for shooting one of the rarest birds in the world. It remains to be seen what happens in this latest incident.  It appears that it’s still under investigation, and it doesn’t sound like they’ve found the perpetrator yet. Given the outrage after the last Indiana “sportsman” got off so easily, one would hope that the punishment would better fit the crime, should the redneck be identified.

I worry that homo redneckiism is actually a contagious disease. When Blachford shot the Whooping Crane in South Dakota a few years ago, I blogged about it, and was immediately innundated with emails from angry Homo redneckii from the Miller area.  I’m not a religious man, but if I were? I’d pray for the poor folk around Miller, and other locations where Homo redneckiism has manifested. It’s spreading so quickly.  There are some truly nice folk in South Dakota, but as this last election showed, many are also remarkably susceptible to Homo redneckiism.  Hunting rights, paying taxes, (having a black president)…all issues that have proven to be triggers for homo redneckiism.  In the midst of this major national flare-up of the disease, here’s hoping that a vaccine is on the horizon.

Otherwise, massive, brilliantly white, unmistakable birds like the endangered Whooping Crane might not survive.



Rough-legged hawk – Chillin’

It was just after Christmas Day when I took the day off and drove 3 1/2 hours to the central part of the state to look for raptors.  While there’s always a nice variety of raptors in the area, Rough-legged hawks are by far the most common.  Just about all my Rough-legged hawk photos are from the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, or near the I-90 corridor by Presho and Kennebec.  Around Sioux Falls and Brandon where I live, you do see them on occasion, but they’re not common by any means.

This weekend I went out for a bit, just around home.  It was just a hop, skip, and a jump from our house when I ran into this gorgeous Rough-legged Hawk, just chillin’ in a cedar tree.  My success with photographing Rough-legged Hawks in the central part of the state has just as much to do with sheer numbers of birds as it does with how cooperative they typically are for photos.  Most flush when you approach.  This guy not only stayed still for photos, but given how relaxed he was, I thought I’d do something I rarely do, and take some video as well.

It’s easy to take the common birds for granted, and I’ve certainly seen more than my share of Rough-legged Hawks over the years. They truly are gorgeous birds though, and it was wonderful to see such a beautiful bird right near our house.  I’m glad this one gave me the opportunity to watch (and film) it for a good long time.

In The News – Week of January 8th

Science, nature, and other miscellaneous news for the week:

Binary Star Collision

An artist’s impression of a collision of the two stars in a binary star system. In an unprecedented prediction, two stars are forecast to collide in 2022, potentially lighting up the nighttime skies for several months.

Cosmic collision coming in 2022 — The two stars that are found in a binary star system called KIC9832227 have been forecast to collide in 2022, an unprecedented forecast that, if true, could provide some real celestial fireworks. Scientists are using past observations of collisions from a binary star pair to predict the 2022 collision.  In a past collision, scientists noted that the relative orbital speeds of the two stars sped up in leading to the actual collision, a phenomenon that is currently being observed in KIC9832227.  The actual collision has already occurred, but because the star system is 1,800 light years from earth, the light of the collision won’t be visible until 2022. 1,800 light years is actually relatively close in cosmic terms, which means we could be in for a bit of a show in 2022. The two stars are currently too dim to be seen by the naked eye, but it is thought that for several months, the new star created by the collision of the binary stars will be among the brightest features in the nighttime sky. Along with the total solar eclipse coming to the United States this August, there are some exciting cosmic events happening in the next few years!

Extreme tornado outbreaks increasing in recent decades — The most extreme tornado outbreaks in the United States have been on the increase in recent decades. Outbreaks, defined as 6 or more tornadoes occurring in a relatively short time span, are responsible for the most extensive property damage and loss of life.  According to the research, the largest tornado outbreak occurring in 1965 would have had around 40 tornadoes, while today, the number of expected tornadoes might double to 80.  I’m a bit skeptical of studies that deal with numbers of tornadoes.  We’re so much better at observing tornadoes now compared to several decades ago, both because we simply have a much larger population, but also because we have the technological tools to help us monitor tornado occurrence.  Any empirical record of tornado occurrence is undoubtedly biased towards the present day, in terms of the number of tornado observations.  Still fascinating research. The authors don’t make the case that the increase may be linked to climate change, stating that they found outbreaks are most strongly related to a measure called storm relative helicity, a measure that’s not been predicted to increase under climate change. However the authors have a bit of a “diss” towards climate science, stating that it’s hard to tell whether climate change plays a role “given the current state of climate science”.

Costa's Hummingbird - Calypte costae

A Costa’s Hummingbird male in flight. Scientists have found a remarkable adaptation in the visual motion part of the brain, a characteristic that may enable the rapid and precise aerial acrobatics of hummingbirds.

Seeing like a hummingbird — We’re animals…smart, sometimes amazing, sometimes incredibly annoying, but we share the same biological characteristics as most other animals on the planet.  Nearly every 4-limbed animal on the planet has a part of the brain that focuses on the processing of visual signals related to motion. The processing is focused on motion in a direction that comes from behind a creature…a very useful adaptation for detecting and responding to an attack from behind, for example.  Scientists have found that hummingbirds process motion-related visual cues much differently than other animals.This part of the brain in hummingbirds is larger than in other birds, and unlike other birds, individual neurons  are all tuned to focus on motion in different directions.  It is thought that this enables the amazing aerial acrobatics flying hummingbirds are capable of, as they can quickly process motion cues and adapt flight direction very quickly.

Media in a tizzy over giant iceberg — A check of science-news websites over the past week has shown many stories of the imminent crack-up of a part of the Larson C ice shelf in Antarctica.  It is a dramatic event, as a 60-mile long, 300-foot wide crack has split a part of the ice shelf.  Assuming the crack continues to grow, an iceberg the size of Delaware (!!) will break off.  It’s certainly a cool event, and one the media can sink its teeth into given the “cool” factor.  Of course the angle the story is written about often focuses on climate change (particularly in the mainstream media), but it really is hard to tell the role of climate change.  What IS dramatic is the continued thinning of the ice shelf overall, the incredible loss of ice mass in Greenland in the last decade, or the loss of sea ice in the Antarctic, event that are all definitely related to climate change. However, it’s tougher for the media (and people in general) to recognize the slow, inexorable march of climate change, versus dramatic events such as the Larson C crack.

Breathing option in Beijing — Air quality has been so bad in Beijing in recent years that officials recently established an “environmental police squad” to crack down on illegal burning and other contributors to the poor air quality. Additional measures announced this week include cutting coal-fired power production by 30% this year, revamping the most highly polluting factories in the region, and restriction pollution levels from vehicles in and around Beijing.  Air you can’t breathe, water you can’t drink…that’s what happens when you put economic growth over the environment, over human health. Keep that in mind when Trump and the environmentally hostile Congress start putting in “business-friendly” policies in the coming months.

You have a new body organ! — Have you had your doctor check your mesentery lately?  Have you even VISITED your local mesentery specialist? Well, probably not.  Medicine knew of the these structures in the digestive system, but they didn’t fit the definition of an organ because it was thought they were distinct separate fragments and not one continuous unit.  What bothers me about this article? This statement…from J Calvin Coffey, who “discovered” its an organ, stating this discovery “opens up a whole new area of science”.  Just because they discovered it’s one piece, not several pieces? Just because it fits the definition of an organ, it’s a new science?  The categorization doesn’t affect actual function of the organ.  This all goes with my “in the news” from last week, and how much of the human existence is defined by how we categorize the world around us.


A hagfish, a creature that evidently has the capability to evade shark attacks thanks to its loose saggy skin. Perhaps being ugly and slimy has its advantages.

Escaping a shark attack with “loose skin” — Ever wonder how a hagfish escapes a shark attack?  Well, neither have I. Hagfish are kind of disgusting looking things, akin to a lamprey or slimy eel.  Scientists (well, these scientists) wondered how hagfish escape when sharks attack.  They have a “slime defense”, emitting a cloud of slime that repels an attack, but that’s usually after a shark gets in a bite.  Scientists found it’s their very loose skin that makes it difficult for a shark’s tooth to actually penetrate into flesh, allowing them to react to attack without a fatal wound.  You DO have to give these guys points for creativity though, with their creation of an “indoor guillotine” that they developed to drop shark teeth into hagfish carcasses.

Chicken intelligence — Not a lot of bird-related science news this week, but there was this piece about the intelligence of chickens.  They’re not a bird you generally think of as being that intelligent, although when my son and I visited Reptile Gardens near Rapid City last summer, they had a trained chicken that came roaring out on cue and stole dollar bills from an unsuspecting audience member.  Evidently this research group felt the need to come to the defense of the poor, intellectually maligned chicken.  They determined that chickens are smarter than  you think that they have distinct social structures (a sign of intelligence) and even an ability to deductively reason.  A quote from the study lead:

“A shift in how we ask questions about chicken psychology and behavior will, undoubtedly, lead to even more accurate and richer data and a more authentic understanding of who they really are,” says Marino.

I can’t say as I’ve ever thought about chicken psychology.  But I am thankful that soon I’ll be able to get “a more authentic understanding of who they really are”.  🙂


Where did the Fort Pierre National Grasslands raptors go?

Central South Dakota - Raptor Sightings

Winter raptor sightings in central South Dakota over the last 5 years. The Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves used to be “the” hotspot for winter raptors, including great chances for rarities like Gyrfalcons and Snowy Owls. In recent years, raptor numbers are incredibly low compared to areas just south of the Grasslands, in and around Presho and Kennebec. Click on the map above (or any other image) for a larger view.

I still vividly remember the first time I had ever visited the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  It was 2000, and I had been bitten by the birding bug.  Hard. Much of my free time was spent birding and taking photos, and as a new birder, there certainly were plenty of “new” birds to discover, just around my home town of Brandon.  One of my friends at work was an avid, lifetime birder, and he not only helped with identification of the birds in my (quite poor!) early photos, but he also helped to stoke the birding fires.  That was very evident when reports came in of a Gyrfalcon on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  In the years since, the Grasslands have become known as a wonderful location for finding these very rare winter visitors, but at the time, it was something rather novel.  Given that my lifetime birder friend had never seen a Gyrfalcon, I knew this was something special for a birder and I was excited to try to find it. Thus began 16 winters of making periodic birding treks to the Grasslands.

It couldn’t have been easier on that first visit.  The famed “Pheasant Farm Gyrfalcon” was hanging around a farmstead that raised pheasants for hunting operations in the region.  I talked with Doug B. in Pierre, a great birding contact who also helped a lot in my early birding years, and he provided directions (we’re WELL before cell phones and google maps here!).  He had said that he was likely to be around that location early on a Saturday morning, so I made plans to get up ridiculously early and drive to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and arrive at that spot just after dawn.

Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus

The ubiquitous Rough-Legged Hawk, once seemingly found on every other fence post and telephone pole on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. However, for the last 5 years, they’ve been curiously absent.

That cold December day came, I set the alarm, packed up my equipment at 4:30, and started the 3+ hour drive.  My timing was good, and I arrived on County Line Road right around 8:00 AM. As I reached an old abandoned schoolhouse that marked the location close to the pheasant farm, I saw a pair of cars.  I got out, saw Doug B., and asked if they’d seen the Gyrfalcon.  He smiled, and pointed to the top of a nearby telephone pole, and there it was!  My first Gyrfalcon, about as easy a “capture” as a birder can ever hope for with such a rarity!

From that day forward, I was hooked on the Grasslands.  Given that it’s about 3 1/2 hours from home, it’s not a love of convenience!  But I quickly learned to appreciate the isolation and beauty of the area. Most days on the Grasslands, you run into very few people, and there are times after a nice wet period where the beauty of the grasslands and flowers can be really spectacular.  But of course, it’s the birding that was the main attractant for me, and my GOODNESS what incredible birding there was.  Winter in the middle of South Dakota may not sound like a time for vibrant bird life, but the Fort Pierre National Grasslands was building a reputation as a magnet for raptors. This not only included one of the best chances in all of the lower 48 states to see a Gyrfalcon, but also a diverse list of other raptors that spent their winter months on the Grasslands.  Rough-legged Hawks were found in extremely high numbers, such that many times it was quite rare to drive more than half a mile on County Line Road and NOT see a Rough-legged Hawk hanging out on a telephone pole or fence post.  It’s the first place I saw a massive, incredibly powerful Golden Eagle.  It’s the place where I first saw a Ferruginous Hawk, a bird with such a brilliantly white underside that from a distance I thought I was about to see my first Snowy Owl.  It wasn’t that year, but later the Fort Pierre National Grasslands WERE the place I saw my first Snowy Owl, including one incredible year where Snowy Owls were practically as abundant as the ever-present Rough-legged Hawks. It’s the first place I saw a Prairie Falcon, a bird that for a long time was a photographic nemesis for me given their predilection for flushing and flying away whenever I got within 1/4 of a mile of one.  It’s the first place I saw a Short-eared Owl, a summer-time encounter where two adults were tending 4 younger birds.  That encounter concluded with an adult circling me for several minutes as I stood outside my car, resulting in one of my most memorable photo opportunities (and a new Canon DSLR camera body, thanks to the photo winning a nationwide Canon photo contest!).

Winter Sightings - Rough-legged Hawk

Winter sightings of just Rough-legged Hawks. Note the incredibly dense populations near I-90, and the sharp drop off towards the Grasslands in the north.

There have been days on the Grasslands where a full, complete day of birding could simply consist of driving back-and-forth on County Line Road and occasionally taking one of the small gravel roads that connect to it.  One could potentially stay within a relatively small driving area of 10 to 20 square miles, and find dozens, upon dozens, upon dozens of raptors.  Since that first day in 2000, I’ve had some of my most memorable photo experiences on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in winter, including finally getting a close shot of a Prairie Falcon, having a curious first-year Gyrfalcon circle me in curiosity in much the same way that Short-eared Owl did years before, capturing a photo of the massive wingspan of a Golden Eagle as it takes flight, and finally capturing my first decent photos of a Snowy Owl.  During all my winter trips to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, I learned to appreciate not only the Grasslands themselves, but the area south of the Grasslands.  I’d necessarily drive the I-90 corridor past Reliance, Kennebec, and Presho to get to the Grasslands themselves, and couldn’t help notice all the raptors in the area.  Soon, my “Grasslands” birding trips became “central South Dakota” birding trips, with days where I’d usually spend mornings in the Presho area and afternoons on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  Birding life was good, and many a cold, dismal, South Dakota winter was saved by the vibrant display of life that was always available on the Grasslands.

And then…something happened.  It started about 5 years ago, when I planned one of my “usual” winter trips to the area.  The first half of the trip was the same as always…plenty of raptors of all kinds in the Presho area, and plenty of photo opportunities.  However, as I headed north towards the Grasslands themselves, the birds disappeared. Given my past history of finding winter raptors on the Grasslands, I kept expecting the birds to show up around the next corner, but…they never did.  There was an occasional raptor here or there, primarily Golden Eagles or Ferruginous Hawks, but the incredible density of Rough-legged Hawks, the species that once made up a good 80% of all the raptors found on the Grasslands, was simply absent.  Almost TOTALLY absent.

Greater Prairie Chicken - Tympanuchus cupido

A Greater Prairie Chicken on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. Whatever the cause of the raptor decline on the Grasslands, it doesn’t appear to be because there’s been a noticeable decline of gamebirds.

That first winter after the raptors disappeared, I just speculated that something happened to the prey base that attracted the raptors. When driving the Grasslands, you always saw plenty of Ring-necked Pheasants, Greater Prairie Chickens, and Sharp-tailed Grouse.  There were several times where I’d sat in awe as a Gyrfalcon dive-bombed pheasants in search of a meal, and clearly the gamebirds in the area were one thing that attracted raptors.  There didn’t seem to be any obvious crash in the populations of these three gamebird species. The famed Pheasant Farm near County Line Road had stopped raising pheasants, but that’s such a local phenomenon that it couldn’t explain the drop in raptors across all the grasslands.  Indeed, this winter I visited the Grasslands a couple of days after Christmas, when a massive storm had coated the region in snow and crusty ice.  I ran across truly massive groups of Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chickens, milling about in the open and looking for foraging spots in the ice-locked vegetation. Yet despite all the gamebirds that were out, raptors were again curiously absent.  I didn’t spot a single Rough-legged Hawk on the Grasslands themselves, despite easily finding over 30 earlier in the day down by Presho.

If not a decline in gamebirds, what else?  One factor that may play some role is the loss of some truly massive prairie dog towns in the region.  On County Line Road itself, there have always been a few locations for prairie dogs.  Not all raptors target prairie dogs, but Ferruginous Hawks certainly key in on prairie dogs, and prairie dog towns.  Over the last several years, many of the prairie dog towns in the area have disappeared.  Those outside of the administrative boundaries of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves are fair game for poisoning, to clear the land of these “pests” (don’t get me started).  The largest prairie dog town I knew of in the area was on the east end of County Line Road, just outside of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands itself.  It stretched for almost a mile on the north side of the road, with more scattered spots on the south side of the road.  A few years ago, that entire area was clearly poisoned, and the massive colony is gone.

However, the decline in prairie dogs also fails to fully explain the decline in raptors.  There are NO prairie dog towns down by Presho and Kennebec, yet raptors of every kind are still found there in incredible numbers. Perhaps it’s a decline in the small rodent population in the area? For a raptor such as a Rough-legged Hawk, mice and voles make up a huge part of the diet.  Could there have been some cyclic decline in small rodent numbers on the grasslands?  That was my initial thought, but it’s been 5 years since the noticeable and sharp decline in raptor numbers.  You wouldn’t think some repetitive cycle of boom-and-bust rodent populations would be in “bust” mode for so long. Perhaps it’s related to the Prairie Dog poisoning? Could that have also had an impact on small rodents in the area?

A Black-tailed Prairie Dog. There’s little doubt number of these guys HAVE declined around the fringes of the Grasslands, given active poisoning programs.

One other major prey source in the area, particularly for Merlins and Prairie Falcons, are the sometimes huge flocks of Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, and Snow Buntings that are found in the area in the winter. The vast majority of Merlin sightings I’ve had in South Dakota have been on the Grasslands themselves or in the Presho area.  During my last trip over Christmas, the first raptor I saw at dawn was a Merlin munching on a freshly caught Horned Lark by Kennebec, and I’ve had numerous other occasions over the years where I’ve seen Merlins feeding on Horned Larks or Lapland Longspurs.   You do see roving flocks of Longspurs, Larks, and Snow Buntings on the Grasslands,certainly enough to capture the attention of a raptor that’s passing through, but the numbers of those potential prey species have seemed higher in the Presho/Kennebec area in recent years.

The maps that are shown in this post are indicative of the raptor numbers on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands vs. the I-90 corridor in recent years. These are all actual sightings made by myself over the last 5 years, and recorded in eBird.  During each and every trip I’ve made in the last 5 years, I take the same general routes. I start in the Kennebec/Presho area around dawn, by mid-morning start to work my way up through the Grasslands themselves, and then start to head back down south again by mid-afternoon. It’s clearly not a precise, spatially distributed sample of the space shown on the map, but over the last 5 years, I have driven most of the roads in a rectangle bounded by Highways 1806 and 273 on the east, an area typically no more than 5-8 miles south of I-90 south of Presho, and Kennebec, westward to Highway 83 and a few miles to the west (particularly around the Sheriff Dam and Richland Wildlife Area, and northward to County-Line Road itself and a few miles north of it.  Good roads are few and far between in parts of the area, particularly north-south roads that take you from Presho northward into the Grasslands.  As a result, the maps here tend to show the 2 major north-south gravel road that connect the two areas, as well as other more easily traveled roads in the area.

Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus

A Gyrfalcon taken during the “Golden Years” on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. This is a very dark-phase juvenile, and I’ve never seen one quite like this. The Grasslands may still be a good spot to try to find this mega-rarity, but it’s not an ideal spot for other winter raptors any more.

I wish I had eBird recordings for the “golden years” on the Grasslands, prior to this last 5 year period, something against which these maps could be compared.  I DO have a vast number of raptor photos taken on the Grasslands themselves from 2000 to present, with most of those from 2011 and earlier.  What’s clear from these maps, however, is just how sharp a delineation there is between the I-90 corridor, and raptor numbers to the north on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves.  On the map at the top that shows all raptor sightings I’ve recorded, note the one north-south road that extends up from the I-90 corridor, about halfway between Presho and Vivian. That’s my main path for getting north, and while there are plenty of raptor sightings south of the Grasslands, those sightings drop off sharply almost exactly at the Grassland boundary itself.  On EVERY trip over the last 5 years, I will drive County line Road, an east-west road along the county boundary (visible towards the north side of these maps).  Once THE hotspot for raptors, in the last 5 years, I have very few raptor sightings of any kind along this road.  Rough-legged Hawk sightings on the Grasslands are incredibly small when compared to the area just to the south of the Grasslands. Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers have always seemed to be much more abundant in the southern part of this area, but in recent years they are almost completely absent once you get 4 or 5 miles north of I-90.  Bald Eagles are often incredibly abundant in and around the Presho area.  I have had days where a dozen or more Bald Eagles are sitting in one concentrated area, and there are also at least 3 active Bald Eagle nests that I’ve found in and around the Presho and Kennebec area.  I have a few Bald Eagle sightings around the Grasslands, but that’s certainly dwarfed by how many have been found in and around Presho.

There are some species that are more evenly distributed in the area.  Golden Eagles are a species I’m almost certain to find on any trip to the area, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether I’m on the Grasslands, or in the Presho/Kennebec area.  Prairie Falcons also seem rather randomly distributed, as they seem rather unpredictable and likely to pop up just about anywhere on this map.  Ferruginous Hawks also seem rather even distributed.  Is there something in common about these species that may make them more likely to be found on the grasslands? Golden Eagles and Ferruginous Hawks are much more likely to key in on mammals, including rabbits and other larger mammals.  Perhaps if it is a population crash of small rodents, they’re still on the Grasslands as they don’t depend on those smaller prey as much as Rough-legged Hawks or other raptors. Prairie Falcons can feed on a variety of prey items, including small birds like Horned Larks, and even large birds like Greater Prairie Chickens.  Perhaps they too would be less sensitive to a decline in small rodent numbers.

I’ll continue to make my winter treks to the central part of the state, including visits to the Grasslands.  Given that the Grasslands themselves are still the location where I’ve seen most of my Gyrfalcons over the years (including the years prior to the data represented in these maps), that alone is clearly worth the time!  Hopefully over the next few years the Grasslands recover from whatever “ails” it in terms of supporting winter raptor numbers.

In the News – Week of January 1st, 2017

A new year, a new set of nature and science news pieces for the week…

Black-tailed Prairie Dog - Cynomys ludovicianus

A “varmint”, a Black-tailed Prairie Dog. I have on several occasions run into “sportsmen” in South Dakota who are lined up at the edge of a prairie dog town, picking them off one by one with rifles. Killing for the sake of killing…and doing twice the intended harm, given the lead that’s ingested by predators when they eat the carcasses.

Ammunition choice in shooting “varmints” — There have been many occasions on my birding trips to the central part of the state where I come across a sight that makes me sick to my stomach.  I’ll drive past a prairie dog town, and see multiple hunters lined up along a fence line, crouched and in a shooting position, picking off prairie dogs for “fun”.  That’s it…there’s no other purpose to it, other than killing for the sake of killing.  The prairie dogs that are killed aren’t used for anything, they’re simply left to rot.  Unfortunately, “sportsmen” who feel this sick need to kill for the sake of killing end up doing even more harm to animal communities.  By leaving the dead bodies, it provides an avenue for predators to consume the dead prairie dogs, and ingest the lead in the ammunition that was used to kill them.  Lead poisoning is a major cause of mortality for many raptor species, and is THE leading cause of California Condor mortality. A simple solution, as this article points out, would be to use ammunition that’s free of lead.  Even that common-sense approach though, one that still allows redneck hunters to kill prairie dogs and other “varmints”, is hated by hunting groups, as they claim that lead alternatives in ammunition don’t perform as well as lead shot and bullets.  Given what I have come across over the years on all my birding excursions, I’ve had a major downturn overall in my attitudes towards hunting…and particularly…hunters.  Stories like this don’t help my perceptions of hunters.

Cheetah numbers down to 7,100 worldwide — Over the last century, cheetah numbers worldwide have dropped from 100,000, to only 7,100 today.  Think about that…in a world with nearly 7 billion human beings, for an iconic, well-known predator such as the cheetah, there are only several thousand left. As with most species’ declines, habitat loss is behind the cheetah’s loss in population.  They range over huge territories, and there simply aren’t “huge territories” available in most parts of their range any more.  Throw in targeted persecution, such as the shooting of cheetahs by poachers and farmers, and this story estimates cheetahs could be extinct in the wild in 20-40 years.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle

Is this the face of Earth’s largest animal migrations? This is a Goldenrod Soldier Beetle from here in South Dakota, and I admit I have no idea if these “migrate” as with some beetles mentioned in this story. By sheer mass, however, this story points out that insect migration likely dwarfs any other migration on the planet.

Biggest migration of land animals on the planet — When you think of what creature may make up the largest migration of any land animal on the planet, in terms of sheer mass, what species do you think of? Or group of species?  When you say “migration”, most people probably think of birds first, and there certainly are mass migrations of birds that are so heavy that weather radar is being increasingly used as a tool to study those migrations. In terms of sheer mass, perhaps some people think of large caribou migrations.  However, as this study notes, one overlooked migration likely has all of these beat…insect migration.  This study notes that around 3.5 trillion arthropods migrate over southern Great Britain each year, accounting approximately 8 times the mass of bird migrations in the same area.  Some winged insects are well-known for their migratory talents, such as the Monarch Butterfly in North America.  But as this study notes, there all sorts of winged and even non-winged creatures that migrate through the atmosphere.

What the heck is a “species” anyway? — People are funny.  We have this intrinsic need to categorize things, put them in neat little bins that help our minds process realty.  Birders sometimes take that to an extreme, with “life lists” that are often incredibly detailed, with “big day” lists (how many species you see in one day), “big years”, “state lists that detail bird species seen within the confines of state boundaries, and more.  What gets bird listers in a tizzy?  Just what IS a species!  The American Ornithological Union and American Birding Association are always making tweaks to their “official” lists of species that have been found in North America.  Just watch birders heads collectively explode if the AOU or ABA does decide to split Red Crossbills into up to six distinct species…life lists will be substantially increased!!  Even with the science of DNA-based splits, it’s still not a precise science in determining what’s a unique species.  As with many things, we’re categorizing things into unique thematic categories, when the phenomena you’re measuring is actually a continuous variable with no definite boundaries.

One, maybe two new comets moving through — Speaking of birders and their lists, I have a friend at work who is a birder, and someone who has a life list.  He also has another, more unusual life list posted on his bulletin board in his office…his “comet life list”!  He’s about to get one, and maybe two new ones for his list.  Comet C/2106 U1 was recently discovered by the “NEOWISE” project, and is potentially visible with binoculars right now, through about January 14th. It would appear in the southeastern sky just before sunrise.  An object called 2016 WF9 was also discovered by NEOWISE, and it will come close to Earth’s orbit in late February.  It’s estimated to be 0.5 to 1.0 km in diameter.  Note the designation “object”, because it’s not clear whether this object is an asteroid or comet (related to the previous story, in that the categorization of what’s a “comet” and what’s an “asteroid” can be fuzzy).

Bird Dropping Moth - Caterpillar - Ponometia

A caterpillar of Ponometia…the “Bird Dropping Moth”. Should a new species of “shit moth” be discovered, I would suggest it be named after Trump, in the same manner that several creatures have been named after Obama in recent years.

Nine creatures named for President Obama — Over the last few years, no less than 9 different creatures have had scientific names that honor Barack Obama.  Multiple fish, a lizard, bird, etc…all have scientific names such as “Nystalus obamai” (A Western Striated Puffbird, in this case). Once Trump leaves office in 4 years (or in a perfect world, once he’s impeached after a year or so), I wonder what creatures will be named after him?  I have many, many classes of creatures where new discoveries should consider his name. There are the Onychophora phylum of worms known for excreting slime. There are the Annelidas…leaches…which would be a wonder creature to name after him.  There’s a moth called Ponometia, and it’s associated caterpillar, that would be good.  Their common name is the “Bug-dropping Moth”.  Naming him after shit would be a perfect way to “honor” him once he leaves office.

Where you’re most likely to get struck by lightning — We had a very unusual Christmas day in South Dakota.  I believe it was 4 years ago when we were absolutely smothered in snow, getting close to 2 feet on Christmas.  We’ve had Christmas’s where the temperature never got above zero.  And then there was this Christmas where we had…a thunderstorm?  In late December? In South Dakota?  We set a record for most rainfall on Christmas Day, getting over an inch in most areas, and the lightning and thunder was the first time that’s ever occurred here on Christmas (or late December for that matter).  I could go into global warming here, but no, the point is the story in the above link.  Standing outside on Christmas Day in South Dakota normally isn’t a high-risk endeavor, in terms of being struck by lightning.  So where are the most active areas on earth for lightning?  Thanks to a satellite called the Tropical Rainfall Monitoring Mission, we now know.  The winner…a Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela.  Over each one square kilometer in the area, one could expect over 230 lightning strikes per year.  The lake is surrounded by mountains, and nearly every night, cool airflow from the mountains hits the warm waters and air above the lake and produces thunderstorms.

Western Meadowlark - Sturna neglecta

A Western Meadowlark, taken with a temp of -10° near Presho, South Dakota, in the winter of 2003-2004. I have a billion Meadowlark photos, but specifically remember this one because it was so rare to SEE one in the heart of winter. Now? They’re everywhere.

Bird migration changing with climate — As I noted in a previous post, I went birding to the central part of the state last week, and was amazed at how many Western Meadowlarks were around.  15 years ago, it was rare to spot one in winter in that part of the state.  Now…I saw hundreds, all across the region.  Global warming? It’s hard to ignore signs like that.  As this story describes, many birds are changing their migration patterns as the climate changes. Many are arriving on the summer breeding grounds much earlier than they used to.  There are also some species where migrations have become shorter, or perhaps such as the case of the Western Meadowlarks, where they’ve simply stopped moving south for the winter.

China bans ivory trade and purchase — A rare bit of good conservation news.  This last week, China announced that they will ban the sale and trade of ivory by the end of 2017. China was by far the largest market for legally sold ivory, with ivory selling for over $1,000 a kilogram.  The Great Elephant Census recently published noted that elephant populations world-wide plummeted by 30% in just the last 7 years (!!!!!), and incredible population decline for such a short time period.  With the shutting of the largest legal ivory market, it’s hoped that poaching pressures will decline.  However, it’s hard to guess what will happen with ivory trade, and if much of this will simply move to the black market.

New Drawing – Bachman’s Warbler

Bachman's Warbler - Vermivora bachmanii

A male and female Bachman’s Warbler. Again, sadly, a drawing of a species I’ll never see. They went extinct 20-30 years ago.

I have SO loved the holidays we’ve had.  The usual festivities have of course been nice, but what made it even more special is that both my wife and I took off the entire week between Christmas and New Year’s.  Lazy days, playing board games with our son, watching Harry Potter movies…just wonderful.  It was also a nice break that gave me time to do some drawing.  Since I started drawing 5 years ago, I haven’t done that much…maybe 25-30 drawings?  For 2016 I believe the grand total going into December was 2.  Over the last week, I’ve had the opportunity to do 2 more, first a Labrador Duck, and now over the last few days, a pair of Bachman’s Warblers.

Do you sense a theme?  Labrador Duck, Bachman’s Warbler, and in the past, I’ve also drawn Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Carolina Parakeet, and Great Auk. Yes, those are all species that have gone extinct.  Ever since I started drawing, my primary goal was to fill in the gaps for species that I didn’t have photos for.  Of all the things I’ve drawn, I believe there are only 4 species of birds I have photos for (Northern Saw-whet Owl, Blackburnian Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, and Ruby-throated Hummingbird).  All the rest tend to be rarities, extinct birds, or in some cases, more common birds that have eluded my camera lens.

Unlike most of the other extinct ones, Bachman’s Warbler are a species that I at least could have theoretically seen in my lifetime.  Confirmed breeding occurred in multiple locations up until at least the 1960s, and individual birds were seen up until 1988, when a unconfirmed report occurred in Louisiana.  They appeared to be habitat specialists that used canebrakes and palmetto areas, habitats that disappeared throughout much of the Southeast as commercial forestry and urban land uses converted natural habitats.

I don’t think I’ve done this before, where I’ve drawn both a male and female in one drawing.  Was pretty pleased with how it came out.  I admit I still suck at drawing habitat, trees, branches, leaves, flowers, or other background elements that might make the photo more aesthetically pleasing.  “Bird on a stick” seems to be my style right now!

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