Articles for the Month of April 2017

South Dakota group kills > 100 eagles, >200 raptors (warning – Disturbing image)

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

What do you see when looking at this photos A gorgeous, powerful wonder of nature? A majestic symbol of our nation? Or…a body part to be sold for about $250? For 15 South Dakotans, it’s the latter, as they are charged with killing and selling the carcasses and body parts of over 100 eagles and 200 raptors in total.

Want to buy the head of a Golden Eagle?  It will run you about $250 on the black market.  How about the wings of our national symbol, the Bald Eagle? It’s a bit pricier, as a pair of wings sell for about $900.  What’s that you say?  Black Market? Dead eagles?  Sounds a bit illegal?  Well, that didn’t stop a South Dakota “chop shop” for trafficking in eagle carcasses and parts, as well as other raptors.

The Department of Justice this week charged 15 South Dakotans in conspiring to acquire (aka, kill), process, and distribute the bodies or body parts of eagles and other raptors. The group was known to have killed at least 100 eagles and over 200 raptors in total.  Members of the group face charges for violating the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and the Lacey Act of 1900.  I guess you can forgive the group because these are “new” regulations that have only been around for a minimum of 77 years.  Who knew you couldn’t go out and shoot eagles and sell their parts on the black market?

What I want to know is…why the hell IS there a black market for eagle parts?  What does one DO with the head of a Golden Eagle? The wings of a Bald Eagle? The people who killed and sold all these raptors are disgusting, but so are the people who buy these “treasures”.

I’ve seen some sick things in South Dakota while out birding.  I’ve seen a landowner near Presho, a landowner who himself was later charged with killing eagles and other raptors, duct-tape dead coyotes in a spread-eagle position on telephone poles around his property. Warning…a photo of one of the coyotes is at the bottom of the post, and is rather disturbing.  I’ve seen hunting dog carcasses neatly lined up with bullet holes in their heads, hunting dogs that were temporarily used by out-of-state hunters during the big fall pheasant hunt, and then were “disposed of” when the hunting trip ended. On SEVERAL occasions I’ve come across hunters shooting things they shouldn’t be shooting, such as a pair of South Dakota rednecks driving around in their pickup and stopping at any wetland they passed to blast away at American Coots and other water birds.  I’ve seen a pair of high school girls pull into a wildlife area, drop off their two little brothers, and casually laugh and chatter while the little bastards were out roaming the land and shooting every songbird they could see.  I’ve seen “hunters” shoot and wound a Canada Goose, and then run around chasing the grounded bird and kicking and punching it to death.  I’ve SEEN dead raptors, including a big, gorgeous Golden Eagle, that had clearly been shot. But hey, at least those people were just doing it for “fun”, not for personal profit!!

There’s a reason I’ve gotten more cynical over the 25 years we’ve lived in South Dakota.  I’ve SEEN what some people are like. I’ve SEEN the terrible things people are capable of. When I see stories like this about the killing of hundreds of raptors for profit, I’m sad, I’m sickened, but I certainly can’t say I’m shocked any more.

Coyote - Shot near Presho, South Dakota

I’m sorry for the disturbing image, but, this is one of the most disgusting things I’ve seen while out birding in South Dakota…a land owner near Presho who had shot several coyotes and duct-taped them to telephone poles around his property. This same land owner was charged with shooting raptors, including eagles. Why, you ask? He ran a pheasant and grouse hunting operation, and didn’t want these animals preying on “his” birds. I wish stories like these were isolated cases in South Dakota. They’re not. I’ve been frankly shocked at the attitudes of many people in the state towards our beautiful wildlife.

 

Bird Photography 101 — Getting close enough

Birders or photographers new to birding sometimes ask me how I get some of my bird photos. Sunday was a great example of one tool I use! It’s not the camera. A LONG, expensive lens is definitely a huge asset in bird photography, but no matter what lens you’re using, the challenge is to get close enough to a wild bird for a frame-filling photograph.  With “only” a 400-mm lens (the lens that 99+% of my bird photos have been taken with), if means I typically have to be about 15-20 feet away from a songbird for it to fill a large portion of the image.  How does one get close to a wild bird that’s often skittish and shy around human  beings?

Hide yourself.  Often for me, that’s meant using my car as a blind, but on Sunday when I was shooting shorebirds, that wasn’t an option.  The shorebirds were all foraging in the shallows in a portion of a wetland that was far from the road.  In the back of my pickup I always have the perfect piece of equipment to help in a situation like that…a chair blind.  It has a low profile and doesn’t spook the birds once you’re set up, and it’s actually quite comfortable inside. In this case, as I approached the shoreline, all the birds scattered. No worries…set up the chair blind, make yourself comfortable inside, and after a little while, the birds will forget you’re there and will come back.

The photo below is one a birding friend took of me and my chair blind on Sunday.  Note shorebirds are calmly foraging in the shallows RIGHT in front of the blind.  They were actually too close for my camera to focus on many occasions (my 400mm lens has a 12-foot minimum focusing distance). A great tool, and one of many ways to get close enough to birds to get great photos. For more help on how to get great bird photos, click below to check out a “Bird photography tips” page from my main website:

Bird Photography Tips – South Dakota Birds and Birding

Chair Blind - Photographing Birds

My “chair blind”, one invaluable tool that allows you to get close enough to birds for photography.

Shorebirds Galore – Southeast South Dakota – April 23rd

What an utterly fantastic spring day of birding! It was one of those patented, windy South Dakota days, but the wind certainly didn’t keep the birds from showing off for the camera. I headed out this morning and spent a bit of time at Newton Hills State Park in Lincoln County, before deciding to spend most of my time looking for shorebirds. It was the right choice, as I ended up finding hundreds of shorebirds at Weisensee Slough in western Minnehaha County. It was the perfect set-up for my chair blind, a hunter’s blind I use as a photography blind.  It’s got a little folding chair with short 8-inch legs, and then a camouflaged shell that pulls over the top. There are multiple zippered openings for views, and with the low profile, birds don’t seem spooked by it, once they forget about the guy who set it up and crawled inside.  I ended up spending almost 3 hours in my chair blind as shorebirds of many species paraded in front of me.  Some species would venture so close to the blind that my camera wouldn’t focus (my long lens has a 12-foot minimum focusing distance)!  Others didn’t get quite as close, but I certainly couldn’t complain about a lack of photo opportunities. Fantastic birding day, and fantastic photo day!  Some photos from the day…click on any for even larger views.

Hudsonian Godwit -  Limosa haemastica

A male Hudsonian Godwit coming in for a landing. One of my favorite shorebirds, and one I don’t see all that often. However, today I saw at least 20 at Weisensee Slough, the most I’ve ever seen at one time.

Eastern Towhee - Pipilo erythrophthalmus

I didn’t spend much time at Newton Hills State Park, but while there I saw (and heard) many Eastern Towhees. Here a (chunky!) male hangs out in a cedar tree in the warm dawn light.

Sora - Porzana carolina

While driving past a cattail-filled wetland in Lincoln County, I heard the distinctive call of at least 2 Sora. One eventually gave me a peek…ANY peek of a Sora is a welcome sight, given how secretive they are!

Pectoral Sandpiper - Calidris melanotos

A Pectoral Sandpiper strutting its stuff mere feet in front of my chair blind. This bird certainly had no idea I was sitting inside, as at times he was too close to the blind for my camera to focus!

Baird's Sandpiper - Calidris bairdii

A Baird’s Sandpiper foraging in the shallow right in front of my blind.

Long-billed Dowitchers and Hudsonian Godwit

There were DOZENS of Long-billed Dowitchers and at least 20 Hudsonian Godwits foraging at Weisensee Slough. Every once in a while something would spook them and they’d take flight…usually RIGHT when they were starting to get within photo range of my blind! Sigh. But I did get some flight shot as they whirled around after a spooking event.

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa

A male Wood Duck, trying to blend in and hide from the camera. This was along “Ditch Road” just north of Sioux Falls. That was once one of my favorite birding locations. However, in the last year or two, they’ve cut all the trees along the ditch, and the birding is just a shadow of its former self.

Semipalmated Sandpiper - Calidris pusilla

A Semipalmated Sandpiper. There were a few Least Sandpipers mixed in as well, but overall these guys were by far the most common “peep” on Weisensee Slough today.

Hudsonian Godwit -  Limosa haemastica

Another Hudsonian Godwit at Weisensee Slough. These guys were a bit shyer than the other shorebirds and didn’t approach my blind as closely, but I still got some very nice looks at them.

 

A day of sanity (no, not the science march)

 

3 very nice northern pike, just a perk on a great day with my son.

Today was the Science March, and we actually had a March in Sioux Falls. I didn’t participate. Ever since the election, I’ve been in a funk. Particularly living here in very “red” South Dakota, it’s hard to avoid the conservative mindset, a mindset where greed is good, helping others is bad, and,yes, science isn’t to be trusted. When your career is focused on trying to help people through science, and that involves assessing the impacts of climate change, it’s hard not to let America’s anti-intellectualism get you down. I’ve tried to do what little I can to fight back. I’ve stood up for science. I’ve let my voice be heard. But I just can’t keep letting it dominate my existence. Hence my decision not to march today.

Part of the reason also is based on my continuing battle with Sjogren’s Syndrome. It seems like every time I “solve” one issue, or at least learn to live with some fun symptom, another thing pops up. The dry eyes and resultant vision impact has been addressed with my scleral contact lenses, something that’s saved my career, my sanity, my spirits. But in the last few months the arthritis part of Sjogrens has unfortunately started to make itself known. It’s only minor right now, but I was hoping that part would never show up, because chances are it will just keep progressing. My hands/fingers are already feeling stiff at times, and my knees getting awfully cranky at times too.

As all of this had been going on, I’ve had to do some hard thinking about how I want to cope. The whole feeling-sorry-for-myself thing isn’t a great long term strategy! Neither is the negativity I’ve felt since the election. Put it all together, and today I decided to focus on what’s really important, and that’s not the Science March. It’s my son and family. So today was a wonderful day with my son!

We headed up to Lake Thompson to do some fishing. It’s a place we usually have some luck, but it’s 1 1/2 hours away. Today that drive was actually a blessing. I LOVE that my soon to be 14-year old son still loves hanging out with dad and being goofy. The drive up to the lake was filled with music!  And goofy singing and air guitaring along!  Another thing I love is how he’s taken to some of the music I love, and hence some of the tunes playing included AC/DC, The Beach Boys, Elton John, ELO, and Chicago.

The fishing was great as well!  We were actually trying to catch walleye, until the first big pike attacked my bait. All we had were light poles and 4-lb test line, and we had no steel leaders to protect the thin line from the pike’s sharp teeth. But after that first hit (and break off) we started using a long, thin Rapala crankbait, one where the pike would hit it and get hooked up, but where the line was away from the pike’s mouth. It certainly worked, and with plenty of open water and nothing for line to get caught on, we were able to just let the pike run for a while before bringing them in on the light line.

Scrambling on the rip-rap (rock) along the shore wasn’t fun at times for my increasingly arthritic knees, but the music on the way up, the silly conversations with my son, the excitement and sheer joy of seeing him land some really nice pike…for a while today, I was largely able to forget about the Sjogrens. I was able to forget about the political bullshit going on. I was able to forget that I live in conservative hell with bigoted, greedy people.

In short, I had a wonderful day, focusing on the most important things in life. A day well spent, despite missing the March for Science.

The economics of climate change

Norfolk - Hurricane storm surge risks

A map showing downtown Norfolk and the surrounding areas, and likely storm surge inundation areas under different categories of Hurricanes. Should a category 4 ever strike the area, most of the region will be flooded. However, coastal flood risks in the area go well beyond the risk of hurricane-related storm surges. Coastal flooding events are becoming increasingly common as sea levels rise, with huge economic impacts on the region. Map Source: Source: Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Commonwealth of Virginia Storm Surge Inundation Maps.

This is the the week the Trump administration may announce their intentions to stay or abandon the Paris climate agreement. There’s some indication that Trump may actually be getting cold feet about abandoning the agreement. However, given the other moves the administration has already made, stating they’re sticking with the agreement may just be window dressing, as reversing Obama’s Clean Power Plan likely makes it impossible that the U.S. could actually meet the agreed upon levels of greenhouse gas reductions. With an administration full of climate-change deniers, it may not seem like there’s a lot of long-term hope that the U.S. will be a meaningful player in trying to mitigate the worst potential climate-change scenarios. However, there is hope…

The New York Times had a great piece yesterday about the Norfolk, Virginia area, and the potential impacts of climate change. What makes the piece wonderful is that it localizes the impacts of climate change and shows how it’s already changing people’s lives. Norfolk, like most coastal cities, is likely to be heavily impacted by climate change and the resultant sea-level rise in coming decades. In the case of Norfolk, however, those impacts have already arrived. Sea-level rises, coupled with sinking coastal land overall in the area, means that the relative sea-level is now 18 inches higher than it was at the start of the 20th century. As the story notes, locals have become accustomed to learning the “dry” spots for parking their cars, avoiding parking in areas where wind-blown tides may bring water inland. The impacts go far beyond the minor inconvenience of finding a dry parking spot, however.

As stated in the New York Times piece, Elisa Staton bought a house in the Larchmont-Edgewater area of Norfolk in 2005.  There were never any records that it had been flooded. Her flood insurance was reasonable, and although the house was within the 100-year flood zone, she wasn’t worried. In the last 10 years, her house has twice flooded. Her flood insurance rates skyrocketed, and the house she purchased for $320,000 was worth perhaps half of that original value. The story notes that flood insurance premiums are rising by as much as 25% a year, and that for every $500 annual increase in flood insurance cost, the value of a house goes down by about $10,000. Short-term remedies include “re-purposing” lower-level rooms to “low value storage space”…in effect reducing the habitability of lower-level rooms in order to get breaks on insurance premiums. Longer-term remedies typically involving raising the house and allowing for increasingly frequent coastal flood waters to flow under the habitable space of a home.  However, even those measures are likely doomed to fail, as relative sea levels in the area may rise by an astounding 6 feet by 2100.

So why did I say there’s some hope regarding climate change, after pointing out the damage Trumps administration has done to U.S. efforts to mitigate greenhouse gases? The current administration may be completely inept on climate change issues, but eventually, basic economics is going to force the hand of government.  The Norfolk story quantifies economic impacts for just one small coastal area in the U.S. In 2008, Norfolk hired a Dutch team (a country well-versed in dealing with coastal flooding and inundation) to develop a climate-change adaptation plan for the city. The price tag? At least $1 billion. That “100-year flood plain” that Elisa Staton’s house was found, where 2 coastal inundation events have occurred in just the last 10 years?  There is over $1 trillion in property in 100-year coastal flood plains along the eastern seaboard of the U.S.  The story does a great job talking about insurance and other economic impacts as well.

Economics.  That’s why there’s hope. Politicians are too short-sighted. As politics has become more partisan in the United States, governing for the long-term welfare of the people has been replaced by governing for the next election cycle.  Climate change impacts? When the next election is a year or two away, climate change is the last thing D.C. politicians worry about.  At a local level however?  With coastal home prices plummeting in areas like Norfolk, you can certainly imagine that local politicians have to address climate change and the resultant economic impacts in their area.  Local residents who feel their livelihoods and homes threatened by climate change will demand it.

That’s where there’s some hope, in the local-level, aggregate response to the economic impacts of climate change. As stories like Norfolk’s become more and more common, the sheer economic impacts of climate change will have to be addressed at the larger state and national scales. Business interests increasingly recognize the devastating impacts climate change may have on their bottom dollar, and realize they can’t ignore the issue.  Our own Defense Department recognizes the threat of climate change to disrupting populations across the globe and introducing instability. At some point, D.C. politicians are going to have to follow suit.

 

Birding the April Migration in South Dakota

The day started off rather gloomy and wet, but after being on travel far too much lately and not getting a chance to bird, I was determined to head out today no matter what the weather was doing.  I birded about 4 hours, staying primarily around Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County, and ended up having a great day. It’s clearly not peak migration yet for shorebirds, but they are starting to show up.  Numbers were generally small in most places, but there was a pretty decent variety.  Here are some photos from the day, many of which are “first-of-year” sightings for me.  Click on the photos for an even higher-resolution version.

White-faced Ibis - Plegadis chihi

White-faced Ibis are a species that I don’t see all that often, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen them in Minnehaha County. There were 19 foraging in a flooded field west of Sioux Falls.

Swainson's Hawk - Buteo swainsoni

Another first-of-year, a Swainson’s Hawk soaring overhead when the sun came out this afternoon. I ended up seeing several Swainson’s Hawks for the day.

Franklin's Gull - Leucophaeus pipixcan

Franklin’s Gulls are one of my favorite spring migrants…they’re so beautiful when they have the blush of pink on their undersides. This wasn’t a first-of-year sighting, as I saw a few in the last couple of weeks. However, they’re really starting to come through in big numbers right now. This was right on the edge of Sioux Falls, at Harmodan Park on the southeast side of town.

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs - Comparison

By far the most common shorebird today were Lesser Yellowlegs, with a few Greater Yellowlegs mixed in. Here’s a nice comparison shot of the two. It’s pretty evident when they’re side-by-side, but not always so easy when a lone bird is spotted.

Great Egret - Ardea alba

I have a billion Great Egret photos. But whenever I come across this beautiful bird, I can’t help but take yet another…

World’s most expensive dog bowl

Our two beloved spaniels, Oscar and Felix, are rather quirky. Given that they were originally found living by themselves in the wild, they were used to trying to find food, shelter, and water in the outdoors.  In the couple of years since we got them, they’ve become truly wonderful, sweet, loving pups, although they’ve maintained several of their original quirks.

The most maddening to deal with…their refusal to drink water if it’s inside the house. One of the two will sometimes drink from a water bowl inside the house, but strongly prefers drinking “outside water”.  The other?  There were a couple of days last fall, after I’d put the birdbath away for the winter, before there was any “delicious” snow to eat for a water source, where Oscar was refusing to eat much.  Even offering some of his most decadent, beloved treats…like some fresh cooked chicken breast…resulted in a turned up nose.  Wondering if the issue might be water, we placed a pan of water outside.  When we let the two outside, Oscar timidly approached the water, and then proceeded to guzzle the entire pan.  We let them back in the house, tried food again with Oscar, and he downed an entire bowl full.

It’s been maddening to try to get them to drink water, but my bird bath outside has always been their preferred drinking source, from the very first day we got them. However, that bird bath recently broke.  The only solution? Replace it with what’s got to be the world’s most expensive dog bowl (video at the bottom)!  I truly love this fountain…it’s from “Henri”, called their “Phoenix” fountain. It’s got a unique, modern style, has a big deep reservoir that holds a lot of water, has a wonderful shallow pan on top that the birds love to bath in, and most importantly, it’s very low and accessible for the pups!  And expensive, and back-breaking solution to get the dogs a reliable drinking water source!

Oscar and Felix - Birdbath

This is from the very first day we got Oscar (left) and Felix (right) from the rescue group. Almost immediately they found the joys of the bird bath, and for the last 3 years, it’s been their primary summer drinking source. Alas, this is the same bird bath that recently broke, requiring a replacement with the NEW world’s most expensive dog bowl.

Tracking Fed Science Agency Websites (hint…NOAA…you’re screwed)

This week social media outrage briefly focused it’s attention on the Bureau of Land Management, from within the Department of the Interior.  BLM manages a variety of Federal lands, mostly in 12 western states, including over 200 wilderness areas, 23 national monuments, and many lands for the management of grazing and mineral access. A “minor” change on the front page of the BLM’s website was noticed and publicized on social media.  Previously, the banner image was a pair of young people, backpacks on, gazing out across an open, wild landscape at sunset. A beautiful image, representative of some of the wild lands managed by BLM in the West. The replacement image?  A photo of a strip of a coal seam in a coal mine.  Woo-hoo…energy!! Money!  Environmental destruction!  Everything a Bureau of “land management” should be focusing on.

BLM isn’t alone in terms of having their website presence scrutinized since the Trump takeover in January.  The Environmental Protection Agency didn’t beat around the bush on their webpages...they simply eliminated any actual references to the word “science” on the page for the EPA Office of Science and Technology.  The USDA removed materials from their website that identified animal welfare threats. Much of the information on the Department of Energy’s website simply disappeared a couple of days after the inauguration.  It’s not paranoia that has had science-interests frantically copying over science data from Federal websites, given the possibility of that information simply disappearing.

Given the frantic activity and radical changes on Federal websites…Who will prosper and thrive? Who will wither and die?  Current website layouts offer some clues on who will likely be the winners and losers under the Trump administration:

WINNER — U.S. Geological Survey

WELL played, USGS, well played. USGS is a non-regulatory science agency within the Department of the Interior. Given the lack of regulatory responsibilities, they perhaps are less of a target than a group like the Environmental Protection Agency, but those wise souls aren’t taking any chances. Leadership and web gurus from the USGS are doing their best to ensure USGS survives…nay…THRIVES…under a Trump administration. The USGS has perhaps the widest range of scientific research in the Federal Government, including not only geologic research, but also research in hydrology, biodiversity, energy resources, ecosystems, and (gulp!)…climate.  Yes…they have a “Climate and Land Use” Mission Area that partially assesses the impacts of climate change.  How does a science agency that deals in climate change distract a Trump administration that has a laser-like focus on eliminating ANYTHING with the word “climate in it?

PUT A FREAKIN’ FIGHTER JET ON THE FRONT PAGE OF YOUR WEBSITE!!

Brilliant, USGS, brilliant. You may not have a DAMN thing to do with the military, or fighter jets, but by placing a completely irrelevant piece of military hardware on your front page, on the very day we’re bombing the hell out of Syria, you’ve secured your future under a testosterone-driven Trump administration.

USGS Website - Front Page

LOSER — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

To whoever is manning the controls of the NOAA website…what the hell were you thinking?!?!? Have you not been paying attention to the rhetoric over the last several months? NOAA falls under the umbrella of the Department of Commerce, now led by billionaire (of course) Wilbur Ross.  Ross claimed during his confirmation hearings that he’d let “science be left to the scientists”.  However, he also is someone who has refused to attribute climate change to human beings.

In the bigger picture, even as head of Commerce and defacto head of NOAA, Ross’s opinions on climate change mean very little.  Cabinet members under the Trump administration haven’t exactly had a lot of sway with the boss, a man who prefers to go by his own “expertise” and gut instinct rather than listen to the people who actually are the experts. Even should Ross see the light and acknowledge the dire threat of climate change, NOAA…you’re completely screwed.  Brush up on your interview skills and start polishing that resume, NOAA personnel. With a front page like this, one that DARES to highlight recent climatic extremes…you’ll all be gone by the end of the year.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) Website Front Page

LOSER – U.S. Fish and Wildlife

Is the web guru at NOAA also running the US Fish and Wildlife website?  It’s pretty.  It has some birds…who doesn’t like birds?  They do get a FEW “Trump points” by having a screaming Bald Eagle on the right side of the image.  DAMN…that’s American patriotism right there!  But look at the rest of the USFWS front page.  A big banner on the top saying “Conserving the Nature of America”?  What the fuck?  USFWS, why don’t you just take the more direct route and all directly send in your resignation letters right now?

And having the first tab be “endangered species”?  If you’re going that route, you might as well take all the bird photos away from the banner and instead pop up a picture of Jim Kurth, the (acting) head of U.S. Fish and Wildlife. He’s the only thing “endangered” with a web page like this. I’d recommend a few changes to your website if ya’ all hope to survive, USFWS.  Keep the Eagle, but photoshop in a “Make America Great” hat.  Get rid of most of the birds, but keep the photo of the endangered Whooping Crane.  Then, on the left side of the banner, put in a photo of the hunting-happy Trump sons, showing them taking aim at the Whooping Crane. Better yet, make it an animated GIF, showing the Trump brothers killing the last Whooping Crane on the face of the planet, and thus freeing up the U.S. budget for more important things, like cruise missiles, border patrol guards, or hair tonic for Trump. Make those changes, and you MIGHT survive what is now a disaster of a website.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife - Website Front Page

WINNER – Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA, a winner under the Trump administration? Hear me out here.  Yes, there’s little doubt that environmental regulation is enemy number one for Trump, and with the EPA currently slated for at least a 25% cut and the loss of thousands of jobs.  There’s hope, EPA.  Keep on doing what you’re doing with your website, and I’d expect that cut to shrink substantially.

Yes, there’s no doubt Trump and environmental villain Scott Pruitt hate the environment with the same vehemence that the GOP hates Obama or Hillary.  But there’s one personality trait that “trumps” even that environmental hatred for Trump and Pruitt…pure ego and narcissism.   Touting Trump’s executive order on Energy Independence, right at the top of your home page? Sure, EPA, energy independence has NOTHING to do with your mission, but it’s a brilliant move, highlight a Trump action and playing to his ego.  Even better…placing a PICTURE of Scott Pruitt right at the top, along with a (admittedly completely bullshit) quote from the man.  Keep stroking their egos, EPA. For tiny-penis, insecure little men like Trump and Pruitt, it’s the best path to getting what you want.

EPA Website - Front Page

LOSER – Bureau of Land Management

NO!!  NO, BLM…what the hell!??! Why did you do it?!!?  You had it MADE!! Changing your banner to a photo of a giant band of coal?  The Trump administration’s obsession with the promotion of coal may be akin to a doctor giving a baby aspirin to a patient with Stage IV pancreatic cancer, but you RAN with that obsession and turned it into a social media headline.  The anger it generated from snowflake liberals (ahem…like myself)?  TOTALLY worth the angst, knowing that pissed off liberals means a happy Trump.

And…then you blew it.  Just this afternoon, I see you’ve replaced this god-awful, ugly photo of a hunk of coal with the second banner below, with a gorgeous photo of a guy enjoying  fly-fishing on a pristine mountain stream.  What…the…HELL!?!?!?  Those budget cuts in the original Trump budget? The cuts were COMPLETELY off the book once the coal photo was posted. Posting this crap, of a happy outdoorsman in nature?  Both you and your NOAA friends will have a lot of free time on your hands in the near future.

Bureau of Land Management - Website Front Page

Bureau of Land Management - Website Front Page

Evolution in the blink of an eye…

Prairie Deer Mouse - Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii

The cool thing about science and nature is that interesting stories are all around us. The tiny Deer Mouse, shown here, has overcome long odds, with the vast majority of its historical habitat gone. However, through some remarkable, fast-track evolutionary adaptation, they’re now able to cope with their new world. Photo by Gregory Smith.

It’s been a busy last week, without any time for birding or photography.  Or blogging, for that matter. I was down in Nebraska for a few days, mixing work and pleasure. The “pleasure” part was my fantasy baseball draft in Omaha Saturday.  Our fantasy league is likely one of the longest running leagues in the country, going back to 1985 during our freshman year in college, when fantasy baseball was still very new.  What’s great about it is that many of the original league members are still participating! It’s great fun, not only the draft itself, but catching up with old college friends.

The “work” part of my Nebraska trip was participation in the 2017 Great Plains Symposium, on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Much like the baseball draft, the symposium too was like stepping back in time, as I reconnected with some of my old college professors who were participating in the symposium. The focus of the symposium was “Flat Places, Deep Identities: Mapping Nebraska and the Great Plains”.  I gave a talk one some of the work I’ve been doing, mapping past, present, and potential future landscapes in the Great Plains.  It was a great symposium, a little different kind of crowd than I’m used to.  Given the work I do, most of the conferences and symposiums I attend deal with the physical sciences. This conference melded mapping, history, socioeconomics, and other social sciences that I’m not exposed to as much.  It was quite fascinating, particularly hearing about the history of Nebraska, using maps to help tell the “story” of change over time.

As part of the symposium “goodies”, participants were given a copy of The New Territory, a quarterly magazine that focuses on Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.  I admit I’d never heard of the publication before. The content fits quite well with the focus of the symposium itself, with many human interest stories about the geography and people of the region. As a physical scientist, one piece caught my eye though. entitled “Evolution in the Cornbelt“, by Conor Gearin. The story focuses on the Prairie Deer Mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii), a common little fellow from the Great Plains that feeds on the tiny seeds of grasses and weeds in the prairies.

Researchers at Iowa State and Purdue University were curious how a species so adapted to life in the Great Plains has been able to thrive, given that >99% of the original tallgrass prairie in the region has been plowed under, converted to agriculture, urban land, or other man-made land uses. The grass and weed seeds the Prairie Deer Mouse had historically fed on were much more sparsely distributed than they were 200 years ago, yet the species is still quite common.  They started field work to assess the distribution of the nice, including setting up artificial nest boxes that the mice could use for habitation and food storage.  The results astounded the scientists.

Prior to beginning the work, it was assumed that deer mice populations would be the highest in “edge” habitat, areas such as grassy ditches, fencelines, or other “boundary” conditions where remnants of their traditional food sources may still be found.  However, they quickly found that the highest populations of deer mice were often right in the middle of very large corn and soybean fields, far from any traditional food source.  Clearly, Prairie Deer Mice had adapted to an agricultural setting, and were feeding on man-raised grains and pulses. The question was, how could a tiny mouse that was so well adapted to eating tiny grass and weed seeds shift gears and start feeding on corn and soybeans?

The researchers found historical deer mice in historical museums, creatures that had been preserved with taxidermy. Anatomical comparisons with Prairie Deer Mice from today found some stark differences.  The older specimens were well adapted to feeding on tiny seeds, with small mandibles and jaws that didn’t open very far.  The modern specimens had 1) significantly longer lower mandibles, 2) structural changes that allowed their mouths to open wider, and 3) larger upper mandibles. Accompanying the larger mandibles were more robust “hardware” for linking bone to muscle, with beefed up jaw muscles that enabled the tiny mice to feed on much larger food items than they had historically.

In the blink of an eye, geologically speaking, Prairie Deer Mice had shown measurable, obvious evolutionary adaptation in response to their new environment and food sources.  The researchers found high densities of deer mice in the middle of corn and soybean fields.  Some inevitably will succumb to the mechanical tools humans use to turn and manipulate the soil, but with such a rich, dense, bountiful food source, the mice had quickly evolved to fill the new ecological niche and feed on corn and soybean waste.

For a scientist like myself, I’m completely dumbfounded by the sheer ignorance of those who doubt science…who doubt climate change is real…who doubt in evolution.  The actual empirical evidence is overwhelming, conclusive, and “in-your-face”, for those who bother to open their eyes to the world around them. It’s a fascinating story, and the writer (Conor Gearin) did a great job not only summarizing the research, but telling it in a true story-teller’s fashion.  To me, this is exactly the kind of story, and writing style, that could perhaps help to turn the tide against the anti-science wave that seems to be cresting in the U.S. right now. Great story, and The New Territory really looks like a publication that’s worth subscribing to or picking up if you get a chance.

Grand River National Grasslands, Harding County, South Dakota

Expansive grasslands of the Grand River National Grasslands, in Harding County, in far northwestern South Dakota. Grassland habitat like this is greatly reduced in the Great Plains. However, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for one species, the Prairie Deer Mouse, who evidently can do quite well without an actual “prairie”.

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