Articles for the Month of August 2017

Small-town America and New American Values

Brandon, South Dakota

Brandon, South Dakota. Small-town, USA, population 10,000., “Midwestern Values”, But we’re not immune to what’s happening in the country over the last year.

Brandon, South Dakota. population 10,000. Small town, USA. Yet our High School has a new and growing problem with racism and bigotry. That’s the message we got this week, when our son started as a freshman.  We attended a question and answer session, with members of the senior class responding to questions from parents of incoming freshman.  After one question about potential fighting or bullying at Brandon High School, the principal stepped in and sadly announced that last year, for the first time, Brandon High School had experienced notable confrontations related to racism. Small-town USA, in the heart of the Midwest, where people claim to take pride in their “Midwestern values”.  Yet here we were being told that our little town’s high school was having issues with racism over the last year.

The principal has been in Brandon for many years. He didn’t say these words lightly. In fact, he rightfully seemed rather ashamed of the fact that it had become and issue.  The fact that he’s been in Brandon many years, and that racism hadn’t cropped up in an widespread, overt way until 2016? It’s not exactly a mystery as to why overt racism is becoming more common, even here in Brandon, South Dakota.

As a scientist, and particularly as a scientist who touches on climate changes issues, the last year can only be described as “soul-crushing”. We now have state-sponsored attacks on science, and even on basic logic and empirical proven TRUTH.  They are attacks on the very paradigm by which I’ve led my career and life.  However, even as a scientist, there’s been one characteristic of presidency of Orange Hitler (sorry, the SOB is like Voldemort…I can’t say his fucking name) that’s been even more troubling…the bigotry and state-sponsored HATE that emanates from the Oval Office.  Beyond what happens in DC however, is how that hatred and intolerance is trickling down even to small-town America (or perhaps FROM small-town America).

The Texas coast is currently dealing with a disaster of epic proportions…Hurricane Harvey.  Thanks to the predictions of government-funded scientists and research from NOAA (ironically, some of the same scientists ostracized for climate-change related work), we’ve had several days notice of the likely progression of the storm. Hopefully loss of life and property is held at a minimum thanks to those warnings. It’s a time where the nation’s focus rightly is with the people suffering through the storm.  And what was Orange Hitler doing just as the storm was hitting? Using the office of the Presidency to spread his own personal bile, bigotry, and hatred.

As the storm was beginning to lash the Texas coast, Orange Hitler issued the first pardon of his presidency. There have been sickening abuses of Presidential pardons in the past…Ford’s pardon of Nixon, and Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich are the two cases most commonly cited cases. None can top Orange Hitler’s pardon of fellow bigot and hate-monger Joe Arpaio.  None tears at the very soul of a nation more than this action, particularly as it was accompanied by a near-simultaneous executive order instructing the Pentagon to to ban transgender service members. Ford’s pardon of Nixon was presented as a means of ending the traumatic events leading up to Nixon’s resignation and help a nation heal. Clinton’s pardon of Rich?  Likely even more disgusting, given that it’s primarily viewed as a tit-for-tat favor to a man who donated heavily to the Clintons.

But Trump’s moves last night? They go behind personal political favors or misguided attempts to move a nation past a crisis.  They DIRECTLY flout the very principles on which the United States was established.  We’re 240+ years beyond the Declaration of Independence. We’re 240 years past the point where we had established that “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights“. However, after 8 years of a (gasp!!) black President, Orange Hitler tapped into the bigotry and HATRED of vast numbers of Americans, and has used the Oval Office as a platform for spreading hate and intolerance.  The founding fathers of 240 years ago would be aghast at the events of last night.

Joe Arpaio is a hateful bigot.  He was convicted on criminal contempt of court charges after ignoring directives to stop his abusive and discriminatory targeting of…well…anyone not lily-white.  There’s no gray area here, no logical grounds for pardoning such a man. Pardoning a man such as this sends a clear message…that the kind of government sponsored bigotry and hatred practiced by a small man like Arpaio has now graduated to full-fledged sponsorship by the Federal Government. Moments later, the same message was sent when Orange Hitler went against the recommendations of his own military commanders, and banned transgender citizens from serving their country in the military.

Orange Hitler is what he is. It was obvious during the 2016 presidential campaign, when he used his thinly veiled dog-whistle calls to the millions of hateful, bigoted Americans that long for a return to the days where White Power was unquestioned, where anyone who wasn’t white and Christian “knew their place” in society.  Americans KNEW they were voting for a bigot.  They KNEW they were voting for a man who advocated for hatred and intolerance of their fellow Americans.

Confederate Flag in South Dakota

Yes, this is good ol’ small-town South Dakota. Taken near Corson, just outside of Brandon. A new feature since the election, just like the house in Brandon who put “Get on board the Trump Train!” in big block letters across their fence. Small-town values. Small-town hatred and bigotry.

And they voted for him anyway.  Or more accurately, they voted for him BECAUSE of those views.

The dismissal of logic and reason, the outright rebellion against science in Orange Hitler’s administration is sad and disheartening.  But that’s nothing compared to the knowledge that not only is the American President a hateful bigot, but that SO many millions of Americans sympathize with his beliefs.  It’s fundamentally changed how I view the country in which I live. When I go out in public now here in very “red” South Dakota, I can’t help but look at my fellow citizens with a mix of bewilderment, sadness, and even fear.  That hatred and intolerance is showing up even in our own high school, no doubt being “passed down” from South Dakota parents who share those views. Thanks to the election of Orange Hitler, racism, intolerance, and bigotry is now “OK”. It’s OK to express those views in public.  It’s now acceptable to hate your fellow man, to discriminate and abuse them if they happen to be a different color, creed, or sexual orientation.  For many, it’s now evidently OK to even express those views in a public school setting.

Soul crushing.  Orange Hitler is an odious, despicable human being, but he’s one man. It’s the knowledge that so many millions of my fellow Americans share those views that is difficult to take.


Cheating in Photoshop – The “Warm” Eclipse

After viewing a number of eclipse photos on the web, I’ve decided to likewise “cheat”.  When you see the total eclipse live, you’re primarily seeing white light.  Most of the photos you see from the event thus  similarly show a white solar aura around the dark disc of the moon.  However, you also see photos with a very colorful, warm light.

I’m calling it…it’s “cheating”. It’s clearly applying some kind of warming filter.  I don’t do much in the way of photoshop manipulation, but I actually do kind of like the look of the “warm” colored eclipse.  Here’s my shot at doing the same:

Solar eclipse - 2017

My “cheating” version of the eclipse, with a warming filter applied to give it a more “sunny” look (at least how people tend to perceive the color of the sun).

Eclipse Hunting, Rockhounding, and Dinos…Oh My!

What an utterly spectacular weekend with my son.  We had originally planned to head down to my hometown in Nebraska to view the eclipse Monday. A cloudy forecast for much of Nebraska led to a last-second change of plans, and our extended weekend turned into a weekend of SCIENCE!  And may I say, given how the relentless attack on science continues ever since the election of Orange Hitler, a much NEEDED weekend of science.

Our whirlwind sciency tour was planned in haste on Saturday night.  At that time, the surest bet for sunny skies for the eclipse were in eastern Wyoming, a good 7-8 hour drive from home.  We decided to make a weekend of it, stay in the Black Hills over night Sunday (the nearest hotel we could find to the eclipse path…2 hours away!), and do some agate, fossil, and petrified wood exploring on the way.  Sunday we spent some time on Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in the morning, again finding some nice geologic goodies. By Sunday afternoon we’d made it to Hill City, SD, and spent some time in the Black Hills Institute’s Museum. Wonderful place to look at dinosaur fossils, geologic wonders, and other interesting displays.

The highlight of the trip of course was the eclipse on Monday. Anticipating heavy traffic, we left Hill City by 5:30 AM, and made our way to Lusk, Wyoming.  Traffic wasn’t as bad as we thought, so we were there by 8:00 AM. We grabbed supplies, found a quiet gravel road 20 miles SW of Lusk, and waited for the show.

That “quiet” gravel road ended up being not so quiet. Despite the isolation, other eclipse watchers from all over North America paraded by us, searching out pullouts on the side of the road from which to set up camp. By the time the moon first started to creep in front of the sun, our quiet gravel road had people camped out about every 30 yards for as far as the eye can see. People continued to stream down the road, all the way up until the point of totality.

I’ve never seen a total eclipse. My son has never seen a total eclipse. After this experience, I GUARANTEE that we will make plans to see another, as soon as is feasible (likely 2024).  If there’s a more spine-tingling, goosebump-raising, incredible experience to be had, I’m not sure what it is. As the light got every more dim and eerie, anticipation rose, but the moment of totality kind of sneaks up on you. There was more light than I expected, RIGHT up until totality. The awe of seeing the initial “diamond ring” effect, following by complete totality, is beyond words.

I did want to try to photograph the eclipse. I did take several photos at the start of totality, but after several photos, I HAD to put the camera down, and just revel in the moment.  Other than rather incredible traffic trying to get out of Wyoming and back to South Dakota, it was one of the best travel adventures we’ve ever had.

A few shots of the eclipse, before my jaw dropped and the camera was ignored…

Solar eclipse - 2017

Moments before totality, a few seconds of the “diamond ring” effect. I had read about the stages of the eclipse, and knew this was supposed to happen right before totality. Seeing it was still indescribable.

Solar Eclipse - 2017

The eclipse during the 2_ minutes of totality. This has a bit longer exposure than the next shot, gathering more light so you can see more of the corona. Shooting in this fashion though hides the detail you can observe around the edge of the moon’s disc (see next photo).

Solar Eclipse - 2017

Lower exposure reveals what you can see with your own eyes during totality (at least through my camera, or through our binoculars)…solar prominences flaring off the surface of the sun. This was the moment I dropped the camera and just enjoyed the show. With such a short 2+ minute window to enjoy totality, I didn’t want to miss it with my face behind a camera.


Hanging with the Hummingbirds…

I was planning on doing some birding yesterday, but life got in the way. I started doing yard work, and couldn’t help but notice several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds flitting through my back yard, moving from flower to flower, and to my one nectar feeder.  After finishing the yard work, I decided to do something I haven’t done all summer…try to get photos of my visiting hummingbirds.

They’re not going to be around much longer.  They’ll start to leave in a week or two, and numbers will dwindle.  By September, I’m usually only left with occasionally young birds and females. By mid-September, they’ll largely be gone.

I’m always so excited when the first hummingbird shows up in our yard in early May!  I figured I’d better take some time and enjoy them while we can.  For now, here’s a male and female (or young) visiting my nectar feeder.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris

A somewhat scruffy looking male Ruby-throated Hummingbird. I probably won’t have males around for too much longer. Mature males are always the first to leave, and will be scarce or absent by the end of the month.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Archilochus colubris

A female (or immature) hummingbird. Pretty soon these will all I’ll have, and then sadly, they’ll trickle away as well, leaving me with a long, 8-month period without my beautiful little hummingbird. 🙁


Kilauea Lava Videos

I still haven’t had a lot of time to process all the Hawai’i photos and videos, but here are a few videos of some of the lava.  I’m not much of a videographer (doesn’t help that I absolutely hate tripods), but you get the feel for what it’s like.

Takin’ a hike through active lava flows…

Just your casual, ordinary, every day hike this past Monday. We were vacationing on the Big Island of Hawai’i, and had booked a guide to take us to the active lava flows of Kilauea.  We arose before 3:00 AM, met our guide at 4:00AM, and drove as close as you can get to the active flows.  That’s a minimum of 3 to 4 miles away from either the surface flows or the lava’s entry point into the ocean, which meant a early morning hike was in order.  It’s not the easiest hike in the world! For the first 2 miles, you’re following a gravel road and it’s easy, but to get to the active surface flows, we had to hike a good 1 1/2 to 2 miles across the rough, older flows from Kilauea.

A tiring hike, particularly on the way back when the sun starts beating down on you, but SO worth it! It was the hike of a lifetime, as we were able to experience active, flowing lava from as close as we could physically tolerate.  10 feet was about the limit for me, as any closer and the heat from the lava was overwhelming. An incredible experience for our little family!  Here are some photos from the day…click on each photo for a larger view. When I have time to process video I’ll post out here as well.

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilaluea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea - Lava field sunrise

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava - Epic Lava Dude

The guide who took us to the exact location where lava was flowing on the surface was from EpicLava. Highly recommended, once-in-a-lifetime experience!!

The “melting pot” of Hawaiian birds

Just back from 10 days in Hawaii, a region with one of the most screwed-up ecosystems on the planet. As a birder, it was certainly a fun trip, as I added at least 30 “new” species to my life list. Of those 30, however, only one-third were native to the Hawaiian Islands.  No area of the United States has suffered a greater loss of native bird species than Hawaii.  The reasons are many, but they all have a man-made origin. The devastation began when the islands first became populated, and ecosystems were directly impacted by mankind. Forest clearing and the introduction of fire certainly had an impact, but other anthropogenic factors were the most devastating.

There are no native reptiles or amphibians on the Hawaiian islands, and only one native mammal, a species of bat.  However, with the arrival of man came rats and mice, cats, as well as introduced mongoose that were brought to the islands to control the rat populations.  These introduced mammals all were new predators of eggs, young birds, and even adult birds…threats Hawaiian birds had never had to deal with before. Introduced pigs, goats, and sheep devastated the natural vegetation of the islands.  Disease also has had a devastating impact on Hawaiian birds, as introduced avian malaria has wiped out entire species and devastated other species.  Introduced plant species have changed the vegetative composition of Hawaiian ecosystems, and even now, a new fungal disease has started to wipe out Hawaii’s Ohi’a tree, one of the most common and important forest tree’s for Hawaiian birds.

For someone from South Dakota, it’s thus a fun place to bird, but it’s also sobering. Hawaii has certainly become a “melting pot”, regional ecosystem experiment, where birds, plants, and diseases from all regions of the globe are thrown together…winner take all. Unfortunately it’s the native plants and animals that are losing in this experiment.

Here’s a sampling of some of the birds I was able to photograph, and a bit of information as to where these now well-established “Hawaiian” birds actually originated.

Hawai'i 'Amakihi - Chlorodrepanis virens

An ‘Amakihi, specifically, the Hawai’i subspecies. Similar subspecies are found on O’ahu and Kaua’i. This is a native species. They are one of a very few Hawaiian honeycreeper species that has continued to thrive, despite all the ecosystem changes. They were quite common on our visit to the Big Island, and I found them on both the dry and wet sides of the island.

Erckel's Francolin - Pternistis erckelii

There’s no shortage of “gamebirds” now on the big island. Many species of pheasant, quail, and other similar birds have been introduced. This was one of the most common that we saw on Hawai’i, an Erckel’s Francolin. We found them on dry grasslands on the western side of the island, forest edges, and even forest clearings in the wet rain-forests of the eastern side of the island. Nasty looking spurs on these guys…I’d bet the males use them to good effect during the breeding season.

Yellow-billed Cardinal - Paroaria capitata

20 years ago, before I started birding, my wife and I visited O’ahu. Even as a non-birder I noticed the striking Red-crested Cardinals. It wasn’t until I became a birder a few years later that I learned they weren’t native. Hawai’i island doesn’t have the Red-crested Cardinal, but they do have a similar looking bird, the Yellow-billed Cardinal. They are native to parts of South America, but were introduced to Hawai’i several decades ago. They’re not actually closely related to cardinals, they are a species of tanager. We found them in a variety of settings, all over the island, but they certainly have adapted well to a human presence. They were almost ubiquitous in and around suburban settings and parks.

Photo of White-tailed Tropicbird - Phaethon lepturus

This one was a huge surprise to me! We were visiting Kilauea’s main crater, an active crater with a lava lake at the bottom, when I saw multiple white birds streaking through the sky in and around the crater rim. I never got close enough for a great photo, but it was quite obvious what they were once I got my binoculars on them…White-tailed Tropicbirds! I certainly wasn’t expecting to find a tropical sea-bird flying around the crater of an inland volcano, but these guys actually nest on the cliff walls in and around Kilauea’s summit! They are native, and given their unique habitat choice on the island, they are one species not heavily impacted by anthropogenic activity. Their choice of nesting location shields them from the rats, cats, and mongoose that have devastated other nesting birds on the islands.

Photo of African Silverbill - Euodice cantans

One of the best places I birded on Hawai’i was on the slopes of Mauna Loa, between 5,000 and 7,500 feet above sea level. There were many native mamane trees on the dry eastern slopes, and these dry woodlands with scattered trees and grasses were wonderful for a wide variety of species. This included native Amakihi and Elepaio, but also included MANY non-native species. That included roving flocks of these guys, African Silverbills. They are a native of western and central Africa.

Photo of Red-billed Leiothrix - Leiothrix lutea

Another non-native species that was common in the dry mamane forests on the slopes of Mauna Loa…Red-billed Leiothrix. Beautiful birds, these guys were mingling with mixed flocks of other small birds, including the native Amakihi. They are native to southern China and the Himalayan region.

Photo of 'Apapane - Himatione sanguinea

Like the Amakihi, this is another of the few native Hawaiian honeycreepers that seems to still be doing well…the ‘Apapane. They are still quite common and widespread on Hawai’i. Wherever we found Ohi’a trees on the wet, eastern side of the island, we found ‘Apapane. Alas though, even the few native Hawaiian honeycreeper species that have survived are faced with devastating population losses. The Ohi’a tree on which these guys depend (shown in this photo) have been subjected to a new fungal disease that just started devastating Ohi’a populations on Hawai’i in 2010. In the few short years since, large areas of Ohi’a-dominated forest have been affected. We ourselves saw huge swaths of forests with all the large Ohi’a trees dead. So far the fungus is confined to the island of Hawai’i, but it’s a horrible development for Hawaiian birds that are so dependent upon this plant.

Photo of Grey Francolin - Francolinus pondicerianus

Another of the non-native Francolin’s, this is a Grey Francolin. These weren’t nearly as common as the Erckel’s Francolin, and they seem to be restricted to the dry lowlands on the western side of Hawai’i. I also saw a number of Black Francolin on Hawai’i, but wasn’t able to get a photo of them. The Grey Francolin shown here is native to southern Asia.

Photo of Nene - Branta sandvicensis

The state bird of Hawai’i, the Nene. We saw them flying over on occasion, but the ONLY place we ever saw them on the ground? Golf courses. Nene nearly went extinct several decades ago until captive breeding was used to rebuild the population. Despite seeing them on a number of occasions on Hawai’i, it’s not a complete conservation success story. Populations on the main island of Hawai’i are still likely not self-sustaining. As ground nesters, eggs and young are extremely susceptible to predation from rats, cats, and mongoose. Even brooding adult birds may be attacked. Without captive breeding, it is unlikely the species would survive on Hawai’i.

Photo of Zebra Dove - Geopelia striata

A Zebra Dove sitting on a fenceline. A native of southeastern Asia, these guys are EVERYWHERE on the Big Island, particularly in and around urban and suburban areas. Zebra Doves have pretty much become the equivalent of Rock Pigeons in the continental United States…a species that is found everywhere humans are found.

Photo of Yellow-fronted Canary - Serinus mozambicus

A beautiful, yet non-native, Yellow-fronted Canary. They are native to sub-Saharan Africa. We found them in a number of habitats, but particularly on woodland edges with grasses and grass seed available nearby.

Photo of Black Noddy - Anous minutus

A Black Noddy…specifically the Hawaiian sub-species, known locally as the Noio. When visiting southern part of Hawai’i, we saw them on multiple occasions, cruising in and around the coastal seacliffs upon which they nest. A native seabird that seems to still be doing quite well.

Photo of Saffron Finch - Sicalis flaveola

One of the first birds we saw after getting off the plane in Kona were a pair of absolutely gorgeous Saffron Finches near the Airport. Beautiful, found in many places all over the island, but alas, not native. They are a tanager relative native to South America.

Photo of Eurasian Skylark - Alauda arvensis

European settlers introduced some of their favorite European species in multiple locations throughout the globe. One of their favorite birds from “back home” were Eurasian Skylarks, a song known for their melodious songs. They are now well established on the Big Island, and we saw them EVERYWHERE on the grassy western slopes of Mauna Loa.

Photo of Pueo - Asio flammeus sandwichensis

For our first 4 days on the island, we stayed at an area about 20 miles north of the Kona airport. Despite driving across several parts of the dry, western part of the island in those first few days, it took THREE FULL DAYS before I finally saw a bird that was actually NATIVE to Hawai’i. That bird was a “Pueo”, the local name for the only native owl found in the Hawaiian islands. Most think it’s a subspecies of the Short-eared Owl. There was one road on the western slopes of Mauna Loa where I had incredible success finding these guys, including 5 individual owls in one 8-mile section of road one evening.

Photo of Pueo - Asio flammeus sandwichensis

Both the first and last native bird photos of our trip were of a Pueo. This was our last evening on the island, with a lone Pueo sitting on a fence post on the western slopes of Mauna Loa.


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