Articles for the Month of July 2018

Duckweed Covered Duck – POTD for July 31st

Today’s photo-of-the-day…a duckweed-covered duck.  Well, OK…no, technically it’s not a “duck”, it’s a juvenile Pied-billed Grebe, but I like my title choice and I’m stickin’ to it!!  This is from a couple of days ago at a local slough. There’s SO much cropland around here that when I see a wetland or pond completely covered in green, I immediately think it’s out of control algae (fed by all the fertilizer runoff). That wasn’t the case here. The water underneath was quite clear, algae wasn’t really evident, but the duckweed certainly was enjoying the environment.

As were Pied-billed Grebes! There were many adult and juvenile birds. It was fun watching them forage, disappearing underneath the duckweed and popping up through the green.  One of my favorite species, and the young have such wonderful plumage patterns.

Juvenile Pied-billed Grebe - Podilymbus podiceps

Small minds, and POOF, a S.Dakota science institution is gone

South Dakota State University - Geospatial Sciences Center of ExcellenceSmall minds, insular thinking.  It’s an infection that’s spread across the United States in the last several years, and one victim of the “disease” is the death of one of the most successful science programs of its kind in the entire world.

In 2016, Barry Dunn became president of South Dakota State University. One thing he did when arriving was review the state of the “Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence” (GSCE)…a truly WORLD-renown science center established in 2005 to develop and apply remote sensing and other geospatial data for research and education purposes. Some of the biggest names in the field were lured to South Dakota State.  In the last 13 years, Mike Wimberly…Matt Hansen…David Roy…Geoffrey Hennebry…Mark Cochrane…all were key parts of GSCE and its development.  Over the last 13 years, they’ve had a massive impact on the field, applying remote sensing data and analysis techniques to applications that include understanding disease vectors and risks of West Nile virus…helping to establish and use the next generation of satellite sensors…mapping fire extent and severity…mapping changes in our ever-declining grassland ecosystems…and many, many more.

Students from all over the world moved to South Dakota, of all places, to work with such a wonderful collection of researchers.  The research impact has been enormous.  The reputation is sterling.  The senior scientists at GSCE brought in huge amounts of external research dollars. It has been, by all logical measures, a raging success.

It’s now decimated. During his review process, Barry Dunn in his infinite wisdom decreed SDSU GSCE wasn’t of any benefit to South Dakota, partially because 1) it didn’t do all its work IN South Dakota, and 2) it didn’t have enough South Dakota students. So, they cut $1 million in core funding. They effectively gave the research leads a 25% pay cut.  The result of the drop of support?  For the next semester that starts in a few weeks, literally NONE of the GSCE Senior Scientists will remain.  That’s right…ALL have decided enough is enough, and all are moving on to greener pastures. A science center like no other, one South Dakota could put up against ANY similar science center in the world…and it’s gone belly up, thanks to new “leadership” at South Dakota State.

Small minds, insular thinking…what the hell has happened in this country? Doing work that’s WORLD-renown and applied in all continents is deemed a NEGATIVE, because they didn’t do all their work in South Dakota? Too many foreign students is a “problem”?  It’s a problem that’s certainly not limited to SDSU, GSCE, or South Dakota.  To me it all falls under the same kind of anti-intellectualism, anti-“expert”, anti-SCIENCE paradigm that seems to have infected America.

A South Dakota institution is gone after far too short a time, all thanks to tiny little minds with a lack of vision and appreciation for the bigger picture.

POTD – American Bittern “hiding”

Photo of the day, for a bird that gets high marks for trying, but failing, to hide. I didn’t have much luck shooting birds yesterday, but did run across this American Bittern along the rip-rap bordering a huge wetland area.  The ol’ stick-my-head-up-and-they-won’t-see-me approach Bitterns use may work when they’re standing in the middle of a bunch of dry cattails, but kind of falls apart when they’re out in the open, particularly next to red quartzite.

American Bittern - Botaurus lentiginosus

American Bittern “hiding” at Weisensee Slough in western Minnehaha County, South Dakota.

 

No feathers! Not even fur! POTD…

Given we were on vacation for 2 weeks recently, and I was gone on travel for work last week, it’s been a while since I’ve been out birding locally.  With a great forecast temps, light winds, and partial cloud cover, it was shaping up to be a perfect day for bird photography!  I left at dawn this morning with the intention of finding migrating shorebirds and other goodies.

I didn’t want to commit to a long drive up to Lake Thompson where I was pretty much guaranteed of finding shorebird habitat somewhere. Given how wet our summer has been and the rain we had when I was gone last week, I thought there would likely be some standing water around locally…perfect habitat for migrating shorebirds. I was wrong! There were a few areas of standing water, but with crops at almost full height and other vegetation quite lush from the wet summer, most of those wet spots were hidden or surrounded by vegetation. Several did have a few shorebirds, but I never did get any photo opportunities.

The one great photo opportunity for today was a true rarity for me…something without feathers. Something without fur (a target of opportunity I always shoot when out birding). I was driving in western Minnehaha County about half an hour after sunrise, and saw an old…combine (?) in a partially cut wheat field. I say “combine” because it was so old, so simple a piece of farm equipment, that I don’t know what else you’d call it.  Curiously, it was sitting on the fence row right by the road, in a small area of cut wheat in a much bigger wheat field, and with a brightly painted “John Deere” sign facing the road. I couldn’t have designed a better photo opportunity, and with the warm morning light, I spent a good 30 minutes getting various styles of photos of the scene.

With such a perfect scene, I do wonder if it WAS some kind of display that someone had set up, but regardless of why it was there, I thank the owner for providing the photo opportunity!  It turned out to be a great photo day, despite few opportunities to actually shoot birds.

John Deere in the Wheat Field

An old but brightly colored piece of farm equipment, sitting in a partially harvested wheat field. Too perfect a photo opportunity to have occurred without someone actually designing the scene!

Photo of the Day: Broad-tailed Hummingbird

I was going to go birding today, but alas, my Sjogren’s was flaring up and I wasn’t feeling very good. I stayed home and started processing my (many thousands) of old, unprocessed photos.  I have SO many photos I’ve taken over the years, and so many photos that I have yet to publish online (even on my massive out-of-control website), that I thought I’d start a new feature on my blog…the Photo of the Day. Oh, make no mistake, there’s no way I’ll ever publish a new photo of the day, every day.  Consider it more the photo for THAT day, rather than a series of daily photos. 🙂

First up…one of my favorite photos from our recent vacation to Colorado and Utah.  We visited 12 different National Parks and National Monuments in Colorado and Utah, and as we wound our way through Colorado, we stopped for one night at Winter Park, Colorado. When on vacation, I typically get my birding fix in during the early morning hours, waking before dawn and going out while my wife and son sleep in.  From our room, we could see a trail that ran along the shores of the Fraser River, so I thought I’d give it a try.

I was a bit surprised when I got out that morning, in that the warm summer’s day started out with a chilly 38-degree morning!  I started walking the trail just as the sun came up, but it took 20 minutes or so before the sun peeked over the adjacent ridge and started to brighten the area along the trail. Birds were a bit sluggish at first, perhaps because of the cold.  As I walked along, I saw a tiny bird on the top of a bush. As I approached, I saw a stubborn Broad-tailed Hummingbird, one who decided he wasn’t moving for any reason.

A challenge when shooting hummingbirds is getting the right light for the gorget of a male to “light up”.  I took many photos of this bird, but alas, for most of the time I spent with him, he was facing away from the sun. It wasn’t until I was about to move on that he shifted position, gave me a look, and then turned his head towards the sun.  BOOM…that brilliant magenta gorget lit up in the early morning’s sun as I took photo after photo.  The close range, the detail in the plumage, the clean background, and that gorgeous bright gorget made this one of my favorite photos from the trip.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus)

Male Broad-tailed Hummingbird, hanging out on a sunny perch on a cold Colorado morning.

A visual depiction of the problem with men…

I haven’t done much with the website or blog lately, as I’ve been quite busy with work, including some travel.  I’m back home this weekend and am having a lovely morning, going through old, unprocessed photos, of which I have many.   I came across this photo of a pair of Bufflehead drakes fighting (a photo taken so long ago I don’t even remember it), and a blog topic came to mind.  The topic…just how dangerous it is leaving us men in charge.

This photo perfectly demonstrates men.  Testosterone…conflict…trying to prove your manliness with a show of strength.  When a problem arises, THIS is how men tend to handle things.  OK, sure, it’s all well and good if it’s a couple of cute little ducks on the pond, but the same concept applies to world leaders with powerful armies and weapons at their disposal.

Cheery thoughts to start the weekend!

Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) fighting

Boys being boys…two Bufflehead drakes fighting.

 

Confirmed! The Three-eyed Raven is Real

Common Raven - "Three-eyed Raven"

The Three-eyed Raven, in the flesh. Evidently he lives in Colorado, at Colorado National Monument.

I have a feeling that if I had time to go through all my photographs that I haven’t had time to process and look at, I would have some real surprises…birds I forgot I’d shot, a mis-identified species, etc.  On a lazy Sunday afternoon I thought I’d start to go through some of the hundreds of photos from our western US vacation in June, and this is what I discovered…

The Three-eyed Raven. HE.  IS.  REAL.  In Game Of Thrones, you know how both the “original” Three-eyed Raven and Bran have their eyes go blank as they warg into another creature? Or how that creature (or someone like Hodor) have their eyes go blank when they have been warged into?  PROOF of the reality of the concept, right here. 🙂

For those of you who can’t wait to see how the last season of Game Of Thrones turns out, perhaps a visit to Colorado National Monument is in order (the place where this raven was found).

Hodor - Warg Eyes

Hodor when Bran warged into him, with the SAME. EXACT. EYES!!

Bran and the Three-eyed Raven

Bran and the original Three-eyed Raven, with the same blank eyes

Visiting Bear’s Ears, Reflecting on Roosevelt and Zinke

Teddy Roosevelt Display - Natural Bridges National Monument

A display greeting visitors at Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah, with Teddy Roosevelt’s proclamation declaring the area as protected lands. An ironic display given the proximity to Bear’s Ear’s National Monument, and what supposed Roosevelt devotee Ryan Zinke and his Department of Interior have done to conservation efforts in the US.

In June, our family took a vacation to the western United States, visiting almost a dozen different National Parks and National Monuments. For a part of the trip we were based in Moab in eastern Utah, with two subsequent days in Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado.  On the travel day in between those two locations, we were going to Natural Bridges National Monument in southeastern Utah when we realized that Bear’s Ears National Monument was nearby. Given the controversy surrounding Bear’s Ears, we had to make a short detour to visit.

Bear’s Ears is so named for a pair of adjacent buttes thought to resemble a pair of bear’s ears.  In Navajo legend, the buttes were formed from the ears of Changing Bear Maiden, who was beautiful and desired by all men.  Tricked into marrying Coyote, Changing Bear Maiden’s brother attempted to hide her from him by cutting off her ears and changing her form. The ears became the prominent buttes for which the National Monument was named.

Bear’s Ears was targeted by the Trump administration for a reduction in size. Key to that move was Senator Orrin Hatch, who suggested the move to the administration shortly after the January 2017 inauguration.  Why reduce the size of a National Monument?  Money of course. It was thought there were some potential oil, gas, and mineral sources on some of the land.  Hatch submitted his own proposed “shapefile” (a digital boundary) to the administration, looking like a heavily gerrymandered political district, with boundaries drawn to eliminate potential resource extraction locations from the Monument boundaries. The suggested boundary was adopted largely as is.  The move was completed on December 4th, 2017, when Trump issued issued a proclamation reducing the size of the monument by an astounding 85%.

The area itself is gorgeous. On much of the lowlands around Bear’s Ears, sagebrush flats are interspersed with dry pinyon and juniper woodlands.  The two Bear’s Ears buttes themselves reach up to 9,058 feet, with heavily forested and green slopes.  It’s rugged and wild land, with little in the way of current development or anthropogenic land uses other than some grazing cattle.

Bear's Ears National Monument - Summit

A small gravel and rock road leads to a small pass between the “ears” of Bear’s Ears, giving you wonderful looks at the two rugged buttes.

There’s a rough unpaved road that leads up to the buttes themselves, allowing you to drive between the two buttes and towards the interior of the National Monument. When I say “rough”, I mean a road that you DEFINITELY wouldn’t take if there had been any recent rain, and a road that we probably had no business taking our rental car. Given the infamy of what’s happened to Bear’s Ears though, we did make the drive up.  It’s quiet and isolated…we only encountered one other car on the road (thankfully, given the narrowness of the road!). The literal quiet in places such as this is something I’ve REALLY learned to appreciate, as there are fewer and fewer locations where you can sit and enjoy your surroundings without hearing even a hint of noise from nearby transportation routes or people.  A beautiful location that we thoroughly enjoyed.

Natural Bridges National Monument is adjacent to Bear’s Ears. We spent time hiking in that Monument, and also stopped at the visitor’s center (Bear’s Ears doesn’t have it’s own visitors center). As you enter the Natural Bridges visitor’s center, you’re greeted by a lifesize cutout of Teddy Roosevelt, with a quote of his own proclamation from 1908, establishing the area as a National Monument. Irony…pure irony.  That’s what went through my mind after seeing the Roosevelt display, just after visiting Bear’s Ears.

The reason? Ryan Zinke, Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, fancies himself as a Teddy Roosevelt devotee.  From the day he started the position, Zinke has constantly compared himself to Teddy Roosevelt.  As a “fan” of the outdoors and using the outdoors for personal enjoyment, Zinke and Roosevelt may have some common ground. Roosevelt himself has a checkered past.  He’s considered an icon for conservation in the United States, while simultaneously being labeled as deplorable for his treatment of Native Americans.  Other informational signs at Natural Bridges note that Bear’s Ears is considered sacred land by the Pubelos, Utes, and Navajos…given that Zinke and Trump completely ignored the Native American communities’ history and desire to protect this land, it’s clear that Zinke too shares Roosevelt’s complete lack of respect for Native American rights.  It’s not forgivable in either case, but with Roosevelt it was more a mirroring of prevalent attitudes in the country.  Over 100 years later, you’d hope someone like a Zinke or Trump would be more enlightened (hint…they’re not).

Bear's Ears National Monument

A view of the two famed “ears” of Bear’s Ears National Monument, from the small road leading to the top. A dry sage, juniper, and pinyon pine landscape becomes more lush as you move up towards the buttes, with greener deciduous and evergreen forests at the top.

Soon after the naming of Zinke as Secretary of the Interior, Grist published an interview with Roosevelt scholar and historian Douglas Brinkley about the comparisons between Zinke and Roosevelt. Brinkley notes some similarities, stating that both were military men, both have/had massive egos, and both were “conservationists”, in that they appreciated our natural lands. Again, however, much of that “appreciation” is based not on environmentalism or even protection of a natural state, and more on the exploitation of that land for human gain.  “Human gain” can mean the hunting and fishing that both Zinke and Roosevelt enjoyed, but also means timber harvesting, cattle grazing, and mineral extraction.

Brinkley does make the clear distinction between “Conservationist” and “Environmentalist”.  The Zinke definition of “conservationist” is a far cry from the modern definition of conservationist, and in complete opposition to modern environmentalist views. Zinke has a history of touting himself as a modern-day Roosevelt conservationist, but turning a blind eye on environmental issues when push comes to shove.  When Zinke ran for Congress in Montana, he was originally given skeptical-yet-hopeful grades for his supposedly pro-environment ideology. That changed the moment he took office. His voting record consistently showed a complete disdain for conservation and environmentalism, with the League of Conservation Voters giving him  a lifetime score of a mere 4% (!!!) for their National Environmental Scorecard. Similar to the somewhat hopeful attitudes towards Zinke before he took office a DOI, I suspect the Brinkley interview would be quite different if held today, after Zinke’s anti-environmentalist views were made even more clear.

Despite Roosevelt’s well-established faults, there’s little doubt he was a true “fan” of America’s natural heritage. Roosevelt has to be rolling over in his grave based on supposed fanboy Zinke’s moves related to conservation of US lands.  Under his guidance the Department of Interior has eliminated over 2 million acres of protected lands. They’ve moved to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.   After a very successful program under Obama to establish state, federal, and private partnerships to protect the Sage Grouse in the Western U.S., Zinke and DOI have scrapped the plan and moved to expand mineral extraction and grazing on fragile sagebrush habitats on which the Grouse depends. As with much of Trump’s administration, Zinke is clearly beholden to the oil and gas industry, with conservation barely considered in any of DOI’s land management decisions. As this story from the New York Times reports, Department of Interior personally were LITERALLY asked by Zinke to prepare a summary of each National Monument in the United States, and what the oil, gas, and mineral production potentials were on those lands. 

Ryan Zinke…other than your ego and your disdain for Native American rights, you are no Teddy Roosevelt.  

It’s such a beautiful, rugged landscape. I  hope it’s kept in this state in the coming decades.  However, indications aren’t favorable, based on what’s happening at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, another Monument that was drastically cut in size by Zinke and the Trump administration.  Mere months after a reduction in size of that monument, a Canadian mining company has announced plans to mine copper and cobalt from lands that were previously protected.

Your national “protected” lands, up for auction to the highest bidder. THAT is the legacy you shall be remembered for, Mr. Zinke.

Bear's Ear's National Monument - Sign

A display at Natural Bridges National Monument, with the two prominent buttes from Bear’s Ears in the background. As the sign notes, Bear’s Ears is considered sacred land by multiple Native American Tribes, tribes which all put heavy pressure on the Trump administration and Zinke to keep the land protected.

%d bloggers like this: