Birds in Movies – “Gamenight” gets it right!!

Common Nighthawk Drawing - Chordeiles minor

Drawing of a Common Nighthawk I did a few years ago. They have a VERY distinctive call when flying around at dusk or at night, something that really stands out on the soundtrack when watching a movie! Kudos to “GameNight” for the correct use of a bird call, in the proper time and context!

As a birder, one major pet peeve of mine…Hollywood’s (mis-)use of birds in movies! It seems that Hollywood typically has about 3 different bird vocalizations that are used in any situation a bird is present. One is the ubiquitous Red-tailed Hawk screaming cry, something they use for ANY raptor that happens to even tangentially appear on a screen. Conan O’Brien wasn’t alone when making this erroneous use of a Red-tailed Hawk call, but he WAS called out by birders for his actions!! Bald Eagles are often shown in movies and TV, but the more iconic Red-tailed Hawk call is usually used instead of the real Bald Eagle cry.

The second iconic call that’s heard ALL the time is the haunting call of a Common Loon. Occasionally it’s used in the proper setting and context, but there are SO many times when movie characters are out “in the wild” and the call of a Common Loon is dubbed in the background.  What’s that?  Your favorite character is roaming the forests of the Appalachians? Perhaps it’s a wild setting, but NOT EVERY WILD SETTING SHOULD HAVE LOON CALLS PLAYING IN THE BACKGROUND!! This site notes several “misplaced” birds in TV and movies, including the mis-use of Common Loon calls in Murder She Wrote and Raiders of the Lost Ark (presumably while in Peru!!). The Common Loon has also been mis-used visually…something I noticed IMMEDIATELY when watching Finding Dory. “Becky” is the loopy Common Loon that plays a role in the rescue scenes in Finding Dory, along the California coastline. The presence of a Common Loon along the California coast isn’t out of place IN WINTER.  But “Becky” in Finding Dory is a Common Loon in full summer breeding plumage…NOT LIKELY!!

The third call that’s heard in EVERY jungle scene is the laughing call of a Kookaburra. They’re a bird found in Australia, but listen to any jungle scene supposedly set in Africa, South America, or southeast Asia, and you’ll STILL likely hear the wild calls of a Kookaburra.

Given how often birds are mis-used in movies, I always get a bit of satisfaction when I see a movie that gets it right!  Tonight my wife and I went to see “GameNight“, starring Justin Bateman and Rachel McAdams.  It’s a really funny movie!!  We both greatly enjoyed it.  The only time birds were evident (and surely ONLY to me, among the movie crowd) was a scene late in the movie.  It was a setting in a relatively dense urban setting, on a bridge over a large river and fairly out in the open. Large buildings could be seen in the surrounding area, and it was night. As the scene played out (I won’t spoil the movie for you here!), I could CLEARLY hear Common Nighthawks giving their typical flight calls.

PERFECT!! You often DO hear Common Nighthawks as they fly through the night skies in and around urban areas, picking off flying insects in flight with their massive, gaping maw.  One of the places I’ve heard them the most is at the airport here in Sioux Falls. They typically use rocky areas to breed, and the rocky roofs that many urban buildings use work perfectly for their purposes.

WELL DONE GAMENIGHT!!  You get a rare GOLD STAR for proper use of a bird in a movie!!

Unexpected surprise at the feeders – Common Redpolls

Common Redpoll - Acanthis flammea

From the big Redpoll invasion of 2013, a Common Redpoll sitting on a sunflower head in our yard. This week on Halloween, we had our first Common Redpolls since 2013.

We’re at a part of the season that isn’t a lot of fun for a birder in South Dakota. As the calendar flips from October to November, we’re fully entrenched in the “dry season” for birding, where both bird diversity and bird numbers are far lower than in the warmer months. Most of the smaller water bodies in the area are starting to freeze over, and while there are still some waterfowl and gulls hanging around the open water in the bigger lakes, it won’t be long before they too depart for the winter. Nearly all of the insectivorous birds too have long left the state, leaving us with our typical winter mix of species.

Dark-eyed Juncos are now found scattered throughout my yard.  A welcome addition to an otherwise dreary winter in the yard, but…when the Juncos are around it’s a sign that winter is starting to arrive. In addition to my House Sparrow hoards, I’m also getting an occasional surprise sparrow species, such as the Harris’s and Lincoln’s Sparrows that have periodically showed up in the yard. I am now getting regular visits from three woodpecker species (Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied), another nice presence during the winter months. But overall the species that dominates my yard right now are American Goldfinches.

My wife bought me a huge, tall thistle (niger) feeder many years ago, and it’s always been a star attraction in my yard. The goldfinches will use it all season long, disappearing occasionally for a few weeks at a time, only to come back in full force and stay for long periods of time. Lately, as the weather has gotten colder, the finch feeder has been standing room only, with every available perch often full during the day. The goldfinches may not be in the brilliant yellow summer plumage, but the activity and quiet chatter is nice to have around.

Hoary Redpoll - Acanthis hornemanni

A Hoary Redpoll, a pale, beautiful, wonderful surprise later in that winter of 2013. The two that hung around my yard for several weeks are still the only two Hoary Redpolls I’ve seen in South Dakota.

On Halloween this past week, I was working at home when I came downstairs to grab some lunch.  As I was letting the dogs out into the back yard, I couldn’t help but notice some oddballs in the American Goldfinch hoard that scattered when seeing the dogs. Most of the flock landed in my very large River Birch at the back of the yard, and at first I thought the oddballs were just House Finches.  But after the dogs finished their business and came back in, I was very pleasantly surprised to see a handful of Common Redpolls scattered in with the Goldfinches that were returning to the feeder.

We’ve been in South Dakota for 24 years. In those 24 winters, there have only been 3 occasions where I’ve had Redpolls in the yard. One of those occasions was a “one-night stand”, where a few were at the feeders briefly and then disappeared. But from January through March of 2013, my yard was inundated with Redpolls, to the point that Redpolls actually outnumbered the ubiquitous Goldfinches most days.  It was a snowy and long winter (they all seemingly are), but having the Redpolls around made it seem a little less gloomy.

Much to my surprise, the Common Redpolls weren’t even the best surprise that winter. One morning my young son looked out at the feeders and said “what’s the white one?”  He saw a bird among the Common Redpolls at the finch feeder that was obviously different. I went over and looked out, and was rather shocked to see this wonderful, pale Hoary Redpoll mixed in with the Common Redpolls. A life bird, all from the comfort of my cozy sunroom window!

We had one, and then two, Hoary Redpolls stay around the yard for several weeks before disappearing, along with the rest of the Common Redpolls. We haven’t had Redpolls in the yard since, until this Halloween day! I’ve got a glimpse of one Redpoll in the days since, as my finch feeder has returned to being dominated by goldfinches, but I’m hoping the Redpolls are still around, and plan on staying around for the winter. It would bring a VERY welcome splash of color and diversity to our limited suite of winter birds in South Dakota.

Good Birding, Bad Photos

It’s rare that you get that perfect day, where the birding is good and photo opportunities are bountiful.  Some days you won’t see many birds, but there are some great photo opportunities that make up for it.  Other days, you see lots of interesting birds, but they’re all camera shy, and good photo opportunities just don’t happen.  Yesterday was one of the latter kinds of days.  Good birding!  Bad Photos!

It is an opportunity to show people what the vast majority of bird photos look like!  If only every bird photo were crisp, in good light, with the bird clearly seen and in a good pose!  It’s not an exaggeration to say that I throw out 95% of the photos that I take.  Yesterday, there really weren’t any great long-term “keepers”, but below are some (bad) photos of some VERY interesting birds for the day.

Blackburnian Warbler - Setophaga fusca

A Blackburnian Warbler, a species you don’t see all that often here. Warblers in general are SO damn frustrating to try to photograph. This guy insisted on staying up towards the top of the canopy of some Burr Oaks. Since I see them so rarely, I still kept trying to get a “record” shot, but this is the best I could manage.

Blue-winged Warbler - Vermivora cyanoptera

We are on the VERY northeastern edge of the breeding range of Blue-winged Warblers, and the only place they seem to reliably be found is at Newton Hills State Park. There were at least 3 in the area yesterday, singing away and squabbling among each other. They’d occasionally chase each other and get close, but the only shot I was able to get was this one.

American Golden Plover - Pluvialis dominica

American Golden Plovers are a nemesis bird for me. Most years, people are saying they’re seeing them all over…and I never see any. When I DO see some, they’re inevitably very far away and I can’t get any photos. Well, the good news is yesterday I 1) saw a large group of about 75, and 2) got some photos. The bad news…this is as good as I could get. They weren’t particularly shy, but were VERY careful to stay just out of camera range.

Baltimore Oriole - Icterus galbula

I birded 6 hours yesterday. In all that time, in all the photo tries, this is by far the best photo I was able to get. It’s about the ONLY photo I was able to get where the bird “fills the frame”, and is quite sharp.  I could do without the thicket of sticks around him.  But on a crappy photo day…I’ll take it.

There be BIRDS at the end of the rainbow!!

End of the Rainbow - Lincoln County, South Dakota

The age old question of what’s at the end of the rainbow has been answered. It’s this family farm in Lincoln County, South Dakota

I went birding last night, on a weird weather day in South Dakota.  It was cloudy, then sunny, then cloudy again as a brief thunderstorm would roll through, then sunny again…wash, rinse, repeat.  It was actually a bit of a crisp day with temps hanging around 55 degrees, but even so, there were a couple of the little thunderstorms that put out quite a bit of pea-size hail.  It was such a strange evening given that it was absolutely pouring rain at times, yet the sun was shining.

Despite the rain, the birding was quite wonderful (as it generally is in South Dakota in May!!) The best birding for the day was when I was hanging out by a large wetland, one that had swollen with the recent rains to cover much of the surrounding farmland in a shallow sheet of water. Shorebirds were certainly loving it, as were a beautiful little group of Black Terns.  Forster’s Terns were much more numerous, hanging out on fence posts during the rain spells, dipping and diving over the water whenever the rain would stop. It was actually quite peaceful, watching the intermittent downpours, then seeing the birds jump back to life again when the sun would break out. It’s tough being a bird though when the hail starts!  They seemed to do OK with the little pea-size hail that fell at one point. but they weren’t very happy about it!  Shorebirds tended to crouch low during the hail, as did the terns on the posts, but otherwise, they just stayed still and endured.

Although the birding was quite good, the best moment of the night occurred after one of the little thunderstorms. With small scattered storms separated by wide bands of open sky, the sun was frequently pushing through, even during some of the rainy moments.  A beautiful and extremely long-lasting rainbow lit up the eastern sky and was visible for over half an hour as the little thunderstorm continued slowly pushing on to the south and east.  It was a full rainbow, with a partial double rainbow above it, but without my wide-angle lens along (hey, I’m a birder, I rarely use it anyway), I wasn’t able to get a photo of the whole thing. Instead, with my 400mm birding lens on, I decided to shoot what was at the end of the rainbow…this family farm! I’ve certainly never tried shooting a rainbow with a telephone lens, but I think the effect was quite beautiful.

The weather is supposed to be beautiful again this weekend, so hopefully within the next day or two I’ll have some more birding photos and stories to share…

Forster's Tern - Sterna forsteri

A Forster’s Tern perched on a little metal fence pole. This was just prior to the arrival of a little rain band that produced pea-sized hail. Fortunately, the birds seem to cope with the small hail quite well.

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.

New website changes, including new “Favorites” section

Elegant Trogon - Trogon elegans

This isn’t one of my best photos from a technical or artistic standpoint, but it definitely is one of my favorites! It’s an Elegant Trogon, a find from a November 2015 trip south of Tucson. One of my most memorable experiences as a birder, so it’s high-time I update my “favorite photos” section to include photos a little newer than just those from 2000 to 2010!!

I’ve been working on my main website a lot lately (, trying to fix some technical issues, as well as address content issues. On the technical side, note my site is now completely “secure”.  When you try to access the site, no matter what you type in (“”, “”, “”, etc), you should be rerouted to the safe, SSL “secured” pages with the https:// prefix.  Given that Google search rankings are now said to be affected by whether a site uses https or not, I figured it was about time to make the switch.  It should also help people feel more comfortable on my blog should they want to register on my blog or comment on a post.

I’ve also been working on streamlining my website.  When I first started making my website 15 years ago, I had a “species photo” page that showed all the photos I had for that species. You’d then click on a little image chip that would take you to a separate web page for each individual photo.  My photo collection on my website is now around 5,000 individual photos.  That means I actually have (or had) 5,000 individual pages.  It DOES help me to provide more information about an individual photo, such as details about when and where it was taken, or other anecdotal information that I may want to convey with a photo.  It’s not very efficient though!  It’s made my website massive and unwieldy, and given so many similar pages (for example, ~40 different individual pages for each of the ~40 or so Ruby-throated Hummingbird photos I have), it’s also resulted in “penalties” for how Google ranks my website.  I’m greatly simplifying the structure of my website for displaying photos.  I’m working on having each species have only one web page for the display of photos.  All photos of that species are provided on the one page, as smaller image “chips”.  Clicking on the image chip brings up the photo itself, instead of directing you to another web page that contains the photo. In progress, but it should cut down the number of individual web pages on my website by ~75%, and will make it much easier to navigate around my photo collection.

I’m also working on updating material in other parts of my website. One focus right now is my “Favorite Photos” section. It’s been a long time since I’ve updated that page, so most of my “favorites” were photos from 2000 to around 2010.  I’m updating that page right, making it 1) more “selective” in what I deem to be a “favorite”, and 2) more current, with favorite photos from 2000 all the way through the present day.  Clicking on each “favorite” will bring you to a new webpage with a large version of the photo, and a story about what makes the photo special to me. Given how out-of-date my old favorite photo section was, I hope this provides a better impression of my photography, my favorites, and what makes me “tick” as a birder and a photographer!

More website updates are coming this spring as well, including 1) new Bird Quizzes to go with the ones I already have, and completion of the individual species pages for all ~980 or so species that have been seen in North America.  If there are any other things you’d like to see on my main website, let me know and I’ll see what I can do!

Losing the Rainforests…and South Dakota habitat

This week the New York Times had a wonderful (as always), yet sad piece about deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Approximately 360,000 acres in the region were deforested every year during the 1990s, a number that jumped to 660,000 acres a year during the early 2000s.  A massive push to slow deforestation rates occurred in the 2000s, temporarily slowing the rate of deforestation.  However, in the last few years the deforestation rate has skyrocketed, to over 850,000 acres every year, an area the size of Rhode Island. Every. Year.  Clearly that’s not sustainable.  Even the supposed “success” in the mid-2000s of slowing the rate of deforestation only “slowed” it, it certainly didn’t stop it or reverse the trend.  That’s the world we live in now, where SLOWING the inexorable loss of habitat is considered a major conservation success story, even if those slower rates still would have wiped out most of the rainforest during this century.

We don’t have rainforests in South Dakota.  From a birder’s perspective, we don’t have much bird habitat whatsoever in the eastern part of the state, given the preponderance of corn and soybeans that takes up the vast majority of the landscape.  Still, as a birder, I have reveled in the little reservoir pockets of remaining habitat, small micro-habitats where birds have thrived, despite the massive use of the landscape for agricultural production.  I used to bring my camera with me EVERYWHERE.  Every day when I went to work, my camera came with me.  I would stop at these little pockets of habitat, and take bird photos. Over the years, I’ve gotten some truly wonderful photographs in these small remaining pockets of habitat.

I don’t bring my camera with me to work any more. I don’t bring my camera with me when I run errands. In fact, I don’t do nearly as much birding right around Brandon and Sioux Falls as I used.  Much of the reason is that many of my former little micro-habitat “hotspots” are gone, something that’s just happened in the last several years.  There have been multiple reasons behind it.  The first is simple economics…with demand for corn and soybeans, farmers are cultivating every possible patch of land to maximize production. Fence rows, shelter belts, and other little pockets of habitat are being plowed under to expand planted acreage. There have also been active “safety” programs in the last few years to clear brush and trees from the edges of the roads.  It’s been a truly massive project, with roads all over the state undergoing this kind of “grooming”, removing habitat that is anywhere close to road edges.

We don’t have the rainforest like the Amazon, but habitat loss is having an impact right here in South Dakota.  Here are some small, and some larger, examples of what’s happening with habitat change in South Dakota, and how it’s affecting bird species. Bird photos accompanying each image are some of the actual bird photos I’ve gotten from each location over the years.

Ditch Road - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ditch Road, just north of Sioux Falls in Minnehaha County. There’s a stretch of road that runs over 5 miles that has a straight drainage ditch running along side it. In the last year, nearly all of the thick trees and shrubs that were found between the road and the waterway have been removed (the area encircled in red shows the vegetation that used to be there). It’s part of the aforementioned “safety” program to remove things that people could evidently crash into and get hurt.  (I always thought the point of driving was to stay ON the road). With the water and vegetation, it used to be an absolutely wonderful spot for songbirds and even some waterfowl, particularly in migration.  Warblers, Vireos, and Chickadees and Nuthatches, many woodpeckers, and other songbird species were often found here.  Not any more…

Big Sioux Recreation Area near Brandon, South Dakota

Big Sioux Recreation near Brandon, South Dakota – One that’s near and dear to my heart, given that we live on the edge of Brandon across the street from the park (house shown above). One of the best places to bird in the park used to be right amidst the campground areas themselves. The looped road shown above was lined with cedar trees, and thick brush separated many of the camping stalls from each other. The image above shows what it used to look like. The cedars in particular really attracted many birds, including one memorable winter when a hoarde of about 20 Long-eared Owls took up residence in the Campground (see photo above). In the last 2 years, all of the cedars have been removed from the campground area, as have most of the shrubs that separated camping stalls. If you want to play football? Thanks to all the vegetation clearing, it’s now MUCH more open in the campgrounds! If you really LOVE being close to other people while camping, with no pesky vegetation to get between you and the next guy, you’ll love the changes!  If you’re a bird lover? Not so much…

Minnehaha County Wetland

Minnehaha County Wetland — This one has a Google Earth image that actually catches the transformation as it happened. This is a small area in northern Minnehaha County on 253rd Street and near 481st Avenue.  Prior to 2015, the area in red was a mix of wetland, damp grasses, and weedy patches.  It was an absolutely WONDERFUL place to bird, a little patch of wet, weedy habitat that attracted species like Le Conte’s Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Bobolinks, Sedge Wrens, Marsh Wrens, and many other birds. In 2015, the owner installed drain tile, shown as the lines that run through the image above.  The drain tile dried out the land so it could be used for cropland, and today, this entire patch is a corn field. Drain tile installation has been RAMPANT in eastern South Dakota in the last few years. In some cases it’s been done to improve conditions on existing cropland.  In many areas though, like this, it’s being installed in areas that are naturally too poor to support crops, and need an artificial drainage system.  It’s hard to have Swamp Sparrows in an area, if you have no “swamp”.

South Dakota Shelterbelt

Shelterbelts – There aren’t a lot of woodlands and forests in eastern South Dakota, but the variety of birdlife in these little oases of trees can be truly astounding.  During migration they are definite bird “traps”, with tired songbirds stopped to rest and feed in these areas before continuing on with their migration. The photos are just examples of what you can find in these shelterbelts, as I haven’t birded this specific location before. However, it’s a great example of what’s been going on in much of South Dakota. This is north of Sioux Falls, near the intersections of Highways 121 and 122. This shelterbelt had been there the entire 23+ years we’ve lived in South Dakota, and it had some very large mature, old trees.  That changed last year, when all of the woody vegetation in the entire area circled in red was removed. This last summer it was all a big open field, planted in corn. There are many places in eastern South Dakota where this is happening, as farmers try to compensate for lowered corn and soy prices in the last few years by planting more and more acres.

Increase in Cropland Cash Rents - 2009 to 2014

What’s behind South Dakota cropland gains? — So what’s driving the agricultural change in South Dakota?  Beyond the little micro-habitat examples given above, there are some very large swaths of grassland being converted to cropland, with some much of the new cropland on land that had never been plowed before. The map above gives you some indication of the economic forces driving cropland gains in the state, and the concomitant loss of vegetated habitats.  Some of the largest recent changes in cash rent values for cropland in recent years are concentrated right in eastern South Dakota. As this article states, South Dakota had the largest increases in overall cropland value from 2004 to 2014, an increase of over 350% in just 10 years as average cropland values rose from $734 an acre to over $3,400 an acre. Prices for the major crop commodities of corn and soy have softened substantially in recent years, but that seems to have driven an intensification of land use in some parts of the state, as farmers try to maximize production by expanding the acreage that they plant.

Grassland conversion in the Great Plains

Grassland Conversion in the Great Plains – In 2013, colleagues/acquaintances published a paper the summarized the recent loss of grassland and wetland in the northern Great Plains. The map above shows the percentage of grasslands in an area that were converted to soybeans or corn between 2006 and 2011. Southern Iowa is a bit misleading, given that this shows “percentage” change, and there wasn’t nearly as much grassland there in 2006 as there was in parts of eastern South Dakota.  It really has been the eastern Dakotas where a huge chunk of cropland gains in the U.S. have occurred in recent years.  From a birder’s perspective…it hasn’t been a happy story.  Click here for the journal paper from Chris Wright and Mike Wimberly.

March for Science, the “Harry Potter” crab, and more – Science, nature, and other news

Science, nature, environmental, and other news from the week.  Click on the story title for an external link.

March For Science

March for Science, coming to a city near you in a little over 2 months. Here’s hoping the march provides that “spark” that’s been missing between the American public and the scientists that serve them.

Planning continues for April 22nd March for Science — The “March for Science” is still scheduled for April 22nd, a grassroots effort to highlight the role of science within American politics and society.  The march has its roots in the backlash against the ghastly, anti-science tirades made by the Trump administration since the election, but as this story notes, the march is about the American public, and not the scientists themselves. This article from the Chronicle for Higher Education is focused on Caroline Weinberg, one of the March’s organizers. As Weinberg notes, there’s currently a disconnect between scientific research and the people in society whom that science benefits.  I couldn’t agree more with that statement, as scientists sometimes are QUITE terrible at communicating the value of their research to the public.  It’s easy for the public to understand the potential societal benefits of medical research, for example, but much more difficult for them to understand why investments in other scientific fields are societally relevant.  Personally, I am mixed on the March.  As a scientist, as a truly ANGRY scientist who is fed up with both the politicization of science, and with the anti-science attitude that has pervaded an entire major political party of the United States, I want this march to have every bit as much of an impact as the Women’s March held just after the inauguration. On the other hand, I view the March with a bit of trepidation.  We have a child as our President, an insecure, narcissistic man who must have a penis the size of a paper clip, given his tendency to angrily lash out at any entity that dares criticize himself or his actions.  Given Trump’s tendency to angrily push back when he himself is pushed, I fear that the march may end up doing more harm than good, in terms of the short-term political implications.  Despite any potential short-term impact, here’s hoping the march DOES inspire a longer-term engagement between the public and the scientists that serve the public.  Here’s hoping the march helps to reignite the PASSION Americans once held for science.

Solnova Solar Plant - Spain

The Solnova Solar Plant in Spain, an example of the massive global trend in the movement towards renewable fuel sources.

Solar power economics trump Trump — In just a few weeks after the inauguration, it’s quite clear that we already have what’s likely going to be among the most environmentally hostile administrations in history, even “besting” the dark conservation years of Ronald Reagan.  Anne Gorsuch Burford, EPA head under Reagan for nearly 2 years (and mother of conservative Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch), was famed for slashing nearly one-quarter of EPA staff, greatly reducing enforcement of Clean Air Act regulations, severely cutting legal action against environmental polluters, and populated EPA staff with big business executives from the very companies the EPA was supposed to be monitoring.  As bad as Reagan and Gorsuch Burford were…Trump’s team could very well be headed down an even darker path. On the energy front, Trump has vowed to slash Department of Energy funding, with a strong push for older, fossil-fuel energy sources as opposed to continued investment in renewables such as solar and wind power.  As this story notes, however, the very economics of solar energy may end up “trumping Trump” in the end. Costs for solar power now rival those of natural gas, and are cheaper than coal or nuclear energy.  Over two-thirds of new energy production in the U.S. in 2016 was from wind or solar, and with economics continuing to dictate the shift to renewables, even an environmentally hostile administration is unlikely to slow the trend.

Using Rabies to Kill Cancer — Brain cancers can be notoriously difficult to treat. The blood-brain barrier is protects the brain from nearly all pathogens, yet that same protective effect also restricts cancer treatments from reaching cancerous cells in the brain.  Scientists have long known that the rabies virus had the unusual capability to “hijack” nerve cells and use them as a means to bypass the blood-brain barrier.  Now they are using fragments of the rabies virus to coat cancer-fighting drugs, or even create new particles that mimic the characteristics of the rabies virus, enabling them to bypass the blood-brain barrier and reach cancerous brain cells.  The work is in its infancy and there are still many hurdles to overcome before such treatments could be used to treat persons inflicted with brain cancer, but it’s a great example both of the ingenuity of scientists, and the potential biological value of even one of our most feared pathogens.

Cactus Wren - Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus

A Cactus Wren on a blooming Saguaro cactus. A moderately sized songbird such as the Cactus Wren may be able to cope with heat and dehydration somewhat better than smaller songbird species, but they are still potentially threatened by rapidly changing climatic conditions.

Desert birds at risk from climate change — A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy for Science finds that climate change may have a devastating impact on some desert bird species in the coming decades, particularly smaller species such as Lesser Goldfinch.  Higher temperatures increase water needs for birds, particularly as they pant in response to temperature stress. Climate change may make parts of some species range “thermally inhospitable”, with birds potentially succumbing to heat stress and dehydration after just a few hours of exposure at extremely high temperatures.  Geographic population shifts are likely to occur as the climate changes, with birds moving to more hospitable locations, but with human-induced climate change, we are currently embarking on a grand, global-scale experiment on the ability of habitats and their inhabitants to adjust to changing climatic conditions.

Crab named for Harry Potter, Severus Snape — A newly identified crab species off the coast of Guam has been given the honor of being named after a pair of characters from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books.  Harryplax severus is the new scientific name for the species, in honor of Harry Potter and the much maligned, and loved, Severus Snape from the series. A great name for an enigmatic, little understood, newly discovered crab species!

Monarch Butterfly populations take a tumble — Populations of the much beloved Monarch Butterfly have taken a hit over the last year, due to the one-two punch of declining milkweed habitat on their summering grounds, and winter storms that have taken a toll on their wintering habitat in Mexico. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Mexican government measure the winter habitat area used by Monarch Butterflies, a quantitative estimate that serves as a proxy to overall population  health.  2-years ago, Monarch populations hit an all-time low, with only 0.67 hectares of habitat used for over-wintering.  Populations rebounded over the last 2 years, but the harsh conditions this year has results in a loss of over 25% of winter habitat area actively being used.


One of our two spaniels, “Oscar”. According to science, we should have similar personalities to Oscar! He is certainly a beautiful, gentle soul, mirroring the traits of my son and wife! And yet he also has a quirky, neurotic, hard-to-understand side that perfectly mimics his troubled “father”.

Dogs mimic their owners’ personalities — New research from Austria claims that dogs and humans can pass along personality traits to each other, with human beings taking on the carefree, relaxed attitudes of dogs with those personality traits, and dogs adapting the anxiety characteristics from a stressed owner. For any dog owner, it’s not exactly a surprise that dogs are “sensitive to their owner’s emotional state”, but this study actually used measurements of cortisol, a “stress” hormone, to quantify the relationship.

Our planetary footprint shows no bounds — There’s little that frustrates me more than those with a strong religious belief who doubt that mankind even has the capability of significantly altering our planet.  You’ve complete imbeciles like Senate loser James Inhofe who seem hell-bent on ignoring every piece of science that may fall into their lap, with Inhofe doubting in climate change because he doesn’t believe man can affect change at such a massive scale. For idiots like Inhofe, only a god has the capability to have such far-reaching planetary impacts. For scientists, it’s obvious mankind has had such a massive impact on the planet as a whole that we may be in a new geologic era, the “Anthropocene”, characterized by massive environmental change as a result of anthropogenic activity.  This story notes that our effects on the planet extend even down to the deepest ocean trenches, where amphipods from 10,000 kilometers below the ocean’s surface have been found to have extremely high concentrations of PCBs and other man-made, organic pollutants.  It’s tough to deny mankind’s influence when creatures many hundreds of miles from any human settlement, at the bottom of the ocean, are poisoned by our activities.

Human’s driving climate to change at 170X the natural trend — Related to the story above, more evidence of mankind’s massive influence on our environment.  A new study by Australian National University finds that volcanic activity, changes in solar activity, and minor orbital fluctuations have influenced the Earth’s climate over the last 7,000 years, but the impact of mankind’s activities has been 170 times more pronounced than these natural forces. Climate-change deniers have tried to attribute the startling climate trends in recent decades to natural forces, but there’s little scientific evidence to back them. The Australian National University study is just one more nail in the coffin of climate-change deniers (a coffin that’s already been nailed shut for many years now).


Composite image of Jupiter’s moon Europa, from the Galileo and Voyager missions.

Searching for life on Europa — A science mission that even our science-hostile Congress is behind…searching for life in the Solar System.  NASA has preliminary plans to send a probe to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Europa is a cold, hostile place on the surface, covered in ice, but it’s a different story under the surface.  The tidal pull of Jupiter’s gravity is thought to provide an energy source that produces a thick sub-surface liquid ocean.  Cracks on the relatively smooth surface of Europa are evidence of the sub-surface water reaching the surface.  NASA believes they can potentially detect life on the moon by landing a probe on one of these surface breaches, digging down several centimeters into the surface ice, and using multiple instruments to detect microbes or organic signs of life.  Alas, the estimate is that the actual landing is 14 years from now, in 2031, but the proposed mission could finally answer the question of whether there’s life outside of the Earth.

Biggest volcano on the planet discovered — It’s 2017.  We’ve had extensive, periodic, repeating satellite coverage of the earth’s surface for over 40 years.  We’ve seemingly visited every corner of the earth’s terrestrial surface, and have increasingly mapped vast swaths of the hidden world under our oceans. The days of exploration and geographic discovery may seem to be in our far distant past, but as this find shows, there’s a lot we still don’t understand about our home planet.  Scientists from the the U.S., U.K., and Japan have discovered what is currently the largest known volcanic system on the planet.  “Tamu Massif” is a volcanic complex in the north Pacific ocean, about 1,000 miles east of Japan.  The tallest reaches of the volcanic remnants are more than a mile below the ocean’s surface, but the volcano itself covers an area nearly the size of New Mexico.  It’s thought to have last erupted over 140 million years ago, and is a shield volcano similar to the Hawaiian Island volcanoes. Mauna Loa in Hawaii is considered the world’s largest active volcano, with an area of around 2,000 square miles, but that’s a tiny fraction of the size of Tamu Massif which comes in at over 120,000 square miles.


Predicting that next winter finch irruption

Pine Siskin - Spinus pinus

A Pine Siskin, a regular but unpredictable visitor in winter in South Dakota Research shows that southward irruptions of boreal finches such as Pine Siskins may be predicted from recent seasonal climate records.

Not a lot of time this week to blog, as I’ve been in pretty intense meetings all week for work.  However, it was through those meetings that I became aware of this interesting research paper.  Birders are always wondering when that next great “irruption” of boreal bird species will occur.  On occasion, boreal finches such as Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and Crossbills will move southward in great numbers from their boreal forest stronghold.  The thought is that such irruptions occur when poor “mast” production occurs, with lower conifer seed numbers than normal.  The birds thus move southward in search of food.

It’s not just boreal finches that are subject to occasional southward irruptions.  One of the greatest birding experiences of my life was during the huge boreal owl irruption into northern Minnesota over a decade ago, when Great Grey Owls and Northern Hawk Owls were seemingly “dripping off the trees”.  Those irruptions are thought to be due to a similar driving force…a loss of a primary food source…with periodic crashes of small rodent populations driving the owls southward in search of food for the winter.

The paper below (click to see it) gives an assessment of climate data to potentially predict when a finch irruption would occur.  The species studied here is the Pine Siskin, but the authors note that it may also apply for other boreal finch species that depend on conifer mast.  Cool study…

More coming next week!  Given I’m still in meetings the rest of the week and have family obligations all weekend, it’s likely the next blog post won’t come until Monday!  Click below for the study…

Predicting finch irruptions with climate information

Trying to stump “Merlin”

Cassin's Sparrow - Peucaea cassinii

A Cassin’s Sparrow, a rather plain, non-descript sparrow found in parts of the southern Great Plains and Southwest. Merlin was able to easily ID all of the “little brown job” sparrow species I tried, including Cassin’s, Vesper’s, Rufous-winged, Rufous-crowned, Black-throated, Black-chinned, and other sparrow species.

I’ve been birding 15 years now, and there aren’t really many occasions any more where I’m stumped on a bird ID.  The only occasions I have any difficulty are with species that are inherently damned hard to tell apart by sight, things like the Empidonax flycatchers or others where hearing a song/call or other audio clue might be needed to make a positive ID. I rarely ever even have a field guide with me when I’m out birding.  I do love field guides in general, and they certainly were a godsend when I first started birding, I hate to say it, but they’re a bit obsolete now, when you can put the equivalent of every major field guide directly on your cell phone.  I DO nearly always have my cell phone with me, and while I don’t use it much for visual ID issues in the field, it is handy for trying to figure out what call or song I heard.

I knew Cornell’s “Merlin” app has been out a little while, but hadn’t downloaded or tested it.  Merlin is an app for IOS or Android that allows you to identify birds in two ways.  If you see a bird but are stumped on an ID, you can enter the location, size, colors and other characteristics, etc., and Merlin will spit out the likely species.  More intriguing to me is the photo ID option.  You can simply choose any photo on your device, or take a photo, and have Merlin try to identify the species.  The “Take a Photo” option isn’t very useful, as your iPhone or Android phone just aren’t going to be able to get good bird photos unless  you’re at a feeder or other setting where birds are extremely close. However, I was intrigued by the option to identify the species from an existing photo, so I gave it a spin.

I have a huge number of bird photos, but most are on my desktop computer’s hard drives. The only ones I actually had on my phone were ones I processed on my iPad that got integrated with my photostream, from a trip to Arizona.  Still, I did have photos from quite a few species.  Some were quite clear and distinctive, photos that should be easy identifications. Others weren’t so clear, and I also had photos of several species that just aren’t that common in the U.S. How would Merlin do in identifying my Arizona bird photos?

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher - Polioptila melanura

OK, I probably wasn’t being fair to Merlin with this one, but I tried photos of a female Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Both photos are of the same bird, but different angles and postures. For the first, Merlin mis-identified it as a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, without giving the option of Black-tailed, even when I told it the photo location. The second photo it handled without problem, likely because in that photo, you can see the distinctive darker coloring on the underside of the tail. Even there though…Merlin was impressive! The tail underside is shaded and not all that distinguishable, but Merlin handled it.

In short…pretty damned good!  It took me a while before I was able to stump Merlin.  I started with some easier ID’s. I had been to Madera Canyon south of Tucson, and had a number of hummingbird species at the feeders there.  Merlin easily handled all the male hummingbird photos, and to my surprise, did a good job on identifying female and immature hummingbirds as well.  I was fortunate to see and get decent, but not great, photos of an Elegant Trogon in Florida Canyon.  Merlin handled the rarity without issue (OK, that one SHOULD be easy to identify!!).  Lawrence’s Goldfinch, partially obscured by a weed?  No problem, although it did give me “alternative” answers other than the primary choice of Lawrence’s Goldfinch.  Multiple different sparrow species with sometimes not so obvious plumage differences?  No problem.  Birds in flight?  Did just fine on White-tailed Kites, a Gyrfalcon flight shot I happened to have on my phone, and other flight shots.  I quickly went through about 35 species, and Merlin handled them all flawlessly (although like the Lawrence’s Goldfinch example, there were a some cases where “alternative” ID’s were provided in addition to the primary ID).

I was thinking Merlin was infallible!  It is awfully good, but it has trouble with some of the same species I might have trouble with in an ID.  I tried two photos of a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, one of which was at an angle that was “unfair”, in that you really couldn’t see the tail characteristics that might distinguish it from a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.  It missed the ID in that photo, but was able to correctly ID the same bird in a photo from a different angle.  Another it had trouble with is one that I myself would definitely have trouble identifying.  I had a photo of a Gray Flycatcher (one of those nasty, hard to ID Empidonax flycatchers), and Merlin whiffed. It was a clear photo, and I even entered the photo location, but that was the one case where Merlin didn’t find a single “match”.

Merlin is a really nice piece of software, and it’s an app I’ll keep on my phone.  In the real world though…it’s an app that’s going to be most useful to new or casual birders.  For an experienced birder, Merlin is going to have the same identification troubles that we may have. Feed it a bad photo, or a photo of species that are just difficult to visually identify, and Merlin will struggle just as a birder might struggle. There’s also the issue of actually getting a photo to the app to be identified.  As I said previously, people just aren’t likely to take good, identifiable bird photos with their cell phones, so Merlin is likely most useful for photos taken on a DSLR or other camera body.  For me and my Canon 70D, it’s always an adventure trying to get photos transferred from my camera body to my iPad or iPhone, with a wireless app that is balky even on its best days.  For that reason alone, even if I were a beginning birder, Merlin might be less useful to me (through no fault of Merlin itself).  Merlin also might be less useful for rarities, as it seems to cover most native/common birds in the U.S. and Canada, but misses some of the rarer or exotic ones.

Overall though, very cool piece of software, and one that I do wish I had when I had started birding 15+ years ago.


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