Articles

Canada Jay? Gray Jay? Make up your mind AOU!!

It’s 3:00 AM. I’m not sleeping, so figured I might as well do something productive and work on my website.  It’s a never-ending task, trying to maintain a massive, out-of-control website as a hobby, when you have a full-time job and a family life.  The American Ornithological Union (AOU) doesn’t make it any easier on me!! Or I guess they’re now the American Ornithological Society, but still call themselves the AOU?  It’s hard keep their name-changes straight. What’s even harder is trying to keep up with all of their changes to common and scientific bird names. Every year the AOU releases an official “supplement” to their official list of North American Birds. On June 27th, they released their 59th supplement.  It’s an annual event I’ve learned to dread, and this year is no different. They have made a number of changes to their official list, and it’s worse than usual, in terms of name changes.

About half of all North American woodpeckers have had their scientific names changed, with all the Picoides woodpeckers (including birds like Hairy, Downy, and Red-cockaded Woodpecker) being changed to Dryobates. Many sparrows have similarly changed, with Ammodramus sparrows (including my favorite, Le Conte’s, as well as Nelson’s, Baird’s, and several others) have changed to Ammospiza. In all, 33 names have changed this year!! The “official” linear sequence in the taxonomy has also changed…a lot…but that’s not something I worry about too much with my website. I DO have to go in and update all the names, however.

So no time like the present, right? What else does one do at 3:00 in the morning? It’s going to take awhile, so for now I just focused on fixing the pages associated with the Canada Jay. This is one name change I can get behind, however. The name had been Canada Jay for decades, up until 1957 when the AOU inexplicably changed the name to Gray Jay. As this piece from Audubon notes, the name Canada Jay was a source of pride for Canadians, and had such a long history, with John James Audubon using that name on his iconic artwork of the species. Canadians took it as an affront when the name change occurred, not only because the “Canada” naming convention was changed, but because the AOU used the Americanized spelling of “Gray” (as opposed to “Grey”).

Dan Strickland, who had been studying Canada Jays for decades, proposed the name change to the AOU, and they accepted on a nearly unanimous vote. As they noted, it was some curious and rather arbitrary decision making back in the 1950s that led to the name change from Canada to Gray Jay, and there really wasn’t any justification for keeping that name.  GIven the history outlined in that Audubon piece, it’s a decision that certainly makes sense…a wrong that has been made right.

But that doesn’t make it any easier on my website maintenance!  It took a little while, but I’ve completed the required changes on my website, changing all web pages, photos, and other files to the new name. One species down.  Over thirty more to go for this year’s AOU update!  But in honor of my one tiny step in accounting for this year’s AOU updates, the Photo of the Day for today is a Canada Jay, from Yellowstone National Park.

Canada Jay - Perisoreus canadensis

Today’s photo of the day, a CANADA Jay, taken in 2012 in Yellowstone National Park. One species name change from the AOU, resulting in over 30 files and web pages on my website where I had to make edits!

EPA, I think you lost your mission statement

I follow the EPA twitter account.  God knows why I put myself through it, given that climate-change-denying, human-embodiment-of-selfishness-and-greed (note I had first written P-O-S here) Scott Pruitt is now leading the agency. Yesterday his name was all over the news, given the interview he gave where Pruitt stated that carbon dioxide emitted by humanity isn’t a big contributor to climate change. This morning in my Twitter feed I see this gem from quite possibly the most ignorant cabinet member that any administration has ever had:

Um, Mr. Pruitt…I believe you didn’t read your job description when you accepted your position. Perhaps you’re confused and think you accepted the Department of Commerce position, now occupied by Wilber Ross (A Trump nominated billionaire…because, of course he is)? No, Mr. Pruitt, you are leading the ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY. Perhaps you want to look up what those first two words mean?

In the very short time that Pruitt has been in his position, there have already been major changes to external communications.  It’s hard to tell what’s new and has been changed on EPA web pages, but the word “Economics” is definitely popping up with increasing frequency on EPA web pages. Here’s the mission statement change for the EPA’s Office of Science and Technology:

EPA Mission Statement - Modification

No more mention of “scientific foundation”, but it DOES now include “economically achievable”.  Because, of course, that’s what’s MOST important about protecting the very air and water we need to survive…making sure the economics are sound.

Pardon my language, but Mr. Pruitt, you have no fucking business leading the Environmental Protection Agency.  The EPA is NOT a business organization.  The EPA is NOT a mechanism for lining the pocketbooks of your long-time friends in the oil and gas industries. The EPA is not focused on economic growth.

The EPA is there to ensure that MY SON and all other Americans have a healthy environment in which to live, work, and play.  DO YOUR FUCKING JOB and leave the economics to others. God knows the Trump administration has stocked his cabinet plumb full of billionaires, I think they’ll do fine worrying about “economic growth” without the VERY misplaced input from the EPA head.

 

North American prairies most sensitive to climate change

Nature - Seddon et al. (2016) - Map of vegetation sensitivity

This map from Seddon et al. (2016), just published in Nature, depicts sensitivity to vegetation production as a result of climate change. Red areas represent areas where natural vegetation communities are more likely to be impacted by climate change. With South Dakota, Nebraska, and the rest of the Great Plains in an area of strong temperature and precipitation gradients, we are also in a hot zone in terms of potential impacts of climate change on our ecosystems. Click for a larger view.

Nature this week published a very good paper about ecosystem sensitivity to climate change, with maps that portray ecosystems most likely to be impacted by changes in water availability, changing temperatures, or changes in cloudiness.  One of the paper’s main discussion points is that the heart of North America, irght here in the Great Plains, is one “hotspot” of climate change impacts.  For the general public and news outlets, it’s typically things like sea-level rise, or extreme temperature changes occurring in the Arctic and northern latitudes that tend to get noticed. However, as this study indicates, even here in the Great Plains, ecosystems are in peril due to the effects of climate change.

Given the obvious north-south temperature gradient and the obvious east-west precipitation gradient in the Great Plains, this probably isn’t too surprising.  I grew up in southern Nebraska, and after a (thankfully) short stint in the Washington D.C. area after college, we moved to South Dakota, where we have now been for 24 years.  We are in southern South Dakota, a mere 4-hour drive to where I grew up.  When moving here, in terms of weather, I was expecting similar conditions to how I grew up, given the short distance.  In the summer, that’s largely true, as summer temperatures are more uniform across the Plains, even as you move north and south.  In the winter however, I quickly found out that in just a 200-250 mile distance to the north, temperatures are substantially colder.  We’re having incredibly warm February weather right now (hello climate change!!), with a temp of 54 yesterday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  Back in southern Nebraska, a mere 200+ miles away? Temps reached the lower 70s.

The Great Plains are also marked by a very obvious, very strong gradient in precipitation.   There’s a reason the forests of the eastern U.S. pretty much stop once they get to the Great Plains, as precipitation strongly decreases as you move from east to west.  South Dakota itself is a great example, as “East River” (east of the Missouri River) is primarily dryland farming, mostly corn and soybeans.  As you reach the middle part of the state, precipitation is significantly lower, corn and soybeans start to disappear, and you get into the dry grasslands that make up most of “West River” South Dakota.

Nature - Seddon et al. (2016)

This image from the Nature paper shows what’s most likely to impact native ecosystems: 1) Water availability, 2) Temperature increases, or 3) changes in cloudiness. The strong blue shades in the Great Plains indicates that it’s water availability that’s going to strongly impact our ecosystems, due to both precipitation changes and increased evaporation as temperatures rise. Click for a larger view.

In the Great Plains, we are sitting in a strong transition zone, both in terms of temperature and moisture availability. Thus, while most folks may think of the Great Plains as a boring, simple landscape of grass and crops, as this study shows, we’re also an area that’s likely to be hammered by the effects of climate change. The results of the paper show that it’s not necessarily the increased temperatures themselves that are going to strongly affect ecosystems, it’s water availability.  It’s not just how much rain that falls in an area that drives ecosystem and vegetation response, it’s how temperature and precipitation interact to affect overall availability of water resources.  The warmer the temperature, the greater evaporation that occurs, and the less water that’s available for vegetation.  The Nature paper indicates that the ecosystems (natural vegetation) of the Great Plains likely can handle the increased temperature in isolation, but combined changes in precipitation and temperature will result in water availability changes that could dramatically affect natural ecosystems in the region.

There’s no doubt that the quite (politically) conservative Great Plains of the U.S. is a hotbed of climate change denial.  As the results of this paper show, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for Great Plains residents to deny climate change is impacting their region.  I’m almost positive that it’s not the effects on natural vegetation that will “flip the switch” in the minds of current climate change skeptics in the region.  However, as change becomes more and more pronounced, there’s no doubt the economics of the region, particularly the agricultural sector, will be strongly impacted.

Nothing seems to get a man/woman to “believe” than a direct impact on their pocketbook. That impact may be coming much sooner than most in the Great Plains would ever suspect.

 

 

Hurricane Alex, and what it all means for birds.

Photo of Western Meadowlark - Sturnella neglecta

I clearly remember the day I took this photo of a Western Meadowlark. It was in the winter of 2003, and it was damned cold at the time (10 below). It was a lone bird, huddling in a hay bale, and it was about the only Western Meadowlark I saw on that day. Just a dozen years later, during a day of birding the same location, I came across many hundreds of Western Meadowlarks.

It’s 17 below (F) this morning in the great white hell we call South Dakota..so of course global warming is on my mind!  We’ve got our own Hurricane Alex, in the form of a boy that can be a handful at times.  In the meantime, out in the Atlantic, a real Hurricane Alex formed this past week.  A hurricane?  Forming in January?  Since records were kept there have only been 4 hurricanes that have ever existed in the Atlantic in January, with only 2 that actually formed during that month.

It’s a year with a very strong El Nino, so some weather strangeness is to be expected, but Hurricane Alex certainly caught folks by surprise. There’s been plenty of other climate and weather abnormalities in the last several months.  On the East Coast, Christmas Eve brought temperatures up into the 70s, with Washington D.C. and New York City both hitting 71 for a high, while Norfolk, Virginia saw a downright balmy 82.  Overall, December was the warmest and wettest on record for the U.S.  The December strangeness wasn’t isolated to the U.S.  In Great Britain, records were shattered for precipitation for the month, while temperatures were nearly 7 degrees (F) above normal.  Daffodils were blooming Great Britain in December, a phenomenon that was also occurring across the U.S. East Coast.

Globally, 2015 provided a number of remarkable weather extremes.  Right before the new year, the temperature at the North Pole rose above freezing. Late December…North Pole…a place that hadn’t even seen the SUN for months…yet the temperature rose above freezing in an unprecedented event.  The year started with record breaking snows in the eastern U.S.  Record heat killed thousands in India and Pakistan.  Two tropical cyclones hit Yemen within one week..Yemen had never before been hit by a tropical cyclone of the magnitude of the first to hit. Seabirds in Alaska and elsewhere in the Pacific were dying in massive numbers due to hunger, most likely caused by El Nino and the climate weirdness.  Heat waves have been baking Australia recently after a year punctuated with both droughts and floods.

In any given year, there will always be weather extremes.  There will always be droughts, floods, severe storms, and heat waves.  However, weather and climate models are unequivocal in predicting a strong increase in weather extremes due to climate change.  Droughts will become longer and more severe.  Heavy precipitation events will increase, along with subsequent flooding.  Storm intensity will increase.  The models that predict these changes are now clearly being reinforced by actual empirical evidence.

Over the coarse of a human lifetime, simple observation can also reinforce the impacts of climate change, including from the aspect of being a birder.  There are already well known range expansions and contractions of species that are almost certainly tied to climate change in part, such as Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, and Red-bellied Woodpecker all shift in range to the north in recent decades.  Just from an observational standpoint, one trend I notice are more and more Western Meadowlarks staying in South Dakota to overwinter.  When I started birding over 15 years ago (just a heartbeat in terms of the climate change timeline), I would occasionally run across a single Western Meadowlark or perhaps a handful as I birded the grasslands in the central part of the state in winter.  It seems like every winter, that number rises.  On a recent birding trip to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and areas just to the south, I came across hundreds of Western Meadowlarks over the course of the day.

Climate change?  It’s tough to attribute one short-duration phenomenon to climate change.  As I said, up until this point, it had been a relatively mild winter in terms of temperature, so perhaps you’d expect more Western Meadowlarks to hang around.  But it hasn’t just been a one-year event, it’s been a longer term, visible trend that I’ve noticed just through casual observation.

As a scientist, I admit I do find it fascinating to live through this particular period in time.  It’s amazing to watch these kinds of changes, and realize the incredible impact human beings have on the planet.  Fascinating…amazing…and also damned terrifying and outright depressing at times as well, know that what you’re observing is completely unnatural.

 

Science “Debates” – Not a “debate” when the other is uninformed

Sick Earth

I recently saw a study that showed 40% of people in the world have never even heard of “climate change”. What’s worse to me than the uninformed? People who have HEARD of climate change, but choose to ignore the science and instead focus on personal belief, religion, politics, or business interests.

As a scientist, there’s little that irks me more than “deniers”.  Given that I work on issues that are related to climate change, I particularly have little patience for climate change losers skeptics who choose to get their “science” from Fox News talking heads, politicians or business people with a monetary interest in denying climate change, or other such “reliable” sources. Similar losers skeptics are also obviously out there who seem to feel personally affronted on the WELL established field of evolution.  In both cases, these losers skeptics ignore all real empirical evidence, and go with either 1) manufactured and false evidence, or 2) personal or religious belief.

I’m sorry, but if you’re one of these losers skeptics, don’t bother trying to get into any kind of debate out here on my blog.  I’m a scientist.  I deal with empirical evidence.  I deal with reality.  It’s foolish to even try to debate someone who is completely uniformed, or even worse, is purposely pushing misinformation as part of a political, religious, or personal agenda.

So, “Doug” and others…If you have something REAL to contribute on a topic, I welcome your input on my blog.  FYI, pointing to targeted “skeptic” websites doesn’t count as “real” information.  What’s the point of continuing any debate?  I can point to empirical evidence and the vast collection of peer-reviewed scientific literature.  What’s the point of arguing with someone who provides links to fantasy-land “skeptic” websites with no scientific backing?  It’s akin to debating the Big Bang with my two cocker spaniels.

In short, science debates are more than welcome out here. If you’re not going to even attempt to stay grounded in the real world, take your trolling to another blog.  You will be blocked here, saving all of us valuable time.

Global Warming hits South Dakota

Budgerigar - Melopsittacus undulatus

A sign of global warming? Budgies hanging out with House Sparrows in rural South Dakota. I feel sorry for the guy actually, given his anticipated life span here.

As a scientist, I don’t have much patience for global warming “skeptics”.  The science, like most science, has uncertainties, but there’s no doubt that 1) the climate is warming overall, and 2) man is to blame.  I do get a little upset though with news stories that attribute specific events to climate change.  For example, overall, yes, models indicate there will be increased frequency of severe weather events, but it’s hard to specifically attribute the current California drought or an individual hurricane to climate change.

With that said…for people who have been in the same geographic area for decades, I would imagine there are many astute folks who have noticed changes in the climate, be it more precipitation, an earlier spring, or milder winters.  For us here in South Dakota?  There are CLEAR signs of global warming. In fact, the climate has warmed so much here, that Australian bird species are setting up shop in the state.

This photo is of a Budgerigard (“Budgie”) hanging out on a fence post. This is just east of Brandon, the town where I live, near Beaver Creek Nature Area.  I had to do a double-take when I saw him, but it’s hard to miss that bright green color that no other bird around here comes close to matching.  This was at a small rural home, where the Budgie was hanging out with a bunch of House Sparrows.

An escapee?  Or a sign of climate change?  CLEARLY it’s the latter.  It’s only a matter of time before other Australia species begin showing up in South Dakota.  Koalas munching on invasive Eucalyptus trees on the plains?  Kangaroos hopping around the Black Hills?  Dingos prowling through city streets?  THIS is the future we face as South Dakotans, thanks to climate change.  The budgie sighting is just the beginning…

“Arrogant” to think man can change the Earth?

Photo of Cruz Bay on St. John's, U.S. Virgin Islands

St. John’s, U.S. Virgin Islands. “Virgin” it is not, as it is about as unnatural a place as you can go.

One of my pet peeve lines from politicians and business people who are climate change deniers…that it is “arrogant” to think that human beings can have such a huge impact on the Earth. It is usually meant to pander to those with a religious bent, as it is often said hand in hand with comments about only “God” being able to affect that kind of change. Ridiculous, of course, when you see the astounding effects man has had on the planet.

Our effect on the planet is something you are constantly reminded of, no matter where you live. For me it was recently reinforced while on vacation. We took a family trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands. We have never vacationed in the Caribbean, and even after researching things to death, it’s still always a new experience when you go somewhere for the first time. There are certainly some great things to do and see there (more posts on birds there will follow!), but the big impression I have after our first visit? It’s colored with sadness over what things may have once been like there, as compared to now.

You of course have the visible human footprint.  We were on St. John’s Island, but flew through St. Thomas before ferrying across. Over half of St. John’s is covered by National Park, the population is one-tenth that of St. Croix or St. Thomas. St. John’s is generally considered the more quiet and unspoiled island. There are certainly fancy, well kept up parts, but there is also a lot of very run down and impoverished areas. There is no central trash collection on St. John’s, instead there are what have turned into “drive by” trash containers where people (quite literally!) throw their trash, often from a moving car.  It seems about half the trash actually makes the bin. Government seems ineffective, with incredibly high crime on St. Thomas and St. Croix (better on St.

John’s) and poor roads and services the norm. Junk is found scattered around many parts of the islands, from abandoned cars and buildings to the good ol’ plastic bottles and bags you find junking up every other part of the planet

Beyond the visible human footprint though is the altered ecology of the area.  Even on the “quiet” island of St. John’s there are chickens and goats running around everywhere.  “Wild” donkeys are the largest animals, followed by introduced deer. Mongoose, introduced to control introduced rats, have devastated native birds and other animals (as have rats).  As a birder there are certainly some great new birds I found there, but the bird community is vastly different than it was a few hundred years ago, thanks to habitat alteration, introduced bird species, hunting, and the introduction of the mongoose and other animals.

We we had a blast snorkeling the beautiful waters around the island. Back on land though, it’s not exactly a natural, lush, island paradise.

Living in eastern South Dakota amongst the vast fields of corn and soybeans, you realize just how much of an impact man has on the Earth   Sadly you see the same devastating impact even in an area such as St. John’s in the Virgin Islands.  Multiply those effects for every other spot on the planet that people are found, and you quickly see the only “arrogance” comes from blowhard politicians who try to use any excuse they can to 1) get re-elected and 2) pander to short-term, money-driven interests.

Arrogance indeed…

%d bloggers like this: