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Unusual cold weather has birds struggling in South Dakota

Five very different birds, but five species with something very much in common. The cool, wet spring continues, with rain and wind in the eastern part of South Dakota, and a late May snowstorm in the western part of the state. It had already been an odd migration given the cool temps that don’t want to give way to spring. Until last Friday (May 17th, songbird migration was noticeably slow, with very few warblers around other than Yellow-rumped. But that seemed to have changed last weekend. On Saturday (May 18th) we had a major fall-out of migrants, with warblers of every kind (I had 20 species on Saturday), vireos, flycatchers, and other songbirds appearing seemingly out of thin air. The birding this weekend was positively SPECTACULAR, and there’s no doubt for me it was the best warbler spotting in the 20 years I’ve been birding.

That spectacular birding has come with a price, however. With cool and wet conditions continuing, you can tell birds are struggling. The problem? I just think there aren’t the usual insects out yet for this time of year. Because of that, you’re seeing species with behaviors you normally don’t see. From a bird photography perspective I guess it’s been great, as the birds have been 1) concentrated, with many birds often foraging in select locations out of the wind and rain, and in areas where a few insects might be, and 2) many species have been down lower to the ground than normal.

Here’s a pictorial of five species I’ve encountered in recent days, five species that all appear to be impacted by the cool wet weather.

In the account of the Great Crested Flycatcher on my main webpage, for “behavior” it states that Great Crested Flycatchers are “usually found high in the tree canopy, more often heard than seen”. Normally that’s true. They’re a quite vocal species, and I do hear them more than I actually see them. However, in the last week, I’ve seen a number of them, down low, foraging in areas that seem rather odd for the species. At both Newton Hills State Park and Good Earth State Park, I’ve seen multiple Great-crested Flycatchers foraging on the ground or in low grasslands. Again, my take is that insects are hard to find in the cool wet weather, leading birds like Great Crested Flycatchers to forage in areas they normally would not. Photo is from May 19th at Good Earth State Park.
While birding Newton Hills State Park Sunday, I saw three Scarlet Tanagers, all foraging within a few feet of each other. Seeing Scarlet Tanagers at Newton Hills isn’t news, as it’s one of the best places in the state to find them. To see three foraging together is unusual, however. Seeing all three ON THE GROUND, foraging as if they were Robins, is definitely unusual. It was a cornucopia of color, with a Red-headed Woodpecker low in the nearby sumac, an Indigo bunting down low, and American Robins and Scarlet Tanagers feeding together as if they were the same species. I’ve seen more Scarlet Tanagers this spring than I remember seeing before, but frankly it’s because they’re using habitats and behaviors they normally would not. Photo is from May 19th at Newton Hills State Park.
On Sunday, I spent quite a bit of time at Lake Lakota, a reservoir right next to Newton Hills State Park. Sunday morning was a nasty day…temps in the 30s, foggy, and cloudy with occasional drizzle. Again, from a photographer’s perspective it certainly played to my advantage, as birds were heavily concentrated along the lake shores of Lake Lakota. That’s been a common theme in the last week, with insect eating birds often found very near water sources. Given their behavior and concentration, presumably it’s because these insect-eating birds are going where the food is, and with the cold weather, it seems insects associated with water bodies are some of the few that are around. There have been a few times over the last 20 years where on a cold May day, I’ve found heavy concentrations of all kinds of swallow species on the ground, and Sunday was one of those days. Sitting on the beach at Lake Lakota were Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, Cliff Swallows, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and Bank Swallows. At any one time, it appeared that about two-thirds of the birds were perched on the beach, with a few low in nearby shrubs and trees. The other third were swooping over the lake itself, extremely close to the water’s surface as they searched for food. Those on the beach would occasionally move, but not in typical swallow fashion. Several appeared to sometimes be almost walking around looking for food, VERY strange for species that collect their insect prey in flight. It wasn’t just swallows, as other species were also concentrated on the beach, including more Baltimore Orioles and Orchard Orioles than I’ve ever seen in one location before. Given that they were seemingly struggling, I didn’t want to get too close for photos, so the photo above is of a Tree Swallow from a similar situation several years ago, on a very cold morning at Lake Thompson in South Dakota.
Speaking of shorelines along water bodies…while most warbler species were pretty much absent in the area until Saturday, that definitely wasn’t the case with Yellow-rumped Warblers. They have been THICK, but often in areas you don’t associate with warblers. While driving north of Wall Lake in western Minnehaha County last week, I saw many birds perched along a barbed wire fence, occasionally flying out to “flycatch”, capturing insects in mid-air. It was an area with a couple of shallow wetlands, areas that must have hatched some mosquitos or other flying insects despite the cool wet weather. It was an area with nary a tree in sight, yet as I got closer I saw what they were…ALL Yellow-rumped Warblers, in big numbers, hanging out here in a completely open landscape and making do with what bugs they could find. The situation was similar one day when I was looking for shorebirds at Weisensee Slough in western Minnehaha County. Weisensee is the last place I’d think of going to look for warblers, given as it’s a very large wetland/water body, with just no woodland patches on the accessible part along the road. That was a very windy day, shorebirds were almost completely absent (another blog post about shorebird migration perhaps), and with the chop on the water, it was difficult to see many birds out on the lake. Yet as I approached the ONE location along the road with a few very small willow trees, I saw a heavy concentration of Yellow-rumped Warblers, perched on the shoreline itself or low in the trees on the lee side of the wind, trying to capture insects. The photo above is one of those Yellow-rumped Warblers from Weisensee.
On Facebook I’ve been seeing many photos people have posted of their orange and jelly feeders, with big concentrations of Orioles. On the east side of the state, that means Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, while Bullock’s Orioles are also thrown into the mix in western South Dakota. that’s certainly been the case at my feeders as well, as I typically have to fill my two jelly cups every morning. The same thing happened during a cold snap last May, where very hungry, insect-starved Orioles showed up at my feeders in force…also the first time Orchard Orioles joined the Baltimore Orioles in our suburban neighborhood.

Spectacular Spring Birding – Minnehaha County

The last two days have been just spectacular for birding, and for bird photography. Both mornings, I went west of Sioux Falls before dawn, spending a lot of time around Wall Lake and the vicinity. Good numbers of birds, a wonderful variety, and some wonderfully cooperative subjects for the camera. It’s not often you get all three of those things in a birding trip. Here are some of the finds for the last 2 days:

Red-breasted Mergansers Courting - Mergus serrator

I don’t see Red-breasted Mergansers often around the Sioux Falls area, and usually just one or two. This weekend there were at least 11 hanging out together at Wall Lake. Unfortunately for the females, there were 7 males and only 4 females…the males were putting on QUITE the show for the females. They were some of the most active birds on the lake, with males chasing females, pausing to fight with each other or do this wonderful display behavior that I’ve never seen before. Given how active they were, given how large Wall Lake is, and given how difficult it can be to get close to a bird out on the main lake, I felt VERY fortunate that they spent quite a bit of time near the beach this morning, and I was able to capture the courting behavior. A bit more of a crop than I’d like, but I love this photo.

Common Loon - Gavia immer

Wall Lake is becoming semi-reliable for finding migrating Common Loons in the spring months, as it’s now been several years in a row where I’ve seen them there. This morning I hung out at the end of the point that sticks out into the lake, arriving at dawn, and staying an hour and a half. I was rewarded by wonderful views of many birds, but it’s ALWAYS wonderful when a gorgeous Common Loon in breeding plumage cruises around the corner and swims right in front of you (and your camera!).

Killdeer - Charadrius vociferus

I love the “off-season” at Wall Lake…the time of year when you can sit by the beach and have it all to yourself. Come summer, it’s not somewhere you’d even think about birding. But this time of year, when ice and snow cover the surrounding landscape and birds are looking for food, the sandy beach is a great place to bird. There were many birds near the beach today, with several looking for food right along the shore, such as this Killdeer.¬† If you are familiar with Wall Lake and the bit of foam that sometimes forms on the beach when there’s a north wind, this is what that foam turns into when it’s 20 degrees! Loved the bird next to the crystally ice.

Bonapaarte's Gull - Larus philadelphia

As always at this time of year, Wall Lake attracted a lot of gulls, primarily Ring-billed and Franklin’s, but I also saw a Herring Gull and 20 or so delicate little Bonaparte’s Gulls. Another bird prowling the “surf” line looking for food. About the only Bonaparte’s Gull I saw that wasn’t in full breeding plumage, but the others weren’t as cooperative for the camera.

American Robin - Turdus migratorius

I REALLY felt bad for the American Robins and other songbirds that were trying to find food this weekend, with a thick crust of ice covering most of the landscape. They were numerous along roadsides and anywhere else where even a bit of open ground was available. Here one hangs out on a branch at dawn at Wall Lake.

Rusty Blackbird - Euphagus carolinus

Three times this weekend I came across small groups of Rusty Blackbirds. I admit I often don’t scan the massive blackbird flocks, but while out on the peninsula at Wall Lake this morning, I kept hearing a squeaky call that I wasn’t familiar with, and then saw a lone Rusty Blackbird. Later this morning north of Wall Lake, I ran into a small group at a flooded field. Not a great photo, but not a species I’ve photographed much. And one that I generally struggle to differentiate from Brewer’s Blackbird when they’re in breeding plumage.

Double-crested Cormorant - Phalacrocorax auritus

Another common species, a Double-crested Cormorant, but I can’t help put trigger the shutter at any bird that flies in front of my camera. Do like the unique look of this one, thanks to a reflection of some buildings across the water at Wall lake.

Horned Grebe - Podiceps auritus

Until this weekend, I didn’t realize I had no photos of a Horned Grebe in full breeding plumage! Problem solved…there were actually many of these guys around Wall Lake the last 2 days. Most weren’t very cooperative, but I finally got one early this morning hanging out near the beach.

Hermit Thrush - Catharus guttatus

With all the snow and ice that was still around heading into this weekend, you kind of do a double take when you see some bird species, as they seem out of place given the weather. Hermit Thrush are always early spring arrivals though. There were a number of them the last 2 days in the Big Sioux Recreation Area near home.

Eastern Phoebe - Sayornis phoebe

Speaking of birds that look out of their element in this weather…one of the LAST things you expect to see when there’s so much snow and ice still around are flycatcher species. But like Hermit Thrush, Eastern Phoebes are early spring migrants. I saw this guy both yesterday and today along Wall Lake beach. Today thankfully things had melted some. Yesterday, he was really having a hard time finding anything other than snow and ice.

Winter’s Omen – Photo / Haiku of the Day

Winter’s Omen

Charming you may be,

Harbinger of glacial hell.

Snow Bird? PLEASE GO BIRD. ūüôā

Dark-eyed Junco - Junco hyemalis

I saw the first Dark-eyed Junco (what many people around here call “Snow Birds”) of the season in my yard this afternoon. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate having them around in winter. However, they are sometimes the ONLY species in my yard in winter. Seeing one now is the first sign of the impending wintry, Dakota hell, a hell that may not be over until they leave next April. Cute you may be! But I MUCH prefer the seasons when you are not around!!

Yellowstone Winter – Geothermal Features

I’m still trying to find to time to process photos and video from Yellowstone.¬†I only had half a day to walk around the Upper Geyser Basin at Yellowstone, but it was really magical. I started walking the basin a bit before dawn, and it was 2 hours before I finally ran into another human being. ¬†The only sounds that you heard were the gurgling of the Firehole River, and the hissing, bubbling, roaring sounds of the many geothermal features in the area. ¬†A wonderful morning, and a morning I thought I’d try something different (for me, at least).

I’m still a neophyte with regard to video. Even with a DSLR that shoots wonderful video, I very rarely actually try it. I did use my Canon 70d for some video in Yellowstone last week, but most of the time when I wanted video instead of still photographs, I found myself using my iPhone 7. ¬†I frankly don’t use my iPhone for much of anything, really, and haven’t ever really used it for photography or video. Last week though I quickly found just how wonderful video quality can be using an iPhone. I’ll still always love shooting with my DSLR, particularly given my focus on birds and need for a long lens, but it’s nice knowing that I’ll have good video capabilities as well, just by carrying my phone.

Here are several videos of geothermal features in the Upper Geyser Basin and in the Fountain Paint Pots area of Yellowstone.  So beautiful in winter, and the geothermal features have such a different look in the extreme cold.

This one is “Red Spouter”, a unique little hot spring/fumarole from the Fountain Paint Pots region. It’s a very new feature geologically. It didn’t exist until the massive Hebgen Lake earthquake of 1959, an event that changed a lot of the geothermal features in the park.

Fountain Paint Pots is adjacent to Red Spouter. ¬†I’ve seen the area in summer, when there’s more water available and it’s more like boiling water than boiling “mud”. ¬†It was rather cool to see the thick bubbling mud on a cold winter’s day.

The highlight of the trip was just after I arrived at the Snow Lodge near Old Faithful. ¬†The only way into the area in winter is by snow mobile or snow coach. I took a snow coach, and arrived at the Snow Lodge just as the sun was setting. ¬†We were told Old Faithful was likely to erupt in about 30 minutes, so I checked in, grabbed my camera, and headed for the geyser. ¬†The sun had already set, with just a bit of light still in the western horizon. ¬†I was rather shocked to find that I was all alone, rather stunning for someone who has been in Yellowstone many times during the summer months, and was used to throngs of people in the Old Faithful area. ¬†The eruption started, and I still was literally the only person watching. My only company? ¬†A pair of coyotes that loped in and started hunting around the boardwalks. ¬†A magical, solitary moment I’ll never forget.

Castle Geyser is a feature we’ve seen several times before in summer during our Yellowstone visits. It’s always interesting, with a large cone structure and some beautifully colored bacterial mats growing in the hot water runoff. ¬†However, we’ve never seen it erupt. Seeing it actually erupt on a morning where the temperatures were about 10-below zero was truly wonderful. ¬†The noise, the incredibly tall plume of steam, and again, having it all to myself…a great treat.

Morning Glory Pool in the Upper Geyser Basin is such an iconic feature, and I had to see it in winter. It’s only about a mile walk down from Old Faithful, and while the boardwalks and paths weren’t maintained, enough snowshoe and cross-country skiing traffic had occurred that it was “walkable”, even without snowshoes. Morning Glory is always beautiful, but alas, even in the 20 or so years since we’ve been going to Yellowstone, you can see a difference in the colors. ¬†It’s not as vibrant any more, due to visitors throwing debris in the pool that interferes with hot water movement into the pool. Still a beautiful feature though, particularly against a backdrop of snow and ice.

It’s not just the big iconic geothermal features that are an attraction in the Upper Geyser Basin. There are SO many little hot springs, geysers, and fumaroles that at times it’s hard to know where to look. ¬†This little feature is called “Scissors Spring”. ¬†Certainly a high-temperature feature, as it was vigorously boiling the entire time I watched.

One of the first erupting geysers I encountered on this cold January morning was tiny “Little Squirt” geyser. ¬†What it was lacking in size, it made up for in “spunk”! A fun little geyser to watch.

One of the bigger eruptions that occurred while I was there, Grotto Geyser put on a nice early morning show when temperatures were still very cold.  It was fun watching the hot water shoot up into the 10-below air, and come falling back down as a puffy, steamy cloud.  A fun eruption to watch, and one that continued for quite some time.

Another little feature, called “Ear Spring” — It’s not just the geothermal features themselves that are cool when you’re walking through the geyser basins. ¬†The beautifully colored bacterial mats that grow in the hot water can be truly spectacular. ¬†A beautiful little area of these were found right around Ear Spring.

This is one of the first videos I shot this morning, a panorama of the entire Upper Geyser basin, right as the sun was coming up. This one gives a great idea of the isolation, and the beauty, of winter in the area.

Finally, a video of the aptly named Firehole River that winds through the Upper Geyser Basin. There are numerous geothermal features right along the shores of the Firehole, with warm water keeping the river clear of ice all year round. The warm water in the river was certainly an attractant to wildlife, with Canada Geese, Common and Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Merganser, and Mallard all birds I saw while walking through the Upper Geyser Basin.

Winter Bison in Yellowstone

A week without blogging. ¬†God knows there was plenty to blog about if I wanted to torture myself with the political circus that’s happening right now, but I’ve been on travel for work. Work, with a bit of play thrown in. I had a couple of days of meetings in Bozeman, Montana, which is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Yellowstone National Park (if you define a “hop, skip, and a jump” as a 1 1/2 hour drive). ¬†My family and I have been in Yellowstone several times, but never in winter. ¬†I didn’t have a lot of time, but decided to spend a day and a half in Yellowstone after my work meetings were done.

Most of Yellowstone is closed in the winter. ¬†There’s only one road open, the road in the north part of the park between Mammoth Hot Springs and Cooke City on the northeast entrance. ¬†Travel in the rest of the park is by snowmobile or snow coach only. ¬†I wanted to see the interior of the park, so arranged for a snow coach ride from Mammoth down to the Old Faithful Area, where I spent one night in the Snow Lodge. ¬†Whirlwind tour that ended with another snow coach ride back to Mammoth, but it was certainly an incredible experience. ¬†I’ll share more photos and stories from my trip this week, but for now, here’s a look at some of the bison that overwinter in the park. ¬†It’s thought that about 5,000 bison are found in the park right now, a high number historically, and they certainly were found throughout the park on my short visit. ¬†They’re such massive, majestic creatures to begin with, but there’s something about the isolation and cold of a Yellowstone winter that really made them fun to watch and photograph.

Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) and bull Bison

It was 18 below in the north part of Yellowstone when I came across three massive bull Bison resting in the snow near the side of the road. As I watched, a lone Black-billed Magpie came flying in and landed on the head of the closest bull. The big bull tolerated it for a few minutes while the magpie perched on his head, but finally he’d had enough. With a shake of his massive head, the intruder was sent flying off and the bull resumed his nap. The Magpie in a great pose, the massive bison showing great detail in the fur and horns, and the warm steamy breath all contribute to what instantly became one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken.

Bison portrait in the snow

A little younger bison, not looking too impressed with the idiot in the car taking its photo.

Bull Bison foraging in snow

Another massive bull, using that massive head to push the snow aside and reach the grass below. With what’s been a very snowy winter in Yellowstone, even the big bulls like this were seemingly struggling to move through the snow at times.

Young bison

A younger bison, taking a break from feeding to strike a pose for the camera.

Killer Grizzlies, Ice Twisters, and more – Science, Nature, and other news

Killer Grizzlies,¬†“Ice Twisters”, and more…Science, nature, and other news of the week. Click on each headline for the story itself.

Grizzly Bear - Ursus arctos

Taken this morning, A Grizzly Bear, lurking JUST outside the Brandon Valley Middle School attended by my son. STAY BRAVE, MY SON!! We finally have a leader…nay…a HERO…who will stand up for you and your fellow children. ¬†No longer will you cower in fear each day at school, wondering if…wondering WHEN...the next child will be taken by a Grizzly Bear. Prepare for firearm training, my son! Soon you will be able to defend yourself!

Grizzly Bear Scourge Killing Thousands of American Children — With all the testimony this week of potential Trump Cabinet members, the most insightful, meaningful words of wisdom came from Betsy Devos, the woman who (shockingly)¬†is about to lead the Department of Education. ¬†When asked about her stance on guns in schools, Devos first deflected, stating that it should be a local choice. ¬†When pushed, Devos spoke of the one issue that wasn’t discussed NEARLY enough during the fall campaign…the deadly scourge of Grizzly Bear attacks on our children at school. ¬†Yes, that’s right folks, FINALLY we have a Trump Cabinet member who “gets it”, who understands the daily struggles of everyday Americans. Who hasn’t worried about Grizzly Bear attacks when dropping off their child at school in the morning? Betsy, we love you. ¬†You’ve proven you are one of US, everyday Americans struggling with everyday, life-or-death problems. ¬†Hopefully under your watch, teachers, or…better yet…children THEMSELVES will be allowed to carry semi-automatic weapons to combat the Grizzly Bear scourge. ¬†God bless you, Betsy Devos!

Cat toll on wildlife tallied – We had a neighbor with a cat that started showing up on their front step. ¬†They adopted it, although for the much of the time, they kept it as an outdoor cat. Every night it would be out on its own, and often during the day as well. ¬†It was a sweet cat! It was also an evil, bird-killing machine¬†that was seemingly always in our yard.¬†There would be many, many times I’d look out our sun room at the bird feeders, only to see the cat crouched and hiding by a nearby bush. Over the years, the visits to our yard became less frequent, either because 1) it was scared to death of me chasing it out of the yard again, or 2) it progressively got fatter and less agile. ¬†He took a toll on birds in my yard. ¬†I often witnessed him killing a bird, and other times, I’d just find the aftermath, with a pile of feathers or a dead mangled body. One cat, one yard, and likely many dozens upon dozens of kills. ¬†So what is the toll of cats on wildlife? ¬†As this story notes, a wildlife rehab group in Virginia tallied cat-related animal injuries over the years, and found they treated over 80 species that had been attacked by cats, including over 60 different bird species. ¬†This past summer, the neighbor cat disappeared one day, as it didn’t return home after (yet another) night left outside on its own. ¬†I love what pets bring into a home, but admit I was NOT fond of the way the neighbor cat was treated, and what it was allowed to do. Leaving it outside all the time ended up costing it its life, but it also ended up costing the lives of countless small critters over the years.

Tornado - 1884

What’s thought to be the world’s oldest photo of a tornado, taken in 1884. This photo always terrified me, ever since I saw it as a kid. It just looks…evil. And hey, GREAT! THANKS SCIENCE! In addition to every other way a tornado can kill you, now we also know that the inside of a funnel is quite cold! “Ice Twisters”, the SyFy movie, may have actually been a documentary!

Ice Twisters!! —¬†Several weeks ago, my son and I were flipping through the channels, and as we passed the SyFy channel, we saw a movie called “Ice Twisters!” was on. ¬†Typical SyFy movie…government research gone wrong, with drone-related atmospheric research somehow resulting in deadly “Ice Twisters” that were ravaging the landscape. In the movie, the cause of death for those impacted by an Ice Twister wasn’t necessarily wind…no…they froze to death! ¬†Yes, twisters that were THAT cold! ¬†Well, it turns out there’s a hint (the slightest hint) of truth in the show. ¬†The story goes back to 1955, when three employees from a radio station in Nebraska were taking cover from a tornado in the basement of an old stone house. The vortex passed directly overhead, and as it did so, the structure above was blown away. ¬†The three people in the basement noted the difficulty in breathing as the tornado passed overhead, but also felt the temperature dropping very sharply. ¬†Researchers studying the case found that the temperature likely dropped from around 27¬į Celsius to 12¬į as the funnel went overhead. ¬†The drop in temperature and the difficulty they had in breathing were related. The density of the air in the funnel would have been equivalent to being at nearly¬†30,000 feet in elevation, and as warmer, denser air is sucked into low pressure of the funnel, the expansion causes the large drop in temperature. ¬†Touche’, SyFy, Touche’. ¬†Never again will I make fun of your (admittedly sometimes entertaining) movies. ¬†Ice Twisters was simply a movie ahead of its time, ahead of the science behind it.

Move over “Polar Vortex”! Now we have “Atmospheric Rivers” — I just love when the mainstream media gets excited and jumps all over a “new” scientific phenomenon. A few years ago, somebody put a label of “Polar Vortex” on the same kinds of cold snaps the U.S. has always experienced, evidently deciding that just calling it “winter” as we always have wasn’t exciting enough. ¬†Today, I see we have a new entry in the journalistic annals of creating¬†new and exciting ways to describe phenomena that have been around forever. A very significant precipitation event did just recently occur in California, but the same kind of event has occurred countless times throughout history. ¬†The term “Atmospheric Rivers” itself is evidently old, mentioned by a couple of researchers back in the 1990s. Other terms for it in California have been the “Pineapple Express” or “Hawaiian Express”. ¬†Reading this story, however, and you’d think it was the first time such a phenomenon had been discovered or discussed.

February 2016 Temperature Anomalies

An image that shows global temperature anomalies in February of 2016. February was the most “anomalous” month in history up to that point, with the greatest departure from the “normal” for any month that had ever been measured. 2016 as a whole ended up setting yet another global temperature record. Leading the way…much of the Arctic. This graphic shows a temperature anomaly of nearly 12¬į for much of Arctic, but even greater departures from normal were found this fall and early winter.

3rd straight year of record global temperatures — For the first time ever, we’ve now had three straight years where all-time global temperature records have been broken. As stated by Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, “‚ÄúWhat‚Äôs going on in the Arctic is really very impressive; this year was ridiculously off the chart”. Parts of the Arctic were 20 to 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) above normal for much of the fall and early winter, including days with temperatures hovering at or above freezing even at the North Pole. Globally, levels of sea ice have never been lower.¬† Irrefutable evidence of the continued onslaught of climate change…not that more evidence is needed at this stage, but it comes at a time when a new incoming President and his Party are about to take power in Washington D.C. ¬†Which leads into…

Mixed bag for Trump’s Cabinet on Climate Change — Not a single story, but a collection of stories related to confirmation hearings for Trump’s Cabinet members this week. First the good…incoming Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, openly disagreed with Trump’s statements on climate change. ¬†He stated “The climate is changing, and man is an influence”, certainly welcome words from a man tasked to manage the Department that oversees Federal lands and natural resources. ¬†Responses related to the issue of climate change were more reserved and mixed from other Trump nominees. ¬†Scott Pruitt, tasked to lead the Environmental Protection Agency said “I do not believe climate change is a hoax”, but he stopped short of saying man was the major cause, or that we need regulation and change to mitigate the effects. Given that EPA is the Federal Agency that can potentially regulate greenhouse gas emissions, it’s not comforting to see a lack of conviction about regulatory action. ¬†The aforementioned Betsy Devos, who could very well be in charge of the Department of Education (GOD I hope not), didn’t specifically comment on climate change in her confirmation hearing, but did offer a simple statement of “I support the teaching of great science“. ¬†Note the word “simple”, a statement that could be attributed to MUCH of her testimony this week. ¬†It’s not encouraging when the Secretary of Education is clearly not even aware of the many programs her agency is responsible for. ¬†Rex Tillerson, an oilman slated to become Secretary of State, did state that the climate is changing and that greenhouse gases are a cause. However, he also stated that the science was murky, saying¬†‚ÄúThe increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.‚ÄĚ ¬†Tillerson’s comments were perhaps the most representative of what’s likely to happen in a Trump administration. ¬†In the face of overwhelming evidence that’s slowly convincing even a scientifically illiterate American public, the stance of many Cabinet members was to recognize climate change as “real”, yet simultaneously state the science is very uncertain. In short, they’re setting the stage to potentially monitor the situation, but not do a damn thing about it.

Sit on your butt and watch your life drain away — That’s the basic message of new research that assessed the biologic “age” of cells, related to the level of physical activity. ¬†Telomeres, little caps on the ends of DNA strands within a cell, gradually shorten as a person ages. Telomeres protect your chromosomes, and a shortening of telomeres is associated with cell “aging”, and increased likelihood of diseases including diabetes and cancer. Interesting study, and one of the first to take this form of measurement and connect it with activity levels. ¬†That’s the price of blogging, I guess…sitting here for hours trying to come up with interesting and clever stories, all while my damned telomeres shorten by the second.

Eating and Sitting

A family sitting AND eating at the same time. As science has proven this week, this could be one of the most dangerous aspects of American life. This, or rampaging Grizzly Bears around our children’s schools.

Don’t eat, live longer — To riff off of Charlton Heston…Damn you, science. ¬†DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!! ¬†FIRST you have the story above about deadly Ice Twisters, amplifying my already well-ingrained fear of tornadoes. ¬†Then you have the story of your DNA rotting away while you sit still. ¬†And now, this story, noting that restricting calories is one way to ensure a longer life. Survival and health of rhesus monkeys was found to be significantly higher as caloric consumption was reduced. ¬†Great. ¬†What. ¬†The. ¬†Hell. ¬†My favorite pastime is lounging on the couch in the basement, hiding from tornadoes, eating a bowl of ice cream. ¬†Little did I know how much I was putting my life in danger. As a scientist, and as an avowed atheist, I do find it incredibly fascinating that so many things that human beings crave in life, are inherently bad for you. ¬†Eating fatty and sugary foods, relaxing and taking it easy. ¬†From an evolutionary and biologic standpoint, does that make sense? ¬†Does it make sense that the very things we crave can kill us? How does simple biology explain that? ¬†It’s times like this where my belief in a “god” may not be reinforced, but it does reinforce my belief in a “devil”.

10,000-km long “wave” on Venus — The Akatsuki spacecraft captured a spectacular image of Venus in December, marked by a massive, vertical “smile” that stretched nearly pole-to-pole. ¬†The 10,000-km long feature is thought to be a “gravity wave”, which would make it the largest gravity wave observed in the solar system. ¬†It’s thought to have developed from air movement over mountain ranges on the surface of Venus, with the feature then propagating higher into the thick Venetian atmosphere. However, such a feature isn’t easily explained by the current understanding of the surface of Venus and near-surface atmospheric conditions. Either some other explanation is in order, or our understanding of the surface/atmospheric interactions on Venus needs to be reevaluated.

 

In the News – Week of October 23rd

Snowball

This snowball brought to you by the effects of climate change?

A collection of bird, science, photography, and news links from the past week.  Not many bird stories this week, but some good science stories.  Click on the links for the actual stories.

“Global Warming” causing cold winters — James Inhofe, jackass senator from Oklahoma (pardon my value judgement, but the man IS indeed a jackass from the standpoint of any scientist), famously strolled onto the Senate Floor a few years ago and presented a snowball. ¬†PROOF, he said, that global warming was a hoax! A sham! A deception, set up by evil scientists like myself!! ¬†How can global warming be real, if snow was falling in the DC area? ¬†Sigh. In the last decade, the term”climate change” has been used much more frequently than “global warming”, and with good reason. ¬†Yes, temperatures are warming overall, but the impacts also impact precipitation patterns, storm severity, and atmospheric flows, meaning “warming” is just one component of climate change. ¬†As this story point out, severe warming in the Arctic is affecting the position of the jet stream, making it more likely that “wavy” jet stream patterns will occur in winter. ¬†As a result, winters become more variable, with cold snaps become more common as a wavy jet stream brings colder air down from the Arctic. Sorry Senator Inhofe! ¬†That snowball you used as a prop may have been an example of the effects of climate change!!

Heading to California for a long nap — I’ve only been fortunate enough to come across bats on a ¬†handful of occasions. ¬†If we take a walk in the late evening, just after sunset, we’ve occasionally seen individual bats flying about. Growing up, I remember seeing them flying around streetlights at night, scooping up the insects that the lights attract. The most memorable encounter? ¬†Moving the portable air conditioner out of my wife’s grandmother’s kitchen window in the fall…only to have a live bat plop down on the kitchen counter. We interrupted his daytime roost!! Cool creatures, that I wish I’d had more chances to see. This is a neat story about Hoary Bats, one of the bigger species in North America. ¬†Some bats will hibernate, some will migrate when weather gets cold, but the Hoary Bat is unique in that it first migrates to California, and then settles in for hibernation. ¬†When I read stories like this, it always makes you realize how very little we know about the world around us…

Lesser Meadow Katydid - Conocephalus

Coming soon to a dinner plate near you? No thanks!

Edible Bugs — Can they replace beef? ¬†NO. THEY CANNOT. I have nothing further to say on the matter.

Yo Dude…Surf’s Up!! — From the realm of “pure” science that doesn’t seem to have any practical application, some research on Mute Swans, with a finding that they will sometimes “windsurf” as they move on the surface of the water. ¬†This researcher on 3 occasions observed Mute Swans sitting on the surface of the water, then opening their wings to catch the wind and “windsurf” across the water’s surface. ¬†The REAL story here for me, from the perspective of a scientist? ¬†That this dude was able to get an actual journal publication about this! ¬†Publish-or-perish, the ¬†mantra for many scientists, and this dude was able to publish something based on what he saw during his lunch hour! ¬†Bravo…

And you think your life sucks? — I believe I’ve seen this before, in a David Attenborough-narrated nature documentary. ¬†The Pearlfish is a species of fish often found in sandy shallows where there’s not a lot of protective cover. ¬†It’s solution to not getting eaten? 1) Find a Sea Cucumber 2) Enter it’s anus and crawl inside. ¬†Lovely! ¬†Something to think about the next time you think your life sucks…it could always be worse.

Unseen moons may be circling Uranus — My son would have some crude jokes to say about this story…

Donald Trump

Brain activity declines as lying becomes more frequent? Why am I showing a picture of Donald Trump next to this story? Must be coincidence…

Brain reacts less as lies become more frequent — Scientific proof of why this election cycle has been so god-awful! ¬†Fact checkers have certainly been kept busy over the last several months. ¬†As this story notes, your brain gets conditioned to frequent lying, where it reacts less as lie after lie pile up. ¬†Less brain activity with more lying…that certainly explains Donald Trump!! ¬†He’s been at it so long during this campaign that you can hardly blame him for his many slip-ups.

ET Phoning Earth — I hate the mainstream media at times. I understand the competitive nature of journalists and the desire to be the one to break a big story. ¬†From an economic perspective, I get the focus on the trivial by places like CNN, as unfortunately, they’re much more likely to get a lot of “clicks” on a story about Kim Kardashian’s latest hair-do than they are to get clicks on some boring science story. ¬†But what I REALLY HATE is how everything is sensationalized, how a story always has to be “sexed up” to make it more controversial and eye-catching. ¬†Hence this story, with the provocative headline of “Strange messages coming from the stars are probably aliens“. ¬†The scientists involved here also deserve some of the blame, as it’s incredibly, ridiculously premature to assign these “strange messages” to an alien source, but it’s the story in the Independent that really plays that aspect of the work. ¬†Interesting work, but I’ll need a hell of a lot more proof of the source of this signals before donning my tinfoil hat. ¬†There are just far, far too many things we don’t know about the universe to unequivocally associate the unknown to some alien source.

Carolina Parakeet - Drawing

Carolina Parakeets were once occasionally found here in South Dakota, so why not parrots in Siberia? This is one of the first bird drawing I did when I started several years ago.

Parrot fossil from…Siberia? ¬†— A parrot fossil dating from around 16 million years ago was unearthed near Lake Baikal in Siberia. ¬†This marks the furthest north a fossil from a parrot-like species has been found. ¬†It was warmer in the Milocene when this bird was living in the region, but not as tropical as the climate where most parrot species are found. ¬†It’s not exactly unprecedented though. In North America, our own Carolina Parakeet was found over a good chunk of the eastern United States, and there are even reports that it had occasionally been found up here in South Dakota.

Got the sniffles? Go milk a Tasmanian Devil — I believe this is sound medical advice, based on this story! ¬†Researchers have found that the milk from a Tasmanian Devil contains peptides that are able to kill hard-to-kill “superbugs”, bacteria that are becoming immune to our most commonly used antibiotics. ¬†I envision a world where everybody keeps their own small herd of Tasmanian Devils, faithfully milking them every morning and use Devil Milk on their morning cereal to keep sickness at bay.

Two-thirds of Earth’s wildlife gone in last 40 years — Well this is a depressing story. ¬†A study by the World Wildlife Fund has found that almost 60%¬†of vertebrate populations have disappeared from the wild since 1970. Numbers a dire across all ecosystems, but are particularly bad for freshwater ecosystems, with over 80% population declines. ¬†Good. Lord. ¬†It’s not exactly surprising, particularly the fresh-water habitat finding. ¬†I’m a fisherman, and have been since I was a boy. ¬†We rarely bother going fishing in eastern South Dakota any more. ¬†The rivers are E.Coli-filled cess pools of ag runoff and animal waste, and every year more and more lakes in the region are being assigned as mercury threats, with fishermen warned to either not eat the fish or to severely limit how much is consumed. ¬†And yet there are groups out there that want to ABOLISH the Environmental Protection Agency…something that even our Republican presidential candidate has promised to do. ¬†It sickens me to think what we’re leaving behind for our children…

Luke Perry AARP eligible — ¬†I’m of an age where I definitely remember 90210 and Melrose Place. ¬†I wasn’t a big fan and didn’t watch, but my wife did, as did many other people I knew back then. Well, evidently being “of an age” where I remember 90210 means I AM FREAKING OLD!! The reason this story caught my attention? Luke Perry from 90210 turned 50 and became AARP eligible…as have I recently. ¬†Sigh. ¬†With that, I’ll sign off from another week’s worth of news. ¬†Now where are my damned glasses? And cane. ¬†And prescriptions…sigh….

 

 

It’s a bird-eat-bird world

Merlin (Falco columbarius) with prey (Horned Lark)

A Merlin munching on a freshly caught Horned Lark

It’s Saturday. ¬†I went birding on Monday. ¬†But as is typical, I didn’t even download or start to look at the photos until this morning. ¬†Heck, this is actually FAST for me! I have folders upon folders of bird photos that await. ¬†It’s a lot more fun to take photos than to process them and get them up on a website. ¬†What I’ll often do is just process a few of the best ones and leave the rest for a “later” time period that often seems to never come! ¬†Some day I’ll start my own personal digital birding adventure, where I’ll revisit all my old photos and rediscover ones I never knew I had.

But in the meantime, here’s a few from Monday. ¬†As I like to do a couple of times I winter, I got up early Monday and made the long drive to the central part of the state. ¬†It was a LOVELY day for birding, at a slightly crisp -17 degrees when I arrived at dawn. ¬†One of my favorite birding locations and times in South Dakota is the area around Presho in the dead of winter. ¬†There are many pheasant hunting operations in the region, and a fair amount of land managed for pheasants and grouse. ¬†With literally hundreds of pheasants and grouse sometimes milling about, winter raptors are attracted to the area. ¬†The density and diversity is usually spectacular. ¬†It’s a guarantee you’ll find Golden Eagles, Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks and Rough-legged Hawks, you’ll usually find Ferruginous Hawks and Prairie Falcons, and you’ll often find some of the more “fun” species, including Gyrfalcon, Merlin, Snowy Owl, or Short-eared Owl.

Northern Harrier - Circus cyaneus

A female Northern Harrier, feeding on the scant remains of a pheasant

By “Presho standards”, Monday wasn’t the greatest, as I “only” came across 75 or so raptors over the course of 7 hours. ¬†No rarities, but I did get some very nice looks at nature in action. ¬†Merlins are a species I don’t see very often, at least not in my part of eastern South Dakota. ¬†But for some reason I often have luck finding them around Presho in the winter. It’s not just all the pheasants and grouse that attract raptors, ti’s also Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and other small birds that often frequent the area. ¬†The photo here is a Merlin munching on a freshly caught Horned Lark (they seem to be a favorite prey species).

The second photo is a female Northern Harrier. I came across her feeding on the remains of a pheasant carcass on the side of the road. ¬†I’m not sure if Harriers take down full-grown pheasants or not…it seems like they’d be a handful. ¬†But I have seen Harriers on carrion, so perhaps this one was feeding on the remains of a bird caught or killed by something else. ¬†It was nice to get relatively close looks at her though, as Harriers around here are typically quite skittish. ¬†For as many as I’ve seen, I don’t have all that great of photos of them.

It’s a rough world out there! ¬†Eat or be eaten!

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