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Facts trump Fear: A FACT-based assessment of Mountain Lions in South Dakota

Mountain Lion - Puma concolor

A full-grown Mountain Lion on the prowl. No…no…not my photo! This is a wild animal roaming in Yellowstone National Park. You see, like 99.999% of South Dakotans, I will never see, much less photograph, a Mountain Lion in this state. That, despite Mountain Lions seemingly posing as much of a threat to human health and safety as disease, war, famine, and pestilence combined. At least in the minds of many misguided South Dakotans.

I should just avoid the internet.  My blood pressure might be greatly improved if I were able to do that. It’s bad enough that we have Orange Hitler as our president, with a bunch of mini-Hitlers running all of the Cabinet departments. It’s bad enough that the normal news outlets that I check every day, such as the Washington Post or the New York Times, are now dominated by depressing and often downright sickening news stories about how everything that makes America, America, is now being being systematically dismantled.  What’s worse is that the same “alternative facts” political world we live in has permeated EVERY facet of American life, where fact, reason, and logic mean absolutely nothing any more.

Yesterday I was on Facebook when I came across a South Dakota “gentleman”, posing with a huge shit-eating grin on his face as he held up a dead Mountain Lion that he’d just shot and killed. OK, “gentleman” isn’t the word I want to use here, but I’m going to try to stay civil in this post.  Just the facts…so let’s call him “Gentleman Joe”.  It was a BIG mountain lion…160+ pounds…and evidently shooting a BIG Mountain Lion makes Gentleman Joe some kind of hero in the minds of many who were commenting on Facebook.  Normally I’d see something like that, roll my eyes, get a little sick to my stomach at the whole thought of it, and then move on to the next post. OK, who am I kidding…If you know me, you’d KNOW I was going to respond after seeing that.  As I I scrolled down, I noticed a manifesto from “Jim Bob” (I’m sure some relationship to Gentleman Joe, if not by blood, then by ideology).  Jim Bob was praising Gentleman Joe for the great kill, going on with his thoughts about just how much safer South Dakotans were thanks to his kill.

According to Jim Bob, the Mountain Lion horde of the South Dakota Black Hills are taking over the state. According to Jim Bob, it’s seemingly impossible to go outside in the Black Hills nowadays without the imminent threat of a Mountain Lion attack. In Jim Bob’s eyes, the proliferation of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills is akin to nuclear weapon proliferation during the Cold War, and evidently, poses just as much of a threat to humanity.  In Jim Bob world, it’s not safe to wander outside in the Black Hills. Gentleman Joe was indeed a god-damned American HERO for saving a scared South Dakota populous from the Mountain Lion scourge.

White-tailed Deer Fawn - Odocoileus virginianus

Yes, this IS my photo. I know what you’re thinking…TERRY! YOU HAVE A FAMILY TO THINK ABOUT!?!?! How could you risk so much getting this close to a dangerous killer? OK…ridiculous, you say? How much threat does a lil’ White-tailed Deer pose? SCIENCE MY FRIENDS! And the numbers don’t lie. THIS creature is MUCH more likely to kill or injure you than is a Mountain Lion. If you live in South Dakota, it’s not the creature at the top of the page that is a threat to your life.

I responded with facts, providing the TRUE story of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills, and their supposed threat to health and well-being of South Dakota’s citizens. Jim Bob, clearly not accustomed to facing the world of reality, threw a few half-hearted digital haymakers in Facebook response before slinking back to his hole.  He had nothing to respond with, no evidence to back his claims.  But as he departed the digital conversation, it was quite clearly that the barrage of facts I provided did nothing to change his mind. Those facts?

There’s been a grand total of ONE…count them…ONE confirmed Mountain Lion attack IN THE ENTIRE RECORDED HISTORY OF SOUTH DAKOTA.

Even that one event, in 2008, was an unfortunate encounter that resulted from a lion defending a kill, rather than the lion actively seeking out a human being.  Ryan Hughes was ice fishing on Sheridan Lake in March of 2008 when he headed to the shoreline and came across a Mountain Lion crouched down in the cattails, feeding on a fresh kill (thought to be a fox).  When Hughes first spotted the Mountain Lion, he was a mere 5 feet from the lion and its kill. The surprised lion reacted, dropping it’s food and scratching and biting Hughes. Hughes received minor injuries, and was treated and released from a local hospital for minor scratches and bite marks.

Well over 150 years since settlement of South Dakota, and this one, chance encounter is the ONLY MOUNTAIN LION ATTACK EVER RECORDED ON A HUMAN BEING in the state. However, according to Jim Bob, it’s absolutely essential that “heroes” like Gentleman Joe actively thin out the Black Hills Mountain Lion population.  According to fearful, small-minded men like Jim Bob, it’s a matter of public SAFETY.

I have no doubt that for tiny-penis men like Jim Bob, Mountain Lions ARE something to fear (am I still being civil? OK it’s getting borderline). It’s a scary world when you’re an insecure, weak little man-child (yeah, definitely crossing the border now).  Toting a gun into the wild and blasting away at wildlife?  It’s great for boosting those testosterone levels and boosting the confidence of weak she-men like Jim Bob (I am WAY south of the border…bye-bye civility).  But stating Mountain Lion hunting must be done as a matter of public SAFETY?

Deer Collision Risk - State Farm

From State Farm Insurance, a table of the top 5 riskiest states for car/deer collisions. If only there were some natural predator capable of saving us from the Deer threat…

One attack in over 150 years, in a state that covers over 75,000 square miles. Depending on the estimate and year, recent estimates of the number of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills have varied from 200 to 400. Generally they’ve thought to have stabilized around 250 in recent years. It’s a very healthy, strong lion population, yet despite their substantial presence in an area that’s so heavily used for recreation, there just haven’t been any attacks on human beings, much less any serious injury or fatality caused by a Mountain Lion.  That fear from tiny penis she-men isn’t limited to people in the Black Hills region.  Even here at the opposite end of the state near my town of Brandon, there have been stories of fear from the likes of Jim Bob.

While permanent breeding populations of Mountain Lions in South Dakota are almost exclusively found in the Black Hills, wandering individuals are occasionally found elsewhere in the state and region, even here in southeastern South Dakota. In 2014, there were a few sightings of a Mountain Lion just north of Brandon, where I live. A lot of the reports are rather “bigfoot” like, such as a reported brief glimpse of what might have been a Mountain Lion in the headlights of a speeding car on a highway.  But according to this piece from 2014, some in the Brandon area believed that Mountain Lions were setting up shop in the region. A quote from one of the landowners just north of where I live in Brandon?

Those spottings are just a sampling of the evidence of what Heggen said is a long-running pattern of the lions, which are solitary animals, being a nuisance in his area.

Yes, Mr. Heggen. It’s a “long-running pattern” of Mountain Lions roaming the Brandon Area.  They are a long time “nuisance” here in extreme eastern South Dakota, an area that’s 90% corn and soybeans and unlikely to EVER host a Mountain Lion for any length of time. They have indeed been spotted from time to time. I even know of a guy at my work who has seen one in the area.  But as the story above notes, in 2013 there were only 6 recorded Mountain Lion sightings in the entire state outside of the Black Hills.  Only three of those were in the eastern half of South Dakota. It’s not exactly a “long-running pattern”, and it’s a far cry from Mountain Lions being a “nuisance” in the area. More quotes from the Brandon-area story:

“But we don’t have any raccoons, skunks, possums or even pheasants running around anymore. And for a while, we didn’t even see any rabbits, although we’ve seen a few smaller ones lately,” he said.

 

“I’m guessing they (the lions) are eating them,” Heggen said. “They aren’t scavengers like coyotes.” He said that what he fears most is having his 5-year-old son being harmed by one of the lions in their farmyard.

Mountain Lions Killed - American West

From the Mountain Lion Foundation, a graph of the number of Mountain Lions killed by hunters in the American West from 1900 to the present day. In the last 20 years, hunters have generally killed 3,000 to 4,000 lions a year. In South Dakota in 2017, Game Fish & Parks are allowing up to 60 Lions to be killed.

Once again, let’s return to the facts…ONE CONFIRMED ATTACK IN THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF THE STATE, yet people like this are evidently fearful for the lives of their families.  There are other ridiculously speculative comments in the story, such as one time some cows were spooked by something (clearly HAD to be a Mountain Lion, right?), or that one fall he didn’t see any deer while harvesting his corn (Eegads!  More Mountain Lions!!). Please spare me the anecdotal bullshit about all the poor little animals in the area disappearing, and attributing it to roving Mountain Lions. Trust me, we have PLENTY of deer, raccoons, skunks, opossums, pheasants, and rabbits running around this part of the state.  It’s hard to drive any road in the area and not notice all the road kill on the sides of the road.

I’m perhaps being a little (ok, more than a little) harsh on people like this, but as a scientist, my biggest pet peeve in this world are fearful, ignorant human beings who ignore fact, logic, science, and reason, and instead let their innermost fears and emotions rule their lives. The vast majority of people in the Black Hills, an area that may indeed have one of the highest Mountain Lion concentrations in all of North America, will never even SEE a Mountain Lion in their lifetimes, much less have an encounter or an attack.

I also realize it’s not just the fear of men (with tiny penises) that drives this hatred of Mountain Lions, and the “lionization” (ha-ha) and hero-worship of those who kill them. No, beyond the fear, it’s INSECURITY, and their need to KILL, to express their manliness, that also drives attitudes like those of Jim Bob. That rationalization that it’s up to THEM to SAVE us from the Mountain Lion scourge…that attitude certainly plays to their insecurities, and it’s a great excuse for those who just love to go out and kill things.

On the latter point, hunters in general often have a problem with predators like Mountain Lions, for the simple fact that Lions are competition for the same kinds of prey that hunters like to target. As this story from 2010 points out, Mountain Lions likely kill just as many deer in the Black Hills as do hunters. The entire anti-Mountain Lion vibe in that part of the state simply boils down to this basic statement from this story:

Some hunters don’t like the increased competition from lions, said Mike Kintigh, GF&P regional supervisor in Rapid City.

A Mountain Lion kills a deer, that’s one less deer for hunters to kill.  In the minds of “Sportsmen” who think like this, targeting Mountain Lions is a win-win proposition.  It gives hunters the chance to kill a large, challenging animal, while at the same time reducing a major predator of game such as deer and elk.How do you combat some of the “fact-challenged” rhetoric from the anti-Lion crowd in South Dakota?  Facts don’t seem to have any impact on people like this, but as a scientist, it’s quite easy to shoot down the “logic” of these folks with some basic empirical evidence and numbers.

  • ONE — Again…in the entire history of the state, only ONE recorded attack of a Mountain Lion on a human being, and that was an obvious case of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, surprising a mountain lion on its kill.
  • THREE — In all of Eastern South Dakota in 2013, there were only three confirmed Mountain Lion sightings. No, East River paranoids, Mountain Lions are not in any way a “nuisance” or any kind of threat in the 30,000+ square miles east of the Missouri River. Let’s at least keep the argument just to the Black Hills region.
  • 250 — That’s the roughly the number of Mountain Lions currently thought to be in the Black Hills. In an area of about 5,000 square miles, that puts the number at about one Mountain Lion for every 20 square miles.  That’s a high density for anywhere in North America, much less for such a heavily used area like the Black Hills.  Yet again, despite the number of lions and the potential for interaction with the thousands of visitors and residents in the Black Hills, dangerous encounters have been non-existent.
  • 5,500 — That’s how many deer may be killed every year in the Black Hills by Mountain Lions.
  • 90,000 — Roughly the number of deer killed by hunters every year in South Dakota in the 2000s…during the exact time period when researchers believed Mountain Lion populations were at all-time highs in the Black Hills, with potentially 400 individuals present.
  • 69% — Recent success rate of hunters targeting deer in the Black Hills.  Evidently the Mountain Lions have left one or two deer for human hunters.  No, hunters, Mountain Lions are not wiping out the Black Hills deer population.
  • #5South Dakota was recently ranked as the 5th most likely state for a driver of a vehicle to strike a deer.  One in 70 South Dakota drivers on average have a claim related to a deer collision.  Perhaps a little NATURAL population control would benefit South Dakotans, particularly since the risk of any negative consequence (aka, an attack) is far less than the odds of being struck by lightning.  If only there were some SCIENCE to back this up…hmmmm……
  • 155 — That’s how many lives in the eastern United States would be SAVED over a 30-year period in the eastern United States, IF Mountain Lions were reintroduced into the area.  The number comes from a detailed socioeconomic analysis of the impacts of reintroducing Mountain Lions in the East. The savings come from the reduction in deer populations that would result from the introduction of their most effective natural predator, and the resultant reduction in deer-car collisions.  The same study found that over $2 BILLION in insurance costs would be saved over the 30-year period.

Not to let something as mundane as “science” get in the way of the thinking of people like Jim Bob, but if that many lives and insurance dollars would be SAVED in the eastern U.S. by reintroducing the Mountain Lion, how many avoided collisions in the Black Hills are a result of the presence of Mountain Lions?  How many lives have thus been SAVED by the presence of Mountain Lions in the Black Hills?  If you’re doing a cost-benefit analysis, that would be XX number of lives saved, compared to…ZERO lives that that EVER been lost in the state as a result of a Mountain Lion’s activities. What? That’s all speculative you say?  Not so fast my friends, SCIENCE TO THE RESCUE AGAIN!! From the same socioeconomic analysis:

South Dakota offers a test case example of how effective this solution might be. Cougars have been slowly migrating East: They only recolonized the Black Hills in western South Dakota in 2005. When Gilbert and her team looked at mountain lion recolonization in the western part of South Dakota, they found that from 2005–2012, deer-vehicle collisions fell by 9 percent, resulting in $1.1 million in annual societal benefits for the citizens of western South Dakota. (A 9 percent reduction in seven years is roughly on par with the 22 percent reduction, which researchers think will take 30 years from recolonization.) By avoiding an estimated 158 deer vehicle collisions annually, auto insurers are already saving roughly $630,000 a year in payouts in the Black Hills.

DATA!  REAL DATA showing the decline in deer-auto accidents in South Dakota that occurred RIGHT when Mountain Lion populations were spiking in the region.

If you support Mountain Lion hunting in South Dakota, please spare us all the bullshit.  It’s NOT a safety issue.  Not to let facts spoil your storyline, anti-Mountain Lion, crowd, but from a safety standpoint, there’s absolutely no doubt that South Dakotans are safer WITH Mountain Lions than without.

SCIENCE!! NUMBERS!! FACT!!!

If you’re going to spout off about the need to “control” Mountain Lions, skip the crap about safety.  It’s clearly about either 1) your COMPLETELY irrational fear of a beautiful creature that’s MUCH less likely to harm you than is your hair dryer, shaver, or random bolt of lightning, or 2) your desire to KILL a creature for no other reason than the enjoyment of the “sport”.

For more information, here are some of the journal and news articles mentioned in this blog post:

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.

Oscar

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).

Europa

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.

 

Where did the Fort Pierre National Grasslands raptors go?

Central South Dakota - Raptor Sightings

Winter raptor sightings in central South Dakota over the last 5 years. The Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves used to be “the” hotspot for winter raptors, including great chances for rarities like Gyrfalcons and Snowy Owls. In recent years, raptor numbers are incredibly low compared to areas just south of the Grasslands, in and around Presho and Kennebec. Click on the map above (or any other image) for a larger view.

I still vividly remember the first time I had ever visited the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  It was 2000, and I had been bitten by the birding bug.  Hard. Much of my free time was spent birding and taking photos, and as a new birder, there certainly were plenty of “new” birds to discover, just around my home town of Brandon.  One of my friends at work was an avid, lifetime birder, and he not only helped with identification of the birds in my (quite poor!) early photos, but he also helped to stoke the birding fires.  That was very evident when reports came in of a Gyrfalcon on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  In the years since, the Grasslands have become known as a wonderful location for finding these very rare winter visitors, but at the time, it was something rather novel.  Given that my lifetime birder friend had never seen a Gyrfalcon, I knew this was something special for a birder and I was excited to try to find it. Thus began 16 winters of making periodic birding treks to the Grasslands.

It couldn’t have been easier on that first visit.  The famed “Pheasant Farm Gyrfalcon” was hanging around a farmstead that raised pheasants for hunting operations in the region.  I talked with Doug B. in Pierre, a great birding contact who also helped a lot in my early birding years, and he provided directions (we’re WELL before cell phones and google maps here!).  He had said that he was likely to be around that location early on a Saturday morning, so I made plans to get up ridiculously early and drive to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and arrive at that spot just after dawn.

Rough-legged Hawk - Buteo lagopus

The ubiquitous Rough-Legged Hawk, once seemingly found on every other fence post and telephone pole on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. However, for the last 5 years, they’ve been curiously absent.

That cold December day came, I set the alarm, packed up my equipment at 4:30, and started the 3+ hour drive.  My timing was good, and I arrived on County Line Road right around 8:00 AM. As I reached an old abandoned schoolhouse that marked the location close to the pheasant farm, I saw a pair of cars.  I got out, saw Doug B., and asked if they’d seen the Gyrfalcon.  He smiled, and pointed to the top of a nearby telephone pole, and there it was!  My first Gyrfalcon, about as easy a “capture” as a birder can ever hope for with such a rarity!

From that day forward, I was hooked on the Grasslands.  Given that it’s about 3 1/2 hours from home, it’s not a love of convenience!  But I quickly learned to appreciate the isolation and beauty of the area. Most days on the Grasslands, you run into very few people, and there are times after a nice wet period where the beauty of the grasslands and flowers can be really spectacular.  But of course, it’s the birding that was the main attractant for me, and my GOODNESS what incredible birding there was.  Winter in the middle of South Dakota may not sound like a time for vibrant bird life, but the Fort Pierre National Grasslands was building a reputation as a magnet for raptors. This not only included one of the best chances in all of the lower 48 states to see a Gyrfalcon, but also a diverse list of other raptors that spent their winter months on the Grasslands.  Rough-legged Hawks were found in extremely high numbers, such that many times it was quite rare to drive more than half a mile on County Line Road and NOT see a Rough-legged Hawk hanging out on a telephone pole or fence post.  It’s the first place I saw a massive, incredibly powerful Golden Eagle.  It’s the place where I first saw a Ferruginous Hawk, a bird with such a brilliantly white underside that from a distance I thought I was about to see my first Snowy Owl.  It wasn’t that year, but later the Fort Pierre National Grasslands WERE the place I saw my first Snowy Owl, including one incredible year where Snowy Owls were practically as abundant as the ever-present Rough-legged Hawks. It’s the first place I saw a Prairie Falcon, a bird that for a long time was a photographic nemesis for me given their predilection for flushing and flying away whenever I got within 1/4 of a mile of one.  It’s the first place I saw a Short-eared Owl, a summer-time encounter where two adults were tending 4 younger birds.  That encounter concluded with an adult circling me for several minutes as I stood outside my car, resulting in one of my most memorable photo opportunities (and a new Canon DSLR camera body, thanks to the photo winning a nationwide Canon photo contest!).

Winter Sightings - Rough-legged Hawk

Winter sightings of just Rough-legged Hawks. Note the incredibly dense populations near I-90, and the sharp drop off towards the Grasslands in the north.

There have been days on the Grasslands where a full, complete day of birding could simply consist of driving back-and-forth on County Line Road and occasionally taking one of the small gravel roads that connect to it.  One could potentially stay within a relatively small driving area of 10 to 20 square miles, and find dozens, upon dozens, upon dozens of raptors.  Since that first day in 2000, I’ve had some of my most memorable photo experiences on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in winter, including finally getting a close shot of a Prairie Falcon, having a curious first-year Gyrfalcon circle me in curiosity in much the same way that Short-eared Owl did years before, capturing a photo of the massive wingspan of a Golden Eagle as it takes flight, and finally capturing my first decent photos of a Snowy Owl.  During all my winter trips to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, I learned to appreciate not only the Grasslands themselves, but the area south of the Grasslands.  I’d necessarily drive the I-90 corridor past Reliance, Kennebec, and Presho to get to the Grasslands themselves, and couldn’t help notice all the raptors in the area.  Soon, my “Grasslands” birding trips became “central South Dakota” birding trips, with days where I’d usually spend mornings in the Presho area and afternoons on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.  Birding life was good, and many a cold, dismal, South Dakota winter was saved by the vibrant display of life that was always available on the Grasslands.

And then…something happened.  It started about 5 years ago, when I planned one of my “usual” winter trips to the area.  The first half of the trip was the same as always…plenty of raptors of all kinds in the Presho area, and plenty of photo opportunities.  However, as I headed north towards the Grasslands themselves, the birds disappeared. Given my past history of finding winter raptors on the Grasslands, I kept expecting the birds to show up around the next corner, but…they never did.  There was an occasional raptor here or there, primarily Golden Eagles or Ferruginous Hawks, but the incredible density of Rough-legged Hawks, the species that once made up a good 80% of all the raptors found on the Grasslands, was simply absent.  Almost TOTALLY absent.

Greater Prairie Chicken - Tympanuchus cupido

A Greater Prairie Chicken on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. Whatever the cause of the raptor decline on the Grasslands, it doesn’t appear to be because there’s been a noticeable decline of gamebirds.

That first winter after the raptors disappeared, I just speculated that something happened to the prey base that attracted the raptors. When driving the Grasslands, you always saw plenty of Ring-necked Pheasants, Greater Prairie Chickens, and Sharp-tailed Grouse.  There were several times where I’d sat in awe as a Gyrfalcon dive-bombed pheasants in search of a meal, and clearly the gamebirds in the area were one thing that attracted raptors.  There didn’t seem to be any obvious crash in the populations of these three gamebird species. The famed Pheasant Farm near County Line Road had stopped raising pheasants, but that’s such a local phenomenon that it couldn’t explain the drop in raptors across all the grasslands.  Indeed, this winter I visited the Grasslands a couple of days after Christmas, when a massive storm had coated the region in snow and crusty ice.  I ran across truly massive groups of Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chickens, milling about in the open and looking for foraging spots in the ice-locked vegetation. Yet despite all the gamebirds that were out, raptors were again curiously absent.  I didn’t spot a single Rough-legged Hawk on the Grasslands themselves, despite easily finding over 30 earlier in the day down by Presho.

If not a decline in gamebirds, what else?  One factor that may play some role is the loss of some truly massive prairie dog towns in the region.  On County Line Road itself, there have always been a few locations for prairie dogs.  Not all raptors target prairie dogs, but Ferruginous Hawks certainly key in on prairie dogs, and prairie dog towns.  Over the last several years, many of the prairie dog towns in the area have disappeared.  Those outside of the administrative boundaries of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves are fair game for poisoning, to clear the land of these “pests” (don’t get me started).  The largest prairie dog town I knew of in the area was on the east end of County Line Road, just outside of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands itself.  It stretched for almost a mile on the north side of the road, with more scattered spots on the south side of the road.  A few years ago, that entire area was clearly poisoned, and the massive colony is gone.

However, the decline in prairie dogs also fails to fully explain the decline in raptors.  There are NO prairie dog towns down by Presho and Kennebec, yet raptors of every kind are still found there in incredible numbers. Perhaps it’s a decline in the small rodent population in the area? For a raptor such as a Rough-legged Hawk, mice and voles make up a huge part of the diet.  Could there have been some cyclic decline in small rodent numbers on the grasslands?  That was my initial thought, but it’s been 5 years since the noticeable and sharp decline in raptor numbers.  You wouldn’t think some repetitive cycle of boom-and-bust rodent populations would be in “bust” mode for so long. Perhaps it’s related to the Prairie Dog poisoning? Could that have also had an impact on small rodents in the area?

A Black-tailed Prairie Dog. There’s little doubt number of these guys HAVE declined around the fringes of the Grasslands, given active poisoning programs.

One other major prey source in the area, particularly for Merlins and Prairie Falcons, are the sometimes huge flocks of Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, and Snow Buntings that are found in the area in the winter. The vast majority of Merlin sightings I’ve had in South Dakota have been on the Grasslands themselves or in the Presho area.  During my last trip over Christmas, the first raptor I saw at dawn was a Merlin munching on a freshly caught Horned Lark by Kennebec, and I’ve had numerous other occasions over the years where I’ve seen Merlins feeding on Horned Larks or Lapland Longspurs.   You do see roving flocks of Longspurs, Larks, and Snow Buntings on the Grasslands,certainly enough to capture the attention of a raptor that’s passing through, but the numbers of those potential prey species have seemed higher in the Presho/Kennebec area in recent years.

The maps that are shown in this post are indicative of the raptor numbers on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands vs. the I-90 corridor in recent years. These are all actual sightings made by myself over the last 5 years, and recorded in eBird.  During each and every trip I’ve made in the last 5 years, I take the same general routes. I start in the Kennebec/Presho area around dawn, by mid-morning start to work my way up through the Grasslands themselves, and then start to head back down south again by mid-afternoon. It’s clearly not a precise, spatially distributed sample of the space shown on the map, but over the last 5 years, I have driven most of the roads in a rectangle bounded by Highways 1806 and 273 on the east, an area typically no more than 5-8 miles south of I-90 south of Presho, and Kennebec, westward to Highway 83 and a few miles to the west (particularly around the Sheriff Dam and Richland Wildlife Area, and northward to County-Line Road itself and a few miles north of it.  Good roads are few and far between in parts of the area, particularly north-south roads that take you from Presho northward into the Grasslands.  As a result, the maps here tend to show the 2 major north-south gravel road that connect the two areas, as well as other more easily traveled roads in the area.

Gyrfalcon - Falco rusticolus

A Gyrfalcon taken during the “Golden Years” on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. This is a very dark-phase juvenile, and I’ve never seen one quite like this. The Grasslands may still be a good spot to try to find this mega-rarity, but it’s not an ideal spot for other winter raptors any more.

I wish I had eBird recordings for the “golden years” on the Grasslands, prior to this last 5 year period, something against which these maps could be compared.  I DO have a vast number of raptor photos taken on the Grasslands themselves from 2000 to present, with most of those from 2011 and earlier.  What’s clear from these maps, however, is just how sharp a delineation there is between the I-90 corridor, and raptor numbers to the north on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands themselves.  On the map at the top that shows all raptor sightings I’ve recorded, note the one north-south road that extends up from the I-90 corridor, about halfway between Presho and Vivian. That’s my main path for getting north, and while there are plenty of raptor sightings south of the Grasslands, those sightings drop off sharply almost exactly at the Grassland boundary itself.  On EVERY trip over the last 5 years, I will drive County line Road, an east-west road along the county boundary (visible towards the north side of these maps).  Once THE hotspot for raptors, in the last 5 years, I have very few raptor sightings of any kind along this road.  Rough-legged Hawk sightings on the Grasslands are incredibly small when compared to the area just to the south of the Grasslands. Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers have always seemed to be much more abundant in the southern part of this area, but in recent years they are almost completely absent once you get 4 or 5 miles north of I-90.  Bald Eagles are often incredibly abundant in and around the Presho area.  I have had days where a dozen or more Bald Eagles are sitting in one concentrated area, and there are also at least 3 active Bald Eagle nests that I’ve found in and around the Presho and Kennebec area.  I have a few Bald Eagle sightings around the Grasslands, but that’s certainly dwarfed by how many have been found in and around Presho.

There are some species that are more evenly distributed in the area.  Golden Eagles are a species I’m almost certain to find on any trip to the area, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether I’m on the Grasslands, or in the Presho/Kennebec area.  Prairie Falcons also seem rather randomly distributed, as they seem rather unpredictable and likely to pop up just about anywhere on this map.  Ferruginous Hawks also seem rather even distributed.  Is there something in common about these species that may make them more likely to be found on the grasslands? Golden Eagles and Ferruginous Hawks are much more likely to key in on mammals, including rabbits and other larger mammals.  Perhaps if it is a population crash of small rodents, they’re still on the Grasslands as they don’t depend on those smaller prey as much as Rough-legged Hawks or other raptors. Prairie Falcons can feed on a variety of prey items, including small birds like Horned Larks, and even large birds like Greater Prairie Chickens.  Perhaps they too would be less sensitive to a decline in small rodent numbers.

I’ll continue to make my winter treks to the central part of the state, including visits to the Grasslands.  Given that the Grasslands themselves are still the location where I’ve seen most of my Gyrfalcons over the years (including the years prior to the data represented in these maps), that alone is clearly worth the time!  Hopefully over the next few years the Grasslands recover from whatever “ails” it in terms of supporting winter raptor numbers.

In the News – Week of January 1st, 2017

A new year, a new set of nature and science news pieces for the week…

Black-tailed Prairie Dog - Cynomys ludovicianus

A “varmint”, a Black-tailed Prairie Dog. I have on several occasions run into “sportsmen” in South Dakota who are lined up at the edge of a prairie dog town, picking them off one by one with rifles. Killing for the sake of killing…and doing twice the intended harm, given the lead that’s ingested by predators when they eat the carcasses.

Ammunition choice in shooting “varmints” — There have been many occasions on my birding trips to the central part of the state where I come across a sight that makes me sick to my stomach.  I’ll drive past a prairie dog town, and see multiple hunters lined up along a fence line, crouched and in a shooting position, picking off prairie dogs for “fun”.  That’s it…there’s no other purpose to it, other than killing for the sake of killing.  The prairie dogs that are killed aren’t used for anything, they’re simply left to rot.  Unfortunately, “sportsmen” who feel this sick need to kill for the sake of killing end up doing even more harm to animal communities.  By leaving the dead bodies, it provides an avenue for predators to consume the dead prairie dogs, and ingest the lead in the ammunition that was used to kill them.  Lead poisoning is a major cause of mortality for many raptor species, and is THE leading cause of California Condor mortality. A simple solution, as this article points out, would be to use ammunition that’s free of lead.  Even that common-sense approach though, one that still allows redneck hunters to kill prairie dogs and other “varmints”, is hated by hunting groups, as they claim that lead alternatives in ammunition don’t perform as well as lead shot and bullets.  Given what I have come across over the years on all my birding excursions, I’ve had a major downturn overall in my attitudes towards hunting…and particularly…hunters.  Stories like this don’t help my perceptions of hunters.

Cheetah numbers down to 7,100 worldwide — Over the last century, cheetah numbers worldwide have dropped from 100,000, to only 7,100 today.  Think about that…in a world with nearly 7 billion human beings, for an iconic, well-known predator such as the cheetah, there are only several thousand left. As with most species’ declines, habitat loss is behind the cheetah’s loss in population.  They range over huge territories, and there simply aren’t “huge territories” available in most parts of their range any more.  Throw in targeted persecution, such as the shooting of cheetahs by poachers and farmers, and this story estimates cheetahs could be extinct in the wild in 20-40 years.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle

Is this the face of Earth’s largest animal migrations? This is a Goldenrod Soldier Beetle from here in South Dakota, and I admit I have no idea if these “migrate” as with some beetles mentioned in this story. By sheer mass, however, this story points out that insect migration likely dwarfs any other migration on the planet.

Biggest migration of land animals on the planet — When you think of what creature may make up the largest migration of any land animal on the planet, in terms of sheer mass, what species do you think of? Or group of species?  When you say “migration”, most people probably think of birds first, and there certainly are mass migrations of birds that are so heavy that weather radar is being increasingly used as a tool to study those migrations. In terms of sheer mass, perhaps some people think of large caribou migrations.  However, as this study notes, one overlooked migration likely has all of these beat…insect migration.  This study notes that around 3.5 trillion arthropods migrate over southern Great Britain each year, accounting approximately 8 times the mass of bird migrations in the same area.  Some winged insects are well-known for their migratory talents, such as the Monarch Butterfly in North America.  But as this study notes, there all sorts of winged and even non-winged creatures that migrate through the atmosphere.

What the heck is a “species” anyway? — People are funny.  We have this intrinsic need to categorize things, put them in neat little bins that help our minds process realty.  Birders sometimes take that to an extreme, with “life lists” that are often incredibly detailed, with “big day” lists (how many species you see in one day), “big years”, “state lists that detail bird species seen within the confines of state boundaries, and more.  What gets bird listers in a tizzy?  Just what IS a species!  The American Ornithological Union and American Birding Association are always making tweaks to their “official” lists of species that have been found in North America.  Just watch birders heads collectively explode if the AOU or ABA does decide to split Red Crossbills into up to six distinct species…life lists will be substantially increased!!  Even with the science of DNA-based splits, it’s still not a precise science in determining what’s a unique species.  As with many things, we’re categorizing things into unique thematic categories, when the phenomena you’re measuring is actually a continuous variable with no definite boundaries.

One, maybe two new comets moving through — Speaking of birders and their lists, I have a friend at work who is a birder, and someone who has a life list.  He also has another, more unusual life list posted on his bulletin board in his office…his “comet life list”!  He’s about to get one, and maybe two new ones for his list.  Comet C/2106 U1 was recently discovered by the “NEOWISE” project, and is potentially visible with binoculars right now, through about January 14th. It would appear in the southeastern sky just before sunrise.  An object called 2016 WF9 was also discovered by NEOWISE, and it will come close to Earth’s orbit in late February.  It’s estimated to be 0.5 to 1.0 km in diameter.  Note the designation “object”, because it’s not clear whether this object is an asteroid or comet (related to the previous story, in that the categorization of what’s a “comet” and what’s an “asteroid” can be fuzzy).

Bird Dropping Moth - Caterpillar - Ponometia

A caterpillar of Ponometia…the “Bird Dropping Moth”. Should a new species of “shit moth” be discovered, I would suggest it be named after Trump, in the same manner that several creatures have been named after Obama in recent years.

Nine creatures named for President Obama — Over the last few years, no less than 9 different creatures have had scientific names that honor Barack Obama.  Multiple fish, a lizard, bird, etc…all have scientific names such as “Nystalus obamai” (A Western Striated Puffbird, in this case). Once Trump leaves office in 4 years (or in a perfect world, once he’s impeached after a year or so), I wonder what creatures will be named after him?  I have many, many classes of creatures where new discoveries should consider his name. There are the Onychophora phylum of worms known for excreting slime. There are the Annelidas…leaches…which would be a wonder creature to name after him.  There’s a moth called Ponometia, and it’s associated caterpillar, that would be good.  Their common name is the “Bug-dropping Moth”.  Naming him after shit would be a perfect way to “honor” him once he leaves office.

Where you’re most likely to get struck by lightning — We had a very unusual Christmas day in South Dakota.  I believe it was 4 years ago when we were absolutely smothered in snow, getting close to 2 feet on Christmas.  We’ve had Christmas’s where the temperature never got above zero.  And then there was this Christmas where we had…a thunderstorm?  In late December? In South Dakota?  We set a record for most rainfall on Christmas Day, getting over an inch in most areas, and the lightning and thunder was the first time that’s ever occurred here on Christmas (or late December for that matter).  I could go into global warming here, but no, the point is the story in the above link.  Standing outside on Christmas Day in South Dakota normally isn’t a high-risk endeavor, in terms of being struck by lightning.  So where are the most active areas on earth for lightning?  Thanks to a satellite called the Tropical Rainfall Monitoring Mission, we now know.  The winner…a Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela.  Over each one square kilometer in the area, one could expect over 230 lightning strikes per year.  The lake is surrounded by mountains, and nearly every night, cool airflow from the mountains hits the warm waters and air above the lake and produces thunderstorms.

Western Meadowlark - Sturna neglecta

A Western Meadowlark, taken with a temp of -10° near Presho, South Dakota, in the winter of 2003-2004. I have a billion Meadowlark photos, but specifically remember this one because it was so rare to SEE one in the heart of winter. Now? They’re everywhere.

Bird migration changing with climate — As I noted in a previous post, I went birding to the central part of the state last week, and was amazed at how many Western Meadowlarks were around.  15 years ago, it was rare to spot one in winter in that part of the state.  Now…I saw hundreds, all across the region.  Global warming? It’s hard to ignore signs like that.  As this story describes, many birds are changing their migration patterns as the climate changes. Many are arriving on the summer breeding grounds much earlier than they used to.  There are also some species where migrations have become shorter, or perhaps such as the case of the Western Meadowlarks, where they’ve simply stopped moving south for the winter.

China bans ivory trade and purchase — A rare bit of good conservation news.  This last week, China announced that they will ban the sale and trade of ivory by the end of 2017. China was by far the largest market for legally sold ivory, with ivory selling for over $1,000 a kilogram.  The Great Elephant Census recently published noted that elephant populations world-wide plummeted by 30% in just the last 7 years (!!!!!), and incredible population decline for such a short time period.  With the shutting of the largest legal ivory market, it’s hoped that poaching pressures will decline.  However, it’s hard to guess what will happen with ivory trade, and if much of this will simply move to the black market.

In The News – Week of December 11th

Science, nature, environment, and related news from the week of December 11th…

U.S. Department of Energy

Not a great time for DOE officials (or other government agencies dealing with climate change). First they’re asked to turn over the names of all employees who work on climate change issues, and then they are given a new department head in Rick Perry who once stated the department should be eliminated.

Department of Energy says Fuck You to Trump — In a rather chilling story from last week, it was revealed that the Trump transition team sent a questionnaire to Department of Energy officials, asking them to provide a list of all Federal employees or contractors who attended United Nation’s meetings on climate change, or had attended meetings or worked on studies that relate to the social and economic costs of climate change mitigation.  This week, the Department of Energy refused to comply, stating “Our career workforce, including our contractors and employees at our labs, comprise the backbone of DOE (Department of Energy) and the important work our department does to benefit the American people. We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department.” We have an Exxon Mobil exec slated for Secretary of State.  We have Rick Perry slated for head of DOE, an agency he once vowed to eradicate.  We have a proposed head of EPA that is an avowed climate change denier.  We have a proposed head of Department of Interior that also is a climate change denier.  And with this DOE request, we have evidence that the Trump administration will actively discriminate against climate science in the Federal government, and those who do climate change work.  There’s plenty of evidence of the new administration’s inability to live in the same facts-based world as the rest of us, but the position being firmed up on climate change is especially frightening.

Rex Tillerson, Exxon CEO, proposed for Secretary of State — And in an obviously related story, Trump formally announced his intention to nominate Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, as Secretary of State.  An oil executive, with no government experience, picked to play the key role in international relations.  What could go wrong? This New York Times piece notes that Exxon has an immense stake in our diplomatic relationship with Russia, with literally billions of dollars at stake should economic sanctions against Russia be lifted or revised.  As noted from the previous story, from an environmental standpoint, the entire suite of proposed administration officials is a complete disaster for the environmental, including stated desires to move away from clean energy towards the old days of oil, gas, and coal.  Nothing exemplifies the forthcoming disaster more than the Tillerson pick.

Dinosaur Tail in Amber

A portion of a feathered dinosaur tail, found perfectly preserved in amber. Bits of feathers have been found in amber before, but what makes this find extraordinary is the presence of 8 complete vertebrate and perfectly preserved connection structures, enabling scientists to state beyond any doubt that the tail comes from a sparrow-sized dinosaur.

Human beings hard-wired to believe blowhards — Recent research has shown that people base their belief system on personal experience, but also place a heavy emphasis on the beliefs of “confident” people that they come into contact with.  As the story notes, people’s beliefs can be swayed by those displaying confidence in their own beliefs and opinions, even in the face of contradictory evidence.  In a world where “fake news” arguably became the biggest meme of 2016, clearly this study is on the mark.  Nowadays, it’s not what you say or whether it’s true, it’s how you say it.

Feathered dinosaur tail found preserved in amber — OK, enough of the depressing news from the week.  Scientists in China have made an incredible find, with a beautifully feathered tail from a pint-sized dinosaur found perfectly preserved in amber.  The tail section is small, less than 2 inches long, but contains 8 perfectly preserved vertebrate.  Based on the vertebrate and other structures in the tail, scientists can definitively attribute the tail section as a portion of a small dinosaur the size of a sparrow. The find has also been a boon for trying to understand the evolution of feathers themselves, as there are characteristics of the feathers that are very different from those in modern birds.

“Winds of sapphires and rubies” found on exoplanet — The story itself is very interesting.  For the first time, scientists have been able to find evidence of active weather systems on a planet outside of our solar system.  Gas giant “HAT-P-7b” (a catch name) was found to have extremely strong wind patterns, an effect that was observable due to shifting patterns of monitored light from the planet. Interesting story, but the headline that was chosen reinforces a major pet peeve of mine…trying to sensationalize science. No, the winds of the planet are filled with sapphires and rubies, as the title suggest.  The atmosphere is likely made of corundum, a mineral that is found in sapphires and rubies.  I understand the desire to capture the attention of a reader, particularly given that people generally have the attention span of your typical 2-year old.  But it’s enough that the mainstream media constantly sensationalizes stories (or focuses on sensationalist material).  We don’t need that kind of mindset in the sciences.

Icefields Parkway - Alberta, Canada

Athabaska Glacier and the Columbia Icefields, in Alberta, Canada. We were there this summer, and in the 15 years from our last visit, the glacier has obviously receded quite a bit. Scientists this week “confirmed” such events are due to climate change. Duh…

Climate changes causes melting glaciers — Scientists looked at 37 glaciers and for all but 1 of them, stated that there’s at least a 90% chance that their decline was due to climate change.  Well, duh.  I need to write this kind of paper, something that restates the obvious but is sure to gather a lot of acclaim and attention.

Reindeer declining due to climate change, human activity — An extremely well-studied group of Reindeer in Russia have suffered dramatic declines of 40% in the last 15 years.Part of the problem is industrial activity within their range, which has led to changes in the migration patterns, but another issue is undoubtedly climate change.  Warming temperatures can drastically alter the environment, but can also have other unforeseen impacts. As shown in another study on caribou in North America, warming temperatures have changed the phenology (seasonality) of Arctic regions.  Melting occurs much earlier in the spring, and open water exists for much longer periods of time compared to several decades ago.  Mosquito populations have boomed as a result, to such an extent that they are having a very detrimental impact on reindeer and caribou populations. Thank goodness though we have a new incoming administration that will categorically state that climate change isn’t real and isn’t affecting anything.  That should solve the problem.

Loligo_vulgaris

“Loligo vulgaris”, a European squid that is become much more common in waters of the North Sea. The “vulgaris” part sounds about right to me, because although I enjoy calamari, the idea of replacing tasty cod in fish-and-chips with this just seems a bit “vulgar” to me.

Do you want squid with those chips? — Alright, THIS is too much. Melting glaciers?  Whatever.  Reindeer and caribou disappearing?  Meh.  But when climate change starts to impact one of my favorite meals, fish-and-chips, THEN something has to be done!!  In the 1980s, squid were caught in 20% of surveys in the North Sea around Great Britain.  Now, squid are caught in 60% of surveys and numbers continue to increase.  As waters warm, not only are squid being found more often, but warmer water fish such as anchovies and sardines, are increasing.  The center of productivity of a fish-and-chips stable fish…cod…has continued to move north.  As the climate warms and squid become more common, you might have to replace that tasty breaded cod with some squid in your next “fish”-and-chips order.

Distracted while talking — What the hell, I’ll bring up another pet peeve of mine…cell phones and cars. I do wonder just how many accidents are directly related to distracted drivers, given how often you come across drivers weaving all over the road, people driving 15 mph below the speed limit and not even realizing it because they’re on the phone, people who sit there when the light turns green, etc.  As this new study points out, it’s not the fact that you’re using your hands that makes distracted driving such as this dangerous. Just conversing with hands-free equipment greatly reduces a driver’s perception and awareness of their surroundings.

AC/DC Logo

I can multitask! Air guitar while listening to Back in Black is perfectly compatible with simultaneously playing a board game.

Looking to put men in their place this Christmas?  Try some AC/DC!!! — We had family up for Thanksgiving, and one of the most enjoyable aspects was playing UNO and other games for much of the day.  Playing board or card games is something that many do over the holidays, and this study found a way for women to potentially dominate their male counterparts this Christmas.  Men were much more likely to make mistakes in playing board games while listening to music than were females.  The study noted that classical music had little effect on men, but playing something like AC/DC significantly decreased their performance. Interesting study, but I must take offense at the phrase of men being “forced to listen to AC/DC”. No one “forces” you to listen to AC/DC!  If I want play Sorry or Life or Clue or UNO this Christmas, well damn it, I also reserve the right to jam out to “Hells Bells” or “Back In Black” or “Thunderstruck” while I play!  Hmmm…maybe they’re onto something with this story…it is hard to play board games and do justice with my air guitar at the same time…

In the News – October 9 – 15

A collection of bird, science, photography, and news links from the past week. Click on the links for the actual stories.

Eastern Screech Owl - Megascops asio

I think I’ve actually been pretty lucky, in that I’ve run across Eastern Screech Owls relatively often over the years, and have many good photos. What I can NOT do is attract one to my yard.

  • Attract Screech Owls to Your Yard!! — HAH!  I’ll believe it when I see it!  This piece from Birdwatching Magazine touts how easy it is to attract Screech Owls to your yard, by building and putting up a nest box.  Three years ago, I bought a box built specifically for Screech Owls.  Over three summers, many a young bird has fledged from that box!  Of course all of them have been House Sparrows, the one thing I do NOT need more of.  Hopefully some day an actual Eastern Screech Owl finds it, evicts the House Sparrows within, and justifies my purchase.
  • Coal Declines in the U.S. — One of the things that bugs me great is lying.  In the world of politics, it’s an art form.  This week, fact got in the way of rhetoric, with a study coming out that refutes those who try to pin the decline of coal, and mining jobs in the U.S., to government policy.  Coal started to decline in 2008, right when Obama was elected.  It’s his fault!! Well…no.  As this study notes, it’s basic economics and the rise of cheap natural gas.  People love to complain about cheap energy prices, but now that we have it?  They’ll find something else to complain about…
  • Get ready to add new species to your life list! — There’s been speculation for a while now that Crossbill species in North America may be split into as many as 6 or more new, distinct species.  This study provides more support for that move, using genomics to look at the rapid evolution of Crossbills that feed on pine seeds. It’s always handy when you can add a new species to your life list, without ever leaving your living room.
  • Hotter than Hell — Which, evidently must be around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, given 1) where people believe hell is likely located (think ‘down’), and 2) the estimated temperature at the center of the earth.
  • Caspian Terns Breeding near Arctic Circle — If you’re one of those that doesn’t believe in climate change, you might as well stop reading my blog altogether. As yet more evidence that strange things are afoot, scientists confirmed breeding of Caspian Terns north of the Arctic Circle…1,000 MILES further north than they’ve been found before. If it were just thing one piece of evidence…sure…could be a fluke.  Where there’s smoke, there’s fire though, and it’s getting damned hard to breath with so much “smoke” around.
  • Fires of Hell

    Ever wonder how toasty it will be when your tortured, evil soul rots for an eternity in hell? Evidently it will be around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Before you die, perhaps you should change into shorts…

    Getting away from it all (Noise, that is) — My son and I usually go fishing in the Black Hills of South Dakota once a year.  You wouldn’t want to be in the area in late summer, when the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is going on, and there are certainly tourist hotspots scattered throughout the area.  But what’s always nice about the Black Hills is that if you want solitude, you can find it. Think of the soundtrack of your daily life.  Think how rare it is to NOT have some background noise, be it street noise, a barking dog, etc.  That what struck me at one point this summer while fishing in the hills…how we were hearing…NOTHING. And it was fabulous.  As this story notes, it’s been darn hard to find a noise-free environment going back at least 50 years.

  • Hurricane Matthew Punches Above its Weight — Hurricane Matthew’s story was fascinating, because of the unusual path, its immense power as it tore through the Caribbean, and because it became an afterthought for many Americans once it avoided a direct hit on Florida. Of course, certain political stories overshadowed Matthew when it raged across the Carolinas, but more than that, it was the feeling of relief, the feeling that the U.S. had dodged a bullet.  Instead of Category 4 hurricane striking Florida, it stayed offshore of Florida and was downgraded to a Category 1 by the time it struck the Carolinas. As this story notes, perhaps we need a new rating system for Hurricanes.  Sandy too wasn’t the most powerful hurricane, but it certainly did some damage, and so did Matthew, with 18 inches of rain in parts of North Carolina.
  • Hummingbirds should listen to their parents!! — It’s rough out there for a lil’ wild critter!  Not only do they have to deal with other critters that may want to eat them, but sometimes they just don’t KNOW what they’re supposed to do to survive. That’s one takeaway from this story, that notes different individual hummingbirds use different feeding and migration strategies.  Hummingbirds that have made the migration before?  They are more strategic, Adding up to 40% onto their body weight right before making a long migratory flight.  First-time migrants? They are less strategic, tending to NOT pack on the pounds, but instead migrate south in short bursts and feeding in between.  The lesson overall…LISTEN TO YOUR PARENTS.  They know best.
  • Climate Change Doubles Western U.S. Fires — According to this study, fires overall have likely doubled in the western U.S. since 1984, due to climate change.  Overall fire increase has been even more than that, but due to other issues like fuel build up, beetle kill, ignition sources, and other risk factors.  I believe that fire risk overall has gone up.  As a scientist though, I do find it extremely, extremely difficult to attribute a certain percentage increase in fire due to just one factor, however.  There’s so many factors that drive fire risk, with complicated feedbacks among them, that I’d have a hard time stating “twice” as many fires are due just to climate change.  Good article though for highlighting the issue.
  • Dumbledore - Harry Potter

    Coming back to a movie theater near you…Dumbledore!! I’d certainly welcome it, but alas, for Michael Gambon, the actor who played Dumbledore in the last 5 Harry Potter movies, this will undoubtedly be Dumbledore when he was much younger.

    Captain Kirk was Brain Damaged — OK, maybe that’s not what this story is saying. But it IS saying that there’s a high risk of cognitive issues for astronauts spending time in space, due to cosmic rays and radiation.  Interesting study, given that this week, Obama said a government and private partnership would help us reach Mars by the 2030s.  That’s certainly a very ambitious goal, one that may be doable, but there are a lot of technical challenges to be solved.

  • Dumbledore Returning!! — Not exactly science.  Or birds.  Or really news for that matter.  But with JK Rowling’s “Fantastical Beasts” coming out as a movie in a month, it was announced that she’s working on at least 4 more scripts, for at least 5 movies in total.  There’s also talk of Dumbledore coming back to play some role in these movies!  My cynical side can’t help but scream out “MONEY GRAB!!!” with the announcement that they’re going to make 5 movies.  But my Harry Potter fandom side is loving it.

 

 

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