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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.

Difficulty finding grassland birds in (former) grasslands

Blue Grosbeak - Male -  Passerina caerulea

Male Blue Grosbeak. These guys are scattered around in southern South Dakota, but it’s always a bit of a surprise when you run across one. Yesterday west of Lake Thompson I saw three in one small area.

Eastern South Dakota was once >95% grassland and scattered wetlands.  Trees were limited to riparian areas or pockets where the landscape was protected from the tree-killing effects of fire, and of course, there used to be no agriculture or urban land use.  Now of course the story is completely reversed, as pockets of unbroken grassland are rare in many parts of the state, as cropland has become the dominant land use.  In an area where grassland used to be king, it can now be quite difficult to find some of the traditional grassland bird species.

For some species, such as Sharp-tailed Grouse, they’re forever gone from most of eastern South Dakota. For other bird species, they’re found scattered in pockets of remaining suitable habitat.  Right around Sioux Falls, there simply isn’t a lot of grassland.  The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) does provide farmer payments in multi-year contracts in return for keeping the land in a grassland cover, but in recent years, CRP has sharply declined in the Dakotas, with the demand for corn and soy driving extensive expansion of cropland at the expense of what pockets of grassland remain.  For birds like Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Upland Sandpipers, you’ll occasionally find one in a small remaining pocket of grassland, but there’s very little in the way of a “go-to” for place for birds, with extensive grassland, right around Sioux Falls.

Bobolink - Male - Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Male Bobolink. Kind of a scruffy looking dude, but nice to get so close to one as they’re normally shy for me. These guys were numerous where I went birding yesterday.

In South Dakota, the three counties where I bird the most are Minnehaha (where I live), Lincoln (just a few miles south), and…Kingsbury County.  Kingsbury County isn’t even adjacent to Minnehaha or Lincoln county…in fact it’s well over an hour drive to even get to the edge of Kingsbury County.  The attraction of Kingsbury County for me is two-fold. Lake Thompson is the largest natural lake in South Dakota,and the region has extensive open water, shallow water habitats, mudflats, and wetlands.  The other attraction for me is the west side of Lake Thompson.  There are some very large cattle operations in the area, and instead of cropland, much of the land is kept as grassland and pasture.  There are also large areas of alfalfa fields.  Unlike many pastures around here that are overgrazed to the point of erosion becoming a problem, the land in this area seems pretty well managed, with a mix of taller grasslands and (seemingly) responsibly grazed grasslands.

The result is one of the best areas I know in the general vicinity for finding grassland birds.  I drove the area yesterday on a GORGEOUS, sunny, cool day, and was just reveling in the sounds and sights.  There’s one particular road that’s now closed due to fluctuating water levels on Lake Thompson itself. The road gets no traffic and isn’t maintained much anymore, but it’s no problem for my little pickup.  No people, some very nice grassland habitat, and some wonderful birds.  This is one of the few places around here where I can reliably find Upland Sandpipers.  If you go to the central part of the state, Upland Sandpipers are seemingly on every other fence post in the big grassland areas.  You just don’t see them all that often in much of eastern South Dakota, so it’s always a treat to find them here.

Orchard Oriole - Icterus spurius

Orchard Oriole male. Never have I seen such a concentration of Orchard Orioles as I do in this area west of Lake Thompson. Such beautiful little birds, an oriole many folks may not even know are around here.

Singing Bobolinks are another big attraction for me for this area.  I sometimes see (and hear) Bobolinks right around Sioux Falls, but it’s nearly always a single bird, trying to utilize a small remaining piece of pasture or an alfalfa field.  On the west side of Lake Thompson you hear them singing everywhere…one of my favorite sounds in the world, with their long, tinkly songs.  Both Eastern and Western Kingbirds are numerous, seemingly always fighting for fenceline foraging and perching rights.  It’s a place where I see Orchard Orioles in numbers I’ve never seen elsewhere.  The bug-like calls of Grasshopper Sparrows sound out from their hidden perches, as do the buzzy songs of Clay-colored Sparrows.  It’s the same kind of experience you sometimes find in areas of extensive grasslands in the central part of the state, such as on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, but it’s so much closer to home.

A wonderful day! I just hope the land in that area continues to be managed as it is right now, and that it too doesn’t succumb to the ever expanding cropland in the area.

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