Articles

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.

Wild Turkeys Today – Rough conditions for ground feeders

I had a blast birding west of Sioux Falls today. The conditions, however, were borderline dangerous in spots. The storm may be gone, but I’ve never seen so many downed powerlines, and some roads are simply impassable with the snow, ice, and mess as things start to melt. But with the harsh conditions, birds were definitely bunched up.  With plenty of open water, water birds were doing ok.  However, with ice as thick as I’ve ever seen it, other birds were struggling. I saw more Ring-necked Pheasants and Wild Turkeys out in the open than I ever have, all struggling to access food below the ice.

But…boys will be boys!  NOTHING is going to stop a Wild Turkey tom from strutting his stuff, and I had a great time shooting a small group of 3 toms that were displaying and carrying on for a nearby group of 4 female Wild Turkeys. There’s little doubt Turkey populations have exploded in the last 20 years (about the time I started birding), as I see them so much more often than I used to. They’ve also expanded the types of habitats they utilize. It used to be that I’d only run across Wild Turkeys along major riparian areas, or in the wooded state parks in the eastern part of the state. Now, I can be driving through cropland areas, and I’ll see small bands of Wild Turkeys hanging around small shelterbelts and farmsteads.

An underappreciated bird to me! So unique, and SO much fun to watch when they’re gobbling and carrying on. Here are some photos from this morning.

Wild Turkey - Meleagris gallopavo

Wild Turkey - Meleagris gallopavo

Wild Turkey - Meleagris gallopavo

Wild Turkey - Meleagris gallopavo

Wild Turkey - Meleagris gallopavo

Eagle Convention at Splitrock Creek

After 17 or so years of using one lens for bird photography (a Canon 400mm 5.6L), I ordered a new lens that arrived Monday…the Canon 100-400mm 4.5/5.6L IS II that I’ve mentioned previously.  The timing was fortuitous, as late this week we’ve had something rather unprecedented happen for the area around our little town. We’ve had severe flooding, flooding which is actually supposed to get worse early next week as all the snow pack north of us melts. Splitrock Creek runs through our little town of Brandon, and in the wake of the flooding it has left massive ice chunks all along banks and roads near the river. But it also left scads of dead Asian Carp and other fish.

Seemingly overnight, the area around our town has been inundated with Bald Eagles. We actually have an active Bald Eagle nest less than a mile from our house, a nest that’s been used continuously for about the last 6-7 years.  It’s not rare to see one or sometimes even two Bald Eagles while out and about near our town. Today however, I was on a bridge over Splitrock Creek, and from that one spot I counted 29 Bald Eagles. In…one…spot.  There have been eagles in varying concentrations all along a 10-mile stretch of Splitrock Creek that I’ve checked out this week.

When I started birding 20 years ago, I still remember seeing my first Bald Eagle along the Big Sioux River near Canton. I remember the excitement of seeing such a majestic bird. It’s amazing how rapidly their numbers have increased in the last few decades, as I can now be in any part of South Dakota, in any season, and it’s not a surprise to see one or more Bald Eagles. Even when I visit the grasslands in the central part of the state, an area that is far from any significant river or lake, I find Bald Eagles, sometimes in big numbers. A true success story for American conservation!  But even on a night like tonight where eagles are seemingly everywhere, it’s still a thrill to see and photograph these birds.  Some photos from today:

Young Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Young (3rd year?) Bald Eagle, flying over Splitrock Creek near Corson, South Dakota. However, it’s not just young birds that are in our area right now. In fact, a majority of the Bald Eagles I’ve seen in the last few days have been fully mature birds.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A mature Bald Eagle flying over the trees near Brandon. There were plenty of mature Bald Eagles around, but they were seemingly shyer than the young birds.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Another young Bald Eagle sitting on a tree stump northeast of Corson. While most birds are along Splitrock Creek, there are so many birds around that they seem to have spilled out onto the surrounding farmland as well.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A mature Bald Eagle hanging out on a chunk of ice left behind by the flooding at Splitrock Creek north of Brandon. This is perhaps the most common “perch” for these guys right now, as most of them that I’ve seen have been among the ice flows, where the dead fish are concentrated.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A long-distance shot, but it gives you an idea of the concentration of the eagles. There are 10 in this one shot, sitting on stranded ice blocks on a sandbar in the receding Splitrock Creek. This is the location where I saw 29 birds at once today.

Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

An even longer-distance shot, showing a common sight in the trees near Splitrock Creek this week. There are 8 birds in this one tree, but it’s this group of trees where a local farmer told me there were 75 roosting overnight earlier this week.

Silver lining to the flooding – Icy Art

With a snowier winter than I ever remember in my 26 years in South Dakota, and with a couple of inches of rain over the last week, we’ve also had flooding far worse than I ever remember. The number of roads that are closed boggles the mind, while parts of Sioux Falls and the surrounding area where I have NEVER seen flooding are now flooded with several feet of water. Yesterday I went out to take photos of the flooding, and while it was incredible to see, I ended up on a gravel road east of my home town of Brandon, pointing the camera down at the ground. What was it that attracted my attention away from the flooding and flood damage?

As the water has started to retreat, there’s a massive amount of ice that’s being left behind, from massive chunks big enough to block traffic on roads, to very fine ice crystals that formed as temperatures cooled after the main flood event. What caught my attention on this road was an icy shelf of ice and ice crystals, suspended over the road. As the water started to retreat, we had a cold night, and the top of the water started to freeze. With the water movement and retreat and the freezing, some of the patterns left on this suspended ice shelf were incredibly beautiful.

I’m glad I arrived as I did, because as it got warmer, this icy shelf started to collapse. Indeed, as I walk through it, one step would crack through the shelf and lead to the collapse of surrounding areas as well. But with some careful shooting, I was able to capture the photos below. It definitely wasn’t what I was planning on shooting when I went out, but I really had a blast shooting these one-of-a-kind icy patterns.

Ice Pattern - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 2 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 3 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 4 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 5 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 6 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 7 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 8 - Minnehaha County, South DakotaIce Pattern - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 9 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 10 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 11 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Ice Pattern 12 - Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Spring busting out in birds

It’s been a damned cold spring. There’s no denying that.  As I speak, it’s snowing to beat the band…on April 8th…and we’re supposed to end up with about 5 more inches.  It’s been a winter of MANY 3-6 inch snows, and winter doesn’t seem to want to give up its grip just yet. But the birds are putting their two cents in and saying they will NOT be deterred.

I went out west of Sioux Falls last night, on a kind of a day that’s been rare around here lately…sunny, and no wind (but still pretty cold).  Even now, most of the big lakes are still frozen over, as are many of the small ones. Water is starting to open up, and the waterfowl are really starting to stack up as they await warmer conditions (and more open water up north) to allow their continued migration.  There are still geese around by thousands.  I had a blast at one location last night, watching as flocks of Snow, Greater White-fronted, Canada, and some Ross’s Geese would intermittently land or take off from a group of geese resting by a large slough. Ducks were on pretty much every available patch of open water, with some spots having incredible concentrations of Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks, as well as pretty much every other duck species you could ever expect to find here.

A highlight came late in the evening when I came across a Great Horned Owl perched in the relative open (for a Great Horned Owl). He was quite unconcerned by the guy with the camera, giving me some of the best looks and photos I’ve had of the species.  As the snow and wind lash us again today, it was also a nice reminder that spring IS here and better weather is ahead!

Great Horned Owl - Bubo virginianus

A quite tame Great Horned Owl, casually giving me a glance as he prepares in the late evening for a night of hunting.

Greater White-fronted Goose - Anser albifrons

The most numerous goose species were Greater White-fronted, of which I came across several thousand during the course of the evening.

Common Merganser - Mergus merganser

A female Common Merganser, sitting at one of the open spots in the ice and occasionally making a dive in search of food. Always loved the “haircut” on the females.

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

One sure sign of spring here is when you seemingly see Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels on every every telephone pole. Plenty of both last night, including this dude giving me a staredown.

Canada Goose - Branta canadensis

Another sure sign of spring…when the ever present Canada Geese are vastly outnumbered by other geese species.

Snow Goose - Chen caerulescens

Still plenty of Snow Geese around. Starting to get a little late to have them stacked up in such huge numbers, but the weather hasn’t been too cooperative.

 

Meteors in your Gutter, Pollinating Crops with Drones, and more science news – Week of March 12, 2017

This week, let’s try something novel…science news, sans politics.  It seems that politicians in this country have decided we can live without science, so for one week, I’ll try a “news” post where science avoids politics.

Long-horned Bee - Melissodes

A Long-horned Bee, doing what bees do best…collecting nectar and in the process, distributing pollen. If one Japanese researcher has his way, we could soon be using drones to augment nature’s pollinators. A personal comment…let’s hope this never comes to pass.

Who Needs Honeybees when we have Drones? — A first…TWO drone-related stories in one week! While the story above about using drones to acoustically sample birds may seem practical, I admit I don’t see much of a future for this application!  Eijiro Miyako, a chemist in Tsukuba, Japan, was trying to make an electricity-conducting gel in 2007, an endeavor that wasn’t working. His concoction was stored, until 8 years later when he dropped the jar while cleaning out a drawer. Miyako certainly thinks differently than I do, because upon cleaning up the sticky substance, he wondered, “could this be used to pollinate plants”? The decline of honeybees and other pollinators is well-noted, something of potentially devastating consequences to not only natural ecosystems, but to our very survival, given the need to pollinate crops.  Miyako started working with methodologies to pollinate crops, starting out by coating ants with his sticky gel to see if their movements would attract and distribute pollen. It kind of worked, but didn’t seem practical, so he eventually started working with drones.  The drones have a fuzzy material that collects pollen and can redistribute it when the drone brushes up against another plant.  His eventually plan? Build a fleet of 100 or so drones, use GPS and artificial intelligence, and set them loose in a field to pollinate the crops. Well…I guess we all need dreamers, and given how science works, who knows what practical application may come of Miyako’s work?  But hey, how about instead of developing drone pollinators, we instead focus on preserving the natural pollinators we have now?

Norwegian Gutters Clogged with Meteors!! — Jon Larsen, a Norwegian jazz musician, has an interesting hobby.  He’s devoted much of his free time in recent years to looking through material in gutters, downspouts, and drains, searching for extraterrestrial visitors.  Tons of material from outer space enters Earth’s atmosphere every day, much of it microscopic. Larsen has searched through debris in urban settings in search of these microscopic visitors.  His passion has been published in the journal Geology, with a paper that discusses the identification of over 500 “large micrometeorites” from rooftops and other urban settings. Larsen has learned the typical characteristics of micrometeorites, stating “Once I knew what to look for, I found them everywhere”.  Next time you’re up on the roof, cleaning leaves out of those gutters, do it with a smile and a sense of wonder, because it’s extremely likely that you’re cleaning up cosmic debris along with those leaves.

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index - Great Britain

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) for Great Britain, showing relative “greenness” of vegetation at the time. Researchers are studying linkages between NDVI, tree ring width, and volcanic activity to see if vegetation is responding to pre-eruption conditions. Potentially, such changes could be used to help predict an eruption.

Predicting Volcano Eruptions from…the greenness of trees? — I believe this is a poorly written article, but the premise behind it is VERY cool for a scientist like myself who works with satellite imagery.  The title of the story is very poor and somewhat misleading, stating “Can tree rings predict volcanic eruptions”? The story focuses on the work of scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research. In 1973, scientists noted an anomaly on satellite images along Mount Etna’s flank, a streak of trees that were greener than normal.  With satellite imagery, we can measure a “Normalized Vegetation Difference Index”, a measure of live green vegetation.  NDVI measurements in 1973 satellite observations were high along a streak on the volcanos flank, and less than a year later, a flank eruption occurred right along that very streak.  These scientists hypothesized that measuring tree rings from 1973 would also show an anomaly, and thus the title of this story that tree rings could “predict volcanic eruptions”.  However, the actual results showed no difference in tree ring width during that time frame. Given the relationship between tree ring width and how “good” a year a tree has had, I can see why continued research is warranted to try to find relationships between increased NDVI greenness, and tree ring width, and see if other areas have experienced changes prior to a volcanic eruption.  As it is, there’s not much in this initial research that proves a strong linkage.

Spying on Birds with Drones — On-site surveys of birds is a time-intensive and potentially expensive endeavor if trying to systematically survey birds across broad regions. Researchers at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania investigated the use of drones for conducting acoustical surveys of birds. They tried flying a drone and extracting acoustical information from a recorder on the drone, and found that the method was able to sample bird presence for about as large a region as a human observer performing a survey.  They have some kinks to work out, primarily related to the noise of the drone masking some of the low-frequency bird noises (think cooing of a Mourning Dove), but they believe technological innovation will soon make drones quieter and more efficient at sampling bird acoustics. I admit I do kind of roll my eyes when I hear people talking about trying to use drones for photography, and for science applications, because in many cases it seems like a stunt more than an actual practical application.  Gettysburg College may be proving me wrong, as this actually does sound like an interesting use of drone technology.

American Chestnut - Wild Survivor

One of the VERY few wild, mature American Chestnut trees left in the wild. Trees such as this may be resistant to blight, and are being used in efforts to develop a blight-resistant stock for eventual transplantation in the wild. Genetic modification is also being done to introduce Chestnut Blight resistant genes in tree stocks.

American Chestnut, Returning to a Forest Near You? — I often wonder what it would be like to travel back in time, to visit locations before they were touched by man. In the United States, the entire eastern half of the country was once dominated by forest land. While forest cutting started in earnest in the 1800s and even earlier in some locations, remaining deciduous forests by 1900 were still populated by 3 to 4 billion American Chestnut trees. It is estimated that one-quarter of trees in the Appalachians were American Chestnuts.  The American Chestnut was a prolific nut producer, with mast from the trees supporting deer, turkeys, bears, and other wildlife, including the now extinct Passenger Pigeon.  In 1904 a fungal blight was discovered, a disease that eventually wiped out nearly every wild American Chestnut. Asiatic Chestnut trees were imported into the country, but with them came an Asian bark fungus that was lethal to American Chestnuts. The disease spread rapidly, killing every American Chestnut tree in its path.  It is now estimated that fewer than 100 trees of any size are left in their former range. Root systems of surviving trees still send up shoots, but the blight infects the trees as they mature, resulting in practically no American Chestnut stems over 10-years old in the wild.  This story is focused on efforts to genetically modify the American Chestnut to include resistance to the blight. 30 years of research has resulted in the introduction of a gene from wheat that makes the trees able to withstand the blight. They hope to gain approval to publicly distribute the trees within 5 years.However, it will still be a long process to repopulate Eastern forests with American Chestnut. The researchers want to cross-pollinate the blight resistant trees with native wild tree stock. Half of the offspring will be blight resistant, and genetic diversity will be much improved over the current research tree stock.  We’re at the start of a VERY long process to restore the tree to the wild, but hopefully our great-great grandchildren will be able to enjoy the same Eastern forest trees that existed prior to 1900.

10 years until “Snowball Earth” — I admit my scientist side geeks out when I read a story like this, as it’s just so cool to think of the physical changes that have, can, and will again happen to our Earth.  Of course the absolutely catastrophic consequences for mankind put a bit of a damper on that excitement!  Harvard scientists have pinpointed the circumstances that led to “Snowball Earth”, a period about 717 million years ago where the Earth was covered in ice from pole-to-pole.  Models suggest that the climate destabilization that plunged the Earth into polar hell could have happened in a blink of an eye in geologic time. Massive volcanic eruptions back then could have ejected enough aerosols into the atmosphere in just a 10-year period to initiate the rapid freeze.  Don’t worry, it’s not a single volcanic eruption that’s capable of such a long-term change, but instead the kind of massive eruptions that mankind hasn’t experienced in our history. 717 million years ago, it was a string of volcanic eruptions across what’s now Canada and Greenland that set off the freeze.  As I said, from a scientific standpoint, fascinating to think what could happen, but it also points out the fragile balance of our climate system.  “Snowball Earth” happened because of runaway cooling and feedbacks that amplified and accelerated the cooling, primarily with increased ice increasing reflectance of solar radiation in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.  Right now we’re playing a game of “chicken” with our climate system, doing the exact opposite, and removing that ice in a self-reinforcing feedback loop that’s amplifying warming.

Snowy Bison

The Bison, invasive species that forever changed North America! Well, if we were around about 150,000 years ago, they would have been considered an invasive species, one that transformed grassland ecosystems of North America.

Bison Contributing to Mammoth Decline?  — OK, my chosen title here doesn’t reflect the purpose of this research, but after reading the story it did make me curious…did Bison contribute to the decline and eventual extinction of the Mammoth? The story used DNA analysis to establish that the ancestors of North American Bison first arrived between 130,000 and 190,000 years ago.  As the story notes, in this case, Bison were the invasive species, rapidly colonizing North America and forever changing the grassland ecosystems of the continent.  It does make me wonder…if not for the establishment of the Bison as a primary grazer in North America, would the Mammoth and other North American megafauna have been better positioned to withstand climate change and the establishment of man? Interesting story, and a story that shows that not all “invasive species” are those that are introduced by mankind.

Managing Diabetes with your Sweat — Especially as a family that deals with the consequences of Juvenile Diabetes, we’re quite familiar with the frequent finger prick to check glucose levels in blood. Researchers in South Korea have developed a prototype glucose sensing and insulin delivery device that looks like an arm cuff.  Instead of measuring blood glucose, it measures glucose in sweat. It’s not just these guys, there are also other researchers who are looking at measuring glucose levels in tears. There certainly have been many technological advances and devices for testing and treating diabetics, innovations that are certainly welcome! I just wish there were some real advances on actually treating the disease, and not just the symptoms.
 

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.

 

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.

%d bloggers like this: