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

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

Grizzly Bear - Ursus arctos

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

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

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

Tornado - 1884

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

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

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

February 2016 Temperature Anomalies

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

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

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

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

Eating and Sitting

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

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

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


6 years, 12 Whooping Cranes Shot by Rednecks

Whooping Crane - Grus americana

A young Whooping Crane in flight. As a young bird, it’s got a rusty wash on its head and spots on the wings, but even so…this is one BIG bird, and there’s really nothing like it. There’s certainly no bird that looks like this that can be legally shot in the U.S. Yet thanks to Homo redneckii, yet another Whooping Crane has fallen to a gunshot, the 12th in just 6 years. Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I sometimes wonder if the human race is actually comprised of two species. On the one hand, you have Homo sapiens.  I see the wonderful folks around me….family, friends, and co-workers who 1) care about their fellow human beings, 2) care about the world around them, and 3) care about their children’s future.  On the other hand, you have another species, let’s call them “Homo redneckii“.  Homo redneckii have been QUITE active lately (particularly around early November of last year). Homo redneckii have a strong paranoid streak.  Instead of caring for their fellow human beings and participating in societal functions that ensure overall well-being of the species, Homo redneckii are all about…themselves.  Homo redneckii don’t believe in the greater good.  They don’t believe in social structures such as “government’, “law”, or even basic morality.  Homo redneckii don’t give a damn about their fellow man, and rebel against even something as simple as paying taxes to support social programs. Homo redneckii are insecure and jealous, and sneer at the “elite” educated Homo sapiens who have clearly done better at life than themselves.  Instead of working to better themselves, Homo redneckii will instead take the easy route and viciously try to bring others down to their level.  In summary, Homo redneckii believe they can do whatever they want, that the world around them exists simply for their own personal exploitation, and the well-being of future generations means NOTHING if it might require even the tiniest of sacrifices.

As a scientist, as somebody who cares about the environment, and as someone who cares about my son’s future, the activities of Homo redneckii are often hard to swallow. It even often intersects my “safe haven” of birds and birding, the place I usually go to escape the madness of the world around me.  Today was one of those days.  A bit of backstory…

On three occasions I’ve been to the Platte River in Nebraska in March for the amazing Sandhill Crane migration.  Hundreds of thousands of Cranes foraging in corn fields, flying overhead, roosting on sandbars by the evening…it’s an amazing sight, and that doesn’t even account for the many thousands of Snow Geese and other waterfowl that are also typically around at that time.  In all the times I’ve seen Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska and up here in South Dakota, it’s always in the back of your mind that perhaps, just once if you’re lucky, you’ll see a flash of white, and a bird that’s considerably bigger than all of the others.  It’s always in the back of your mind that perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to spot a migrating Whooping Crane.

Alas, I have yet to see a Whooping Crane, other than a captive bird.  There have been a few false alarms, such as the time a couple of years ago when I saw a small flock of Sandhill Cranes flying overhead. It was from a long distance, but just behind the Sandhill Cranes was a very large white bird with dark wing tips.  WHOOPING CRANE!  That’s what first flashed through my mind, until, alas, the birds got closer and it was clearly “just” an American White Pelican.   These kinds of misidentifications are common when out birding, where you’ll initially see a bird and believe it to be a certain species, only to note it’s a different species when you get a better look. What is quite clear though is that if I ever did come across a Whooping Crane, if I was anywhere within a few hundred yards, it would be quite easy to identify.

When you’re birding, and you initially misidentify a bird, it’s obviously no big deal.  When you have a gun in your hand, it IS a big deal.  One of the most accessed pages on my entire website is a page that helps to differentiate between Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Prairie Chickens.  Do a quick google search, and you’ll find out the reason why. There are a number of hunting forums where somebody asks how to tell the difference between the two species, so they don’t accidentally shoot the “wrong” bird.  It’s not just grouse and prairie chickens, it’s also quite obvious that hunters often have a hard time telling apart duck species or other game.  Given that there may be a legal hunting season for one species, but not for another, somewhat similar-looking species, there’s obviously the potential for a trigger-happy hunter to shoot the “wrong” bird.

Evidently, there have been 12 “trigger-happy misidentifications” over the last 6 years, where hunters have shot and killed endangered Whooping Cranes in the U.S. As of 2015, there were only about 400 wild Whooping Cranes in existence.  That’s up considerably from just 21 birds in the 1940s, but they are still obviously an endangered species, and losing ANY bird is a huge loss, much less having 12 shot by “mistake”.  The latest happened just a week ago, when an adult Whooping Crane was shot and killed in southern Indiana.   This bird was an adult female, one who had just laid an egg this summer and had it hatch.  The youngster later died, but the loss of a breeding female who was able to successfully mate and hatch an egg is a huge loss for Whooping Crane conservation efforts.

Let’s dispense with the bullshit though about “misidentification”. Let’s face it…there’s no mistaking a Whooping Crane, not if it’s within range of a shotgun or a rifle.  It’s the tallest bird in all of North America, and it’s a brilliant white bird.  The only other large, white bird with a body shape and structure anything close to a Whooping Crane would potentially be a Great Egret, but 1) even a Great Egret is much, much smaller than a Whooping Crane, 2) Whooping Cranes have obvious black wing tips that would be visible in flight, and 3) IT DOESN’T MATTER if you confuse a Whooping Crane with a Great Egret, because it’s not legal to shoot EITHER species.  I’ve lost count of how many hunter/hunting related “incidents” I’ve come across while out birding in South Dakota, incidents where I’ve personally witnessed (and reported) hunters shooting creatures they shouldn’t be shooting.  I’ve come across plenty of hunters who are anything BUT sportsmen, men (yes…always men) who love their guns, love to shoot things, and don’t seem to care what they shoot.  Given that it’s practically impossible to mistake a Whooping Crane for ANY legally hunted bird, I won’t give any benefit of the doubt to any of the 12 redneck hunters who shot and killed these 12 Whooping Cranes over the last 6 years.

It was a little over 3 years ago where a Whooping Crane was shot right here in South Dakota. Jeff Blachford, a 26-year old man from Miller, South Dakota, was apprehended and charged with the crime.  Blachford was fined a hefty $85,000…a welcome change from past incidents, because other hunters who have shot Whooping Cranes have sometimes escaped ANY sort of penalty. The last time a Whooping Crane was shot in Indiana, prior to this recent event? It was just back in 2009.  The hunter was identified and fined…ONE DOLLAR. Yes, a $1 fine for shooting one of the rarest birds in the world. It remains to be seen what happens in this latest incident.  It appears that it’s still under investigation, and it doesn’t sound like they’ve found the perpetrator yet. Given the outrage after the last Indiana “sportsman” got off so easily, one would hope that the punishment would better fit the crime, should the redneck be identified.

I worry that homo redneckiism is actually a contagious disease. When Blachford shot the Whooping Crane in South Dakota a few years ago, I blogged about it, and was immediately innundated with emails from angry Homo redneckii from the Miller area.  I’m not a religious man, but if I were? I’d pray for the poor folk around Miller, and other locations where Homo redneckiism has manifested. It’s spreading so quickly.  There are some truly nice folk in South Dakota, but as this last election showed, many are also remarkably susceptible to Homo redneckiism.  Hunting rights, paying taxes, (having a black president)…all issues that have proven to be triggers for homo redneckiism.  In the midst of this major national flare-up of the disease, here’s hoping that a vaccine is on the horizon.

Otherwise, massive, brilliantly white, unmistakable birds like the endangered Whooping Crane might not survive.



Your tax dollars at work – Science or Birds?

Photo of Double-crested Cormorant - By Terry Sohl

Double-crested Cormorant. Clearly by the evil look in his eye, you can tell he’s up to no good. Clearly, this 2 pound bird is a much better fisherman than all the “sportsmen” in the Pacific Northwest, as cormorants have been (wrongly) accused of destroying salmon populations in the region.

Ah, the perks of being a government scientist.  The high pay.  The adulation. The outpouring and love from an American public that doesn’t seem to believe in science any more, a public that seems quite content to ignore those pesky temperature increases on their thermometer, a public that would rather believe that great-great-grandpa Eddie used to ride around on a dinosaur than believe in evolution.  It just keeps better and better.  At least there’s the work, right?  The thought of doing real, unbiased SCIENCE for the public good?

Well sure, there is the work itself.  It’s just a wee bit disheartening however to DO the work the government asks you to do, but have that work ignored by said government.  With that as background…

If you’re not aware of it, there have been active campaigns against the evil Double-crested Cormorant for decades now, with interest groups (primarily fishermen and other “sportsmen”) claiming that the birds are eating all their fish, and therefor they must be destroyed.  It’s been in multiple locations, from the South, to the Great Lakes, and most recently, on the Columbia River basin where fisherman are bemoaning declining salmon populations.  One COULD blame over-fishing.  One COULD also blame a much warmer northern Pacific (global warming anyone?) that has been shown to be taking a toll on salmon.  But no…of course it’s none of that according to these brilliant “sportsmen”.  It’s the evil Double-crested Cormorant that is eating all of “their” salmon.

You might wonder how a species that’s co-existed with salmon for thousands of years suddenly is (supposedly) single-handedly wiping out Cormorant populations.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was also wondering, and thus tasked their biologists to study the issue.  The conclusion from the government scientists?  Double-crested Cormorants weren’t having much of an impact, if any, on salmon populations in the Columbia.  The next course of action by Fish & Wildlife?  Giving their stamp of approval on a plan to KILL 10,000 Double-crested Cormorants in the region.

Yes, that’s correct. Your tax dollars pay for scientists to study EVIDENCE, to use the best available techniques and analyses to study issues such as this.  In this case, government biologists found no connection between the birds and the salmon.  That same government, however, decided to ignore their scientists and STILL start the slaughter of 10,000 birds.  Why?  I’m sure it has EVERYTHING to do with politics and keeping the “sportsman” (HAH!!) lobby happy.  It sure as hell has nothing to do with the science.

If I’m a tax payer, I’m wondering what the hell the government is doing, playing politics instead of paying attention to the science.

As a fellow government scientist, I’m left wondering why the hell any of us are doing our jobs, if our work is going to be ignored.

Another stunned visitor…

Rose-breasted Grosbeak - Pheucticus ludovicianus

A new use for my macro lens. Perhaps I should start a new bird photography genre…macro bird photography. The problem? You have to be within 12 inches to get a photo like this. Another problem? Unfortunately, it seems a couple times a week I’m likely to get an opportunity like this, thanks to birds running into my windows.

It’s become an all-too common occurrence.  We’re relaxing at home during the day, when we hear a thump from the front of the house.  Another bird has evidently tried to commit suicide by flying into one of our windows.  What could the problem be?  They say depression is “contagious”.  Perhaps there’s an epidemic of birdy depression in our neighborhood, and birds view our front windows as a perfect means to end it.  What’s the solution?  A birdy counselor?  Anti-depressants dissolved in the bird bath?

Ok, it’s not the birds that are depressed, it’s me whenever I hear that sickening thump.  The strange thing is the location of the window where it most often occurs.  While we’ll occasionally hear it from a different window, by far the most common place for it to occur are the windows in our living room that look out to the front yard, over the covered porch.  The blinds on those windows are usually closed, and given the porch roof that keeps the windows in constant shade, it just seems odd that it’s a location that birds mistake for an open path.

Whenever the thump occurs, I’ll go out front and check on the victim. :Most often, it’s nowhere to be seen, with (evidently) no serious damage being done, and the bird flying away immediately after the strike.  Less often, I’ll find a dazed bird laying on the front porch or in the adjacent yard.  This was the situation yesterday where I took the accompanying photo.  It was a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak that had struck the window, and she was sitting in a stupor on the porch when I came out.  I picked her up and put her in a protected shady spot in the corner of the porch.  She sat there, looking around, evidently with no broken bones or other such trauma, but obviously with the equivalent of a birdy concussion.  After about 15 minutes, she flew away on her own, and later that day, I did see a female RB Grosbeak at the feeders, which may have been her.

The worst is finding a dead bird. It doesn’t happen all that often, when you find a deceased bird right by the window itself.  However, I do wonder what kind of long-term damage is done in some of the strikes.  Even if there are no broken bones or other similar damage, the brain trauma can’t be good.  It makes me wonder how many window-strikers end up dying later on, away from the window itself.

It’s kind of sad to think of how often this must be repeated across the world, every day, given the repeated occurrences for us at this one window.  It doesn’t seem to matter for us what we do. Shades up, shades down but closed, shades down but slats open…all give the window a different look, but nothing seems to help.

In the meantime, perhaps I’ll make lemonade out of lemons, and start a new genre of bird photography…macro bird photography of the eyes of wild birds.  Not exactly practical in most of the real world, given that you can never get that close to a wild bird, but sadly, I’ve had far too many opportunities over the years by our living room window.

All life should be cherished. Except spiders.

Garden Spider

The biggest spider I’ve ever seen in my yard, what I believe is a common “Garden Spider”. Pretty. Also the stuff of nightmares.

A bit off topic, but…there was a spider in the sink this morning.  Just your average-sized, run-of-the-mill spider you find in your house from time to time.  If you should find yourself in this situation, here are the 4 steps you should take:

  1. Turn the water on high and flush the spider deeply down into the drain
  2. Turn on the garbage disposal.
  3. Turn the water on as hot as it can go and run it for a bit…just in case.
  4. Pouring flaming gasoline down the drain is optional, but recommended.

I’m a nature lover.  I’ll go FAR out of my way to avoid hitting any form of life while driving.  I’ll stop and help turtles cross the road.  If I’m walking I’ll try to avoid stepping on little buggy critters.

But I draw the line at spiders, inside my house!  I’m not sure what the visceral, horrifying reaction is people (often) have to spiders.  They’re not that big.  They’re not going to hurt you.  Many people (myself included) don’t have the same negative reaction when seeing a similarly sized insect.  Yet a spider sighting in the house is a cause for immediate action in my house.

Great way to spend an afternoon…

Burrowing Owl - Hovering - Athene cunicularia

Hovering Burrowing Owl, checking me out as I visit a prairie dog town on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in South Dakota

I’ve been busy since back from vacation, getting back in the swing of things with work, catching up on yard work, etc.  Yesterday I had a chance to get out and bird however, and decided to spend much of the time on one of my favorite spots in the world…a prairie dog town on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands south of Pierre.  As a birder, I’m always attracted to the birdlife around a prairie dog town, but it’s also the other life, from rattlesnakes, the prairie dogs themselves, even the insect life.  Prairie dog towns always just seem so “alive” compared to the surrounding grasslands and farmland.

The prairie dog town I like to visit is near Richland Wildlife Area.  There’s a rather non-descript entrance, a cattle guard and and opening in the barbed wire fence that allows you to drive the mile or so back to the prairie dog town itself.  It really doesn’t matter what time of year I visit, the area always seems full of life.  In winter, it’s nice seeing the activity of the prairie dogs themselves, seemingly defying the harsh weather.  Raptors, particularly Ferruginous Hawks, are also a great draw for me in the winter.  However, in summertime, it’s Burrowing Owls that are my favorite attraction around a prairie dog town.

Burrowing Owls aren’t hard to find in South Dakota.  If you find a decent sized prairie dog town, you will very likely find Burrowing Owls.  The problem is simply vast reduction in the number of prairie dog towns compared to historical times.  Ranchers continue to view prairie dogs as pests…despite studies that show grazing is MORE nutritious around prairie dog towns (a reason Bison used to often frequent prairie dog towns).  Because of that, there’s few creatures more persecuted in South Dakota than the prairie dog.  It’s a FAR too common event for me to visit a long-time prairie dog town, only to find degrading burrows and no prairie dog towns, as the land owner, or even more often, the state itself, has poisoned the animals to “protect” rancher interests.

Burrowing Owl - Athene cuniculari

One of the most common ways to see a Burrowing Owl in South Dakota…one sitting on a fence post near a prairie dog town.

When I do find an active prairie dog town however, I can spend hours watching the wildlife.  At this time of year, Burrowing Owls have young to feed, and that was certainly the case yesterday.  In the area of the prairie dog town I was at, I saw two different families, each with 2 adults and 3 fledglings.  The adults are understandably protective at this time of year, scolding visitors (be they a stray coyote, another bird, or a curious photographer like myself).  It’s quite cool to watch a little family of Burrowing Owls at a burrow entrance, and how they react when danger is afoot. The adults take immediate action to scold the intruder, while the fluffy fledglings quickly waddle down into the burrow.  I don’t get so close as to greatly disturb the Burrowing Owl families, but even at some distance, the adults will often fly over and scold me, sometimes even hovering right by me and glaring a glare meant to intimidate!!

A great day on the grasslands.  Vacations are nice, but I do so love getting back home to South Dakota…

Mountain Lion sighting near Sioux Falls, and “protecting” people from imagined dangers

Mountain Lion - Puma concolor

A Mountain Lion lounging in a tree. If such a sight is recorded in South Dakota, the Mountain Lion itself is likely to be sentenced to death, no matter its location or behavior. Photo credit.

We arrived back from our vacation in the U.S. Virgin Islands on Monday.  It seems that while we were gone, there was a bit of excitement in the neighborhood!  While talking to a neighbor, he told me about a neighbor across the street who was QUITE surprised to see a Mountain Lion lounging in a tree in his back yard!  We live in extreme eastern South Dakota, only a few miles from both Minnesota and Iowa.  South Dakota DOES have a healthy Mountain Lion population in the Black Hills, where biologists typically estimate that a few hundred are around.  Black Hills Mountain Lions are known to wander widely, with tagged animals found far from the Black Hills and far from South Dakota.

However, in our part of the state near Sioux Falls, the landscape is dominated by corn and soybeans.  There are certainly plenty of deer around that would interest a mountain lion, but there isn’t a lot of natural habitat around.  The only forested areas in the area are typically riparian zones.  The potential attraction for the mountain lion seen in our neighborhood?  We live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a state park along the Big Sioux River that features a lot of burr oak, cottonwood, and other trees along the river.  Turkeys and deer both abound in the park, but it’s a small oasis of habitat sitting in a vast landscape of cropland.  It’s also not all that large a park, covering a thin strip along the river for less than 2 miles.  From a long-term habitat standpoint, it’s simply not a location that’s going to hold a population of Mountain Lions for any sustained length of time.

The park is quite popular with campers, joggers, bikers, hikers, dog walkers, etc.  There’s a very nice paved path through the park that connects with other paths in the city of Brandon itself.  There are also other unpaved paths that people frequently use.  The number of people using the park also make it quite unlikely that any Mountain Lion would attempt to stay for any prolonged period of time. The number of people using the park ALSO will likely be used as a reason for Game Fish & Parks to “remove” the Mountain Lion should it happen to stick around.

There has NEVER been a recorded case of a Mountain Lion attacking a human being in South Dakota.  NEVER.  Despite that, they are treated as an extreme danger.  The story linked to here is the typical reaction when any Mountain Lion is found anywhere close to humans in the state.  The Mountain Lion is killed, period.  In the story I linked to, the lions were near Keystone,.  Keystone is in the heart of the Black Hills, and thus, the heart of Mountain Lion country in South Dakota.  The lions were clearly within their normal habitat, but were still “removed” (killed).

Mountain Lions are quite common in the Black Hills, but are rarely every seen.  Being shy and staying away from people is certainly a positive for a Mountain Lion in the state, as just being SEEN is an offense punishable by death for a Mountain Lion in South Dakota.  The Keystone story above has been repeated many, many times in the state, with Lions being shot and killed whenever they happen to be found near people.  That’s especially true outside of the Black Hills.  In South Dakota it’s such a rare sight to see a Mountain Lion outside of the Black Hills.  If one IS seen, people immediately freak out and assume it’s a danger, despite, again, the fact that there has NEVER been an instance of a Mountain Lion causing harm to a human being in the state.  While birding in the Yankton area several years ago, I heard a blood-curdling “scream” in a forested area along the Missouri River, a sound I know came from a Mountain Lion.  I certainly never reported it, knowing what would happen to the animal if authorities were alerted to its presence.

I haven’t heard neighbors say whether the mountain lion found here has been seen again.  Frankly, I hope it has moved on and WON’T ever be seen again, just from the standpoint of the animal’s own safety and well-being.  A “seen” Mountain Lion in South Dakota is usually a CONDEMNED Mountain Lion.

%d bloggers like this: