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South Dakota “Big Year” and Other 2019 Highlights

White-eyed Vireo - Vireo griseus

I never was really a “lister” as a birder until eBird came along. eBird makes it so ridiculously easy to track your sightings, and the tools they have to categorize your sightings by date…geography…comparison to other birders…certainly bring out the competitive side that many birders seem to have! However, even after I started using eBird, I never really set any yearly goals, such as a “big year”. The closest I ever came was a number of years ago when a birding friend at work and I had a very low-key competition to see who could see the most birds in South Dakota during the year.

I ended up at 212 that year, a very similar number to my friend. I’ve gotten close to that a few times since according to eBird, but never really had a “South Dakota Big Year” as a driving goal for my birding in a year. Going into this year though, my birding time had been declining and I seemed to be losing some interest. I thought setting a goal to break my yearly South Dakota record might re spark some of that enthusiasm.

It did!! I started early in January this year…a tough time to start building a bird list in South Dakota! Particularly in a very cold, snowy winter, getting up to just 100 birds by mid-April was doing very well! When spring migration rolled around, I spent more time birding than I have in years. As the year progressed, I never made it to spots like far northwestern South Dakota to tick off species like Baird’s Sparrow, but I made my usual trips to the central part of the state, the Missouri River dams, and a very rare (for me) dedicated birding trip to the Black Hills.

By mid-December, I’d easily passed my highest yearly total, with 248 species. With travel and family commitments in the latter half of the month, I wasn’t expecting to get any more, but when a White-winged Crossbill was seen in Sioux Falls the week before Christmas, I did make the short trip and checked of #249. One short of a nice round number!! I told my wife (notably NOT a birder, and not too invested in the number chase!) that the only way I’d get to 250 is if something unexpected showed up in the yard. Well, on Christmas Day I got a nice surprise present, when a Sharp-shinned Hawk nailed a House Sparrow in mid-flight in the back yard, and then proceeded to consume it right outside our sunroom window. Not that rare of a species around here in winter, but when entering the sighting into eBird, I was surprised that I hadn’t recorded that species yet in 2019, and it was indeed #250!

Sharp-shinned Hawk - Accipiter striatus
A Sharp-shinned Hawk catching a House Sparrow in our back yard on Christmas Day. Species #250 for the year, and a photo that’s instantly one of my favorites.

250 species for the year…a nice number to end with! Not as nice a number as the rather miraculous 303 found by Kenny Miller this year (WOW…considering we’ve only had about 420 species total that have ever been seen in the state), but it was enough for me to end up tied for 6th in the state this year. Something I never thought I’d do as a birder…comparing my year in such a manner…but again, that’s what the wonderful eBird tools do to even a pretty non-competitive birder!!

Sprinkled in those #250 are some definite highlights for the year…new life birds (7 new birds never sighted before anywhere), or new life birds for the state of South Dakota (an additional 9 new South Dakota lifers). Here are some of those 2019 highlights….including some from a major 2019 (and lifetime) birding highlight that’s definitely NOT South Dakota focused.

In mid-April, I had a conference in Pierre for work. With the conference starting at noon, I left home long before dawn, hoping to get a few hours of birding in before the conference. As I was driving near the Missouri River southeast of Pierre, I saw a number of American White Pelicans along flooded areas along the river, so when I saw a large, white bird with black wing tips flying parallel to the road in front of me, I immediately dismissed it as a pelican. This was no pelican! My jaw dropped as I got closer and saw that it was a lone Whooping Crane!! MAJOR frustration as I quickly grabbed the camera and tried to grab a few frames, but the bird disappeared over a ridge and I thought I’d never get a chance to document the sighting. However, when I found a tiny side road, I was able to relocate the bird foraging in a corn field. For the next hour I watched the bird, getting some long distance shots as it foraged, and a few frames in flight when it left the corn field and returned to forage in a wetland area along the river. My first ever Whooping Crane sighting, and definitely a highlight for my 2019 South Dakota bird list!
Henslow's Sparrow - Ammodramus henslowii
When you’re trying for a South Dakota “Big Year”, spring migration is…everything! There are so many migrant bird species that move through the state, and you have a narrow window in which to spot them. By mid- to late-May, the spring migration was…disappointing! It was very cold yet, and very wet. Warblers are a huge draw for me when I bird in the spring, yet by May 19th, I’d only seen a handful of warbler species. On that day, the South Dakota Ornithologist Union was holding it’s spring meeting in Brandon, and a miserable forecast (stormy cool weather) didn’t seem to bode well for birding! It ended up being a truly magical day, however, with over 20 warbler species seen by birders in the Sioux Falls area that day. I myself ended up with 20 different warbler species that day, including several that you don’t see every year. The highlight of the day though was a lifer, a Henslow’s Sparrow that other birders found foraging in a grassy field on the south side of Newton Hills State Park.
American Three-toed Woodpecker - Picoides dorsalis
As a family we typically go the Black Hills once or twice a year. It’s a 6 hour drive (South Dakota is a big state!), so it’s not somewhere I get to bird a lot, and when with the family, my birding time is generally limited. However, in July I took a dedicated 3-day birding trip to the Hills, hoping to pick up a number of South Dakota species I hadn’t recorded in the state before. It was a great trip…I ended up adding 10 new South Dakota species, more than half of my new 2019 South Dakota total. It was also rather frustrating! I have yet to see a Bullock’s Oriole in the state! They’re common out there! I have yet to see a Black-headed Grosbeak! Also common out there! But I did pick up several South Dakota lifers, and one that was an all-time lifer, when this American Three-toed Woodpecker foraged on spruce trees very close to me.
Not a South Dakota lifer, but one I didn’t have on my yearly list until a VERY unexpected lone Rock Wren showed up at Good Earth State Park along the Iowa/South Dakota border. You can count on one hand the number of Rock Wrens recorded in eBird within 200 miles of this location! A good sighting, and a nice addition without which I wouldn’t have gotten to 250.
Magnolia Warbler - Setophaga magnolia
A Magnolia Warbler from that magical weekend of May 19th. One of 20 different warbler species I recorded that day.
Eastern Rosella - Platycercus eximius
Definitely not a South Dakota bird! But a definite 2019 highlight for birding…a 3-week vacation with the family in Australia! Not a birding trip, but of course I was able to get a lot of life birds on that trip, including some incredibly colored species such as this Eastern Rosella.
Southern Cassowary - Casuarius casuarius
A moment I’ll never forget, when a freakin’ DINOSAUR stepped out of the rainforest right in front of us. A massive Southern Cassowary, from near Cairns, Australia.
Rainbow Lorikeet - Trichoglossus moluccanus
A pretty common sight in many areas where we went in Australia, a Rainbow Lorikeet. Given how they’ve adapted to city life and human landscaping, they’re actually considered a bit of a pest in many areas, but OH what a beautiful pest.
Galah - Eolophus roseicapilla
One of my favorites from Australia, a Galah. SO entertaining and social…just incredible fun to watch as they interact with each other and their environment.
Blue-winged Kookaburra - Dacelo leachii
Blue-winged Kookaburra from near Port Douglas. A BIG, chunk bird, these are the less common of two Kookaburra species we saw. The much more widely spread Laughing Kookaburra was a species we found in all the locations we visited in eastern Australia.

Add your biodiversity sightings to “iNaturalist” – Big Sioux Rec Area, Beaver Creek Nature Area

Banner page for a new iNaturalist “project” page, “Biodiversity of Beaver Creek Nature Area”. You can enter sightings of any form of life you find in the park boundaries, and iNaturalist will summarize those observations and provide an accounting of all life observed there.

Twitter is a dangerous thing for me. I’m relatively new to it, starting 2 years ago. But it’s rather addictive, and if I don’t curb myself I can spend far too much time on it. The good news…this weekend I spent very little time on Twitter, even going (gasp!) almost 36 hours without even looking at it. The bad news…it’s because Twitter itself got me hooked on another online activity.

When visiting the Black Hills a week ago, I took a number of flower and butterfly photos. I don’t really “do” butterflies and flowers, so didn’t know the ID of most, so I posted some blocks of photos on Twitter. People did help with ID, but I also got multiple suggestions to join iNaturalist. Now, I have done eBird for years, and greatly enjoy recording all of my bird sightings. iNaturalist is similar but expanded to…everything…all life that you wish to record, be it a bird, a reptile, a tree, a shrub, a bug, a fungi…anything. But unlike eBird, where you’re expected to know the species you’re entering, iNaturalist is also a platform for helping you to identify your finds. You upload a photo, identify as best you can, and other people confirm your identification, or offer a corrected identification. There’s a system in place where the “grade” for your entry depends upon matching IDs, with “Research Grade” ranking given to entries that have confirmed IDs from multiple users.

I have many, many thousands of photos over the years, mostly birds, but also other critters. I also have occasionally taken photos of flowers, fungi, and other life, but haven’t really given an ID to most. So instead of wasting time on Twitter this weekend, I spent FAR too much time entering old photos onto iNaturalist.

One feature I think is really cool about iNaturalist is that you can set up your own “project”. Your project can define an area where you can summarize observations. You can also select what taxa are part of your project. So for example, you could set up a project for your favorite birding spot, and do something like “The Birds of Newton Hills”. iNaturalist would then record ANY sighting of a bird, be it by yourself, or someone else, and summarize all the sightings of birds for that area. It’s all automated in that once the project is set up, it automatically records the sightings any one makes within your defined parameters (area, type of life, time of observation, etc.).

A cool concept! And since I admittedly get a little fatigued with bird photography, from the standpoint of taking photos of the “same old birds” (how many American Goldfinch photos do you need?), and since we live right across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, I thought why not start an iNaturalist project that records ALL life in the park? And so that’s what I’ve done, with a new iNaturalist project “Biodiversity of the Big Sioux Recreation Area“. My other most visited birding location is Beaver Creek Nature Area, just 4 miles east of where I live. I started another project for Beaver Creek, “Biodiversity of Beaver Creek Nature Area“.

Join in if you’d like! If you ever visit either the Big Sioux Recreation Area or Beaver Creek Nature Area, just start taking photos of the plants, animals, fungi…whatever life you run across in those two parks. Join iNaturalist and record your sightings. You do need a photo, and you do need to include the location of the sighting. That’s easy if you use your cell phone for the photo (or if your camera has GPS), as the location will be automatically recorded when you take the photo, and uploaded automatically when you add the photo to iNaturalist. And…that’s it! If the sighting is recorded within the boundaries of those two parks, it will automatically be added to these “projects”.

And don’t worry if you don’t know the identification of the plant or animal! That’s the point of iNaturalist. It will offer an initial suggestion based on your photo (most of the time the suggestions are very good!), and others will chime in and offer their 2 cents on ID.

I don’t need another online hobby, but…this one is a bit different! Not only did I end up starting these two iNaturalist “projects” this weekend, but each day I ended up taking long walks through the Big Sioux Recreation Area, going very slowly, and taking photos of a lot of the plants and insects I came across. It’s an online time sucker, but…it’s also an exercise routine in a way! So it all balances out. ūüôā

Give it a try and start entering your sightings! But beware, it’s fun, but a bit addictive. Here are the links again to the two iNaturalist projects I set up:

Biodiversity of the Big Sioux Recreation Area

Biodiversity of Beaver Creek Nature Area

Solved! One of life’s 3 big mysteries

Orange-crowned Warbler - Vermivora celata

When I woke this morning, I had no idea that by the end of the day, I would have solved one of life’s three biggest mysteries. These are questions of profound importance that have bedeviled mankind ever since we pulled ourselves out of the muck, learned to walk upright, and started pointing binoculars at birds. Of course I’m talking about the “Big 3”:

  1. Does a Ring-necked Duck have a ringed neck?
  2. Where’s the red on a Red-bellied Woodpecker’s belly? and,
  3. What color crown does an Orange-crowned Warbler have?
Yellow-rumped Warbler - Setophaga coronata
Yellow-rumped Warblers and Orange-crowned Warblers seem to be best buds in migration, often hanging out together. One big difference between the two…Yellow-rumped Warblers are PROPERLY NAMED, with an obvious yellow rump.

Now, Orange-crowned Warblers are one of the most common migrant warblers we have in the state, just behind the Yellow-rumped Warbler. But you know what my friends? YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS ACTUALLY HAVE, like, you know…YELLOW RUMPS!!! So where does that leave us with Orange-crowned Warblers?

I always thought the naming of Orange-crowned Warblers was kind of a cosmic joke. Someone saw a rather plain bird with a touch of color but really no contrasting features whatsoever, and said…HEY! Let’s have some fun with this! Instead of something like “Drab Olive Warbler”, let’s call it an Orange-crowned Warbler!

After seeing a number of Orange-crowned Warblers, tonight I’d had enough. When one started flitting around the crabapple tree right outside my sunroom window, I decided to get down to the bottom of it all. Now, my wife knows I talk to birds. Hell, I do it all the time, particularly when I really get excited! You can be DAMNED sure that when I saw that Whooping Crane a week and a half ago that we had one of the longer, more fulfilling conversations I’ve ever had in life. Usually I just say whatever pops into my head, with deep, thoughtful conversational elements such as “hey sweetie!!”? Or “You’re a pretty bird!” When a bird is extremely cooperative and has allowed a number of good photos, it’s not unusual for me to toss out a “Thank you sweetie” as I depart. (If you’re wondering…sadly for me…every word of this is true).

Now, I admit those conversations are usually very one sided, so today when I started talking to the Orange-crowned Warbler in my crabapple, I wasn’t expecting the bird to engage. However, much to my surprise, when I softly muttered “now where’s that supposed orange crown of yours?”, the bird paused, gave me a thoughtful stare, and then proceeded to dip his head and hold a pose for several seconds, as if to say “Hey, dumbass…I’ve got your orange crown right here”.

And that, as they say, is that! A few clicks of the camera shutter, some evidence of orange feathering on the crown, and one of life’s greatest mysteries is solved.

New (photographic) lifer! Greater Roadrunner

We don’t get too many Greater Roadrunners up here in South Dakota! Well, ok, there used to be one at the local zoo, but otherwise the closest one is a good 500 miles away. We do vacation in the Southwest occasionally, and I have seen them a number of times. But usually it’s been one running across a road while we drive, or one scooting around a corner in front of us on a hike. I haven’t had the opportunity to ever photograph the species.

We were in Arizona for the holidays, spending a week and just getting back. Our favorite activity when on vacation is hiking, so we visited a number of state parks, Saguaro National Park, and other areas with nice hikes. One thing I’ve noticed in Arizona…many of the birds seem rather “tame” compared to birds here in South Dakota. Even for species found in both places, the Arizona birds seem much more cooperative for a camera. I assume it is because they’re exposed to human beings more than they are here. If you bird a heavily visited area such as the Gilbert Water Ranch in Phoenix or Saguaro National Park (we did both), the birds are used to humans being around.

The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix is one such place. It’s a large site, with 140 acres to explore, but it’s very heavily visited. As a result, the birds are pretty cooperative. While walking there on our first morning in Arizona, we rounded a bend and saw a Greater Roadrunner parked at the edge of the trail in front of us, hunting some unseen prey. I raised the camera, expecting him to dart away as has every Roadrunner I’ve ever come across. He didn’t disappoint me!¬† He did indeed dash into the brush. I put the camera down, and we keep walking. I assumed he was gone and I wouldn’t get another opportunity.

I was wrong! As we walked further, he burst out of the vegetation and onto the trail again. This time, he stood there for a long time, letting me shoot quite a few photos before he again took off, chasing…something. I never did see what he was chasing, but he was so intent on following it that I was able to get photos of him in a number of locations, before he settled down on a rock to bask in the cool morning sun.

A photographic lifer! And a much prettier bird than I expected, with the colorful patch on its face.

Greater Roadrunner - Geococcyx californianusGreater Roadrunner - Geococcyx californianusGreater Roadrunner - Geococcyx californianusGreater Roadrunner - Geococcyx californianusGreater Roadrunner - Geococcyx californianus

Scientists find it’s all about you…

Nebraska Ice Storm

A semi full of grain partially folded in half from a wreck, near Ceresco, Nebraska on December 16th. A cold, wintry hell of a drive, through snow, wind, and freezing rain. For many people? It’s an experience that would likely reinforce their own personal disbelief in climate change. As this scientific study highlights, even in a globally connected, digital world where news and information flows freely, we truly are living in our own little personal bubbles. We seem incapable of accurately weighting the importance of an event, placing much more importance on personal experience than even established fact or collective experience of others.

We had a very interesting weekend. Our “Christmas” with family down in Nebraska was scheduled for this weekend, but Mother Nature wasn’t going to make it easy on us. ¬†We were in a winter storm warning Friday, but managed to make it out-of-town and head south before the worst of the snow hit. ¬†We had to deal with freezing rain in Nebraska, though, which was followed by bitterly cold temperatures. ¬†It wasn’t quite as bad down while we were down in Lincoln, but back home in Brandon we hit -24 below Sunday morning, the coldest we’ve been for several years. ¬†To further reinforce the “winter” theme of the weekend, when we arrived back home, we found our furnace had conked out at some point, and it was 48 degrees in the house!

An interesting and memorable weekend due to the weather, something which scientists say is likely to have a strong impact on my feelings about climate change! In a recent study, scientists found that an individual is much more likely to “believe” in climate change if they live in a location that’s experienced a lot of record high temperatures, and are more likely to discount climate change if the weather is cold and they’ve experienced low temperatures. ¬†It’s not exactly earth-shattering research, not when supposedly well-educated and informed politicians themselves are often guilty of looking out the window and declaring climate change to be a hoax whenever a wintry event occurs. ¬†To me it highlights a bigger picture story however…the importance of “me” and the biologic difficulties with altruistic behavior.

I saw a meme on Facebook today that focused on empathy and Republicans. ¬†It provided several examples of noted Republicans who were strongly against issues such as LGBT rights, stem cell research, and gun control measures…until¬†a son or daughter of theirs came out as LGBT, until¬†one of their loved ones became desperately sick, until one of their family was a victim of gun violence. ¬†I’m incredibly cynical about any Facebook post. ¬†It doesn’t matter whether some meme or story leans towards liberal or conservative views, many (most?) of them are pure fiction. ¬†I don’t know how true some of the claims were in the meme I saw today (for example, one part of it stating Nancy Reagan was against stem cell research, until her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s), but the general point of the meme certainly hit home today (a crappy day where a misogynistic, narcissistic, childish, PIG of a man was supported by the Electoral College). ¬†People are VERY good at ignoring an issue unless it affects them personally.

It’s not just Facebook posts that I’m cynical about…I admit I’m as cynical as any person you’re ever likely to meet. ¬†Ironically, in a blog post where I’m focusing on the role of “self” and a person’s¬†own experiences in dictating your personal beliefs, it’s my own personal experiences that are a major reason I’m such a cynic. I’ve been on this planet for just north of 50 years now, 50 years of personally witnessing the selfishness, greed, and lack of empathy among my fellow human beings. At the small scale…the interpersonal relationships and interactions that occur among people on a daily basis…human beings generally DO seem somewhat empathetic, even kind and caring. ¬†Most of the time when dealing with another human being one-on-one, there’s at least a thin veneer or respect that’s usually present, with “manners” and social customs dictating little gestures such as saying “hi”, holding a door open, helping someone up when they’ve fallen, etc.

That all goes to hell at larger scales, when we’re not dealing directly with another human being, but instead are acting in some “aggregate” mode. ¬†Politics is a great example. ¬†Let’s say Joe Redneck is in line at a grocery store, and the clerk is someone he thinks may be LGBT. ¬†In the vast majority of cases, even Joe Redneck is generally going to be civil. ¬†Face-to-face-, one-on-one, we’re simply much more likely to be civil, to be empathetic and kind. ¬†What happens though when Joe Redneck votes on LGBT-related issues? ¬†What happens in a group setting, when Joe Redneck is surrounded by others in the Redneck clan? ¬†That civility is much more likely to disappear.

Empathy and caring for others is even much more likely to be forgotten when there’s some personal impact on an individual, no matter how minor that impact may actually be. Expanding health care coverage for other Americans? ¬†WHOA…how’s that going to affect MY taxes or MY health care costs?!? ¬†Climate change?!?! WHOA…why should I worry about someone 50 years from now, when a climate policy has even the slightest potential of harming economic growth NOW?!?! ¬†Increasing funding for schools? ¬†WHOA…if I have to pay more in property taxes then I won’t be able to get that new cell phone!! ¬†The relative impact is often grossly exaggerated in cases such as this, with people unwilling to make the tiniest of sacrifice even if the payoff for others promises to be substantial.

Am I reading too much into this study on people’s attitudes towards climate change? ¬†I don’t think so. ¬†As I’ve stated out here many times…we’re animals. ¬†We’re driven by the same biologic needs as any other animal on the planet. What’s first and foremost on our minds is nearly always going to be our own personal well-being and happiness. ¬†Americans in particular seem to be extremely efficient in rationalizing the world around them to fit a personal worldview that is first and foremost focused on personal prosperity and happiness. ¬†We all live in our own personal bubbles, rationalizing the world around us in such a way that minimizes guilt, minimizes any feeling of responsibility for others, and maximizes our own personal happiness and well-being.

Yes, all of this, from a story about people’s attitudes towards climate change! ¬†Even on a cold, wintry hell of a weekend, as a scientist and as an empathetic human being who DOES worry about his child, who DOES worry about the future…it’s very¬†easy to see past the frost on the window and know we still face a world where climate change is a daunting issue. ¬†It’s very easy to see, if one can just look past your own personal life and bubble, and try to empathize with the bigger world around you. ¬†As this study hints at…that’s a step most people just are unwilling to take.

In The News – Week of November 27th

Yeah, it’s been several days. Holidays, general malaise, busy at work, yada yada yada. ¬†There have been a number of very interesting science/nature/life stories that have come out in recent days however.

Homer, Alaska area

People have a tendency to ignore an issue, until it affects them personally. If you live in a coastal area, or in a place like Alaska (this is near Homer) where the effects of climate change are already having a big impact, then politics-be-damned, people tend to be “believers”. In no case is that more obvious than when someone’s financial interests are threatened, as in the New York Times piece about coastal real estate.

Climate Change, Coastal Real Estate, and Politics — We’ve got a new administration transitioning in who seems hell-bent on ignoring reality, ignoring science. ¬†As a scientist who studies linkages between the landscape and climate change, of course it’s the climate change denial that is the most disgusting to me. ¬†This is a great piece from the New York Times that focuses on the intersection of climate change, coastal real estate, and rising sea levels. People are funny…they tend not to care about an issue until it affects them personally (for another example, see Obamacare and the need for health insurance). ¬†On the climate change side, there’s no doubt that those in coastal zones, those with a vested financial interest in coastal real estate, are taking the issue of climate change seriously. The story certainly highlights the folly of those that do try to wish away climate change or delay long-term action in favor of short-term financial gain.

Melting begetting more melting — Staying with the climate change thread, a story about feedbacks in the climate system in the Arctic, with warming temperatures causing land and water surface changes that reinforce additional warming. ¬†This fall has certainly been an incredible and unprecedented in Arctic, with sea ice levels actually declining during a period the winter freeze is typically in full force. Temperatures have been incredibly high, in some cases nearly 40 degrees above average, with temperatures even staying near or at the freezing point at the North Pole itself. ¬†A “standard” prediction that you see is that the Arctic is likely to be ice-free in summer by 2050, but many scientists are moving that prediction up to a far earlier date. ¬†Part of the problem is that once melting begins, it feeds back on itself. ¬†You’re removing bright white snow and ice, and exposing more open water and older, darker sea ice, which absorbs much more solar radiation and reinforces the warming. Throw in additional feedback loops such as the impacts of melting permafrost and resultant methane releases in to the atmosphere, and it’s a runaway train that’s going to be impossible to stop.

White-throated Sparrow

Having trouble finding your one true love? It could be worse? At least you can potentially couple with 50% of your species. For a bird like this, a “white-striped” variant of the White-throated Sparrow, only 25% of your species’ population is of any interest to you…specifically, you need a tan-striped variant of the opposite sex.

Male? Female? This sparrow has 4 different sexes — When I took up birding and photography back in 2000, it didn’t take me very long to become familiar with the birds that are found in South Dakota. ¬†A (healthy?) obsession in a topic really facilitates some fast learning! ¬†However, there were some species¬†I struggled with initially, particularly those that could have multiple different plumage patterns. ¬†White-throated Sparrows fall into that camp, with some birds having brilliantly white stripes on their heads, and others having tan stripes. ¬†Researchers have found that the plumage patterns go well beyond just appearance, with the two color morphs displaying very different behavior and reproductive traits. Just as X and Y chromosomes drive male and female sex distinctions, they found that White-throated Sparrows have developed another pair of “sex chromosomes”. ¬†In a “normal” reproductive system, an individual can mate with 50% of its species (males and females mating); White-throated Sparrows can only mate with 25% of other individuals of its species. ¬†For example, if you’re a male “white-striped” color variant of the White-throated Sparrow, you will only mate with a female “tan-striped” color variant…one-fourth of the entire species population (assuming white- and tan-color morphs are equally common). ¬†A fascinating read about evolution and the unexpected paths that it sometimes takes.

San Francisco sinking — Ah, the wonders of satellite observation. From a scientific standpoint, there are so many possibilities in what phenomena can be observed, and what scientists can do with that information. ¬†This story focuses on the Copernicus Sentinel-1¬†satellites, and the use of multiple space-based radar observations to assess changes in surface height. ¬†The 58-story Millennium Tower in San Francisco, for example, has been found to be sinking 40 millimeters (about 1 1/2 inches) every year. The “Millennium” Tower would thus theoretically be ~125 feet lower than where it is right now in a millennium, if sinking continued and the tower could survive! ¬† Land surface subsidence due to ground water pumping, changes in forest canopies due to cutting, elevation shifts after major earthquakes…all fascinating observations that can also be made with similar satellite observations.

Rub Al Khali

Imagine if this environment were…lush! Crocodiles! Hippos! Lakes with fish, and thriving cities! That’s what you would have found in the Sahara 6,000 years ago. Disclosure…this is actually the Rub’ al Khali desert on the border of Saudi Arabia and the UAE! Never have been to the Sahara, have been here and have photos!

Lush environment of the Sahara — Scientists have long known that the region of the Sahara Desert in Africa used to be much wetter. ¬†Archaeological finds have detailed thriving civilizations in the heart of the Sahara, and bones found in the region showed that hippos, fish, and crocodiles were once quite common. ¬†5,000 to 6,000 years ago, a mere blink of the eye in geologic time, the Sahara was a much wetter environment, and scientists aren’t exactly sure what climate mechanism caused the shift to the extremely dry climates that are found there today. ¬†The tropical “rain belt” that provides moisture to many equatorial regions was shifted much further north during that time, but the reasons are unclear.

Life on…Pluto!?!?? — Scientists pretty much all agree that it’s only a matter of time before we find life on another planet. ¬†We’ve already detected many intriguing hints that life was likely once found on Mars (or even could be found there today). ¬†Over the last 10 years though, the list of planets and moons with potential life has risen dramatically, not only with our first confirmation of potentially suitable planets being identified outside of our own solar system, but even within our own solar system. ¬†Pluto would have been about dead last on the list of potential candidates, before the 2015 flyby of the New Horizons spacecraft. ¬†It’s incredibly cold and distant from the sun, and was thought to be a barren, cold world. ¬†Instead, New Horizons provided strong evidence of a massive subsurface “ocean” on Pluto. ¬†As this story notes, that ocean is likely an incredibly harsh environment, still cold and packed with ammonia. ¬†However, as we’ve found on earth, life can thrive in the most inhospitable environments, and any environment with water and organic compounds such as ammonia is a potential breeding ground for life.

Enceladus

Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn that just may harbor life. Beneath the cracked, icy crust of the small moon lies a liquid water ocean, thanks to the gravity and strong tidal forces exerted by Saturn. Spacecraft observations found geysers spouting water into the thin atmosphere, providing further proof of the subsurface ocean that just might be a place to look for life.

Six most likely places to find life in the Solar System — Related to the Pluto story…where else in the solar system might we find life? ¬†This piece highlights six potential candidates. ¬†Enceladus is a small moon of Saturn where the Cassini spacecraft detected geysers spouting ice and water into the atmosphere from cracks in the moon’s surface. ¬†Strong tidal forces from Saturn likely keep a subsurface ocean liquid, and where’s there’s liquid water, life is a possibility. ¬†Titan, another moon of Saturn, is extremely cold, but has liquid lakes of methane and ethane on its surface, organic compounds that could harbor life. ¬†Europa, a moon of Jupiter, likely has much more water in subsurface oceans than the earth has in its oceans. ¬†That water lies below a 10-mile thick crust of ice, but with the discovery of “black smokers” on earth, it’s been shown that light and photosynthesis isn’t necessarily needed as an ingredient for life. ¬†A subsurface ocean with similar heat sources could easily support life. ¬†Mars, and even the atmosphere of Venus, are also discussed as potential reservoirs of life in the solar system.

Einstein wrong? — Einstein’s theory of relativity depends on the assumption of the speed of light being a constant, no matter the situation. ¬†Scientists are now assessing the possibility that the speed of light may not be a constant, that it was once much higher in the early universe. ¬†Such a finding would cause major upheaval in the world of physics. Science never ceases to surprise, and this story is a great example of why we need to keep challenging even our most cherished and “known” scientific beliefs.

Gatlinburg fires the “new normal” — The tragic fires in and around Gatlinburg were something of a surprise, given that massive, destructive fires just aren’t all that common in the southeastern U.S. ¬†That may be changing, thanks to climate change, drought, and increased climate variability. ¬†The southeastern U.S. is a pretty moist location, but major droughts can occur there. ¬†Climate change may be increasing extreme events, including drought, and may make larger fires a much more common occurrence in the southeast. ¬†Note the story also has a number of quotes from Mark Svoboda, a friend of mine who now leads the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Four new element names on the periodic table! — We’ve known about elements 113, 115, 117, and 118, but as newly discovered elements over the last few years, they hadn’t been assigned new names. The new names are¬† nihonium (Nh), moscovium (Mc), tennessine (Ts) and oganesson (Og). ¬†Don’t expect to find a chunk of “Moscovium” or any of the others while out taking a hike. ¬†All were discovered through the use of particle accelerators, and all are extremely unstable, decaying to more basic elements within a miniscule fraction of a second after they are created.

 

In The News – Week of October 30th

Common Swift - Apus apus

A Common Swift as normally seen…in flight. Photo by Stefan Berndtsson.

No posts since last week’s “In the News”. ¬†There’s a good reason…I’m being cured of my internet news addiction!! ¬†With the election coming up, I’m sick to my stomach thinking a man like Donald Trump is a heartbeat away from the most powerful position on the planet. ¬†No news is good news, right? ¬†Hence my attempts over the past week to kick the internet news habit! ¬†With that…some more science/nature/miscellaneous news for the week:

Common Swifts airborne for 10 months — Common Swifts seem to be in a league of their own in terms of length of time staying aloft. ¬†Scientists recently attached tiny trackers to 13 Common Swifts, a Eurasian species similar in appearance to some of the North American swifts. ¬†In sum, the 13 swifts were airborne for ~99% of their time outside of the breeding season. ¬†A few would land briefly during the winter months, but 3 of the birds didn’t land at all for 10 months straight.

Frankenspinach — Who thinks of things like this? Scientists have used a solution containing carbon nanotubes,and applied it to the leaves of growing spinach plants. ¬†The spinach plants absorb the carbon nanotubes, and when the plants are in the presence of soil containing trace elements associated with landmines and other explosives, the nanotubes emit a fluorescent signal that can be picked up by nearby sensors, alerting monitoring stations of danger.

There’s gotta be life out there — One constant about the earth’s ecosystems is that if there’s just the tiniest bit of suitability to support life, life is found there. ¬†Single-cell organisms can be found in the most hostile of environments, while even more complex life is continually found in new and surprising places. In this recent study, scientists looked at glacial landscapes that had been covered with ice for many thousands of years, but had the landscape recently uncovered as glaciers melt in response to climate change. ¬†These incredibly hostile environments are largely devoid of life when glaciated, but the scientists found that very complex biomes are established very quickly after the ice retreats. ¬†“Life finds a way” (Jurassic Park quote, I believe), which makes it pretty much a slam dunk that it’s not just Earth where life has established itself in hostile environments. ¬†It’s yet another example of why many scientists expect we will find evidence of alien life in the next few decades.

"Classy" sticker

I’ve always thought these kinds of stickers on cars were tacky and crass. In reality, perhaps they are just a graphical depiction of our future of pee-powered cars!

Poop-powered cars — “Hydrothermal liquefaction” may be coming to a sewage treatment plant near you, turning human waste into a viable fuel source. The process converts human waste into a product very similar to oil products pumped out of the ground, a product that similarly can be refined into fuel. ¬†People produce 34 billion gallons of waste every day in the U.S., enough to make 30 million barrels of oil per year. You yourself have the capability to produce a few gallons of fuel per year! ¬†Thus, those classy folks who have stickers on their car showing a little boy peeing on a brand name they don’t like? ¬†The producers of those stickers may have been prescient, and it’s really a symbol of a boy “fueling” his car!!

Ozone hole will still be around for decades — The ozone hole over the south pole grew achieved a maximum area of about 9 million square miles this year. ¬†That still very, very large, but a touch smaller than the average over the last few decades. ¬†It wasn’t until the mid 1980s that scientists even knew there was an ozone hole, which developed due to ozone-depleting chemicals used by humanity. ¬†The ban on those chemicals has set us on the path to restoring normal atmospheric conditions, but as this story notes, it’s going to be a slow process. They estimate things won’t return to “normal” until about 2070.

Roller-coaster therapy for kidney stones — Passing a kidney stone can be some of the worst pain a human being can experience, with some stating it’s even worse than child-birth. ¬†Options are sometimes limited for taking care of kidney stones, but researchers at Michigan State may have a new solution…roller coasters! ¬†The researchers noted several patients of theirs had recently visited theme parks, and had passed kidney stones soon after riding roller coasters. ¬†It’s thought the combination of the vibration and motion helps the body to move a kidney stone through the system.

We’re screwed — Count me as a major cynic about our feeble attempts to limit carbon emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change. As this story notes, the United Nations agrees, finding that our current efforts to curb carbon are woefully, painfully, ridiculously short of what’s needed to actually mitigate negative impacts of climate change. ¬†Given that Americans in particular seem to prefer sticking their heads in the sand, rather than face scientifically verified reality, it’s not a surprise. We’re just too short-sighted as a species, focused on our own short-term welfare (aka, greed and selfishness), to do a good job planning for long-term catastrophe like this.

Avocado

The world’s most perfect food, but alas, it seemingly has a big environmental cost.

Everything has a cost — Damn. I LOVE avocados. ¬†They may just be the world’s perfect food. ¬†I of course use them in the traditional ways, but guacamole or just plain avocado is SO good on so many other “non-traditional” foods. ¬†But alas, as with most things in life, there is a cost. ¬†As this story notes, avocados are having a much more severe impact in Mexico than once thought, with deforestation and increased water use affecting ecosystems in many areas. ¬†With an explosion in demand for avocados, the story is quite similar to the story of almonds in California, notorious water-suckers that demand a huge amount of resources to produce. ¬†“Niche” products like avocados or almonds clearly can have devastating environmental impacts, just as do some major staple crops.

 

 

 

Wrapping up Birding 2015

Green-throated Carib - Eulampis holosericeus

A Green-throated Carib,¬†one of 24 new “lifers” for 2015. This was in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

I told myself 2015 would be a “big year” kind of year for birding. ¬†I started well! ¬†I had intended to see how many species I could see within South Dakota during the year. ¬†I started early, getting all the winter birds you could reasonably expect around here, then really hit it hard in spring. ¬†During spring migration I did a lot of birding, and had reached 200 species in the state by mid-May.

And I ended with 221 species. ¬†Part of it is the obvious…that it gets harder and harder to find new species as the year goes on. Part of it was health. ¬†Starting in June, I started having all kinds of eye issues, and birding just wasn’t at the top of my priority list. ¬†221 within South Dakota is still a nice year though. ¬†Throw in a trip to Arizona in November for work, where I took a couple of personal days to bird, plus a week in the Virgin Islands on vacation, and my yearly list was closer to 300. ¬†A mere 5800 or so fewer than Noah Strycker saw on his year-long quest to set a new world-wide birding record.

For the year in South Dakota, I only saw a handful of new species. ¬†I’m not even sure how many I have lifetime in the state. Overall there have been about 435 species seen in the state. ¬†For 2015, new ones included the incredibly strange Great Kiskadee that was found in November near Brookings, Violet-green Swallow (I don’t get to the western part of the state much), Gray Jay (see previous comment about traveling west), and a Black-necked Stilt. ¬†Only the Kiskadee was a life bird, as I’d seen the others before out of state.

Photo of Lawrence's Goldfinch

Lawrence’s Goldfinch, another 2015 lifer. ¬†They can be tough to find, even in range. ¬†Sometimes they move into Arizona in winter, and I was lucky in finding several in Tucson in November.

Thanks to my birding in Arizona and the Virgin Islands, I did have several new lifers for 2015 other than the Kiskadee.  24 in total, with the new ones for 2015 including:

  • Elegant Trogon (Florida Canyon south of Tucson – HUGE highlight for me, particularly finding one in November when they’re tough to find)
  • Scaled Quail (SE of Tucson)
  • Hammond’s Flycatcher (Florida Canyon south of Tucson)
  • Plumbeous Vireo (Florida Canyon south of Tucson)
  • Lawrence’s Goldfinch (Within Tucson itself, a really nice one to pick up given how hard they can be to find)
  • Cassin’s Sparrow (SE of Tucson)
  • White-tailed Kite (SE of Tucson)
  • Rufous-winged Sparrow (SE of Tucson)
  • Hepatic Tanager (Madera Canyon south of Tucson)
  • Black-whiskered Vireo (Virgin Islands)
  • Caribbean Elaenia (Virgin Islands)
  • Magnificent Frigatebird (Virgin Islands)
  • Scaly-naped Pigeon (Virgin Islands)
  • Mangrove Cuckoo (Virgin Islands)
  • Zenaida Dove (Virgin Islands)
  • Green-throated Carib (Virgin Islands)
  • Lesser Antillean Bullfinch (Virgin Islands)
  • Antillean Crested Hummingbird (Virgin Islands)
  • Gray Kingbird (Virgin Islands)
  • Pearly Eyed Thrasher (Virgin Islands)
  • Bananaquit (Virgin Islands)
  • Black-faced Grassquit (Virgin Islands)
  • Antillean Nighthawk (Virgin Islands)

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…

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