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Climate Change is for the Birds

This morning was one of the most bizarre birding trips I’ve taken in a while. The forecast was clear skies and low wind, a combination you need to take advantage of when it happens in South Dakota. I headed up to the Lake Thompson area in Kingsbury County, South Dakota, to shoot gulls, terns, shorebirds, herons, egrets…all the wonderful water-loving birds you find up there this time of year.

I wanted to arrive just before dawn, and given it’s a 1 1/2 hour drive, I was up and on the road quite early. I knew right away something was different. Even before the sun arose, the lighting was strange. There were clearly no visible stars in the dark sky, but yet I had no doubt it was indeed cloud-free.  We had a hint of this phenomena yesterday, but this morning it hit full bore…a sky full of smoke from the fires hundreds of miles away in the western US and Canada.

Not was I was expecting when I left this morning, and it certainly changed the types of photos I went after! As usual at this time of year, there were birds everywhere. However, even after sunrise, the light was so poor that it was difficult to grab any decent photos.  It wasn’t until about half an hour after sunrise when it started to get bright enough to shoot. It’s not often you can point your expensive camera right at the sun at that time of day, and not permanently fry your sensor, but the light was so diffuse this morning I certainly could.  I ended up settling down at a wetland area near Lake Thompson, trying to shoot the numerous Black Terns against the odd, but beautiful lighting.  Not a situation I’m used to shooting in, but I was able to get some photos I thought were “cool”.

I’ve been in South Dakota 25 years now, and lived at basically the same latitude down in southern Nebraska before that. Until the last few years, I just don’t remember fire seasons out West being SO bad, that our air here on the eastern side of South Dakota was this affected.  But last year too, on one rock-hunting trip, the air was so bad that my eyes were watering and I started wheezing a bit. Something has changed!  That something most likely is due to, or at least severely exacerbated by, climate change!

Climate change is for the birds. But at least for one morning, it made for some cool photos.

Black Tern (Chlidonias niger) - Flying through smoke-filled skies

Black Tern, flying through the reflection of a smoke-diffused sun. This is at LEAST half an hour after sunrise!

Black Tern (Chlidonias niger)Highway 81 Lakes and Smoky Sky

 

 

Eclipse Hunting, Rockhounding, and Dinos…Oh My!

What an utterly spectacular weekend with my son.  We had originally planned to head down to my hometown in Nebraska to view the eclipse Monday. A cloudy forecast for much of Nebraska led to a last-second change of plans, and our extended weekend turned into a weekend of SCIENCE!  And may I say, given how the relentless attack on science continues ever since the election of Orange Hitler, a much NEEDED weekend of science.

Our whirlwind sciency tour was planned in haste on Saturday night.  At that time, the surest bet for sunny skies for the eclipse were in eastern Wyoming, a good 7-8 hour drive from home.  We decided to make a weekend of it, stay in the Black Hills over night Sunday (the nearest hotel we could find to the eclipse path…2 hours away!), and do some agate, fossil, and petrified wood exploring on the way.  Sunday we spent some time on Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in the morning, again finding some nice geologic goodies. By Sunday afternoon we’d made it to Hill City, SD, and spent some time in the Black Hills Institute’s Museum. Wonderful place to look at dinosaur fossils, geologic wonders, and other interesting displays.

The highlight of the trip of course was the eclipse on Monday. Anticipating heavy traffic, we left Hill City by 5:30 AM, and made our way to Lusk, Wyoming.  Traffic wasn’t as bad as we thought, so we were there by 8:00 AM. We grabbed supplies, found a quiet gravel road 20 miles SW of Lusk, and waited for the show.

That “quiet” gravel road ended up being not so quiet. Despite the isolation, other eclipse watchers from all over North America paraded by us, searching out pullouts on the side of the road from which to set up camp. By the time the moon first started to creep in front of the sun, our quiet gravel road had people camped out about every 30 yards for as far as the eye can see. People continued to stream down the road, all the way up until the point of totality.

I’ve never seen a total eclipse. My son has never seen a total eclipse. After this experience, I GUARANTEE that we will make plans to see another, as soon as is feasible (likely 2024).  If there’s a more spine-tingling, goosebump-raising, incredible experience to be had, I’m not sure what it is. As the light got every more dim and eerie, anticipation rose, but the moment of totality kind of sneaks up on you. There was more light than I expected, RIGHT up until totality. The awe of seeing the initial “diamond ring” effect, following by complete totality, is beyond words.

I did want to try to photograph the eclipse. I did take several photos at the start of totality, but after several photos, I HAD to put the camera down, and just revel in the moment.  Other than rather incredible traffic trying to get out of Wyoming and back to South Dakota, it was one of the best travel adventures we’ve ever had.

A few shots of the eclipse, before my jaw dropped and the camera was ignored…

Solar eclipse - 2017

Moments before totality, a few seconds of the “diamond ring” effect. I had read about the stages of the eclipse, and knew this was supposed to happen right before totality. Seeing it was still indescribable.

Solar Eclipse - 2017

The eclipse during the 2_ minutes of totality. This has a bit longer exposure than the next shot, gathering more light so you can see more of the corona. Shooting in this fashion though hides the detail you can observe around the edge of the moon’s disc (see next photo).

Solar Eclipse - 2017

Lower exposure reveals what you can see with your own eyes during totality (at least through my camera, or through our binoculars)…solar prominences flaring off the surface of the sun. This was the moment I dropped the camera and just enjoyed the show. With such a short 2+ minute window to enjoy totality, I didn’t want to miss it with my face behind a camera.

 

Science endangered. America endangered.

Endangered ScientistsGiven the news of the day, if I were to truly do justice to the scope of the threat to our society and way of life, this would be the longest blog post I’ve ever written.  If you’re a scientist or have any interest in science, today is one hell of a dark, depressing day.  There’s absolutely no way to sugar coat it. The Trump 2018 budget outline that came out today is worse than anybody could have imagined for science, even worse than the leaks that have been coming out over the past month. The numbers would completely cripple federal science agencies, but the bad news certainly doesn’t stop there. Academic research in the United States is critically dependent upon Federal research money.  This budget strikes a double-blow, against both government science, and the academic and private-sector science that depends upon Federal grants and funding.

If the word “climate” appears ANYWHERE in your federal program’s mission statement, chances are your proposed budget is completed gone, or severely crippled. Here’s the language in the budget outline for the EPA, regarding climate-related work:

Discontinues funding for the Clean Power Plan, international climate change programs, climate change research and partnership programs, and related efforts—saving over $100 million for the American taxpayer compared to 2017 annualized CR levels. Consistent with the President’s America First Energy Plan, the Budget reorients EPA’s air program to protect the air we breathe without unduly burdening the American economy.

“Climate research programs”, any “related efforts”, any cooperative international work on climate…COMPLETELY DISCONTINUED.  It’s certainly not just EPA.  USGS research that’s NOT related to energy extraction or hazards would take a severe hit…that includes climate work, Fish & Wildlife work, hydrologic monitoring, and more.  NOAA’s Oceanic and Atmospheric Branch…over HALF of their budget would disappear, and other climate-related programs would take a major hit or be eliminated in their entirety. NASA’s budget is spared…IF it’s the part of the NASA budget that looks up towards the skies.  Monitoring our own earth? Blah…who needs it…the proposed budget whacks NASA Earth Science and cuts four satellite programs linked to atmospheric and climate monitoring. The National Institutes of Health, heretofore generally immune to partisan bickering, would suffer an 18% in funding. Given NIH grants are typically multi-year, that literally means there would be no new federal NIH grants for medical research in 2018.

This doesn’t even touch on the truly cruel, pointless parts of the budget proposal, cutting nearly all Federal arts and humanities funding, removing all funding for PBS, and even eliminating the Meals on Wheels program to help feed the sick and elderly.

This is just a budget blueprint, staking out the Trump ideology. It’s up to Congress to pass actual funding for 2018. Surely Congress is more practical about measures that could destroy America’s place as a world leader in technology, science, and research, right? Well, do YOU have confidence in THIS Congress to do any better than the Trump budget? A Congress that introduced the disaster of a replacement for Obamacare that would give $600 billion in tax cuts for the rich, while forcing 24 million Americans to lose health insurance?  A Congress where the vast majority of House and Senate GOP members vote with Trump on nearly every issue?

Do you think they’ll stand up to Trump cruel, pointless budget, and protect the innovation and technological programs that made America great? I can’t say as I’m optimistic. I don’t think it will be as bad as the Trump budget outline suggests.  But it will be bad.

What’s laughable? There are already economists coming out stating this budget will have the OPPOSITE effect of what Trump intends. Wall Street has certainly applauded a forthcoming reduction in regulation, both environmental and economic. In the long-term. Innovation, technological and scientific, plays a massive role in the American economy. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) states flatly that the budget would “severely harm U.S. innovation, productivity, and competitiveness“.  The wind industry could generate a quarter of a million jobs by 2020, but wind and other energy sources NOT related to fossil fuels take a huge hit in this budget. Rather than spurring economic growth, the only thing the Trump administration seems to care about, it’s likely that the budget blueprint will devastate the long-term economy.

In short, the Trump budget, focused totally on his ideology, will end up not only destroying science and innovation in this country, it will destroy our long-term economy.  Ironic.

Visiting a Muslim country, facing your “fear”

Terry - United Arab Emirates

A much younger version of myself, still hanging on to my old heavy-metal days and the long flowing hair. I couldn’t have looked, or acted, more differently than the local population when I spent a month in the United Arab Emirates. It didn’t matter. I was always treated with respect and warmth. People are people. We all want the same things in life.

20 years ago today I landed in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, to do a month’s worth of work in a cooperative exchange with the UAE government. I was young(er), had long flowing hair about a foot long in the back, and had never been overseas before. I was probably the definition of a hippie, obnoxious, clueless American overseas.

During my trip I also visited Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, all countries that are overwhelmingly Muslim. Despite looking and acting MUCH different than the locals, I was treated with kindness, respect, and warmth throughout my trip. The people I dealt with were wonderful, warm, funny…in other words, they were normal human beings trying to live out their lives the best way they knew how. Not once did I feel threatened. Not once did I feel scared. At every opportunity, when I needed help making my way through a day in a strange land, a helping hand was offered.

These are the same people being targeted over the last month. These are the people so many Americans are scared of. They’re not criminals. They’re not terrorists. They’re people who may look a little different than you, may believe in different things than you. They want the same things you want in life…family…health…and happiness.

Put a human face on those you may be suspicious of. Put yourself in THEIR shoes. You may find you have a hell of a lot more in common than you realize.

Abu Dhabi - 7 EmiratesRub Al Khali Desert - United Arab EmiratesUnited Arab Emirates - CamelRub Al Khali Desert - United Arab Emirates

American “Christianity” (or lack thereof)

Coexist

A great idea, different religions, people with different beliefs, living in harmony. It might actually even work…if people would actually practice what they preach, and follow the actual teachings of their religion.

Yes, I’m an atheist.  A 100%, dyed-in-the-wool, god-denying atheist. I DO respect the right of people to believe whatever the hell they want to believe.  I will NEVER give anybody grief for following the true doctrines of Islam, Christianity, or any other religion.  While I don’t believe at all in the underlying premise of religion, of some omnipotent, invisible, all-powerful god overseeing the universe, the basic tenets of the major religions are, overall, honorable and good.  Teaching love, understanding, CARING for your fellow man…the world would be a truly wonderful place if the primary doctrines of these religions were actually followed. Given the overall “good” that nearly all religious belief teaches, I could easily overcome my certainty that there is no god, could easily overcome my cynicism on how much energy is spent on religious activity, and even SUPPORT these religions, in terms of what they’re supposed to be trying to accomplish.  I COULD respect religion and religious followers more, except for one tiny issue…

The actual doctrines of these religions seem to mean very little to their followers.

I’m not going to talk about Islam. The teachings of Islam are primarily the same as those of Christianity.  Yes, there clearly is a very small minority of Muslims who have twisted the teachings of Islam into an agenda of hate and intolerance.  Guess what America…they’re not alone.  Christianity has also become perverted in the U.S., primarily due to the forces of fear, hatred, and ignorance.

I was raised a Lutheran.  I went to church with my family every Sunday.  I hated it…primarily because I had to get out of bed early every Sunday morning!  Despite that, overall it helped shape who I am.  It taught me tolerance. It taught to love my fellow man.  It taught me how to be good to people.  As I grew up, as I started viewing the world through an objective lens, through the eyes of a scientist, the underlying belief in any “god” quickly faded away.  But the primary belief system has stayed with me.

The simple mantra of “practice what you preach” clearly comes into play this week with the election.  During the entire campaign, Donald Trump played on the fears and hatred of Americans.  He reveled in racism, stoking fear of Muslims, stoking fear of ANY immigrant, whipping up anger towards ANY group with a different skin color or religious belief.  He talked about a return to waterboarding and other torture techniques.  He’s a man on his 3rd wife, with documented affairs during the marriages of each. He’s a man who speaks of women as playthings, who openly said in an interview that  he doesn’t respect women.  He’s a man accused of assault by a number of women. He’s a man who has been sued over 3,000 times, is known for purposely stiffing contractors who have done work for him, and is currently involved in a fraud trial for Trump University.

In short…he’s not the most “Christian” of candidates!! Instead, you can make a very strong case that throughout American history, Donald Trump is the most corrupt, least “Christian” candidate that has ever received a major party nomination, much less won the presidency.  Did that cost him at the voting booth?  Did it cost him support among those with strong religious beliefs?

Not in the least.  With the possible exception of Utah, where a sizable chunk of principled Mormon voters refused to support him, Trump received very similar levels of support from evangelicals as have all past Republican candidates. For the past 30 years, Republicans have tried to cast themselves as the party most associated with Christian belief.  I understand the one issue, abortion.  I’m as liberal as liberal can be, and will always support a woman’s right to choose, to manage her own body, but even for me, abortion is a queasy issue.  I could possibly understand all the evangelical support for Trump, IF abortion were the driving issue.  However, there was very little discussion of abortion during the election, and it’s QUITE clear what actually drove Trump’s victory.

Racism.  Fear. Hatred.

What happened to those strong Christian beliefs? What happened to the actual TEACHINGS of Christianity in this election?  What happened to love, tolerance, helping your fellow man?  Instead, the overwhelmingly white “Christian” electorate that voted in Donald Trump erupted with anti-immigrant hate, “Build that wall!!” chants, violence towards non-whites at Trump campaign rallies.  We’ve seen ugly racial epithets and images, with an even more pronounced spike this week after the election.  We’ve seen groups like the KKK and alt-right actively back and endorse Trump, dreaming of a return to a “white” America.  We’ve seen vast support to end Obamacare, an effort that would result in 22 million Americans immediately losing health care coverage.  Ironically, despite all the hate in the campaign, we’ve also seen a rather hypocritical push by these same supporters to increase the role of Christianity in American life (while simultaneously trying to suppress Muslim influence).

In short…there’s VERY little of Trump’s campaign that jives with a Christian lifestyle.  How do “Christian” Americans reconcile their (supposed) religious belief with their actual actions?  Clearly they can’t.  You can’t claim a Christian heritage, yet actively support racism. You can’t claim a Christian heritage, yet value money and selfish greed over helping your fellow man.  You can’t claim a Christian heritage, yet base your lifestyle on the fear and HATRED of others.

I have a very difficult time with the entire idea of religious belief, not only because of my stance as an atheist, but because of the incredible hypocrisy from many self-proclaimed Christians in the U.S. I may be an atheist, but if there should actually be a God, I can guarantee you that in his/her eyes, I would be considered FAR more of a “Christian” than the vast majority of self-identified Christians in this country.

 

Practicing what you preach, America…

Birding, fun.  Photography, fun.  Walking outside while doing both…fun.

War…not fun.  ISIS…not fun.  Paris attacks…not fun.  When I “rebranded” my blog a while back, deleting old material and focusing only on birds, science, and photography, it was partially for my own sanity.  Blogging about politics and the ridiculousness of humanity isn’t fun. But the last few days have been depressing, seeing the reaction of Americans to the Paris bombings.  Can’t help but break rank here and go off topic…

Several weeks ago, the world was shocked by a photo of a 3-year old Syrian boy, a refugee, who washed up dead along the Turkish coast.  It put a face on the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and for a moment, provided world-wide sympathy for what the Syrian people are going through.

That’s gone.  A terrorist attack in Paris, conflicting reports about the origin of the attackers, and now Syrian refugees are being characterized as being nearly as bad, nearly as EVIL, as ISIS themselves.  In the last few days, 23 Governors have decreed they will ban any Syrian refugees from entering their state (even though it’s quite clear they don’t have that power).  The Republican presidential candidates have fallen all over themselves trying to out-do each other in promoting hatred and bigotry towards Syrian refugees, with Bush and Christie even both suggesting that refugees pass a “religion test”, with Muslims denied entry to the U.S. and Christians admitted.  Nothing screams “AMERICA!!!” to me more than making political hay out of a tragedy, and Republicans are certainly doing their damnedest to squeeze every last bit of political capital out of the Paris attacks.

What I find even more disheartening is the general reaction of Americans in general.  It’s absolutely disgusting to go online right now, either to social media or in reading comments on mainstream news stories.  The bigotry, the outright HATE that’s being spewed by so many every-day Americans is shocking, even to a cynic like myself.

In World War II, we let our fear and bigotry control our actions, and we placed thousands of Japanese Americans in interment camps, as black a mark as there is in U.S. history. Evidently we haven’t learned our lesson.  When we look back at what’s happening right now, we will look back with disgust, we will look back with SHAME.  Or at least we should.

The worst component to me is the complete and utter disregard for “Christian” beliefs.  What I’m seeing on Facebook…”Friends” (now former friends) posting meme images such as “One nation under GOD…NOT Allah!!”.  The states whose governors wish to ban Syrian refugees are almost exclusively “red” states, with conservative politicians and conservative constituencies.  EVERY STATE IN THE SOUTHEASTERN U.S. has had their governor proclaim they wish to ban Syrian refugees.  In other words…the entire so-called “Bible Belt” of America is turning its back on its OWN religion, making a mockery of Christianity, and choosing instead to be led by their own fear and bigotry.

I’m an atheist, not because of any disdain for religious belief in general, but because as a scientist…I need proof!  I need evidence!  However, I have no problem with people practicing whatever religion they desire, so long as it doesn’t directly cause harm to others, and so long as it isn’t force-fed down the throats of “other” religions.  Islam is NOT a violent religion…it’s perverted by a very small minority, to obvious evil and violent ends.

I’m sorry, American “Christians”, right now you are guilty of the same kind of perversion of your religion.  When people self-identifying as “Christian” deny assistance to a group of people undergoing the most unimaginable horrors…it’s a perversion of your religion.  When self-identified “Christians” direct hateful language towards Muslims and Syrians…it’s a perversion of your religion.  It’s absolutely shocking…absolutely DISGUSTING…to see what people are publicly saying in social media and elsewhere right now, and that includes some people I personally know and had thought highly of.

Nothing brings out the true character of a human being than fear.  And the Paris attacks have certainly brought out that fear (and thus, the hideous nature of far too many human beings).

It’s not just religion that’s been perverted by both Muslims and Christians though, it’s the foundation of the United States itself that is being perverted.  We were founded in the name of freedom, freedom to believe what you want, freedom to practice whatever religion you want, without fear, without consequence.  We are a nation of immigrants, as much of a “melting pot” as any nation on the planet.  Suddenly, conservatives who have long pointed to the Constitution, who have long pointed to the ideals of our Founding Fathers…are trashing it all, all in the name of their own cowardice, fear, and bigotry.  Suddenly we are NOT a nation of immigrants.  Suddenly we are NOT a nation of tolerance.  Suddenly we are a fearful nation, a nation of COWARDS, a nation where anyone who doesn’t share your skin color or religion is suspect.

The Paris attacks themselves were obviously shocking, an act of pure evil.  Our reaction to those attacks has been every BIT as perverted and evil.

A new favorite – Bananquits

Bananaquit - Coereba flaveola

A Bananaquit amongst the pink flowers of what was seemingly their favorite nectar source at the time we were on St. John’s.

Ah, work.  Such a silly thing, getting in the way of birding, of life in general.  I’ve been on a work trip (conference in Portland, Oregon), and thus no birding (or posts) for a week or so.  Back home now, and finally getting back to processing bird photos from our vacation in the Virgin Islands.

I had grand plans on how to attract birds at our rented beach house while on St. John’s Island, but admit those plans didn’t pan out!  Not in the least.  I had brought a hummingbird feeder with me, and had visions of the two resident hummingbird species (Antillean Crested Hummingbird, Green-throated Carib) dancing around the feeder while we relaxed on the deck overlooking the ocean. Both species of hummingbirds were certainly there, as both were easily observable from the beach house as they fed on nectar from the flowering trees and shrubs. As for the feeder?  Not once did I see a hummingbird even look at it, much less stop to feed.

Another reason for bringing the feeder was to attract another species I’ve certainly read about, but never seen…a Bananaquit.  According to what I read before departing on vacation, Bananaquits were supposedly easily attracted to sources of nectar and sugar. However, just like the hummingbirds, the Bananaquits showed absolutely no interest in the week we were there.

Bananaquit - Coereba flaveola

The method of feeding for a Bananaquit. I had heard they were nectar “robbers”, often piercing blooms at their base to retrieve nectar. Given the repetitive visits to the same blooms, however, they didn’t appear to be destructive to the bloom when feeding in the manner shown in the photo.

Fortunately they’re a pretty easy species to observe, and they were almost always present in the flowering trees and shrubs around our beach house.  The U.S. Virgin Islands have been going through quite a drought, and the vegetation in much of the island was brown.  There was one species of tree that had barely any leaves, but did have quite a few big, tubular pink blossoms.  There were a pair of these trees by the beach house deck, and the Bananaquits certainly loved feeding on nectar from the pink blooms.

People tend to quickly lose interest in the “ordinary”.  Bananaquits in the U.S. Virgin Islands are one of the “ordinary” species that are so frequently seen that the locals likely think very little of them, much like most people are with Robins around here.  But for a non-local, I had a blast watching the Bananaquits.  That unique curved bill, the bright colors, the aggressive behavior in defending their patch of nectar flowers…it certainly was a highlight for the birding on St. John’s.

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