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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

 

 

Duckweed Covered Duck – POTD for July 31st

Today’s photo-of-the-day…a duckweed-covered duck.  Well, OK…no, technically it’s not a “duck”, it’s a juvenile Pied-billed Grebe, but I like my title choice and I’m stickin’ to it!!  This is from a couple of days ago at a local slough. There’s SO much cropland around here that when I see a wetland or pond completely covered in green, I immediately think it’s out of control algae (fed by all the fertilizer runoff). That wasn’t the case here. The water underneath was quite clear, algae wasn’t really evident, but the duckweed certainly was enjoying the environment.

As were Pied-billed Grebes! There were many adult and juvenile birds. It was fun watching them forage, disappearing underneath the duckweed and popping up through the green.  One of my favorite species, and the young have such wonderful plumage patterns.

Juvenile Pied-billed Grebe - Podilymbus podiceps

A visual depiction of the problem with men…

I haven’t done much with the website or blog lately, as I’ve been quite busy with work, including some travel.  I’m back home this weekend and am having a lovely morning, going through old, unprocessed photos, of which I have many.   I came across this photo of a pair of Bufflehead drakes fighting (a photo taken so long ago I don’t even remember it), and a blog topic came to mind.  The topic…just how dangerous it is leaving us men in charge.

This photo perfectly demonstrates men.  Testosterone…conflict…trying to prove your manliness with a show of strength.  When a problem arises, THIS is how men tend to handle things.  OK, sure, it’s all well and good if it’s a couple of cute little ducks on the pond, but the same concept applies to world leaders with powerful armies and weapons at their disposal.

Cheery thoughts to start the weekend!

Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) fighting

Boys being boys…two Bufflehead drakes fighting.

 

Spring busting out in birds

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

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

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

Great Horned Owl - Bubo virginianus

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

Greater White-fronted Goose - Anser albifrons

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

Common Merganser - Mergus merganser

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

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

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

Canada Goose - Branta canadensis

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

Snow Goose - Chen caerulescens

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

 

World’s most expensive dog bowl

Our two beloved spaniels, Oscar and Felix, are rather quirky. Given that they were originally found living by themselves in the wild, they were used to trying to find food, shelter, and water in the outdoors.  In the couple of years since we got them, they’ve become truly wonderful, sweet, loving pups, although they’ve maintained several of their original quirks.

The most maddening to deal with…their refusal to drink water if it’s inside the house. One of the two will sometimes drink from a water bowl inside the house, but strongly prefers drinking “outside water”.  The other?  There were a couple of days last fall, after I’d put the birdbath away for the winter, before there was any “delicious” snow to eat for a water source, where Oscar was refusing to eat much.  Even offering some of his most decadent, beloved treats…like some fresh cooked chicken breast…resulted in a turned up nose.  Wondering if the issue might be water, we placed a pan of water outside.  When we let the two outside, Oscar timidly approached the water, and then proceeded to guzzle the entire pan.  We let them back in the house, tried food again with Oscar, and he downed an entire bowl full.

It’s been maddening to try to get them to drink water, but my bird bath outside has always been their preferred drinking source, from the very first day we got them. However, that bird bath recently broke.  The only solution? Replace it with what’s got to be the world’s most expensive dog bowl (video at the bottom)!  I truly love this fountain…it’s from “Henri”, called their “Phoenix” fountain. It’s got a unique, modern style, has a big deep reservoir that holds a lot of water, has a wonderful shallow pan on top that the birds love to bath in, and most importantly, it’s very low and accessible for the pups!  And expensive, and back-breaking solution to get the dogs a reliable drinking water source!

Oscar and Felix - Birdbath

This is from the very first day we got Oscar (left) and Felix (right) from the rescue group. Almost immediately they found the joys of the bird bath, and for the last 3 years, it’s been their primary summer drinking source. Alas, this is the same bird bath that recently broke, requiring a replacement with the NEW world’s most expensive dog bowl.

March for Science, the “Harry Potter” crab, and more – Science, nature, and other news

Science, nature, environmental, and other news from the week.  Click on the story title for an external link.

March For Science

March for Science, coming to a city near you in a little over 2 months. Here’s hoping the march provides that “spark” that’s been missing between the American public and the scientists that serve them.

Planning continues for April 22nd March for Science — The “March for Science” is still scheduled for April 22nd, a grassroots effort to highlight the role of science within American politics and society.  The march has its roots in the backlash against the ghastly, anti-science tirades made by the Trump administration since the election, but as this story notes, the march is about the American public, and not the scientists themselves. This article from the Chronicle for Higher Education is focused on Caroline Weinberg, one of the March’s organizers. As Weinberg notes, there’s currently a disconnect between scientific research and the people in society whom that science benefits.  I couldn’t agree more with that statement, as scientists sometimes are QUITE terrible at communicating the value of their research to the public.  It’s easy for the public to understand the potential societal benefits of medical research, for example, but much more difficult for them to understand why investments in other scientific fields are societally relevant.  Personally, I am mixed on the March.  As a scientist, as a truly ANGRY scientist who is fed up with both the politicization of science, and with the anti-science attitude that has pervaded an entire major political party of the United States, I want this march to have every bit as much of an impact as the Women’s March held just after the inauguration. On the other hand, I view the March with a bit of trepidation.  We have a child as our President, an insecure, narcissistic man who must have a penis the size of a paper clip, given his tendency to angrily lash out at any entity that dares criticize himself or his actions.  Given Trump’s tendency to angrily push back when he himself is pushed, I fear that the march may end up doing more harm than good, in terms of the short-term political implications.  Despite any potential short-term impact, here’s hoping the march DOES inspire a longer-term engagement between the public and the scientists that serve the public.  Here’s hoping the march helps to reignite the PASSION Americans once held for science.

Solnova Solar Plant - Spain

The Solnova Solar Plant in Spain, an example of the massive global trend in the movement towards renewable fuel sources.

Solar power economics trump Trump — In just a few weeks after the inauguration, it’s quite clear that we already have what’s likely going to be among the most environmentally hostile administrations in history, even “besting” the dark conservation years of Ronald Reagan.  Anne Gorsuch Burford, EPA head under Reagan for nearly 2 years (and mother of conservative Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch), was famed for slashing nearly one-quarter of EPA staff, greatly reducing enforcement of Clean Air Act regulations, severely cutting legal action against environmental polluters, and populated EPA staff with big business executives from the very companies the EPA was supposed to be monitoring.  As bad as Reagan and Gorsuch Burford were…Trump’s team could very well be headed down an even darker path. On the energy front, Trump has vowed to slash Department of Energy funding, with a strong push for older, fossil-fuel energy sources as opposed to continued investment in renewables such as solar and wind power.  As this story notes, however, the very economics of solar energy may end up “trumping Trump” in the end. Costs for solar power now rival those of natural gas, and are cheaper than coal or nuclear energy.  Over two-thirds of new energy production in the U.S. in 2016 was from wind or solar, and with economics continuing to dictate the shift to renewables, even an environmentally hostile administration is unlikely to slow the trend.

Using Rabies to Kill Cancer — Brain cancers can be notoriously difficult to treat. The blood-brain barrier is protects the brain from nearly all pathogens, yet that same protective effect also restricts cancer treatments from reaching cancerous cells in the brain.  Scientists have long known that the rabies virus had the unusual capability to “hijack” nerve cells and use them as a means to bypass the blood-brain barrier.  Now they are using fragments of the rabies virus to coat cancer-fighting drugs, or even create new particles that mimic the characteristics of the rabies virus, enabling them to bypass the blood-brain barrier and reach cancerous brain cells.  The work is in its infancy and there are still many hurdles to overcome before such treatments could be used to treat persons inflicted with brain cancer, but it’s a great example both of the ingenuity of scientists, and the potential biological value of even one of our most feared pathogens.

Cactus Wren - Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus

A Cactus Wren on a blooming Saguaro cactus. A moderately sized songbird such as the Cactus Wren may be able to cope with heat and dehydration somewhat better than smaller songbird species, but they are still potentially threatened by rapidly changing climatic conditions.

Desert birds at risk from climate change — A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy for Science finds that climate change may have a devastating impact on some desert bird species in the coming decades, particularly smaller species such as Lesser Goldfinch.  Higher temperatures increase water needs for birds, particularly as they pant in response to temperature stress. Climate change may make parts of some species range “thermally inhospitable”, with birds potentially succumbing to heat stress and dehydration after just a few hours of exposure at extremely high temperatures.  Geographic population shifts are likely to occur as the climate changes, with birds moving to more hospitable locations, but with human-induced climate change, we are currently embarking on a grand, global-scale experiment on the ability of habitats and their inhabitants to adjust to changing climatic conditions.

Crab named for Harry Potter, Severus Snape — A newly identified crab species off the coast of Guam has been given the honor of being named after a pair of characters from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books.  Harryplax severus is the new scientific name for the species, in honor of Harry Potter and the much maligned, and loved, Severus Snape from the series. A great name for an enigmatic, little understood, newly discovered crab species!

Monarch Butterfly populations take a tumble — Populations of the much beloved Monarch Butterfly have taken a hit over the last year, due to the one-two punch of declining milkweed habitat on their summering grounds, and winter storms that have taken a toll on their wintering habitat in Mexico. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Mexican government measure the winter habitat area used by Monarch Butterflies, a quantitative estimate that serves as a proxy to overall population  health.  2-years ago, Monarch populations hit an all-time low, with only 0.67 hectares of habitat used for over-wintering.  Populations rebounded over the last 2 years, but the harsh conditions this year has results in a loss of over 25% of winter habitat area actively being used.

Oscar

One of our two spaniels, “Oscar”. According to science, we should have similar personalities to Oscar! He is certainly a beautiful, gentle soul, mirroring the traits of my son and wife! And yet he also has a quirky, neurotic, hard-to-understand side that perfectly mimics his troubled “father”.

Dogs mimic their owners’ personalities — New research from Austria claims that dogs and humans can pass along personality traits to each other, with human beings taking on the carefree, relaxed attitudes of dogs with those personality traits, and dogs adapting the anxiety characteristics from a stressed owner. For any dog owner, it’s not exactly a surprise that dogs are “sensitive to their owner’s emotional state”, but this study actually used measurements of cortisol, a “stress” hormone, to quantify the relationship.

Our planetary footprint shows no bounds — There’s little that frustrates me more than those with a strong religious belief who doubt that mankind even has the capability of significantly altering our planet.  You’ve complete imbeciles like Senate loser James Inhofe who seem hell-bent on ignoring every piece of science that may fall into their lap, with Inhofe doubting in climate change because he doesn’t believe man can affect change at such a massive scale. For idiots like Inhofe, only a god has the capability to have such far-reaching planetary impacts. For scientists, it’s obvious mankind has had such a massive impact on the planet as a whole that we may be in a new geologic era, the “Anthropocene”, characterized by massive environmental change as a result of anthropogenic activity.  This story notes that our effects on the planet extend even down to the deepest ocean trenches, where amphipods from 10,000 kilometers below the ocean’s surface have been found to have extremely high concentrations of PCBs and other man-made, organic pollutants.  It’s tough to deny mankind’s influence when creatures many hundreds of miles from any human settlement, at the bottom of the ocean, are poisoned by our activities.

Human’s driving climate to change at 170X the natural trend — Related to the story above, more evidence of mankind’s massive influence on our environment.  A new study by Australian National University finds that volcanic activity, changes in solar activity, and minor orbital fluctuations have influenced the Earth’s climate over the last 7,000 years, but the impact of mankind’s activities has been 170 times more pronounced than these natural forces. Climate-change deniers have tried to attribute the startling climate trends in recent decades to natural forces, but there’s little scientific evidence to back them. The Australian National University study is just one more nail in the coffin of climate-change deniers (a coffin that’s already been nailed shut for many years now).

Europa

Composite image of Jupiter’s moon Europa, from the Galileo and Voyager missions.

Searching for life on Europa — A science mission that even our science-hostile Congress is behind…searching for life in the Solar System.  NASA has preliminary plans to send a probe to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Europa is a cold, hostile place on the surface, covered in ice, but it’s a different story under the surface.  The tidal pull of Jupiter’s gravity is thought to provide an energy source that produces a thick sub-surface liquid ocean.  Cracks on the relatively smooth surface of Europa are evidence of the sub-surface water reaching the surface.  NASA believes they can potentially detect life on the moon by landing a probe on one of these surface breaches, digging down several centimeters into the surface ice, and using multiple instruments to detect microbes or organic signs of life.  Alas, the estimate is that the actual landing is 14 years from now, in 2031, but the proposed mission could finally answer the question of whether there’s life outside of the Earth.

Biggest volcano on the planet discovered — It’s 2017.  We’ve had extensive, periodic, repeating satellite coverage of the earth’s surface for over 40 years.  We’ve seemingly visited every corner of the earth’s terrestrial surface, and have increasingly mapped vast swaths of the hidden world under our oceans. The days of exploration and geographic discovery may seem to be in our far distant past, but as this find shows, there’s a lot we still don’t understand about our home planet.  Scientists from the the U.S., U.K., and Japan have discovered what is currently the largest known volcanic system on the planet.  “Tamu Massif” is a volcanic complex in the north Pacific ocean, about 1,000 miles east of Japan.  The tallest reaches of the volcanic remnants are more than a mile below the ocean’s surface, but the volcano itself covers an area nearly the size of New Mexico.  It’s thought to have last erupted over 140 million years ago, and is a shield volcano similar to the Hawaiian Island volcanoes. Mauna Loa in Hawaii is considered the world’s largest active volcano, with an area of around 2,000 square miles, but that’s a tiny fraction of the size of Tamu Massif which comes in at over 120,000 square miles.

 

Thousands of Snow Geese Killed in Montana

Snow Goose - Chen caerulescens

A mighty flock of swirling snow geese, looking for a place to land while migrating through South Dakota. It can be pretty spectacular when the geese are migrating through the state, but alas, these birds have to land SOMEWHERE to rest and refuel. A massive flock in Montana made the mistake of landing in a toxic mine pit, resulting in the death of thousands of birds.

I had to travel to Minneapolis yesterday for a work trip.  We’re about a 4-hour drive from the Twin Cities, I HATE flying, and especially given that I’d have to tly, pick up a rental, and then drive 20 miles through town to the north part of the city where my meetings were, I decided I’d drive instead of flying.  Winter has finally hit the area after an incredibly warm and beautiful fall, with 40+ mile-per-hour winds yesterday and plummeting temperatures, but that huge weather change did trigger a massive migration of Snow Geese through the area. As I drove I often saw many very large flocks of Snow Geese, struggling a bit in that wind, but all moving south to escape the cold temperatures.

Around here in South Dakota, you’ll typically find Snow Geese in two types of locations.  During the day, you’ll often see massive flocks sitting in open agricultural fields, feeding on grain residue.  When they’re looking for safety and a place to rest, they’ll choose a lake or other water body.  Imagine a flock of 10,000 Snow Geese, heading south to escape winter.  They’re flying for many hours, are tired and are looking for a place to rest, and upon finally spotting a large patch of open water, they circle and head down and land on surface to rest.

It’s not just South Dakota and Minnesota where the migration has been in full swing. In Montana a flock of many thousands did the same thing this week, circling down to rest in a large water body.  Unfortunately, that open water body was the infamous Berkeley Pit, an EPA Superfund site, and a toxic cesspool of cadmium, copper, zinc, and a host of other dissolved minerals that result in water acidic enough to dissolve metal.  The bodies of thousands of geese were found in the lake this week, chemical burns covering their bodies, as well as the linings of their mouths and throats for birds that tried to drink or feed.  Some birds temporarily escaped the toxic hell, but the bodies of many other Snow Geese have been found scattered throughout the area as they succumbed to the chemical mix after leaving the mine pit.

There are no physical barriers to prevent waterfowl or other wildlife from accessing the toxic water in the mine pit. The story notes the company that owns the mine (Atlantic Richfield Company) uses noise and other deterrents to try to scare away wildlife from accessing the water. The company touts “official” numbers they report to the EPA, that only 14 birds died in the mine pit in the period from 2010 to 2013.  Yeah, sure.  The company may have reported finding 14 carcasses during that span, but I find it very hard to believe that open water didn’t attract more wildlife, deterrents or not, and that intentionally or unintentionally that 14 count is a woeful undercount of the true toll.

Don’t think a company would try to cover up other such incidents?  The Washington Post story notes that a similar, yet smaller scale event happened in the same pit back in 1992.  During that incident, Atlantic Richfield Company tried to pass blame of the birds death to other causes, stating that perhaps “toxic grain” or some other poison killed all the birds that were floating in their mine pit.  That defense fell apart when the University of Wyoming did postmortems on the birds and found their deaths were caused by severe burns, from water acidic enough to dissolve aluminum and other metals.

This is but one incident, in one mining pit.  There are literally thousands of such waste pits in the western U.S., relics of either past or current mining operations.  Very short-term economic gain drives the development of these mining areas, but what about the long-term impacts?  What is done with waste pits like after mining ceases?  Are there any plans to ever detoxify the waters and clean up the mining residue?  Or is this the “norm”, where seemingly the only plan to avoid environmental catastrophe is to make a little noise to try reduce how many animals die in the toxic stew?  This pit was in operation from 1955 to 1982, a 27-year run of productivity, but in the 34 years since mining ceased, what has been done to mitigate the toxic stew that’s been left behind?  It’s an EPA Superfund site, but that designation clearly hasn’t fixed the problem 34 years later.

A mining company profited for 27 years from this pit.  The environmental damage and what’s been left behind will end up taking a toll for a much longer period of time.  We’ve now got a new administration coming into office with an obvious laser-sharp focus on corporate America.  Cabinet appointments to date, stated policies that are being pushed once they take office, a desire to slash regulation and even kill off the EPA…it all typifies that “ME FIRST!”, selfish, greedy, short-term gain mindset that sadly “Trumps” any thought of long-term devastation such as this.  I’ve said it before…I always wonder if people with this kind of mindset have any children, or give a damn about their futures if they do have children.  I can’t ever imagine putting money and short-term well-being over the well-being of future generations.

Water strike!!! Living with quirky pups…

Grover

Our first dog, Grover. Grover was the first of our quirky dogs! He usually was a sweet as can be, but with an occasional “grumpy” streak. In many ways he seemed part cat, part dog, taking love on HIS schedule, while grudgingly tolerating it at other times.

Way off topic, but given recent events…a story about our history with pups seemed to be in order.  I never had a dog growing up.  My dad is a great guy, but alas…he was a mailman!  No dogs for him.  My mom didn’t like cats.  As a result, I had fish growing up, but never had something warm and huggable! After we got married and got our first house, one of the first things I wanted to do…get a dog!  We ended up with “Grover”, a wonderful, sweet-yet-simultaneously-grumpy Cocker Spaniel with a million little quirks.  Most of the time, he was sweet and loving, but on occasion, his grumpy side would kick in and he might TOLERATE your love, but he didn’t seem too enamored about it. Despite his quirks, he was a great first dog.

A year or two after getting Grover, my wife stumbled across “Cooper”, a Cocker Spaniel in need of rescue.  She went to see him at his home, where he had lived outside for his short first year of life, chained to a tree with nothing to even play with, other than an empty milkjug.  Of course when you SEE a rescue dog, you WANT the rescue dog.  We arranged to get him, and I went over the next day to pick him up. He’d never been groomed, had hair as long as any Cocker Spaniel you’d ever seen before, hadn’t been played with much…but when I picked him up and brought him to the car, he immediately jumped into my lap in the driver’s seat, and curled up.  Hence began our long, perfect relationship with Cooper “Milkjug” Sohl, a beautiful, gentle soul for whom the entire world was always a place of happiness and wonder.

Cooper

Cooper, our 2nd spaniel who lived a long, healthy life alongside Grover. Cooper was the sweetest soul that ever walked the face of the earth, with nary a “bad day”, and always full of joy.

Dogs live far too short of lives.  After 11 years, Grover started having health issues.  An examination and x-ray revealed the worst…a huge tumor that wasn’t treatable.  We didn’t know how long he had left, but he continued to enjoy life, and we enjoyed our lives WITH him. After a couple of months, something I’ll never forgive myself for…I went on a business trip, doing field work up in Alaska.  We were staying overnight in a wilderness cabin, in the middle of nowhere…and my cell phone rang at 1:00 in the morning.  Stunned that there was even service, I picked up the phone, and heard the cracking voice of my crying wife.  Grover had woken during the night and was seemingly paralyzed in the lower half of his body, due to the growth of the tumor.  My wife snuggled him through the night, brought him into the vet in the morning, and he was given release from his pain.  My first dog, and I wasn’t even there for him at the end.

Cooper lived for another couple of years before he too started having health issues.  Just as with Grover, an examination found a large tumor that was inoperable.  However, we were fortunate with Cooper.  He didn’t pass until he was almost 15, and for his last couple of months with us, we were able to shower him with love and affection, before letting him go as well.  This was in early spring of 2014.

It’s heartbreaking to lose a family member, and make no mistake, dogs are family members.  My wife didn’t want another dog, at least not for a long while.  Myself?  Our house just seemed so quiet, so empty.  After a month I started casually looking at “rescue” sites, not really planning on doing anything, but being…curious.  It was during this aimless online perusing that I came across “Oscar” and “Felix”, two spaniels that had been found living in the wild. They were found living in an outside auger pipe, and thus they were initially given the nickname “The Pipe Spaniels”.  When a farmer down in Kansas first managed to coax them into his house, they were scared, wild, and painfully shy of any human contact.  After refusing to leave the relative safety of a spot under the farmer’s bed, a rescue group was contacted.  For the next two months, they were slowly introduced to human contact by a wonderful woman from the rescue group, and in June of 2014, we were introduced to the newest members of our family.

Oscar and Felix

Oscar and Felix, the “Pipe Spaniels” soon after they were rescued. At this stage, they’d huddle together in the far end of their enclosure, trying to stay as far away as possible from any human contact.

Given their background and reluctance to even touch a human being when they were first found, they had made some progress by the time we got them.  However, they were still incredibly shy, so easy to spook at the slightest disturbance, and felt much more comfortable snuggling with each other than they did coming anywhere close to members of our family.  The first month was especially rough.  Just trying to get them to go in and out of the patio door to go outside was often a chore.  We were slowly introducing ourselves to them, allowing them to get used to us at their own pace.  There were many growing pains over the first year!  After a while, they began to feel more comfortable. Instead of looking for “cover” while resting (such as under a table or chair), they started coming into the living room and feeling comfortable enough to fall asleep in the open while we were all in the room.  They were increasingly coming up for pets, and then snuggles. Trying to walk them on a leash was impossible at first, as they’d buck like broncos while on leash.  But there too, they began to trust us.  By the end of that first summer, not only did they learn to walk on a leash, but walks became the high point of their day!  Just the sight of us grabbing the leashes would send them into a butt-wiggling frenzy of  happiness. As they learned to trust us, they also started acting like “normal” dogs, following us wherever we went in the house, and often insisting on snuggling up with us no matter where we were.

It’s now been 2 1/2 years since we’ve gotten the Pipe Spaniels”.  A great story?  No doubt!  They’re wonderful, sweet little dumplings (my wife’s term), and have added immeasurable joy to our lives.  But as rescues, coming from a background “in the wild”, they are two of THE QUIRKIEST dogs on the planet.  The names the rescue group gave them, “Oscar” and “Felix” are PERFECT as they are truly the “Odd Couple” of dogs.

Oscar, Felix and Alex

This is about 3 months after we got Oscar and Felix. Despite their quirks, they warmed up to our son FAR faster than we would have ever expected.

Felix is the goofy, more outgoing one.  We’ve given him the middle name of “Tigger”!!  He’s always bouncing from place to place, looking for something exciting.  If there’s trouble in the house, you can ALWAYS bet that it’s Felix who started that trouble!  He loves to chase, he loves to play, he loves to tease his brother, and tease us!  He also is a true cuddler, loving nothing more than curling up on your lap or next to you on the couch.

Oscar’s middle name?  “Eeyore”.  He couldn’t be more different from Felix!  Everything he does is slow…and…deliberate.  Walking outside, eating, even playing…everything is done slowly and carefully.  He’s also more cautious and careful about distributing his love, which makes loving moments with him even more special.

Given their background as rescues, even after 2 1/2 years, quirks remain, one of which has recently driven  us NUTS, and is the reason for the title of this blog post.  While they generally act like “normal” dogs while with us in the house, they are often still painfully shy around new people and new situations. Fortunately they both think our son is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but otherwise, children, especially young girls, really seem to frighten them (making us wonder what they went through before the rescue place took them in). One major, MAJOR quirk…their eating and drinking habits, particularly the latter.

The first day we got them, we immediately introduced them to the back yard.  One of the first things they did…go over to the bird bath and get a good drink. Ever since that first day, they both REFUSE to drink water that’s inside the house!  The bird bath is their “go to” source of water, and no matter how thirsty they are, they will wait until they’re outside before taking a drink.  In winter when the water is frozen?  They eat snow!  No water in the bird bath in summer? They’ll lick the morning dew off the deck!  They’ll lick the dew in the grass!  They’ll look for a mud puddle!  They even turn over plastic bags or other things in the back yard to lick the moisture underneath!  It’s only on the very rare occasions where there’s no outside water source that they’d even DREAM of drinking water from the always full bowl next to their doggy beds.

Felix

Felix lounging on the couch in one of his favorite positions. Yeah…I’d say he’s learned to relax around us.

Recently, we have been very worried about Oscar.  He’s always been the “quirkier” pup, but recently he’s taken it to a new level.  About a week and a half ago, Oscar started to eat more slowly, and leave food behind in his bowl.  Soon, it was hard to get him to eat at all.  After one day where he refused to eat anything, we set up a vet appointment and started to wonder what was wrong.  I called the vet to make the appointment, then went back to try to get him to eat…something. ANYTHING!  Even ground beef, fresh chicken, and any other of his favorite treats were rejected.  He’d lick them once or twice, then ignore them.

That evening, worrying about poor Oscar and anxiously waiting for the next day’s vet appointment, a thought occurred to me.  His eating troubles began RIGHT at the time where I took the bird bath down for the winter.  The weather had been very dry, and there was little moisture outside for them, except perhaps the morning dew. In the past, both pups would VERY reluctantly resort to that yucky, disgusting tap water in indoor bowls, if no water were available from any other source.  We had just assumed that if they were really thirsty, they knew there was always an accessible bowl of water by their doggy beds!  But on a hunch, I took that bowl of water and moved it 10 feet…so it was OUTSIDE the patio door on the deck.

Oscar

Oscar in one of his favorite elements…snow! Why is this one of his favorite weather phenomenon? BECAUSE IT MEANS AN UNLIMITED SUPPLY OF OUTDOOR WATER!! Allowing him to avoid that disgusting, clearly inferior “indoor” water!!

Oscar “Eeyore” Sohl, in true Oscar fashion, slowly meandered to the door when I asked if they wanted to go out. Felix did as he always does, bounding down the stairs and running all over the  yard like a mad man.  Oscar? He stopped when he saw something was “different.” “What’s this?”, he seemed to be saying, as he suspiciously eyed the water bowl in the corner of the deck.  Slowly, cautiously, with tail tucked between his legs (or what counts as a tail on a docked Spaniel), he approached the bowl, much as a gazelle would approach a watering hole when lions are around.  He took a sniff…and then started chugging water like he’d been lost in the Sahara for months.  That ENTIRE BOWL of water was gone in a couple of minutes. I look out, and a happy looking Oscar is staring back up at me, with water dripping down from his wet snout.

Could that be it?  Could that be why he wasn’t eating? Was he SO DAMNED STUBBORN about drinking water inside the house, that he was dehydrated and didn’t feel like eating? When he came back in, we offered him his food bowl…and he DEVOURED 2 1/2 meals worth of food.

What kind of pup does this?!?!? What kind of pup refuses to drink water if it’s inside the house, but will drink the same water, from the same bowl, if it’s 10 feet away OUTSIDE the house!?!?!  What kind of pup STARVES himself in some kind of silent demonstration against the evils of indoor water?!!?!?

We’re still monitoring our little freaky Oscar. I did temporarily refill the bird bath, given that we’re not supposed to get a hard freeze for the next few days.  Oscar has been drinking heartily from the bird bath and the outdoor water bowl, and is back to eating normally, just as if nothing were ever wrong!  Given where they came from and how incredibly shy they were when we first got them, they’re always going to be “quirky” little Pipe Spaniels!  But as the Great Water Strike of 2016 showed, we ARE learning to understand their freakiness!

North American prairies most sensitive to climate change

Nature - Seddon et al. (2016) - Map of vegetation sensitivity

This map from Seddon et al. (2016), just published in Nature, depicts sensitivity to vegetation production as a result of climate change. Red areas represent areas where natural vegetation communities are more likely to be impacted by climate change. With South Dakota, Nebraska, and the rest of the Great Plains in an area of strong temperature and precipitation gradients, we are also in a hot zone in terms of potential impacts of climate change on our ecosystems. Click for a larger view.

Nature this week published a very good paper about ecosystem sensitivity to climate change, with maps that portray ecosystems most likely to be impacted by changes in water availability, changing temperatures, or changes in cloudiness.  One of the paper’s main discussion points is that the heart of North America, irght here in the Great Plains, is one “hotspot” of climate change impacts.  For the general public and news outlets, it’s typically things like sea-level rise, or extreme temperature changes occurring in the Arctic and northern latitudes that tend to get noticed. However, as this study indicates, even here in the Great Plains, ecosystems are in peril due to the effects of climate change.

Given the obvious north-south temperature gradient and the obvious east-west precipitation gradient in the Great Plains, this probably isn’t too surprising.  I grew up in southern Nebraska, and after a (thankfully) short stint in the Washington D.C. area after college, we moved to South Dakota, where we have now been for 24 years.  We are in southern South Dakota, a mere 4-hour drive to where I grew up.  When moving here, in terms of weather, I was expecting similar conditions to how I grew up, given the short distance.  In the summer, that’s largely true, as summer temperatures are more uniform across the Plains, even as you move north and south.  In the winter however, I quickly found out that in just a 200-250 mile distance to the north, temperatures are substantially colder.  We’re having incredibly warm February weather right now (hello climate change!!), with a temp of 54 yesterday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  Back in southern Nebraska, a mere 200+ miles away? Temps reached the lower 70s.

The Great Plains are also marked by a very obvious, very strong gradient in precipitation.   There’s a reason the forests of the eastern U.S. pretty much stop once they get to the Great Plains, as precipitation strongly decreases as you move from east to west.  South Dakota itself is a great example, as “East River” (east of the Missouri River) is primarily dryland farming, mostly corn and soybeans.  As you reach the middle part of the state, precipitation is significantly lower, corn and soybeans start to disappear, and you get into the dry grasslands that make up most of “West River” South Dakota.

Nature - Seddon et al. (2016)

This image from the Nature paper shows what’s most likely to impact native ecosystems: 1) Water availability, 2) Temperature increases, or 3) changes in cloudiness. The strong blue shades in the Great Plains indicates that it’s water availability that’s going to strongly impact our ecosystems, due to both precipitation changes and increased evaporation as temperatures rise. Click for a larger view.

In the Great Plains, we are sitting in a strong transition zone, both in terms of temperature and moisture availability. Thus, while most folks may think of the Great Plains as a boring, simple landscape of grass and crops, as this study shows, we’re also an area that’s likely to be hammered by the effects of climate change. The results of the paper show that it’s not necessarily the increased temperatures themselves that are going to strongly affect ecosystems, it’s water availability.  It’s not just how much rain that falls in an area that drives ecosystem and vegetation response, it’s how temperature and precipitation interact to affect overall availability of water resources.  The warmer the temperature, the greater evaporation that occurs, and the less water that’s available for vegetation.  The Nature paper indicates that the ecosystems (natural vegetation) of the Great Plains likely can handle the increased temperature in isolation, but combined changes in precipitation and temperature will result in water availability changes that could dramatically affect natural ecosystems in the region.

There’s no doubt that the quite (politically) conservative Great Plains of the U.S. is a hotbed of climate change denial.  As the results of this paper show, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for Great Plains residents to deny climate change is impacting their region.  I’m almost positive that it’s not the effects on natural vegetation that will “flip the switch” in the minds of current climate change skeptics in the region.  However, as change becomes more and more pronounced, there’s no doubt the economics of the region, particularly the agricultural sector, will be strongly impacted.

Nothing seems to get a man/woman to “believe” than a direct impact on their pocketbook. That impact may be coming much sooner than most in the Great Plains would ever suspect.

 

 

Fish in a barrel…

Bald Eagle -  Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A mature Bald Eagle hanging on a tree branch overlooking the Missouri River, below Gavin’s Point Dam on the Nebraska/South Dakota border

I usually spend part of New Year’s Day birding.  I admit one of the reasons?  Often my Nebraska Cornhuskers are playing in a bowl game that day.  In recent years (decades?) they have been too stressful to watch, particularly in a bowl game.  Hence, going birding gives me a reason to avoid seeing/hearing about the game. (Yeah, I know, that’s messed up..).

I missed New Year’s Day this year, going a day late!  I don’t go down to Gavin’s Point Dam on the Nebraska/South Dakota border all that often, perhaps once a year.  But it is a good place to bird in the fall and early winter.  The most obvious attraction are Bald Eagles.  Taking photos of Bald Eagles at Gavin’s Point Dam in winter truly is like shooting fish in a barrel at times.  Not only are there good numbers around, but they’re often perched in a strip of trees that’s squeezed in between the Missouri River and the road, on the Nebraska side.  With the steep bluff and cottonwoods lining the steep shoreline, the eagles like to hang out on branches that overlook the water, giving them an opportunity to swoop out and capture a fish (or sometimes unfortunate waterfowl) found right below the dam.

I have a lot of Bald Eagle photos,as they truly are a pretty easy to find species in South Dakota, but I would guess that about half of my photos are from the Gavin’s Point Dam area.  I didn’t stay long yesterday, only hanging around the dam area for about an hour or so, but as always, I was able to get a few Bald Eagle photos.  There were about a dozen hanging around, along with a few very big groups of ducks in open spots on Lake Yankton below the dam.  A nice first birding trip for 2016!

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