November 29, 2009

Big Fire Years in the Sangre de Cristos

Going through an old notebook, I discovered notes from a talk given ten years ago by Catherine Alington, at that time a PhD student in landscape ecology at Colorado State University-Fort Collins.

She researched fire cycles on both sides of the northern Sangre de Cristo range, and in some cases was able to go back three centuries. Her work was published in her dissertation, "Fire History and Landscape Pattern in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains" (1998).

According to my notes, some big fire years--when multiple valleys burned--were 1636, 1703, and 1851. Don't you wish you knew what was going on then?

Low-elevation forests burned on the average every 30 years, while higher elevations, above 10,000 feet, burned about every 100 years.

After teaching at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana and at the University of Wellington, New Zealand (her home), she is now, according to Linked-In, the head of professional development for the New Zealand Police.

November 26, 2009

Blog Stew with Fighting Mice

• Steve Bodio writes on on "Darwin's Other Birds," namely pigeons, for which the Cornell Ornithology Lab has a special program for city kids, Project Pigeon Watch.

• I don't hear this from Prowers County, Colorado, but wind-turbine noise is an issue in the UK.

• In California, Ultimate Mouse Fighting.

• British environmental writer George Monbiot slams climate scientists for mishandling "Climategate."

November 25, 2009

Blogging Hermits

What is it with blogging hermits—or quasi-hermits?

Would Henry David Thoreau have had a blog? I am sure of it. Anyone who would edit his autobiography so that two years of experience fit neatly into one literary year has demonstrated the capability of self-romanticizing that blogging requires.

Sunday's Denver Post had a long piece about a man named Daniel Suelo who lives in a cave outside Moab, Utah, never handles money, dumpster-dives, etc.—and blogs about his life, courtesy of the long-suffering local librarians. (Somebody tell him that white-on-black fonts offer poor readability.)

I can see Diogenes the Cynic updating his blog at the public library too: ""

And there are others.

Lately I have been reading As The Crow Flies, who offers this thought:

If you want to be alone, it’s important to know, you can never get far enough away;  humans and their noise producing machines are everywhere.   One thought that helps me, is to think of myself as an alien dropped off on a planet of apes.   Then I can just sit back and enjoy the show—like going to the zoo.

But the post that sold me on her blog is this one.

I cannot get it out of my mind. Maybe it's because M. and I often go several days without talking to anyone else in person (not counting email). Without her (and the dogs), I would soon be wondering the same thing.

Cross-posted to Southern Rockies Nature Blog.

November 23, 2009

In Which We Go Geocaching

 A classic geocache—an old ammo box full of trinkets plus a log book.

Late this morning I broke off from editing a journal article on new religious movements in Ukraine and rousted M. from the sofa (where she was reading Julia Child's My Life in France) to go geocaching.

After all, we own a low-end GPS gadget (Garmin Geko 201), and I knew from the main geocaching web site that there are a couple dozen caches near our home. That comes of living near national forest just off a designated "scenic byway."

M. had not heard of geocaching before, but she likes treasure hunts and tromping through the woods.

We found four caches in short order, picking off the low-hanging fruit, so to speak—sites near roads.

This being America, there is a book to tell you how: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Geocaching. And Google Earth is your friend.

Geocaching's older Anglophile cousin is letterboxing. I know a couple of people who do that too, chiefly in urban areas. From my perspective,  letterboxing seems a little club-ier, more concerned with aesthetics (carving your own rubber stamps!) and mental puzzle-solving.

Does that make letterboxing more like fly-fishing, while geocaching is like cruising the lake with a sonar fish-finder? Either way, you still have to catch a fish.

At least both get you outside and moving around, more or less.

Hunting in these Times

Although I am a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor, I am not an online media critic (although I have my opinions).

But it gets my attention that the New York Times has recently run a Style-section photo piece on waterfowling shotguns, another business story on ammunition marketing, and today a straightforward piece on Long Island's first public turkey hunt.

The cooking of wild turkeys is also acknowledged.

Is the "mainstream media" starting to mainstream hunting and shooting just a little?

UPDATE: In her comment, Holly Heyser points to yet another piece about foodies-turned-hunters. It's a trend for sure!

November 22, 2009

Reading Mammoth Dung for Fun and Profit

Image from BBC News.

A study of pollen in mammoth and other megafaunal dung offers more evidence for the climate-versus-overkill debate.

Frankly, I wonder why anyone is talking about asteroids at this point. Was that the reporter's confusion?

"Overkill" refers to the theory that the arrival of humans—in this case, in North America—led to a fairly rapid extinction of big, slow animals.

Some similar happened in Polynesia, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, as documented in Paul Martin's Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America.

The place to see lots of mammoth skeletons and reconstructions is here.

November 19, 2009

The Clarity of Winter in the Canyon

Now is my favorite time of year to be on the prairie and its canyons. It's the time when the sun is always in your face, but every stone and prickly-pear spine has an almost-Martian clarity.

It's when you are stepping around the cactus that a little covey of scaled quail flush behind you, land in the junipers, and then scurry out of sight.

But we will remember that spot, the dog and I, and we will return to it.

November 18, 2009

Army Drops Appeal on One Piñon Canyon Expansion Lawsuit

In what sounds like a small victory to the opponents of the Army's desire to expand its training area in southeast Colorado, the Army has dropped its appeal to a court case over its environmental assessment process.

The news hasn't made it onto the opponents' Web site yet.

I have written before on my mixed responses to the creation of the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Area.

I tend to be on the landowners' side here, but I note ironically how the imagery of their Web site evokes SE Colorado of a century ago, more 1909 than 2009.

Meanwhile, Trinidad, Colo., blogger Doug Holdread rounds up all the conspiracy theories.

November 16, 2009

A Tenuous Bond with a Foreign Soul

Early in her falconry memoir Lift, Rebecca O'Connor writes, "Predator or prey, you choose."

As she later elaborates, "Predator worship is an odd thing, but perhaps not so odd for a woman. I am aware that I am more prey than predator."

That dialectic--woman as prey and predator--spirals through Lift, a book that is intensely erotic in the original sense, being about passion, desire, and union with the Beloved, even when the beloved is a bird.

Anyone who has worked with animals (and O'Connor is an experienced bird trainer, author of A Parrot for Life: Raising and Training the Perfect Parrot Companion, not to mention an "Avalon Career Romance" called Falcon's Return) know how intimate the relationship can be. He loves me, he loves me not.

So it's no surprise that her relationship with her first peregrine falcon, Anakin, partakes of First Love, right down to the candlelight dinner of the first duck that the peregrine has brought down. At that point in her life, she admits, her relationship with Anakin  "is the only honest relationship." When frustrated, she catches herself "berating the bird like a lover."

Yet with falconry, there is a bond, but no possession. Battles of wills, development of trust, relationship-building--all of that--but still a falcon does not need the falconer. As O'Connor tries to tell herself when Anakin has disappeared while hunting, "The falcon and I will both be fine on our own."

(You have said that about human lovers, right?)

Thus the book's narrative twists like a mallard dodging a falcon three feet above the water, human relationships intertwined with bird relationships, hunting trips cut by bitter memories and sweet ones.

A lot of the back story of Lift involves things that were done--or threatened--to the author in her younger days, which add poignancy to her struggle to become--in some areas--the predator, confronted with the mysteries of death and blood.

 "Maybe I was wrong. Given the choice I would be the predator. Maybe I'm a hunter after all."

Whether you have felt that bond with an animal or not, by reading Lift, you might learn, in the author's words, "a way of thinking, a means of experiencing life." Not just falconers, but all true hunters, share O'Connor's experience of having touched "nature's senseless violence, clung her stray miracles [and had them] alter our beliefs."

(Rebecca O'Connor blogs at Operation Delta Duck.)

November 15, 2009

Teddy Roosevelt Biography Wins Outdoor Book Award

These are the 2009 winners of the National Outdoor Book Award, by category. I have The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America sitting in my "books to review" stack and will give it a longer review here soon.

History/Biography.  Winner.  The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America by Douglas Brinkley

Outdoor Literature.  Winner. Halfway to Heaven by Mark Obmascik
Outdoor Literature. Honorable Mention.  Rowboat in a Hurricane by Julie Angus

Design & Artistic Merit Category. Winner. Lars Jonsson's Birds. Illustrations by Lars Jonsson

Classic Award. Winner.  Kayak: The New Frontier by William Nealy
Classic Award. Honorable Mention. Appalachian Odyssey by Steve Sherman and Julia Older

Nature and the Environment. Winner. Our Living Earth by Yann Arthus-Bertrand
Nature and the Environment. Honorable Mention. Sand: The Never Ending Story by Michael Welland.

Natural History Literature. Winner. Every Living Thing by Rob Dunn

Children's Category. Winner. Whistling Wings by Laura Goering.  Illustrated by Laura Jacques.
Children's Category. Honorable Mention.  Operation Redwood; by S. Terrell French

Instructional Category. Girl on the Rocks: A Woman's Guide to Climbing by Katie Brown.

Outdoor Adventure Guidebooks. Winner. Guide to the Green and Yampa Rivers by Duwain Whitis and Barbara Vinson
Outdoor Adventure Guidebooks.  Honorable Mention. The Guide to Baja Sea Kayaking by Dave Eckardt

Nature Guidebooks. Winner. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America  by Roger Tory Peterson
Nature Guidebooks. Honorable Mention  Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West by Dennis Paulson

November 14, 2009

A Snowy Day for Fidgets

Downtown Montreal from Mount Royal's belvedere.

It's snowing here in the Wet Mountains, a wet, soaking snow that is melting in. This would be a good "desk day," especially as I am only partway through sorting out everything on my desk--the ten days' worth of mail, the receipts and notes, etc. from the conference, the new books for reading and/or review.

One review must be completed today, or I will hate myself.

But I am fidgety.  M. and I spent parts of six days on trains, four days in Montreal, one day in Chicago, an afternoon in Albany, and an evening in Schenectady. It was wearing.

(Note: we rode six different Amtrak trains, and all were on time. Someone is doing something right. If you have a layover at Schenectady, refuel at Katie O'Byrne's, hang out on Jay Street.)

On the Adirondack, traveling through upstate New York along Lake Champlain, I would see some little dirt road winding off into the swampy woods, and I wanted to be off the train and walking along it with one of the dogs.

The birds are in hiding too. All that I have seen this morning are one robin and one Steller's jay--a pity, since it is Day 1 of one of our Project Feeder Watch counts. (We are not the only ones happy that PFW has started up again.) Yesterday we saw nine American goldfinches at once.

Other miscellaneous travel observations from the big world:

Traveling east from Colorado, I notice black.

A century ago, two factors favored black clothing in the city:
  •     Lots of coal soot in the air
  •     A lack of washing machines

Now it is just about attitude.  I am refined and/or serious, don't mess with me. Not asceticism.  Urban grime might be an issue, but it cannot be the issue.

In Montreal, where sports team-themed clothing was not as common downtown as in Chicago (although it exists), black seemed almost mandatory.

I probably stood out for wearing one of about four khaki trench coats that I spotted.

Downtown Chicago is noisier than Montreal. For one thing, it has the elevated trains. For another, there always seems to be large construction projects underway, whereas I saw none in Montreal, just street repairs.

People walk faster in Chicago too. But my candidate for a fast-walking city, believe it or not, is Dublin, based on earlier visits there.

November 13, 2009

Camera-Trapping Young Minds

Chris Wemmer describes a school program that uses camera traps (a/k/a scout cameras, game cameras) to interest kids in wildlife.

A complete curriculum is available for teachers. Sounds cool to me.

Amazing Aghan War-Dog Story

A bomb-sniffing dog belong to Australian troops goes missing for 14 months and then reappears, says the Daily Mail.

Sabi the black Labrador was with a joint Australian-Afghan army patrol when it was ambushed by Taliban militants in September 2008.

Nine soldiers were wounded in the ensuing gun battle, which earned one Australian SAS trooper the country's highest bravery award.

But there was no sign of the bomb-sniffing dog after the battle in a remote area of Uruzgan province.

November 12, 2009

The Turkey in Union Station

Walking toward our eastbound train at Chicago's Union Station one evening last week, I saw people pointing at something on the train tracks, below the platform.

I looked. It was a wild turkey, very dead. And very out of place in downtown Chicago.

Then I put some things together.

M. and I had arrived on the Southwest Chief, on that set of tracks, about four hours earlier.

We had seen wild turkeys from the window several times in Kansas and Missouri.

One of them must have flown too late, like the turkeys back home that Shelby the collie chased, not taking to the air until her nose was practically touching their tail feathers.

It was gone today, of course. Someone probably tossed it in the trash.

But when your train enters the long underground train shed, you pass through a dim and sooty passage where I always expect to see rats the size of spaniels scurrying along, not to mention hypothetical asphalt-adapted coyotes.

I imagine one of the above, squinting against the bright lights closer to the station, scurrying out of the shadows to snatch up this unexpected bounty, larger than the usual city pigeons.

But most of my thinking about roadkill is about how casual we are about creating environments that kill animals.

Some people at least eat what they (or others) kill. I have done that too. It makes the equation feel a little more balanced, but only for you yourself.

November 07, 2009

Would You Buy a Pink Gun?

In the beginning, rifle and shotgun stocks were brown-stained wood, except for some playboy-types who went with blond wood. White spacers added accents.

Then came black molded synthetic stocks, then camouflage patterns likewise, plus laminated wood, which I think looks good sometimes. (My waterfowling shotgun has a camo-pattern stock, but I really got it for the non-reflective metal finish, since much Colorado duck hunting is done in sunny weather.)

And now pink.

A lot of pink handguns and pink-stocked long guns are out there now. Who would buy them?

Hunters and target shooters said that the most popular color scheme was camouflage, with 62% of males and 60% of females chiming in with this preference. Other popular colors included black, green and brown, with pink getting 15.4% of women's votes. Again, the lowest preference for both genders included brighter colors -- white, yellow and multicolored. Thirty percent overall did not factor in color when buying firearms and related equipment.

November 05, 2009

The Ecological Value of Top Predators

More evidence on top predators and overall health of the land, this time from Isle Royal National Park. Research at Yellowstone NP showed similar conclusions.

More broadly, losing top predators means more "meso-predators," which different, more negative effects on the ecosystem.

Some findings:
  • Primary or apex predators can actually benefit prey populations by suppressing smaller predators, and failure to consider this mechanism has triggered collapses of entire ecosystems.
  • Cascading negative effects of surging mesopredator populations have been documented for birds, sea turtles, lizards, rodents, marsupials, rabbits, fish, scallops, insects and ungulates. 
  • The economic cost of controlling mesopredators may be very high, and sometimes could be accomplished more effectively at less cost by returning apex predators to the ecosystem.

November 02, 2009

Mystery Nest

M. found this nest under a large juniper tree in the woods not far from our house. You see see its size, and the egg-cup area extends from about 5 to the 9-inch mark on the ruler.

Any thoughts as to who made it?

Real Guard Dogs' Lives

Guard dogs are often touted (from a distance) as the solution for wolf and coyote attacks on livestock.

Cat Urbigkit, whose Wyoming ranch uses guard dogs to protect the sheep, blogs occasionally at Querencia about how guard dogs really live -- and die.

It's not always like the quick takes you get in High Country News and the rest of the environmental press.

Right now, searching for the best breeds of guard dogs from Asia, she confronts the issue of traditional ear-and-tail-docking, and the comment thread is quite interesting.

Overheated Environmental Rhetoric Contributes to Climate Change?

The real problem with the climate-change is how quickly it has become politicized -- or possibly "religion-ized."

I admit that I am surprised by that development, but not in a good way.

Unfortunately, doom-and-gloom is a standby of environmental writing (sometimes with reason--Dust Bowl, anyone?). You can get books analyzing such writing, which has always leaned towards the jeremiad more than the celebration.

When the doom does not occur exactly as predicted, however, the skeptics say, "Oh, there was nothing to that.

As the Times (UK) points out, exaggerated claims of doom don't help the work of environmental cleanup.

Excessive statements about the decline of Arctic sea ice, severe weather events and the probability of extreme warming in the next century detract from the credibility of robust findings about climate change, they said.

Such claims can easily be rebutted by critics of global warming science to cast doubt on the whole field. They also confuse the public about what has been established as fact, and what is conjecture.

Short-term fund-raising goals by environmental groups are one big reason for the exaggeration.