January 30, 2010

The Oddness of Mountain Bluebirds

For the last week, I have been seeing little flocks of mountain bluebirds zipping back and forth where the prairie meets the foothills.

RIGHT: Mountain bluebird, Sialia currucoide, photo from Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. 

These small groups often mix in my memory with the snow squalls of spring, which leads to a question. If they are primarily insect eaters, what are they eating now? Cornell's page  says that they also eat small fruit, which around here would mean mainly juniper berries.

The little flocks are mostly males—or at least the males show up better. Getting a jump on territory-claiming?

Consider this, from Cornell's other site:

The Mountain Bluebird is probably the most aberrant of all thrushes. It nests in cavities, a habit shared by few other thrushes, and it lives in habitats far more open than those occupied by most other thrushes, including other bluebirds. It eats more insects than most other thrushes, has an unusually large degree of sexual dimorphism in its foraging behavior, and frequently hovers while foraging. In its behavioral ecology, in fact, it resembles not so much a thrush, or even other bluebirds, as it does a scaled-down version of an American Kestrel (Falco sparverius).

But that would be summer feeding, wouldn't it?


RIGHT: Beetle-killed pines near Granby, Colo. Photo by Jen Chase, Colorado State Forest Service

Via the Wildfire Today blog, a report from Oregon State University that the carbon emissions from forest fires have been over-estimated.

Bill at Wildfire Today comments, "The new research does not go so far to say that 'wood smoke is good smoke', but they do use my new favorite word, 'pyrodiversity'."

So when we light a fire in the wood stove, we are contributing to pyrodiversity.

And, in all seriousness, the lodgepole pine forests of northern Colorado and southern Wyoming are pyrodiversity waiting to happen--not to mention other pine forests in British Columbia and Alberta.

Other researchers continue to weigh the carbon-release issue.

Colorado Seeks State Duck Stamp Entries

From a Division of Wildlife news release:

Each year, the Colorado Waterfowl Stamp Program holds a contest for original waterfowl artwork to be depicted on the Colorado waterfowl stamp. A stamp and a print of the stamp are created for sale to waterfowl and wetland enthusiasts, bird watchers, and stamp and print collectors. The funds are used for wetland projects that benefit ducks, geese, shorebirds and other wetland-dependent wildlife species. The first place winner will receive $3,500, second place receives $1,000 and third place receives $500. Entries will be accepted through Friday, March 5, 2010, 4:00 p.m., MST. The winner will be announced by Monday, March 29, 2010. See Waterfowl Contest (pdf) for an application and details.

To Purchase a Stamp

Colorado requires all waterfowl hunters to buy a Colorado hunting license (either a small game or a combination license) with a Colorado duck stamp verification, in addition to the federal duck stamp.  An actual stamp can be requested at the time the hunting license is purchased and will be mailed to the purchaser.

To Order a Collector's Stamp

Collector Waterfowl Stamps are available at the Colorado Wildlife Heritage Foundation. Previous years' stamps are also available. Note: Collector Waterfowl stamps do not afford hunting privileges.

To Order an Art Print of the Stamp

Art prints of the Colorado Waterfowl Stamp may be purchased by contacting Terrie DeLoria, Colorado Wildlife Heritage Foundation, at tdeloria@cwhf.info.

January 29, 2010

Watch You Some Birdies on February 12

Friday-Monday, February 12-15, is this year's Great American Backyard Bird Count.

Anyone can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, from novice bird watchers to experts. Participants count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the event and report their sightings online at www.birdcount.org. One 2009 participant said, “Thank you for the opportunity to participate in citizen science. I have had my eyes opened to a whole new interest and I love it!”

It's simple, it's free, and it's actual grunt-level science.

“The GBBC is a perfect first step towards the sort of intensive monitoring needed to discover how birds are responding to environmental change,” said Janis Dickinson, the director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab. “Winter is such a vulnerable period for birds, so winter bird distributions are likely to be very sensitive to change. There is only one way—citizen science—to gather data on private lands where people live and GBBC has been doing this across the continent for many years. GBBC has enormous potential both as an early warning system and in capturing and engaging people in more intensive sampling of birds across the landscape.”

I have to admit that I grimace a little bit at the "Great American" part. It's so 1976 Bicentennial-esque, taking me back to when the landscape seemed to sprout "Great American ..." this and that. "Great American Spaghetti & Woodstove Company," that sort of thing. Where's my AMC Pacer?*

M. and I are already doing Cornell's  slightly more complicated citizen science bird project known as Project Feeder Watch. But maybe this year we can work in the GBBC too.

*No, I never owned one. Had a Ford F-100 back then.

Why Did the Elk Cross the Road?

Henry Ford's Amazing Snow Tractor

Deep snow a problem where you live?

This silent film clip shows Henry Ford's "Snow-motor" of the 1920s in action, with bowler-hatted, stiff-collared  Ford himself at the controls. (There is a Chevy too.)

The snow-screw propulsion system works well in the deep stuff, but I suppose it was less-capable in shallow snow, mud, etc., which is why caterpillar tracks were adopted instead.

January 27, 2010

New Sierra Club Director on Obama, etc.

Politico interviews Michael Bune, new director of the Sierra Club.

Brune made his name as executive director of the Rainforest Action Network — a scrappy corporate accountability group that stages headline-grabbing protests against major corporations that engage in logging, mountaintop coal mining and other practices that can be environmentally destructive.

Bune approves of some of the Obama administration's environmental policies, but not surprisingly sees room for improvement.

The administration has indeed done an excellent job in its first year promoting a wide range of environmental initiatives. At the same time, we also believe the administration hasn’t realized its full potential. It has made, specifically, clean energy a top priority and yet hasn’t really leaned into a whole series of initiatives that would make a bigger impact.

January 22, 2010

I Should Be Posting This in August

But I just found it and wanted to share. Cornell has a mushroom blog, and here is a sample: "How to eat a bolete."

Bear Cubs!

The den of a black bear in Minnesota has a web cam.

We listen for cub sounds. The team is trying to get rid of the buzz so all can hear better. To answer a common question, the light is invisible infra-red. The camera converts it to visible light for us to see on the internet, but it does not illuminate the den. On the other hand, darkness is not important to hibernation. Many bears build above ground nests and spend the winter in broad daylight. Some get covered by snow at times, but they give birth and raise cubs successfully anyway.

January 20, 2010

Theorizing the Yowie

Darren Naish reviews a recent book on the Yowie, Australia's Bigfoot.

While it's all very well saying that any and all reports of an ape-like creature in the Australian bush are nonsense and that the phenomenon can hence be rejected without question, the problem is that at least some Yowie accounts really do sound extremely intriguing at the very least. Maybe all the reports represent misidentifications, hoaxes and the manifestations of cultural stereotypes or something, but even if this is so, there's still an interesting phenomenon here that's worthy of investigation. Those of us predominantly interested in zoology sometimes forget that cryptozoological reports might tell us more about folklore, psychology, witness perception and/or cultural transmission than anything else. As a result I still think that investigation of subjects like the Yowie is worthwhile, and within the remit of science.

January 18, 2010

Why You Should Wash New Clothes First Thing

M. always insists on washing new clothes before wearing to remove any chemicals, sizing, or starches remaining from manufacture.

And anything from Goodwill, ARC, or other thrift stores gets washed and aired on general principles and to get rid of the "thrift store smell." What that smell is I don't know, but they all have it.

Apparently another good reason for washing new clothes is that they can carry quite a bacteria load.

(Via Instapundit.)

Biologist Studies Moscow's Strays and Subway Dogs

Last April I linked to an item about stray dogs in Moscow who commute to the city center.

The phenomenon of "commuting dogs" has drawn increasing scientific study.

Where did these animals come from? It’s a question Andrei Poyarkov, 56, a biologist specialising in wolves, has dedicated himself to answering. His research focuses on how different environments affect dogs’ behaviour and social organisation. About 30 years ago, he began studying Moscow’s stray dogs. Poyarkov contends that their appearance and behaviour have changed over the decades as they have continuously adapted to the changing face of Russia’s capital. Virtually all the city’s strays were born that way: dumping a pet dog on the streets of Moscow amounts to a near-certain death sentence. Poyarkov reckons fewer than 3 per cent survive.

Neanderthal Body Paint

The headline says "make-up," but I suspect the paint was not to exaggerate beauty but to make the wearer look more scary, more divine, or more like something else.

But how would we know, really?

Something Else Fisher Has Eaten

To the "things Fisher has eaten" category, add one bar of soap (hotel size).

We wonder if he will start blowing bubbles in a rearward direction.

An iPhone App for Bears is Backwards Thinking

I think I need a new "gadgets in the woods" category.

Instead of knowing anything about bears, just count on your iPhone to protect you! (Only it would not, really, as the app's inventor admits.)

In its own way, this is about as dumb as the people who want to turn every discussion of bears into a discussion of which large-caliber firearm is best to carry.

While I do know of cases where a large-caliber firearm was needed, the average hiker, etc., is best off when equipped with bear spray.

Bear spray is easy to use, and you do not have to worry about bullet placement. Nor do you have to feel guilty about wounding or killing a bear toward whom you otherwise bear no malice.

And you don't have to be looking at a little screen or keypad or at the mercy of batteries.

The more gadgets you have, probably the less aware you are.

(Hat tip to Tamara. If you really want to ramp up your bear-anxiety levels, visit Bear Attack News.)

January 16, 2010

Alligators, Birds Share Unidirectional Lungs

Both alligators and birds move air through their lungs in one direction, unlike mammals' inhale-exhale cycle. It is a trait of their dinosaur ancestors.

It is a more efficient way to breathe and explains why some birds are spotted flying vigorously at altitudes of more than 20,000 feet.

Pine Beetles Running Out of Food?

Foresters say that the mountain pine beetle feeding frenzy in northern Colorado lodgepole pine may be ending.

Still threatened: ponderosa pine, spruce.

With all those standing dead trees, the potential for monster wildfires remains.

January 15, 2010

Geocaching in Lieu of Hunting

In lieu of quail hunting, which ended on the 3rd, I took Fisher geocaching at Pueblo State Park today.

His part in the process is to go for a cross-country walk, to be leashed when Spandex Insects are in the vicinity (since he is unused to them), and to whine piteously when the walk is interrupted by my turning in small circles and peering between large rocks and at fallen logs.

As I quoted in "Gadgets in the Woods," some purer-than-thou types like Arizona writer Mary Sojourner recommend destroying geocaches.

Me, I am all for anything that gets you out and about, rewards close observation ("Which rock is different from all the other rocks?"), and as the T-shirt says, "lets you use multi-million dollar satellites to find Tupperware in the woods."

Urban geocaching, meanwhile, resembles Spycraft 101. Here is a small trade secret:

The  typical parking-lot light pole at a shopping center or supermarket has a concrete base in which are embedded large bolts. The metal pole is attached to that base.

Some models have a box of light sheet metal that covers the bolt ends and nuts. Normally it is held down with screws, but sometimes those screws are missing, permitting you to slide the box up the pole, exposing the top of the base.

There is a fair amount of space in there in which objects up to the size of a sandwich might be secreted. Drop the cover back down, and no one is the wiser.

I'm getting to the point that I can hardly pass one by without discretely wiggling that cover to see if it is attached or not.

If you lift one and find a geocache within, please sign the log and return the container. If you find something else, be prudent.

January 12, 2010

Facts on Feral Hogs

Horrible Web design, but an interesting summary on feral hogs.

Feral hogs represent many unknowns to biologists, wildlife managers, landowners and hunters, and as one biologist so precisely put it, "feral hogs are an ecological black box."

The Prodigal Dog

Fisher the Chesapeake ran off this afternoon while M. was walking the dogs.

She brought Shelby the collie home, then went back after him.

I woke up from a nap to find that she had even taken her Jeep up the Forest Service road looking for him.

I drove around too. We walked the neighborhood and the forest edges, calling and blowing his "come" command on the whistle.

Every dog on our road was riled up, but no Fisher.

  • Probability one: He found something very good to eat.
  • Probability two: He found a mountain lion.

Sunset came. Shelby, meanwhile, curled up on her bed on the veranda with an attitude that said, "Not my problem. I'm the good dog."

Four hours after he first ran off, he came back down the trail from the national forest boundary.

He was very thirsty. He smelled of meat. He is a skinny dog, but now he had a paunch.

He went to bed.

But now it's dog-dinner time, and he is standing in the kitchen. He does not look completely at ease. I expect that we will be awakened tonight by dog-barfing.

There went the whole afternoon when we should have been editing and proof-reading. But today, Fisher was an authentic dog.

UPDATE, Jan. 13: Amazing—no barfing in the night. 

Aerial Photos of the 'Lost City of Z'

Last summer in "The Primeval Rain Forest, Not" I mentioned Michael Heckenger, the anthropologist interviewed by David Gann in The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon.

Heckenberger described finding traces on the ground of larger towns, field, causeways, and water-control structures used when the population of the area must have been larger.

Now aerial photos are showing more and more what he meant.

Note: It's a funny linguistic tic that we use "El Dorado" or "Eldorado" to mean a place, when in the original Spanish it meant a person: The Golden One, the fabled king of the fabled city somewhere off in the interior of South America.

Preparing for War Preserves the Past (Sometimes)

A fantastic amount of prehistoric rock art survives in Nevada because it lies within a Navy bombing range.

The linked article offers other examples of the same.

My favorite local example is Fort Carson, which has elk, wild turkeys, etc. Ironically, had not the Army requisitioned that land for training during Word War II, it would all be Colorado Springs subdivisions now.

There is a word for people who cannot appreciate irony: fanatics.

January 11, 2010

Renaissance Scuba Gear

I am not a scuba diver, and I live a long way from the ocean, but I had to post this.

How do you suppose he swings that polearm underwater?

January 10, 2010

Living the Caveman Life in New York City

First, buy a chest freezer.

Actually, when I saw the headline, I expected another article about people living in tunnels under the city. But the trio photographed looked far too stylish.

It's ironic but true, as the article points out: in the city you can walk. In the country, "closer to nature," everything is too far away.

UPDATE: These people might have the nearest thing to the Paleolithic Diet.

January 09, 2010

Watching Biosphere 2 Decay.

The debate over whether it was scientifically useful or just a gimmick has died down, and meanwhile Biosphere 2 decays in the desert. (Via Boing Boing)

January 07, 2010

Snow and the Steam Locomotive

It's snowing lots of places. One of those places is England, where a few inches have led to near-hysteria in the press and much considering of What Does It All Mean About Civilization?

The writer of the article above (which you should read), not only recaps the great New York City blizzard of 1988 but links to a great video from the snowy British winter of 1963.

Steam locomotives are not very efficient mechanically, but a little snow does not bother them, unlike some of their replacements.

Dirty Farmer John

Tuesday night at the public library down in Florence some of the local organic farming and CSA folks showed The Real Dirt on Farmer John as part of the library's film series.

It is available on Netflix and here is their catalog description:

Filmmaker Taggart Siegel paints a fascinating portrait of a man who refused to yield. By transforming his farm into an experimental haven in the late 1960s, John Peterson attracted hundreds of artists, hippies and other political radicals. But when the agriculture crisis of the late 1980s led to the farm's eventual collapse -- and his neighbors publicly branded him a devil worshipper -- most locals thought he'd call it quits. They were wrong.
I liked it better than I thought I would at first.

January 06, 2010

Passing of Outdoor Writer Charlie Meyers

Charlie Meyers, who wrote for the Denver Post since the 1960s and was perhaps Colorado's best-known outdoor writer, has died.

He never talked about it, but he had been there and done that. He walked away from a float plane crash in Alaska. He met with a witch doctor up a remote river in Nicaragua. He did it all," said [Kirk] Deeter, whose fly-fishing book he penned with Meyers is scheduled to be published in May.

It wasn't just rich writing and engrossing characters that gave Meyers' work depth. He scrutinized tangled topics, such as Colorado water rights and resource protection, and the bureaucracies that managed both. He was an environmental reporter long before editors invented the title.

Given the current state of the newspaper business, I am not holding my breath to see if the Post replaces him. The distinct possibility that they will not leaves us bloggers to pick up the slack, I suppose.

CSI: Birdfeeder

Listen up, team, here is what we know so far.

1. No bloodstains were seen on the lower sunflower-seed feeder on Monday, Jan. 4.

2. When the feeder's owner let his dogs out about 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 5, he reports there was a little "commotion." Unfortunately, he is a coffee addict and was busy preparing his morning fix, so we don't have a eyewitness account.

3. We'll need a lab report. Bird blood or mammal blood?

4. One dog was located near the house about 8:45 a.m. and taken for a walk. The other was located about 9:15 a.m. at a neighboring house, chewing on a strip of elk hide. It's my gut feeling that the elk hide has nothing to do with our case, but check it anyway.

5. The feeder in question is about 15 yards from the house. When the owner's wife, a participant in Project Feeder Watch, scanned it with her binocular about 10:30 a.m., she saw the blood splashes.

Further blood drops were reported on the snow under the feeder in a semi-circular pattern.

6. The reporting party says he found a Steller's jay breast feather about eight yards from the feeder that morning. Again, gut feeling, there may be no connection. Jays drop feathers all the time. Still, it might be something.

7. This is interesting. On Monday the 4th, a squirrel was electrocuted on power lines just a few yards from the feeder. The death was ruled a suicide, but maybe we should take another look at that one too.

Maybe we have a serial killer stalking squirrels--if the lab report shows mammal blood, that is. Apparently this feeder is a favorite squirrel hangout.

8. All right, then. I want your preliminary reports in 24 hours.

January 02, 2010

You Don't Get More Natural Than Poop

At Boing-Boing, they answer a "science question from a toddler: Why is poop brown?"

It turns out that there is a book about it.

When I was a college student, I attended a lecture by Yogi Bhajan, founder of 3HO and spiritual father of the New Mexico Sikhs, who informed us that if we were happy and holy, etc., our turds would float.

At the time, I merely wondered how Indian sages discovered that fact without a tradition of indoor plumbing.

Dr. Sheth might not agree with the guru, since he includes a chapter on "Floaters versus Sinkers" and tells Boing-Boing what I have heard elsewhere too:

Fatty poop also smells way worse than normal and it tends to float. "Like an oil slick," Dr. Sheth said.

January 01, 2010

'Our Devices Don't Know What the Weather Is'

Continuing a theme: Someone needs to explain to me this new fad of blinding following your vehicle GPS unit as it directs you to drive up a snowmobile trail.

Apparently all the kids are doing it now.

[Klamath County (Ore.) Sheriff Tim] Evinger recalled that within the last year in his county a hunter in a pickup followed GPS instructions along a powerline road and got stuck in a marsh, and travelers in a car got stuck in snow when they turned onto a Forest Service road that had been closed and converted to use for snowmobiles.

I am at a bit of a loss to understand. I have never been in a car or truck with a built-in GPS unit. It has been two years since the last time that I rented a car, and either that option was not available or I did not feel like paying for it—can't recall.

I do own a basic hand-held model that I use mainly for geocaching. Sometimes when walking cross-country in unfamiliar places I will set a waypoint or two, like for where the truck is parked. Don't want to be another mycological statistic for the local Search & Rescue group.

But in their cars, people just turn off their brains and do whatever The Voice tells them? Is that how it works?

"Our devices don't know what the weather is," said Jessica Myers, spokeswoman for GPS manufacturer Garmin. "It's the responsibility of the driver to exercise common sense." (Translation: Don't sue us, you idiots.)