November 30, 2012

Under the Volcano (5): Looking for Camera Trap Spring

Now home from our travels, M. and I hiked up yesterday to where a forest fire burned near our house a month ago.

The little bowl on BLM land that I call "Camera Trap Valley"
I call it "Camera Trap Valley" because it contains the little seasonal spring that attracts quite a variety of wildlife. But on the evening of October 23rd it was effectively "nuked."

On the way over the ridge, Fisher, our Chesapeake Bay retriever, came trotting down the trail with something in his mouth. It looked like a bear cub's paw, stripped of flesh. "Was the bear a casualty of the fire?" we wondered. So we bribed him with a dog biscuit to surrender it.

Fisher on the fire line
My trail to the spring is based on a series of game trails, augmented by rock cairns to guide me through the brush and a little discreet pruning to make the going easier for upright bipeds. At one spot, the containment line dug by federal firefighters exactly followed "my" trail. That was useful, for a short distance.

At this point, the fire had been moving against the wind, which is why, I think, that it dropped down to the ground instead of crowning from tree to tree. Then it stopped (mostly) at the rim rock.

Unburned strip of forest floor
In the photo above, a strip of the forest floor was mysteriously spared as the fire passed over it. Fisher, barely visible at the top, has found another bone.

A small cairn.
I made little rock cairns to guide myself through the talus and  oak brush. They are no longer necessary.

Dropping down into the valley, I found that another of my markers, a deer pelvis bone hung on a tree branch — near where we found the mysterious teddy bear — was missing. Completely consumed, no doubt.

A completely burned-out pine stump.
We started seeing signs of the fire's power.

That thing that looks like a dinosaur track is actually a completely burned-out ponderosa pine stump. If you poured plaster of Paris into it, you would have a positive image of the root system. It is eerily like the plaster casts of victims at Pompeii.

Meanwhile, a single crow flew overhead, making the "soft bell-toned woh-woh, woh-woh" sound.

We answered, but what was it telling us?

Camera Trap Spring
All my landmarks gone, I found the spring (dry, of course) by the lay of the land. I will come back in April or early May to see if it is flowing.

In the burned forest nearby, Fisher found a more substantial bone to chew. A post-apocalyptic landscape is nothing to a dog.

Turkey track.

There were turkey tracks in the ash and soil. Can't you imagine the third turkey in the group saying, "Guys! There is nothing to eat here! Why are we here? Let's go back, guys."

We walked up through the bowl and returned home by a different route. I cannot think when I have been in an environment so sterilized. Maybe one bird, perhaps a chickadee, flew past us as we walked. Otherwise, M. , Fisher, and I seemed to be the only living beings above ground.

Such silence.

November 29, 2012

Bigfoot DNA — Whose?

Various people are having their say about comparisons underway between human DNA and that of alleged Bigfoot hair samples.

Brian Sykes, one of the researchers, is a geneticist who has figured in a lot of high-profile cases, like sorting out the murdered Romanovs.

And the obvious question: how do you know you have a Bigfoot sample? Benjamin Radford of The Skeptical Inquirer notes, 
Previous alleged Bigfoot samples subjected to DNA analysis have been deemed "unknown" or "unidentified." However, "unknown" or "unidentified" results do not mean "Bigfoot." There are many reasons why a DNA sample might come back unknown, including that it was contaminated or too degraded by environmental conditions. Or it could simply mean that the animal it came from was not among the reference samples that the laboratory used for comparison. There is no reference sample of Bigfoot DNA to compare it with, so by definition, there cannot be a conclusive match.
Anthropologist and blogger John Hawks says that he is withholding judgment, adding,
One benefit of the world of genetics as opposed to traditional anthropology: The original sequence data must be made available to the public. No data, no discovery.
Two big hurdles to jump there before you can start talking about "indigenous people."

November 28, 2012

Sheep May Safely Graze

Part of a flock of bighorn sheep seen grazing in the Wet Mountains today. There were actually about twice as many of them than the picture shows.

This flock was, I think, (re)established by transplanting in the 1970s and 1980s. Today's was the largest group that I have seen in the area. Several rams were in with the ewes, busy sniffing their butts — it's that time of year.

November 26, 2012

The Great Plains Tour of 2012

Cast letters on the Oliver Building, Chicago. See note below.
In the last five weeks, I have traveled (on the ground) from Colorado through eastern Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas — from end to end four times — plus a corner of Iowa, Illinois, and some of Missouri.

The tour was in two parts, interrupted by that forest fire.

M. and I just drove in from Medicine Lodge, Kansas tonight, in fact. We've seen the Flint Hills, the Gypsum Hills, and all the khaki-colored country between Dodge City and the Colorado foothills.

Now I want to experience house as hibernaculum for a while — and to type a little.

NOTE: The Oliver Typewriter Co., one of the first successful manufacturers of such instruments, had its headquarters in the Oliver Building on Dearborn Street.

November 25, 2012

Are Trees the Enemy?

View from the front porch, September 1975
View from the front porch, November 2012. All natural reproduction.
Some time when driving you might a see a bumper sticker reading "Trees are the Answer," produced by the Arbor Day Foundation, whose slogan is, "We inspire people to plant, nutrure, and celebrate trees." (Interestingly, the foundation was formed in 1872, in eastern Nebraska, which was judged by settlers to need more trees.)

When M. and I moved into this house in 1992, we found in a crawlspace a box of the original owner's stuff, including this torn photograph, dated September 26, 1975 on the front and labeled "From the front porch—fall colors" on the back.

I don't know the fire history of the area. Up the ridge (180° from this view) there are a few big pine stumps and a log that was cut but never hauled away — bigger than 90 percent of today's trees.

From the 1870s–1960s, this was marginal grazing land, I think. Then part was subdivided in the early 1960s. My house and the one in the upper photograph were both built in the mid-1960s, as was the cabin that is now our guest house.

And the trees just kept growing. No fire, of course, and not enough thinning. (And you can't thin Gambel oak.)

Prescribed fire helps, but you cannot always burn right next to people's houses. Doing so makes the residents nervous, for some reason.

There is always controversuy. Take this New York Times piece by Jim Robbins, "Forest Fire Research Questions the Wisdom  of Prescribed Burns," It displays that typical journalistic  approach of "two sides" in disagreement. Who is "right"?
Scientists are at loggerheads over whether there is an ecological advantage to thinning forests and using prescribed fire to reduce fuel for subsequent fires — or whether those methods actually diminish ecological processes and biodiversity.
I don't think it works that way, but I suppose that Robbins has played up the agonistic aspect of the story because that is how most journalists think. When it comes to sides of a story, they can't count past two.

Remember this series of time-lapse photographs? The first view of the forest shows the result of lots of burning. You can get the same effect with mechanical thinning — but that is labor-intensive and then you have a lot of biomass to dispose of, usually by burning.

November 24, 2012

What People Are Missing from this Story?

The view from the porch on a cove in Table Rock Lake.
M. and I are spending the long Thanksgiving weekend with her siblings and their spouses in a rented "chalet" on Table Rock Lake in southern Missouri—all imitation log siding, cathedral ceilings, stuffed animals (M. not too keen on them), and rustic lodge-themed art of the Hobby Lobby variety.

It's been all feasting and sleep, which is what we needed after the stressful last two weeks.

Yesterday she and I broke off from the group and hiked around in Table Rock State Park, adjacent to the big 1950s dam that created this impoundment with its 700-plus miles of shoreline. (Purposes: flood control on the White River, hydropower, recreation.)

Then we visited the Corps of Engineers visitor center at the dam. The historical exhibit began with the Osage and other Indian tribes . . . and then suddenly it was 1954. Nothing from the early 1800s until the 1950s.

Apparently the people living here then were just "dumb hillbillies" not worth memorializing except for a brief video appearance as victims in the Great Flood of 1927.

Assuming that eminent domain was employed to get the land that would be flooded, some people must have left their farms and businesses in sorrow, cursing the federal goverment.

Perhaps others took the money with delight and never looked back. Maybe others sold to private buyers for what seemed like a lot of money, while the buyer made much much more selling what would become prime lakeside building lots.

Whatever the stories are, the Corps of Engineers is not telling them.

There is a parallel with the National Park Service erasing history in Shenandoah National Park:
After all, the Blue Ridge dwellers were not only different from the mainstream of American society, but, according to one contemporary journalist, their existence in the dark hollows represented "about the limit of destitution at which human life could be sustained." Park promoters and government officials publicized the fact that "these people will be moved to more civilized regions of agriculture and industry." 
I suspect that the attitude of officialdom towards the Ozarks residents was much the same, but you will not find out at the Dewey Short Visitor Center.

November 22, 2012

Blog Stew: You Can't Buy It at the Mall

• Dead malls of Denver: A slideshow.

• A second wild colony of black-footed ferrets has been found — in South Dakota. 

• in the southern Rockies, we think of ghost towns as being mining towns. In the Pacific Northwest, there is another type.

November 13, 2012

Citizen Science for the Birds

Project FeederWatch
If you have a bird feeder, live in the United States or Canada, can count to twenty, and like making a small contribution to the natural sciences, consider signing up for Cornell University's Project FeederWatch. It's not too late.

Every week you count the birds (at your convenience) for a two-day stretch, note the weather, and report the results online. You pay $15 for a data-entry kit and all the bird-counting that your heart desires. Urban, suburban, rural — all locations are valuable.

Here is M.'s and my first count of the year. The second and third columns are "average group size when seen" and "average group size per count period," which since it is the first count are the same as the head (or beak) count.

Eurasian Collared-Dove 4 4.0 4.0
Northern Flicker 1 1.0 1.0
Steller's Jay 7 7.0 7.0
Blue Jay 1 1.0 1.0
Western Scrub-Jay 1 1.0 1.0
Black-capped Chickadee 1 1.0 1.0
Mountain Chickadee 1 1.0 1.0
Red-breasted Nuthatch 3 3.0 3.0
White-breasted Nuthatch 1 1.0 1.0
Dark-eyed Junco 9 9.0 9.0
Cassin's Finch 2 2.0 2.0
Pine Siskin 16 16.0 16.0
American Goldfinch 2 2.0 2.0
Evening Grosbeak 1 1.0 1.0

November 11, 2012

Blog Stew — Don't be an Ingredient

• Forget zombies — what load for Quetzalcoatalus? Jackson Landers, the "Locovore Hunter," has an answer.

Sportsman's Guide, a source for discounted (sometimes with good reason) outdoor gear and "Cold War dividend" militaria, mostly European, has returned to American ownership.

• Will Colorado's (known) lone wolverine, M56, get any federal help? He has covered immense amounts of territory, that's for sure.

November 01, 2012

'It's Like the Devil Went Bowling'

M. and I were eating breakfast at the sunny end of the veranda on Thursday, and we started compiling some statistics.

• Evacuations since 2005: Three (Mason Gulch, Sand Gulch, Wetmore).

And the amount of time available dropped for each one, from six hours to thirty minutes to "Go now!"

• Pre-evacuation notices that never required leaving home: Two, one in  2011 (the Biplane Fire, a/k/a the Mason Fire) and one in 2012 (the Ditch Creek Fire). We should have received a reverse-911 evacuation notice last week, but the telephone lines had already burned by then.

• Number of smokejumper drops that you could have seen from the house in the last two years: Two, one of them just across the road.

• Named fires within one mile in the last two years that made the national incident list: Three.

• Other minor wildland fires in this area in the last two years: Five? (I would need to check the incident reports at the fire house to be sure.)

• Number of Forest Service plans presented for prescribed fires, thinning, etc. in this area since 1987, the first year that I started following the issue: Several. Six?

• Number of prescribed burns actually carried out: One, in April 2000. Some mechanical thinning was also done in the area burned over during the Mason Gulch Fire. The Forest Service claims that it helped slow the fire. But no burning or thinning has been done in the actual "interface" area, close to homes.

• Number of naturally occurring fires that were categorized as "prescribed use" and allowed to burn, only to explode after the Forest Service assured residents that everything was under control: One (Sand Gulch), in 2011.

Sticking It Out

 But as much as I might call ours the "Burned-Over District" (a little scholarly joke there), I think that title really goes to the area west of Boulder, Colorado: Gold Hill, Black Tiger Gulch, Sugar Loaf, Four Mile Canyon, Sunshine Canyon, Boulder Canyon, Lefthand Canyon — All place names, all fire names.

This documentary, Above the Ashes, focuses on local residents who fought the Fourmile Fire (September 2010) on Boulder's western edge at their own homes and their neighbors', because there were simply not enough trained firefighters to cover the area. It's a good depiction of how people react — and act. (Hat tip: Wildfire Today.)

Best line: "You send four gay men into a burning house, they grab the art."