December 22, 2017

Crazy Mountaineers and Dead Mountaineers

Death looks so clean on Everest.
(Phurban Sherpa/New York Times)
My high- altitude mountaineering is limited to peaks in the Rockies and Cascades, but I have a couple of times seen . . . personality changes . . . at altitude.
In a new study of psychotic episodes at extreme altitudes, researchers have determined that high-altitude psychosis is a stand-alone medical illness, rather than a condition stemming from acute altitude sickness as had been previously believed.

High-altitude psychosis is a fairly well-known illness and is frequently mentioned in mountain literature. For example, a mountaineer may suddenly think he is being chased, start talking nonsense or change his route without any real reason.
Read the rest: "High-Altitude Psychosis Seen as Distinct from Altitude Sickness."

No, I am not saying people who climb Mount Everest are crazy. Absolutely not. But some people die there. There are famous ones, like George Leigh Mallory (1886–1924), whose body was found — and deliberately left after study — in 1999.  (Some people cherish the thought that he and climbing partner Andrew Irvine might have been the first to summit Everest, but it is unlikely.)

And there are others:
Nepal officials estimate that about 200 bodies remain scattered across Everest. A few are so familiar, so well preserved by the subfreezing temperatures, that they serve as macabre mileposts for the living, including one corpse commonly called Green Boots.
Others are better-identified:
Not far from where they found Ghosh’s body that morning was another body that Dawa Finjhok Sherpa estimated had been there for five or six years. And somewhere nearby, they knew, was the body of a doctor from Alabama who had died a few days before. There was no plan to bring it down.
Yes, leaving the body means there is more money in the estate for the heirs, right? Bringing a body off Everest is expensive!

But some Bengali families were willing to pay, for their own cultural reasons, which makes a fascinating New York Times Magazine story, "Deliverance from 27,000 Feet." Excellent, unflinching photography too.

December 21, 2017

Early 2018 Drought Forecast — La Niña Winter

Click to embiggen

It's snowing this solstice morning here at Owl House, but judging from the radar, we are not going to get more than another little two-inch storm, enough to keep the fire danger down for a few days.

If you want more information on weather predictions, visit the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center for a whole bunch of maps.

Yes, it is definitely shaping up to  be a La Niña winter:

La Niña is predicted to persist through the Northern Hemisphere winter 2017-18 by nearly all models in the IRI/CPC plume [Fig. 6] and in the North American Multi-Model Ensemble (NMME; [Fig. 7]). Based on the latest observations and forecast guidance, forecasters favor the peak of a weak-to-moderate La Niña during the winter (3-month Niño-3.4 values between -0.5°C and -1.5°C). In summary, La Niña is likely (exceeding ~80%) through the Northern Hemisphere winter 2017-18, with a transition to ENSO-neutral most likely during the mid-to-late spring (click CPC/IRI consensus forecast for the chance of each outcome for each 3-month period).

La Niña is anticipated to affect temperature and precipitation across the United States during the upcoming months (the 3-month seasonal temperature and precipitation outlooks will be updated on Thursday December 21st). The outlooks generally favor above-average temperatures and below-median precipitation across the southern tier of the United States, and below-average temperatures and above-median precipitation across the northern tier of the United States. 

December 17, 2017

Why Are Avocados So Expensive? You're Buying These Guys' Ammo

M. has been fuming at the grocery store. Avocados, $2 apiece. It seems like a lot — and I know that many are just thrown away or, sometimes, end up in the donations for the bears at the wildlife rehab center. (We watch the cartons unloaded with undisguised envy, but those furry guys need the calories!)

There is drought. And there is organized crime. (I am surprised no one is talking about "blood avocados.")

From the BBC: "The Avocado Police Protecting Mexico's Green Gold."

"Police" is a bit of a misnomer: These are local growers' militia, or autodefensa as they say. Some apparently receive official support on the municipal level, so I suppose that makes them "police."
Mexico produces about 45% of the world's avocados and Michoacán is Mexico's largest avocado-producing state.
From here alone, nearly two billion avocados are shipped to the US every year.
And because the industry is a lucrative one, it has been the target of organised crime.

As you enter Tancítaro, there are a series of checkpoints. They are known as filtros, or filters, by people here.
Some are more informal than others. One has a few sandbags and some elderly men sitting on a broken car seat outside a hut.
We pass another one with several pickup trucks standing outside. I notice a man with a rifle across his back. This is a well-armed town. . . . .
The police force is part-funded by avocado producers, who pay a percentage of their earnings depending on how many hectares they own (emphasis added).
Oh, didn't you know that Mexico has very strict gun control? Why, there is only one legal gun store in the entire country! Yet Tancírito is "well-armed." Imagine that.

What Tancírito must have is a public relations agent, because here is a very similar story by a different report on another site! "Mexico's Vigilante Groups Are a Force to Reckon with for Drug Cartels and Army."
The autodefensas have been returning houses and farms to the original owners or their families, because in many cases they were murdered after signing a deed at gunpoint, leaving the farms to the criminal bands' leaders, who assaulted the properties bringing a public lawyer, who many times also by gunpoint validated such operations.
Think of all this when you're in the vegetable aisle at Megafoods.

December 03, 2017

The Smartphone vs. the Pocket Camera, Revisited

Last August I did a head-to-head photography comparison between a less-than-new Pentax pocket camera and a less-than-new iPhone.

The camera performed a little better — it has a real zoom and more shooting modes — while the iPhone (or any smartphone) is quicker to bring into action — just wake it, swipe the screen, and shoot.

Then the Pentax died. Its auto-focus stopped focusing. Buying a new one seemed pointless. Manufacturers are ditching the pocket camera market — Nikon shut a major digital camera factory this fall:
In recent years [...] due to the rise of smartphones, the compact digital camera market has been shrinking rapidly, leading to a significant decrease in operating rate at NIC and creating a difficult business environment.
But look on eBay. You can find digital pocket cameras for pocket change. A like-new Nikon Coolpix, with case and cord, probably made about 2010, cost under $30, shipping included. If I had wanted an earlier model, I could have paid much less.

Why buy it? The biggest reason is peace of mind. That little Nikon will be in my pocket on next weekend's mountain camp-out. It will go on hunting trips, hikes, etc.

Which is worse, to drop your smartphone in the river while trying to photograph that cute muskrat while you're fly-fishing, or to splash a $15 camera you got on eBay?

Smartphones do have their strengths. My fingers were almost touching mine one evening last week in Boston, when I saw the driver of an immaculate white Range Rover — she looked like an oligarch's mistress in it  — deliberately ram the rear bumper of a taxi that was not clearing the intersection fast enough to suit her. Never mind that he had nowhere to go forward.

I could have put it on Facebook or Instagram, maybe made a looping GIF ("Ram! Ram! Ram!"). But I didn't.

November 27, 2017

More Fungus Beetles, Please

Cast-off exoskeletons of the pleasing fungus beetle pupae (Gibbifer californicus),
Imagine them hanging straight down — I turned them up to catch the light.
They are not quite an inch long.
A number of ponderosa pine trees around the house have died from mountain pine beetle infestation, the real culprit being the blue stain fungus that the beetles carry.

I had my eye on one large dead tree as a firewood source, mainly because it was next to the little dirt road that goes up in back. The woodpile was shrinking early last spring (the snowiest time of the year in this area), so I felled it. Just its top and thick limbs were enough to get us through — the rest I cut into rounds and stacked by the road.

Pleasing fungus beetle (Jeff Mitton)
Then warm weather came, and I procrastinated on bringing the rest down until last month.

Whereupon I found these cases on one of the split pieces — but what were they? I turned to What's That Bug, linked in the right-hand sidebar under "Resources."

Very soon I learned that they were the cast-off exoskeletons of the larvae of the pleasing fungus beetle, Gibbifer californicus, of the family Erotylidae, Pleasing Fungus Beetles. (Don't ask me, "pleasing to whom?")
The pleasing fungus beetle develops on soft conk fungi on aspen, ponderosa pine and other logs in forested areas. The biology of the insect is largely unknown; some apparently spend the winter in the adult stage laying eggs in spring; others survive as larvae within the fungus.

The larvae feed on the fungus during late spring and early summer, consuming large quantities. When full grown the larvae hang from the underside of the logs and transform to a pupa, often in groups of several dozen. With this habit, a grouping of pupae may appear some what like a miniature bat roost.
As larvae, they look like this. You can see how that matches the photo above.

As adults, they "feed on nectar, pollen and the bracket fungi growing on rotting logs. Larvae feed exclusively on the bracket fungi, so if you want to see adult and larval pleasing fungus beetles, search rotting logs with bracket fungi," writes University of Colorado biology professor Jeff Mitton.

I am pleased to know this now.

November 26, 2017

Keep Your Bird Seed Dry!


Some mold was growing in the bottom of the thistle-seed feeder,
so it was time for a thorough cleaning.
A report from the Project Feeder Watch blog on how the parasite Trichomonas gallinae can live in wet bird seed: "Reasons Why We Should Keep Our Seed Dry".

Some takeaways:
• Keep your feeder out of the “splash zone” of any nearby birdbaths or drinking stations
• Consider bringing your feeder in before a heavy rain if temperatures are very warm.
• Change your seed out regularly if you are in hot and wet weather conditions.
• Choose seed types that contain little to no organic material (buckwheat, peas, and sorghum), e.g. nyjer seed or black-oil sunflower seed.
And if you're thinking about birds, here is an article on how the issue of "lumpers" versus "splitters" is complicated by genetic research: "What’s in a Name? How Genome Mapping Can Make It Harder to Tell Species Apart."
Scientists have the ability to peer more deeply into the DNA of birds today than ever before. But in some ways the resulting picture for species classification isn’t getting clearer—rather, it’s getting blurrier. It seems that the more closely evolutionary biologists look into the genome, the more arbitrary the boundaries between some species appear to be. It’s a bit like stepping too close to a pointillist painting: instead of revealing tiny details on the picnickers’ faces, the whole thing dissolves into dots.
It's not too late to join Project Feeder Watch this year. When you look at the map, you can see that the eastern United States and Canada are way over-represented, while there are big holes in the West. My Colorado dot is out there by itself!

November 16, 2017

How Wildlife Photographers Fool You

In the summer of 1987, having newly joined the Outdoor Writers Association of America, I drove with M. up to their annual conference, which was in Kalispell, Montana, that year.

In a corridor of the conference hotel, we encountered a man with a half-grown mountain lion on his shoulders. It slithered up and down his arms like a viscous liquid.

The lion was no pet — we quickly discovered that its owner was promoting a captive-wildlife photography operation.

I learned a few things in my five years of OWAA membership, and one was that almost no one gets spectacular photos of predators in the wild. That lynx "chasing a snowshoe hare"? It's probably chasing a rubber ball thrown by its trainer.

And here I used to think that the photographer sat out in the snow. telephoto lens in hand, blowing a "rabbit distress" call. I honestly thought that was how it was done, but very few photogs do that. (Some do use game camera photos, since the quality has improved so much in recent years.)

Of course, movies and TV shows are no exception, not to mention magazines and wildlife calendars. Most of what you see is faked.
Inspired by Disney were Marlin Perkins, host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (premiering in 1963), and Marty Stouffer, host of the Public Broadcasting Service’s Wild America (premiering in 1982). Like Disney they were pioneers working in a standards vacuum, but they set a new bar for nature fakery. Perkins was forever having his young assistants lasso and wrestle terrified tame animals to “rescue” them. “They were totally ruthless,” Wyoming cinematographer Wolfgang Bayer told the Denver Post. “They would throw a mountain lion into a river and film it going over a waterfall.”Wild Kingdom still airs on Animal Planet.
That's from an Audubon article, "Phony Wildlife Photography Gives a Warped View of Nature." Read it, and you might learn when you too were fooled.

November 13, 2017

In Response to Pain, a Change of Gait


I developed a foot problem this summer, and it has me thinking more about gait than at anytime since my brief foray into track-and-field as a 14-year-old.  (Working with a chiropractor-kinesthesiologist now too.)

It's been upsetting, since hiking through rough country was always something that I was good at, and now I am having  to retrain one foot, which produces certain protests from the tendons.

Shoes and boots are part of the problem, that's the irony. It was probably wearing the wrong ones in younger years that created the problem, on top of some slightly malformed toes that I was born with. Over the past couple of years I have discarded about a third of the shoes and boots that I owned — getting to be pretty fussy about what I will put on my feet. I even consider shoelaces: would round or flat be better?

You have probably read old descriptions of American Indians "gliding" through the forest in their moccasins, but as medieval reenactor Cornelius Berthold — who apparently is also into Historic European Martial Arts, going by the broadsword on his hip and some remarks about fencing— points out in this video, that is how Europeans walked too, prior to about 1500 and the widespread development of harder-soled shoes with built-up heels. (Stiffer shoes maybe encouraged the toes-out gait.)

Not like this:
Quick Time . . . . At the command Forward, shift the weight of the body to the right leg without perceptible movements. At the command March, step off smartly with the left foot and continue the march with 30-inch steps taken straight forward without stiffness or exaggeration of movements.

United States Army, The New Infantry Drill Regulations, 1943.
So during this hunting season I sometimes pretend that I wearing moccasins — or medieval shoes like Cornelius Berthold. When the "new" pain starts — the tendons protesting their new stretching — I just slow down, stepping on the balls of my feet. That helps. One day, it will have to be better.

November 09, 2017

We'll Build a Sheriff's Office, and We'll Get Texans to Pay for It.

A friend was driving into the county a couple of months ago on a certain road, and I warned him to s-l-o-w  d-o-w-n about about mile marker 55, because that road is the sheriff's favorite speed trap.

The sheriff actually said in a recent meeting that traffics fines pay for one deputy's salary, not that he has a lot of deputies.

And Texans hurrying up from the south to get to the ski areas pay a good share of that.

According to the county weekly, these Texas communities were recently represented in our revenue stream:
Pilot Point
Hays (County?)
Fort Worth
Cypress
Galveston
Trophy Club
Trophy Club? To get there, do you go through Trophy House and Trophy Wife?

Of course, our little county is nothing compared to the effort that Wyoming law enforcement makes during the annual Border War. I heard that even Sheriff Longmire was down there writing tickets.

November 03, 2017

Cannabis Consumption and the Colorado Hunter


It had to happen. I opened the 2017  Hunting Guide from Colorado Parks and & Wildlife, and there was a long sidebar titled "Nonresidents' Guide to Marijuana Laws in Colorado."

It covered the basics. Watch out for edibles: "A retail marijuana clerk warned that it is easy to lose an entire weekend when you don't know how much to consume or how it will affect you." (And if you have a five-day season, that's 40 percent of it.)

And always this: "Don't even consider taking some home with you, whether flying or driving."

But the lyrics of a Simon & Garfunkel song  popped into my mind, "The 59th Street Bridge Song":
Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy
Ba da da da da da da, feelin’ groovy
(Eventually I figured out what the song was about)

Good advice for the big-game hunter, right? Slow down. You move too fast. You've got to make the season last. Just kicking down the aspen grove. Looking for deer and . . .

Well, maybe not during the hunt. But can think of at least one well-respected Colorado wilderness hunting writer who always has his evening smoke. In fact, he introduced me once to the White Widow.

. . . . Where were we? Did you say something? Is this the path to my tent?

October 08, 2017

Autumn Colors on the Burns

Just watching the seasons change and the forests change.
Burned in 2012, reseeded with grasses  2013; now the oak brush is taking over.
Nearest slopes (where the oak brush is turning) burned in 2011.

October 05, 2017

Make It Snow Make It Snow Make It Snow

1920s rain dance, probably at the Prairie Band Potawatomi agency in Kanas (WIkipedia).
Colorado ski areas and water managers keep employing rain-makers, but of the mechanical cloud-seeding variety, not the ritual variety, reports the Summit Daily.
The concept of cloud seeding has been around since the 1940s, when Bernard Vonnegut (brother of author Kurt) discovered that silver iodide could produce ice crystals when introduced into cloud chambers.

In those heady days, cloud seeding was heralded as a way to produce rain where there was none, boosting crop yields and filling reservoirs to the brim.

That was a wild overstatement, and cloud seeding's reputation suffered for it.
 • • •

Western Weather Consultants claims that its two seeding operations in the High Country generate between 180,00 and 300,000 added acre-feet of water per year, and that has been backed up by independent studies.
That's pretty impressive. Read the whole thing.

September 29, 2017

A Venue of Vultures & Other Links

Crappy phone photo from across a pasture.
It has been raining, and when it's not raining, drizzling. Matt Sellers, Beulah's own weatherman, called in "Seattle Week" on his "Wet Mountain Weather" Facebook page.

Driving through eastern Custer County yesterday, I saw big dark birds in a tree holding their wings spread like capes. Through the binocular, they were turkey vultures exhibiting (I just learnt this word) the "horaltic pose." Drying their wings? But it was drizzling. Thermo-regulating? With the temperature about 48° F., there was no need to cool down. Maybe they just do it to look menacing.

What surprised me, though, was that I saw vultures at all. I thought they all had migrated south by now. Time to talk to the raptor experts.

Yes, according to that supposed lingo of animal gatherings, e.g. "parliament of owls," vultures form "venues." I suspect that the whole business was made up by some 19th-century English sporting vicar sitting in his study.

And there is more . . . 

• Five weeks missing!  All of Alma, Colo., celebrated after this lost dog was found on Mount Bross

How to tell a bird's age by its molt pattern 


• Another lucky dog! A Minnesota wire-haired pointer dodges wolves. "' The dog jumped in the window of the truck, and the wolf did a quick lap around the truck,' Bailey said." I bet his owner will start carrying something on his hip for when a 20-gauge and #6 shot are not enough.

September 21, 2017

Smashing Painted Ladies

I was driving up the canyon into the Wet Mountain Valley, flinching every time that a Painted Lady butterfly hit the windshield.

They are migrating this time of year, headed south, and apparently this summer produced good breeding conditions.

"I must have killed millions of them," said the FedEx driver as she passed a package to the café owner in Westcliffe.

"We'll call her Butterfly Killer," said the owner facetiously, after the driver went out the door.

As usual, we go smashing along through beauty.

UPDATE: The migration was large enough to create radar echoes. That's kind of wonderful.

September 12, 2017

The Old Rifle Still Has Admirers

From the "Basic Field Manual, U.S. Rifle,
Caliber .30, M1903," published in 1939.
"Put the sights up to eight hundred, hold a yard left for the wind . . . "

Because of some ongoing research of mine, I perked up a few years ago when gun blogger and writer Tamara Keel, then employed at a gun shop in Knoxville, Tenn., announced that there was an M1903 Springfield, caliber .30-06, in the shop — from an estate, as I recall — at a reasonable price.

I contacted her, made payment arrangements, and soon it arrived at a pawn shop in Florence, Colo., for the federal firearms transfer.

Unwrapped, I found it slathered in Cosmoline preservative grease, a clue to its story.

I looked at the receiver, which proclaimed "US Springfield Armory Model 1903" with serial number 954801. A little web searching revealed that that serial number was assigned in 1918.

And someone had used a knife (bayonet?) point or nail to scratch a large "AK" on both sides of the stock." A doughboy of the Great War? Arthur Kennedy? Arnold Karlson?

And it had that way-too-complicated pre-World War One rear sight, with (count them) four different sight notches or peep holes, including the "battle sight," which is calibrated to 547 yards, says the later 1939 Field Manual  (not 500, not 600).  The rear sight itself is calibrated for a maximum distance of 2,500 or 2,700 yards, depending which notch you use. That is sort of like having a car speedometer that is calibrated up to 200 mph.

 
But as I disassembled and cleaned the parts with gasoline (and the stock with ammonia-based oven cleaner), the rifle's origin story took a different turn. I fell down the collectors' rabbit hole.

For instance, the straight-wristed stock came before the pistol-grip stock (and the intermediate "scant" stock, which was the straight version re-cut to a semi-pistol grip). Right? Not exactly. There were seven different models of the straight stock. Collect the whole set.

What I possessed, I discovered, was a "Franken-rifle." At some time circa 1944, someone sat at a bench or by an assembly line in an American arsenal, rebuilding service rifles. A World War One-era Springfield receiver came from this bin, a World War Two-production Remington bolt from that one, a Remington magazine from another, a brand-new High-Standard barrel was threaded on, and the whole attached to a used rifle stock, bearing the initials AK. (The stock itself lacks the finger grooves common on early models, so it might be early 1940s production.)
Early and later 1903 Springfield stocks, with and
without finger grooves. (National Park Service)

So forget "Arnold Kennedy" of the American Expeditionary Forces of 1918. This rifle was an "arsenal mutt."

Maybe "AK" had not needed his rifle anymore. Consider this photo from the Guadacanal campaign of 1942-43. Two Marines, after the shooting has stopped in their sector, have stacked abandoned Springfield rifles on one of the island's beaches amidst other debris of war.

These rifles presumably would have gone somewhere for servicing; then they would have been re-issued or placed in storage. The Springfields were issued throughout WW2 to combat zone troops other than infantry — artillery crews, combat engineers, Signal Corpsmen, and the like.

My rebuilt rifle went into storage — and stayed there until it was purchased (through the Civilian Marksmanship Program?) but never unwrapped and cleaned.

I took my rifle to the my club range (maximum 200 yards) and shot it. The action was smooth as butter, and the accuracy was good if you remembered to hold low on a bull's-eye target. I considered making it a "deep woods" hunting rifle, but as sure as I did that, I would be in a situation where I needed my scoped rifle, so I never carried it afield.

Over Labor Day weekend, however, I found myself down at the Whittington Center shooting complex in New Mexico, where the rifle ranges go out to 500 meters (the high-power silhouette range), and where the target everyone wants to hit is the White Buffalo silhouette at 1,123 yards (1027 meters).

And I hit it, using a modern .300 Win. Mag. rifle with a scope.

Yet there I was, surrounded by synthetic stocks and powerful scopes, but everyone wanted to try the M1903.  Dylan M., who served with the Marines in Afghanistan just a few years back, picked it up, dropped into a military kneeling pose, and would have made the shooting instructors of 1939 happy.
Dylan M. shoots the M1903.

My old friend Galen Geer, himself a former Marine of the Vietnam era, was also shooting it. After a little while, he looked downrange at the White Buffalo, did some calculating based on my ballistics table, and selected the open battle sight, the one calibrated for 547 yards. Then he took a solid bench-rest position

Holding "six buffaloes high" and, as the song says, "a yard left for the wind," he fired. Nothing. He fired again. Nothing.

On his third shot, Dylan and I looked at each other.

"Did you hear something?"

"Maybe — not sure."
Galen sights in with Dylan spotting.

Galen fired a fourth time. A second later came a definite "tink" from down range.

If you're not a shooter, that might not sound like a big deal, but hitting a target more than a half mile away with no optical magnification and eyes no longer young — that's something.

I think I need to go back and do it again myself — with the Springfield.