Archive for the 'Musings & News' Category

May 14 2017

No Birds Here

Acres of farmland without plants and insects, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Acres of farmland without plants and insects, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Early this month I wrote about the decline of nighthawks, swifts and swallows and the parallel decline of their food supply, flying insects.  Why are insects declining?  In a comment Gene suggested that, in addition to insecticides, herbicides play a role.  Here’s why that makes sense.

I’m a city person so farm practices are somewhat mysterious to me.  Nonetheless, in the last 20 years I’ve noticed a change in how the fields look in the spring.  They used to green up with the rest of the landscape but now most of them are brown and as empty as parking lots like the one shown above.  There are no birds here, no swallows wheeling overhead.

The fields look different because herbicides are used to control the weeds. There are different poisons for different crops — for instance one for soybeans, another for corn — and the crops are engineered so they can grow in the presence of specific poisons.

Herbicides are a very labor saving device.  When applied in the fall they keep the fields weed free all winter right up to spring planting.  Consequently, the fields don’t have to be tilled (that’s why they look like parking lots).  The absence of plants means there are no insects, another benefit for the crop.

As the growing season begins you can tell where herbicide has been used because there’s a stark mechanical line between treated fields and the neighboring untreated landscape.

The telltale brown-green line: brown where herbicide was applied, green where not (photo by Kate St. John)

The telltale brown-green line: brown where herbicide was applied, green where not (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Here’s a field where there are birds.

This field is green though weedy, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

This field is green though weedy, Ottawa County, Ohio, early May 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yes, those plants are weeds.  They will probably be treated with herbicide soon and the field will turn from green to yellow as they die.

Because of herbicides and insecticides, large scale farming takes less work.  Millions of acres of U.S. farmland are truly empty now.  No plants.  No insects.  No birds here.

 

p.s. As I say, I’m a city person and don’t know much about farming so if I’ve got it wrong please leave a comment to correct me.

(photos by Kate St. John)

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May 03 2017

A Common Thread

Common nighthawk chasing a flying insect (drawing by Bob Hines, USFW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Common nighthawk pursuing a flying insect (drawing by Bob Hines, USFW, via Wikimedia Commons)

Common nighthawks are my “Spark Bird,” the species that turned me into a birder.

Nighthawks are due back in Pittsburgh soon but their population has declined precipitously in this century.  Fifteen years ago I used to see flocks of 20 to 30 nighthawks swooping over our neighborhood ballpark.  Now I’m lucky to see just one.

This week I learned that chimney swifts and bank swallows are declining, too.  Most of it happened in this century. Trouble everywhere.  And so I wonder:  Do these species share a trait that’s causing their mutual decline?

Is it a problem with their nesting sites?  The answer is mixed.

  • In cities nighthawks nest on gravel roofs but gravel has been replaced by rubber.  City nest sites have declined so the answer for nighthawks is Yes.
  • Chimney swifts nest in chimneys. Some reports say the number of chimneys has gone down. (This has spawned projects to provide artificial chimneys.)  Other reports say the chimney count is OK. I’ve not seen a decline in Pittsburgh chimneys.  Answer for chimney swifts:  Maybe.
  • Bank swallows nest colonially in holes that they dig in the banks of lakes and rivers. These sites seem to be stable. Answer for bank swallows: Probably No.

Is it a problem where they spend the winter? Do they all go to the same place?   Not exactly.

  • Nighthawks spend the winter from eastern Ecuador, eastern Peru and southern Brazil to Argentina.
  • Chimney swifts winter in western Peru and the upper Amazon basin.
  • Bank swallows spend the winter in nearly all of South America.

Do they eat similar food?  Yes!  All of them eat flying insects!

There’s a common thread.  Recent studies have shown that around the world invertebrates including insects have declined 45% in the last 40 years and in Germany insect biomass has declined 81% from 1989 to 2014.  Though insect decline has happened across the spectrum, it’s not something that’s made headline news except for two species not eaten by these birds: monarch butterflies and honeybees.

With such a massive drop in flying insects it’s no wonder that the birds who eat them have declined.  And there’s another interesting side effect.  The fish that eat flying insects are declining as well.  Discovered in the U.K. in 2003, this problem threatens the fly fishing industry.

A massive decline in flying insects and the birds and fish that eat them indicates we have a large and widespread problem.  My hunch is that it’s something in the environment and it’s caused by us.

We humans are ignoring it at our peril.

 

Here are resources for learning more:

 

(drawing of common nighthawk by Bob Hines, US Fish and Wildlife, in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Apr 30 2017

The Theories Are Worse Than The Furies

Hope sheltering three nestlings, 29 April 2017, 11:55a (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

Hope sheltering three nestlings, 29 April 2017, 11:56a (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

So far so good.  The three nestlings at the Cathedral of Learning are all well fed and growing. Every day we gain more confidence that they’ll thrive.

Meanwhile we’re still puzzled why their mother, Hope, killed and ate the first-hatching chick as well as two of her four chicks last year.  We don’t know the answer but we have many theories.  It reminds me of a famous quote from Flannery O’Connor in Habit of Being (p. 502):

“The Theories are worse than the Furies.”

So who are the Furies?

According to Wikipedia, the Erinyes [also called the Furies] are ancient Greek goddesses from the underworld. They hear complaints brought by mortals against the insolence of the young to the aged, of children to parents, of hosts to guests, and of householders or city councils to suppliants.  They punish those crimes by hounding the culprits relentlessly and hitting them with brass-studded scourges.  Their victims die in torment.

Their most famous gig was to torment Orestes for killing his mother Clytemnestra who had an affair and killed his father Agamemnon. Orestes avenged his father’s murder but created a really big mess (read more here).  John Singer Sargent’s painting of Orestes Pursued by the Furies shows how awful the Furies can be.

Orestes Pursued by the Furies by John Singer Sargent (reproduction from Wikimedia Commons)

Orestes Pursued by the Furies by John Singer Sargent (reproduction from Wikimedia Commons)

The Theories can be relentless, too.

We have lots of theories about Hope but no data to confirm or disprove them. (Hope eats the evidence.) The only thing we know is that she has repeated the behavior two years in a row and it’s so abnormal that we can find only a handful of similar incidents in all the history of peregrine nest monitoring.

We don’t have an answer but we can make ourselves crazy.

The Theories are worse than the Furies!

 

(photo of Hope and chicks from the National Aviary falconcam at the University of Pittsburgh. Reproduction of John Singer Sargent’s “Orestes Pursued by the Furies” from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

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Mar 19 2017

Gull Point Is Now An Island

Published by under Musings & News

There’s a birding hotspot at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania that attracts some of the rarest birds in the state.  It also attracts intrepid birders willing to make the one and a half mile hike from the parking lot … until now.

Gull Point is the eastern tip of a feather-shaped sand spit that arcs out to create Erie harbor.  The tip is closed from April 1 to November 30 to protect wildlife from human intrusion.  Now it’s even more protected.  On March 10 Gull Point became an island.

Jerry McWilliams reported it on PABIRDS:

Date: Fri Mar 10 2017 9:39 pm

Hello Birders and Gull Point hikers.

With the high winds the last 24 hours or so, it has finally happened. Lake Erie cut a channel through Gull Point Trail to Thompson Bay about half way out to Gull Point on Presque Isle S.P., PA. Gull Point is now an island. The breach is about 30 to 40 feet across, and for now it is only about six inches deep. The lake level is predicted to continue rising into June or July, so the channel is likely to deepen especially following storms. Even after crossing the channel you still can’t access Gull Point Trail since the trail is washed away for the next 100 or so feet before it begins again. Because the honeysuckle and bayberry is so thick it is impossible to try to walk through to reach Gull Point Trail, so you need to walk along the brushline. Hip boots will be required for now to make it to the trail.

The sand always moves at Presque Isle but this breach was hastened by our exceptionally warm winter.  Normally, ice on the lake prevents high waves during winter storms but there’s no ice this month so the waves crashed in.  Who knew!

The trail looked like this a year ago …

Mary and Sarah walk the Gulf Point Trail (photo by Kate St. John)

Mary and Sarah walk the Gulf Point Trail, April 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

… but knee boots are not enough now!

Park management will assess the situation after the winter storms subside.

It’s humanly possible to reconnect Gull Point to the peninsula if you have enough money. But the sand will keep moving and it will breach again.  Nature wins the battle every time.

 

Read more here at GoErie.com.

(map of Presque Isle State Park’s Gull Point embedded from Google Maps, plus a marked up screenshot of the same Google map)

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Mar 12 2017

Good? Morning

Published by under Musings & News

exhausted (from clipart-library.com)

Exhausted! (from clipart-library.com)

Are you feeling exhausted this morning?

Well, it’s going to last about three days.

Last night we turned our clocks forward for Daylight Saving Time (DST).  I’m no fan of changing the clocks and complain about it in the fall but, in fact, the worst physical effects occur in the spring.

Just like plants and animals we have internal clocks that cue on daylight, so artificially “moving” sunrise and sunset and losing an hour of sleep messes up our circadian rhythm.  Studies have shown there are at least three bad effects:  There’s an increase in heart attacks during the first three days of Daylight Saving Time.  There are more road accidents on the first Monday (tomorrow).  And many people have sleep problems until their circadian clocks reset.

Everyone is grouchy, even the kids.

What would it be like if we didn’t change the clocks?  Arizona(*) and Hawaii stay on Standard Time and they aren’t suffering this morning … except for one thing.  They’re annoyed by the time zone difference.  Arizona’s clock is now three hours later than Pennsylvania’s, not two.

Don’t worry. We’ll all feel better by Friday.  Meanwhile ….

Yawwwn!  😮

 

(clipart from clipart-library.com. Click on the image to see the original)

(*) The Navajo Nation within Arizona does use Daylight Saving Time.

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Feb 16 2017

Why Can’t Ostriches Fly?

Published by under Musings & News

Ostrich at Ngorongoro, photo by Wikimedia user Nicor

Ostrich at Ngorongoro (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Why can’t ostriches fly?

Answer: Because the dinosaurs went extinct.

Amazingly, this is true of emus, rheas, cassowaries, and the extinct moa, too.

Read how it happened in this vintage 2010 article:

Why don’t they fly?

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Feb 10 2017

Life Came Back Really Fast

Published by under Musings & News

Artist's rendering of Chicxulub impact (painting by Donald E. Davis in public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs (painting by Donald E. Davis in public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

When it comes to disasters it’s hard to beat the asteroid that hit Earth 66 million years ago and wiped out three-quarters of the plants and animals, including the dinosaurs.

The asteroid hit near the Yucatan and fried everything within 1,500 km (930 miles) — a huge area that includes Cuba, Florida, and a wide arc to Myrtle Beach, Nashville, Dallas and central Mexico.  The impact left behind a huge crater called Chicxulub, half of which is underwater today.

Last year geologists pulled core samples from the crater’s underwater peaks and discovered an amazing thing.  Life came back to the crater’s edge in only hundreds, not millions, of years.

The pioneering organisms were microscopic plankton, members of Thoracosphaera (spheres) and Braarudosphaera (dodecahedrons), whose tiny shells were found just above the devastation line.  Here are examples of these tiny structures, so small that they can only be seen with an electron microscope.

A Thorascosphaere species (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Thorascosphaere (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Braarudosphaera bigelowii (image linked from DodecaBeing blog)

Braarudosphaera bigelowii (image linked from DodecaBeing blog)

 

Even though the ocean was toxic at the time, plankton recolonized it rapidly after Earth’s fifth mass extinction.

Oddly enough, this makes me hopeful.

Based on Earth’s current extinction rate of 1,000 times the normal background rate (predicted to become 10 times worse) scientists believe we’re at the start of the sixth mass extinction.  I’ve already seen population declines in many of my favorite birds and I worry for the future of all plants and animals … and humans, too.

Life came back really fast after the last mass extinction. I hope it will do it again.

 

Read more here in Science News.

(painting of asteroid impact by Donald E. Davis in public domain, Thorascosphaere photo from Wikimedia Commons, Braarudosphaera bigelowii image linked from DodecaBeing blog. Click on the images to see the originals.)

p.s. The February 13&20, 2017 issue of The New Yorker has a great cartoon about the asteroid. Click here to see.

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Feb 08 2017

Silver Kills Bacteria, Even After Death

Published by under Musings & News

Silver ingot and granules (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Silver ingot and granules (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And now for something completely different.  Here’s a fact I found surprising.  Maybe you will, too.

Did you know that silver kills bacteria?

And even weirder:  Did you know silver turns dead bacteria into zombies that kill more bacteria?  Here’s how.

It sounds wonderful but silver isn’t useful in every situation.  Read this Wikipedia article about the medical uses of silver before you use it.

Weird and wonderful.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Jan 23 2017

Converged With The Anteater

Published by under Mammals,Musings & News

Indian pangolin, manis crassicaudata (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Indian pangolin, Manis crassicaudata (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last month I randomly opened an encyclopedia for the letter P and found an animal I’d never seen before.  Though he looks like an anteater he’s not related to them.

Pangolins are mammals with long thin snouts and long tails that eat ants and termites.  Instead of having fur they’re the only mammal on earth with scales.  The scales, made of keratin like our fingernails, provide protection.  When a pangolin is attacked it rolls into a ball in the same defensive posture as a porcupine.

Pangolin in defensive posture, Manis temminckii in South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pangolin in defensive posture, Manis temminckii in South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Eight pangolin species range from Africa to Asia and Indonesia.  All are in severe decline, listed as vulnerable to critically endangered, because their meat is a Chinese delicacy and folk medicine. Even African pangolins are poached for this illegal trade.

Range map of pangolin species (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Range map of pangolin species (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Anteaters can’t help them. They’re not related.

 

Anteaters are furry mammals with long thin snouts and long tails, native to Central and South America.

Giant anteater at the Pantanel, Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Giant anteater at the Pantanel, Brazil (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They, too, eat ants and termites.

Giant anteater with his snout in an ant hole (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Giant anteater eating insects (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Anteaters and pangolins resemble each other because they need the same tools to gather food. Similar appearance in unrelated species, called convergent evolution, is true of my favorite bird, too.

Peregrine falcons resemble hawks because they both hunt for meat, but peregrines are more closely related to parrots than to hawks and eagles.  They converged in appearance to get the job done.

 

(photos and maps from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

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Dec 16 2016

Uh Oh! Blue Light Isn’t Better

 

Uh oh!  Blue light, though bright, isn’t better at night.

As cities switch from incandescent or mercury street lights to LEDs they’re saving electricity and money and providing more light.  But brighter isn’t better if it’s blue.

The video above shows how the color temperature of light matters to our eyes and sleep patterns.  Though the video doesn’t mention it, the color also matters to birds and animals.

It’s possible to buy yellow-toned LEDs but blue, because its bright, has been the default choice for city lights.  We didn’t know that color mattered when the world began switching to LEDs and the bulbs have such a long life it’ll be decades before it’s time to replace them.  Meanwhile humans, birds and animals will be coping with the change.

It makes me want to close my eyes.

 

(video by TOMO news on YouTube)

p.s. Here’s a really helpful video showing the difference between incandescent, compact fluorescent and LED light bulbs in home use (the A19 screw base).  You’ll also see the inside of an LED bulb. I was surprised to learn it’s a tiny computer.

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