Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, everyone. And in the coming year, just remember ... the possibilities are endless if we just keep our eyes open.

copyright 1995, Bill Watterson

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

The web of life ... and of our meddling with it

Kirk Johnson has a story in Friday's New York Times that is about exotic trees, the Dust Bowl, willow flycatchers, radiation, economic stimuli, citizen-based ecosystem restoration, beetles, drought, and Superfund. Seriously.

Check it out.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Anniversary today

On this day in 1831, a voyage began that would ultimately rock our understanding of how the natural world came to have the form that it has. Charles Darwin, born into a middle-upper class British family in 1809, developed an early love for the natural world but apparently little ambition for any of the traditional career paths open to a person of his social standing in the early 1800s. Following his graduation from Cambridge University in 1831, he accepted a position as ...

... naturalist and companion to the captain of the British ship HMS Beagle, whose mission was to chart the coast of South America. The voyage of the Beagle lasted five years, circumnavigated the globe, and provided young Darwin with the opportunity to explore the diversity of the natural world from a global perspective. While he was certainly not the first explorer to have done so, he was among the wave of 19th century explorers who were ultimately provide a framework for understanding the processes that are responsible for shaping the patterns we see in the natural world today.

Many years after Darwin's return from the voyage in 1836, he developed a logical argument for how lineages of organisms could change over time in response to differential selection -- with respect to both survival and reproductive success -- caused by the environment. Dubbed natural selection, Darwin eventually (in 1859) fully laid out his argument in the book On the Origin of Species, which drew heavily on the observations he made while traveling on the Beagle; and the world has never been the same since.

Part of the attraction for me of Darwin's life story has always been its example of the power of observation. At the risk of understating the hardships of the voyage itself, Darwin in fact did little more on the voyage than collect, observe, and take meticulous notes. That, coupled with his brilliant ability to patiently ask (and answer) how one could make the most sense of his field observations, was all it took to shake human understanding of the world to its core.

The seismic tremors that began with the voyage of the Beagle have still not ended, since an acceptance of evolution by means of natural selection remains one of the primary touchstones in the global religio-culture wars. But regardless of where one stands with respect to those wars, one has to acknowledge the significance of a small ship that sailed out of Plymouth harbor on December 27, 1831.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Species at risk from climate change

A recent article from the New Scientist reports on a new study released by the World Conservation Union on species susceptible to climate change impacts. The highlights are not pleasant.

Of 17,000 assessed species, over 7000 could become threatened with extinction because of climate change.

Ninety "life history traits" - essential elements of a species' behaviour or lifestyle - were identified that were likely to be affected by a change in a species' local climate. These included:

* Requirements for a specialised habitat: some amphibians depend on a stream or pond, so if that dries out there is no way they can survive;
* Specific environmental tolerances: many corals cannot survive if the water temperature or pH exceeds a certain threshold;
* Dependence on environmental cues: many species depend on changes in day length or rainfall to start breeding;
* Dependence on interactions with other species: without prey a specialised predator cannot survive; lichen depend on trees, and many plants on their pollinators;
* Ability to disperse: as their historical habitats become increasingly hostile, species will need to move to new territories but may not be able to do so if there is something - a body of water, perhaps - in their way.

Half of all amphibians, one-third of all birds and over two-thirds of assessed corals are susceptible to climate change.

Within each group, some species are more likely to suffer. Among the birds, all albatross and penguin species were deemed susceptible. Herons, egrets, ospreys, kites, hawks and eagles, on the other hand, are less so.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Myth 2: Big-picture philosophy is more important than practical advice

[This post is the continuation of a thread begun on 12/15]

Wrong. Big-picture philosophy is great, of course. It’s what provides a pedagogical grounding for what we do, and the field of education is rife with big-picture philosophies: people learn more by doing than by seeing; children benefit by spending time outdoors; collaborative learning is good; and so on. But picture yourself as a novice educator, armed with only these philosophies. What will they actually empower you to do with your students on Monday morning? How can you translate them into a lesson plan? A field-trip itinerary? A wish list for equipment and supplies to put together a new exercise or museum display? For philosophies to translate into anything useful, they have to be followed up with practical, detailed advice on what to do and how to do it. The truth is that the details of your experiences translating philosophical truisms into educational activities are a critical part of educational theory. Without practical advice, philosophies will never come to life and bear fruit, and your detailed stories are precisely the kind of practical advice that others need.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Five myths about writing about teaching natural history: Myth 1

Yes, the title of this post is a mouthful. Yet it makes an important point. A year and a half ago the Natural History Network launched the Journal of Natural History Education, and since that time, as editor, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with numerous people about developing articles for the journal. Some of them contacted me at the suggestion of an NHN board member or colleague; some simply came across the journal on the web and thought they had an idea for an article.

Without exception, all of them had interesting and important stories to tell about teaching natural history. But also without exception, my conversations with them, both initial discussions about how a story could be developed into a manuscript as well as follow-up conversations about how manuscripts could be improved, revealed that teachers are enormously intimidated by and uncertain about telling their stories.

Five key myths emerge repeatedly. I call them myths because they are fundamentally incorrect, but I could just as easily call them barriers because these myths stand in the way of telling our stories in ways that share knowledge and experience, as well as empower other teachers to participate in the natural history renaissance (Trombulak and Fleischner 2007). Over a series of posts, I'd like to describe each of these myths. First up, Myth 1 ...

Myth 1: Nobody really wants to know about what I do with my students.

Wrong. Imagine that you come across an article that talks about teaching natural history to the same kinds of students you teach and with the same kind of emphasis you make. What is your reaction to that article? Do you say, “No, I don’t want to read it because it is too relevant to my life as a teacher”? Of course not. As teachers, we are always looking for better ways to communicate, educate, and evaluate. We are well aware that there are a thousand different ways to construct an exercise or activity, most of which we know we would not develop on our own. So we are always talking to our colleagues about what they do and how well they think it works.

Your colleagues are no different than you. Just as you want to learn from them, so too do they want to learn from you. Maybe they will listen to your story and adopt your approach in their own class, and maybe they will decide that they prefer what they are currently doing. But that’s not the point. What matters is that you are giving them the opportunity to consider alternatives and improvements. The truth is that they want to know what you are doing with your students because it gives them the opportunity to improve as educators, whether or not they agree with you.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

The mind of mice

Natural History magazine reports on a recent study published by Karen Mabry and Judy Stamps in the journal American Naturalist about how juvenile brush mice (Peromyscus boylii) select new nest sites. This species is native and broadly distributed throughout western North America. Rather than simply selecting the first acceptible nest site they encounter, they spend a week or more searching for and revisiting sites until eventually settling down.

What I find interesting about the report is that it further exemplifies the cognitive complexity of non-human animals. Sure, they are just mice, but they are actually comparison "shopping," a cognitive skill that involves the ability to compare items encountered at different times and different locations as well as the willingness to forego an acceptible resource in current possession (the potential nest site the mouse is presently at) for a better resource that was encountered in the past.

When I was a graduate student, Don Griffin had just published the first edition of his book Animal Thinking. I remember it being highly controversial because it argued (quite persuasively, in my opinion) that animals were conscious creatures. Prior to the 1980s, most behaviorists seemed comfortable thinking of animals as if they were non-conscious automatons. Griffin argued otherwise, and the avalanche of studies that have been done otherwise seems to support his position.

Comparison shopping for homes by mice seems to me to fit quite nicely into this view. The natural world is not only alive, but much of it is conscious and aware!

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

It's that time of year

No, not the holidays. Final exams and papers. I'm up to my eyeballs with papers about exotic species, ecological reserves, and conservation initiatives. While most are generally well written (I am blessed with being able to teach a fairly high caliber of student), some make mistakes that are downright embarrassing.

"The range of the American chestnut once stretched from Main to Georgia."

"Zebra muscles were introduced into the Great Lakes in the 1980s."

and my personal favorite so far ...

"The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park led to a reduction in the size of the elf population."

What these (and many other examples) all have in common is, I think, an over-reliance on spell-checkers and a lack of careful proofreading. No great sin, I suppose. But when I see these kinds of mistakes I am always reminded of Taylor Mali's poem, "The The Impotence of Proofreading."

And the memory of it always makes me smile.

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Quote of the day

How Strange that Nature does not knock, and yet does not intrude!

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), in Letter to Mrs. J.S. Cooper

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Birthday celebration

Today is the birthday of C. Hart Merriam, one of the natural history pioneers in North America in the 1800s. Born on this day in 1855, probably Merriam's most lasting contribution to the field of natural history was his introduction of what we call today "Merriam's life zones," an early attempt to describe regions based on their plant and animal communities. When I was a kid, Merriam's system of life zones (e.g., Sonoran, Hudsonian) was the primary method my little brain used to organize a vast amount of natural history information, making it possible for me to make sense of what I was seeing around me as I began to travel more widely, especially in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Although we now have far more sophisticated ways of subdividing the landscape, Merriam set the stage for subsequent generations of natural historians and geographers.

From Wikipedia ...

Clinton Hart Merriam (December 5, 1855-March 19, 1942) was an American zoologist, ornithologist, entomologist and ethnographer.

He was born in New York City in 1855. His father, Clinton Levi Merriam, was a U.S. congressman. He studied biology and anatomy at Yale University and went on to obtain an M.D. from the School of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in 1879.

In 1886, he became the first chief of the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy of the United States Department of Agriculture, predecessor to the National Wildlife Research Center and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. He was one of the original founders of the National Geographic Society in 1888. He developed the "life zones" concept to classify biomes found in North America. In mammalogy, he is known as an excessive splitter, proposing, for example, tens of different species of North American brown bears in several genera.

In 1899, he helped railroad magnate E. H. Harriman to organize an exploratory voyage along the Alaska coastline.

Some species of animals that bear his name are Merriam's Wild Turkey Meliagris gallopavo meriami, the now extinct Merriam's Elk Cervus elaphus merriami, and Merriam's Chipmunk Tamias merriami. Much of his detail-oriented taxonomy continues to be influential within mammalogical and ornithological circles.

Later in life, funded by the Harriman family, Merriam's focus shifted to studying and assisting the Native American tribes in the western United States. His contributions on the myths of central California and on ethnogeography were particularly noteworthy.

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Welland Canal ... and other thoughts about lamprey

Today marks the anniversary of two events with lasting implications for the natural history of large freshwater lakes in eastern North America. On this day in 1824, ground was broken for the construction of the Welland Canal, intended to become a bypass around Niagara Falls and allow cargo ships to move freely from Lake Ontario (which has direct access to the Atlantic Ocean) into Lake Erie (which then allows access to the North American interior as far west as Duluth, Minnesota).

And on this day in 1829, the Welland Canal was completed. Although it was modified on a series of occasions over the next several years, it was on this date that free movement upstream from the St. Lawrence River into the heart of the continent became possible. And not just for ships, mind you, but for everything else that lived in Lake Ontario.

Unfortunately, this also meant Sea Lamprey (Petromyzon marinus). Sea Lamprey are one of a handful of jawless fish that feed as adults as ectoparasites, attaching to the bodies of thin-scaled bony fish (such as Lake Trout), rasping wounds with "toothed" oral muscles, and feeding on body fluids seeping out of the wounds. Sea Lamprey, native to Lake Ontario but unknown from Lake Erie westward, colonized the interior lakes through the Welland Canal. Over the course of about 100 years, their populations grew to the point where they had decimated many of the inland cold-water fisheries, causing enough damage to inspire a massive control program.

The life cycle of Sea Lamprey is complex. Adults swim up certain rivers and streams to lay their eggs. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae settle down where the sediment is sandy-to-silty, burrowing tail first with only their mouths and gill chambers exposed into the water. Here they live for several years as filter feeders before eventually metamorphosing into ectoparasitic adults and migrating downstream to a larger body of water (such as Lake Erie).

The only control method that seemed to be effective was the use of a chemical, 3-trifluoromethyl-4-nitrophenol, aka TFM. When applied into the water of the breeding rivers and streams, TFM killed the filter-feeding larvae. (While much debate swirled around the use of TFM, there is no debating its effectiveness at controling lamprey.) By the early 1960s, more than 130 years after the completion of the Welland Canal, the controlled use of TFM final brought lamprey populations under control in the Great Lakes.

The Welland Canal. Another example of unintended ... and long-term ... consequences.

Postscript: I can't help but add a coda to this story. The success of controling Sea Lamprey in the Great Lakes with TFM has been used to justify the control of Sea Lamprey in Lake Champlain, a large freshwater lake on the border of eastern New York and western Vermont whose outlet connects to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence River. By the 1980s, lamprey attackes on freshwater fish in Lake Champlain had grown so severe that a coalition of federal, state, and special interest group advocates successfully lobbied for a TFM program in lamprey breeding rivers flowing into the lake. The primary argument was that Sea Lamprey entered Lake Champlain following the contruction of the Champlain Canal, connecting Lake Champlain southward to the Hudson River, in 1823. Thus, just as Sea Lamprey were successfully controlled with TFM in Lake Erie following their accidental establishment, so too should Sea Lamprey be controlled with TFM in Lake Champlain. What worked for controlling an exotic species in one location could and should be used to control the same exotic in another location.

There's just one problem with that concept. Sea Lamprey are not exotics in Lake Champlain.

They are irrefutably native, and the ability of agencies to shape public and court opinion to the contrary is a marvelous example of the power of words to create perception, and the risks of not knowing enough about the natural history of one's region.

Prior to the explosion of Sea Lamprey in Lake Champlain in the 1970s and 80s, they were typically described as a native species. This language began to change, however, as their effect on game fish like Lake Trout increased. Press releases and government brochures began to describe Sea Lamprey as "native, or possibly exotic," then as "exotic, but possibly native," and then as simply "exotic." When asked to justify the conclusion that they are exotic, the answer typically invoked the argument that they were not recorded in Lake Champlain until after the completion of the Champlain Canal. Interesting correlation, but hardly evidence of causation, given how little was recorded about the natural history of aquatic ecosystems in Vermont and New York prior to the 1840s.

In any event, now that the Sea Lamprey was "officially" an exotic species, it became justifiable to wage chemical warfare on them. Afterall, they were exotic, and shouldn't be there in the first place. The fact that TFM is also lethal to other forms of aquatic life, including the rare aquatic salamander called the mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus) was unfortunate, but that's just the price that needed to be paid to control this exotic pest.

Of course, if one REALLY wanted to learn whether or not Sea Lamprey were native or exotic to Lake Champlain, one could easily imagine a simply study that could answer this question. In fact, the study is so simple and so obvious that generations of my students, when posed with the question of how to determine the Sea Lamprey's status, always came up with the answer within 5-10 seconds: make a genetic comparison of Sea Lamprey from Lake Champlain with those in Lake Ontario and the Hudson River. Surprisingly, it wasn't until 2005 until someone thought to make such a comparison. And completely unsurprisingly, at least to me and many others, the results conclusively showed that the Lake Champlain populations of Sea Lamprey are too distinct from those in the Hudson River to have been recent colonists, but rather, were native.

Of course, the response of the pro-lamprey control lobby was predictable. When confronted with evidence that their straw-man argument was false, they began the rhetorical side-step shuffle. "Well," they said, "it really doesn't matter whether they are native or exotic. They still need to be controlled."

In fact, that may well be true. Blind warfare against exotics and blind acceptance of natives no matter what the circumstances are both foolish propositions.

What has my BVDs in a bunch on this issue is not that state and federal agencies would try and control a native species. Its that by ignoring the real natural history of this species ... and in fact manipulating the perception of the natural history of this species ... these agencies blinded themselves to looking at what was really going on. The search for the cause of the lamprey's increased depredation in game fish was derailed from the start: they were exotic, end of story. By not knowing the truth, simplistic solutions (dump poisons into the rivers) could be promoted and enacted without serious exploration of the real causes. Yes, the increased rate of depredation was real. I don't doubt that. But unless the true status of lamprey is recognized, then the critical question could never be asked: If Sea Lamprey are native, why is the rate of depredation increasing now?

I don't know the answer to that question, nor at this point does anyone else. Have we critically altered the biotic communities in the lake? Altered sedimentation or nutrient loading via rivers and streams? Altered influx of air-borne pollutants? All of the above? Something else entirely? Only future work will untimately answer these questions.

My point is this: We could never answer these questions until we asked them. And we could never ask them until we got the natural history right.

So perhaps the biologists who now say that it doesn't matter whether or not the Sea Lamprey are exotic are right, but only on a superficial level. It matters a great deal when it comes to asking the right questions.

Earlier in this post I mentioned that the fact that Sea Lamprey are native was unsurprising. You might well ask why. It is simply this: Geologists have known for decades that up until about 10,000 years ago, Lake Champlain was actually a salt-water arm of the Atlantic Ocean called the Champlain Sea. This sea drained and became a small freshwater lake only after two millennia had passed since the retreat of the last glacial ice sheet from this area and the Earth's crust could finally rebound in elevation. Ten thousand years ago this region not only had open access to the Atlantic Ocean, it was the Atlantic Ocean. Sea Lamprey had to have been present, and no rational argument has ever been advanced as to how they could have been wiped out only to successfully recolonize via the Champlain Canal.

Natural history is not just telling Just So Stories about nature. It's knowing the history of where one lives. That history is written in the rocks; it's written in each species' genome; it's written in the landscape carved by glaciers, cut by axes, and broken by plows. Ignore any part of that history and not only will you fail to find the correct answers, but you will fail to even ask the correct questions.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Quote of the day

Where do the highest mountains come from? I once asked. Then I learned that they come from out of the sea. The evidence is inscribed in their stone and in the walls of their summits. It is from the deepest that the highest must come to its height.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in Also Spracht Zarathustra (1883-91)

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Keeping an eye on mercury

Mercury kills, and its presence in the environment is an indicator of potential trouble on the horizon for all species, including humans. Anthony DePalma reports in the NYT on a study recently released by the BioDiversity Research Institute on increased levels of mercury in Bald Eagles in the Catskill Mountains region of New York.

We've known for quite a few years that mercury was a problem in the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada. Charlie Driscoll and his colleagues, working under the umbrella of the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation, reviewed the existing data on mercury deposition in the Northern Appalachian ecoregion and showed that mercury levels here routinely exceed human and wildlife health thresholds. Chris Rimmer, at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, and his colleagues reported in the journal Ecotoxicology in 2005 that even an upland species like Bicknell's Thrush, which inhabits high elevation forests in the Northern Appalachians during the breeding season, has levels of mercury in its blood in excess of accepted health thresholds.

The presence of mercury in a species like Bicknell's Thrush is particularly disturbing. While still not acceptible, mercury in Bald Eagles is at least understandable. Ionic forms of mercury deposited in aquatic ecosystems are converted into methylmercury (a form that causes severe neurological damage and death) by bacteria; methylmercury is then bioaccumulated up through the aquatic food chain and eventually gets incorporated into the tissues of Bald Eagles, which eat a lot of fish.

But Bicknell's Thrush? Either this upland songbird eats far more aquatic insect larvae than previously understood (and methylmercury is bioaccumulating in these short-lived insects to a much greater extent than previously believed) or there are terrestrial pathways from ionic mercury to methylmercury that we don't fully understand, which means that more species are susceptible to mercury poisoning than we thought.

Either way, it's not good news. And neither is the fact that mercury levels are on the rise.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Quote of the day

Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.

Attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Photo archives from LIFE magazine

Matt Celeskey over at The Hairy Museum of Natural History blog reports that LIFE magazine and Google are making millions of photos from the LIFE photo archives available on line. As a kid growing up in the 50's and 60's I remember LIFE being an early window into a world far larger than I could have imagined on my own, so the magazine will always hold a warm place in my heart.

Among the photos are some real gems of natural history ...

including the Colorado River in 1875 ...

... Roger Tory Peterson with an osprey at its nest ...

... and Yosemite Valley.

Cruising the archive is like a walk through time from the 1860s to the 1970s.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Mountain pine beetles decimate western forests

Jim Robbins writes in the NYT about the mountain pine beetle infestation sweeping through pine forests in western North America.

In Wyoming and Colorado in 2006 there were a million acres of dead trees. Last year it was 1.5 million. This year it is expected to total over two million. In the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, the problem is most severe. It is the largest known insect infestation in the history of North America, officials said. British Columbia has lost 33 million acres of lodgepole pine forest, and a freak wind event in 2006 blew mountain pine beetles, a species of bark beetle, over the Continental Divide to northern Alberta. Experts fear that the beetles could travel all the way to the Great Lakes.

Dendroctonus ponderosae is native to North America, so this isn't an example of the all-too-common story of "exotic species gone wild." Instead, it seems to reflect the growing reality of just how far out of balance our relationship with the land has become and how long we will have to live with the reprecussions of our poor choices.

Foresters say the historic outbreak has several causes. Because fires have been suppressed for so long, all forests are roughly the same age, and the trees are big enough to be susceptible to beetles. A decade of drought has weakened the trees. And hard winters have softened, which allows the beetles to flourish and expand their range.

Fire suppression during the 20th century and climate change in the 21st (owing its momentum to the Industrial Revolution that began in earnest in the 19th). I fear that this will be a common refrain for the next several decades. It's a good example of why a precautionary principle guided by ecological knowledge is so important. It will be thousands of times more difficult to pick up the pieces on this kind of collapse than to have prevented it in the first place.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Quote of the day

Much that is good and all that is evil has gathered itself up into the Western Gull. He is rather the handsomest of the blue-mantled Laridae, for the depth of color in the mantle, in sharp contrast with the snowy plumage of back and breast, gives him an appearance of sturdiness and quality which is not easily dispelled by subsequent knowledge of the black heart within. As a scavanger, the Western Gull is impeccable. Wielding the besom of hunger, he and his kind sweep the beaches clean and purge the water-front of all pollution. But a scavanger is not necessarily a good citizen. Call him a ghoul, rather, for the Western Gull is cruel of beak and bottomless of maw. Pity, with him, is a thing unknown; and when one of their own comrades dies, these feathered jackals fall upon him without compunction, a veritable Leichnamveranderungsgebrauchsgesellschaft. If he thus mistreats his own kind, be assured that this gull asks only two questions of any other living thing: First, "Am I hungry?" (Ans., "Yes.") Second, "Can I get away with it?" (Ans., "I'll try.")

William Leon Dawson, in Birds of California (1923)

Which reminds me of a poem I wrote once while waiting for a ferry in Australia ...

“First Precept of Food Webs”

Dark-eyed vulture with one question—
Do I have food?
In the eyes of the Great Spirit I am only that.
I am not yet edible,
and the vulture flies away.

Steve Trombulak (2000)

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Monday, November 17, 2008

The Restigouche: A wilderness endangered

Eastern North America has wilderness. Oh yes; we've got wilderness.

This video was produced by friends and colleagues of mine at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). The fight to protect wild nature in the Northern Appalachian/Acadian ecoregion goes on.

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Removing the damn dams

Felicity Barringer reports in the New York Times on an agreement recently made by the federal government, Oregon, California, and the private company PacifiCorp, which generates electricity, to remove four dams on the Klamath River. The details are sparse and the time line is all but certain, but I can't help but smile whenever I hear discussion about dam removal.

The widespread damming of the American West over a period of nearly 100 years has done incalculable damage to the West's aquatic ecosystems and native fish. The control of water has been at the heart of the struggle for control of the West, and up until the 1990's, wild nature was always given the short end of the stick. But little by little, nature is being given a chance to reclaim its wildness and run a little more free. Slowly, water diversion is being forced to give way to water conservation, and dams are being removed.

John Muir, one of the founders of the modern environmental consciousness, died broken hearted. He and the Sierra Club lost its battle to prevent the construction of O'Shaughnessy Dam, completed in 1923, which dammed of the Hetch Hetchy River flowing west out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, just north of Yosemite Valley. Muir said,

Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.

When I was a kid growing up in California, and spending as much time as I possibly could in the Sierras, the removal of O'Shaughnessy Dam was the Holy Grail of the local conservation community, ranking high on the list of "Not in My Lifetime" impossibilities, right up there with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of apartheid, and the election of an African-American to the U.S. Presidency.

Somewhere, John Muir is surely smiling. Dam removal on the Klamath. Maybe, just maybe, restoring the Hetch Hetchy is not so impossible afterall.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Quote of the day

The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.

William Beebe, in The Bird (1906)

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tools and resources?

Know of a site on the web that other practitioners of natural history should know about? Species accounts, visualization tools, current information about trends and conditions, and webcams ... and the list goes on. Share your favorite sites with others by posting a comment. We'll add as many as we can to the Tools and Resources bar on the left for easy access.

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Thursday's Open Thread

Open threads are an invitation for the readers to reflect and share their thoughts on single topic. Today's question ...

How did you become interested in natural history?

The floor is now open.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Quote of the day

Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries — stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region.

Herman Melville, in Moby Dick

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Year of Birding Strenuously

Yesterday marked a milestone for me: indeed, self-imposed and of no real consequence to what I do even today, but a milestone nonetheless. Yesterday, at 4:35 pm, in the dying light of a cold New England day on an obscure dirt road near my house, I saw a flock of eight Short-eared Owls hunting low over a hay field. I had gone out there on a tip from a fellow birder who posted on our state-wide birding discussion list (VTBIRD) that he had seen them there the day before as dusk was creeping in. I raised my binoculars to my eyes, hoping that I would find them before it became full-on dark, and I saw them in an instant. Graceful, quiet, impressive as hell, especially because of their (to me) surprising numbers. I watched them for about 30 minutes, never trying to get too close for fear that they would fly off to a different field. Eventually, even with the almost-full moon in the sky, it was too dark to see even their distinctive wing markings, so I called it a day and went home.

But as magnificent as they were -- and I cannot overstate just how magnificent they were -- that is not why yesterday was a milestone. Those Short-eared Owls represented the 150th bird species that I had seen this year in Addison County, where I live. I had successfully hit a target that I had set for myself at the beginning of the year: I wanted to see 150 species of birds in my local area this year.

There was nothing magical about the number 150. It seemed doable (with some attention and effort), I knew it was possible given the number of bird species that have been reported for the county over the last 10 years (courtesy of Vermont eBird), and I knew that there were plenty of other birders in this region who would probably see 150 species by May alone. But I knew that a target would be fun and keep me trying just a little bit harder (hence the whole "standing on the edge of a wind-swept hay field in the growing darkness of a mid-November dusk" episode), and based on my previous years of birding here I thought 150 seemed reasonable.

No, it wasn't the number. What to me was the most exciting is that I did it in my local area. In fact, for the first time ever, I spent ALL of my hard-core birding efforts only in a small area (about 800 square miles, which when you think about it is not all that large; it's a square just 28 miles on a side). For the first time ever, I purposefully chose not to burn fossil fuels driving to distant locations to see rare European or South American vagrants, not to try and be intimate with the natural history of an entire continent but rather only with the dirt roads, woodland stands, and muddy seeps around my neighborhood. Heck, I even ignored rarities reported from neighboring Vermont counties, sticking to my mantra: Think globally; Bird locally.

And I feel like I succeeded. Yes, I hit my target of 150 with 40 days to spare in the year -- I count my years from the Winter Solstice, not from the arbitrary assignment of January 1st in the Gregorian Calendar (about which I can write another time) -- but more importantly, I feel like I have regained an intimacy with my home landscape that no amount of natural history jet-setting could provide. I've had the privilege of seeing how different farmers time the harvest of their corn and hay, how the water levels in small no-name tributaries rise and fall, and how the light reflecting off of Lake Champlain changes week by week. I feel like I know this place better than ever before.

And I feel like I found, at least for now, a compromise between my awareness of our moral responsibility to care for the Earth in deed as well as in word and my desire to simply Get Out There and witness the Web of Life in action. I am better for it. And I can't wait until next year; 160 species, here I come!

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Quote of the day

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.

William Blake, in The Letters (1799)

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Life after the 2008 election

I've been silent on this blog for the last few days. The frenzy leading up to Tuesday's election as well as the post-election euphoria, exhaustion, and inevitable catch-up on all the things I hadn't been paying attention to for so many days all took its toll on me. I still haven't completely grasped the magnitude of the event, nor its place in the long arc of personal and societal history.

As a baby boomer, I remember a great deal of what America has gone through since the end of World War II. OK, well maybe not that far back, but certainly since the time of JFK. When the newscasters announced that Barack Obama had been elected president of the United States, it was as if my entire life flashed before my eyes: LBJ, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Nixon, Watts, Reagan, Bush the Elder, Clinton, Rodney King, Bush the Dumber ... It was as if for the first time in many long years I allowed myself to look at where I am in time and how I got here. How we got here. I'm wondering if this is what it feels like to have suffered and recovered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

After a couple of night's sleep, I feel more awake than I have been in years, and among all the questions and ideas I have swirling around in my mind, two stand out:

1. What will an Obama presidency mean for conservation and the natural world? Will the assault on nature continue as a necessary expediency to spur economic recovery and to solidify the Democratic hold on the political center? Or will President Obama recognize that we cannot have healthy human communities with healthy natural communities?

2. What can I do to help? In his acceptance speech in Grant Park on Tuesday night, he acknowledged (wisely, I think) just how hard the tasks before us are, and he said "I need your help." I need to answer this call. Yes, I know I could cop-out and say that my work for the last several years has been an effort to help stem the tide of ecological destruction, as well as to be an effective educator and parent. But I almost feel as if I have done that while asleep. There is so much more that needs to be done, especially for the natural world. I am going to answer this question for myself. I challenge each of you to answer it ... and follow-through on it ... for yourselves as well.

So ... here's to what I hope is truly the end of our long national nightmare. The return of this great nation of ours to the rule of law and reality-based governance. Maybe there is hope for us as a species afterall.

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

Photo quiz

OK, folks. Step right up and test your powers of observation. Today's quiz has two parts:

1. What critter is this?
2. Where was this photo taken? (Bonus points for answering this question with the name of the ecoregion rather than the state.)

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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Quote of the day

It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility.

Rachel Carson

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Nature is good for you

Tara Parker-Pope had a great article in the New York Times on Monday that discusses research demonstrating that nature helps alleviate brain fatigue. She writes:

"As it turns out, everyone appears to benefit from the restorative powers of nature. ... The human brain has two forms of attention: “directed” attention, which is what we use most of the time to concentrate on work, studies and tests, and “involuntary” attention, which is what occurs when we automatically respond to things like running water, crying babies or wild animals.

The problem is that directed attention is a finite resource — everyone has experienced the fatigue of taking a test or a big project at work. Attention restoration theory suggests that walks in nature and views of green space capture our involuntary attention, giving our directed attention a needed rest."

This has some interesting implications for the designs of schools, office buildings, and work environments of all kinds, as well as the "design" of the work and educational schedules for everyone. More frequent breaks with more ready access to nature may be justified on many, many levels.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Wolf howl

I love the video clip and look forward to a time when we all can hear this no matter where we live in North America. I'm not so sure about some of the commenters on the YouTube site, though. Anthropomorphizing much?

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Quote of the day

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

Aldo Leopold, from The Land Ethic in A Sand County Almanac with other essays on conservation from Round River

According to Leopold then, our practice of natural history provides a moral grounding for being able to distinguish right from wrong.

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Winter birding

Few things get me more excited than being able to emerse myself in the rhythm of the year. Living in New England as I do, I am especially blessed with distinct seasons, each with their own characteristics. Friends who are less enamored of cold climates than I cannot understand how I can possibly live here, but in truth I love winter just as much as any other season. This is in part because the natural world takes on a character all of its own. This is especially true for the birds here. Rather than being devoid of birds as most of our summer residents head south to warmer climates, New England and most of the northern tier of states become the winter home for a wide assortment of birds that move down here from Canada.

But no two years are ever alike. Some years, we see few of these winter migrants; in other years, they are thick as warblers in the summer. Which is why I was so please to see this posting on the VTBIRD discussion list the other day ...

"As many already know PINE SISKINS are waging a very large irruption from Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Ontario, and from Maine south to Georgia already.

"Certainly an invasion of this size has not been seen in many years. An impressive and widespread WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL invasion has also materialized with modest numbers reported at many of the same NE areas as the siskins with a few RED CROSSBILLS mixed in here and there as well.

"PURPLE FINCHES and AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES are also moving in these same areas in good numbers.

"COMMON REDPOLLS also appear to be starting to move in large numbers as reported from Quebec and in lesser numbers at Whitefish Pt. in Michigan.

PINE GROSBEAKS and EVENING GROSBEAKS are showing signs of making at least a small push too."

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! My back yard will be coming to life again, and I get to play one more time with the Rhythm of Life.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What is the Natural History Network ...

... and why have a blog?

Well, my friends, it's like this. Our connection with the other-than-human world--as individuals and as a species--has weakened to the breaking point. Most people spend little time outdoors, have little awareness of the other species that are our neighbors, and have little appreciation for how important our connection to world is. There was a time when people had a purposeful relationship with and awareness of the natural world, and that time has passed.

Two years ago, a group of natural historians founded an organization we call the Natural History Network, whose mission is to promote the values of natural history through discussion and dissemination of ideas and techniques on its successful practice to educators, scientists, artists, writers, the media, and the public at large.

Discussion and dissemination of ideas and techniques ... That's quite a challenge, especially because one's engagement with the natural world is primarily local and personal but the need for a renaissance in natural history is continental (even global) and communal. How can we foster a far-reaching dialog about why natural history matters when for most of us it matters because of what we see, hear, smell, and touch as we live our lives each day? How can we grow a community that promotes a love of the natural world even though we won't be members of the same ecoregions, find inspiration in the same ecosystems, or share an affinity with the same organisms?

One part of the answer is simple. This blog. Our intention is to use this blog as a way for many different authors from around the country to express their ideas and share their experiences with the natural world. Over time, as the posts on this blog grow in number and everyone takes the opportunity to comment on them, our collective exposure to what we see and feel, to what others have learned, and to what tools are available to deeping our awareness will expand.

Tom Fleischner, president of the Natural History Network, has described natural history as "a practice of intentional, focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more-than-human world, guided by honesty and accuracy." Let this blog become part of our practice.

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