Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Slip sliding away

The Extreme Ice Survey has some amazing videos, showing time-lapse footage of the retreat of glaciers in Alaska, Iceland and Greenland.
Via Geology News.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Can't live with 'em, can't shoot 'em

Victoria Times-Colonist columnist Jack Knox has a fun story today about peoples' frustrations with resident Canada Geese: you know, the ones that cruise around in ever larger flocks, gobble up crops and poop on lawns. Most of the ones in this region are Giant Canada Geese, a subspecies native to Central Canada and the midwest and introduced in many other areas for reasons that are now obscure. Terry Wahl, an eminent birder and birdbook author based in Bellingham says they were introduced for hunting, but "They didn't shoot enough of them."
Of course, it didn't help that people converted many acres of waterfront and lakefront into lawns and golf courses--prime habitat for the big birds.
As far as solutions go: I like the idea of shooting them. The main problem with that is that it would be likely that more innocuous but similar types of birds, such as cackling geese, would also be killed. So an open season probably isn't a great idea. Making it a licensed business, like commercial fishing, might give government some control over which birds are targeted and who is pulling the trigger. Trouble is, the commercial fishing model hasn't worked particularly well for fish.
And there are some who love the birds, and will defend them.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Birds of Oak Bay

Photographed on a waterfront walk in Victoria, B.C.'s Oak Bay municipality:

A lesser yellowlegs...

...a pair of black oystercatchers...

...and a belted kingfisher.

Elephant seal on Willows Beach, Victoria B.C.

Every year elephant seals haul themselves out of the water to moult. They lie there for days as their skin peels off. This female is dozing at Willows Beach, in Victoria, B.C. while waiting for her spring coat to come in. Robin Baird, of Simon Fraser University, has this article about this behavior. More and more elephant seals are showing on beaches on Vancouver Island, because their numbers are on the rise. The seals came close to extinction at the end of the 19th century, after they were hunted for their blubber. California State Parks has a good account of the species.
Here is the Victoria Times-Colonist's report on the seal.
As you can see from the newspaper photo, the seal is pretty oblivious to people coming close, though Fisheries and Oceans Canada has since barricaded it behind yellow fire scene tape. Although it looks remarkably like a log from a distance, it's easy to find on the beach. Just look for the crowd of people.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

20 years since the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Twenty years since the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound, the marine life there hasn't recovered. The Seattle Times, has a report on what's happened since. Wired Science has an interesting post on the fate of the AT1 pod, a distinctive pod of seal-eating orcas that roamed Prince William Sound, and are now at less than a third of their pre-Exxon Valdez numbers.
If you dig into some beaches in Prince William Sound, a pool of oil will form in the hole.

NOAA Fisheries Image.

At the time of the disaster, no-one knew how far-reaching the biological effects would be or how long the oil would stay in the environment. Now, we are finding out, which gives scientists new perspectives on the most pervasive source of oil pollution: stormwater.
In a post in Wired Science, Brandon Keim writes:
"According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, six Exxon Valdez spills' worth of oil seep into the U.S. environment every single year, dripping from vehicles and washed into sewers where it's carried directly into streams and finally to the sea." Research into the Exxon Valdez could end up providing insight into what we have done, drop, by drop, to every waterway near human habitation, Keim writes.
"Unlike Prince William Sound, researchers haven't spent decades looking for damage caused by chronic oil exposures in America's waters. It's not inconceivable that a state of permanent toxicity has come to seem natural."

Pictures of Redoubt Volcano

The Alaska Volcano Observatory, has a fine gallery of pictures of the ongoing eruption of Redoubt Volcano.

Alaska Volcano Observatory webcam photo

Monday, March 23, 2009

USDA revises plant hardiness zones

Things have warmed up since 1990, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture came up with its plant hardiness zone map--the reference gardeners use when figuring out what kinds of plants will thrive in their yards. The Daily Climate has a story about the departments revisions to the map. A new version -- with all those colored ribbons moved a little farther north, should appear later this year. The Arbor Day Foundation published its own revised map in 2006, along with this nifty animation showing how the zones have changed.

The USDA's 1990 map of the region's plant hardiness zones.

Today's sign of spring

Violet-green swallows have arrived at Green Lake.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Build your own bird tracker

Wired Science has a post on a program that has citizen science recording night time bird migrations using home-made monitors.
William Evans, the ornithologist who developed the set-up describes it:

"It's one resistor, two capacitors, a 9-volt battery, a microphone element, a dinner plate, some Saran wrap and a flower pot...It costs less than thirty bucks, and you can build it in a couple hours. You can potentially monitor thousands of birds in a night. And that's something we've never been able to do in the field."

You can find instruciton on Evans' web site.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Stranded sturgeon in Stanwood

About a dozen white sturgeon -- some 10 feet long -- ended up dead on the mud flats near the mouth of the Stillaguamish River on March 12, says a story in the Seattle Times. The fish were part of a group of 1,500 that ventured into the Port Susan Bay to feed and then got stranded by low tide.

State of Northwest Birds

Thursday's State of the Birds Report has some chilling findings about some local birds. In the section on Western Forests, it mentions a variety of imperilled birds, beyond our local threatened species: the marbled murrelet and spotted owl.
Among them, the black swift, a stunning flier that spends its winters in the tropics, and breeds behind mountain waterfalls -- making it dependent on summer stream flows and snowpack -- two things that are declining as our region's temperatures increase.
Also declining: the olive-sided flycatcher, varied thrush, band-tailed pigeon, rufous hummingbird, and chestnut-backed chickadee.
The section on coastal birds, details declines in shorebirds and in other species that depend on beach habitats. And common murres have declined by 76 percent over the past 40 years.

Common Murres. Image source: Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

Bats in slow motion

Carl Zimmer has a gorgeous post -- with slow-motion video -- about research on bat flight and walking.

"Bats evolved a way to take advantage of the same laws of physics birds use to fly. And many scientists who have studied bat flight in the past have basically treated bats like leathery birds. Yet there’s no reason to assume that this should be so. After all, it would not be surprising to find that the way the feathers on a bird’s wing react to air pushing against them are different from the way the stretchy membranes on a bat react. Birds don’t have wing surfaces connecting their front and back legs, like bats do. And while birds only have a couple joints in their wing skeleton, such as at the elbow and wrists, bats have lots of knuckles they could, in theory, bend selectively to alter their wing surface. Bats also have lots of sensitive hair cells on their wings that appear to track the speed and direction of the air flow, and the information they get from the hairs may help them make fine adjustments to their wings many times a second."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Glues from mussel beards

Wired Science has a fun article today about scientists who study the fibers that mussels use to attach themselves to rocks. Mussel glue is very strong, and dries quickly in sea water, leading to the idea that a similar substance might be useful in another saline environment: the human body.

Also in Wired Science, videos of how bats land upside down.

Studying the work of birders gone by

The North American Bird Phenology Program, is asking for volunteers to enter data from 6 million note cards, dating back to the 1880s. The note-cards, now housed in 40 filing cabinets in Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, document sightings of migratory birds. The program is looking for volunteers to enter the data into a searchable database. If you are interested in helping, go here.

Via Wired Science

Signs of spring

Spotted on a jaunt around Discovery Park: Salmonberry starting to bloom. An Anna's Hummingbird chattered at me from a nearby twig as I took this picture.

Also seen: big leaf maple buds bursting.

And here is some red-flowering currant:

Barred owl in Discovery Park

I heard a bunch of crows and Steller's Jays making a ruckus, so I knew there was something interesting around. Sure enough, there was a Barred Owl, in a hemlock next to the loop trail. It was fluffing up its feathers and occasionally snapping at crows who came too close. After a while, the other birds moved on.

The trail and the tree

Walking around Discovery Park's loop trail this morning, I came across a maintenance crew. They were preparing to reroute part of the trail, so that it kept a safe distance from this huge big leaf maple. The tree is nearing the end of its life, and it is likely to start shedding limbs, so parks management wants foot traffic safely out of the way.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Citizen space science

Four teenagers from Spain sent a weather balloon 20 miles up, and came up with some stunning pictures of the stratosphere, says this story from the Telegraph.

Via Neuron Culture

Chicken-sized dinosaur fossil found in Alberta

Two Alberta scientists have discovered Hesperonychus, a new species of velociraptor the size of a small chicken, reports the Edmonton Journal. It's the smallest dinosaur ever. Judging by its long claws, the researchers believe it probably lived, and hunted, in trees. Paleontologists originally excavated the dinosaur in 1982, but because it was so small, it took more than 25 years to get around to taking a close look at it.

Via Headwaters News

Monday, March 16, 2009

Arsenic-cleaning alga found in Yellowstone

Researchers from Montana State University at Bozeman have found a red alga that thrives in arsenic-laden hot springs in Yellowstone, according to an article in The Billings Gazette.
The alga, called Cyanidioschyzon, lives in the outflow channels from acidic hot springs.
The discovery's possible applications are tantalizing--perhaps providing a way to detoxify mine tailings and soils.

Via Headwaters News

Why healthy forests need dead wood

George Weurthner, the ecological projects director for, , has written in Forest Magazine, outlining some of the research on why dead trees are good for forest ecosystems.

Among the tidbits from his essay: University of Montana ecologist Richard Hutto has found that about 45 percent of North American bird species depend on snags for at least part of their lives. Another researcher, Timothy Kent Brown, found that two thirds of all wildlife species use dead trees.

And not all dead trees are equal.

"William Laudenslayer, a U.S. Forest Service researcher at the Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experimental Station, and his colleagues experimentally girdled trees to kill them, a common forestry practice used to produce snags for wildlife. They compared those snags to trees killed by bark beetles. They found that “bark beetle-killed trees provided significantly greater woodpecker feeding activity, cavity building and insect diversity” compared to snags created by girdling."

Via Ralph Maugham's Wildlife News.

Birds of spring

This morning's Tweetershas several signs of spring's approach. Blue Grouse have been heard booming in the Olympic Mountains, a turkey vulture was spotted over Bainbridge Island, and at Molbak's Nursery in Woodinville, an Anna's Hummingbird has set up a nest in a Camelia that had been for sale. She laid two eggs, which hatched on March 8 and 9. The store management now has the tree roped off, but it's possible to approach within four feet, for a closer look.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

State of the sockeye

A Portland-based advocacy group called State of the Salmon has come up with a beautiful web tool to visualize the situation of 51 populations of sockeye that spawn in North America. There are maps, lists of the data, and a population plot similar to those used to great effect by Hans Rosling. One interesting insight from that plot: when it comes to the last 30 years, most sockeye stocks appear to be in one of two groups: rapidly increasing, or rapidly declining. There isn't any middle ground.

Via Eric Hess at The Daily Score

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Exxon Valdez 20 years later

"Exxon Valdez oil persists in the environment and, in places, is nearly
as toxic as it was the first few weeks after the spill."

In some bays in Prince William Sound, if you dig into the mud, the oil will pool up. Transient orcas are dying out. Herring stocks are still depressed. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council 2009 Status Report is a round-up of the latest chapters in a nightmare that began 20 years ago.

Via Greenspace, the L.A. Times environment blog.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Eagle web cams

A pair of eagles near the Swartz Bay Terminal in Sidney B.C. are expecting. The female has laid two eggs, which should hatch in early April. In the meantime, you can watch the female, and sometimes the male, sit on the eggs, and adjusting the nesting material, thanks to the Hancock Wildlife Foundation, a non-profit with offices in Surrey, B.C. and Blaine, Wash.
The foundation also has a camera trained on a pair of eagles readying their nest on Hornby Island B.C. At the site, you can also view past footage of nesting Great Blue Herons and spawning salmon.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Speaking of phenology

Here's some coltsfoot emerging on the north side of Green Lake.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Tracking the seasons

Sometimes it's really useful to keep a diary. That's what scientists are finding as they come to grips with how the world is changing with the climate. So researchers at the USA National Phenology Network are calling for people to take down data about the plants around where they live. They also want any nature records people have been keeping for their national database.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Swimming around Bainbridge

Biologist Mark Powell is swimming around Bainbridge Island and blogging about the experience.