Sunday, December 31, 2006

Boise River Bird Watching

(Click Photos to Enlarge)
Another day of bird watching in Boise. I took in some cross country skiing this morning before heading out this afternoon to take some photos along the river. We were looking for bald eagles, but none were to be seen. We did see some interesting stuff. Here you see what I believe is a song sparrow. Sparrows are still tough for me. Not necessarily an exciting bird to find as they are quite common, but the picture came out quite good, so I though I would share.

Upon approaching the river, I scared up a group of Common Goldeneyes (not necessarily common here, but that is their name). I had to sneak down the river to get this shot.

One of my favorite birds chose to put on a show for us. Here are a few Hooded Mergansers. I learned something today. Most of the head shape of these birds is made up of feathers. It surprised me when one of them folded down their head feathers. I had just assumed their head was shaped that way.

Other birds: Canada Goose, Mallard, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue Heron, Cedar Waxwing, American Robin, House Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Wilson Ponds - Nampa, Idaho

On Christmas day, Karyn and I drove out to Wilson Ponds in Nampa for some bird watching and to get some more time using our joint Christmas present to each other - the 100-400mm lens for our camera (yes, we did cheat and use it for an earlier post as well!).

A report that I had received a day before indicated a high level of bird activity at the ponds. Contributing to the normal activity was the fact that the fish hatchery had released a number of fish into the ponds, causing a large increase in gull activity.

Upon our arrival, there were birds everywhere. We originally the birds in the photo on the left might be Greater Scaups, but an earlier report of Lesser Scaups forced me to study the details more carefully.  While not 100% sure, I now classify these as Lesser Scaups.

As you can see in the picture on the right, there was a great deal of gull activity. I have identified a number of these as Ring-billed Gulls, but I am sure there are some others mixed in as well. We watched as the gulls would dive in for the fish. I watched one pull a fish out of the water, only to fumble it as tried to fly away. We watched a number of failed attempts as well.

A Redtailed Hawk graced our presence for a while as it flew circles over head.

The surprise of the day, at least for me was a group of Yellow-rumped Warblers.  I expected all warblers to have vacated the area months ago.

A couple of our favorites - Belted Kingfisher and Pied-billed Grebe were also present.

Complete list we observed: Ruddy Duck, Canada Goose, Wood Duck, Mallard, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Belted Kingfisher, Mourning Dove, American Coot, Ring-billed Gull, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Pied-billed Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Black-billed Magpie, House Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Warbler

Arcticle feature in I and the Bird #40 blog carnival.

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

New Camera

After years of digiscoping (taking digital photos through our spotting scope), we finally broke down and purchased a digital SLR camera for photography. We now use a Canon Digital Rebel XTi, with a Canon 100-400mm lens.  It clearly doesn't qualify as a pocket camera! So far we have been very impressed with the image quality and even more impressed with the speed of the camera. The ability to take 28 shots in a row, 3 frames a second, is an excellent capability that we didn't have before. The focus is right on, even for motion shots. We have taken some good sequences of birds flying. 20 shots in a row, all of them excellent while panning. When buying the lens I was sure that we would have to tripod the camera to use it at all. Not true.  Most of the shots below were taken at 400mm hand held!  It was definitely a good investment!

(click on photo for larger image)


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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Public Transit Initiatives

I haven't published any posts on the election results in November. This is primarily due to my disbelief in Idaho moving more conservative as the rest of the country moved more towards the democrats. This shouldn't come as a surprise as our state has the second highest presidential approval rating, still above 50%. But that is not supposed to be the topic of this post.

In a recent newsletter from the Coalition for Regional Public Transportation, a group which I have the honor of representing my company in, I learned of many successful ballot measures for public transportation across the country. Unfortunately, there weren't any in Idaho. Yet.

Across the nation, $40 billion in new public transit funding was approved. Voters in 13 states approved 21 of the 33 ballot measures, including 7 statewide initiatives.  This provides me hope for the future of the Treasure Valley of Idaho. As I have mentioned before in this blog, Idaho is one of only 4 states which provide no state funding for transit and restricts local funding of transit - Hawaii, Alaska, and Mississippi are the others. The coalition is working with the Idaho legislature to allow local option funding. This isn't an initiative to raise taxes, its an initiative to allow us to ask the citizens if they want to pay for public transit. Today in Idaho, we can't even do that.

If we are successful in this legislature, in November 2008, we will get to vote to approve our own transportation system expansion.

Today was an interesting transit day for me. The double Christmas Whammy hit. The bus service runs slower the week before Christmas as many bus routes converge on the mall. The traffic in and out of the mall, delays the buses through the day. We were also hit with a mid-day snow storm. The result - I waited 35 minutes in the snow for my bus. Since the bus only runs once an hour, it greatly limit your options.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Last week I traveled to Bangalore India on a business trip.  It was a trip that I had put off for about a year, but it was finally time to go. I don't really like to travel. Upon scheduling the trip, I received no less than 8 warning email from our corporate travel department about the "high risk" nature of India.  What did I get myself into?

The trip preparation began with a visit to the travel nurse that was very successful in scaring the crap out of me. Shots, pills, water filters, emergency evacuation instructions, and instructions like "don't wear any jewelry or you will be robbed." It seemed as if I was stepping off the edge of the planet instead of visiting the world center for corporate IT.  How could I travel on a packed 747 airplane to a city where my company employs over 20,000 people, and be at such high risk?  In the end, I wasn't mugged or murdered, I didn't get food poisoning, I didn't get run over by a car or bus (this is amazing), and so far no signs of long term illness.  Maybe it was the preparation, maybe it was over hyped risks, but I am not complaining.

The trip was very worthwhile from a business perspective, but I want to highlight a few of the cultural observations. First, the traffic was absolutely fascinating. Complete chaos. I would not have survived behind the wheel for more than a minute. Red lights apparently do not mean you should stop, but instead that you should honk your horn as you drive through.  Bikes, motorcycles, buses and cars going in every direction with no semblance of rules. I was sure that a bicycle I was watching was going to be wiped out.  This repeated itself multiple times each day. The riders didn't even react to the dangers I saw so apparent. Another individual I was traveling with pointed out that if we were on bikes we would flinch and it would all be over. The system appears to work if no one flinches at the risk.

One day I looked out the car window as a motorcycle rode by. A woman sat side saddle on the back and held an infant with one arm. The motorcycle edged between two buses taking what seemed to me as unbelievable risks. It dawned on me that in America the infant would have to be in a certified child seat until he or she weighed 60 pounds. Are the Indians incredibly bold, or are we incredibly wimpy and paranoid. Does this mentality play out in their culture and their world innovation?  I don't know how it couldn't.

The other observation I made was the divide between the accelerating high tech boom and those that are left behind. One block from our place of work, was a small vacant lot. On the lot there were hundreds of people.  It was clear that they lived there with no shelter in the most cramped quarters I have ever witnessed. They looked hungry, in some cases starving. Children ran around naked. The lot stood out in sharp contrast to its surroundings. It opened my eyes to the fact that even in a location where hundreds of thousands of jobs are being insourced (outsourced from US and other countries), there are still those that are left behind.

Interesting note: I only learned on my return trip that the city of Bangalore is planning to revert its name back to its historic Indian name of Bengalooru.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Oregon's Minimum Wage Increase a Boon for Economy

I subscribe to the Idaho Foodbank's newsletter. Last week they published an interesting article about Oregon's increase in this minimum wage.  In 2002 Oregon votes passed an increase in the minimum wage which is also annually tied to inflation. Two interesting points speak for themselves:

  • Unemployment in 2002 = 7.6%, in 2006 = 5.4%.
  • Food insecurity rate in 1996-98 = 14.2%, 2003-05 = 11.9% (USDA report).

Last year the Republican dominated Idaho Legislature refused to consider the increase. Through some maneuvering the bill was provided an hour long discussion before being voted down in a landslide. It comes as no surprise that we are still the 8th hungriest state in the country.

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Trophic Cascade

I have written before about trophic cascade, specifically the research regard wolves of Yellowstone. Trophic cascade refers to the situation where the lack of a keystone predator has cascading consequences through the ecosystem. These cascades can ultimately impact species we would normally think to be outside the realm of influence, but the connections are eventually made. A new study has been published regarding the lack of Cougars in Zion National Park. Here is the full press release: Cougar predation key to ecosystem health.

The cascade extends far beyond the direct connections with deer and cottonwoods (what deer eat),  "It's the decline or disappearance of shrubs, wetland plants, amphibians, lizards, wildflowers, and even butterflies."  All can be linked back to the lack of the keystone predator - Cougars. The challenge here is that it cannot be resolved by simply reintroducing cougars.  Cougars have been chased away due to human activity.  This is an important lesson on the importance of maintaining intact eco-systems with a full complement of wildlife. As human intrusions further segment the wild lands, I expect we will see much more of this.

These local studies are only indicative of what has happened and continues to happen all over the planet. The World Wildlife Fund has recently released its latest Living Planet Report.  This report covers two indexes, the first is the Living Planet Index. This index reflects the health of the planet’s ecosystems.  This index has fallen by 29% in the past 30 years, indicating a 29% reduction in populations of terrestrial, marine, and freshwater vertebrate species. The second index is the Ecological Footprint Index.  This index indicates how much regenerative capacity is required to turn our waste back into resources. As of 2003, we are producing 25% more waste than the planet can possibly process.

Monday, November 20, 2006


After many days of praying to the snow gods, we learned of a few ski areas grooming their nordic trails. Karyn and I headed out Sunday morning to Sun Valley in search of the white stuff.  Driving up the Wood River valley, the bare mountains were a little discouraging. With each turn we would see a little more snow, primarily on the North facing slopes. Then a little more. Still concerned we arrived at a place called Prairie Creek to look out over the trail and see beautiful smooth grooming and full coverage. It was time to ski!

We strapped on the "rock" skis and headed up the trail. The excitement of the first ski day, the beautiful outdoors, and the excellent track all contributed to the experience resulting in some awesome skiing. Surprisingly, my form was great.  Definitely not typical of the first ski day of the season.  I also felt great. It seemed like I was flying up the trail. What a blast!

My destination was 12 kilometers up the valley past Galena lodge and up the North Wood river trail. I felt great the whole way there.  The trail was fully covered and in great shape. At the turn around, I could start to feel the fatigue.  About half way back to the van, I could tell that the fatigue was really settling in. The usual symptoms were present - dragging the ski on the snow, not as much follow through, shoulders roll forward, balance degrades, etc. Skate skiing, like most finesse sports, is more difficult when you get tired. When you get fatigued, your form degrades, which makes it more difficult to propel forward, which makes you more fatigued.  I slogged through the last few kilometers to finish hungry, tired, but in a good mood (at least after I ate some food). What a day!

After eating lunch, the calories from the food and the endorphins from the effort combined to put us in a lazy melancholy mood for the rest of the day. It was a good afternoon for reading a book.

For the second day, it was back to Prairie Creek. The day didn't start out quite as positive. Tired and sore from yesterday, it was a slow start, middle and finish. It was still great to be out there. We returned home for a few days rest before hitting the trails on the next trip.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson

I just finished listening to E.O. Wilson's "The Future of Life" on my ipod. This book presents the case for urgent action to save the remaining environmental diversity of the planet. E. O. Wilson's unique witting style is entertaining (the introduction is written as a letter to Thoreau) and extremely compelling as he uses strong scientific examples to make his case. The book jumps around a fair amount and covers a wide range of topics, but that is part of what makes it so interesting.

Wilson covers one topic which seems to be off limits for most writers.  The second chapter of the book discusses the human population trends and how unsustainable it is for the planet. How most of the world, except the United States, is trying to address population growth issues.  This is a topic that I spend a lot of time thinking about. I fully agree with a statement in the book that population control is the only chance the human race has to survive. 

Wilson spends a lot of time talking of species preservation. If you have read this blog for long then you know that species preservation is a particular interest area of mine. Wilson speaks of many species in their last grip of survival, of the extraordinary effort of scientists to keep their species alive. Efforts like we experienced in our EarthWatch trip - Saving the Leatherback Turtle. This refreshed some of my thoughts on species preservation. I absolutely believe that we should work as hard as we can to preserve species in natural habitat. The only way to accomplish this is to preserve enough natural ecosystems to sustain them. The limited work we did with the Leatherback turtles absolutely helped their survival, but it also interfered with natural selection, possibly damaging the species for ever. Some of the extraordinary measures that Wilson describe in the book are keeping some species from going extinct, but also interfering with natural selection. If this type of support is carried on for too long, then I postulate that the species will evolve to depend upon it. When is an artificially  sustained species no longer considered the original species? But I digress. The book in an excellent, thought provoking work on species preservation.

Unlike many of these books, E.O. Wilson finishes with a chapter of hope.  He celebrates actions currently underway throughout the world.  He proposes a way to step up the results. To put the cost in perspective, he states that huge accomplishments could be achieved for as little a 1 cent per cup of coffee consumed in the world.   Think about that while drinking you next 4 dollar latte! and buy the book.

Sunday, October 29, 2006


Upon the recommendation of one of my blog readers, I recently read, actually listened to on my ipod, Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. This book provides a jolting history of many societies through the history of this planet and how their environmental values lead to their success or failure.

The most intriguing part of Collapse for me were the numerous examples of societies who over exploited their own natural resources, became dependent upon others, and then collapsed as the other society grew to consume their own output. Some, who had no others to depend upon, simply collapsed more quickly. In a number of examples, religious values appeared to have clouded the judgement, leading to an accelerated collapse.

Diamond, in his factual writing style, stopped short of making any direct conclusions about our current society, choosing instead to leave that to the reader. From my own perspective, the parallels to our current society were striking.

Diamond presented a question throughout the book, of what was the person thinking on Easter Island when they cut down the last tree. Of course, it wasn't about the last tree.  By the time they were down to the last tree, it was way too late. The collapse occurred when the critical mass of trees hit a tipping point and proceeded toward decline. At this point in time, no one realized the tipping point. Much like our own environmental exploitation today, people feel all to comfortable continuing to pollute our environment, continuing to kill off species, continuing to segment eco-systems, ...  None of us know where the collapse tipping point is, but there is reasonable evidence that it is not far off.

While you can draw your own conclusions, the book is a excellent primer on the failure of past societies and their failure to sustain their environment. Hopefully, we as a society can learn from their mistakes and prevent making more of our own.

I was previously familiar with Diamond as I had listened to his book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. I would highly recommend this book as well.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


In my last post I was accused of villanizing the car.  I thought I would keep up the villanizing, but this time shifting to smokers. I will stay off the topic of smoking in general, as I do have my own habits that others might not approve of.

One of the things that really annoys me is to see people throw their cigarette butts on the ground. I view this as the equivalent of me taking my coffee cup, and throwing it on the ground when finished (although I try to always use a reusable cup).   I believe that most of the smokers would be appalled at me, but they have no problem littering where ever they are. How is this different?

For the past few years I have been riding the bus to work, when not biking. Most of the bus drivers smoke and most of them through their butts in the street before starting their route. I have complained to the city and asked for ash trays at the bus stops to no avail. The people who don't use the street end up using the potted plants, which makes a very nice message as well.

A couple of days ago, I am walking up to get on the bus and another passenger throws his cigarette on the sidewalk and steps on it. I say, "are you going to pick that up?"  He did pick it up, but then responded, "quit looking at me and get on the f$%king bus."  All phrased of course as if I was the unreasonable one. He probably threw it back down after I turned away.

Last week in Yellowstone, three tourists stop at an overlook in the Hayden Valley.  Beautiful country spread out in front of us.  They smoked their cigarettes and then threw the butts on the ground. I asked them to pick them up as well, which they did. The response again was an incredulous look at me as if I was being completely unreasonable.

I have committed to myself to continue to point this out to individuals.  I hope I can stay safe doing it.  The response from the other bus passenger was much more hostile than I had expected.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Dependence on Cars

As part of my membership in the Public Participation Committee for the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, I came upon an article written my Margy Waller of the Brookings Institute on Auto-Mobility: Subsidizing America's Commute? I found the article fascinating and educational, opening my eyes to the extent that our society is dependent upon automobiles, not just as a preference.

The article begins with something we are probably all aware of.  When hurricane Katrina hit, those with cars evacuated, those without could not and did not. The part I didn't realize is that now that those people are in trailer-park camps, their prospects are dim as they have no transportation to where the jobs are.  They are physically isolated from any economic prospects. This situation isn't just applied to major catastrophes, but the general prospects and access to employment, education, health care, etc. "There is reason to believe that not having a car isn't just a consequence of poverty - it's a barrier to escaping it."  Other studies mentioned in the article highlight this fact.

The article goes on to present a solution to the problem which would enable easier and subsidized access to cars for the poor.  The economic development resulting would have a positive impact on the economy.

There are aspects to the proposal I like, but some aspects which I don't - more cars, more congestion, higher demand for gasoline, higher green house gases released into the atmosphere, and lower national security to name a few.   It is essentially trying to treat a symptom of the problem and basically shifts the issues elsewhere.

The issue is where we are developing our country. The article points out that - Two thirds of people in metropolitan areas live in the suburbs. Two-thirds of new jobs are there as well, causing a whopping 88% of people to drive to their work.

This trend is playing out in Idaho right now. Since both the jobs and the homes are being built outside the city, and not in the same place, traffic congestion is ever increasing.  This sprawl continues to decrease the chances that public transportation can be used to address the issue. Building more and widening roads also has its limitations. The hot development approach right now are planned communities. These planned communities have a multiplicative effect as people must commute to these communities to work in the service industries that are required to be located there (as no one that can afford to live there would be willing to work there) and the people that live there all commute into the city. 

Just three months ago, Ada and Canyon counties (and the other entities included within), after three years of development, approved the Compass Community Choices 25 year plan for the valley.  This plan called for greater density of employment and housing along major corridors which could more effectively be served by public transportation. This community choices plan was contrasted with the "trend" plan.  What has happened since then, is the further sprawl through highly distributed planned communities. If the currently planned "planned communities" are approved, our traffic and congestion will be far worse than the trend scenario, making the community choices scenario unachievable. 

The trend scenario had a number of implications - a doubling of the current commute times, much more expensive road system, few transit choices at a higher cost, 80,000 more acres consumed, 1.1 million miles per day of additional commute traffic, etc. What about the new trend? Its even worse!

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Wolves of Yellowstone

(click images to view larger picture)

After a fairly stressful few weeks at work, with some equally stressful situations in our bathroom remodel, we finally made it out of town on our week long vacation to Yellowstone National Park. Its been over a year since we have visited, so we were both quite excited to get on the road. Karyn has signed up for a three day art workshop with wildlife artist and conservationist, Robert Bateman. I plan to spend a few days alone fishing, wildlife watching, guitar playing, and basically hanging out. After Karyn's workshop is over, I'll pick her up so that we can spend the remaining 4 days together enjoying this country.

We expected to see the first wildlife in our backyard, but the neighborhood raccoons chose not to greet us this morning. We loaded the ipod with a book on tape and headed east toward the park. The drive was fairly uneventful, with the highlight being the drive through Camas Prairie. It seemed like every 5th power pole had a large hawk sitting on it. This being the peak migration time for raptors, many were probably just passing through. We saw many Red-tailed Hawks, a Golden Eagle, a Kestrel eating a mouse, maybe a Swainson's Hawk, and many that in the brief pass we could not identify.

We entered the park at about 2pm in the afternoon. A goal of our for this trip is to see River Otters as neither one of us has ever seen one. At each available turnout we stopped to search the river for signs, but we could to find them. We slowly made our way from pull out to pull out until we reached our campsite at Madison junction. The River Otters would have to wait another day.

A short walk from our campsite we reached a large open meadow. It was amazingly beautiful. Its what makes this place so special. There are other areas which are equally as beautiful in Idaho, but most are filled with houses, fences, and/or cows. This meadow was only filled with the grass, the river, the breeze, and a brazen bull elk with his 6 member herd. The bull ensured everyone in the valley was aware of his status as he bugled every ten to fifteen minutes. We watched for a while, returned to camp for dinner, then returned to the meadow to watch the sunset. The bull was still there, although much more agitated as he was rounding up his harem. We continued to hear his bugle as we returned to camp for the evening. It sure is great to be here!

Other species identified: Bison, Black-billed Magpie, American Crow, American Coot, Canada Goose, Mallard, Raven, Clark's Nutcracker.

Day 2

Somewhat tired from the past few weeks, we decided to sleep in, at least until 7am. This is somewhat late as once we begin wolf watching, we will be out before sunrise. We awoke to the sound of the bull elk bugling in the meadow. In fact, each time we awoke in the night, the bull elk was also bugling. I can now understand why bull elk are such easy prey after the fall rut, consuming so much energy trying to mate.

A short distance down the road, we stopped at Gibbon Meadow. We have watched wolves here in the past. Today we watched 6 bison lazily foraging. Some movement in the grass turned out to be two Ravens. Good birds to watch as they will sometimes follow wolves or bears. Karyn spied a Canid on the far side of the meadow. Turned out to be a Coyote. We watched as it wandered the meadow, pausing ready to attack, hop, hop, and pounce. On at least a few tries he was successful. Moments later a female Marsh Hawk (Northern Harrier), flew through our line of sight. We watched as she glided low over the grass, occasionally rolling in flight and pouncing on the ground.

We stopped at a number of pull-outs to look for river otters. We didn't find any, but did find a few Trumpeter Swan's on Nymph lake. Moving on down the road, we arrived at Swan Lake Flats. We have also watched wolves here before, but there were none in sight today. Out on the lake, a number of American Coots intermingled with a load of un-identifiable ducks. This was a great place for lunch.

Once in Mammoth, we decided to hike part way to the beaver ponds. We ended up hiking the whole loop. It was a beautiful day, although a bit windy. The Aspens had already turned colors and we were occasionally showered in leaves. Not much wildlife present. Since this is bear country, we weren't too disappointed.

After checking Karyn into her room for her class, we headed out to Blacktail Deer Plateau to cook our dinner. We have never watched wolves here, although the Leopold Pack calls it home. They were apparently hiding this evening. The only thing we saw were some Bison, Ravens, and another Marsh Hawk. Karyn suggested that we move to a different part of the Plateau, where we often see wildlife. There we watched ducks and Coots in the pond, while a heard of Bison wandered near the other side. Karyn, with her eye for spotting wildlife, pointed out an Antelope high on the hill and a juvenile Bald Eagle. The light started to fade as we headed back to Mammoth. Some Blacktail Deer crossed the road in front of us on our way. I am staying with Karyn this evening, leaving early in the morning for the drive into the Lamar Valley to go wolf watching. Karyn's class begins in the morning.

Other species: Chipmunks, Canada Goose, Black-billed Magpie, Brewer's Blackbird, American Robin, American Kestrel, and Mallards.

Day 3

5:20am. Ouch. The bed in the hotel rooms at Mammoth could easily be improved upon. Not nearly as comfortable as the van. Karyn got up and joined me for coffee and breakfast in the van before I headed out in the dark toward Slough Creek. The road between Mammoth and Tower Junction is very dangerous in the early morning darkness as animals often jump out in front of you, or large black bison just stand in the road. This morning was fairly clear. I was approaching Slough Creek, which is located just below the Lamar Valley, when I met most of the wolf team driving toward me. Apparently there were no radio signals present in the Lamar Valley. The wolf team tracks the signals emitted by the radio collars on some of the wolves. The lack of signals in the Lamar does not guarantee that there are no wolves, but it is most likely the case. There is at least one radio colored wolf in each pack in this area except for one, the "unknown pack". My trip into the Lamar Valley would have to wait.

I positioned myself at a location referred to as "Little America", named after a depression in the meadow roughly shaped like the United States. Some members of the wolf team were seeing some wolves in our area from a few miles away. I search from my angle, but we could not find them. The wolf team was also picking up signals from high on Specimen Ridge. No sign from my angle either. I drove on to a place called Elk Creek where they were seeing two wolves just before I got there. They moved out of sight as I was setting up my scope. We received word as well that they were seeing wolves at the Hellroaring overlook. Of course, once I got there, they were gone. This is how it would be this morning. Lots of wolves in the area, but I got "skunked". No worries, it is early in the week.

I drove back to Slough Creek campground to get a spot. Scored one of the nicest spots there. The guy from the camp next door started talking about fishing with me. He made a statement that anybody can catch fish in Soda Butte creek. I would have to prove him wrong, which is exactly what I did. It was a beautiful cloudy day when I headed out to try my luck. I fished for about an hour before a strong wind started up. Nothing. It was amazing just being there. I came to realize first hand some of the transformations taking place in Yellowstone. Before wolves were reintroduced in 1995, the elk population would hang out near the river eating the willows. With no real predators, they had little to worry about. The reintroduction of wolves has caused the elk to be much more alert and spend more time on the move. They also avoid areas that make them more vulnerable such as low visibility areas near the water. This has caused the willows and cottonwoods to begin to grow back, beaver are returning, and in the long run, it should restore trout habitat. I didn't see any beavers, but did walk through a large area of new willow growth. The "experience" came as I realized that I was in bear country, walking through shoulder high willows, with limited visibility. It definitely increases your senses. This is one of the things I love about Yellowstone, you can't take it for granted.

After fishing I retreated to a place call "Dorothy's Knoll". It is a turnout at the high point in the Lamar with the valley laid out in front of you. Here I looked for wildlife, seeing elk, antelope, bison, and ravens. I practiced guitar as the rain fell outside. Another wolf watcher named Larry introduced himself. We would talk on a number of occasions through the week.

Moved to overlook Slough Creek to cook dinner. It is raining harder outside. It was back to the Hellroaring overlook for the evening wolf watching. Unfortunately there wasn't much watching. The group that I had missed in the morning was still apparently bedded down in the area, as the wolf biologists received strong radio signals. The hard rain and fog made it impossible to see anything. Thus I returned to camp on a wolfless day.

Other species identified: Blacktail Deer, Black-billed Magpie, American Coot, Mallard, and American Wigeon.

Day 4

Wow! What a difference a day makes!

The wildlife watching began very early this morning. About 3am, I awoke to the sound of some rustling in the van. I flipped on the light and saw a Deer Mouse scurry across the counter top. I got up and jumped around hoping to scare it away. It must have worked as I didn't hear it again. Where is my mouse killing wife when I need her (for explanation see our Anniversary Week Story).

I pulled out of camp while it was still dark. The first stop was "Dorothy's Knoll" in the Lamar Valley. I arrived in time to briefly watch seven members of the Slough Creek wolf pack cross over the ridge. From that point there are three likely routes they could take. Two of them would have them re-appear in lower Slough Creek. The other would leave them out of sight. Most of the wolf watchers and I repositioned ourselves at "Dave's Hill" overlooking two of the possible routes. We waited, but there were no signs. The biologist confirmed that there were no radio signals from the Slough Creek wolves. Over the radio we heard that another group found a wolf killed elk near the "Wrecker" pullout. Everyone at Dave's hill cleared out in a hurry. We arrived at "Wrecker" to find an excellent view of the wolf kill, probably about a mile away. The 6 point bull elk was lying at the base of a small cliff with 13 of the Agate Creek Wolf pack proceeding to eat. The rest of the elk herd was located above the cliff. It is believed that the wolves chased the bull elk over the cliff. We had an excellent view of the action and I was able to take a number of photographs. I met up with two of the wolf watchers that we had met last year when we were here. This brings the total to 8 people here now, that we have met on previous visits (Mark, Carol, Jim, Paul, Jan, Bill, Anne, & Rick). Some of these people are very committed, spending more than 100 days a year in the park. Some own second homes just outside the park in Cooke City. As we watched the ravens (10-12) and Magpies (10-20) started arriving. Within another hour a mature and a juvenile Bald Eagle arrived.

The wolves had their fill then slowly meandered down toward the river and out of sight. Everyone, thinking that the wolves may cross the river and then possibly cross the road, left to go to the potential crossing site. I decided not to get involved in the huge traffic jam, known as a wolf jam, and stayed where I was. A few others stayed as well. We looked at the carcass and noticed that now there were two coyotes eating. Everyone gets a chance. I walked to the van to get some munchies, then looked through the scope at the biggest coyotes I have ever seen (wolves). The wolves apparently went to the river for a drink and then returned, chased off the coyotes, and resumed eating. I watched for another hour until they slowly wandered down the hill and out of sight.

I decided to take a break from the wolf watching and hike out to try and photograph some badgers. One particular trail has a lot of badger activity on it. I carried the tripod, scope, and camera a few miles out in the hopes to find a badger, but no luck. I did see coyotes, bison, and a couple of antelope fairly close. There are a few places on the trail where the visibility is fairly limited. This once again gave me that vulnerable feeling that makes me appreciate this place so much. The trail also gave me another view, although a fairly distant one, of the kill site. I could see the coyotes and eagles on the carcass.

In the evening, I positioned myself at a place called "Boulder". This was a little bit further away from the kill site than "wrecker", but it was higher and provided a unique perspective. From here you could see the wolves bedded down a couple hundred yards from the carcass. A Golden Eagle had arrived at the site, joining the juvenile Bald Eagle (it could also be a juvenile golden instead of a bald). When the coyotes weren't eating, the eagles would swoop down and tear off chucks of elk. Then out of nowhere, a large grizzly bear showed up on the carcass. This was not looked upon favorably by the wolves. The wolves ran up and surrounded the bear. The bear would scratch at the ground and then charge the closest wolf. The wolves would scatter. It was clear that the grizzly was not going to give up the carcass. The wolves, full from their multiple feasts, had little reason to risk their lives for this carcass other then pure pride. They eventually gave up and bedded down a few hundred yards from the site. The light of the evening started to fade. What a day of wildlife watching! Definitely one of the best!

When we are wolfwatching we often share our scope so that others passing through can see wolves and grizzly bears. Since the animals are so far away, binoculars are much more difficult for inexperienced people to see the animals. Most people you meet this way are very appreciative, some you wish you hadn't shared at all. Today, there were only nice people. Since Karyn wasn't with me, I shared with more people than usual. Your eyes can only look through the scope so much. All morning there was a woman from Wisconsin who I regularly let look through the scope. When she left she insisted that I take two Wisconsin beers from her. I am enjoying one while I type this report. This evening a group of national park employees from the various parks around the country stopped by. They were in Yellowstone for a conference. I allowed them to view the wolves and the bear. They were extremely excited about the opportunity and extremely grateful. This is how we first got hooked on wolf watching. A generous couple from California was in the Lamar Valley one morning and let us look through their scope at the wolves. We bought the same model scope that they had.

Day 5

Another interesting day today. I started at "Dorothy's Knoll" looking for the Slough Creek pack as they were somewhere high on Speciman Ridge. After searching for awhile, the biologist indicated the the radio signals were no longer present, meaning the wolves had crossed over the ridge out of sight. I decided to check out yesterday's carcass from "Wrecker Point". There were six coyotes on the carcass with the Golden Eagle sitting on the rim above. Apparently the Grizzly bear moved on just after sunrise. I watched as the coyotes fought with each other over the best pieces of the carcass.

After about 30 minutes, I decided to drive up to Antelope Creek to see what was going on there. I hadn't been there yet on this trip. Antelope creek is the center of the Agate Pack territory. They were essentially out of their territory when they killed the elk yesterday. About half way there I hear over the radio - "all units proceed to Antelope Creek as fast as you can." This is very unusual and most often means that something very unique is happening. Since this is the time of year that wolves travel and try to expand their territories, I guessed that it was a border dispute between the Agate Pack and Mollie's Pack (which occasionally travels this far north looking for territory). Upon arriving, I learned that the Slough Creek pack had crossed over Speciman ridge and came down into Agate country. The Agates had just put on a full chase. The Slough Creek pack had retreated. I didn't see the Sloughs, but did see 10 of the Agate pack in hot pursuit. They finally stopped in a group and howled for about 5 minutes. Over the radio we learned that once the Slough Creek pack was back in their territory, they regrouped and howled as well.

We watched as the Agate group slowly came back toward the center of their territory. At least two more wolves of the Agate pack were very near to us and started howling. The 10 member group, at this point a few miles away over the Yellowstone river, grouped up and howled back. The puppies in the big group of 10 (at least 4 were pups of the year), kept running toward the sound of the howls. It appeared that the adults were in no hurry to come back. They kept facing the direction that the Slough pack had retreated. The two groups continued to howl back and forth, but the group of 10 stayed in their advanced position. We finally spotted two of the wolves left behind as they were trying to make their way toward the core of the pack. We never did see the 13th pack member, but it could have been traveling with the two (I learned later that the last member did join up with the 2 traveling toward the group of 10).

I left Antelope Creek to meet Karyn for lunch in Mammoth. I picked up her gear and then drove to Gardiner to restock the van. The Mammoth hotel was a very interesting place. A large 7 point bull elk was threatening people, cars, anything in sight. I was sitting in the van waiting as the elk came around the corner of the hotel. Just then a person stepped out of the back of the hotel. The bull started toward them. They retreated, so the bull walked over and rammed his horns into a Volkswagen. It shook the whole car. I wanted to move the van, but was afraid to attract the bulls attention. Karyn crawled in the back doors of the van to avoid the elk. As we were leaving, the bull was in a stand off with another bull across the mainstreet of Mammoth. Not sure how many cars would be lost in this showdown.

We drove back to Slough Creek, stopping to view yesterday's Carcass site to see 4 coyotes still chewing away.

Other species identified: Bison, Coyote, Blacktail Deer, Bighorn Sheep, Raven, Magpie, Ring-necked Duck.

Day 6

Apparently, Karyn's "mouse killer" reputation precedes her as the mouse did not come back into the van tonight. Back to the Lamar for Karyn's first day of wolf watching. We started at a turn-out known as "garbage can". I believe all the place names are intended to be a secret code. In this case there is no garbage can at "garbage can". I have learned a few new place names this year, "garbage can" being one of them.

Karyn and I and two other wolf watchers were on the hill above "garbage can", when one of the other guys noticed a black wolf with its head up in the grass. The wolf would raise its head and then put it back down out of sight. We decided to move closer, so we moved to a place known as the "exclosure" (this was the first place Karyn and I saw wolves in the wild. yes, there is an exclosure there.). Watching we noticed one head up, then two, then three wolves stood up, then four, five, six, seven black wolves of the Slough Creek Pack. We watched them wander through the meadow. They gathered for a group howl and then a tail-waggin' fur frenzy (see picture). They would slowly wander out of the meadow into the trees.

We made our way down to the "itching post". This is our name as the parking area is really called the "hitching-post" as the horse outfitters use it and there really is a hitching post there. The bison also use it to scratch their neck, hence our name. Most of the post is worn down from their necks rubbing against it. We met up with Larry, an individual who I have talked with at least once each day wolf watching. Henry, a local Silvergate resident was there as well. Apparently Larry is camping in Henry's yard. Henry had a George Bush voodoo doll on the front of his car. We talked politics for about an hour.

We finally pulled ourselves away and headed toward Antelope Creek where they were currently seeing the Agate wolf pack. By the time we arrived the wolves had moved out of view. We proceeded up Dunraven pass to look for bears, but didn't find any there. We did find some Red-tailed Hawks which had very different markings than in Idaho. We watched as the hawk in the photo dove and captured a mouse.

This evening we returned to "garbage can" in the hopes that the Slough Creek wolf pack would come back out of the forest. We heard them howl a number of times, but they did not reappear before dark. We did watch a badger in the meadow and a number of coyotes. Jim, one of our wolf watching friends, was there and appreciated the badger spotting.

Other species identified: Antelope, Bison, Bighorn Sheep, Elk, Blacktail Deer, Marsh Hawk, Raven, Magpie, American Crow, Golden Eagle, Great Blue Heron.

Day 7

All the action this morning was right near our campground. We started out on "Dave's Hill" at the entrance to our campground. The Slough Creek wolves were expected to be somewhere in the large Slough Creek meadow. Our job was to find them. Stanley, the same gentleman that found the wolves yesterday, found a black wolf heading upstream. About the same time, someone a few miles down the road found seven members of the Slough Creek pack. Upon further inspection, our wolf was a member of the "unknown pack" and was called "Parenthesis" because she has a gray curved strip on each side right behind her shoulder. Parenthesis has an injured leg that causes her to limp. It is believed that she was left behind by her pack when she could not keep up.

Karyn was laughing at "parenthesis" as a name for a wolf, as most of the wolf watchers were struggling to pronounce it clearly over the radio. We watched her move in a determined fashion up stream. We finally found her destination. It appeared that sometime in the night the Slough Creek wolves made a kill just out of our sight. This became apparent by the large bird activity. I counted 16 ravens in a single tree. We also saw a Bald Eagle and a Golden Eagle. Parenthesis moved into the kill area. The problem was that she was in the middle of Slough Creek territory. We spotted the Slough Creek wolves as they came over the hill a mile away. They too were moving in a determined fashion toward the carcass site.

As the Slough wolves approached they saw Parenthesis on the carcass and took off at a full run. Parenthesis also ran full out. She of course was running for her life. As she was more determined, she easily left the area. The other wolves didn't chase beyond the carcass site. Parenthesis was limping much more now as a result of the chase. Once a safe distance away, she laid down for an hour before moving on.

A few of the Slough wolves went to the carcass to eat some more. We watched as they climbed the hill behind the carcass and eventually bedded down high on a rock outcropping.

Our next agenda was to focus on river otters. Karyn and I hiked down through the meadows and willows at the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek hoping to find river otters. No such luck. It was a very cool hike. We found a beaver lodge, looked at various pieces of petrified wood in the stream bed, and found some meadow voles that when frightened would jump into the water.

This afternoon we drove down to Hayden Valley in the hopes to see the Hayden Valley wolf pack. On the way we stopped to see today's Agate wolf kill site (they got an elk at Antelope Creek while we were watching the Slough Creek wolves). It was a unique kill site. It appeared that they got the elk at the top of a high ridge, but as they ate on it, pulled it down into the bottom of the valley out of sight. It was a very steep hill.

We found a black bear near he top of Dunraven Pass and two grizzly bears in the Hayden Valley, but no wolves. It has been raining all evening making the viewing and the drive back to Slough Creek very difficult.

Other species identified: Antelope, Bison, Coyote, Elk, Blacktail Deer, Marsh Hawk, Raven, Magpie, American Crow, Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, Great Blue Heron, Trumpeter Swan, Canadian Goose, Redtailed Hawk.

Day 8

Not the best wildlife watching day. Karyn suggested that we wait at Slough Creek until the wolf team showed up. It was a good suggestion as there was nothing present in the Lamar Valley. There were weak radio collar signals in Slough Creek. Once it was light enough to view we started searching. The signals were getting weaker and eventually disappeared before we had a chance to find the wolves. We drove on to Antelope Creek. Not much better there. The report from Hell Roaring was equally dismal. After some indecision, we finally focused on the Hayden Valley. Most of the wolf team decided not to proceed as it was snowing on top of Dunraven pass. We continued alone.

Once in the Hayden Valley, we didn't find any wolves. It was raining and snowing fairly heavily. After looking from a number of vantage points we decided to do some hiking near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

After our hike we did manage to find a Grizzly Bear in Hayden Valley. Still no wolves. We decided to drive back to the Lamar. The pass was snowy, but the roads were mostly clear.

We had dinner in the Lamar, but no wolves. Spent time at Slough Creek searching as well to no avail. At least we had a good sunset on our final night in the park.

Other species identified: Antelope, Bison, Elk, Marsh Hawk, Raven, Magpie, American Crow, Bald Eagle, Trumpeter Swan, Canadian Goose, Redtailed Hawk, Merganser, Dark-eyed Junco.

Day 9

Argh. We have to leave. We waited at Slough Creek. Nothing in the Lamar, nothing in Slough Creek. No report from Antelope. At Tower Junction we headed away from Antelope and toward Hellroaring overlook. Nothing. On to Blacktail Deer Plateau, where strong radio collar signals were received. We would need to hike high on a hill to see above a ridgeline. We were rewarded with a very cold and steady breeze, but also the sight of 536's group. 536 refers to the radio collar number of the alpha female of this group. This is referred to as a "group" as "pack" status is only granted after an alpha pair successfully raises at least 1 pup surviving on January 1st of the year after it was born. This group has 11 pups that are looking very health, so they are likely to become a pack in January. It is believed that the group had a kill in the trees as there were many birds and the wolves were lying around like a lazy thanksgiving afternoon. The pups would occasionally get up and run around, basically annoying the adults. Many parallels to humans! Running low on time for our trip home, and nearly freezing to death, we had to say goodbye to our friends and head home.

The Gibbon meadow offered the only other excitement on the way home. Here we watched a large bald eagle chewing on a carcass of some sort. There were coyotes hunting in the field as well. We reluctantly moved on toward home, wanting to stay another week, or two...

Yellowstone is beautiful on so many different levels. The most impactful to me is the fact that this is the only place I know where you can witness nature to its fullest extent. You watch as the territories of life are disputed, as the perception of weakness becomes a life and death situation, as animals take risk daily to stay alive, as teamwork is sometimes the greatest strength, as beings celebrate life today as tomorrow is uncertain, and many more. I hope to soon return.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Organic Farming's Energy Efficiency

I subscribe to Stoneyfield Farm's monthly newsletter. For those not familiar with Stoneyfield, they are an organic yogurt producer in the United States (Western?). This month, they linked to a very interesting report by The Organic Center analyzing the energy consumption of our food supply, specifically comparing Organic production with non-organic production. The report provided greater insight into the industry, and gives me one more reason to buy organic.

You can access a 2 page summary here, or the full 40 page version here.

Some interesting statistic from the report

  • The American food system uses 19% of the nation's total fossil energy use - 7% for production, 7% for processing/packaging, and 5% for distribution.
  • It takes about 30% less energy to produce a bushel of organic corn, than a bushel of non-organic, although it requires 25% more labor.
  • It takes 20% less energy to produce organic soybeans than conventional.
  • The biggest difference is in nitrogen fertilizer consumption and pesticide use which is very dependent upon fossil fuels.
  • Soil erosion was significantly reduced in organic production.
  • Water resources were conserved in organic production. (organic farm yields were 30-50% higher in drought years than non-organic).
  • An organic grass fed beef operation requires 50% less fossil energy than conventional grain-fed systems.

It is a very interesting read.

Karyn and I have converted to organic foods as much as possible. This was before knowing the above facts. I hope we can continue to improve our food supply, and decrease our energy consumption in the process. Seems like a win-win to me.

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Returning to Nature

I came across this article on the TreeHugger Blog about natural cemeteries. This is a topic that I think about occasionally, usually when I pass by a large cemetery. I think the Green Springs Natural Cemetery is a step in the right direction, but it falls short of what I would like to see in the world.

In general, the burial processes in the United States are non-sustainable, hypocritical, and outright bizarre from a nature perspective. I am strongly opposed to displacing nature by creating a cemetery so that we as people can be preserved forever with toxic chemicals. We then hypocritically claim that by doing so we are returning to nature after death.

My thoughts on the topic are first and foremost, that I do not believe I should consume land on this planet after I die. This planet should be available for life after I die, not for my remains. This is one place where the natural cemetery mentioned above falls short. The second issue is the embalming process. The specific injection of toxic chemicals into the ground. It is good to hear that this is an optional process. My Will instructions currently say that I wish to be cremated. This is considered the best alternative as it does not consume land, but does consume a great deal of energy and pollutes at the same time.

My ideal would be to either be buried in a shallow grave naturally (no box) or just laid out on top of the land for nature to take its course. The biological processes are fairly efficient at cleaning up the waste and truly returning our bodies to nature. I have watched in Yellowstone National Park where a full sized bison is literally returned to the land in a period of 5-7 days, with nearly all traces gone within a month or two. Millions of animals die every day and this is the process that returns their nutrients to the planet, why not use it for us?

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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Idaho Wolf Kill Proposal Rejected by the Federal Government

In February of this year, I started this blog because I had a number of things to say. One of the first topics was about a controversial plan that the Idaho State Fish and Game Department had to kill 80% of the wolves in a particular area of Idaho (a total of 43 wolves in the Lolo Region). You can read my original post here which includes a link to the proposal and my comments against their plan. This plan was proposed just three days after the state took over management of wolves in Idaho. The plan was based on poor science, bad assumptions, and did nothing to address the real issue at hand - the fact that the Clearwater elk herd was in trouble through human actions long before wolves were reintroduced to Idaho.

In March we received word that, after reviewing over 40,000 comments on the proposal, 99% against, the Fish and Game commission voted unanimously to continue anyway. My blog post is here.

Well the news came out today that the Feds, also citing bad science, rejected Idaho's plan. This is a tremendous victory for the wolves, the environment, the people of Idaho, and reasonable minds. It sets the expectation that wildlife should be managed by science not politics.

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Saturday, September 09, 2006

Idaho Bird Observatory - September 4, 2006

Karyn and I returned from our labor day camping trip a day early so that we could visit the Idaho Bird Observatory on Monday morning.

"The Idaho Bird Observatory (IBO) is a cooperative, non-profit research and education organization that conducts long-term monitoring of western migratory landbird populations and promotes public education, involvement, and wildlife viewing".

We had conflicting information about what time we were supposed to be there. One item said sunrise and the other said 8am (about a hour later this time of year). Not knowing if we had to be precisely on time added to my over-obsession with being on time, we of course chose the earlier of the two. Our friend Julie decided to go along as well. The road to the observatory is a very steep road requiring a high clearance vehicle. The observatory is located on Lucky Peak (the mountain not the identically named reservoir in the bottom of the valley). We arrived in plenty of time to acquaint ourselves and head out on the first patrol. We found out that you don't have to be there at any particular time. The team begins work at sun up and works for 5 hours.
Yellow-rump Warblers (Butter Butts) (click to enlarge)
The IBO project involves netting landbirds, weighing and measuring them, noting likely age, banding them, and then releasing them. All of the data is recorded for research and tracking purposes. The team has a series of eight vertical nets in the brush that catch the birds as they fly from bush to bush. Every 30 minutes the team will patrol the nets, removing any captured birds and placing them in cloth bags. They then carry the birds back to the research station where all of the measurements are taken. As an observer you are free to go on the patrols, or just wait at the station until the staff returns with the captured birds. The staff was extremely helpful in answering questions and showing the process. They even let us release some of the birds.
MacGillivray's Warbler
For the first hour and a half it was just the three of us and the staff, providing lots of interaction and learning opportunities. About 8:30, the local chapter of the Audubon society showed up, decreasing some of our direct interaction, but it was still very educational. We stayed until 11:30 before return to Boise.

The list of birds banded while we were there: Hammond's Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, Warbling-Vireo, Hermit Thrush, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Mountain Chickadee, Fox Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Spotted Towhee, Orange-crowned Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Townsend's Warbler, MacGillivray's Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Western Tanager, and Lazuli Bunting.
Overall the experience was very educational from a bird biology, bird identification, and migration perspective. It was fascinating to see the birds up close and observe subtle differences that I would never notice in the field. The staff was extremely helpful in answering questions and providing their insight and perspective. While our entire experience was positive, I couldn't help but get the uncomfortable feeling that we were being too disruptive to nature. The staff took every measure possible to ensure the safety of the birds, yet they were being captured in nets and handled by people. This is the same feeling I get about wolves being collared and leatherback turtles being harnessed. I understand it is necessary for us to help the species as a whole, but it is still obtrusive to the individual. I dream of a day when this is not necessary.

All in all, I would definitely recommend this experience to others and I plan to participate again myself.

The IBO also has a hawk watch program which is just ramping up for the fall and an owl watch program. We hope to participate in these as well.

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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

I and the Bird #31 now online

A very creative version of the "I and the Bird" blog carnival has just been posted on migrateblog. Mariya creatively writes a Haiku for each and every post. My post below on Peregrine's in Boise is featured in this edition.

Here is the Haiku:

Rob's raptor photos
A captivating trio
Soars over Boise

Read them all, and the articles they reference at migrateblog.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Boise Peregrine Falcons

On Monday morning I walked downtown to catch the bus to work. I took the usual route walking 15 minutes down to the coffee shop, enjoying my coffee for a few minutes before walking to catch the bus. As I stepped out of the coffee shop I heard the loud screeching of a juvenile Peregrine Falcon. At least I assumed it was a Peregrine. Dialing up the sound of the Peregrine on my Birdpod (Birdpod is a product that loads all of the bird sounds for your region onto your ipod), I confirmed the identity. Walking down the street, I saw three Peregrines fly overhead about three stories up. The third in the line was screeching non-stop. I watched them fly in and out between building until it was time for my bus to leave.

I have heard that we had Peregrine's nesting downtown for the last few years but, I haven't ever seen them. This week it has been hard to miss them.

On Wednesday morning I again walked down to the bus and witnessed another impressive flight display with the loud screeching echoing down the street. I could hear them from three blocks away. Boise is somewhat quiet at 6:30 in the morning! Last night we drove down to the parking garage to get some pictures. Here are a couple:

They flew around for 20 minutes or more before flying out of sight. We waited a while, but they did not come back. Karyn joined me this morning on my walk to the bus to watch the show. The three Peregrine's flew in to a perch and waited there until my bus left. A short while later, they put on a good flying show for Karyn. I plan to work on some better photos in the next few days.

UPDATE 8/24: We went out this evening. Counted four Peregrines. Confirmed that at least two are juveniles, but did not confirm the others. Here is the best shot of the evening:

This article is featured in the I and the Bird #31 blog carnival.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Is every species of living thing on the planet equally deserving of protection?

The people over at ScienceBlogs have a feature called, "Ask a Science Blogger". This feature poses a weekly question to the scientists hosting their blog on the ScienceBlogs site. In some cases the questions are submitted by readers, submit your question here. Some or all of the members then post their response on their respective blogs. You can view the full archive here.

In July, a particularly interesting question was posed that I would like to answer - Is every species of living thing on the planet equally deserving of protection? Lots of different potential answers come to mind - yes, no, everything except for mosquitoes, etc. After deep consideration, I have come to the conclusion that no, not every species is equally deserving of protection. I will explain my rationale here.

First of all, my personal value around species preservation deals with natural ecosystems. I believe that the best chance that all life has on this planet, including human life, occurs in the presence of strong, natural, balanced ecosystems. These balanced ecosystems help to maintain healthy and ever evolving populations of species. The absence of critical ecosystem participants causes the natural balance to be disrupted.  This lack of balance usually allows some species to over populate, providing unfair advantage over other species. The disadvantaged species are reduced or eliminated, causing a further cascade through the ecosystem.  While the over-populated species have a short term advantage, they quickly suffer from their own success. By eliminating or at least decreasing their food source, many will starve, but more importantly, the chance for further evolutionary species growth will be inhibited (my personal theory, I have not read any studies to this effect).  This limitation in further evolutionary growth can mean the end of that species.  This results in further cascades through the ecosystem. The elimination of a minor species from a balanced ecosystem can set off a chain of events resulting in a complete collapse of species diversity.

In evolving research, it is becoming apparent that the elimination of wolves in Yellowstone in the early 1900 allowed the elk population to grow uncontrolled.  The elk quickly ate the willows and cottonwoods growing near the rivers.  The reduction of willow and cottonwood trees caused a dramatic reduction of beaver colonies.  The lack of beaver colonies reduced the habitat for native trout species.  The chain goes on. The over populated elk also contracted diseases which were spread by sick animals which would survive longer in the absence of wolves, spreading the disease to more elk.  The elimination of wolves also allowed the coyote population to grow uncontrolled as wolves and coyotes compete for territory.  The over population of coyotes resulted in the reduction of ground squirrels and other food sources.  The coyote population then became diseased as well, with a pup survival rate of less than 10%. All of these changes, and many more, were the result of the elimination of a single species - the wolf.

 On the contrary, evolution occasionally produces dead end species.  Species have regularly gone extinct over the history of life on this planet. I do not believe that these species should be preserved beyond their natural existence. Thus, the real challenge is for humans to determine which species are being threatened by our own over-population and which species are being threatened by purely natural processes. I don't have much confidence in our current ability to make these determinations.

In conclusion, I don't think all species are equally deserving of protection.  Specifically we should not be protecting species which are being naturally removed from the ecosystem through evolutionary dead-ends. Since many more species are threatened than I believe are naturally evolutionary dead-ends, and we do not have the current ability to completely evaluate a single species role in a healthy ecosystem, I believe we should error on the side of over protection.  In practice, this means that we should work to protect all species.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Boise mayor commits to global warming agreement

About six months ago I sent an email to the mayor and city council of Boise Idaho urging them to sign onto the U.S. Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement. Since I never heard back I concluded that it was another futile attempt to convince politicians to save our city from unhealthy growth and unhealthy industries. Much to my surprise today, the news came out that Mayor Dave Bieter signed the agreement. I believe this is a huge step forward for Boise and gives me hope for a city which is experiencing dramatic increases in polution (we entered our first ever red air quality alert yesterday). While I doubt that my message six months ago had any direct effect, it does provide me some encouragement to continue to try and influence our community in a better direction.

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

City Club of Boise - Rocky Mountain High: Global warming in the West

Back on July 24th, Karyn and I attended the City Club of Boise luncheon on global warming titled "Rocky Mountain High: Global Warming in the West". The session was very interesting and very well attended. Here is a brief summary of the highlights.

Presenter: Dr. Daniel Fagre, Ecologist/Global Change Research Coordinator, USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center

Dr. Fagre started by presenting some very sobering statistics. For example, in 1910 there were 150 glaciers in Glacier National Park, today there are only 27; Red Eagle glacier has lost 50% of its mass in the past 5 years; Sperry Glacier had 60% more snow than last year, yet melted down 20% faster.

Dr. Fagre discussed how glaciers and mountain snowpack are important for our cities. Across the world, 50% of our fresh water is provided by mountains. In the western United States the range is closer to 70-90%. What we are seeing in some cases is greater snow fall, but faster run off, leaving less water throughout the year. In those years with less snow fall, the run off is even quicker. This presents a large threat to our cities.

The doctor then presented a number of ecosystem ramifications of this warming. Much of the focus of global warming has been on the high temperature, but most of the issues arise in a higher low temperature and shorter winter. The warmer winter temperatures are allowing the snow to partially melt and refreeze, creating a impenetrable barrier for mountain goats and other animals to break through to the food below. This is causing many animals to starve. Higher stream temperatures are killing off small aquatic insects, an important food for trout. Trees are invading high alpine meadows, further limiting the food sources for the animals that live in that area. Dr. Fagre showed a photo of Hidden Lake from this early 1900's and one from today. It was amazing how much of the alpine meadow has become forested.

During the question and answer period, someone asked if this is not a natural warming. Dr. Fagre indicated that people are accelerating and intensifying what might have been a natural warming process. The warming has been slower than expected as the oceans have been absorbing the CO2. Unfortunately the oceans are slowing their absorption as we are accelerating our CO2 output. There is a self correcting mechanism, but it has disastrous consequences for life. The build up of CO2 will warm the planet until the ocean currents stop, at which point the next ice age will begin.

When asked if he had ever been censored by the government, Dr. Fagre said no.

When asked about the uncertainty of global warming, Dr. Fagre pointed to a recent study of 1000 scientific articles. They were 99.9% consistent that global warming is real and so is the human impact on it. Media articles were only 50% consistent.

Dr. Fagre had three suggestions for us: 1) limit the damage (reduce, eliminate, reverse), 2)Take CO2 out of the system (increase vegetation, sequester CO2), 3) Build resiliency.

It was a fascinating presentation. Unfortunately it was way too short.

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Organic Dairy Report

My report earlier on Organic Standards reminded one of my readers (Karyn - my spouse), of a online rating system for organic milk products. If you care how the cows are raised to produce the milk you drink, take a look:

Organic Dairy Survey.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

I and the Bird #29 Online

The 29th edition of the blog carnival "I and the Bird" is now online at Alis Volat Propiis

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

USDA Considers Expanding List of Allowable Substances in Organic Meat

Whenever possible Karyn and I chose organic food products over non-organic. I realize most of these food products are developed by large industrial organic entities in non-sustainable ways. While there may not be a significant increase the nutritious values of these products, I still believe there is a value in the decreased chemicals both on me as an individual and the environment. We also try to take that one step further by purchasing local organic and non-organic products that are produced by smaller farms, as I truly believe that they are healthier for me and teh environment. We purchase some of our meat from a company called Daily Blessings. They alerted me to the changes proposed below.

I was upset a few years ago when the federal government relaxed the organic standards to enable more large producers to market under teh "organic" label. It would appear that they are up to it again. I will be writing my letter, I encourage you to do the same.

USDA Considers Expanding List of Allowable Substances in Organic Meat
Increased demand and limited supply of organic beef has led many to consider alternatives that would lead to increased production. The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service is considering expanding the list of allowable substances that can be used in treating livestock, while still remaining eligible for organic certification.
The substances being debated include:

  • Atropine, a belladonna-derived antidote for poisoning after organophosphate pesticide exposure

  • Bismuth subsalicyate, an anti-diarrheal drug also used by humans.

  • Butorphanol, a short-acting painkiller often used before surgery.

  • Flunixin, a non-steroidal, non-narcotic treatment for inflammation or pyrexia.

  • Furosemide, a diuretic used to treat pulmonary and udder edema.

  • Magnesium hydroxide, a naturally-occurring mineral used as a laxative and antacid.

  • Peroxyacetic/paracetic acid, used to sanitize facility and processing equipment and as a topical disinfectant on animals and meat and dairy products.

  • Poloxalene, a synthetic substance used to prevent or treat bloating in cattle and as a stool softener.
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and the USDA disagreed about the appropriate circumstances under which some of these substances should be used, and for how long. The NOSB recommended a withdrawal period twice as long as the FDA guidelines for butophanol and flunixin, and asked for an extended withdrawal period on furosemide as well. In addition, the NOSB recommended that poloxalene should only be used in emergency circumstances, while the USDA wanted it to be available as a preventative treatment.

Comments must be submitted by Sept. 15, 2006. They may be mailed to:
Arthur Neal, Director of Program Administration
National Organic Program, USDA-AMS-TMP-NOP
1400 Independence Ave., SW
Room4008-So., Ag Stop 0268
Washington, DC 20250
Fax: 202-205-7808

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Thursday, July 27, 2006

Seven Devils Backpacking

This past weekend, Doug, Lanette, Karyn and I backpacked into the Seven Devils Mountains in West Central Idaho. The seven Devils mountains form the Idaho side of Hell's Canyon. They consist of seven peaks with various devil names, hence the name of the mountain range. I believe the official peak names are She Devil, He Devil, Tower of Babal, The Ogre, The Goblin, Mt Belial, and Devils Throne. There is also Devil's Tooth and the Twin Imps identified on the map.

The trailhead starts out quite high at a place called Windy Saddle, 7600 feet above sea level. We start by heading downhill! The hike from the trailhead to our camping destination was 8 miles. The trail passes through a few drainages, essential gaining and losing 2600 feet to arrive at our camp at Gem lake, 7800 feet above sea level. In the picture at left you can see Karyn following Lanette around a switchback. She Devil is the rounded peak in the background, He Devil is just right of it hidden behind the dead tree. It was an interesting hike, providing beautiful vistas of the Seven Devils mountains and the Wallowa mountains far in the distance (the other side of Hell's Canyon). We found a dead pack Lama that had been in the heat for about a week (not a highlight). Not sure how it died. On a more positive side, we found a live Spruce Grouse with three chicks.
About 6 miles into the hike we climbed up onto a high ridge. The ridge provided some unique geology. High flat meadows (shown at the left) with a shallow lilypad lake. Getting a little tired from the hike, at about 7 miles we stopped at Basin Lake to get some fresh water. Continuing past Shelf lake to our destination, Gem Lake. We found a great campsite near the outlet of the lake. There was one group of campers at the lake already. That night it stayed very warm. Daytime tempuratures at this elevation were near 90 degrees (over 100 down in the valley). The low tempurature might have gotten down into the 60s, but not very far. On Saturday, Doug and I headed off to climb She Devil. The book said it would be an easy ascent, so we didn't bother to read the details nor bring the route instructions. If there was an easy route up, how hard could it be to find? We first hiked up and over the saddle to Sheep Lake. This was an even more beautiful lake than the others, but did have more bugs and two other camps.
We picked a route to head straight up a loose scree field. Not my favorite. About a third of the way up, I suggested that we move over to the hard rock face of the mountain. This route provided firm hand and foot holds that I much preferred. We did worry about the descent as this was steep enough it would be very slow going on the way down. We made good progress and reached the top in about an hour and a half from Sheep Lake. The lake you see in the photo on the right is Gem Lake, where we were camped. The ridge in the lower right sits between Gem and Sheep Lake.
The picture on the left is of He Devil mountain from the top of She Devil. Due to a very large number of flying ants at the top of the mountain, we didn't stay long. What they were doing there, I have no idea. We chose the quicker route down the scree field for the descent. The top of the field consisted of very small gravel that made for quick and easy sliding. The gravel slowly increased in size, slowing our progress. We reached Sheep lake in about an hour. Up and over the saddle and back to camp in another 45 minutes. It was an excellent hike, but I was tired and sore. Spent the rest of the day eating, drinking, laying around, and enjoying the outdoors. On Sunday we hiked out. Enjoying the lighter pack, we made great time. In one old burn area we found a Hairy Woodpecker, some Northern Flickers, and what we think were Lazuli Buntings or Indigo Buntings (still researching). The drive down from the trailhead was depressing as we entered the 107 degree heat. We decided to go jump in the Salmon River before stopping for dinner. There was a moose in a small inlet off the river right next to the parking area. Keeping an eye on him, we jumped in the cool water. An excellent trip.

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