Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Top nature moments of the year

I noticed on a friends blog (A DC Birding Blog), his Top 8 Nature Moments of 2008. Following his lead, I thought it would be a good idea to highlight mine. Here are my top nature moments for 2008. Not surprising, the top moments came from our time in Yellowstone National Park.

1. Spooking up a wolf while on a hike in Yellowstone.
2. Grizzly Bears wrestling in Yellowstone.
3. Watching Great-horned Owls mate in Hull's Grove.
4. Watching a Sharp-shinned Hawk in our backyard following a large flock of Pine Siskins.
5. Finding new life birds unexpectedly such as a Northern Goshawk or a Great Gray Owl.
6. Finding Otters after years of searching.
7. Visiting the Idaho Bird Observatory where they band songbirds and hawks.
8. Participating in the U.S. Nightjar Survey even though we didn't find any Nightjars.

I hope for many more in 2009!

"Remember, the mountains will always be there, the trick is for you to be there as well!" - Unknown

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Holiday Gifts

The holidays are upon us and now is the time for gift giving. Karyn and I have generally worked to minimize gift giving with extended family members, but I still seemed to have received some significant booty. More than any previous holiday season, the gifts this year were more than appropriate for me.

Some background information is appropriate here. My friends and family affectionately refer to me as the chrono-nazi. This tag was earned through my incessant and pathological focus on being on-time. This year I received a watch and two clocks! How appropriate. My old watch died a few weeks ago. I tried to do the right thing and replace the battery instead of replacing the watch. I replaced the battery and then struggled to get the band back on the watch. Karyn tried as well. I eventually won the battle returning the watch to my wrist. Apparently I failed to replace the seal appropriately as the first shower killed it. Time for a new watch. The first clock came from Karyn's parents. It is an Audubon clock which chimes a different bird call at the top of each hour. The second was a very appropriate and very geeky alarm clock. The clock is a projection alarm clock which projects the time onto the ceiling or wall of the room. I have always had this habit of looking at the clock if I awake in the middle of the night. What else would a chrono-nazi do? I told you it was pathological! Now, the time is projected on the ceiling above my head! Even better, the clock updates itself from satellites ensuring it is always on time. Way cool and way geeky!

The geek trend continued with a book for the bird geek in me: The Art of Pishing: How to Attract Birds by Mimicking Their Calls (Book & Audio CD). From the title you can probably tell what pishing is. Mimmicing bird alarm calls generally has the effect of attracting other birds. It doesn't have to be the alarm call of the specific bird you are trying to attract as many flocking birds will respond to the alarms of other flocking birds. I've heard and read descriptions of pishing before, but never understood how to do it. This simple book and most importantly, the accompanying CD, describe how to properly pish. You probably didn't even know that you didn't know how to pish! I have some practicing to do before I can really test it out.

The last in the geek gift lineup is a portable photography blind and a bug net jacket. Two very important instruments for taking up close photos of birds and animals in mosquito territory. I won't need to worry about the bug net jacket for a while, but can put the bind to use immediately. I hope to grace these blog pages soon with some new photos.

That's quite a haul for one person. I hope that you had a happy holiday season.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Endangered Species Act 35th Anniversary

Today is the 35th anniversary of the signing of the endangered species act by President Nixon. It has been tremendously successful in saving a few species such as the Grey Wolf and the Bald Eagle. It has saved countless ecosystems from further degradation and has helped maintain our biodiversity.

It has continued to be a political and controversial topic since before its initial signing. Just last month our current president launched a last ditch effort to destroy this legislation by removing the requirement for scientific review. The Inspector general even reported that the Interior department directly and indirectly interfered with wildlife science on 15 occasions during the last 5 years.

For a much more complete history of the endangered species act, check out this story: Endangered Species Act 35th anniversary and wolves « Ralph Maughan’s Wildlife News

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Common Goldeneyes

There were a ton of Common Goldeneyes on the Boise River today. This was the best photo I was able to get.


Karyn and I walked an icy path, seeing most of the usual winter suspects. No Bald Eagle though.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Egg recognition as a defense against intraspecific brood parasitism

A recent research article published in the journal Naturwissenschaften has shown that Moorhens have an internal representation of their own eggs.

Marion Petrie, Rianne Pinxten, Marcel Eens (2008). Moorhens have an internal representation of their own eggs Naturwissenschaften DOI: 10.1007/s00114-008-0486-5

Intraspecific brood parasitism is a reproductive tactic which is known to be used by moorhens and many other bird species. Brood parasitism refers to the situation where one bird lays an egg in another birds nest. This provides reproductive advantage that the individual successfully propagates their genes, yet does not have the burden of raising the young themselves. They in turn can focus their efforts on other offspring, gathering more food, migrating, etc. Some species are well known for their brood parasitism such as the Brown-headed Cowbird. The cowbird lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species. This is believed to be the result of the cowbird lifestyle of following the great bison herds of North America. To keep up with the bison, the cowbirds could not stay in one place to raise their young.

In the case of the Moorhen,we are referring to Intraspecific brood parasitism which refers to the situation where a bird lays an egg in the nest of another bird of the same species. In previous studies it has been shown that up to 40% of Moorhen nests receive eggs from other females, illustrating that this is indeed a significant issue for a Moorhen.

Since raising the young of other birds places high demands on an adult, it can interfere with the survival of their own offspring. It therefore benefits an individual from an evolutionary fitness perspective if they can distinguish eggs that are not their own and abandon them.

The study focused on whether adult Moorhens could recognize eggs which were placed in their nest that were not their own. If true this could be a significant defense against intraspecific brood parasitism. To test this, the researchers would collect eggs and swap them in various nests. A particular hen would either receive an egg that was collected from one of their earlier broods or an egg from another hen. The results show that the Moorhen indeed has some internal recognition capabilities, although does not identify the specific mechanism. In 7 out of 9 cases, the Moorhen would abandon the nest if their first egg was replaced by an egg from another female. Only 1 out of 9 abandoned when the egg was replaced with one of their own from an earlier brood.

While not part of this study, it is interesting that Moorhens seem to readily tolerate parasitic eggs after they have laid their second egg in the nest. Clearly room for additional studies.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Winter holiday

I am off from work for 2 weeks. Apparently my company believes that I am so valuable as an employee, that I can best contribute by not being there. We will see how valuable they think I am when January comes around. Ha! (inside joke, find out on January 2nd)

I have started my vacation by skate skiing three of the first 4 days of my vacation. As you might imagine, I am a little tired right now. Tomorrow we plan to make it 4 out of 5 before a day or two off for the holidays. At this time last year we had a month of skiing in with twice as many ski days. The late start will probably lower the kilometers I get in this year. Oh well, it sure is great skiing right now!

I looked up my grades today from last semester. I did indeed squeak out an A- in technical communications. Along with my A+ is Biology, I should get a 3.87 GPA. Hmm. I would have thought that would give me a 4.0, but they count the A+ as an A. Not bad for a first semester back while working full time. Hopefully this will help me on the scholarship hunt.

My schedule is all finalized for next semester. I will be continuing in General Biology and picking up the second half of General Chemistry. I had the first half of General Chemistry 24 years ago! I'm sure I remember everything! Not! The classes I am most excited about are Ecology and Ornithology. Lets see if I can keep my GPA up with this load! Four lab classes!

On a completely different note. If you want to comment on this blog, make sure you identify yourself. Apparently, one of Idaho's new wacko lawmakers, and we have a number of them, wants to introduce a bill to ban anonymous commenting on the internet. A whole flood of responses pass through my mind... First, don't they have important things to worry about like maybe education, equal rights, poverty, environmental protection, transportation, etc. Second, why stop with the Internet? Will I also have to announce my name anytime I say something in public? What's the difference? Third, how would they possibly enforce it? By requiring the providers to get proof of ID for any service? Driving up the cost and decreasing the value for all? This is the problem with most government, particularly in Idaho. The laws are written by individuals who do not represent the people, are out of touch with reality, and in most cases don't even know what they are talking about (for example, is he talking about anonymous commenting or anonymous blogging?). Why this state continues to elect people like this I have no idea. Actually I do - they have an "R" by their name.

I wish you a Happy Holidays.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The end of the semester

Tuesday brought the end of my first semester back in school working toward my encore career in Biology/Ecology. By almost any measure I consider it a success.

This semester I took two courses. The first was a core course for my degree - General Biology. This also included a lab. The second course was an online course in Technical Communications. I don't have my official grades back yet, but do know that I received an A+ in Biology, and needed at least an 87 on my final paper to receive an A- in Technical Communications. The jury, or at least the professor, has yet to provide that verdict.

I was less than pleased with the Technical Communications course. It was probably due to the web delivered structure. I did learn some valuable content, but less than I had hoped or expected.

The Biology course was excellent. As a general course, it covered a wide variety of topics staring with a chemistry base, building up to biological macromolecules, cells, cell division, DNA, inheritance, evolution, and ecology. While my primary interest is in ecology and macro evolutionary biology, I found all of the topics fascinating. I was most surprised by my deep amazement with the cell machinery. The complexity of the processes required to keep a cell alive were deeply interesting.

In returning to classes after twenty years, I was very nervous about staying up with the detailed terminology. In my work I have been a generalist for most of my career. The specialized terminology was my biggest fear. At least so far, that has not been an issue.

With this semester complete, I have my sights focused toward next semester. I have already started my reading, to make sure I begin the semester ahead of the game. I have even been contacted by some new classmates over facebook. The next semester will be a busy one with a new focus on Ecology and the class I am most excited about, Ornithology.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Skiing and Rough-legged Hawks

The snow finally arrived in Idaho, and in a big way. I have shoveled snow three times in the past two days! No complaints, it is long overdue.

Today Karyn and I decided to make a quick trip to McCall Idaho for the first cross country skiing of the year. Ponderosa State Park had one loop open. Since it is not yet very deep, they didn't groom it, just pulled a roller over it to flatten it out a bit. With a couple more inches on top of that, it was very, very soft. Kind of like skiing in mashed potatoes. It was skiing and that's what counts. As more people had skied over the trail, and we made more loops around, the trail conditions became more packed and a little easier. Regardless, it was a tough day that I will be feeling for the next few days. It's tough getting old!

On the way home Karyn spied a number of Rough-legged Hawks on fence posts near the road. These hawks are winter visitors to Idaho and are fairly predictably seen in this area. We turned off onto Warm Lake road where we have taken photos in the past. We counted at least five hawks in the first mile. The lighting wasn't the best for photos, but Karyn did get these shots of two different birds. I found the color differences interesting, but have been unable to find any significance in my reference books/sites. It was interesting to watch a dominant bird fly in to push the other off its perch.



We also saw 4 Bald Eagles on the way home. No photos this time.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Wood Duck

I didn't think it was a great day for photography. This was even taken in the shadows, but turned out beyond my expectations. Wood Duck at the MK Nature Center in Boise. (click to enlarge)

Why some rails have white tails

I am sure that this question has been keeping you up at night, but rest assured science is working hard to resolve the question. I came across this recent research paper in the scientific journal Evolutionary Ecology. The paper is not publicly available, it is restricted to subscribers.

Alexandra T. Stang, Susan B. McRae (2008). Why some rails have white tails: the evolution of white undertail plumage and anti-predator signaling Evolutionary Ecology DOI: 10.1007/s10682-008-9283-z

Rails, or Rallidea, is a family of small to medium sized birds that includes the Crakes, Coots, and Gallinules. I personally am most familiar with the American Coot which a common water bird in our area. The study was trying to evaluate the evolutionary significance of white on the under-tail coverts of some rail species.

The researchers were evaluating four possible hypotheses regarding the evolutionary development of these white feathers. Their studies produced some surprising results.

The four hypotheses include:

  1. White under-tail coverts may have been favored by sexual selection.
  2. White under-tail coverts may have developed to facilitate signaling in territorial interactions.
  3. White under-tail coloration might be used in intraspecific communication other than agonistic or sexual displays.
  4. Contrasting white tail feathers serve to accentuate tail-flicking signals directed at predators.

An important foundation assumption of the study is that non-white under-tail coverts is the ancestral state and that white under-tail coverts evolved as a result of natural selection, and not the other way around. There is ample previous research available on this topic to validate the assumption.

Regarding the first hypothesis, the researchers assumed that if the trait was sexual selected it would be more prevalent on species with greater mate competition. Those that utilize polygamous mating systems. Other research has indicated that species with intense mate competition are more likely to utilize displays involving plumage. The cross-species comparisons did not provide any evidence for a relationship between polygamous species and white under-tail coverts. The team then evaluated whether sexual dimorphism could play a role, but this too proved inconclusive.

Regarding hypothesis two, the researchers assumed that species that used their tails in territorial displays should be more likely to have white under-tail coverts if this trait evolved specifically for this purpose. Once again, there was no evidence for this hypothesis.

Regarding hypothesis three, the belief was that if white under-tail coverts were used for another type of signaling such as alarm or status, then they would be more common in birds that flock for at least part of the year. The analysis did indicate that this was significant.

For the last hypothesis, a number of interesting results were considered. Based on past research with some bird species such as warblers, its has been determined that some birds that exist in darker environments have more conspicuous plumage patterns. The team investigated the possibility that these conspicuous patches might have evolved to increase the efficacy of communication in darker environments. The results were the opposite of what was expected. They found a highly significant correlation that birds that live in open habitats were more likely than those in dense habitats to have white under-tail coverts. Also, those with crepuscular or nocturnal habits are no more likely to have white tails.

These results indicate that flocking behavior and open habitats are the most significant variables. This is where the statistical analysis went a bit deep for me. The researchers used software to perform contingency change tests to evaluate the evolutionary order of development. The results of this indicate that white under-tail coverts evolved before flocking, but after the move to open habitat. This order is very important as the evolution of white tails before flocking tends to indicate that the white tails evolved as a pursuit-deterrent function instead of of a social communication function. So now you know why white under-tail coverts evolved in rails!

I found this particular study interesting as it required deep analysis of a complex evolutionary situation. The white patch on these birds seem very insignificant overall, but is just one of many traits on many species which at one point in their past played a very significant role in their survival and thus their fitness to reproduce. It is an example which helps our overall understanding of evolution in general and bird evolution more specifically.

I was further intrigued by this particular study as some of their results came as a surprise. The results were the opposite of what was expected further showing that just because we understand how a particular mechanism works with a particular species, it does not mean that it works the same way with the next species.

I look forward to performing this type of research myself. I have been loosely contributing to a few research projects over the past few years. With my personal studies in Biology/Ecology I have made some new connections and will be accelerating my participation. I am also looking to apply for some research internships once I get my class and work schedule sorted out.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

I agree with the governor

I never thought the words would cross my lips. Actually they haven't, just flown through my fingers into this blog, but close enough.

The Eye on Boise blog is reporting that Otter wants gas tax hike, fee increases. I may not agree with him on wolves, but on this topic we are in alignment.

First, our roads are in desperate need of new investment. It is clear that current funding is not keeping pace with the growing need and the growing prices of road materials. It doesn't take much driving around the state to realize that.

Road improvements are primarily funded through gasoline tax, which in my mind is the most appropriate source. Miles traveled would be the only more relevant measure, but gas tax is a close proxy for miles traveled yet has an additional incentive for individuals to drive more efficient vehicles. Tying funding to usage makes sense for me.

As growth in usage increases, more tax dollars flow in. At the same time, the needs from the road system also increase with that usage. What isn't compensated for in the current funding system is the inflation of road materials. Road materials have increased in price over 75% since 2003, or many hundreds of percents since the last gas tax increase. Thus, the buying power of our transportation department is a small fraction of what it was a decade ago when compared with vehicle miles traveled. We are not likely to completely close that gap, but a gasoline tax increase would definitely help.

If you agree that more dollars are needed for roads, where should those dollars come from? I believe that gasoline tax is the only reasonable option. It is much more relevant than income taxes or sales taxes. Increased gasoline taxes also provides an incentive to drive less, which has many other advantages - fewer roads needed, less pollution, decreased green house gases, etc.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thankful for wildlife

We had hoped to be thankful for snow this holiday season, but the weather just didn't cooperate. The only candidate ski location that we considered that had any snow at all was West Yellowstone. There they have marginal conditions high on the plateau. With thousands of cross country skiers from around the country, its a crowded space. We instead chose a different plan focused on what we do still have in Idaho, wildlife.

The trip started as we headed down to Karyn's parents house in Twin Falls Idaho for Thanksgiving Day lunch. We took the old highway through the Hagerman valley in the hopes of sighting a recent rare bird for Idaho, the Whooper Swan. We didn't have much time, but we thought we would give it a chance. We were rewarded with a great view just off the road. The swan on the right is the Whooper. This is a new life bird for me. The Idaho bird experts originally thought it could be a captive bird that got away, but the growing consensus in the Idaho birding community is that it is indeed a native bird, a rare vagrant. This bird is free flying, many captive birds have their wings clipped. Of course, there is no way to know for sure.

After the family lunch, Karyn and I headed north of Ketchum Idaho to search for the Phantom Hill wolf pack. No luck. Due to the lack of snow and recent hunting season, the elk and the wolves are likely still roaming high in the mountains. We returned to the land of the pretty people (Sun Valley Idaho) for a Thanksgiving dinner buffet. The food was great and the people watching even greater. Preferring natural species over the painted ones, we headed back into the hills to camp for the night.

We were up early in the morning to search again for the Phantom Hill wolf pack. Still no luck. Heading up over Galena Pass toward Stanley Idaho we did find the first canid for the day, this cross phase Red Fox.

There is at least some snow on this North facing slope above 8500 feet. Crossing Galena pass at 9000 feet above sea level, you can see just how little snow there is. The valley below should be buried this time of year. This valley sits at over 7500 feet. It was beautiful to see the fog sitting down in the valley while it was clear above.

The fog in Stanley eventually cleared. We watched a Beaver in Valley Creek before finding the second canid of the day, a beautiful coyote. Its interesting to note the behavioral differences between coyotes here and in Yellowstone. In Yellowstone coyotes are not very afraid of people. Most likely as they have never been shot at. Here in Idaho, where people shoot at anything that moves, the coyote is very wary of anything human. We were nearly a mile away and this coyote was still running from us for the cover of the trees.

We had hoped for a 3 dog day by catching sight of the Basin Butte wolf pack, but we struck out here as well.

Between Banks Idaho and Horseshoe Bend Idaho we were on the look out for Bald Eagles. This time of year they are often sighted along this stretch of river. Sometimes you can see 5 or more in a 20 mile stretch of river. Karyn spotted this adult on a carcass in the river. We pulled as far off the road as possible and bailed out to get the photos. We watched this adult feed for 5 or 10 minutes before flying off.

30 seconds after the adult left this juvenile, probably a second year, arrived to take over the feeding.

While we failed on our quest for wolves and a 3-dog day, we had a great time with some great sights. I write a lot on this blog about the anti-wildlife stance of our state and local officials, but Idaho is still a great place to see wildlife. I am thankful for that.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Boise River Birding

It's a beautiful day today in Boise. Not too cold for the time of year. The weather was near freezing this morning and is expected to top out around 50 degrees. While I would much rather have snow, I'll take in the great weather as well.

This morning Karyn and I went out along the Boise River to photograph birds. No breeze and beautiful sunshine welcomed us. Some of the winter bird species were present such as Dark-eyed Juncos and Hooded Mergansers. We had hoped to find a Bald Eagle which a number of friends have been seeing, but we came up empty.

There were quite a few Northern Flickers present as they are quite common along this stretch of river. This one was excavating wood chips for a cavity in the tree.

This warbler like bird entertained us for some time. It wasn't until I got home that I discovered it was a Rudy-crowned Kinglet. I always forget about them.

We didn't find a huge list of birds for the day, but did alright. Our sightings: Great Blue Heron, Canada Goose, Hooded Merganser, American Coot, Mallard, Dark-eyed Junco, Black-capped Chickadee, American Wigeon, Northern Flicker, Mourning Dove, House Sparrow, American Robin, Belted Kingfisher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, American Kestrel, Common Merganser, Common Goldeneye, and an unidentified accipiter (Hawk)

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Idaho, the hate state

When I first moved to Idaho more than 20 years ago, the state had a reputation for being a source of hate. The Aryan Nations had their active compound in northern Idaho, and this was widely known across the country. After that compound shut down many years ago, the hateful undercurrent seemed to fade away.

There have been a number of events recently that make me believe that there is a major resurgence of hate in Idaho.

The first, I wrote about two years ago in The propagation of fear and hate in Idaho, where our state legislature with the support of the misguided population, modified the state constitution to legally discriminate against our gay and lesbian citizens.

We continued this trend recently by distinguishing ourselves as a state by our citizens making over $400,000 in contributions to California's gay marriage ban. It's not enough to screw up our own state constitution, we have to spread the disease.

Today brings two new unbelievable stories from different parts of the state which shocked me to my core.

The first, is where Rexburg school children have been singing "assassinate Obama"on the school bus. I seriously doubt these kids just made this song up, they more than likely got it from their parents.

The second, is a story of a North Idaho resident with a sign advertising a free public hanging of President-elect Obama, among other non-Republican elected officials.

I am still in shock over these recent developments. It is clear that the hate has never really gone away in Idaho, just moved below the surface. As the rest of the world evolves to a better place, these negative remnants are resurfacing.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

What a wonderful day!!!!!!!

A day of hope and a day of promise!

Hope for the world, hope for people everywhere, hope for our country, hope for the environment, hope for sanity, hope for respect, hope for leadership, hope for the values that made this country great, and most importantly for all, hope for peace!


January 20, 2009, I can't wait!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Busy in the Fall

It was pointed out by one of my regular readers that I haven't posted in a few weeks. I guess, the "I've been busy" excuse doesn't work. So here is an update on my life.

First, school continues to go very well. I am sitting at an A- in my technical communications course and much better than that in Biology. Biology has been very interesting for me. Last week we got to dissect sheep eyeballs. Very cool! Next week we get to count beetles. Not so cool! We have been slowly shifting from cellular biology, into genetics, and now just starting inheritance and evolution. The beetles we will be counting are the result of a population and resource experiment. I will have to write my first scientific research paper on the results. I will register for classes this next week for the Spring. I hope to continue with Biology, then take either my first Ecology course or Ornithology, or both!

Work has been very interesting and stressful lately. New management was brought in from the outside which has caused quite a bit of turmoil. They pushed my boss out and have been trying to quickly change the culture of the organization. Some for the good, some not so much. We all have been working very hard trying to keep our jobs. The jury is still out...

On the job note, I applied for a new job a few weeks back. The position is the executive director for a non-profit organization. It would be a stretch, but is well aligned with my interests - wildlife, ecosystems, recreation, scenic preservation. I completed a phone interview last week that went very well. I should be hearing about possible next steps in a week or two.

Last weekend we headed into the hills to find some wolves. No luck. It might have been the fact that it sounded like a battle zone out there. Gun fire in all directions. We survived without getting shot. It was nice to be in the mountains.

Lesser Scaup, Buffleheads, and a Western Grebe in pond in Big Meadow.

We met up with Doug and Lanette for a long hike in the mountains. It was a great hike, just not as scenic as we had hoped. After 17 miles, we were definitely done for the day.

Doug, Lanette, and Karyn having lunch on a rock.

The economy? No stress there!

Oh, did you know there is an election coming up? Millions of dollars, annoying ad after annoying ad, and they still have changed my mind on a single candidate or issue! I guess I am not considered a "swing" voter. Oh well. All I can say is that I am definitely ready for a CHANGE! Here is the best campaign video I have seen (stick with it, the ending is good!).

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Cross species threat communication

There have been a number of studies in the past few years analyzing the degree to which various species communicate with other species. I expect that many people might assume that little communication occurs between organisms of separate species, but that's just not true. Clearly there are many non-verbal cues that pass from species to species. Consider a bear staring at you while pawing the ground. While I haven't witnessed this myself, I can only assume that the communication from the bear would be crystal clear in my mind. A more interesting aspect than non-verbal communication are the subtleties of vocal or other sounds based communication. Consider the barking dog. Our context and experience enable us to have a pretty good idea of what the dog is trying to communicate.

In 2007, a study was published indicating that Nuthatches eavesdrop on variations in heterospecific chickadee mobbing alarm calls. As these are closely related species that often travel together, I can clearly understand the need and evolutionary benefit of this mechanism.

Recently a new study was publishing analyzing response to the wing whistles of Mourning Doves by other Mourning Doves and other bird species.

Seth W. Coleman (2008). Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) wing-whistles may contain threat-related information for con- and hetero-specifics Naturwissenschaften, 95 (10), 981-986 DOI: 10.1007/s00114-008-0404-x

Mourning Doves wings make a whistling sound as they take flight. This sounds is most dramatic as they take off from the ground. The researcher recorded these sounds under normal take-offs and again under startled take offs. They then replayed these sounds as birds were eating at a feeding site. When Mourning Doves were present and the startled take-off sound was played, the birds remained more vigilant and stayed away from the feeding site longer than when the non-startled take-off sound was played. The procedure was repeated with other birds including the Northern Cardinal and the House Sparrow. In each case upon hearing the startled Mourning Dove wing whistle the birds in general remained more vigilant and stayed away longer than when they heard the non-startled wing whistle. Its worth noting that the vigilance response rates were higher for Mourning Doves than the other species.

The researcher then repeated the procedure using Northern Cardinal alarm calls and House Sparrow social chatter. Once again, all three species responded to the alarm call with greater vigilance, but the same species response, in this case the Cardinal, was the highest.

I'm interested each time a study like this comes out. The result, while it has some valuable scientific information, is not surprising to me at all. A species in the wild must be vigilant about its surroundings to survive. Cues can come from any direction to alert the presence of danger. Those species which are most in tune with these various cues will likely have a greater chance of survival and thus live to create more offspring. This is not likely just a learned behavior but most possibly an ingrained genetic trait inherited through generations.

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Saturday, October 04, 2008

Another moderate stance by our governor...

The wolf population "issue" in Idaho continues along its usual path of state officials looking for a "reasonable" solution.  Here is a recent quote from our governor:

“They say Butch Otter wants to kill all the wolves in Idaho,” Otter said. “Well, they’re right.” - The Owyhee Avalanche

And they wonder why the courts, the federal wildlife officials, and the public in general don't trust the state with responsible management of wolves. I still contend that this would have been a non-issue years ago if the states had taken a leadership position and put together reasonable management plans. Instead, comments like this pour money into the legal and political battles on both sides.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Idaho Bird Observatory - Hawks and Songbirds

It finally worked out for Karyn and I to make it up the rough 4x4 road to the Idaho Bird Observatory.  The Idaho Bird Observatory is a bird banding station for songbirds, raptors, and owls. Today we planned to take in the later parts of the day's songbird banding and participate in the early parts of the hawk watch and hawk banding.

Lucky Peak mountain, where the Idaho Bird Observatory is located, is a major stop on the fall bird migratory route.  The Idaho mountains funnel down to this peak where the birds must refuel before the long flight across the desert of Southern Idaho.  The research station has been operating there for over 15 years.

The songbird banding begins at sunrise and operates for 5 hours each day. There are a series of eight mist nets that capture songbirds traveling low through the brush.  The team of researchers and volunteer patrol the nets every 20-30 minutes bringing any captured birds back to a centrally located station where they are identified, aged, measured, weighed, and banded.  The birds vary through the fall. Today there were mainly Ruby-crowned Kinglets, White-crowned Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Chipping Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and this Red-breasted Nuthatch.


After lunch we headed out to the Hawk Watch area.  Here they count the numbers and types of raptors and vultures flying South. We watched large Kettles of Turkey Vultures flying by.  The largest had 42 vultures in it, another had 29.  The other birds included Red-tailed Hawks, Swainson's Hawks, Cooper's Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, American Kestrels, Common Ravens, Golden Eagles, Northern Harrier, and possibly a Merlin.

Down the hill a hundred yards from the hawk watch is the hawk banding station.  Here they use live prey, non-native birds, to lure in hawks so that they can be captured. We didn't get to go down to the trapping station, but the researchers did bring two captured birds up for us to observe.  Both were male Sharp-shipped Hawks.


This first bird wasn't too worked up, allowing us to admire his feathers from various angles.


The second bird was calm, but then made it very clear that he wanted to be free. It is amazing how loud their screech can be when you are only a few feet away. 


It was a beautiful day on the mountain. Now we have to decide if we will return next weekend for Owl banding, which occurs at night.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Third of a semester done

Its hard to believe I have just completed the fifth week of school. It is going by very quickly. A few ups and downs, a few surprises, and quite a bit a learning. I am very glad I took the step to jump back in.

Lets start with my technical communications class. I did well, receiving A's on the first three assignments. The fourth was the issue. It was a group project. The professor assigned the groups based upon our profiles we submitted. I was assigned into a group that consistent of myself and two other non-traditional students.  Since this is a web delivered class, I had not actually met the other individuals in person. Since almost all my recent working experience is with remote teams, many of which I have never met, this was nothing new.  I took the initiative two weeks before the assignment to introduce myself over email, explain my concern about waiting until the last minute, and to propose a process which would ensure a quality product with good contribution from all. I even proposed to write the first draft.  The other two agreed. This would be the last I would hear from one of them.  The first intermediate deadline came and past.  I was the only one to complete that step.  I wrote the first draft and submitted to the others. One of the others submitted a rework of the first paragraph and promised more later. This would be the last I would hear from either person.  I submitted the paper on time with no acknowledgment from either.  I was pissed off to no end.  The paper received an 88 which I was happy with, but the lack of contribution was very annoying.  My grade average is still in the A range. My biggest issue is that I have three more collaborative assignments with the same people.

On to the good news, Biology.  I have truly enjoyed this class. I am still reading many chapters ahead and have maintained a perfect score so far on 4 quizzes.  I expect to have achieved close to that on my 5th quiz and first exam, which will be returned to me on Tuesday. We have studied the foundational biology and chemistry concepts, cell structures, membrane, and started metabolism this last week. Photosynthesis lectures and labs begin next week. There is a ton of new concepts and lots of new vocabulary. This was one of the areas where I was concerned when I started.  I was afraid that the detailed terminology would be an issue. Obviously from my performance so far, that issue has not presented itself.  I have put extra effort into memorization which has helped.

I have been thinking about what I might be able to take next semester.  I need to continue into the second half of General Biology, but I also hope to get into Ornithology. I will have to get the professor's approval as a full year of General Biology is a prerequisite.  I would only have completed the first half, but would be taking teh second half in parallel.  I want to push it as Ornithology is only offered every two years.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Economic thoughts

While out on a bike ride today I did some thinking about our current economic conditions. It fired me up enough to write the following letter to my representatives.

Representative Simpson, Senator Crapo, Senator Craig,

I hope that a lot of your attention has been tuned in to the economic crisis which our country is currently experiencing. This clearly has world-wide ramifications. I listened to a fair amount of the media coverage of this past week's events and specifically our president's recommendations. I have come to the following conclusions that I would like to share with you.

I do support the president's bailout plan with some very important required changes. Specifically:

1. I do not believe that any bailout should occur until the oversight and regulations are put into place to ensure that this doesn't happen again. Otherwise, our taxpayers dollars are likely to be wasted.

2. I absolutely disagree with the proposal that the bailout be orchestrated by Secretary Paulson, with no oversight from Congress. This has been reported to have been proposed by the president. Lack of oversight led to this problem, lack of oversight of the bailout process is irresponsible government.

3. We need to make sure that the money goes to those individuals who were ripped off by the greedy people on Wall Street and not into the pockets of the greedy people on Wall Street.  Might I suggest you start with our armed forces, both active duty and reserve, who are both victims of predator practices and suffering financial hardships, not to mention fighting in a war.

4. We need to ensure that we fund enough to keep the economy from collapsing and no more. I do not believe in buy an economy, but I do believe is saving a system.

5. We need to pay for this plan in revenue and not debt. Borrowing money to cover a mistake, is making another mistake. My family taught me and my school taught me that if you get in trouble you should step back, regroup, make compromises, and work your way out of it.  Debt is rarely the answer.  Might I suggest a capital gains tax increase as a reasonable way to target the get rich quick predators. A corporate tax would also be advised.  I understand it will slow the economic recovery, but I don't believe that is a bad thing. Slower growth will allow us to ensure we build a solid economic base and not another house of cards.

Thank you for your time.  Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments.

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Wolf population update

If you read the mainstream media or listen to any politicians in the western states, you probably have a sense that the wolf population is skyrocketing with no possible end in sight. Those of us who follow the wolf issue know that the wolf population peaked in Yellowstone National Park three years ago and will peak in Idaho and Montana as well. My comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and to the Idaho Fish and Game were on this issue. Specifically, we need to allow the wolf population to reach its full potential to achieve the full ecosystem value from the wolves and to enable dispersion to other areas (Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado).

Even though the population growth in Idaho slowed to 8% last year, the media and politicians have still used the 24% growth number from pervious years. Another favorite ploy they use to mislead the residents of Idaho is to talk about Idaho wolves, but use the population numbers from all states.  I have seen this tactic used repetitively on the local news and in the local paper.

This week the Fish and Wildlife Service released their mid-year estimate which indicates a decline in the wolf population from last year. Of course, one data point does not make a trend. In this case there are two data points, last years slower rate and this year's declining rate. It will be another year or two before we know for sure. A population can realize temporary setbacks a well. This could be one of those. A few years ago, Yellowstone National Park had a significant decline as there was an outbreak of Parvo virus killing many pups. Due to high adult mortality, a large number of pups are required to keep the population stable. Parvo virus can have a significant impact on the population numbers. Another factor is that so far this year the Wildlife Services have killed a record number of wolves at a record cost to taxpayers (don't get me started on that issue!).

Whether this is the year that the population stabilizes or it happens in two more years, it will happen. The wolves will be regulated by their prey, which is predominantly elk. The elk lived for 65 years in Idaho without wolf predators. Now that wolves are here, the elk are getting smarter and changing their behavior. Also, most of the old, sick, and dying elk have been cleaned up by the wolves. This is one of many positive impacts wolves have on elk health. The result is that Idaho will likely go through a transition similar to Yellowstone, the wolf population will peak and then settle down to 10-20% below that peak.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Idaho Wolf Field Trip

This weekend Karyn and I delayed our trip to help band hawks at the Idaho Bird Observatory and instead joined Defenders of Wildlife on a photography and wolf watching field trip.  We hope to make it to the bird observatory next weekend.

The Defenders event began with a photography workshop on Thursday night with local wildlife photographer Larry Thorngren.  The photography workshop was oriented more as a best practices session in wildlife photography than as a nuts and bolts photography class. Larry brought his portfolio along for our enjoyment as well.

Saturday was the field trip into the mountains to visit a wolf rendezvous site in the hopes of seeing wolves. A rendezvous site is a location that all of the wolves in a given pack know about and return to. This time of year it is where the pups (born in April) hang out. Later in the year, they may move to a different rendezvous site. For the wolf watching we were joined by an expert wolf biologist who's boss probably didn't want him talking to us.  Wolves are very, very political in this state.

Karyn decided we should take our camper van and stay in the area overnight.  The middle of the day is the least likely time to see wolves, so it warranted staying through the evening and morning to get more action. 

The wolf biologist was very patient educating the group on many aspects of wolves, the Idaho wolf reintroduction, and the current politics. He brought a few wolf pelts, a radio collar, tracking equipment, and demonstrated the trap that he uses to catch and collar wolves. In an interesting move he let the trap close on his hand to demonstrate that it was a reasonable safe way to capture wolves. The important part is to monitor your trap lines as soon as you can.

By the official end of the field trip 3pm, we had only seen one wolf wandering through some far trees. Some of the group had to leave to go back home.  Some stayed late into the evening for better viewing. The photographer had brought his camper and planned to stay with us.  Another woman, who lives just down the street from us, was so excited that she decided to sleep in her car over night. We pitched in some extra gear to make her stay more enjoyable.

On Saturday evening after all but 7 of us had left, 4 wolf pups started playing in the field before us. Two blacks and two grays.  They were too far away for any good photos, but I took some shots anyway. They appeared to be hunting ground squirrels. One adult wandered out of the woods to keep an eye on them.

Click to view full album: DefendersWolfTrip

Later a second adult wolf came out of the trees. All four pups ran over and solicited for food. They do this by taking a submissive posture and licking the mouth of the adult. If the adult had food he/she would have regurgitated it for them. All of the adults in a pack will do this.  It is not limited to the parents of the pups. Generally wolves returning from a hunt will feed the pups and any babysitter wolves who stayed behind. On this occasion it did not appear that there was any food available.

We watched until there was not enough light left to see. It was a beautiful evening, calm with the full moon raising over the meadow.  About 2am in the morning we awoke to a full pack howl.  Maybe they had just returned from a hunt, maybe they were just leaving on one, or maybe they were just howling.

Up before light in the morning, the meadow was covered in fog. We made our way to a slight rise to overlook the area.  Waves of fog were rolling through the meadow.  It was amazing to watch the wave propagate across the meadow and then move back much like ocean waves on the beach.  Once the sun hit the meadow it all lifted.  Unfortunately, there were no wolves to be seen.

On the home a few miles from the meadow we found some very fresh wolf tracks. They were following some very fresh elk tracks!

The various conservation groups have been petitioning the Idaho Fish and Game to establish wildlife viewing areas where wolf hunting would be restricted. Areas available to photographers to take photos or people who have never seen a wolf to watch in wonder as we were doing. Half of our group had never before seen a wild wolf. This is an amazing educational resource that our state possesses. If only our government could realize it. Unfortunately they are still focused solely on the eradication of wolves in Idaho.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Guilty, count one

My jury trial has come to a close, although the experience still lives on.

This is the second time I have sat on a jury.  The first was 19 years ago for a murder trial. On that occasion I spent three weeks in the courtroom and we returned a guilty verdict. While it was not enjoyable from a day to day perspective, the overall experience was very educational and mind opening. For that reason I generally encourage people to participate if provided the "opportunity".

The murder trial from years ago was the result of a prison riot. While it was emotional and did include disturbing content (actual tape recording of the murder itself), the fact that this occurred during a prison riot did provide some isolation from the event.  Justice was critically important, but it was bad guys killing bad guys.  There were no long term emotional implications on me personally.

This recent trial was quite different. The trial involved alleged sexual assault of a 7 year old girl by her father. I cannot think of more disturbing content that could be brought to trial, nor a more serious charge for all parties involved to be filed.

There were two counts brought against the defendant.  The jury found the defendant guilty on the first more serious crime. The second count, a lessor crime on a different date, resulted in a hung jury. The jury was fairly sure that it happened, but we could not agree on the conclusive evidence of the "intent" which was a requirement to convict on the second count.

I first must say that we had an excellent jury. It was filled with intelligent people who all took their responsibility very seriously. They all participated with the desire to learn, understand, and come to the right conclusions. The defendant received remarkable consideration and benefit of the doubt. The hung jury on count two is an example of the teams willingness to listen to each other, consider alternative perspectives, but make personal decisions and to stick by those personal decisions. If "group think" were involved we would have returned guilty on both counts.

I still, days after completion, think about this trial many times per day. I still wake up in the night with dreams about the trial. I still feel sad and depressed daily as a result of what we saw and listened to. I don't believe I will ever forget the sight of an eight year old girl testifying on this particular topic. Tears are coming to my eyes as I write this post.

While I generally consider myself to be an emotionally removed individual, this trial has had an unbelievable impact on my personal mental well being. I kept my outward emotions at bay during the entire trial and deliberation. Hours after the trial completed I was meeting with the teachers assistant for my biology lab. It was there that I first broke down. I am sure that he is wondering what type of whack job student he's teaching. To his credit he handled it very well.

Maybe someday I will look back and determine that I was glad that I participated (as I do with that 19 year old murder trial), but today I cannot imagine that happening. I do feel good that we have prevented future abuses of this child by her father, that we have put a guilty person of the most heinous crime behind bars for a very long time, but the cost to me personally has been and will continue to be very high.

I still think jury duty is a critical role for our society and the values of our constitution, so on that level I will still recommend active participation.  However, my endorsement will be less positive on the personal benefits and perspective gains of the individual.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

School: week 2

It was an exciting second week at school as I can now claim to be a straight A student! That could change any day now, but with my first graded elements in each class complete, I did achieve good scores.

This last week presented the first biology quiz of the semester on which I received a 100% result.  Woo Hoo!!! This next week includes our second biology quiz immediately followed by our first biology lab quiz. My standing could change quickly.

I also received the results of my first writing assignment on which I received a 95%.  This will likely be the greater challenge to maintain than the biology scores.

It was a fun week in biology.  The Tuesday night lab included 3 hours of microscope work exploring the different cell structures of various plants, bacteria, protists, and human cells. The lab included creating the slide samples, observation, then drawing and labeling these observations. Here is my first impressive artistic rendering of the night!


The biology lectures focused on the macromolecules which make up the foundation of cellular life - carbohydrates, nucleic acids, proteins, and lipids. At the end of Thursday's lecture we started into cell theory. On Tuesday will be a biology lecture quiz on two new chapters from the book, followed by a lab quiz.  The labs for Tuesday look interesting as we will explore osmosis and diffusion. It looks to be another very busy session with little time for contemplation.  That's my only complaint about the labs is that they are so packed with activities that there is little time to appreciate what process we are implementing. I guess there is just too much to learn.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Civic responsibility

I won the lottery! Actually I won that occasional lottery whose prize consists of you reporting in to jury duty service. The US Constitution guarantees a Trial by Jury. This jury is intended to be a jury of peers or common citizens.  The result is that citizens are occasionally chosen to fill the role of a juror.

I have been called into jury duty 4 times in my life.  The first, 18 years ago, resulted in me sitting on a 3.5 week murder trial where we found the defendant guilty of his crime.  On the other two occasions I was called in but released that day.  On both occasions I was released as they had chosen a jury before my number was called.

This week my number came up again. I was not called in on Tuesday, but was called to report Wednesday morning. There were just short of 100 people reporting in and my number was 76. The jury would consist of 13 people.  The final deliberation will only be twelve, but they include an alternate in case an emergency occurs for some individual prior to final deliberation. With a number that high I was sure that I would not be placed on the jury.

After our training we entered the courtroom where the judge asked a series of question of the jurors. Jurors started being excused for knowing people involved in the case, having critical work dependencies, scheduled weddings or funerals, or some bias that could affect their participation. A remarkably large number of people were excused. It appeared that many more people were asking to be excused due to bias once they realized the judge was not denying requests.  When this process was done, I was number 39 on the list. Still not likely to be chosen.

We then proceeded into the attorney questioning portion.  Each attorney received 1 hour to question the prospective jurors. When this was done, they each could make a number of eliminations. I was reasonably sure the defense attorney would eliminate me based on my prior experience in returning a guilty verdict. When all was done, I was the 13 and last juror chosen.  The defense attorney was probably out of challenges by that point. The next few days will find me fulfilling one of my constitutional duties for our country.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Barack Obama on science.

The Scientists and Engineers for America, an organization I proudly support, has created a list of critical questions on science which have been posed to all candidates   running for federal office. The congressional candidates are asked 7 questions on Innovation, Climate Change, Energy, Education, Water, Research, and Health. Via the SEA web site you can search for the responses from your local candidates. Find your candidates here. The site also provides a side by side comparison of your candidates responses.

Innovation 2008

Find your candidates,
ask where they stand.

Brought to you by Scientists & Engineers for America

Surprisingly three of the four candidates from my district in Idaho have answered the questionnaire.

Larry LaRocco (Candidate D-ID)
James Risch (Candidate R-ID)

Deborah Holmes (Candidate D-ID-2)

For the presidential candidates there are 14 questions on Innovation, Climate Change, Energy, Education, National Security, Pandemics and Biosecurity, Genetics Research, Stem Cells, Ocean Health, Water, Space, Scientific Integrity, Research, and Health. Last week Barack Obama submitted his answers so that you can read them.  John McCain has not yet submitted his responses.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

The curse of the 4 day vacation

This has been a difficult year for 4 day vacations. Last month our Magruder Corridor mountain tandem tour was cut short due to a mechanical problem with our trailer.  Earlier this month, our 4 day trip to Maine was shortened to 2.5 days. This weekend, our planned 4 days in the mountains was canceled as Karyn has a significant case of what appears to be the flu. Thus, I am declaring that there will be no more 4 day vacations for this household. I guess I just have to take an extra day to make it 5!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

First week of school!

I survived my first week of school. It was an exciting time, full of new experiences, old memories, a few surprises, and some great learning.

As I mentioned in my previous message regarding the first day of class, my technical communications course is uneventful for this first week. I submitted my assignment early and am now waiting to hear back on the score.  I have the second week's assignment complete, but will not submit it until I receive my results from the first assignment.

The main excitement for the week was my biology lecture and lab on Tuesday night. I went to campus early as I was excited to get started. I also wanted to time myself for riding my bike to campus, locking it up in the bike barn and then walking to class. The result is a 10-15 minute bike ride then a 5 minute walk to class.  I passed through the student union building to see about food options. I had brought my own sandwich to eat before class, but I won't always have one. When I finally arrived at the lecture building I realized that there was a coffee shop, sandwich shop, and cafeteria in that building as well. Wow, things have changed since my original school days. Granted that Boise State University is over 10 times the size of my alma mater Willamette University. I would later find a sandwich shop in the science building as well!

As I entered the lecture room for class, I could tell I was hanging out with a bunch of science geeks.  There were 40 people in the room before anyone actually spoke to anyone else. I resemble that remark! I liked the professor and the class.  The professor was very animated and engaging. He not only presented the material from the textbook, but also applied personal experiences and perspectives on the content.  He made his expectations for the class very clear. One surprise is that our quizzes will cover chapters from the text which were covered in the previous lecture and the chapter that has not yet been covered in class. I haven't experienced this approach before.  It clearly sets the expectation that you should keep up to date on your reading.  Not to worry, I am already 6 chapters ahead, but can I stay that way. This first lecture focused on the study of biology, the definition of life, and the philosophy behind the scientific method. Interesting topics since there has been quite a lot of debate recently about the definition of life. Virus' have always been a topic of discussion as they are considered not technically alive from a biology perspective. With the recent discovery of a virus that attacks other viruses, this becomes even more contentious.  The textbook is clear that the cell is the building block of all life, our professor is not so sure.

After the lecture I proceeded over to the lab class. The graduate student teaching the lab is studying raptor biology, he indicated that we could talk raptors any time we wanted. The lab was fast moving, covering 4 different topics today and setting up our semester long experiment into population and resources.  My lab team is a diverse group with a junior chemistry major, a student returning to classes after a few years off, and a non-traditional student like me.  It should be interesting.

I had an interesting experience on my way home. After the lab I rushed over to the bike barn to get my bike, minutes before they close.  Hopefully that 10pm closing isn't a problem for me this semester.  My lab gets out at 9:50pm. Anyway, I was riding home through the park.  This path is narrow and twisty with posts, curbs, and sections of dirt here and there. I have a light on the bike, but it gives a sense of tunnel vision restricting my ability to see beyond what is right in front of me. I didn't know the path well enough to predict which turns were coming.  Of course, I was traveling a little faster than I should have been! No crash, but a close call here and there. I will have to be a bit more careful next week.

On Wednesday night I spent way too much time writing up my pre and post lab assignments for lab 1 and the pre lab assignment for next week.  I will have to get more efficient.  I am confident that I put more effort into mine than anyone else in the class. Definitely more effort than I would have put into it when I was first in school.

Thursday's biology lecture covered the chemical building blocks of life. This was mostly a refresher for me as I had a year of chemistry in college. Next Tuesday we have our first quiz. I actually plan to study for it.  The professor is also giving us 50 extra credit points for participating in a scientific survey twice this semester.  That's just over 5% of our grade.  I will of course be participating in that.

In another sign that the world has changed, each professor and each syllabus has clearly stated the expectation regarding academic conduct. Sometime more than once. I don't know if this is because cheating has become a bigger problem or if they are just more sensitive to it. I don't remember this being emphasized or being an issue when I was in school.  Maybe its just my memory fading.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

First day of class!

The first day of classes is finally here! Today is my first official day back in school pursuing training for my Encore Career in Biology/Ecology. I have been waiting for 6 months for this day to arrive.

It seems to me that I have been blogging a lot about this topic, but I cannot help myself. This is the most significant career step I have taken in the last 20 years and I cannot wait to get started. I haven't given up my previous career just yet, but it feels liberating to be working on a new path.

I made the decision nearly six months ago to finally take the leap back into school.  I had thought about it for a while, but the time had come to make it happen. With my interest in birds and wildlife, Biology was the natural focus. I chose Boise State University due to its proximity to my house.  I can walk or ride my bike! They appear to have a fairly strong program, especially in Ornithology. The acceptance process was quite easy as they have no testing requirements for seeking a second bachelors degree. I am officially enrolled in a degree program for a Bachelors of Science degree in Biology with an emphasis in Ecology.  I will need 52 credit to graduate.

Since I have no official Biology background, the first year will involve getting some of the key requirements out of the way.  The foundation of my first semester is General Biology 191 and Lab. I am also completing the communications requirement by enrolling in ENGL 202 Technical Communication.

The first official day of school is a bit anti-climactic. I won't actually travel to campus. My Biology class doesn't meet until Tuesday. My communications course is a web course so there are no classes to attend. In fact over the weekend I completed the assignments for the first two weeks of the communications class. It doesn't hurt to be ahead of the game.  Tomorrow is the first big day with my Biology Lecture followed by the Biology Lab.

I traveled to campus last week to reserve a spot and a locker in the bike barn (indoor locked bike storage, way cool!). While filling out the paperwork the lady repeatedly referred to me as a faculty member.  I had told her twice that I was a student. Probably won't be the last time. I appear to be older than my advisor as well. I do expect other non-traditional students in my Biology class as it was the only evening section.  I will soon find out.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Gotta Love Blue

As I get ready for the beginning of school next week I am still thinking about what my emphasis will be. I am enrolled in a Bachelor's degree program at Boise State in Biology with an emphasis in Ecology, but I must still choose a taxonomy focus of my ecology work. The choices include Entomology, Ornithology, Vertebrate Natural History, Mammalogy, or Aquatic Entomology.  I might take more than one.  The likely choices include Ornithology (birds) or Mammalogy, although my recent fascination with parasites could influence this.

I have started to monitor the new research coming out in these areas looking for interesting papers. This will help me understand what the research is like and what I might be most interested in. This has been aided by the fact that I now have online access to a very large selection of scientific journals through the university library.  One of the many perks of being a student, free bus passes being another!

I have found a few papers on interesting topics, but some have been way over my head. One interesting Ornithology paper I found in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology is titled Maternal investment in eggs is affected by male feet colour and breeding conditions in the blue-footed booby, Sula nebouxii.

Dentressangle, F., Boeck, L., Torres, R. (2008). Maternal investment in eggs is affected by male feet colour and breeding conditions in the blue-footed booby, Sula nebouxii. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology DOI: 10.1007/s00265-008-0620-6

The research builds on previous research regarding a female's ability to manipulate the resource investment in eggs when the health of her mate is in question. Reproduction requires a significant investment in resources.  It was hypothesized that if a female knew that her mate's health was in question, that she might decrease the investment in subsequent egg production. In blue-footed boobies the male helps to feed the chicks.  If the male were not to survive, or his health was declining due to lack of food, then the chicks survival would be in question. Decreasing resource commitment to a second egg could increase the survival rate of the first egg.  This seems like a reasonable hypothesis, but does the female observe this and does she have the physiology to control the resource investment in subsequent eggs?

The study tracked many mating pairs of blue-footed boobies in two separate years, one with good breeding conditions and one with poor breed conditions. They captured males from each of the experimental pairs within 24 hours of the first egg being laid and painted their feet to decrease the brightness (11.18% decrease in maximum reflectance and 46.4% decrease in total reflectance). The decrease in brightness was still within the natural color ranges of blue-footed boobies. They also established a control population with no color modification in the male's feet. The study then tracked the egg size, egg density, yolk androstenedione and testosterone and compared the experimental group against the control group.

The results were significant.  Female boobies whose mates had duller colored feet decreased egg size, decreased egg volume, and delayed the laying of the second egg as compared to the control group.  The androgens and testosterone were not statistically affected (although breeding conditions year to year did have a significant effect).

All three factors are believed to affect the survivability of the chicks. Smaller, low density eggs have a lower chance of hatching. The smaller size and the delay in the second egg will make any chicks that do hatch less competitive with the first chick from the brood, giving the first chick an advantage and the second a disadvantage. This likely increases the chance that in poor conditions that at least one chick (the first) will survive.

I found this a very interesting study which opens the door for even further research - does this truly increase survivability of the first chick (evolution would indicate that it is highly likely), which other environmental factors have an effect, how common is this among other species of birds, etc.

Maybe Ornithology should be my focus. I'll have to find a Mammalogy paper to balance this out...

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