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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