Friday, January 30, 2009

Afternoon Birdwatching

While working on my chemistry homework this afternoon, Karyn suggested I look in the back yard. Perched just above our bird feeders was a young Sharp-shinned Hawk! This is no accident. The Sharp-shin is a small bird predator. This last week the number of Pine Siskins has risen in our yard, which is usually followed by a "Sharpie".

After I completed the homework for the day, we went for a walk on the Owl's Roost trail near our house. We found the male Great Horned Owl hooting to his mate. If we stuck around longer we might have seen them mate. We have observed mating each of the last two years. In fact on valentine's day each of the last two years. Guess where we will spend this valentine's day?

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

The transition

It continues to be an exciting time in my life as I complete the transition from my past 20+ year career as a computer scientist and on to my new career as a biology student.

The transition out of work has been interesting. Clearly after 20.5 years working at the same place, it seems very odd to be at arms length from that community. All of the people I have worked with for many years have been very excited about my change. I don't know if that's because they just want to get rid of me, or if they are truly happy for me. I do assume the latter. My team in India graciously sent me four excellent books for my new endeavor - Where the Wild Things Were, The Race to Save the World's Rarest Bird, Birds In Flight, and The Owl and the Woodpecker. I was incredibly moved by their generosity.  Any way, I have one final work day coming up this Thursday, then I will be gone for good.

I found an interesting article this week. It was featured on the radio show/podcast of Science Friday. The article features The 10 best jobs in America. If this is true, I just gave up the #5 job in America! It's a good thing I am now pursuing the #4 job in America! What an upgrade!

The first week of full time school was very exciting for me. I passed through a series of stresses and emotions through the week. I expect next week will be the same. To start with, I am very excited about my classes - Biology, Chemistry, Ecology, and Ornithology. After the first day I was in a near panic as each professor explained the expectations for the semester. I couldn't believe what I got myself into and how I would possibly get all of the work done. By the end of the week, my confidence had returned. After completing the first few assignments, I determined that a few of the classes wouldn't be as hard as I thought. The Chemistry class was a bit concerning as I had completed the first half 25 years ago. The first day I was a bit lost and worried. After the second day of class, where I was able to help my teammates, and completing the first assignment, I feel much more at ease with my abilities. Ornithology remains a concern for me.  The grading is solely based on examinations. No intermediate assignments to calibrate performance or to balance the grades. It all comes down to the exams. Its a great class though. Only twelve students. We will see how the semester plays out.

This next week the fun begins with my first lab in Ornithology and Ecology on Tuesday, and my first Chemistry lab on Wednesday.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

My legislative priorities

Each year I write a letter to my state legislators explaining some of my priorities as a citizen of Idaho. I am a little bit behind this year as the legislative session began last week. Regardless, here it is.

Dear Legislators,

I am writing to you today to highlight some of my priorities as a citizen of your district. I know that many times you receive very specific feedback on specific legislation being considered. I wanted to provide you an overall view of what is important to me as a citizen in the hopes that it will be useful for you in this difficult session. As always, if you have any specific questions regarding this feedback, please feel free to contact me. This letter will also be posted on my blog at Rob's Idaho Perspective -

My priorities for 2009:

1. Environmental Protection - Idaho has tremendous wildlife and wildlands assets which are constantly under attack. In this poor economy there is even greater push to cut corners and further exploit our lands and our environment. What we must keep in perspective is regardless of the economic conditions today, we still have a stewardship responsibility to protect the world for our children, their children, and so on. Decisions made today can have a dramatic effect on the future of our world.

The most significant threat to our environment is Global Warming. While Idaho cannot solve this problem ourselves, there is much we could do to decrease our contribution to it. With the innovation infrastructure within our state, this could also be a major economic initiative. I suggest both increased personal tax credits for individual installing alternative energy devices and R&D tax credits for companies developing alternative energy technologies.

On a more local level, it is critical that we decrease the pollution in our water from agricultural run-off. I understand this is a difficult issue in our political climate, but this is a critical threat to our environment, the wildlife, and ourselves! We should be working to improve our water resources and not just slow the damage.

If you are looking for a place to save money, you might focus on the killing arm of the Idaho Fish and Game department. We are spending tons of money tracking down and killing wildlife which gets mixed up with ineffective and irresponsible livestock operations. The investment is disproportionate to the risk. With less state protection, livestock operations would have to take some responsibility themselves. There are very effective protection mechanism which are used around the world. Idaho operations don't use them because the state will jump in and spend tens of thousands of dollars hunting down and killing any wildlife which "might" have been involved. It's time we put an end to state subsidies for irresponsible businesses of all types.

I have two even more controversial desires for our state. The first is to restore central Idaho to a complete ecosystem. Idaho is one of only a few places in the lower 48 states where this is still possible. A major gap in the ecosystem is the absence of the grizzly bear. I would like to see them re-introduced to central Idaho along with other native species which may now be missing. Additionally, recent research is pointing out the detrimental effect that trophy hunting has on an ecosystem. I would suggest that a portion of our state be set aside for a hunting free zone so that the environment and the wildlife can be preserved in as natural state as possible. This would be a huge attraction for wildlife watchers, photographers, and ecosystem researchers into the state.

2. Education - I was astounded at the governor's suggestion to cut deeply into education in the state. We already rank near the bottom of all states in per capita investment in education. This will further lower Idaho rankings and have a detrimental effect on the future of our citizens. I understand the difficult times, but education is our only way out of these situations. It should be the last item cut in my opinion. The citizen's support increased education investment as was proven out with the vote to fund the College of Western Idaho.

3. Transportation - I do support the governor's proposal to increase registration fees and fuel tax to cover our shortfall in transportation funding, but would not place it higher than education. I have considered the mile traveled tax, but prefer the fuel tax increase as it provides a built in incentive to drive more efficient vehicles.

I also believe it is time to solve the future of public transportation in Idaho. Many will argue not to spend time on this issue in the bad economic climate. The bottom line is that any work on this issue will not likely effect tax dollars for another year or two anyway. Now is the time to set the foundation of this structure in place. First, the state should repeal the constitutional limitation on spending fuel tax dollars on public transportation. Public transportation is a more effective way to relieve congestion than building more and more lanes on overly crowded roads. I also believe that public transportation is a state issue as well as a local issue. I believe it is time for the state to step up to provide some funding for public transportation, possibly through a matching funds arrangement ensuring local commitment to the system before any dollars are spent. Lastly, it is critical that the state allow local options taxation for the purpose of public transportation. I know that you are aware of this, but only 4 states lack state funding of public transportation while also preventing local option funding.

4. Human Rights - Lastly, I ask that that you work to add sexual orientation and gender identity to Idaho's Human Rights act. This critical protection is desperately needed to protect the citizens of Idaho. I have had friends, co-workers, and employees who live in a constant state of fear that the wrong person will find out that they are gay. They work to not be seen together in public, they cannot attend employee functions with their families, they are forced out of our supposedly "free" society. It is time that you do what you can to change this to make Idaho a state of opportunity for all of our citizens.

There are many other issues I could bring up, but these are my highest priorities. I wish you luck during this difficult session. Feel free to contact me if you have any issues or questions on this content or on any other matter of interest.

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Nasty Inversion

The city of Boise is currently suffering from a nasty inversion. If you have never experienced an inversion count yourself lucky. I had never experienced one until I moved to Boise over 20 years ago. The inversion primarily occurs in the winter when a high pressure system locks all of the air into the valley. Pollution builds up in the valley and gets worse and worse with time. Air quality degrades to the point that they recommend that people stay in doors. The temperature gets colder and more humid. Everyone's mood tends to deteriorate. We all hope for a storm to come through and blow it all away.

For those that participate in outdoor winter sports such as skiing or snowshoeing, there is some relief. As you drive to the ski area you suddenly break through the smog and enter crystal clear blue ski. Today the weather was clear, sunny, and 45 degrees! Nice.

Here is a quick video I took from our house at the base of the mountain, then again 10 miles up the mountain, and again from the ski area. You can see first hand how nice it is up there. Unfortunately, the snow doesn't last long when the temps hit 45 everyday. The weather reports tells us that we have at least 4 more days...

Sunday, January 11, 2009


I've thought a lot about the current rate of extinction within the world. It is currently estimated that "on average, a distinct species of plant or animal becomes extinct every 20 minutes". That's an unbelievably large number. While not all of those extinctions are human caused, the vast majority are. Additionally, 70% of biologists view the present era as part of a mass extinction event, possibly one of the fastest ever. Yet, there is no outrage over this. Its not on the news, it's not the topic of day to day conversation, it rarely surfaces as a side conversation and is then ignored. There are a couple of possible explanations for this. It could be that the vastness of the problem is simply overwhelming, or it could be that people don't really understand the numbers, or it could be that they have no idea on what to do about it, or it could be that they just don't care.

When I think of extinctions I choose to consider specific cases and not the overall number. This allows me to personalize the impact and contemplate what it means for each individual species. There are a couple of specific species which have gripped my mind. The significance of these species is that their story has been told, not just the number. I will relate two such stories here.

I first read about the golden toad in E.O. Wilson's The Future of Life. This is an excellent book for biologists and non-biologists alike. E.O. Wilson is a legendary biologist with a great deal of experience. He tells the story of many species, but one was highlighted, El Sapo Dorado, the golden toad. This golden toad was first discovered near Monteverde in Costa Rica in 1966. This is the only known location of this species. For 20 years there were estimated to be about 1500 toads each year. In 1987 there were over 1500, in 1988 there were 11, in 1989 there was 1. Since May 15, 1989, none have been seen despite very intensive searches. The specific cause of this extinction is not known, but most hypothesis point back to man. Picture that last male toad singing with all its energy trying to attract a mate. Likely unaware that he was the last of the species. That he would never have a chance to mate. That when he died that particular line of evolution's creation would exist no more. And we were the likely cause.

The next story I have heard a few times as well. It was featured on both Birdnote and Science Friday during the last month. The species in a bird known as the Kauai O'o. This bird is endemic to the the Hawaii island of Kauai. Follow the link to listen to its song. The recording is of the last male of the species, singing for a mate. It's a beautiful song that becomes more impactful when you understand the song's dynamics. The song was sung as a duet between the male and female birds. Each gap in the song was to be filled in with the female's counterpoint. When listening with this knowledge, its is incredibly sad. This lone bird sang for two years to find a mate. No other birds existed to fill in the duet. He sang and sang and sang, but no one came. Then he died. Once again, the ecological niche which this species filled is now empty, and we are no better for it.

This is what extinction means to me. It not that an estimated 72 species go extinct every day, or that we are in the next mass extinction event of our own making, its that each and every one of these species has a tale to tell. If we would only listen.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

More bad ski videos

Karyn and I traveled to Sun Valley today for some great cross country skiing. The sky was crystal clear, no wind, the temperature was a perfect 28 degrees, and the snow was awesome. I once again took out my cheap video camera to get some shots.

I should note that last summer this particular camera took a hard fall from the handlebars of our mountain tandem bike where it was mounted. The result is that it has a tendency to cut out and stop filming for no apparent reason (other than this historical crash). Anyway, I did not crash in any of these videos even though the video cuts out without warning.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Close up Juncos

You might remember a post from last week where I highlighted my Holiday Gifts. One of the gifts was a portable photography blind. I haven't been able to get out to put it to a true test, but have played around with it in the backyard. Yesterday, I was able to get photos with about 4 feet of the birds themselves. The blind appeared to work quite well. Here is a photo of a Dark-eyed Junco. (click image to enlarge)


Saturday, January 03, 2009

Playing in the snow

Last summer I had a gift certificate to a local electronics retailer. I decided to buy a cheap video camera with it to try and film some mountain bike rides. That didn't work out so well as I had a difficult time reliably attaching it to my bike or helmet. But that is another story. It's important to note that the camera did survive its sudden contact with earth!

Today, I decided to take the camera up the hill for some skate skiing. I should note that I have no experience with taking video footage. The result is very entertaining. From the way too close up of myself, spit and all, to filming up my nose, to the much too fast panorama, it was all great fun. I found the result quite humorous.

Thanks to BigEddy (Dan) for being the star of the film. Enjoy!

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Life transformations

Today is a very scary, but exciting day for me! I have made a very significant new year's resolution, which has been in the works for some time. In March of last year, I wrote of my evolving mid-life crisis. The result took me back to school to study Biology/Ecology. Just a few weeks back I reported on the success of that first semester.

Today I took the next logical step in the procession. I have officially communicated my intent to become unemployed to my employer, or more appropriately not-employed. A specific date is yet to be negotiated, but will occur some time in January. After 20+ years working for the same company, this is a very significant step. They have treated me very well for many years, but it is now time to move on and contribute in a new area. An area where I have a much deeper personal interest and commitment.

I am registered to return to Boise State University January 20th for a full line up of classes, including 4 labs! My intent is to emphasize community and evolutionary ecology with a focus on field research. This is a deep area of interest of mine and a way that I feel I can best contribute to the world. During the Spring semester I will have coursework in General Biology, General Chemistry, Ecology, and Ornithology. With 4 labs, I expect to be quite busy! My estimated graduation for a B.S. degree in Biology with emphasis in Ecology is sometime in 2010, possibly as early as Spring.

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