Archive for October, 2012

As you wander your local grocery store looking for Halloween candy to buy this year, you might want to consider going green with your selection.  Palm oil is an ingredient in almost every major kind of candy, and its farming can have tremendous, and often irreversible, effects on the natural ecosystems where it is found.  Palm oil comes from reddish pulp of the fruit of the Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis).  This palm is from, and is still largely grown, in the tropical rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.  The clearing of land for Oil Palm plantations causes deforestation, habitat loss (there are many threatened and endangered in the rainforests such as the Orangutan and Sumatran Tiger), and the release of large amounts of greenhouse gasses from not only the burning of downed trees but also from the release of greenhouse gasses from the peat bogs that are frequently found under the soil of tropical rainforests.

A number of candy producers have joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).  The RSPO is an international organization that is committed to insuring that the palm oil that is used in products comes exclusively from sustainable palm oil plantations.  Attached is a document with more information on the RSPO and a list of the candy producers that have joined.  So pick a candy from the list and support sustainable palm oil, and when pass it out to the kids that come to your door on October 31st you can know that not only will not get any tricks that evening, but you have done something for the environment as well.




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A very exciting fossil was just recently found and reported (the journal citation is below)!  Near Grassy Lake in southwestern Alberta, Canada, an ostrich-like ornithomimid has been found that had feathers!  This is the first time a feathered dinosaur has been found anywhere in the western hemisphere.  Fossils of three individuals were found that have the definite impressions of feathers on their bodies.  One was a juvenile animal that seems to have been covered with a fine layer of feathers similar to the down of modern birds.  The other two individuals were both adults.  These ornithomimids have the same downy covering as the juvenile on their bodies, but they also had much larger and longer fealthers on their forelimbs.  These larger feathers have many similarities in structure to the wing feathers of modern birds.  However, these ornithomimids had far to few feathers to fly, and they were far to big to ever be able to get off the ground even if they did have full feathered wings.  This reenforces the idea that feathers first evolved in reponse to a selection pressure other than to fly.

Thurmoregulation has become a front runner in the driving force for feather evolution.  Small animals have a lot of surface area in comparision to their body volume and so tend to loose heat very rapidly when compared to larger animals.  It is not surprising then that most of the feathered dinosaurs that have been found have been small.  Even the largest known feathered dinosaur, Yutyrannus huali, which was a relative of Tyrannosaurus rex,  fits with this pattern since it lived at a time of cimatic cooling.

The presents of the larger feathers on the adult ornithomimids, but not the juvenile, suggests another use.  Wing feathers on modern birds develop very early, with the flight feathers being some the very first fethers adult to grow on a baby bird.  The reversal of this order in the ornithomids found in Alberta suggests that they may have had some function that was only important in adulthood such as signaling or incubation.  I personally find the signaling hypothesis to be the most interesting.  We know that many of the feathered dinosaurs had feathers of a range of colors from white to black to grey to brown to red, so the idea that these colored feathers could have functioned in the same ways that colored feathers do today in birds (territorial displays, mate attraction, etc.) does not seem like a far leap.  it also begins to give a glimps into dinosaur behavior which opens the door to all kinds of questions.

Another aspect of this new find that is exciting is that it was found in sandstone.  Pretty much all the other feathered fossils have been found in very fine shales.  However, sandstone is where most fossils are found.  So finding feathers fossilized in sandstone gives paleontologists hope that many more such fossils may be found then had previously been thought possible.


D. K. Zelenitsky, F. Therrien, G. M. Erickson, C. L. DeBuhr, Y. Kobayashi, D. A. Eberth, F. Hadfield. Feathered Non-Avian Dinosaurs from North America Provide Insight into Wing Origins. Science, 2012; 338 (6106): 510 DOI: 10.1126/science.1225376

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With duck season about to start, I thought it would be a good time discuss duck stamps.  Duck stamps, officially called Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps, are basically a federal permit allowing the holder to go hunting for ducks, geese, and a few other species.  They were authorized under the Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929 to generate funds (a duck stamp costs $15 US) for the acquisition and preservation of wetlands and waterfowl habitat.  Since wetlands are among the most heavily impacted habitats with less than 10% of historic wetland area remaining today.

Hunters actually have to pay a fair bit to go into the marshes to hunt.  The cost of hunting licenses, access permits, state permits, and federal permits (like the duck stamp) all add up.  On top of those fees, every gun and box of ammunition have an extra tax added to their price.  This tax was established by the Pittman-Robertson Act in 1937.  The Pittman-Robertson Act is officially the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, and the revenue generated from this tax is earmarked for habitat rehabilitation and wildlife conservation.  In comparison, birders have to pay very little to enjoy the same wild areas.  Now, hunting has a much more direct impact on the ecosystem than birding, so it makes sense that it should have a higher cost.  But that having been said, birding is not without its own impacts.  The construction of auto tour routes, the air pollution from hundreds of vehicles each year, and the noise and habitat disturbance from the people themselves all impact the birds and their environment to a greater or lesser degree.  So, perhaps it makes sense that birders should pay a bit more too.  Imagine what could happen if there was a tax added to the price of binoculars and bird seed that went straight to the USF&WS or the EPA that could only be used to protect the environment.  Buying a duck stamp could be just such a step.

To buy a duck stamp, you don’t have to be a hunter.  Anyone can buy a stamp and in so doing contribute to the efforts of the USF&WS to protect our wild lands.  A few birders already buy a duck stamp every year.  If all the birders who go out and enjoy seeing flocks of 100,000 Snow Geese in the wetlands throughout the U.S. purchased a duck stamp, it would be a major boon to the funding of wildlife conservation in this country.

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Some species of birds are residents that remain in the same place all year long.  Other species migrate from breeding grounds to wintering grounds and back again.  Of these migrants, some are latitudinal migrants that move from north to south and then south to north, and others are altitudinal migrants that move down-slope in winter to avoid harsh conditions higher up, and then move up-slope in summer to take advantage of the short, but intense, mountain growing season.  Many species have a mix of both resident populations that occur at lower latitudes or altitudes staying put, and other populations of the same species that are migratory and occur at higher latitudes or altitudes which move to warmer areas when they have to.  Some species are nomads that wander across a landscape in search of food with no reliable annual pattern.  And then there are the irruptive species that respond to food and/or weather conditions and can move far outside their usual geographic ranges in order to avoid poor conditions and enjoy favorable conditions.

These irruptive species generally belong to one of the other types of movement groups.  Snowy Owls, for example, are usually residents except for when food is scarce when they can move south quite far into the lower 48 states.  No one is sure why some species are irruptive and other are not; they are scattered across many different bird families, and have all kinds of different natural histories.  Irruptions certainly do not occur every year, and even when they do occur, they can be of different magnitudes, but if they are going to occur it is fall and winter because if food is going to run out, that is when it will happen.  This year we seem to be having a bit of a Red-breasted Nuthatch irruption in the Davis area.  Last year we had only a few of these birds hanging around the Davis area in winter, but now they are of lots of them in Davis and West Sacramento as well.  From what I saw last weekend while visiting my mom in Berkeley, they are having a bit of a Pine Siskin irruption there.  She had a flock of at least 25 birds constantly swarming over her feeders where as I have seen years when there were few to none to none at all in Berkeley.  Last winter we have a significant Evening Grosbeak irruption which was quite unusual.  Since I am studying this species, I got sent a number of recordings of the flight calls that these irruptive birds were making.  Interestingly, the birds that were showing up in the central valley or on the central coast of California were not making the Type 2 flight call that is most commonly found in Sierra Nevada (which is the closest population).  Instead, they all seemed to be making Type 1 flight calls which is generally found in the Pacific Northwest and the central Rockey Mountains!

Tracking these irruptions is not only exciting, but it may be able to tell us about the stability of the habitats that the birds come from.  In this time of rapid global climate change, understanding which habitats are remaining relatively stable and which are not could be very important in bird conservation.

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The Arrival of Fall

A shift in the weather was taken place here in West Sacramento, CA!  For one thing, the temperature has dropped suddenly and dramatically.  Two days ago, it was an uncomfortably warm 95 degrees F, but yesterday it was about ten degrees cooler.  This difference in temperature was accompanied by a constant, moderate strength wind from the west all day long.  And, so far, today seems to be bringing more of the same.  There is certainly a weather system being driven this way by a significant change in atmospheric pressure.   These changes likely signal a final end to summer in central California and the beginning of fall.  It is extremely odd that this should occur as late as October, but it has finally happened.  One of the things that make it so impressive is that it occurred so quickly.  This year, there is no doubt as to the day on which fall began.  It may not have coincided with the autumnal equinox, or the calendar date for when fall was supposed to start.  Nature does not work that way.  But this year, fall did arrive on a particular date, at least here in central California, and that date was the 4th of October.  Happy fall everyone!

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A couple of months ago, I overheard a conversation that a small group of people were having about wolves.  It was amazing to me how uninformed these people were on wolf-related issues.  They were talking about hunting policies and were excited at the prospect of wolves being taken off the Endangered Species List leading to the lifting of those protections.  They were concerned that if someone went out to hunt a wolf, they would have a very hard time.  They seemed to be worried that if a person shot one wolf out of a pack, the rest of the pack would attack the shooter.  To clarify, this is completely untrue.  Wolves are very intelligent animals, certainly smart enough to realize they are not bullet proof.  As a result, when they hear a gunshot, they run away as fast as they can!  One of the reasons that these people were glad that wolf hunting may become legal is because of how large the wolf population has grown to.  To clarify, again, there are about 400 wolves in the whole state of Wyoming at this time.  Considering how large Wyoming is, that is a pretty low density, and Colorado, Montana, and Idaho (which are the other states that have wolf populations of any significant size) are at about the same level or lower.  A final point of discussion in this conversation was the age old, and completely incorrect, argument that by removing or reducing predators, prey populations will benefit.  This has been proven wrong over and over since the time of Aldo Leopold!
The memory of this conversation has been festering in the back of mind ever since it happened.  Wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in the early 90s.  It is discouraging to me that even after about two decades, so much misinformation is being bandied about.  Then, yesterday, I saw on facebook that a friend had posted the article that you will find a link to below.  It is from the New York Times and discusses many of the points that I overheard being so incorrectly represented in that conversation! It does a particularly good job of discussing the last of the issues above.  Namely, why we need predators.  So, take a look at the article and get your wolf facts ready.  You never know when you might need them!


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This past weekend, my wife and I joined the rest of the graduate group that I am in for our annual retreat.  The retreat was a camping trip to Boca Spring campground.  It is a great campground in the eastern Sierra Nevada between Truckee and the Nevada State boarder at about 5900 ft in elevation, and set amongst Ponderosa Pines and the occasional Lodgepole Pine.  Each morning I got up early and went out to do some birding!  On Saturday morning, I walked along forest service roads through the pines and around the edges of wet mountain meadows amidst the sagebrush.  It was simply lovely.  And there was some great birding to be had!  At one point, I heard a Northern Pygmy Owl tooting away not far from me, though I was never able to actually see it.  On a small ridge line, I found a mixed flick that included Mountain Chickadee, Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-breasted Nuthatch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Pygmy Nuthatch.  From what I can remember, this is only the second or third time I have had a three nuthatch species day!  I was quite thrilled!  This flock was moving through the forest along the ridge.  What really struck me was how unevenly the birds were scattered across the forest.  I had found this fair sized flock of birds all in one place, but before and after, walked through forest that looked the same to me and had the same topography, but had no such flocks.  What made that particular small ridge-line so much better than the one to the east or west of it?  On my way back to camp, I got an additional thrill when I heard, and then saw, Evening Grosbeaks in the area!  Back in the campground, there were White-headed Woodpeckers and a small flock of Western Bluebirds.  Also back in camp, a group of Evening Grosbeaks flew right into the trees above us.  There were about eight birds and all the flight calls that I heard were Type 2, which is the dominant Sierra type.
In the afternoon, we visited the Sagehen Creek Reserve.  This is one of the nature reserves run by the University of California.  We were joined by my advisor who gave us a introductory presentation on the birds and habitat of the high Sierra, and then we all went for a walk to see what we could see.  I added Red Crossbill, Pine Siskin, Hairy Woodpecker, and MacGillivray’s Warbler.  We also found an adult Caddisfly.  Not sure of what species, but I am sure that is this first adult caddisfly I have ever seen!  We also found a Comma which is a species of butterfly.

This was a great trip with great birds and other wildlife, and I even got some scouting done for my own research!  I will definitely be returning to the Boca Spring Campground in the future to find my Evening Grosbeaks.

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