Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A New Year is here...

Make a resolution...

To see a world in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

William Blake

It's never too late!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"A Christmas Bird-Census" and "that ornithological millennium"

Ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, Editor of Bird-Lore, the "official organ of the Audubon Societies," revived and revamped a quintessential American frontier tradition, the 'side-hunt', and launched a new millennium for bird conservation, "that ornithological millennium when the value of birds to man will be common knowledge."

Bird-Lore, the "official Audubon Societies publication" at the turn of the 19th Century

Frank M. Chapman launched a new era of public involvement with wildlife a century and eight years ago. The December 1900 issue of Bird-Lore (Volume 2, Number 6) carried Chapman's proposal to a growing readership of popular conservationists, particularly women:

"Now Bird-Lore proposes a new kind of Christmas side hunt, in the form of a Christmas bird-census, and we hope that all our readers who have the opportunity will aid us in making it a success by spending a portion of Christmas Day with the birds and sending a report of their 'hunt' to Bird-Lore before they retire that night."

Chapman's genius was to reawaken a popular frontier social event, long past, by way of substitution, a gathering for a bird count in place of a bird and wildlife shoot.

Chapman explained,
"It was not many years ago that Sportsmen were accustomed to meet on Christmas Day, 'choose sides,' and then, as representatives of the two bands resulting, hie them into the fields and woods on the cheerful mission of killing practically everything in fur or feathers that crossed their path--if they could.
These exceptional opportunities for winning the laurels of the chase were termed 'side-hunts,' and reports of the hundreds of non-game birds which were sometimes slaughtered during a single hunt were often published in our leading sportsman's journals, with perhaps a word of editorial commendation for the winning side."

Chapman continued,
"We are not certain that the side hunt is wholly a thing of the past, but we feel assured that no reputable sportsman's journal of today would venture to publish an account of one, unless it were to condemn it; and this very radical change of tone is one of the significant signs of the times."

Competitive indiscriminate hunts, side-hunts, for all manner of winged and wild things already were mostly a thing of the past, in large part, a victim of the Sportsman's ethics movement that had increasingly vilified indiscriminate slaughter during the later decades of the 19th Century. Side-hunts were a frontier phenomenon; they were tamed as the frontier was tamed.

Sportsmen were prominent among leaders of the early conservation movement. Up until the late 1800's nearly all conservationists were Sportsmen, and visa verse. There were social divisions over hunting wildlife during those times, but these divisions were not so much between hunters and non-hunters as between recreational sportsmen and the massive commercial kills of market gunners and pot-hunters feeding the public hunger for food and fashion among America's exploding population.

Legions of ladies launched a new century of bird conservation...

Chapman made poster-children of colorful birds, and engaged a growing army of concerned women to battle the millinery trade which fueled massive worldwide bird kills for colorful and elegant quills to adorn stylish ladies' hats. Extravagant urban bonnets might feature whole birds and even their nests with eggs arranged atop a fashionable lady's head!

Popular reaction to costly slaughter of birds for bird-adorned hats may have resulted in much more than the elimination of bird quills from bonnets; public reaction to the slaughter of beautiful birds moved a generation toward conservation and environmental concerns beyond birds and wildlife.

The Condor 3 (March 1901), 55.

A cartoon published in The Condor, a leading ornithologist's journal, pictured Chapman leading an army of women!

Chapman was buoyed by successes during that "red-letter year," 1900, which brought several giant leaps in bird conservation, capped-off by passage of the Lacy Act, the first federal law criminalizing the interstate transport of illegally acquired wildlife for sale.

Chapman's genius engaged conservation-minded people in conservation-related actions from active protest to bird-counting. This was a great leap forward from parlor-gossip and editorializing.

The first Christmas Bird Count was held Christmas Day 1900 by 27 participants in 25 locations throughout North America. The count did not immediately attract legions of bird watchers, but grew steadily, and over time became more structured and pervasive.

Today, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count (the CBC) is the largest and longest-running wildlife census, ever. This year's count period between December 14 and January 5 will involve close to 60,000 birders in thousands of counts worldwide (mostly in North America) in the 109th consecutive CBC. The CBC is an important social event for birders and naturalists, annually, much as were the seasonal side-hunts of frontier America.

Hats-off to Frank Chapman and the men and women who launched the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, and to all who helped to curtail the mass slaughter of North America's wildlife so that we may know it today!

Friday, December 19, 2008

2008: What a cool year...

It's official, 2008 was the coolest year this century! Several major worldwide climate monitoring networks have recorded the subtle cooling. The cooling is not being felt everywhere, but here in the Midwest United States it's definitely noticeable, and it's a relief.

But, wait: 2008 was very warm compared with the 20th Century. It was the 9th warmest year since 1880 according to Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (Giss). I guess we are just getting used to the balmy greenhouse climate of the 21st Century.

Global warming has not reversed, but we are getting a breather from the really warm preceding decade as La Nina, a minor climate cycle driven by Pacific Ocean temperature and current flow variations, wanes. Her partner, El Nino, is full of hot air and may be just around the corner: Fingers crossed. Let's hope the cool trend lasts a while longer.

"Peter Scott, head of climate monitoring and attribution at the UK Met Office of which the Hadley Centre is a part, suggested that in previous decades 2008 would have stood out as unusually warm."

Quoted by the BBC, speaking of 1998, the warmest year on record, Scott suggests, ""Human influence, particularly emission of greenhouse gases, has greatly increased the chance of having such warm years," he said.""

Rising greenhouse gases and exceptionally strong El Nino conditions pushed thermometers to an average of about 14.52C for 1998.

The ten warmest years since 1880:
1998 - 14.52C
2005 - 14.48C
2003 - 14.46C
2002 - 14.46C
2004 - 14.43C
2006 - 14.42C
2007 - 14.40C
2001 - 14.40C
1997 - 14.36C
2008 - 14.31C
Data: Met Office Hadley Centre

A BTU conserved is more than a BTU earned!

Read more from the BBC here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Great white squirrel...

Well, not really white...

A golden-white fox squirrel visiting our Delaware County, Ohio yard.

This beautiful fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) was a one-day wonder, it did not return. One fuzzy photo was all I could manage.

The leucistic* fox squirrel visited our yard recently, envious of the feeding station access our local gang of four fox squirrels enjoy. Its repeated attempts to approach our feeding station failed. The locals were decidedly unfriendly! This squirrel appears to lack some dark pigments but retains others.

* I use the term leucistic as a catch-all for all light-side pigment irregularities, reserving the term "albinistic" for completely white, red-eye wonders with two recessive genes causing total lack of pigmentation. I'll welcome a recently published reference offering a set of definitions clarifying descriptive and genetic terminology about these integument irregularities.

Monday, December 8, 2008

FLOW through a winter watershed hike...

FLOW members (Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed) hike Deer Run through Camp Lazarus.

Wintertime opens our temperate landscapes for easier viewing while deciduous leaves are down. Landscapes and landforms are much easier to see when they are not veiled under summertime green. This is the best time to explore geology. Members of FLOW joined Jackie and I in exploring the fresh white winter landscape and geology of Camp Lazarus Saturday, December 6.

Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed exploring Camp Lazarus. Left to right; Joe Brehm, Joanne Leussing, Megan Zale, Mike Welsh, Greg Hostetler, Joanne Wissler, Rich Wissler, your blogger. Photo by Jackie

FLOW is a 501C3 non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Lower Olentangy River watershed quality while hyper-development spreads through the watershed's landscape. They partner with stakeholders and work with decision-makers to guide responsible development of the watershed to protect watershed resources for all of us.

Jackie is Education Coordinator with Preservation Parks of Delaware County, and an occasional host of FLOW hikes. I joined the hike to offer geoecological insights and just to explore and have fun with fellow naturalists.

We hiked Deer Run, a small tributary of the Olentangy River south of Delaware, Ohio from near its origin along State Route 23 near the entrance to BSA's venerable Camp Lazarus, to its junction with Lazarus Run near the Olentangy River terrace.*

Topographic map of Lazarus Run and Deer Run, Delaware County, Ohio. Lazarus Run courses east-west. Deer Run joins from the north. The Olentangy River at far left.

Snow fell throughout our two-hour scramble along the steep waterway. Birds were mostly quiet, the usual cast of characters made brief appearances, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Dark-eyed Junco, Eastern Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadee, and so on. Squirrels and cub scouts were abundant.

Our walk assembled on glacial till, a flatish ground moraine left by the last ice sheet at least fifteen thousand years ago. The ground moraine supports remnant vernal pools, dry this time of year. Scattered pin oaks flag the dry vernal pools area. Shagbark hickories and a few shellbark hickories mark the slightly drier areas.

A constant crunch of hickory nuts underfoot announced a really abundant mast crop this year. Sugar maple and American beech thrive among red oaks and scattered white oaks as we approached the steepening slopes. Soon we stepped off of the thin ground moraine and onto slopes formed of shale bedrock. Oaks dominated the steep dry shale slopes.

It's a fairly short walk behind the camp nature center to where the slope begins to increase as the terrain descends westward toward the Olentangy River 120 feet below. Deer Run begins as a small drain easily straddled by a hiker near the roadway. It's dammed along a short segment for a small pond used by scouts for nature programming, then it runs free to the Olentangy River.

Deer Run deepens and steepens dramatically over a short distance. Its steep youthful profile exhibits the rapid down-cutting and headward erosion caused by the rapid cutting of the Olentangy River Valley.

Geologically speaking, Deer Run formed fast and furious and continues to form, today, more slowly. Its meandering path suggests it first found its course on a fairly uniform and low slope moraine surface before down-cutting quickly deepened the channel, greatly slowing meander-widening.

Glacial meltwater cut the Olentangy River Valley quickly through about ninety feet of shale bedrock, the Ohio Shale and the Olentangy Shale, then through about thirty feet of Delaware Limestone, a silty dark limestone with fossil beds. The resistant Columbus Limestone beneath it greatly slowed down-cutting as it is a very resistant bedrock.

The geo-speak for the pattern of watercourses in this area is "consequent drainage." It happened this way: The Olentangy River Valley formed as the Wisconsin ice sheet (or earlier ice sheet**) melted, its channel carried immense volumes of water and glacial outwash sediments southward to the Scioto River. While draining the huge volume of meltwater the river eroded deeply quickly, forming steep slopes flanking its course. Drainage along these steep slopes quickly consolidated into the tributaries we recognize today which cut down quickly to keep pace with the deepening Olentangy.

Along the way we noted the jointed (regularly fractured) Ohio Shale and we snapped pieces of fresh black shale from the streambed to smell the organic echo of long ago life (The Ohio Shale here was deposited about 365 million years ago). The Ohio Shale is 30 percent organic by volume.

The streambed was littered with glacial erratics, rocks not of the immediate area, which were originally left in moraine high above, and since have eroded free and rolled or slid downslope to the streambeds.

Our journey continued to the geological contact between the Ohio Shale and the gray silty Olentangy Shale, then back up slope through the camp.

The geological contact between two bedrock formations where Deer Run joins Lazarus Run. Above, the brownish weathered organic Ohio Shale formation. Below, the grayish silty Olentangy Shale formation. This is a sharp contact exhibiting abrupt change in sedimentary conditions.

Watch the Preservation Parks of Delaware County website and the Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed website for future opportunities to explore Delaware County nature and geology.

*Camp Lazarus is private property. Permission must be obtained in advance from The Boy Scouts of America to visit the camp.

**At least four major ice sheets advanced into Central Ohio based on sediments described. More ice sheets probably visited the area before these but their sediments do not survive to be described. The original formation of the Olentangy River Valley might have occurred much earlier. The valley might have been cut into bedrock, then filled with glacial sediments, then eroded again several times during the Pleistocene.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Crossbills and kames, nomads from the north...

We visit with White-winged Crossbills visiting a "marble orchard" on a glacial kame in Wyandot County, Ohio...

White-winged Crossbills feasting on hemlock seeds, Oak Hill Cemetery, Wyandot County, Ohio.

Old fashioned cemeteries are great birding spots, and there's something touching about beautiful birds visiting our beloved. Oak Hill Cemetery, located a few miles due south of Upper Sandusky, Wyandot County, Ohio is a great example, a wintergreen garden full of mature spruce, hemlock, and arbor vitae. Just find the community of Upper Sandusky, Ohio, then leave town going south on Route 67 a short distance to county highway 119. Go left on 119 to the first curve and enter at the gate.

Birding begins as you drive along the gravel entry passing a long hedge of tall arbor vitae ("tree of life") watching for Pine Siskins. Next, head for the nearest magnificent spruce and hemlock trees shading the "marble orchard" (That's areal photo interpreter jargon for old cemeteries, often placed on glacial kames. Kames really 'pop' when viewing 3D stereo images for terrain analysis. Cemeteries were often placed on hilly glacial kames as were orchards--both uses required well-drained soils).

Monday, Jackie and I, with naturalist Kim Banks stopped by Oak Hill Cemetery to glimpse the visiting White-winged Crossbills reported by Rick Counts and others on the Ohio Birds listserv this weekend. Rick was there and he commented that he'd been stopping by this cemetery for ten years looking for birds; perseverance pays! Through birder generosity and the internet, we all net benefit.

We saw a flock of crossbills as soon as we entered the cemetery, even before we could lower our windows to hear their cheery calls. We followed the flock to a large hemlock where birders already had them staked out. We got the low-down as we approached the observers, Ben Warner was there with Rick. There were about 40 birds total, earlier, including a Red Crossbill in the morning, and a few Pine Siskins, too.

We saw at least two flocks of White-winged Crossbills during our visit. The larger flock of 26 birds included both sexes and cooperated nicely. Red-bellied Woodpeckers were vocal, too. The red-bellied's are local but the crossbills are rare visiting nomads moving south to the tune of melodies we can't hear, but we think they are conducted by the northern cone crop cycles and such. This year is shaping up as a good invasion year--watch the listserv for a sighting near you!

Our most rewarding sighting unfolds like this: First, we hear cheery calls as a noisy flock wheels overhead passing this evergreen and that until they choose a cone-laden tree to visit. They drop in, spreading throughout the treetop and vanishing instantly among the green boughs. Next, we approach the tree and scan. Soon we begin seeing one crossbill after another high in the tree. Their antics tickle smiles across our faces. There are lots of raspberry males and limey females busily wedging cone scales. They bring to mind little parrots, the way they cling in all manner of positions, bouncing and swaying in the wind, while getting at the cones.

As time passes we see more and more as they descend the outer boughs of the evergreen, lower and lower, until nearly in reach; these guys are tame. Rick comments, "I bet these guys have never seen a human." They are seeing plenty at Oak Hill Cemetery, the word is out.

Ohio's landscape offers interested observers limitless lessons in glacial geology. It's Glacial Geology 101 everywhere you look. Geology is womb to biological diversity, even when humans intervene with evergreens. This cemetery was placed long ago by people who had to dig graves the old fashioned way, by hand. Like many older cemeteries in central Ohio, it's on a steep-sided glacial deposit, a pile of sand and gravel called a kame. Kames are ice-contact stratified drift, that's geo-parlance for water sorted coarse sediments deposited in irregular piles or terraces at the snouts of melting ice sheets.

Cemeteries often sprout on glacial kames, and grow glossy headstones and tall evergreens thanks to our cultural practices! The crossbills are attracted by the evergreens we plant, our symbols of everlasting life growing alongside our loved lost, and the birds are fed as we are comforted!

Glacial kames often grow prairie plants, too, a flora preserved in remnants today only because these cemeteries have unkempt brushy margins. These are search-central for rare plant hounds looking for new records of remnant prairie flora. Here's a tip, look closely at those hard to mow steep slopes, especially along the margins of those out-of-the-way plastic flower dumps found nearby every cemetery! I'll bet locals named this pretty spot "Oak Hill Cemetery" because it was formerly a bur oak savannah.

Glacial kames are nomads moving to a different drummer. Their scale of motion is measured in ten-thousand year intervals, a glacial pace. They are nomads nevertheless. Their rocky mix is carried from the north and left piled until the next ice sheet advance punches its travel ticket for a more southerly location. Ice sheets will came again. Our sins will be erased, and North America will begin again (less a lot of today's species), so sayeth those pesky geologists.