Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Pleistocene Epoch takes a great leap backward...

The Geological Society of America (GSA) released its new Geological Time Scale April 9, 2009. Overnight, the Pleistocene Epoch is much older, by definition!

This is GSA's first full time scale revision in 25 years. The new revision did not await final resolution and international consensus. Debate continues among researches within the International Commission on Statigraphy, an international body meant to gain international time scale uniformity. The GSA chart anticipates changes likely to come as this debate settles.

According to GSA...

"Some aspects of the GSA Geologic Time Scale do not conform to the recommendations of the International Commission on Stratigraphy. The names “Tertiary” and “Pre-cambrian” were not dropped on the new time scale. The Quaternary, the status and boundaries of which are still being debated, was modified to reflect some of the pending recommendations. These differences were retained to best reflect the needs of GSA members and Divisions."

Principal among important changes; The Pleistocene Epoch now begins at 2.6 million years ago. That's 0.8 million years earlier than before. The start of the Pleistocene Epoch marks the time when significant climate cooling resulted in significant changes in the fossil record (among other changes).

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Educators gather, Leave No Trace...

Learning and teaching outdoor ethics and skills...

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics advocates sustainable outdoor recreation practiced using methods which greatly reduce visitor impacts to natural areas. The organization's mission is tightly focused on development and promotion of trainings and activities supporting outdoor ethics and skills through ascending scales of involvement. They have built an army of trainers and that army is on the march.

Outdoor ethics and skills, the road show...

This Subaru Tribeca is the Leave No Trace Traveling Trainers program vehicle. Subaru, a leader in green production, makes the Leave No Trace Traveling Trainers program possible through generous corporate giving. Subaru has pledged sustaining, multi-year funds to help LNT build core programs. They offer great deals to LNT membership, too!

A gathering of outdoor educators...

Outdoor Educators from four neighboring states representing diverse groups ranging from the Wilderness Education Association (WEA) to The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) gathered at BSA's beautiful Camp Lazarus near Delaware, Ohio to conference and catch-up on the latest advances and worldwide news about Leave No Trace progress and recent efforts, April 3-5, 2009. The conference was gathered and organized by Ohio's Leave No Trace State Advocate, Don Nash, of University Heights (Cleveland), and hosted by BSA's Simon Kenton Council Conservation Committee led by Chairperson and event co-organizer, Jackie Bain (your blogger's amazing wife) of Delaware County.

Leave No Trace programs support science-guided training...

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics gathers and guides resources; financial contributions, patron and partnership support, membership support, volunteer efforts, and professional and academic work product to support growing worldwide trainings offered by volunteers and professionals. Trainings are guided by ongoing academic research into reducing user impacts in our great outdoors while promoting outdoor recreation and values.

The "authority of the resource" sets Leave No Trace guidance apart from many environmental action groups and movements offering guidance based on less reliable philosophies. Researchers, led by recreation ecologists, bring research results to educators and work with educators to interpret and to translate findings into activity-based trainings. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics supports extraordinary integrative collaboration.

"'authority of the resource' sets Leave No Trace apart from many environmental action groups"

The integration of professional science and professional education with citizen science and citizen educators to influence widespread cultural practices in outdoors settings is a unique approach and a potent brew for stemming the upset caused by repeated misuse of our recreational environments.

"The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics supports extraordinary integrative collaboration."

The Subaru Traveling Trainers Team joined the gathering, too. JD Tanner and Emily Ressler, professional trainers, travel throughout North America (eastern mostly, this is their third year on the road) delivering trainings and building ethics and skills among school children and adults alike.

Traveling Trainers, JD Tanner (right front, with pin-flags bundle), and Emily Ressler (middle, with pin flags) introduce conference participants to a vivid demonstration of the impact of frequent casual toilet practices around a popular remote campsite.

Participants plant bright pin-flags on the spots they might have chosen for a convenient toilet spot if they had been camping nearby for a period of time, without LNT values. This activity helps participants visualize the need for sound management of toilet practices in many busy remote settings like popular wilderness campsites, and it illustrates why frontcountry park and camp users should walk the extra twenty-yards to the campground latrine.

A little history...

Early efforts to reduce human impacts centered on big obvious (often roadside) insults like accidental fire and purposeful littering. These earliest efforts to influence human impacts on public wild lands focused on narrowly defined challenges using 'poster-child' images, mascots, or caricatures and slogans. These familiar early caricatures are iconic today, and still in use.

The early appeals tweaked emotions, particularly among youth. This 'warm--fuzzy' model was first introduced broadly by the USDA Forest Service with the adoption of their cuddly little mascot, "Smokey Bear" during 1944. Today's experienced outdoor educators grew up with a young Smokey Bear and his old slogan,

"ONLY YOU can prevent forest fires."

Today, Smokey Bear is middle-aged and his deep gravelly voice-over is provided by a popular screen actor. His 21st Century slogan is worded a little differently for a new generation of forest managers who regularly use fire as an important natural area management tool. Beginning in April of 2002 Smokey's slogan became:

"Only YOU can prevent wild fires."

A short commercial spot, seen frequently lately, brings our mature Smokey into the lives and conscience of today's youth. Our modern Smokey Bear has his own website, too!

Another early mascot (1970's) addressed litter through our mythical wise owl, Woodsy,

"Give a Hoot--don't pollute!"

Woodsy Owl has enjoyed a make-over, too. He has a new look and a new broader slogan,

"Lend a hand--care for the land!"

Our expanding transportation system during the 50's and 60's, culminating in the completion of the Interstate Highway System, brought the wilderness into reach for many families, hunters and fishermen, and adventurous youth. Old style high-impact camping approaches entered our remote wild lands along with proliferating new cars, trailers, and sundry accouterments supporting a gasoline-powered onslaught of impacts. New environmental impacts followed...

Slogans and images meant to reduce litter and other impacts proliferated and were posted throughout public areas ("Take only pictures--leave only footprints."). Federal land-holding agencies during the 60's--90's increasingly worked together to unify efforts.

A new era of cooperation and effectiveness began with the new century and with the Leave No Trace organization.

A new message and a new method for a new era...

Today's Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is an independent non-profit organization, a direct descendant of the earlier multiple-agency efforts to reduce abuses in the backcountry and wilderness. And, it's a hybrid. A new partner, The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) brought new leadership and professional educators to the problem of impacts during the 1990's and developed comprehensive skills-based approaches which informed inter-agency task forces searching for solutions.

Today, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is fully independent of federal agencies (no government funding) and reaches further and deeper into our recreation practices than all earlier approaches to managing human impacts in natural settings.

An army of educators...

The Leave No Trace training effort is reducing impacts from millions of visit-days in public outdoor settings, particularly in backcounrty and wilderness areas. Volunteer and professional educators take the message to outdoor enthusiasts through a network of state advocates coordinating trainer-trainers known as LNT Master Educators. Master Educators train Leave No Trace Trainers. Leave No Trace Trainers offer public meeting presentations, awareness workshops, youth group programs, school programs, and mentoring.

Leave No Trace programs for frontcountry...

Frontcountry programs developed by Leave No Trace are all about Conservation of Recreation Spaces. Our roadside parks and other public areas are developed and hardened with roadways, manicured trails, toilet facilities, and turf so these frequently visited areas can sustain high traffic while remaining natural. Even so, the user impacts to frontcountry public areas are often serious. Frontcountry outdoor recreation spaces are the best places to introduce concepts for reducing impacts everywhere.

Outdoor ethics in practice...

Your blogger held the after lunch agenda block so we offered a walk-and-talk to explore for user impacts and to discuss possible training approaches to reduce impacts. Along the way we introduced and practiced a 'recognition model' guided walk aimed at helping hikers learn and practice Leave No Trace skills in our frontcountry camp setting. We gathered outside the camp dining hall where we discussed the Three R's of the recognition model, Remind, Recognize, Recommend. The recognition model is not an LNT-developed approach (though there are many similarities), rather it stems from a body of literature guiding skills-based training (coaching models) used in industrial settings.

"the Three R's...Remind--Recognize--Recommend"

Remind frontcountry (or wilderness) users of their immediate opportunities to reduce impacts...

We began by reminding hikers of immediate opportunities to practice simple skills leading to reduced impacts on the frontcountry camp, such as stepping on durable surfaces, (remind is not the same as correct--reminders are opportunities reviewed before the action, not unwelcome corrections along the way).

We invited everyone to talk about what LNT skills "look like" when practiced. For example, stepping in the muddy trail-center to avoid stepping off trail--a high impact practice that leads to trail spread--you know--when the trail loops wider and wider to each side as the center mud puddle grows). Building outdoor ethics requires introducing principles, then reinforcing them through practice. Acknowledging and talking about specific skills during training sessions is a great way to develop and reinforce outdoor skills along the way.

Next, hikers paired-up to offer casual recognition to one another when seeing ongoing skills practiced during the hike. While we talked, before departure, we passed around a box of ziplock bags to help carry out any litter we might find along the way--a great reminder to pick up litter!

" about what outdoor skills 'look like' when practiced."

Conference participants examine impacts of 86 years of recreation at venerable Camp Lazarus while practicing using a 'recognition model' for reinforcing skills.

Recognize frontcountry (or wilderness) users practicing skills along the trail and in camp...

While we hiked around camp to study the cumulative impacts of 86 years of very heavy use by youth and adults recreating in the great outdoors, we talked about the challenge of bringing lots of traffic into the natural setting of a nature-based camp without losing the nature in the natural setting. Conversation about "durable surfaces" and other concepts was interrupted (by design) by frequent individual and group recognitions,

"Thanks for picking up that plastic bottle."

"Thanks for stepping in that trail puddle to avoid trail-widening and side-trails impacts!"

The group quickly recognized the power of simple acknowledgment, a casual,

"Thank you"

The phrase, "Thank you" and other simple acknowledgments are powerful tools for reinforcing simple skills used along the trail.

We found the camp well designed with durable but permeable roads and trails, copious turf for running and playing and team sports, and plenty of well preserved natural landscapes inter-fingering along forested drains, bringing nature close in. We found 'hardened' surfaces designed to sustain traffic, and we found compacted surfaces in need of recovery. Most of the impacts observed centered on camper compliance with required camp methods such as proper ash disposal, avoiding casual trail development, and migrating campfire rings. These common camp problems are solvable through developing outdoor ethics and skills!

"The group quickly recognized the power of a simple acknowledgment.'"

Recommend ideas to frontcountry users to help them plan ahead and prepare...

Recommend frontcountry (or wilderness) visit dates, route ideas, and equipment suggestions to aid users in their planning and preparations for their future visits: And, recommend frontcountry park and camp maintenance and management needs to assist camp and park professionals (for example; a brush pile to block a feeder trail to an informal social trail network forming on a steep shale slope).

Discussing "lessons learned" captures important ideas for preparing for future visits. When we ask outdoor users to use reduced impact approaches, and they try, they discover roadblocks. Recommendations can help remove personal roadblocks and make frontcountry areas more user-friendly for reduced impacts.

One great example of a personal recommendation from our hike was trying-out rubber-bottom boots. Rubber-bottom type boots or trail shoes keep your feet dry when you step through trail-puddles.

The popularity of expensive designer sneakers and hiking shoes is one important cause of increased trail-widening and new trail short-cuts in my opinion. Hikers wearing clean expensive designer sneakers or sophisticated trail shoes usually go to great effort (way off trail) to keep their expensive shoes clean and dry--their shoes are part of their 'look', on trail and off. They need to keep them clean for the restaurant they will visit later in the evening. Rubber-bottom boots or shoes stay on trail--mud is no problem. I just hose-off my rubber-bottom boots when I get home.

Obtaining proper equipment for walking Ohio's often muddy trails is part of the first principle of Leave No Trace, Plan Ahead and Prepare!

L.L.Bean's Maine Hunting Shoe is a longtime favorite of outdoors people, including your blogger (my boots pictured). They will always be in-style as far as we're concerned. These watertight boot designs are comfortable, breathe and protect, and they are great footwear for Ohio's muddy spring and fall landscapes where slopes are not too steep. The rubber chain-link tread is easy on both durable and not so durable surfaces. They don't pick up a lot of mud like deep tread soles. Hikers can confidently walk through deep puddles and along the durable surfaces of gravelly streambeds to avoid side-stepping, causing trail-spread, or to leave no trace on undisturbed off-trail areas by stepping the streambed gravel. The boot's soles are non-marring, too (the soles don't leave scuff-marks on rocks as you scramble over their durable surfaces).

Venerable outdoor supplier, L.L.Bean Inc., is a 2009 Special Projects Partner and longtime supporter of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Partnerships between outdoor gear suppliers and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics are vital for continued success.

Next we returned to the dining hall for more great programming and networking to conclude a successful summit of outdoor educators.

About forty-five people participated in the conference, odds are we'll do it again next year for even more LNT advocates!

The LNT message is summarized in Seven Principles:

Plan Ahead and Prepare
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
Dispose of Waste Properly
Leave What You Find
Minimize Campfire Impacts
Respect Wildlife
Be Considerate of Other Visitors

See my post from May 5, 2008 for more about Leave No Trace and a Leave No Trace Master Educator Course.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Florida revisted...

For my father, whose borrowed elements have returned to the biosphere.

Thomas D. Bain Jr.

Solace in nature...

Sunrise over Merritt Island where the Space Shuttle is prepped and waiting to slip the surly bonds of Earth, center horizon.

Manatee browsing algae along riverside rip-rap, Haulover Canal, Merritt Island.
These gentle giants barely ripple the surface of warm water rivers and springs they visit during wintertime.

A Reddish Egret dancing-up dinner along the shallows of a Merritt Island lagoon.

This live oak, festooned with Spanish moss and resurrection fern, was a large tree when fabled Naturalist William Bartram is said to have passed by during his travels in 1774.

Gopher tortoise at home on remnant ancient sand dunes of the Lake Wales Ridge, central Florida. This 14 inch animal may be over sixty years old.

Florida Scrub Jay. Gangs of rare jays find young pine clearcuts a substitute for diminishing oak scrub.

Native oak scrub (at right), one of the most endangered habitats in Florida, supports more endemic species than any other. Citrus at left. We are looking down slope from the crest of the Lake Wales Ridge toward Archibold Biological Research Station, near Avon Lake, central Florida.

Florida oranges brighten breakfast tables everywhere. Oak scrub endemics are dozed aside to make room for citrus as demand continues.

Crested Caracara at nest site (between billboards), Moore Haven, Florida.

So many families thread connections to Florida from around the United States and Canada, the place has become a central element in the tapestry of the American experience. Aged generations move there for warm retirement, younger generations follow for fun and sun. Native flora and fauna move aside or integrate along the margins of human habitats.

Many families; Snowbirds and vacation visitors, know Florida only marginally; the beaches, the roadsides, the social environments and cultural attractions. My family is firmly threaded in this tapestry, but I was fortunate to have been introduced to the depths of the Florida experience; the plants, the birds, the mammals, the geology and fossils, and a little history. My grandfather and father reached into the sands, the skies, and the waters of Florida. I have followed them. Florida is a remarkable place, the more so beyond the margins.

My connections with Florida began during my teen years visiting grandparents wintering in Daytona. My father followed them, building and retiring in Sebring, Florida. I have followed for family and natural history visits, but I will not pursue retirement there where there is now too little room for me with surviving native species. I will visit again and again with my son and I hope he will know, appreciate, and help to protect natural Florida.

Lawn art, life-size Aluminum wildlife (non-native) for sale.

Visitors, transplants, and immigrants bring their diverse arrays of cultural influences into the depths of Florida. More and more habitat is taken for human environments, increasingly artificial and surficial. Still, there is much of native Florida left to inspire young and old, and many wonderful people pulling together for habitat for all.

Tom Bain Jr. standing on a ladder leading to service on one of many Habitat homes he helped to build with Florida families.

Tom Bain Jr. was born into that muscular post-war generation that wrestled abundant living from global tensions and globalizing prosperity. Dad rounded his life by helping to build scores of homes in central Florida, working with the generous folks of Habitat for Humanity, Highlands County, Florida. Dad, full of years--full of experience, slipped the surly bonds of Earth March 8, 2009.

Contributions in Dad's name to Habitat for Humanity are greatly appreciated by the Bain family and by many deserving Florida families helping to build their own futures.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The making of a "trail tree"...

Natural systems create bemusing natural phenomena. Trees, in their many wonderful forms, are beautiful natural sculptures, bemusing and inspiring us.

We find local "trail trees" among the mix of tree damage types in a wind-shear zone...

A small "trail tree" type. A wind damage survivor.

Here in central Ohio, where the glaciated flatlands meet the linear north--south river valleys formed by glacial drainage, we find zones of heavy wind damage among forest trees. These damage zones follow the upper slopes where the flatlands ramp downward along fairly steep flanks to the river valleys below. Frequent wind-shear along these slopes causes recurrent timber damage. Observers can see multiple episodes of shear damage preserved in trees of different age classes. Wintertime is the best time to look for damage patterns among forest trees.

We made another visit to Bent Tree Trail, Amy Clark/Bader Bird Sanctuary, Preservation Parks of Delaware County, to chase birds, check for signs of Spring, and ponder the bemusing shapes of the many damaged trees found along the trail.

We brought along our camera to shoot a sequence illustrating natural development of contorted trees into shapes known as "trail trees."

Stage one...

About a year ago, a windstorm felled a large dead tree over the trunk of a smaller living tree. The smaller tree was struck high, bending it over without uprooting the tree or snapping-off its trunk. A smaller tree to its right did not withstand the blow, its trunk snapped several feet above the ground. The surviving tree is pinned in a near-horizontal position, held between the felled tree and another larger tree.

Stage two...

A living small branch of the pinned tree re-oriented and grew toward the sunlight, against gravity, and shot upward with vigorous growth during one growing season. Growth inhibitors manufactured by canopy leaves had suppressing growth of low branches like this one until the crown was pushed down, away from sunlight. The new growth is now the dominate growth. The pinned crown has withered and is dying.

Stage three...

A nearby tree exhibits a later stage along the development path our pinned tree will likely follow as it survives future decades. This tree was pinned, I'm guessing, twenty years ago. A small branch originally well below the crown became its new dominate growth (apical dominance) as it recovered from the insult. The original crown, and the segment of tree trunk feeding the original crown, are now gone. A naval scar (ring-scar) is all that remains of the withered trunk and crown.

Stage three continued...

My lovely field assistant brightens the forest with her smile as she stands in for scale (my wife, Jackie). Maybe I'd better say that I'm HER field assistant...

Folklore suggests that Native Americans made "trail trees" (A.K.A. "signal trees," "warning trees," "compass trees," "boundary trees," and so on...) by tying down saplings so they would survive to grow pointing in the direction of a trail or toward an important resource, a spring or a landing for a portage trail, and so on.

Some enthusiasts suggest Native Americans had a secret method of creating the cubby-hole (the ring-scar seen in the photograph above) by inserting a piece of charcoal or some secret concoction that made the tree grow a hollow they would latter use to leave secret totems, messages, and the like. This young tree made its own cubby-hole without assistance from humans (unless some secret practitioner of the lost art of cubby-hole creation still prowls our forests--anything is possible).

Stage four...

Another nearby tree exhibits a much later stage along the development path our pinned tree will likely follow, if it survives many future decades. This old survivor is much too young to have been the project of a Native American trail-blazer. It too is a product of wind damage. Nevertheless, it illustrates the potential for survival after violent paroxysms mangle trees, whatever the origin of the damage. The open trunk of this tree suggests it may not survive another decade or two, but who knows.

Countless examples of all stages of "trail tree" development are scattered throughout our Eastern Deciduous Forest. I've seen hundreds of examples at all stages of development, far prettier than those pictured above (I'm going to have to start carrying a camera all the time). Some "trail trees" are so perfectly formed, they seem to approach artistic expression. At first, it seems these beautiful trees must surely result from intervention by human beings.

Through time, and broadening experience, I've encountered many trees exhibiting a complete continuum of development of these contorted shapes, all randomly distributed throughout the forests I've visited--though more frequently found in recurrent windfall areas such as wind-shear zones or along steep slopes with loose eroding soil. Nature makes "trail trees." You may label me skeptical, but my skepticism results from thousands of hours of work and recreation in our forests while pursuing professional and avocational projects.

The folklore of "trail trees" is fun, and it's very understandable. Check-out the many Internet sites offering pictures of these beautiful and bemusing trees. Large trees are inspiring regardless of personal beliefs.

Checking-out the natural mechanisms creating such beautiful mysteries is even more fun. Nature does not need our help to create beautiful mysteries.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Asteroid gadfly...

Earth experienced an extra-terrestrial near-miss a couple of days ago. Asteroid 2009 DD45 surprised observers. Asteroids known and unknown gadfly humanity.

Asteroid Itokawa, Credit & Copyright ISAS, JAXA.
Picture of the Day, May 22, 2007.
Asteroids, like this giant studied by Japanese researchers, are big chunks of early solar system rock moving at very high speeds in eccentric orbits around the Sun. This one is much larger than our recent gadfly, Asteroid 2009 DD45.

Asteroid 2009 DD45 unexpectedly whizzed close by Earth a couple of days ago, giving just a couple of days warning. Closest approach came less than five Earth diameters away. The lump of rock was between 19 and 43 meters across--more than big enough to equal the Tunguska Event, a massive air blast over Siberia which leveled 800 square miles of ancient Siberian forest in 1908. Most investigators think the Tunguska Event resulted from the explosion of a similar size asteroid as it entered the atmosphere.

Today, the impact of an asteroid of this size would result in human and economic, and natural catastrophe, wherever it occurred, whether or not we saw it coming.

The time scale of human life, even that of human civilization, is small compared to the frequency of catastrophic impacts of all sorts, both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial. The geological record is punctuated by countless catastrophes.

Even as we reflect on the occasions of the 200 year anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, and the 150 year anniversary of the publishing of his On the Origin of Species; do we fail to fully encompass the stochastic nature of change that resulted in today's diversity and distribution of life?

Charles Lyell, geologist, proponent of "uniformitarianism," published his influential three volume Principles of Geology in 1830-1833. He gave Darwin deep time in which to operate his slow agents of change. And, he gave us all the next best thing to no change at all--gradualism, slow change we can live with comfortably.

If our lives spanned millennia rather than decades, maybe we'd have a better grasp of the importance of the sudden hiccups that shake things up and change outcomes globally. Maybe then we would encompass the meteoric speed of change Homo sapiens has brought, and the Earth-changing impact of that collision.

Asteroid 2009 DD45 details can be found at Tom's Asteroid Flybys Webpage.

See goodSchist for a discussion of asteroids and cosmic precursors for life: Cerces, Dawn and (no) Panspermia.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Winter wings over The Wilds...

Bundled birders rendezvous with raptors at The Wilds.

Red-tailed Hawk pushing through its first power stroke after leaving a perch at The Wilds.
Photo by Mike Maier, Photographer, Avian Expressions.

Record low temperature did not dissuade hardy birds or the hard-core birders determined to discover them at The Wilds. About one-hundred and fifteen birders gathered with all manner of winged-things wild and free for the Ohio Ornithological Society's (OOS) 4th annual winter raptor rendezvous at The Wilds, January 17.

Bulky-bundled birders exhaled swirling breath-clouds into piercing sub-zero air while gathering in The Wilds' visitor's center parking lot to organize eight field teams early in the morning (my vehicle thermometer dropped to 12 below zero Fahrenheit while passing through low hollows among surrounding hills).

Birding teams were dispatched in rotation through eight breezy observation areas by OOS organizers Marc Nolls and Cheryl Harner to ensure good habitat coverage and good birding. Teams canvassed grassy reclaimed hills and swales searching high and low for winged-things wild and free. Raptors were abundant and birders were not disappointed.

A nest box for American Kestrels erected through partnership between OOS, AEP, and The Wilds, overlooking one of the hundreds of frozen reclamation lakes, ponds, and wetlands dotting The Wilds and surrounding American Electric Power's tp://">ReCreation Lands.

Here, at The Wilds, over ten thousand acres of rolling grasslands and shrub-steppe habitat interrupt and diversify the steeply divided deciduous hillsides of eastern Ohio's Allegheny Plateau. Here, open-country birds of the northland find new winter habitat where forests once dominated.

Ninety-percent of the acreage at The Wilds has been surfaced mined for the bituminous coal that powered economic growth during the Baby-boomer heyday in the Midwest. Award-winning reclamation, and partnerships between AEP, The Wilds, and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, inspired by a new era of reclamation legislation in Ohio, resurrected this wild area from a post-mining spoil wasteland to its youthful steppe ecosystem friendly for vertebrates, wild and semi-wild. Today, The Wilds is home to conservation science and research and home to some 29 species of rare mammals from around the world, some no longer found in the wild. The Wilds is a giant research zoo; and, The Wilds is a winter raptor magnet!

Some of the raptors and other birds my group enjoyed seeing:

Golden Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Northern Harrier, Short-eared Owl. Other groups spotted a Merlin, too. Snow Buntings made an appearance. A number of waterfowl kept a small spot of water open below the visitor's center. Among them were Tundra Swan, Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, Mallard, Canada Goose, American Black Duck, Hooded Merganser, and Lesser Scaup.

This event was organized and staffed by generous volunteers with the Ohio Ornithological Society.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Chipping Sparrow endures Ohio winter...

Today, we found an out-of-season Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) subsisting on suet and sunflower seeds at feeders in Hogback Road Nature Preserve, Preservation Parks of Delaware County.

A Chipping Sparrow visiting a suet feeder in Delaware County, central Ohio. The wing toward the camera is drooping, suggesting the bird is injured. The injury may explain why this strongly migratory bird has remained in the north. The gray rump, strong eye-line and superciliary (eye-brow line), and two-toned bill are important fieldmarks.

The 'clincher' fieldmark is found just in front of the eye: The 'lores', between eye and bill is dark, continuing the strong eye-line evident behind the eye. This one fieldmark separates the Chipping Sparrow in winter from other similar species.

Note the wing-bars and streaked crown.

Summertime chippers are more boldly colored. The crown becomes rich chestnut bounded by long white superciliaries and black eye-lines, a striking pattern, to be sure. I look forward to their return every spring.

Chipping Sparrows are familiar springtime and summertime birds of lawn and garden, park lands and cemeteries, throughout Ohio. Their cheery trill announces their spring return with the emergence of showy wildflowers in April. Chippers are likely to nest in your yard and mine annually. With the advancing season their strong migratory impulse compels them to move well south of Ohio, most leaving by late October. Very few linger into December. January records are accidental to casual in Ohio. Warming climate and the proliferation of feeding stations are two possible reasons more and more Chipping Sparrows are reported each winter in Ohio and other northern states.

A view of crown and nape detail.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

"Squirrel plagues" and 'side-hunts'...

American history as presented to elementary students offers an heroic view of wilderness settlement. Our founding fathers and pioneer ancestors "carved" civilization from trackless "wastes" as they "conquered" wilderness North America; its flora and fauna and its native peoples were swept aside. They called it progress. We celebrate these "victories" still.

Conversion of North American ecosystems to support agriculture and development continues today, though our values and our challenges have changed. Today, we seek to preserve and recover remnants of the wilderness and the wildlife now mostly gone while attempting to sustain continued economic growth--the present economic "correction" notwithstanding.

Our pioneer ancestors faced challenges that we can't appreciate, today. Biological abundance was a fact of wild America. Spectacular wildlife populations and vast forests assured a prevailing mythology of inexhaustible abundance. Frequent depredations brought on by overwhelming hordes of gray squirrels or Passenger Pigeons, and some large carnivores, particularly wolves, to row-crops, orchards, and livestock excused excesses; regular slaughters ensued.

Squirrel plagues...

This account of a squirrel migration, by Christian Schultz, is typical of early accounts. He described countless squirrels swimming the Ohio River, or drowning in the attempt, while he floated down the Ohio River during 1807.

The mast forests of eastern North America; our abundant oaks, hickories, chestnuts (formerly abundant), and beech supported huge populations of squirrels and giant flocks of Passenger Pigeons, long ago. White-tailed deer and Wild Turkeys, Ruffed Grouse and Rusty Blackbirds consummed abundant mast, too. Mast trees, particularly the oaks, produced massive crops some years followed by small crops other years, regionally. This boom and bust crop was critical for vertebrate wildlife, and caused population growth, declines, and migrations on a grand scale.

Synchronized masting over large areas ensured superabundant crops would overwhelm ravenous wildlife populations so future forests could seed from mast left behind. Abundant years were followed by years offering hardly any mast. These sometimes unpredictable and irregular masting cycles challenged squirrels, intractably bound to the earth and trees by gravity. Passenger Pigeons, on the other hand, enjoyed the freedom of flight. Massive pigeon flocks simply flew away from barren areas to discover abundant crops elsewhere. When pigeons found a heavy mast, they descended like a "plague of locusts" and devoured it in a "biological storm" of foraging.

This combination of cyclical synchronized masts and random "biological storms" occasionally left squirrels with empty cupboards, empty stomachs, and an itch to flee to abundance elsewhere: The great squirrel migrations followed. As settlement spread, squirrels were pressed further, and the inevitable intersection with human agriculture followed by crop depredations made these migrations "plagues" in the view of settlers.


Local pioneers gathered seasonally for spirited competitions to see which 'side' could kill the most squirrels, pigeons, deer, rattle snakes, or a mixed-bag. The objective of these 'side-hunts' often centered on a local scourge, frequently superabundant squirrels, and anything else passing in front of their gun sights.

Frontier hunts were important social gatherings where men exhibited their hunting prowess, and women and families sometimes gathered to barbecue the bag, put-up food, and consider future pairings. The results of frontier side-hunts occasionally made newsprint, if first-hand reports made their way to distant printers.

An 1801 'side-hunt' for squirrels, near Lexington, Kentucky, was reported in an early regional paper printed in Chillicothe, Ohio:

Scioto Gazette vol.II No.58 Thursday, May 28 1801.

Lexington, (Kentucky) May 18.


"On the 8th inft. the citizens of the

counties of Mercer and Lincoln, had

a hunting match, for a barbacue. The

match was to have been 25 hunters on

each fide, but only about 20 on a fide

met ; in the courfe of the day, they kil

led 5,442 fquirrels, and bets were offered

that the fame company could kill double

that number the day following. We have

the above information from one of the


Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year, naturally...

"And this, our life, exempt from public haunt,
finds tongues in trees,
books in the running brooks,
sermons in stones,
and good in every thing..."

William Shakespeare

Find yourself in nature in 09.