Friday, February 20, 2009

North American Bird Phenology Program

This just in, from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center:

North American Bird Phenology Program
After much anticipation, we are excited to announce the launch of The North American Bird Phenology Program (BPP) online data entry system! Through this new online program, volunteers from around the world can register on the website and begin transcribing historical bird arrival records into our online database which were originally scanned in the BPP office.

What is the BPP?
The BPP is working to understand the scale of global climate change and how it is affecting birds across North America. This is the oldest and longest running bird monitoring program in the country, currently housing six million records dating back to the early 1880's. The program, started in 1880 by Wells W. Cooke, collected bird observations by over 3,000 citizen scientists and came to an end in 1970, until we revived the program during the last year. The records document bird migration arrival and departure dates from around North America; an unparalleled and untapped resource, but one in which we need your help to modernize.

How can you get involved?
The BPP relies solely on volunteers to scan images of the migration cards and transcribe them into our database. We accept participants from all ages and backgrounds. AND you can participate from the comfort of your own home! We need your help!

Online participants must register online. There you can learn more about the transcription process and register to become a transcriber. After you register, you will receive a confirmation email which will then take you through a 15 minute training video and back to the website to begin transcription.

Also, If you are in the Baltimore-Washington area and would like to help
the crew of volunteers in the BPP office to help with scanning and working with the historic files we welcome you to come and take part in this program. We even have Saturday hours!

Individuals, families, and small groups are welcome to help so if you are interested in helping discover how spring and fall arrival times of birds have changed since the 1880's, and I hope you are, please visit us on the web or call (301) 487-5745.

Birders are well aware of the stories being told from long-running projects like the North American Breeding Bird Survey and the Christmas Bird Count, who knows what tales are documented in these cards. It's a good bet there are a myriad of interesting trends buried here that will come to light once everything is digitized, please volunteer if you can!


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Mysterious Affair at Amherst, Chapter II

The cloudless sky allowed the light of the waning gibbous moon to illuminate the fields. The killer was awake, nerves heightened by the upcoming hunt, but he remained steadfast in his methodology. Though he had rested through the afternoon, through the evening, he had remained preternaturally alert to any outside disturbances.

He casually watched a family of deer walk within a few feet of his hiding place, browsing on the cedars. He had already spotted his next victim. She was beautiful by all accounts, most remarked on her eyes. They were expressive and wide, giving the air of wisdom. Some were amused that she perpetually appeared surprised.

She shook off the wind with a shiver, an extended flourish. Even her involuntary, physiological movements were graceful. He never hesitated, not a moment of appreciation as he attacked. It was over in a heartbeat, she had never even heard him coming.

Her mutilated body was found the next morning, again by a hiker. This time the killer was not watching the discovery, he had fled shortly before dawn. He wasn't far, it wasn't a large island, but he remained comfortably out of sight and away from possible disturbances. The killing didn't affect him, he possessed a steely coldness not only about the process, but to the stir his activities were causing in the local community. In fact, he was completely indifferent to the follow-up investigations and the media coverage, aspects most serial killers vigilantly pursued. He could not have cared less.

Ultimately, four bodies would be discovered over twelve days. If he had cared to comment he would have shrugged it off. After all, what will they say when they find the others?


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Great Backyard Bird Count

If you read more than two or three bird-related blogs you probably already know the data collection portion of the Great Backyard Bird Count took place last weekend between February 13 - 16. The data reporting portion continues until March 01, so if you collected any checklists be sure to submit your findings!

We were somewhat limited in our counting this year, compared to past years when we've submitted multiple checklists each day from our home, local nature centers, friend's homes, and wherever we happened to spend 15 minutes to count. This year we managed a few checklists from our home throughout the four-day count, not including four failed attempts at getting an owl (any owl!) to call.

But I find there are two equally exciting parts to the GBBC. First, getting outside and counting, and then exploring the results. We've been having fun checking out the maps as they're updated. One of the highlights of this year's count: Pine Siskin, this season a staple at not only in our yard, but apparently (almost) everyone's feeders. Small bird, big impact - you may have read about their presence on bird listserves or blogs, but check out what it looks like on a map.

BAM! Colorful and explosive! At the siskin page on the GBBC site you can generate the same map (which will be updated as new checklists are submitted) and go back in time to compare previous years. The differences are striking, and a great jumping off point to talk about bird distribution with young ones.

What interesting results have you found, either in your personal count(s) or the accumulated data?


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Entangled Banks

I recently discovered a folder of photos tucked away in a corner of my hard drive, images taken during a two-week Alaskan vacation that stretched from the Kenai Peninsula to Fairbanks. We decided to tread deep rather than broad, opting to spend less time in the car and more time on the ground, hiking, camping, nature-watching, taking in the culture, the history, and the diversity.

As with any album of photos, memories reaching far beyond those images came flooding back. I recognized a thread running through those images, one that stretched from downtown Anchorage to the back-country wilderness. That thread starts and ends with Charles Darwin.

Darwin's Theory Bar, Anchorage, AKDarwin's Theory, also a bar on G Street in Anchorage. The bar gained
wider notoriety when mentioned in "Cut it Out" (Indigo Girls).

One thought revolved around his writing. It's undeniably dense, as in Victorian-dense. Perhaps heretical to suggest, but I can't be alone in thinking he would have benefited from a copy of Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style." I know I shouldn't cast that stone, if you've visited this blog before you know I haven't cracked my copy in years. Further, Darwin was publishing On the Origin of Species (not the full title)* 100 years before E.B. White jumped in and popularized William Strunk's "forty-three page summation."

Hoary Marmot, Marmota caligataA Hoary Marmot seems to survey the diversity covering
the Kenai Peninsula, which included us that morning.

But how many have actually read anything Charles Darwin wrote? It's tough going. I liken it to forcing one's way through a field overgrown with shrubs and vines - an entangled bank, to borrow an analogy. One Darwin scholar stated, "often you have to read a whole chapter to know what he is talking about." It's no wonder no one reads Darwin anymore, and that causes problems.

Dog Vomit, Fuligo septicaA slime mold commonly known as "Dog Vomit," almost stepped on while
hiking to Exit Glacier. Life comes in all shapes, sizes, forms, and textures.

First, Darwin is assigned quotes he never wrote. Many know the famous line,

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

The shortest of attention spans get through that one, and it nicely encapsulates a concept. The problem arises when we discover that it apparently does not appear in any of his writings. As this article suggests, people feel welcome to create such quotable lines because Darwin didn't write any.

Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensisA Savannah Sparrow utilizes his favorite perch near his nest at
Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge in Fairbanks.

The bigger problem: this "Darwinesque" quote doesn't capture what Darwin was trying to convey.

It is not the species that are most responsive to change that are likely to survive, (Cambridge professor John van Wyhe) explained. "It is the ones that are lucky, or already have the right features that can be passed on to the next generation."

Of course, having an audience not versed in Darwin makes it easier to build a straw man argument to knock down, inflaming public opinion. That frustrates me, but it's not where I want to go right now.

Coral Fungi, possibly Fuligo septicaCoral fungi emerging underneath moss below the forest understory.

To understand the concepts, to appreciate the beauty, to fully grasp how painstakingly careful he was in observing the natural world, noting patterns, assembling ideas, and (finally) publishing, reading the source is so important. Yes, it's hard in the world we live in, the age of sound bytes, abridged books-on-tape, 30-minute sitcoms, and the mindless chatter that is talk radio, but it's worth it.

Red-necked Grebe, Podiceps grisegenaA Red-necked Grebe on its nest at Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage.

What you'll find in Darwin's writings is cutting edge. It's revolutionary, it's parsimonious, it's timeless. The idea is elegant, solid. It provides the intellectual framework that every branch of biology hangs from, and it gracefully supports them all. That's not to say Darwin's idea was finished. Much needed to be filled in light of new discoveries (like the entire field of genetics), there have been adjustments made to and arguments against the mechanisms he proposed, but it's not been replaced.

Bunchberry, Cornus canadensisBunchberry growing at Nancy Lakes Recreation Area in the Susitna River Valley.

That is the way science works, and a Theory that endures 150 years (and counting) of rigorous testing is something, obviously, for the ages. 150 years later his Victorian prose remains invigorating, maybe not for the sentence structure, impressively long sentences, and liberal use of commas and semi-colons, but certainly for the ideas encapsulated within.

Steller Sea Lion, Eumetopias jubatusSteller Sea Lions grace a rocky island in Resurrection Bay.

His fabled tangled bank sprawled out before us during a picturesque hike on our first Alaska morning. Thick vegetation impeded leaving the trail, but life was bursting all around us. Intertwined branches held leaves of various shapes, sizes, and shades of green. The songs of Wilson's and Orange-crowned Warblers, of White-crowned and Fox Sparrows, were heard, though the birds seldom seen. Insects of many forms were omnipresent, wildflowers of nearly every color carpeted the open areas.

A view of the Exit Glacier, part of the Harding Ice Field,
surrounded by the beauty created by biological diversity
- the origin of which was proposed by Charles Darwin.

Cheesy as I am, I wanted to say something aloud, something deep and meaningful. I wanted to quote Darwin, but couldn't recall his words, only the concept. Now, on the 200th anniversary of his birth I will leave them here, as they elevate every simple natural observation to a level of grandeur.

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. . . . There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Thank you, and Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin.

* Full title of Darwin's seminal work: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Mysterious Affair at Amherst, Chapter I

The north shore of Lake Ontario is frigid in the winter months, January the coldest month of all. The strong south wind, cooled by the ice-covered lake, blew onshore with near gale-force gusts. The woods provided enough shelter that it was actually comfortable within the grove of evergreens.

Alex stared at the body, mortified at the sight. The state of the body made it clear it was no longer alive. The internal organs were fully exposed, the head bent at an unnatural angle. The ferocity of the presumed attack was almost frightening. Alex pulled off his backpack, eyes never leaving the frozen victim.

The killer sat silently, watching Alex approach the body. Slowly turning his head, he surveyed the area. Satisfied they were alone in the woods he turned his attention back to the scene unfolding before him. He was content to watch, leaving the newcomer to investigate and hurry off through the woods a short time later. He closed his eyes to rest, knowing the urge to kill would come again, sooner than expected.

It always did.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Mysterious Affair at Amherst

The Beginning
Stepping carefully, snow crunching under his insulated Timberland boots, the lone hiker made his way through a stand of leafless aspen and birch trees. The layer of ice beneath the new-fallen snow required a shorter gait, one necessitating a short slide after placing each foot. This is more like skating than hiking, he grumbled, knowing winter's icy grip wouldn't acquiesce anytime soon.

Emerging from the woods he paused to scan an open field, eying the patch of evergreens at the far end. He fervently hoped the tightly-packed trees would mean easier walking once he ducked under their overhanging branches. Before starting across the field he noticed the quiet. The chickadees and jays from the woods had moved elsewhere, only his breathing broke the silence. He carefully started across the field.

Where the trail met the woods it split into three directions. He pondered each as he scanned through the trees, envisioning paths that would allow minimal disturbance. He started off to the west. Minutes later he turned a slow circle, thinking how easy it would be to get lost if you weren't paying attention. Bread crumbs and pebbles crossed his mind.

That's when he noticed the body.

To be continued . . . .

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