How much for that book?

Posted by Kirk Mona Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Have you heard the joke that asks what the difference is between a large pizza and a naturalist?

A large pizza can feed a family of four. 

Basically you have to do this job for the love of it. That means when collecting books I have to be, shall we say, price selective. That leather bound Francis Bacon natural history book from 1631 I saw on eBay for $2500 is not in the cards. (No one bid on it by the way so apparently it wasn't in anyone's price range.)

I have a fairly low dollar amount I never go above for books and while it means that I miss out on many books it also means the ones I do get are a great deal. 

I'll go a little higher on something really spectacular but having a firm budget in mind when you go looking for books is a good idea. 

With that in mind, here are a couple if books I came across that were simply well out of my price range (but wonderful!)

First up is this 1917 gilded edition of Birds of Britain by J. Lewis Bonhote. Look at that cover! I've been known to buy a book just for an exquisite cover. The bird motif is great and the use og gilding got shading on the wings is fantastic. The orange-red cloth boards makes the whole thing pop.

The asking price? Why just $350. Ouch. No thanks. 

Of course, you can get the same book in the 1927 edition without gilding and on boring tan cloth boards for just $23. Kinda boring though once you've seen the one above right?

Sometimes a cover is boring and what's inside is the real treat. That's the case with all of the Naturalist's Library series of book by William Jardine. Published in the early 1800s the drawings are real eye candy. 

Unfortunately, each volume goes into the hundreds of dollars. They are probably a good value but not likely to grace my shelves any time soon. The owl is from a multi-volume set on birds of the UK and the hummingbird from a two volume set on just hummingbirds.

What are your favorite nature books? Let me know!

Bloodthirsty Beavers?

Posted by Kirk Mona Friday, March 28, 2014

Photo Credit: Steve (CC license)
A while back a friend forwarded me an Associated Press story about a man in Belarus who was killed by a beaver. The article was full of references to beavers becoming more aggressive in the region.

Here's a line from the second paragraph of the story, "It was the most serious in a string of beaver attacks on humans in Belarus, as the rodents have turned increasingly aggressive when confronted by humans after wandering near homes, shops and schools."

Really? Are we to believe that beavers are somehow increasing their aggressiveness? Was this what they talked about at the last secret trans-national beaver convention?

Let's take just a second to strip away the sensationalist writing style and practice some actual journalism here. The facts in the story speak for themselves once you ignore the reporter's "when beavers attack" angle to the story.

A fisherman was driving down the road and saw a beaver. He got out of the car and grabbed the beaver so his friends could get a picture of him with it. Naturally, the freaked-out beaver thinking it was under attack fought back by biting the guy. Tragically, the beaver bit into an artery in the man's leg and he bled to death.

I say TRAGICALLY because a tragedy is defined as something horrible that happens that is completely avoidable. The beaver did not aggressively demand to be picked up and then bit the man. If you pick up a wild animal it will usually bite you. People should know better than to try to pick up a wild animal for a photo op.

The beaver didn't flag down the car, open the door and attack the man. Beavers are not becoming more aggressive, people are becoming more disconnected with nature and fail to see that there are consequences for their actions. Let's go back to the second paragraph of the article with some emphasis added my be in bold.

"It was the most serious in a string of beaver attacks on humans in Belarus, as the rodents have turned increasingly aggressive when confronted by humans after wandering near homes, shops and schools."

A more accurate version of this sentence would read, "It was the most serious in a string of beaver injuries to humans in Belarus, as humans have turned increasingly aggressive when confronting beavers wandering near homes, shops and schools."

Beavers have not suddenly snapped and decided to start attacking humans. They have not mysteriously increased their aggression. It is humans that are becoming increasingly aggressive in their confrontations with beavers and as a result the beavers are reacting by defending themselves like they always have.

If you purposeful hit your head against a wall and it hurts should you blame the wall? If the man had failed to wear a life jacket and drown while fishing would there be articles about how the lakes in Belarus are becoming more aggressive and killing people?

Let's all be safe out there. Wild animals are wild, treat them with respect. They are not teddy bears, puppies or kittens. If you don't want to be attacked by wildlife, don't try to grab it, harass it, feed it or get too close. A little common sense goes a long way.

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Rio Grande Valley Day Five: A Cold Day

Posted by Kirk Mona Thursday, March 27, 2014

This is part five of a series of posts on the 2013 Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

One of the great things about going down to Texas in November is that you get a much welcome change in temperature. Just as Minnesota is metaphorically opening the bathrobe and letting in the cold arctic air (not sure I'm comfortable with that metaphor) the good folks down in Texas are still wrapped up in the warm embrace of a tropical floral bathrobe (yes, now I'm sure the metaphor is terrible.)

It's such a nice change in November to step off the plane and into the humid (albeit musty smelling) Harlingen airport. As my friend Birdchick likes to say, "Smells like birds."

With this in mind, I awoke Thursday and dressed according to my expectations.

This is, of course, a horrible idea. One should never dress for their expectations, they should dress according to the weather report.

Apparently I was the only person to listen to the weather report as I nearly froze in my t-shirt and shorts. We met up first thing in the morning with Paula, Annette and Robert at Estero to try for a Black Rail. This was a nearly pointless exercise as by the time we got there it was already light out and our only hope was to be there before dawn. This was not turning out to be the kind of trip where anything was accomplished before dawn. We fruitlessly looked for the rail and failed. It was probably frozen anyhow. Most of the other birders were dressed like they were going birding in the boreal forest. I was doing a very convincing impression of someone in danger of getting gradual hypothermia.

Curt found this tarantula hanging out on the cattails where we were hoping we would find the rail.

On the bright side, I added an early morning lifer at Estero. Back by the alligator pond I stumbled upon a Yellow-crowned Night Heron.

Packing things up at Estero we divided up into a couple of cars and headed for Anzalduas to look for hawks. They wouldn't be up until the day warmed a bit so we weren't in a huge hurry to get there (spoiler alert, it never warmed up.)

In a happy turn of events, once we reached Anzalduas I realized Erik had left his Black Swamp Bird Observatory hoodie in our car. Thanks Erik! Hypothermia averted.

At Anzalduas we met up with artist Catherine Hamilton and her friend Luke Tiller. I hadn't birded with Catherine in years. It was good to hang out but the birds were few and far between.

At this point in the trip we had two goals, one was to see new birds and the second was to photograph birds. To see new birds we had to be strategic about where we went. Anzulduas was our spot to see Gray Hawk. Unfortunately, we couldn't find any.

As we stood in the driving cold wind we did add a green kingfisher to our list as well as Vermillion Flycatcher and House finches. We all got a good chuckle when eBird flagged our sighting of house finches as unusual. Uh, okay.

At this point we needed food. We used our phones to find a well rated Mexican restaurant that Curt said was only five miles away. Perfect!

Erik headed back to the festival with Paul, Robert and Annette to man his booth and we head to lunch with our Texan birding buddy Kelly.

Did Curt's new phone say it was only five miles away? It suddenly said eight, then ten, then fifteen. I was pretty sure he was reading the miles to next turn instead of miles total but we eventually arrived there. It weirdly ended up being the same restaurant that Erik and Paula and Annette ate at earlier in the week.

The food was okay but we'd had to wait and lost out on birding time. Kelly let us in on a little secret. We should have gotten tacos at the gas station.

This seemed like an odd bit of local intel. I'm not used to thinking of the gas station as the go-to place for quality food. If you've seen the quality of the shriveled up hotdogs and taquito rolls on the roller grill at a SuperAmerica, QuikTrip or Holiday Station then you know what I'm talking about. We made a mental note to either thank or berate Kelly later for this advice.

In the late afternoon we spent the last bit of birding back at Estero. Kelly's car was there so we headed back and why not do a little birding since we're there? We wandered around for two hours and tallied a quick 22 species almost all of which we had already seen. I took the opportunity to get some better photos.

This Long-billed thrasher showed up at the feeders.

This Green Jay was also cooperative.

We could have seen more but we were specifically looking for new birds like olive sparrows. No olive sparrows showed up but we did add Hermit Thrush to our Texas list.

We also had a very cool encounter with a new species though not one we could enter into eBird. While walking from the newly acquired RV section of the park to the visitor's center we happened upon two young bobcats!

It had been a slow cold day compared to the rest of the week so we felt the need to cap off the day with a near guaranteed bird. We headed out to look for Green Parakeets. Our inside information told us they would be hanging out in the Holiday Inn parking lot in Harlingen. As the sun set we pulled into the parking lot and sure enough, the whole flock was there.

We only added six new birds to our list all day and it was cold. Still, how could it not be a great day? We saw old friends, we were birding. We were now at 137 for the trip.


Posted by Kirk Mona Wednesday, March 26, 2014

It's maple syrup season and at the end of the day my co-worker and fellow naturalist Brett spotted these awesome sapcicles. A sapcicle is an icicle made of sap. Members of the maple family have sap flowing on warm days in the spring. The sap flows due to a quirk in the structure of maples and is caused by pressure that builds as the result of the freezing and thawing of water in the tree in the spring.

Box elder trees are members of the maple family and their sap flows too. You can even make maple syrup from box elders. This particular tree has several broken branches that were probably nipped off by squirrels. The sap leaking out of the ends of the branches froze into icicles. These sapcicles taste sweet if you break them off. American Indians were probably the first to encounter sapcicles and this discovery may very well be how humans first clued into how to make maple syrup.

(Note: This post contains a video that is not visible to people reading via email. Click here to watch the video.)

Study documents effects of road noise on migrating birds

Posted by Kirk Mona Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What effect do roads have on migrating birds? Scientists have a pretty good feeling that roads impact birds. Indeed, studies have documented fewer birds near busy roads than in other areas but that doesn't really tell us why. There is a problem of confounding factors. While doing an experiment, scientists want to only test one variable at a time. Real roads are full of variables. Are their fewer birds because of the physical presence of cars or the road or is something is missing in the habitat because of the road? Is it just a lack of trees? Do the birds dislike linear open spaces? Are roads naturally placed in locations that coincidentally are also lower in bird diversity? Are there fewer birds because predators use the roads as hunting grounds? Does the traffic noise drive them away?

These are all possibilities and experiments need to be carefully set up to test each factor. Researchers at Boise State University have conducted a new study designed to eliminate all factors except traffic noise to see what effect it has.

Researchers created a virtual road to simulate traffic noise in a roadless area.
Researchers set up a virtual road along Lucky Peak which is near the Idaho Bird Observatory's field site. The virtual road was created with speakers hung on trees to simulate only one variable of roads, traffic noise.

Post doctorial research associate Christopher J.W. McClure said, "We present the first study to experimentally apply traffic noise to a roadless area at a landscape scale, thus avoiding the other confounding aspects of roads present in past studies."

The researchers alternated periods of playing and not playing noise during fall migration and used bird surveys to document differences in bird presence during those times.

“We documented more than a one-quarter decline in bird abundance and almost complete avoidance by some species between noise-on and noise-off periods along the phantom road,” said Jesse R. Barber, assistant professor of biological sciences.

Could this have been a fluke or coincidence? As birders know, migration can be hit or miss. Luckily, the researchers also included control sites in their experiment. Barber states, "There were no such effects at control sites. This suggests that traffic noise is a major driver of the effects of roads on populations of animals.”

In science we need to be careful about drawing conclusions. The researchers say traffic noise is a major driver but this does not mean we can exclude other factors. We need more experiments like this, that only test one variable at a time, to truly understand the big picture of how roads impact birds. What we can say, based on this data, is that traffic noise should be strongly considered by land use managers as they think about bird populations.

“An experimental investigation into the effects of traffic noise on distributions of birds: avoiding the phantom road,” 10.1098/rspb.2013.2290  published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society

This article was based on information in a press release from Boise State University.
Photos courtesy of Boise State University.

Spring Red-winged Blackbirds

Posted by Kirk Mona Monday, March 24, 2014

One of the sure signs spring is here is when the red-winged blackbirds show up. I got a tip that they had shown shown up for the first time on Friday at work while I wasn't there. 

When I came in this Monday morning, sure enough, there were dozens of them flying around and calling like mad. 

It may be snowing out but Happy Spring!

No White After Easter

Posted by Kirk Mona Monday, March 17, 2014

I'm not one to follow the latest fashion trends. I work in a field where blue jeans, hiking boots and a hooded sweatshirt or t-shirt are pretty much worn every day of the year. There's one fashion nugget I've picked up over the years though and that's this bizarre "no white before Easter" nonsense.

My grandmother was a big believer in this. My family isn't religious, we celebrate Easter in strictly the eat brunch and look for eggs manner, but that brunch has always been an opportunity to dress up. I could always count on three things, my grandmother would have a new spring hat, she would be wearing white for the first time in the new year and she would stain those white clothes by dropping ketchup or some similar substance on them.

I've never understood this fascination with white wearing only between certain arbitrary dates. (Nor the desire to eat ketchup while clad in all white for that matter.) I've seen a few interesting theories though.

One is that back when houses were heated with coal it was nearly impossible to wear white any time other than the summer. The amount of soot in the air and on pretty much everything you might tough or sit on when it was cold made white impractical any time buildings were being heated. This seems to make sense but I haven't found any real evidence this is where the tradition came from.

Some people say that white is a fresh summery color and donning white is a signal of a new beginning. White is also, no doubt, a cool color to wear in the summer as it doesn't absorb heat and you feel cooler. Sure, okay, I buy that but how is white not a winter color?

Looking out the window at the end of this long winter, I am sick of white. There is white everywhere. We've melted 16 inches of snow away in the Twin Cities in the last week or so and there are still mountains of the white stuff.

We've even been overrun with white snowy owls. Haven't we had enough?

Apparently not. Here's the latest 48 hour snowfall total model run.

Seriously? More snow? Haven't we had enough? The core of that storm is showing as much as 20 fresh inches of snow on Minnesota. Now, this model is probably overestimating and it looks like most of it will spare the Twin Cities if this track continues but come on. Enough white.

Here's my new fashion advice. Throw away the old model of no white until after Easter. The new model is NO WHITE AFTER EASTER.

I'm done with it. I don't want to see the color white again until next December. Since today is St. Patrick's Day and everyone seems to want to wear green I say keep it up. Not just today, green everyday. Wear your green until nature gets the message. We're done with white.


The Twin Cities Naturalist is a natural history based look at both the Twin Cities and the larger world written by professional naturalist Kirk Mona.


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