Category Archives: Nature

Oceans & Fisheries loses out to another agency again, an environmental journalist gets sacked, and PostMedia does something truly outrageous.

river bank ice 1Since my Feb 19th blog about the National Energy Board being poised to assume responsibilities for fish and fish habitat, I’ve learned that the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is doing much the same thing, that is, it has signalled its intention to take over the protection of fish from the Federal Department of Oceans and Fisheries (DFO).

If this were an isolated event in an otherwise healthy approach to the environment, one might be tempted to chalk it up to rational planning, but environmental protections are involved in a multi-vehicle car crash right now, and this is yet another insidious example of how deep and wide Harper’s assault on science really is.

Other dismaying events, this one involving the private sector: PostMedia cut loose Mike de Souza, one of Canada’s outstanding environmental reporters,  when the media company took a truncheon to its Ottawa Bureau. This quickly followed a devastating article by Jenny Uechi and Matthew Millar in the Vancouver Observer on a cozy deal PostMedia had struck with the petroleum industry to promote the primacy of energy (read fossil fuels) through all its media outlets. So count that as two dismaying events.

Now for the details.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has signaled its intention to assume powers under the Fisheries Act according to a CNSC and DFO Memorandum: Arrangements of this kind used to be described as conflicts of interest. But this one is touted as adding “clarity and consistency to decision-making” and “improving the efficiency and effectiveness of regulatory reviews” for nuclear facilities, uranium mines and mills.

Snow man with dog 2This conflation of environment/industry processes means fish have lost an advocate. Any clarity arising from this arrangement (but not transparency obviously) comes from burying  protections for fish in inter-office memos. And this handover is only one step away: DFO only retains its authority “until such time as CNSC is prescribed the person or entity who would be authorized to issue Fisheries Act authorizations.”

PostMedia, the Petroleum Industry and Mike de Souza: No one would position PostMedia in the left/liberal-leaning side of the spectrum, nonetheless its reporting on the environment has included the breaking of important stories, and leading the pack of responsible reporters was Mike de Souza.

De Souza’s employment ended abruptly on February 4th, when PostMedia announced the downsizing of its Ottawa Bureau and the melding of its remaining operations with that of the Ottawa Citizen. Reporters Andrea Hill and Tobi Cohen were also let go.

These firings happened to coincide with the Vancouver Observer publishing a stunning story about a collaboration between PostMedia and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers to “bring energy to the forefront of our national conversation.” Was this timing a coincidence?

According to a power point presentation explaining the deal, the National Post’s publisher Douglas Kelly promises his paper will “undertake to leverage all means editorially, technically and creatively to further this critical conversation.”

How can any reasonable person be expected to not see this deal as contaminating the independence of the paper’s and PostMedia’s editorial content? It goes well beyond the usual project placement/advertising/marketing agreement that a party might strike with the advertising department of a newspaper.

We need more journalists and fewer media hacks. We need real journalists, whatever the political stripe of their employers.

Speaking of political stripes, pushing the environment, the economy and science through the funnel of resource-based development isn’t necessarily a natural for conservatives. Those great looming right-wing figures, Margaret Thatcher and Newt Gingrich were both strong believers in supporting basic science and lots of it. This, plus other well–argued insights can be found in “The Harper Approach to Science is Holding Us Back,” an excellent article by Dak T. de Kerckhove in ipolitics.

“In the global context, it certainly appears that Canada was better positioned for innovation before the arrival of the Harper government. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Reports measure a country’s ability to provide a fertile ground for innovation. Canada was in the top ten of most categories in 2001 — and in third place in the overall measure of ‘Growth Competitive Index’. In the past few years we’ve slid out of the top ten and, in specific categories like ‘Quality of Scientific Research Institutions’, have seen a freefall from fourth place in 2008 to 16th in 2013. To make matters worse, last year we were ranked 27th for our ‘Capacity for Innovation’. By international standards, we’re increasingly failing to foster that fertile environment for innovation.”

De Kerchove’s point is that even within traditional, conservative, economy-minded terms of reference, Harper is not handling the science and environment files very well. These are keystone sectors, that would spawn wealth and well-being given some consistent support. If we took care of them, they would take care of us.

Memorandum of Understanding: Fisheries and Oceans and Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Dec 16, 2013

Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, PostMedia 2012 Energy Channel Sponsorship: Positioning Canada at the Forefront of EnergyCopy of CAPP- PostMedia Board Presentation

Vancouver Observer: February 4th, 2014, Presentation Suggests Intimate Relationship between PostMedia and Oil Industry Jenny Uechi and Matthew Millar

Harper Approach to Science is Holding Us Back

Blow-Your-Mind Citizen Science Projects versus Keeping a Cottage Diary

The brave new world of citizen scientists is one of the more extraordinary outgrowths of web-based, app-based communications. The data flow generated by smart phones, webcams, telescopes, drones, robotic rovers, remotely operated submersibles and satellites is more than the scientists—those who still have jobs—can handle, and so they’ve gone trolling for enthusiasts to bring some rudimentary order to the gobs of stuff flowing out of their devices.

split branchSo if you’re yearning for more face time with your laptop, try out some of the classy citizen science websites out there complete with fancy graphics, National Geographic-quality photographs, tutorials, blogs, discussion groups and professional ad copy, but don’t be fooled. They’re advertising the Joe jobs of every science project—observing, transcribing, measuring, making lists and counting—nothing wrong with that!

Check into definitely one of more awe-inspiring sites and read about Galaxy Zoo Quench where 1600 people peered back in time to when the Universe was less than half its present age and applied their “pattern-recognition skills” to complete 120,000 classifications of 3002 post-quenched (snuffed out) galaxies plus 3002 control galaxies as captured by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the Hubble Space Telescope and United Kingdom Infrared Telescope.  Phase Two is now underway.

But do heights make you giddy? How about joining a mid-ocean, mapping expedition via webcam videos? Mapping Seafloor Geology at Endeavour Ridge is compiling bathymetric data sets (underwater maps) to better understand the area’s dynamic geological history. By correlating geological features with select animals, you will contribute to an understanding of species distribution in one of the most extreme habitats on earth.

Sumach against snowHow about digging into climate change? Transcribe Arctic and worldwide weather observations recorded in ships’ logs going back to the mid-19th century. These will establish some useful baselines on which scientists can build their climate model projections to improve our understanding of past and future environmental conditions.

If history is your thing, you can dive into the Ancient Lives Project and transcribe and interpret thousand-year-old texts using an ancient alphabet keyboard. Your digital transcriptions will then be crunched together with other computer and human touches to turn them into intelligible scripts and later published in the Egypt Exploration Society’s Greco-Roman Memoirs series.

These sorts of project might provide a break from Monopoly and gin rummy at the cottage when it is too buggy to go outside.

If you want to collect your own data, check out some new apps being developed, some of which are mentioned in this Scientific American article at There’s a secchi dish app that enables mariners to participate in a global study of phytoplankton. This sort of data could throw some light on climate change impacts on the bottom of the food chain.

If you want to turn your kids into science bugs, try out mobile and web-based tools for data collection, for example the Marine Debris Tracker (self explanatory) and Project NOAH, a resource for nature exploration and documentation, for sharing sightings and helping to identify plants and animals and their locations. This could be useful for any number of (your choice of) missions.

Say you want to plant milkweed for the decimated monarch butterflies. Assuming you could find a nursery to supply you with seeds, you could get a movement going and record your plots using NOAH’s GPS coordinates.

The danger is you will end up poking at and being disappointed by the less-than-adequate intuitive functions of your app. Come to think of it, you don’t actually need a hand-held recording device to plant milkweed, you need a shovel. Just do it, in the company of someone you know in the real world in place on a member of online community or an avatar.

If you want to be a citizen of the great outdoors, think local. Take a look at a volunteer, not-for-profit group that focuses on ecological monitoring, environmental training and education. They follow a government certified protocol to monitor stream health at various sites. SOLEC, State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference recognized their strong commitment to improving the environment within the Great Lakes Basin with an award in 2011.

One of the oldest and most well-established citizen science projects is the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Now in its 113th year, with over 500 local chapters, it is committed to grassroots conservation action.

The really big NASA-type citizen science projects look fascinating but Darwin got by with a notebook, a magnifying glass, a ruler and a pencil or two, the real tools of engagement. And if you thinking legacies, who’s to say your coffee-stained, yellowed science diary left on a cottage shelf under some old bird books won’t outlive the huge datasets captured in some time-sensitive software?

The act of observing makes you observant. Taking notes anchors you in a time and space. Writing a diary leaves a trail of engagements that give a person a life meaning and shape. If it was good enough for Darwin…

Who knew that the way to control an invasive species was to import another one, or two or three?

Canadian flag in snowBefore we became deeply worried about Phragmites australis, the feather-topped scrawny-stalked, wet-footed invasive, we were concerned about purple loosestrife. Lythrum salicaria, a pretty but aggressive plant that was masterminding a takeover of our wetlands.

A native to Europe and Asia, purple loosestrife most probably arrived via soil used in the ballast of ships and released in North America in the early 19th Century. Each plant is covered in flowering stems, which can spit out 2.7 million seeds a year that are then easily dispersed by water, wind and wildlife. Its dense matted root system shrinks nutrients in wetlands and ditches, degrading habitat for wetland critters and pushing out native plants. Farmland and canals were choking on the stuff, when people were happily carting these plants home for installation in their gardens. Purple loosestrife had swept across Canada and the U.S.

And then suddenly, it seemingly vanished from people’s consciousness and the landscape. What happened?

Purple Loosestrife became one of the most successful case studies of biocontrol, the introduction of more invasives to chill out the target invasive.

400px-LythrumSalicariaBigBiocontrol may raise the hackles of the we-shouldn’t-play-God faction but consider the alternatives. Pesticides and herbicides provides only temporary, geographically limited solutions and they come with a host of side effects like poisonings, cancer-causing agents, other health impacts, environmental impacts, and encouraging the genetic resistance to them in the pest species. And chemical solutions are expensive, and keep on being expensive.

In contrast, natural enemies can be self-sustaining and self-dispersing agents. They don’t require repeated applications and they hold out the hope that they will adjust their population size to that of their target species, and moreover they are unlikely to cause cancer. Once introduced, they do their job and that’s the end of it.

Still, biocontrol has been the subject of considerable controversy. Biologists have been getting much better at it, as the rules and regs for its application have become increasingly restrictive and uniform when once they were chaotic, subject to change and lacking any clearly understood national or bi-national models.

Asian Carp, introduced to deal with algae in fish farms, is an example of biocontrol gone badly, badly wrong.

Invasives typically arrive without their co-evolved predators, parasites and pathogens or in the case of weeds, herbivores. Without these checks, populations can spread rapidly.  Biocontrol requires locating the natural enemies of these target pests, evaluating the likely results of importing them, confining them for a period in quarantine and testing whether they would be likely to harm non-target species.

None of this is easy. Evaluating the ecological impacts of introducing a species requires a great deal of data that has to be garnered from the host country over many years. An understanding of the life history, dispersal, phylogeny and behavioural effects are necessary. The difficulties in getting this information can warp the data such that a disproportionate amount of info can be  learned about the particular predator/target species relative to the broader category of predator/non-target species.

Moreover, quarantine conditions can hardly replicate the complexity of interactions in the natural environment. Confining critters to petri dishes or cages obviously changes their behaviour. Under these conditions, predators have been known to go after sub-optimal prey (a form of stress eating perhaps), which can exaggerate the impact an introduced predator species might have in the wild, creating false positives.

Potential consequences for non-target species are difficult to evaluate, population dynamic data difficult to come by. The closer taxonomically the non-target species is to the target species, the greater the risk of unintended consequences. And even comprehensive studies are unlikely to identify how or whether the predator species will undergo evolutionary or adaptation changes as a result of being introduced to a new environment.  Unfortunately,  looking for trouble after the introduction of a biocontrol program can be extremely difficult. Throw in the unknown impacts of climate change, and getting a successful program looks doubtful.

How extraordinary then is the success of the biocontrol program for purple loosestrife. Research began in 1995, and by 1992, the Canadian and U.S. governments had approved the release of two European leaf-eating beetles, Galerucella calmariensis and Galerucella pusilla plus a root feeding weevil, Hylobius tranversovitattus.

Following a period of inactivity in the fall and winter, the leaf-eating bugs feed on the leaves as they emerge in the spring. They mate and lay their eggs on the leaves. After hatching, the larvae move on to eating the tips, which prevents them from growing or producing flowers.

The root-feeding weevil either survive the winter as dormant adults in the leaf litter or as larvae in the roots of the purple loosestrife. Overwintering adults feed on leaf and stem tissue. Eggs are deposited in the stem just above ground level at the rate of one or two a day. A single female will live two or three years and lay about 300 eggs.  Overwintering larvae begin to feed as the soil warms up. They then complete their development, pupate and emerge as adults in mid to late summer although some larvae may take more than one full summer to complete their development inside the root.

The purple loosestrife program has been deemed a remarkable success.  Vast stands have been wiped out without the introduction of chemicals or unintended impacts on non-target species.

Unfortunately phragmites doesn’t lend itself as easily to biocontrol, being too similar to native species, that would run the risk of becoming the prey of a predator species that was introduced. Phragmites should not be composted, root fragments (rhizomes) and seeds should be disposed of in the garbage, and stands of it should be avoided so as to reduce the risk of spreading seeds. This is a no-fun plant.

Separating critters into native and invasive categories implies a before and an after, which in turn leads us to expect that if only we could pluck out the invasives, we will find the world the way it was. But nature is always dynamic and disturbances are ongoing and inevitable.

In the old days, biocontrol was primarily directed at ridding agricultural or other “useful” land of pests. Now we have moved on to wanting to save the natural environment from introduced species. This is much more difficult to do, and layers on more morally taxing issues about how much meddling we’re prepared to do.  Fortunately, biologists know much more about the complexity of the natural world than they used to.  This is important work and we should provide  them with the means to do it.

Biological Control of Purple Loosestrife Program, Illinois Natural History Survey

Biological Control of Purple Loosestrife, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Biological Control of Purple Loosestrife, Richard A.Malecki, Bernd Blossey, Stephen D Hight etc.

Invasive Phragmites, Ontario Invading Species Awareness Program

Furthering Harper’s Stealth Agenda, the Pipeline Agency is Grabbing the Fisheries File

Prime Minister Harper’s squeezing of environmental protections continues in its characteristic drip, drip fashion. In the latest example the National Energy Board, responsible for the approval of pipelines, is poised to assume some powers to protect fish and fish habitat, from Oceans and Fisheries Canada in accordance with a Memorandum of Understanding posted on the NEB website.

Graffiti and iceLimiting the regulatory agencies overseeing a project might seem like a admirable move towards increased efficiency that will no doubt please the proponents of energy projects, but it raises serious questions about whether the NEB has the resources and willpower, unsullied by conflicting agendas, to responsibly protect the fish that get in the way of energy projects.

The Harper government talks relentlessly about balancing the budget and lowering taxes—that’s what  we got when the Conservatives won their majority, with 38% of the popular vote. What the government hasn’t admitted to is its assault on science and the weakening of environmental protections, which trundle along behind its cosseting of the oil sands sector. The closing and consolidated of the science libraries, the muzzling of scientists, the abandonment of the Experimental Lakes Area, the cancelling of the long-form census: this pileup suggests that the Conservative government is quietly suppressing, reducing and sidelining evidence-based, science-based challenges to its economic hegemony. This is part of Harper’s stealth agenda.

The Memorandum of Understanding, dated December 16, 2013, states that (for now) DFO retains responsibility for issuing permits under the Fisheries Act (permits that allow parties to undertake an activity that results in serious harm to fish) until such time as the two departmental bodies “propose regulations that would prescribe the NEB as a person or entity who would be authorized to issue Fisheries Authorizations.”

It’s an open question whether, as a result of departmental cuts, a greatly truncated DFO could ramp up a robust defense of fish and fish habitat that unfortunately find themselves in the path of an energy project. How less likely would the NEB be to do so, given the agency’s very different mandate.

The NEB is a quasi-judicial body that conducts hearings and issues rulings, enforceable by law, regarding pipelines, energy projects and trade. Its jurisdiction stretches over 71,000 Km of pipelines and 1,400 Km of international power lines. Fifty environmental, social-economic, land and engagement specialists carry out the NEB mandate that stretches over the NEB Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012, the Canada Labour Code and the Canadian Standards Association for occupational safety. They also work with the Transportation Safety Board for accident investigations. And soon they’ll be getting the fisheries file to look after.

But just how deep can their expertise possibly be?

It looks like the government has sacrificed expertise on the altar of expediency. The guiding principles behind the NEB/DFO Memorandum include directives “to facilitate effective and efficient use of government resources in order that regulatory decisions are made in a timely manner by applying a one-project one-review approach; and to promote clarity and consistency of the regulatory process.”

But should the inevitable conflicts between development and the environment be buried in one over-stretched, Medusa-headed federal agency?

tracksOurs is a big country with a lot of water around and in it. DFO has, or had 10,000 employees. According to a secret document released under an Access to Information Request, DFO is facing cuts of $96.5M by 2015 affecting coast guard search and rescue; ice-breaker services; libraries; marine communication, rescue boats; buoy tending; species-at-risk Atlantic salmon production facilities; biodiversity and fish hatcheries; conservation and protection offices; lifeboat services; control surveillance; funding for the Northwest and Nunavut Territories; Arctic ports; the Experimental Lakes Area;  the Atlantic Lobster Sustainability Measures Program; the At-Sea Observer Program; the restructuring of habitat and ecosystem management; and finally, contaminant research especially the elimination of in-house research programs on the biological effects of contaminants, pesticides, oil, gas and diluted bitumen. This will be replaced with a small advisory group.

Some of these concerns are moving to other agencies. In other cases changed circumstances justify these cuts—a 90% drop in the number of serious cases of non-compliance by foreign fishing vessels since 2005 for example.  But in other respects, the DFO budget should be increased in acknowledgement of stepped up marine traffic, technological changes, climate change impacts, and extended shipping seasons. These increased demands on DFO’s services were noted in briefing notes to DFO Deputy Minister Matthew King as quoted in a PostMedia News article by Mike De Souza.

Harper’s slash and burn approach is compounded adversely by changes to the Fisheries Act that were buried inside the 2012 omnibus budget. These eliminated DFO’s responsibility to protect all fish and their habitat and replaced it with a mandate to protect fish that serve some recreational, commercial or Aboriginal purpose. (You can imagine how the federal government might find this jurisdictional vacuum useful when developing the vast remote pristine regions of the Arctic, where there are bound to be  some fish that don’t serve any one’s interests.)

DFO does not deliver frontline services to Harper’s tax-paying base. In the short term the DFO cuts are visible only to those people directly involved in Canada’s waters and to conscientious environment watchers. But Canadians are responsible for about 23% of the world’s fresh water, and we’re bordered by three oceans. We are a marine country that requires a lot of looking-after and we’re not getting  it.

Sources for this blog are noted below.

Memorandum of Understanding between the National Energy Board and Fisheries and Oceans Canada for Cooperation and Administration of the Fisheries Act and the Species at Risk Act Related to Regulating Energy Infrastructure

NEB begins slow takeover of DFO’s Fisheries Act Powers, ipolitic

DFO Cuts

Harper Cutting More than 100 Million Related to Protection of Water, by Mike de Souza, PostMedia News

Changes to the Fisheries Act, June 29, 2012

2012-2013 Departmental Performance Report, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Learning Bird and Gaining the Key to the Natural Universe

Winter RobinBird watching is trophy hunting (not killing, obviously.) It’s a competitive sport although birders don’t talk about that.  It usually involves taking pictures (with a tripod, telescopic lenses and a sore back), checking off lists, and identifying exotic migrants—assuming you can identify that pesky eye ring or count the stripes on its tail feathers as your bird takes off.

In contrast, bird language is acquired close to home, no binoculars necessary, and is the ticket to the vast complex universe of the natural world.

Young_ROBIN_cvr_spineThe best birders (who know at least a restaurant level of Bird) spot their subjects by listening first and then they site it. What they see is a bird doing something, not idly strumming his vocal chords while he takes in the scenery.

Bird is the route to a deep understanding of the ways in which forest critters take account of one another as they conduct their everyday survival.

What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young holds out the hope that ordinary people studying very ordinary birds in a small defined neighbourhood, perhaps focusing on an area as small as 50 yards across and 20 feet high, (the territory of a small bird) can pick up the most ancient of languages, one that was undoubtedly crucial to our survival as hunters and gatherers and possibly fundamental to the development of the human brain.

Native Americans could spot advancing armies miles off by “bird plows”, a sudden sideways, and herd like exit from the bush of birds fleeing an unusual threat.

“Using the birds as a first alert greatly improved our odds of finding two wolves (without radio collars) in a million acres of wild country,” writes Young. “If the birds were busy eating grasshoppers in the cold morning we moved on, but if they were gathered low in the trees and acting somewhat skittish, we paused, because ravens gathered in a focused group could be protecting a carcass and keeping their eyes out for other nearby scavengers, including wolves.”

Birds operate on a very lean energy budget; of course all critters do, but birds especially, which puts a premium on their calibrating exactly the right amount of effort necessary to achieve a given result. A quick get away can be costly, even if successful, as the bird may succumb to exhaustion in the end anyway.

“Pell-mell flight might also put the flying sentinels in jeopardy of predators who have sized up the situation as a good wake-hunting opportunity and are moving in for the kill. Better to stay home and stay organized,” reasons Young.

Birds don’t just fly away at the sight of a cat. They judge from its behaviour whether it’s stalking, or moseying home to its canned fish and a cushion, and they have calls to match.

Birds have calls that distinguish among lowest of the low, the egg robbers, corvids, jays, raccoons, weasels, snakes, coyotes, wolves, and birds of prey, and whether these dangers are actually worth worrying about at any particular moment.

“A tense, stressed coyote moving faster than usual in her efforts to feed those whining pups back in the den will elicit a stronger set of alarms than the more relaxed coyote, maybe responsible only for itself, whose movements seems less anxious and stressed.”

Birds, because they have such complex vocalizations, acute eyesight and excellent vantage points (ground feeders excepted) from which to observe, are the inter- and intra species news broadcasters. And everyone else equally dependent on their own lean energy budgets are guided by the birds, (unlike the bounding labs tearing off through the underbrush with never a worry about their next meal.)

These opportunistic interdependencies constitute a complex society.  Birds will squirm around in anthills hoping to annoy the insects that will then release formic acid and drive the lice from their feathers. Magpies follow deer because they kick up the dirt exposing insects. And herding animals are great sources of ticks and a free ride. Red-tailed hawks hang around highways, travelling along with the vehicles taking advantage of their noise to disguise their own.

Chickadees have some of the most complex alarm calls, matching the number of their “dee, dee, dees” to the level of threat, if sometimes straying from the truth.

“Chickadees sometimes produce false alarms, causing the gullible to fly away and leave that much less competition for food. This behaviour indicated that the chickadees can make fine distinctions between fake and real alarms.

“I’ve seen a chickadee sitting right in front of me—pumping away, with its bill wide open—and heard its call coming to me from over there, many feet away, in midair: nothing less than ventriloquism. In my experience this phenomenon occurs when the predator is a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk.”

Bird alarms can also have an unintended effect. “Hearing an alarm for another predator, an accipiter [hawk] glides in that direction, knowing that the birds are distracted by the first predator, making the second predator’s odds just a little better.”

Meanwhile back in the nest, the squawking of chicks is a dinner bell for corvids, peregrines, cats, raccoons and foxes. “Establish a post near a hawk’s nest during nesting season, and you will be astonished by how often the parents fly in with a songbird to feed their young. I’ve watched a Cooper’s hawk deliver a bird to one of its own two or three chicks three times within half an hour.”

Jon Young’s book is an impressive inspirational guide to getting to know the most common backyard species, and he claims you don’t need binos. By choosing what he calls a sit spot and recording what you hear, including truck noises, airplanes, slamming doors, barking dogs, sitting there quietly every day, preferably early in the morning so not too far from home, you will eventually, with help from audio guides and a few online lessons, understand the patterns of behaviour of individual birds in your sit spot universe.

You’ve first got to figure out what the baseline, normal situation is, the dimensions of a given bird’s territory with its food sources, hiding places and vantage points. You’ll learn how to avoid taking deliberately quiet steps that could be interpreted as stalking behaviour, while also not causing unnecessary noise.

You’ll learn about the vocalizations: songs, companion calls, male-to-male aggression, adolescent begging and alarm. Understanding the baseline will tell you what the quiet means. “If something alerts one towee, it will freeze and a split second later so will all the others. Then they may casually move—almost fade—into denser, safer cover. No noise whatsoever, no big production, but they are gone. It could be a minute or more before the song sparrows look up.”

If you find a nest, back off quietly so as not to attract the attention of predators. Sit with your back to the brush so you can hear anyone coming.

We may not have any need to anticipate an advancing cavalry charge coming down our driveway, but learning Bird, however imperfectly, will attach us more to the natural world and that’s a good thing.

Jon Young’s website, offers Bird Language Basics, a free email course, and DVDs.

Plants and Climate Change: The Story is Getting Very Complicated

Since we started worrying about climate change and the pileup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, scientists have turned their attention to how exactly plants breathe in the stuff. As a result, studies and reports are raining down upon us. The studies are not necessarily contradictory as difficult to place in their relative importance. We haven’t got a good grip on how these innumerable findings fit together because behind every one, there’s a “yes, but…”

Fallen treeThis risks confusion but better to learn up on these findings as they unfold so we have something to fight back with, should someone claim that what’s good for the tar sands is good for trees. So here are a few intriguing ideas that have turned up lately.

Plants absorb carbon dioxide differently depending on the season, drawing in their breath in the spring and summer when they are growing and exhaling slowly over the course of the fall and winter. As a result there is more CO2 in the atmosphere during the  winter than in the summer.

The last 50 years have seen this trend grow more pronounced. Heather Graven, a post-doctoral researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has been graphing these seasonal variations, and it looks like the jagged edge of a saw. As CO2 has increased (from 315 parts per million to 400 parts per million over five decades) plants have been gobbling up more of the stuff. The net effect: more and bigger plants, fueled by longer growing seasons, more CO2, and a warming planet.

Branches against the snowYes, but this new carbon-fueled growth may be finite. Another study, this one published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, asserts that there are limits to how much carbon dioxide a plant or plants can absorb. “Global warming of four degrees Celsius will result in the earth’s land vegetation becoming dominated by negative effects, such as ‘moisture stress’, caused by plant cells getting too little water.” This means that despite the anticipated growth in plants, both in their number and size, the environment won’t be able to support them particularly well.

From Wikipedia: “Moisture stress occurs when the water in a plant’s cells is reduced to less than normal levels. This can occur because of a lack of water in the plant’s root zone, higher rates of transpiration than the rate of moisture uptake by the roots. Moisture stress is more strongly related to water potential than it is to water content.” (Wikipedia has good definitions for these as well.)

Yes, but if this new extra carbon-dioxide-fueled growth has its limits, what do you make of the finding that big mature trees continue to grow i.e. pack on carbon dioxide into old age and are in fact better consumers than adolescent trees?

Nathan Stephenson, an ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Three River California says, “The trees that are adding the most mass are the biggest ones, and that holds pretty much everywhere on earth that we looked.”

This finding, as reported in Nature challenges the long held theory that growth plateaus as trees mature. But Stephenson and his colleagues found, after studying data related to 673,046 trees and 403 species, that “the largest trees gained the most mass each year in 97% of the species, capitalizing on their additional leaves and adding more girth high in the sky.” Old trees may have tired, less efficient leaves than younger trees but because they have more of them, they net out ahead of the kids.

Yes, but all this growth may not be good for us after all at least in the Arctic. Increases in vegetation are evident and measurable from outer space, especially in the Boreal forests and on the Arctic tundra. Shrubs trap snow that would otherwise blow away, providing an insulating blanket for the tundra that as a result is experiencing a greater rate of decomposition and the subsequent release of carbon dioxide. The Boreal forest, one third of which has a floor of permafrost, is now under threat of warming with gigantic consequences for how much CO2 will end up in the atmosphere.

tree with broken limbIn another respect, these invading, northward-bound shrubs are bad because they detract from the reflectivity of the snowy plains. Two Dartmouth scientists claim that snowy treeless, shrub-less fields offer greater climate change benefits than an equivalent stand of trees; snow reflects solar energy back into space, the albedo reflectivity effect, whereas dark leafy substances absorb it.

“In some cases, the cooling influence of albedo can equal and surpass the climatic benefits of carbon sequestration from forest growth,” says postdoctoral fellow David A. Lutz and professor of environmental studies and Richard B. Howarth in a paper presented to the American Geophysical Union. They suggest that countries such as Canada with large expanses of snowy barren areas should be given a climate credit for these areas in international negotiations around global warming.

Let’s start a conversation about this. I would love to hear from people who know more than I do.

Tree Growth Never Slows:

Swinging Co2 Levels Show the Earth is Breathing More Deeply:

Plants Could Stop Being the Brake on Global Warming:

Dartmouth Study Finds that Logging, Deforestration may Better Serve Climate in Some Areas.

Asian Carp: is it too late to keep them out? A major report on the options

They might be here or they might not be here just yet: Asian carp, the silver and bighead kind, 60 lb. monsters that can suck up 10% of their body weight in a day, stealing food from other fish.  They could fundamentally change the aquatic character of the Great Lakes.

Jumping Asian CarpLast spring, a single water sample taken from Lake Michigan showed detectible remnants (environmental DNA) of silver carp. Subsequent samplings turned up nothing. It may have travelled to Lake Michigan attached to a boat, or a bird, having eaten a carp may have defecated in the lake, or indeed this may have been evidence of a really bad fish now in the Great Lakes.

If it did signify a real fish, it may have come to the Great Lakes via the Chicago Area Waterways Systems, (CAWS), five waterways, 128 miles long, connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. However in a recently released white paper, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said emphatically, “There is no evidence that Asian carp are bypassing the [electric barriers in Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.] Nor is there any indication that Asian carp are in the vicinity of the barriers. The closest adult Asian carp found in the Illinois River are about 55 miles from Lake Michigan, and no small Asian carp have been observed closer than 131 miles from Lake Michigan.”

But given the findings of this same white paper, this isn’t particularly reassuring. It found that fish are being transported across the electrical barrier via “vessel-induced residual flows” created by barges. The recess area between two barges provides the dominant transport mechanism. Of the 72 samples taken, 44 included at least one school of fish passing through the barrier; and of this group of 44, 61% saw multiple fish slipping by. Research is ongoing.

asian-carp_face2(If silver and bighead carp get here, they may likely find a comfortable home. Last October Lisa Borre reported on a finding of grass carp in the Sandusky River, a Lake Erie tributary: only one-year old but with the potential to become spawning adults. Analysis revealed they were native to the river.)

The potential invasion by this really bad fish is the subject of a widely-anticipated study of what might be done to stop them. Issued on Monday by the Great Lakes and Interbasin Mississippi River Study (GLMRIS), it delineates eight options for reducing the risks posed by 13 aquatic nuisance species (ANS) including silver and bighead carp, for either the Mississippi watershed or the Great Lakes. The threat of invasives goes both ways. Which of the eight proposals is chosen is the prerogative of U.S. lawmakers; the study does not provide recommendations.

Here is a brief description of Plan 5, the Cadillac option, the most expensive at $18,389,000,000, not including annual costs.

It would address the risks posed by all thirteen ANS.  It would include nonstructural measures such as the removal of nuisance species, chemical control, controlled waterway use, inspection and cleaning of watercraft before and after entry to a water way. (These are common to all the options.) This part of the plan could be implemented immediately.

Plan 5 would provide a physical barrier between the water bodies at four locations in CAWS. To remedy the stagnant and other water quality impacts at the barriers, three of these locations would see treatment plans installed that would take Lake Michigan water, treat it and discharge it into CAWS. Water quality in Lake Michigan would see a definite uptick as sewer and storm water flows would be confined to CAWS. To address the risk of flooding two new reservoirs and conveyance tunnels would be built.

Whatever the plan and whatever the costs, a successful outcome is not assured. Prevention is regarded as the best defense, but as the GLMRIS authors make clear, “‘prevent’ means the reduction of risk to the maximum extent possible, because it may not be technologically feasible to achieve an absolute solution.”

Furthermore, aquatic pathways exist along the entire 1,500-miles between the basins, and these aren’t addressed by the engineering marvels proposed for CAWS.  And then there are the non-aquatic methods of crossing the watersheds including waterfowl migration, fishing, accidental and unregulated fish stocking.

Costs and timing pose real stumbling blocks. The cheapest option, Plan 2, wouldn’t include any water regulating structures or barriers, would only keep out five ANS not including Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes, and would cost 68 million. From there, the Plans go all the way up to almost $18.5 billion.

Plan 5 would take 25 years to complete, that means bighead and silver carp wouldn’t be dealt with until 25 years had passed, and the clock hasn’t started ticking yet, which leaves us relying on the fine tuning of the existing electrical barriers that USACE is researching now.

Scientists take comfort in the fact that we know so much more about Asian carp than we used to. And no one doubts there is a great deal at stake. Still, we’re getting awfully close to replacing discussions of how to keep them out with how to control them once they’re with us.

The Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study:

Summary of Fish-Barge Interaction Research and Fixed Dual Frequency Identification Sonar (DIDSON) Sampling at the Electric Dispersal Barrier in Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal

Asian Carps Reproducing Naturally in Great Lakes Tributary by Lisa Borre

Asian Carp face-2: photographer Kate Gardinr; Jumping Asian Carp: photographer

What’s Coming at the Bufflehead and a Year-End Wrap Up

Happy New Year Everybody.

Coming to this blog this winter and spring:

Water levels in the middle Great Lakes, in particular the expected U.S. and Canadian governments’ response to the International Joint Commission‘s recommendations, possibly the most important development in the decades-long effort to address the decline in water levels. Also expected soon is a report from the Council of the Great Lakes Region on the economic impact of lower water levels. This should provide a handy way to quantify what is at stake.

Bull rushes snowIn the meantime, you might want to check out three blogs on water levels in the archive that are as current now as they were a few months ago: October 28th; November 6th; and December 4th.

Birds and other critters, including Asian carp, with again, an emphasis on what the studies show. If you missed my blogs the first time round, you might want to have a look at what I’ve written on frogs, ravens and crows, wolves and moose. And don’t miss my review of Jon Mooallem’s excellent book on our all-too-human, funny, heroic/pathetic efforts to save the critters we love, sometimes at the expense of critters we love a little less. Check out these postings on Oct 28th; November 6th and 20th; and December 18th.

Science and politics: not a healthy mix due to cutbacks and ideological meddling, but alas the situation is worsening as the federal government’s reach is expanding to include other targets. This is truly alarming stuff. Stay tuned. If you feel the need to catch up on the muzzling of Canadian scientists or find out exactly how badly served species at risk are by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, check out the postings on October 28th; November 13th and December 11th.

snow capped sumackBut let’s not start the year on a sour note. Scientists and environmental groups, writers and ordinary folks are doing some excellent work tracking government shortfalls while looking after the animals. Our knowledge base is exploding and with it our sensitivity to, and our daunting appreciation for all that we might have to do to give the natural world a fighting chance.

The Bufflehead will resume its regular weekly postings on January 8th, 2014

Cheers everybody

It’s the Habitat: What’s happening to our Frogs

In the mid-1990s, children in Minnesota were horrified to find the frogs they were catching had missing legs, horror-movie features, extra legs, and missing eyes. After that, these misshapen critters started showing up seemingly everywhere across the U.S., less so in Canada.

This past November the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the results of the 10-year study of amphibians, 48,081 individuals representing 32 species of frogs and toads at 462 wetland sites. Its purpose was to address “the broad spatial distribution and temporal dynamics of amphibian abnormalities that have hindered efforts to understand the extent of the problem.”

one leg frog

Amphibians are the most imperiled class of vertebrates on earth. Amphibian Ark, a coalition of conservationists, estimates that 165 species have gone extinct in recent years. Malformations and mortality rates seem to be on the increase. Their permeable skin and shell-less eggs make them extremely vulnerable to the environment, and because they never venture far from home, they’re close to perfect bio-indicators of local conditions.

Various reasons for their decline have been suggested, but people have fastened on climate change, ultraviolet radiation seeping through the thinning ozone layer and damaging the molecular structure of just about everything.

The FWS study actually turned up surprisingly few abnormalities: only two per cent when the results were averaged over the U.S.; only 22 cases of extra limbs .6 per cent of all the abnormalities recorded;  and one-third of the 675 collection events yielded no abnormal amphibians at all.

Two per cent or fewer abnormalities is considered within a normal range. Malformations can result from predation and parasites. Even dragon flies nibble on frog larvae.

However the hot spots—the Mississippi Valley, the Central Valley in California and south-central and eastern Alaska—revealed serious abnormalities, shortened or odd-shaped limbs and missing eyes, at rates close to 40 per cent in some years, other years nothing. (Bravo for this long-range survey: a smaller sampling might have come to wildly different conclusions.)

Garden furnitureBut there’s a codicil: all the sites studied were in U.S., refuges where amphibians are provided protection from man-caused environmental stressors—except of course ultraviolet radiation and climate change. So the study doesn’t tell us why exactly amphibians are doing so poorly in less pristine environments.

One of the chief causes of malformations and high levels of death in amphibians, although it doesn’t explain all the cases, is the parasite, Ribeiroia ondatrae, or flukes. This flat worm, after reproducing asexually in snails, dispels 40 to 1,000 larvae every night per snail. Once released, they head straight for a frog, toad or salamander where they target their limbs, forming cysts there, obstructing their growth, sometimes causing their deaths or simply rendering them lame and more susceptible to predators.

The infected amphibians are eaten by birds (especially herons), which then become the second home for the flukes, and a place where they sexually reproduce. Their eggs are expelled in the bird’s feces, which if they land in water, they hatch and seek out snails, burrowing into their shells and setting up home again. R. ondatrae thrive in algae- rich farm ponds, so the increase in amphibian mortality may be related to an increase in nutrients.

Garden furniture 2The Canadian Journal of Zoology reports that infected amphibians have been found along the migratory flyways in the U.S., as you might expect given that the dispersal agents are birds, but curiously enough, the flyways in Canada haven’t turned up infected amphibian populations—a mystery for a future gap analysis. (This is not to suggest that R. ondatrae aren’t found in Canada, they are.)

A recent study in Illinois connected the decline in amphibians to the invasive European buckthorn, now evident in two thirds of the U.S. This rampaging ornamental plant releases a compound that is toxic to amphibian embryos, killing off populations of Western chorus frogs and the African clawed frog in particular, but it is also suspected in the high mortality rates of other amphibians.

A Canadian study has drawn a line between pesticide use and amphibian mortality. In Minnesota, a field study has linked UVB penetration in a pond to a depth of 10 cm. and the percentage of malformed frogs there, but light penetration in water is affected by shading from trees and aquatic plants, and by the amount and quality of dissolved organic carbon. So UVB doesn’t rank very high as a cause of amphibian mortality. However it could be acting on natural and manmade compounds that then make them toxic to frogs. The potential combination of biological, physical and chemical substances is limitless.

Garden hoseIt’s useful to know that amphibians are doing more or less O.K. in pristine environments like U.S. refuges. By inference, we’re left with contaminated environments, squashing them under our tires, interactions with invasive species, chemicals, nutrient runoff, any or all combinations of these factors plus outright habitat destruction as the real stressors. We can deal with these issues at the local level, unlike climate change.

Too often climate change induces a paralyzing stupor; it makes us feel bad and block us from taking on the challenges we should be fighting. For frogs everything is local. These critters don’t have enough room, and we too often mess with what room they do have. We can stop that.

Localized Hotspots drive Continental Geography of Abnormal Amphibians in U.S. Wildlife Refuges, Mari K. Reeves, Plos One;jsessionid=3F631910F949681EE6E7DE18549F0331

Ribeiroia ondatrae causes limb abnormalities in a Canadian amphibian community, C.D. Roberts, T.E. Dickinson, Department of Biology, Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, BC V2C 0C8, Canada. Canadian Journal of Zoology

USGS, Science for a Changing World. Malformed Frogs in Minnesota: An update

Frog Deformities: North Temperate Lakes: Long Term Ecological Research from Lakeland Times, John Bates

legless frog photo credit: Scientific American, USFWS/Fred Pinkey

What on Earth Do We Think We’re Doing? Adventures in Saving the Critters

Last week I wrote about the abject failure of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to enact the Endangered Species Act. A Damning, (and should be) Show-Stopping Report. But maybe this failure—because other jurisdictions may be experiencing the same difficulty, even if they might be doing a better job of it—points to a larger failure. Instead of saving critters we could be just managing extinction.

A wonderful book, Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America by Jon Mooallem looks at whether or not our conservation efforts are simply a way of atoning for messing up the planet.

Caring for the planet may not be the same thing as doing it any good.

Mooallem is wryly funny, authoritative, forgiving, undogmatic; and seriously thoughtful about our pathetic absurdities, exposing the fine line we cross between making fools of ourselves and being heroes.

Don River

“We train condors not to perch on power lines. We slip plague vaccine to ferrets. We shoot barred owls to make room in the forest for spotted owls. We monitor pygmy rabbits with infrared cameras and military drones. We carry migrating salamanders across busy roads in our palms.”

We have our favourite charismatic alpha faunas, like polar bears. We’re tranquillizing them, and then delivering them by helicopter, swinging in a net from a cable to some place far away from Churchill, Manitoba, (self-proclaimed capital of the polar bear world.)

“Making polar bears dependent on us for their very survival in such a hands-on way can feel like just as much a defeat as letting them die out. It would mean conceding that their ecosystem is irreparably broken, and that we have to be responsible for them in perpetuity.

“In Florida, manatees were huddling around coastal power plants, warming themselves in the outflowing plumes of hot water, and volunteers were kayaking into the Gulf of Mexico to ladle out seas turtles that were floating belly-up, stunned by the cold, then rushing them to triage centers and bundling them into blankets.”

Whooping cranes are being trained to follow ultralights along a migratory path from Wisconsin to Florida. At great expense and effort a few hardy volunteers head upwards in their flying machines, a Cessna acting as a spotter followed by a large entourage of motor homes. It takes weeks and weeks to do this and close to perfect weather conditions.

“Wild cranes can fly the entire migration in as little as a week, swirling up to eight or ten thousand feet on columns of rising, warm air and coasting for miles, the ultralights can’t keep up with birds at such altitudes and must stay closer to the ground, forcing the birds to flap the whole way.”

We’re  teaching birds how to fly, badly.

Once the whoopers get to Florida, they go shopping, to the dismay of their handlers. “In a world of Costco regional distribution centers and Krispy Kreme drive-thrus, we are asking them to block it all out, to see the Wal-mart retention pond as a slum instead of a providential new form of habitat in a changing world, and to see the corn piling up outside an ethanol plant not as food but as a ‘waste product.’”


Our herculean efforts to save particular species are supposed to be saving the hangers-on, the also-rans, the ecosystem that supports them, but in many cases the habitat is just gone. So simply leaving it alone won’t cut it either.

We would have to look back 12,000 years to the Pleistocene era, before humans slaughtered the big mammals with a Clovis point on their spears to find all the keystone alpha species resting comfortably atop of the food chain. Since then we have been trying a “Pleistocene rewind.” Since then we have been at the mercy of “environmental generational amnesia,” our tendency to calibrate our standards of what’s environmentally acceptable to how we saw things in our childhood. But if you measure declining environmental health from only one generation to the next, it doesn’t look as bad as it really is.

“There are calls to stop blanket vilification of invasive plants, to accept that weeds are not going away, and to realize that they can be parts of equally bio-diverse ‘blended’ ecosystems rather than only blights on the ‘native’ ecosystems we feel such nostalgia for.”

Mooallem seems to be aiming for getting our outrage right and then sitting back and accepting the inevitable, that we’re not getting anywhere.

But how can we not think that by carefully capturing a wasp with a glass and a dry cleaner’s cardboard and then releasing it outside, that we’re both, wasp and human, better for it?  Yes, we seriously messed up the planet but we sincerely want to atone for this. Anyway, what the alternative?

Wild Ones is a great storybook apart from being an exploration of our deepest humanity.

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, by Jon Mooallem, Penguin Books, New York.

To see a polar bear be transported by helicopter, watch:!/videos/player/wild-polar-bear-release