08 September 2019

The Environmental Tipping Point Has Been Toppled

The Environmental Tipping Point Has Been Toppled

As I read the headlines and the stories behind the headlines, as I learn more about the complex system of nature we refer to as “ecology”, and as I see the actions of our politicians and society in aggregate, I can only come to one conclusion. We’ve long passed the environmental tipping point.

Everyday the tragedies role in. Unprecedented environmental catastrophes. Stories that as recently as two decades ago would have garnered headline status. Today we are numb to them - the new normal, relegated to page 2.

Gray whale die-off so great there isn’t even room to store the rotting carcasses[1]. All time record heat in the Arctic[2] and consistently breaking the “all time global hottest month” records. Unparalleled seabird die-off which used to be occasional, now occurs annually at increasing levels.[3] Historic wildfires in Siberia and The Amazon.[4][5] Ocean pollution of a scope, depth, and breadth beyond the worst case estimates of a few years ago [6]. Extinction rates at 1000x of what the best science thinks is normal[7]. Ice melt exceeding many of the more pessimistic estimates. Bees in peril. I could keep going. Just today I read of unprecedented severe (and early) wildfires in Australia.

These stories don't resonate with us because they exploit a flaw in how humans have evolved to think. We care more about what is happening to *me* - what is happening now. The drama at work, the new series on HBO, or getting one marshmallow now rather than two if we can just wait 15 minutes. Yes, that was one of many real studies showing just how poorly we consider the future - even if 15 minutes away.

The threats we face are sometimes direct, sometimes indirect, and sometimes the impact is delayed for years or decades. And while I think we’ve long passed that tipping point, and the scope of the problems are broad, layered, and complicated, it doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t try to fix things. We have tough times ahead, but things could get a lot tougher without action. And when I say "we have tough times", that does include you and your family. Even the most conservative of forecasts reveal deep economic distress and food and water system disruptions. When those things happen, international conflict is certainly around the corner.

Over the next several weeks I’m going to share some thoughts and ideas as to why we are at this point, despite our collective intelligence and despite our technology. I’ll share suggestions and appeal for your help.


23 August 2019

Any Nature Book Readers Out There?

Any nature book readers out there?

Over the last 20 years I’ve had a growing interest in nature and ecology. It’s generally been a
slow burn, sometimes doused by work demands or family demands. But it has never been
extinguished, and in recent years, has really caught fire. With that in mind, my reading (and
audiobook listening) has taken a turn away from business and head-on into the entire spectrum
of “outdoor books” - natural history, nature literature, field journals, and nature travel.

I thought it might be fun to share some of my favorites from the last few years, and hopefully hear
what my friends have been reading and recommend as well. Let me know your favorites!

Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Phillip Connors (2011)
Fire Season is an account of a banker-turned wilderness fire lookout. While loosely chronological,
Connors weaves in ecology, history, accounts from the ‘masters’ like Aldo Leopold and Jack
Kerouac (who also spent a season as a fire lookout). Fire Season does an excellent job
introducing the complexities of forest and fire management.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968)
Abbey recounts a season as a park ranger at Arches National Park in Utah, as well as an
adventure boating down Glen Canyon before the canyon was destroyed by the eponymous
Glen Canyon Dam. Themes of the book range from the ecology of the high desert, challenges
of managing public lands, and intended and unintended impact of  development, and touches
on the history of the area.

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold (1949)
Another classic that I finally got around to reading this year. This book is often described as
natural history meets poetry and philosophy.  The book is a collection of essays and a monthly
account of aspects of his corner of Wisconsin. The seminal essay “Thinking Like a Mountain”
is taught in environmental studies around the USA, outlining his conclusions around the
importance of predators over the long term. My favorite chapter was “February - Good Oak”,
where he recounts natural and human history of the region through the felling of an Oak as
the sawyer and his crew battle their way through the oak trunk, ring by ring.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014)
This book strays a bit from core natural history and more into the realm of “memoir”. Macdonald
recounts the year after the death of her father, where she dives deep into falconry, purchasing
a Northern Goshawk to train. While there is much to be learned about the Goshawk and its
environment and needs, the book equally pulls you into Macdonald’s story, and some diversions
into TH White (author of The Sword in the Stone, and would-be falconer).

The Dangerous World of Butterflies: The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and
Conservationists by Peter Laufer (2010)
Laufer delves into all-things butterflies, from their natural history and “purpose” in the world,
investigation of some specific butterflies, the illegal and lucrative criminal underground of
butterfly collecting, butterflies in culture, and more. 

The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of the Planet’s Great Ocean Voyagers by Adam
Nicolson (2018)
With the undercurrent of a 70% decline in global seabird populations, this book delves deeply
into 10 types of seabirds - birds that generally spend all of their time away from land (aside
from nesting, which is typically on isolated islands). Nicolson looks at the ecology and
adaptations of each bird - ranging from Puffins to Shearwaters to Albatross.  The book is
packed full of interesting facts as well

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben (2016)
Did you know trees communicate with each other? That they care for their family? This book
provides a very readable review of the biology of trees and their ecosystems, and challenges
the concepts of learning, speaking, communicating as humans relate to them by showing how
trees have evolved their own methods.

Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World by Noah
Strycker (2018)
Strycker provides a chronological account of his global travel quest to see as many bird
species in one year as possible. Part travel adventure, part natural history, this book is also
touches on the cultures and people in the remote areas he visited in Africa, South America,
India, and more.

A Bonus Book:
Coming into the Country by John McPhee - a thorough coverage of all things Alaska - the geography,
ecology, politics, wilderness, and survival.

Books I’m Reading Now:
Basin and Range (John McPhee); When Mountain Lions are Neighbors (Beth Pratt-Bergstrom)

07 April 2019

Salt Creek Desert Pupfish

Last week I spent a few days camping in the desert regions east of the Sierra Nevada, down to Death Valley. One of the highlights was viewing the endangered Salt Creek Desert Pupfish (Cyprinodon macularius). There are only a few populations left - remnants from the Pleistocene era Lake Manly.
Lake Manly was a giant lake covering what is today Death Valley, to depths of 600 feet. A few thousand years later, it is gone, and all that remains are salt flats an ephemeral streams. Somehow these fish managed to adapt to the extreme temperatures, high salinity (3x that of the ocean) and seasonal nature of the waters.
The pupfish are only a couple inches long, and defend small territories (a square meter or two) in the shallow creek. In fact, one of my pictures is a territorial squabble by two males. They only have a few months to mate and lay eggs before they perish. And the cycle starts again next spring when the eggs hatch and new generation repeats the task.
The only thing keeping this group of pupfish from being Critically Endangered is that there are two disconnected populations. Note that until recently, all desert pupfish were thought to be a single species with different sub-species that had slightly different life strategies. Recent DNA evidence has resulted in them being split into three distinct species.
That said, it was discouraging to see people walking in and along the creek, despite signage saying not to. Thankfully it is only early April - in another few weeks each step they were taking would likely crush dozens of pupfish eggs.
Male Pupfish

Male Pupfish

Male and Female Pupfish

Two Males Fighting Over Territory

06 March 2019

Satin Bowerbird

This week I was told of a fascinating Radiolab podcast - titled "The Beauty Puzzle". The podcast looks natural selection through a very interesting lens. I don't want to spoil the episode by recounting it here, but I will say that they spend several minutes discussing the Satin Bowerbird.

These amazing birds create an elaborate display, called a bower. There are many species of bowerbird, each constructing a bower with a different architecture. This one creates an avenue bower, consisting of sticks that basically form two walls, creating a pathway. The bird creates an expansive floor (called a platform) with sticks as well, and then decorates the scene with blue items.

Above you can see the bird at work, with the bower behind it and to the right.

Historically, the bird would have to work hard to find blue items in nature - perhaps flower petals or berries. These days, human trash, mainly in the form of plastic bottlecaps and straws, has filled the niche. But there are a couple blue/purple feathers in the mix as well.

Look closely and you'll see some yellow items. These are Sulphur-crested Cockatoo crest feathers. There were at least a dozen in the bower - it makes you wonder if it raids Cockatoo nest areas, or just has a keen ability to find these scattered about the wild?

When at the site, the bowerbird maintains a tidy bower. Sticks and leaves that fall or blow in are quickly removed. And time is spent putting any misplaced blue items back in their original spot.

Hard at work...

This is the entire scene of the bower. It's hard to tell, but some of the low branches have bark that was torn off and fluttered in the wind. It was as if the bird had created little flags to further enhance the bower.
This bower was located in New South Wales in a Eucalypt forest edge - typical habitat for the Satin Bowerbird. The bowerbird is a large bird - somewhere between the size of a typical american Jay and an American Crow.

Like many birds, there are sub-species as well, and these sub species sometimes decorate differently, lining the platform with moss, or picking other colored objects.

I'm Back

Hi Again! I've been wanting to post for quite awhile, but have been waiting for a time when I can be consistent with it. I think that time has finally come!

Over the next few months I plan to recap my two weeks backpacking in Arizona from last year, give a closer look at some wonderfully unique animal species I've encountered, and sprinkle in a few fun wildlife photos here and there.

At the same time, I'm performing a slow, steady makeover of the design and layout of this blog, Nature's Archive Photography, and my Facebook and Instagram presence. Please follow along - and please provide your feedback, thoughts, and questions!

As a hint of what's to come, here's an Anna's Hummingbird from a recent excursion.