Tag Archives: Science

Salmon? In Berkeley?

Chinook Salmon (adult) Photo Credit: Roger Tabor (USFWS)

Not Codornices Creek, but you get the idea.

This is happy news, though someone needs to tell the salmon it’s the wrong size for the creek:

First Chinook salmon reported in Codornices Creek

Codornices Creek is a little creek, mainly year-round, that flows off the Berkeley Hills and through the Hills’ populated alluvial fan to the east shore of San Francisco Bay. It’s pretty much the same as any of thousands of small creeks in Urban California, except for one thing: it’s in Berkeley, and so there have been people working to restore it for a generation.

Chinooks are more usually associated with large main-stem rivers like the Sacramento: little coastal streams like Codornices Creek are more suited to smaller coho salmon, and steelhead for that matter, which have in fact been seen in the creek for some time, though apparently not in a self-sustaining spawning population.

Then again, the fish set the rules, not us, and the Codornices Chinook’s more likely destination in the Sacramento-San Joaquin watershed has been, as the fisheries biologists would put it in technical terms, massively fucked. This chinook was probably born in a hatchery instead of a leafy rill with a nice cobble bottom; all but one of the Sacramento and San Joaquin’s major tributaries have been plugged with giant concrete dams, cutting off access to something like 99.9999996 percent of the watershed’s spawning habitat. Agricultural runoff of pesticide-laden silt and silt-laden pesticide fills the water along the way to the dams.

But at least it’s a small, one-fish vote of confidence in the good work my former neighbors have done trying to keep Codornices Creek alive, and until we can engineer precisely targeted earthquakes at the bases of the big dams, that’ll have to do.

(Special homechild points if you heard this post’s title in Mel Blanc’s voice.)

The Wilds of California

The wonderfully talented San Diego-area filmmaker Jim Karnik has an ambitious project in mind: an hour-long film that will introduce viewers to Californian biodiversity in all the varying ecosystems the state has to offer, from coastal tidepools to alpine rock and ice. This trailer is amazing.

Jim’s got an Indiegogo site set up, and as soon as I get my December budget figured out I’m kicking something in. Check it out and see if you want to as well.

Protect Gold Butte

Most of you have never heard of it, but northeast of Las Vegas, in one of the least-visited parts of the continental United States, a desert treasure in Nevada needs your support.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6_x0k_In6g&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0]

I visited Gold Butte for the first time in 1997. I was just passing through, heading for a tiny outpost in the Arizona Strip called Pakoon Springs, which later became part of the Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument. A fire there had damaged a Joshua tree forest some years before, and I wanted to take a look at the recovery so far. My old truck carried me up over the slopes of Virgin Peak and across the state line, where I took some photos that turned out to be abysmally fuzzy. Joshua tree near Pakoon Springs, AZ (The fire had burned patches of the landscape, but not all of it. Much of it looked intact. In this shot, taken facing eastward into the Arizona Strip, the long ridge in the background is the Grand Wash Cliffs escarpment. The notch in the Cliffs toward the right? That’s the downstream end of a rather famous natural landscape feature. )

My old truck was a four-cylinder 2WD, so my relief at not getting stuck in the Pakoon’s washes was considerable, and I headed back across the line into Gold Butte to explore the Whitney Pockets area for a little while. I’ve always meant to get back to Virgin Peak and do some hiking, like these folks did:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vdYXbFovD4&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0]

It’s one of the best places I’ve ever been. It’s wild, wide, open, and spacious. Gold Butte is a botanical, geological, and archaeological treasure. It’s priceless habitat for desert tortoise and bighorn sheep. It’s also within a couple hours’ drive from two fast-growing cities — the metastasopolis of Las Vegas, and the smaller but even more enthusiastically desert-defacing St. George, Utah — and the almost-city of Mesquite NV. As a result, those who use the desert as a blank slate across which to scratch their grubby fingernails pose a significant and increasing threat to the landscape:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ycNu9FLipU&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0]

And unlike the Pakoon and other adjacent lands across the Arizona line in the Parashant NM, Gold Butte is essentially unprotected.

Nevada environmentalists and land managers are working with local elected officials to change that. Last year Representative Shelley Berkley introduced HR 7132, a bill that would have given Gold Butte National Conservation Area status, like the Red Rock Canyon area on the other side of Las Vegas. The NCA would have covered 362,177 acres, with 200,000 more acres of BLM and Park Service lands in the area declared wilderness. The bill did not pass, and must be reintroduced in this theoretically more receptive Congress.

The Nevada Wilderness Project has an action site where you can find ways to help them protect Gold Butte, from writing letters to sharing your hard-earned cash.  The Friends of Gold Butte has a website and a companion blog where you can stay informed, and if you’re in the area, there are events listed in which you can take part.

And if you’re not a local, you can still let people know Gold Butte exists. It’s one of the last best places, a forgotten puzzle piece in the Grand Canyon biome, and it deserves protection.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwIufsaBGFc&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0]


This pebble in my boot, when it was one
still with its mother rock, cooled over tens
of centuries: a batholith. Bright grew
the flakes of muscovite, bright grew the pale
discolored quartz, each grain an infinite
fine tetrahedral tesselation, it
rose out of the depth of earth buoyant,
a yearning isostasy, then was stripped
of its crust-cover by dull-rasped storm.
At length outcropped, massive and without fault,
the rock began at once to decompose.
Frost-riven, wind-and water-worn, in turn
summer sun-scalded and ground down by ice,
mother rock failed. A craze, not half as wide
as spider strands, but still a root-purchase.
The mosses’ fierce and ravening grasp, the clench
of desert aster’s roots ratcheted, prised
apart by microscopic increment
rock from the monolith. Melt and refreeze:
ice put its Archimedean back against
the wall, strained quietly for centuries.
A thousand years, ten thousand, and the break:
Rockfall. A stony flinch, echoing gasp
as earth released its hold on earth, falling,
fracturing, a scattering of shards
and shrapnel. Storms to file the edges smooth,
an eon’s iterations, boulders rent
to cobbles, cobbles to stones,
shard-sanded scraps of stone a pediment
gravel apron mantling the mountain,
until the whole assemblage, self-entombed,
fuses itself, forms a conglomerate
core of some unborn range. This pebble in
my boot a scion of lands lost, a seed
of landscapes not yet made. This reddened heel
a blistered point of contact where my life
meets the much longer life of pulsing rock
falling, rising, its crests a mile above
and frequency unfathomably long.


[Time to haul this one out of the archives, what with all the targazing I’ve done the last couple days.]


“What is it that sets us apart,” she asked,
“from sunset or sierra?
What is the line between ourselves
and the terrain from which we come?”

He thought he knew, but something in her eyes
transfixed him in a way he knew too well.
Deep and dark and wet they stuck him fast.

In parts of California, long ago,
impressive monsters ambled in the hills:
placid armored sloths two people tall,
cats with teeth as long as boning knives,
dogs the size of bears. Now and again,
a glint of water tempted them, or else
a furry piece of meat held strangely still,
and only after the imprudent pounce
would the tar entomb them.
Now, the graduate students pick their bones.

When the land thus asserts your membership
in the vast assemblage of dust and bark,
of feather, fur and rock in which we live,
it’s best not to struggle overmuch.
The land is patient, yet insistent.
Fighting off the tar will muss your hair.
Paleontologists an era hence
will find your clothes awry. Embarrassing!
Far better just to let oneself be swallowed
in all-consuming pitch, placidly slurped
into the balm of Quaternary ages.

That’s what her eyes felt like, he thought;
a sudden lack of individual
identity: nothing sets us apart
one from the other, nor from the land around.

Breaking Pleistocene Update

I Am Zed's Mandible

I went over to the Page Museum this morning to get a look at some of the fossils they pulled out from underneath the May Company parking lot.

I got a handful of blurry, underexposed photos with my phone. They’re here.

On a side note, why is it the tourists always come up to me and ask me to explain things? I was just minding my own business reading the latest issue of Natural History near Pit 91, not bothering a soul or looking at all intelligent. Always, ALWAYS happens. Weird.

Coyote-killing “tournament” in Idaho

From our friends at Project Coyote, this upsetting press release.

Wildlife advocates are condemning an upcoming coyote killing “tournament”, scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 21, and sponsored by the Bent Rod Outdoors, a Challis business.

“This event has no place in the 21st Century”, said Brian Ertz, a Hailey resident, and president of Wildlife Watchers, a group that says wildlife viewing, rather than killing, is preferred by the majority of Idahoans. “We are urging concerned citizens to contact the Bent Rod Outdoors [(208) 879-2500], and also the Challis Chamber of Commerce [(208) 879-2771] to protest this day-long coyote slaughter.”

The coyote “tournament” was publicized through ads in the Challis Messenger on Feb. 12 and 18. When contacted, a Bent Rod employee stated that there would be prizes including cash for the most coyotes killed, the largest and smallest coyotes, and other categories. Coyote killers would enter the Bent Rod’s “tournament” by paying $25 per person, or $50 for a two-person team. The “contest” starts Saturday morning and ends that evening at Bent Rod Outdoors.

The full release is below the fold. You have time to make a call: I know it.

No, seriously, you do. Don’t make me pull out the pictures.

OK, fine.

coyote and raven

Idaho coyote and raven. Photos by Lynne K. Stone.

Challis Chamber of Commerce (208) 879-2771
Bent Rod Outdoors (208) 879-2500

Also, please note the ORV-related item in the release. Yeah, class acts, those guys. Respecters of wildlife, those guys.

Continue reading

Major cache of fossils unearthed in Los Angeles

From the Los Angeles Times:

Workers excavating an underground garage on the site of an old May Co. parking structure in Los Angeles’ Hancock Park got more than just a couple hundred new parking spaces. They found the largest known cache of fossils from the last ice age, an assemblage that has flabbergasted paleontologists.

Researchers from the George C. Page Museum at the La Brea tar pits have barely begun extracting the fossils from the sandy, tarry matrix of soil, but they expect the find to double the size of the museum’s collection from the period, already the largest in the world.

Among their finds, to be formally announced today, is the nearly intact skeleton of a Columbian mammoth—named Zed by researchers—a prize discovery because only bits and pieces of mammoths had previously been found in the tar pits.

According to the story, “Zed” is being cleaned in the Page Museum’s “fishbowl,” which means I’m gonna go gawk at it tomorrow.

The paleocontractors doing the excavating have a blog. You can see photos of one of them woman-handling an intact American lion (Panthera atrox) skull here.

[Updated] In other Breaking La Brea Tar Pits News,* researchers have isolated new species of bacteria and archaea living in—and off—the asphaltum in the Rancho La Brea seeps. These extremophile organisms possess the ability to metabolize the tar, and biotech developers are eyeing the microbes for environmental cleanup potential. I’m hoping for a spray application that will dissolve big knobby tires.

* How many redundancies can you spot here? The answer may scare you.

There’s no such thing as desertification

If you want evidence to support my increasingly frequent contention that environmentalists as a whole really don’t care about arid environments, it’s instructive to look at a bit of jargon in use over the last few decades.

The jargon is used to describe this process: People abuse a piece of land. They overgraze it. They build houses and cut down trees and pump water from wells, drawing down the water table. They use that water to irrigate crops, poisoning the land with accumulating dissolved salts. They start fires, by accident of on purpose, and the fires rage across the countryside. The soil’s protective coat of humus blows away. Animals die. The leaves that are green turn to brown.

In the jargon to which I refer, this process is called “desertification.”

Desertification. The transformation of useful, pleasant, healthy land—an agreed good—into desert, which is assumed to be bad.

What happens to a land that’s been “desertified”?  Fairly often, long-lived plants tend to die out and annual weeds, and their short-lived perennial associates, take over. Weeds are opportunists: they’ll grow in a hurry when moisture is available, set abundant seed, then die. They leave behind dry cellulose: fuel. Fuel feeds fires. Fires kill the remaining long-lived plants, the trees and rhizomatous herbs and such, clearing the soil for a new generation of weed seedlings.

Erosion gets ramped up as well. Water, when and where it makes an appearance, tends to gouge gullies in the landscape. Where a day-long gentle rain would have quietly soaked into the root-bound earth before “desertification,” now there’s nothing to hold it. The topography colects the gentle rain and turns it into flash floods. When the rain ebbs, wind carries away loose soil.

“Desertification” is a global problem, the official environmentalists tell us. It decreases the food security of the world’s most vulnerable people. “Desertification” is an important factor in the crisis in Darfur, in the collapse of the Mexican economy and consequent mass migration of displaced farmers, and a host of other global social crises.

Here’s a photo of “desertified” land.

desertified land in Australia

Here’s another:

desertified land in Central Asia

And another:

desertified land in Darfur

Pretty bleak stuff.

Way bleaker than most actual deserts. Here’s a desert landscape:

Arthur J. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park

Here’s another:

Christmas Tree Pass 7

And another:

Tucson Mountain Park

There is a difference between land that has been “desertified” and an actual desert. 

You may point out that I’ve deliberately sought out beautiful, lush photos to represent deserts, to contrast them unfairly with the trashed land currently referred to as “desertified.” Fair enough. Here’s a lush, beautiful photo of some bonafide “desertified” land, in the long-overgrazed Rio Puerco drainage in Arizona:


Gorgeous, lush compared to some actual desert landscapes, nice pronghorn ready for his close-up. And “desertified” rather than a desert. The Rio Puerco basin gets enough precipitation to be considered steppe rather than desert, and yet look at the monoculture of invasive grass there. There is no diversity to speak of in this shot, except for the pronghorn who can trot off to a more diverse landscape 50 miles away and get there in an hour.

Some people working on “desertification” are beginning to point out this difference between “desertified” lands and deserts, pointing out that deserts are actually diverse and more or less stable habitats with their own values to wildlife and to people, but those same activists tend to call deserts something other than deserts. “Drylands” is common. The fact is, it’s “desertification” that should be called something else. Badlandification. Dustification. Parkinglotification. Burningmanification. If we could actually turn land into desert, there’d be a lot less argument over the sites of things like massive corporate solar concentrating facilities in creosote-tortoise habitat. I’d be thrilled if we could truly desertify some of the land around Bakersfield, for instance, to take the worn-out, selenium-poisoned, groundwater overdrafted subsidized cotton fields there and grow cryptobiotic soil crusts on them, get some rabbitbrush growing and some barrel cacti and some Mojave ground squirrels established.

The problem is that actual deserts are the lands most threatened by what environmentalists call “desertification”: invasive weeds are raging through the deserts like the wildfires they spawn, water diversions cause subsidence and old tree death, and dust storms are more common in the Mojave now than they were during the Dust Bowl. To call this sterilizing of land “desertification” is to reinforce the notion that deserts are worthless, damaged things to be avoided, mended or improved upon, and certainly not places worth preserving when the alternative is cozying up to Big Green Energy.

Most chillingly, the remedy for “desertified” lands is usually referred to as “reclamation.” “Reclaiming the desert,” they call it.

Here is a photo of a reclaimed desert landscape:

waterskiier on Lake Powell

Here’s another:

Phoenix, Arizona

And another:

Bellagio and Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada

Best field guide ever

I don’t do paid reviews of books nor other products, and I think bloggers who do are unethical — whether they disclose that the review is paid or not. I say this because I’m about to rant about how amazingly cool iBird Explorer Plus is, to the point where people might start to wonder. In fact, I didn’t even get a review copy: I paid full retail.

I used to fantasize about having a field guide that took advantage of high tech data storage and retrieval wizardry. Imagine: a hand-held, interactive and searchable database field guide, with range maps, identifying information, sound, and sharp images both drawn and photographed. (When I used to daydream about such a thing it generally weighed five pounds and was about the size of a standard box of Kleenex.)

I have that field guide now.

iBird Explorer browse screeniBird Explorer Plus, an application for the Apple iPhone, is a database of 891 North American bird species. (There’s a Windows Mobile version, Winged Explorer, which I haven’t seen, and a handful of smaller regional versions for the iPhone.)  You fire up the application and — after a splash screen displayed while the app loads — you find yourself at the browse window. You can select any of the 891 species, scrolling through the long alphabetical list, or you can hit the “search” button at the bottom and bring up the interactive key.

iBird Explorer key screen If you know that the bird in question is a swallow, say, or a wren, and you’re just not sure which one, you can enter some of the word in that text field at the top to narrow down your choices. You can then select known information from the fields below, which include location by state, general shape of the bird (is it hawk-shaped or duck-shaped or wren-shaped, and so forth), size, habitat (coast, desert, etc.), whether or not the bird frequents feeders, patterns and coloration of the suspect’s plumage, bill shape and size, and family. With each selection, the app narrows down the list of possibilities. Given the size of the database and the number of entries, the app processes your selections relatively quickly.

iBird Explorer individual species treatment The individual species accounts are well-designed if, for obvious reasons of data conservation, a bit cursory. Each individual page has links to succinct and well-organized species information, a more extensive treatment of the species on the web, range maps, a photo to complement the drawing, a list of similar species and — coolest of all for people like me who tend to bird by ear — recordings of each bird’s voice. These recordings are clear enough, and loud enough, that you could use them to attract birds of the appropriate species — and the software provides a reminder about the ethical implications of doing just that. The sound page also features a list of similar-sounding birds, if appropriate, and you can hear each similar recording without leaving the page.

iBird Explorer range map screen The guide has been compiled by the committed birders at whatbird.com, and they show their experience in the birding community by assuming they’re going to get flak for inaccuracies, die-hard ornithophiles picking nits of varying size over rangemaps and descriptions, descriptions of behavior, and the like. They’ve already heard from birders that the app doesn’t provide enough detail on seasonal variations in plumage, for instance. This is where the concept of the app really shines: the purchase price includes a lifetime subscription to updates, and the developers promise to incorporate users’ criticisms to make the app more and more useful with each iteration. Personally, I’d like to see the developers make use of the iPhone’s GPS functionality and calendar, so that one could rule out goshawks and cardinals when one’s phone happens to be in the Mojave and Scott’s orioles if it’s winter in the Mojave. Even better, the app could use those functions and flag species as “uncommon,” “occasional vagrant,” and “hurry up and call the Audubon Society hotline.”

This app is brilliant, and it’ll get better. It’s a clever use of the iPhone’s technology that will actually increase people’s knowledge of, and appreciation for, the planet they’re on. How often does that happen? I suspect that there will be people who’ll buy the iPhone (or iPod touch) solely to use this app, and I have trouble saying that’s a completely bad idea.

Available through the iTunes store, the full version of iBird Explorer costs $19.99.

Tortoise alert: letters needed

From the Center for Biological Diversity:

Last year, the Army moved more than 750 tortoises off of pristine desert lands in order to expand its Fort Irwin army base in California’s Mojave desert. Not all tortoises were monitored, but of those that were, more than 90 of them died—many eaten by starving coyotes who had lost their typical prey base of squirrels and rabbits due to epic desert drought. Also, the Army moved healthy tortoises into populations known to have the often-deadly upper respiratory tract disease, against the recommendations of epidemiologists. Because of the high tortoise death toll and legal action by the Center, the Army temporarily suspended the translocation of tortoises in 2008.

Now, the Army and the Bureau of Land Management are rushing to move more tortoises in 2009 in order to rid the expanded Army base of more of their tortoises. The federally threatened desert tortoise population cannot withstand yet another ill-conceived and hastily implemented translocation. Please write to the Army and Bureau of Land Management today asking that they implement a full environmental review process based on a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement.

The accelerated comment period is a joke. It was announced by press release on the weekend of February 7, set for February 18 — eleven days’ notice.

Take action here.