Monthly Archives: December 2009

Our cosmic horizon in space and time!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17jymDn0W6U&hl=en&fs=1]

Or a kinder, gentler, more polished version of the Total Perspective Vortex, courtesy the American Museum of Natural History! And about time too, since the older flash version I’d posted a while ago seems to have vanished from the internets.

I needed this as I struggle to find sleep this sad night… so thank you @aasif_mandvi for pointing it out!

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

In memoriam: SA Hussain

At year’s end, it comes to this – more sad news for ornithology and conservation in India. 2009, this wicked year, started off by snatching away Ravi Sankaran from us in January, went on to claim Alan Rodgers at the end of March, and has now rounded itself off by taking away another doyen of Indian natural history in the person of Syed Abdulla Hussain. Via Nathistory-India came news a short while ago that SA Hussain passed away on the penultimate night of this lousy year.

(images courtesy of Manoj Singh and Bharat Bhushan via Facebook)

I remember spending a month or so with him in Dachigam National Park, Kashmir one summer some 20 years ago. I was a tyro then, doing field work for my MSc dissertation (from the Wildlife Institute of India) on the bird communities of Lower Dachigam Valley. Luckily for me in my very first field season, SA Hussain arrived in the park just as I was beginning my transects to count birds. He came with a team of graduate students and Bihari trappers from the Bombay Natural History Society on a bird ringing project, and camped for some weeks. It was the first time I had the opportunity to observe and participate in an intensive mist-netting operation. I hadn’t the resources nor expertise to attempt any such thing for my own thesis work – and no one at WII did either! Hussain taught me how to remove small birds from the fine nylon mesh (you do it carefully), and the importance of always carrying a swiss army knife in one’s pockets (and, of course, wearing a birder’s vest with many such pockets!) when doing so. For the little pair of scissors sure come in handy at times when a bird gets badly entangled and you have to cut the net to free the poor beast! Especially things like small woodpeckers that tend to get their long tongues caught in a knot of nylon – not a pretty sight, and not for the squeamish. I particularly remember a lovely Wryneck we had one day (it was’t badly entangled), and how we marveled at its remarkably flexible neck! Skills he taught me then, even though I wasn’t formally his student, still stand me in good stead.

It’s been a while since I last heard from him, even on Facebook where we had become friends again over the past year. I had heard that he was ill some time ago, but wasn’t aware of the extent of his illness. It was good to see pictures of him walking around in the woods during the Great Himalayan Bird Count just last month where he also accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award (see full gallery on posterous for additional images). I didn’t think he was all that old nor that seriously ill, so this news came as a bit of a shock. I hope he didn’t suffer too much in the end.

My condolences to the family, to his students, to BNHS, which was his home for many years, and to the larger naturalist / ornithologist / conservationist community of which he was such a crucial part. He is the third figure I have lost this year from among my early influences in field biology, all in one painful long year.
May the new year bring us all better news, and good riddance to this pathetic one.

Did a dog run the Sea Lions off of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco?

This is rather worrisome, coming right on the heels of my post about poor farmers in India allowing migratory geese to coexist with them!

One of our favorite things to do in San Francisco is to wander down to Fisherman’s Wharf for a nice walk breathing in the salt air, get some chowder in a bowl (or crab if feeling rich!), and go hang out on Pier 39 to watch the Sea Lions lounging out on the floating wooden docks most times of the year. You may have read my post about this, or seen these pictures:

Earlier this week, @GarySoup raised an alarm by tweeting that the sea lions have moved on, accompanied by this photo of the empty docks at Pier 39. This was immediately picked up by a couple of writers at Wired magazine, @pgcat and @alexismadrigal, with the latter digging into the story further to post this report, which includes this quote:

“We have no idea where they moved on to or why,” said Shelbi Stoudt, who manages a team that helps stranded animals in the San Francisco Bay from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California.

The sea lions’ disappearance is as strange as their initial colonization of the pier about 20 years ago, in late 1989. They just started showing up one day and as their numbers increased, their traditional hang out, Seal Rocks, became less populated. There are all sorts of theories about why the pier became a favorite haul-out spot for the sea lions, but no one knows for sure why the animals’ behavior changed.

Stoudt averred that the officials at the Marine Mammal Center weren’t worried about the animals’ disappearance from their standard location. The sea lions are migratory animals, after all, and it’s natural for them to move around.

No reason to worry then? Apparently there hasn’t been anything else unusual weather(or other)wise in the Bay this winter, despite the El Nino currently brewing in the Pacific. Yet:

The disappearance is unusual, though. The animals’ numbers usually peak in late fall and many stick around during the winter months before heading south for the summer. According to the Marine Mammal Center’s FAQ on the animals, “from late summer to late spring, 150 to 300 sea lions haul out here,” though their numbers can run much higher.

This year saw a massive influx of sea lions. In fact, a Marine Mammal Center survey conducted in the fall found 1,585 mammals hauled out on the spot, an all-time high. Some of them invaded a neighboring area, the Hyde Street Pier, where they may have been scared away by an itinerant fisherman’s dog.

Apparently some of the fishermen aren’t as enamored of the sea lions as us urbanites:

One recently told a local radio station, “They’re cute when they’re in here lying on the docks by Pier 39, but they’re not too cute out in the ocean when they’re stealing your livelihood.”

So it appears that at least one fisherman, and his pit bull/golden retreiver mix dog, managed to scare off the sea lions from Hyde Street Pier (which does not provide the exclusive protected docks that Pier 39 does, and therefore doesn’t normally get large numbers of these animals hanging out there), apparently to the relief of some there, the Marine Mammal Protection Act notwithstanding. While Pier 39 remained protected and far enough from that dog (or any others) hassling the beasts, one is still left with the nagging feeling that they may have decided that they’d had enough of this tenuous relationship with this human habitat. After all, this wouldn’t be the first time that a dog has contributed to local extinction of some species.

“It’s exactly opposite of what we’ve seen over the last 10 years,” said Sheila Chandor, Pier 39’s harbor master. “I think it’s food. Usually this time of year, we have a lot of herring coming through.”

Chandor said that some sea lions tagged by the Marine Mammal Center had been located south of Monterey but cautions that the link to the sea lions’ food supply is just “guesswork.”

A quick check on the Webcam mounted at the Pier 39 Restaurant proves the sea lions are definitely gone from Pier 39’s K Dock. A dozen or so remain on J Dock, according to Chandor.

The population of human sea-lion watchers remained steady.

Stoudt and her team aren’t sending out a search crew. The sea lions are, after all, migratory, she told Wired.com.

So, whatever the reason, the sea lions just up and left – but where to? And will they return? Or is it really “So long, and thanks for all the fish” time? After all, the sea lions may be aliens too, like their cousins the northern elephant seals that seem to come from another planet according to Rudy Ortiz’s recent talk at Fresno State.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see…

Greylag Geese and a conservation story for the new year

As we count down to the end of the noughties (which in so many ways have been quite dismal for biodiversity on our planet), it is nice to find some rays of hope, some silver linings, so we can look forward to the next year and the coming decade not entirely bereft of optimism. I am glad, therefore, to share with you, this guest post from Sumit K. Sen who offers just such a story of reconciliation ecology in action in one of the poorest regions of India:

Greylag Geese and a conservation story for the new year
The new year is always a time for good cheer and hope. It has been some time since I have found anything to cheer about in terms of conservation success as far as birds are concerned. All I have seen and read are about the struggle of selfless individuals against the forces of destructive development. But for me the best stories are the ones that are spontaneous – those that come from enlightenment and not mere education. To witness such spontaneous acts of conservation has been a life-enriching experience for me – and I have found some true conservationists in places like faraway Mizoram, and closer home at Santragachi and Rajhat.

Last Saturday, Bhaskar Das and I ventured on a 250 km drive from Kolkata to a small unheralded village in Birbhum District of rural West Bengal – to the agricultural settlement of Parulia. Parulia is an impoverished village living on the brink of existence. Its inhabitants, like most people of the district are a mix of tribals and other locals. All meat-eaters, and many partly hunter-gatherers. Little is known about Parulia except that it came into prominence in early 2008 because of the spread of bird flu in the district. There were talks of cull of migratory ducks and tales of local resistance – one villager being quoted as saying: ” The birds come here every winter. We love them.”  That was about all that was known about Parulia as a place for birds or about its conservation success.

The existence of Parulia and its association with birds would have passed into obscurity for us had it not been for Mr. Anup Kr. Dey. Mr. Dey is a bird lover and his passion for birds and birding was fueled by the internet and the presence of websites such as ‘Birds of India’ and forums like ‘Bird Photo India’ and ‘Bengalbird’. In these he found cyber companions to encourage and support his lonely  pursuit of birds of Birbhum District – and I was lucky that he chose to share his pent up passion with me over mail/phone. Being a District Engineer, Mr. Dey knows every nook and corner of his district, and it was his description of Parulia that urged our 4.30 am departure on a cold and foggy morning.

We reached Parulia by 9.30am, guided by Mr. Dey from Suri onwards. An agricultural landscape dotted with small ponds took us to a square irrigation tank 170 meters across. In it were about 400 Greylags – some  feeding,  others resting while the rest of the village went about their business ~ with some even washing utensils while the geese swam past. It was an unbelievable sight to us from eastern India – a sight which is proof that conservation is way beyond some forest guards doing their duty or some highly educated people making their passion and presence felt. This is grassroot conservation from the heart and I wish that there are many more like these.

I could not think of ending 2009 with a better story. Here is hoping that there will be more like this in 2010.

-End-

1. Parulia is here: http://bit.ly/Parulia . It is 3kms north-east of Santhia town.
2. Greylag Geese: Greylag Geese are winter visitors to India from eastern Europe and Asia from the Urals eastwards. Asad Rahmani & Zafar-ul-Islam in Ducks, Geese and Swans of India (BNHS 2008) estimate that about 15,000 winter in India. 1% population (150 in this case) in a single area is considered significant for conservation. This is the biggest known single site for this species in West Bengal at present times.


Tonight on NOVA: What Darwin Never Knew

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

Just getting ready to watch this 2-hr documentary on PBS NOVA tonight. But in looking for this clip on YouTube, I found a British series titled “What Darwin didn’t know” – sounds intriguing, and I may share it here later.

Posted via web from leafwarbler’s posterous

Rush Hour in Yosemite: the American Wilderness Experience

Yosemite National Park is an enduring symbol of the American “wilderness“, a textbook example of how National Parks protect Nature by holding at bay the rising tide of humanity’s demands on natural resources. National Parks are instead meant to be a different medium for us to experience and enjoy those natural resources – as aesthetic ones to be protected for posterity. If you’ve ever been to such a place as Yosemite armed with a camera, go back and look at your images (as I just did) and ponder how much you edit your own experience of this wilderness! How do you frame your pictures, when you attempt to capture the beauty of nature and wildlife? Do you include our fellow tourists, our conspecifics (not counting the obligatory family vacation shots), as part of that nature? If not (and I don’t often enough), why not? Do you find yourself wishing there just weren’t so darn many people out there, tramping through this wilderness, and spoiling your own serene immersion into it? Ignoring the rather inconvenient factoid that you are also but one among that teeming mass of humanity that wants this experience for its collective soul! But isn’t that what a National Park in a democracy is meant to be: a way to share the experience with everybody, rather than an elite few? How then do we accomplish that sharing without destroying that which is being shared, the very wilderness we all want to experience?

What would you get if you pointed your camera the other way – at the c.3.5 million people who visit Yosemite every year? Steven Bumgardner, a videographer for the National Park Service has done just that to produce this remarkable time-lapse video of people in Yosemite one July (which is effectively the rush month for that park):

People in Yosemite: A TimeLapse Study from Steven M. Bumgardner on Vimeo.

Yosemite is bigger than Rhode Island at almost 800,000 acres, but it receives about 3.5 million visitors each year, and most of them spend time in Yosemite Valley. This project was shot back in 2005 after purchasing a Sony Z1U. This was my first HD project (ok, fine, HDV) and I spent about a week in Yosemite during the busy month of July. The footage was all shot in real time, and then sped up in post.

I chose busy places during busy days to show the effects of this mass of humanity. I could have just as easily pointed my camera in another direction and shown nothing but plants, animals and wilderness. Yosemite is popular, but it’s also still a relatively wild place.

I’ve lived and worked in National Parks for almost 20 years, and as much as I love landscape photography, I also like looking at the human footprint and the human experience in our national parks. Some of this footage helped me get my current job in 2006, as a videoographer for the National Park Service and the photographer/editor/producer of the web video series “Yosemite Nature Notes” http://www.nps.gov/yose/naturenotes

The music is from Peter Gabriel’s “Passion” (a.k.a. the soundtrack from Martin Scorcese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”)

Scientia Pro Publica #18: the last of the oughties edition!

028CF91C-54C2-4589-B5AF-CDD794950600.jpegWell, this carnival doesn’t really have much to do with the impending end of the oughties decade, but since everybody seems to be going on about it, compiling decadal reviews and best-of lists, I just tossed it up there. Caught your eye, didn’t it? But didn’t turn you off, I hope… 🙂

So, welcome to this (late) winter solstice edition of Scientia Pro Publica, and dig into a fair helping of hearty reading matter to keep you company by the fireside as this winter rolls you over into the double digit years of the new millennium.

Let us begin, for this is the holiday season, with some thoughts about food: about the diversity of our food sources, about how much we waste, and about how often we are hoist by our own petards in attempting to manage our precious natural – esp. food – resources. Let’s start with Jeremy Cherfas, who has over the past year taken us along on the journeys of N. I. Vavilov, that pioneering explorer and champion of agricultural biodiversity. Vaviblog makes for very interesting reading indeed, especially for someone like me who doesn’t know much about Vavilov. But here, Jeremy rather uncharacteristically lets loose with a rant about the difficulty of pinpointing the exact location of one of Vavilov’s collections in the Sahara, and takes us through the frustrations of finding information in GeneBank and other online databases that are supposed to make the life of the modern keyboard explorer much easier than that of people like Vavilov who, you know, actually went out to the frikking Sahara in pursuit of interesting plants! Without, mind you, GPS or iPhones or laptops, as one of his commenters reminds us. Still, what’s the point of all this talk about making information accessible to everyone if one can’t pinpoint and georeference where Vavilov found a particular plant a century ago? I want my data instantly, don’t you? Well, if you’re carried away by expectations of CSI like speed in modern data acquisition, let Heilochica bring you down to earth with a (hopefully) comprehensible explanation of something complicated!

But let’s stick with Jeremy a while longer and visit his another blasted weblog to read about a recent PLoS paper on how much food is wasted in America; some sobering statistics there, to be sure, plus the disquieting observation that there is no incentive in this country for anyone in the food industry to stop producing, consuming, and wasting food, environmental and human health consequences be damned! Ponder that while you tuck into the holiday treats. And if you have to bake wheat-alternative cookies because you or someone you know is allergic to gluten, Eric Olson shares a scitimes video about Celiac disease, which may be the most under-diagnosed health problem in America today (and something I’d never heard of back home in India!).

Meanwhile, we are losing the sources of biodiversity that form the basis of our food security, even as we blithely overproduce and throw away food! What’s a conservationist to do to change such odd human behavior? Well, not what they did in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, where they encouraged coconut farming as a way to lure people away from fishing in order to relieve pressures on fish stocks! Find out what happened on the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, in another post by Jeremy about the law of unintended consequences! Which bring me to the question from one of my own recent posts: what is it with these Pacific island nations and their penchant for such tragicomedies?

Lest you think this carnival is turning into mostly a one-man-show, let me assure you that there is plenty more that came not from Jeremy’s keyboard! For instance, continuing with fishy business, here’s a post that makes this one something of a meta-carnival, a Fishy Friday roundup of fish in tanks! And if you ever found yourself agreeing with Bertie Wooster’s assessment that Jeeves’ superior intellect was a result of a diet rich in fish, you may be underestimating his (Jeeves’ not Wooster’s) neuroplasticity, the subject of a fascinating interview with Michael Merznenich at SharpBrains on the applications of neuroplasticity to keep all our minds sharp even as we age.

Then there is Mama Joules with two poisonous posts: first, a disturbing one about the dangers of lead poisoning in your home, and the still high childhood exposure rate even years after lead based paints were banned in the US. Followed by a lovely introduction to venom & vomit in Tarantulas! Gotta love them.

Given the brouhaha over the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, I’m a bit surprised at the lack of submissions about anthropogenic global warming/climate change! Perhaps we are all over-saturated with COP15 coverage? Still, there is no shortage of controversy, genuine or manufactured, when it comes to climate change, as these two posts show: a kind of curiously provocative post that suggests nuclear energy may still become part of our green energy future – safely(?) (I have a more cynical take on the subject as I think we are addicted enough to energy in our technology-dependent societies that we are near a threshold where the marginal benefit of nuclear energy will outweigh the risks regardless of the environmental consequences. But that’s me being Grinchy again). Meanwhile, whatgreeninvestment.com challenges us to ignore the pseudo-controversy over climate-gate and consider the climate change problem in the framework of Pascal’s wager: act as if anthropogenic climate change is real because the risks of not believing it are too great! Interesting thought that – and one that James Randi might consider, having rather startlingly fallen prey to AGW denialism in a manner worrisome to his most loyal supporters.

But, enough with the controversies and bad news. Let’s celebrate the season while we still can, while there still is enough biodiversity to stimulate, delight, and challenge us. For even as we worry about losing species, we continue to discover delightful new ones, like the world’s tiniest orchid that GrrlScientist (matriarch of this carnival) writes about. At the other end of the organismal size spectrum, Kevin Zelnio wonders why we don’t have even larger whales? What keeps the blue whales, for example, from evolving to even larger body sizes? Not the fluid dynamic challenges of using a volkswagen sized heart to pump blood, or the constraints of depending on the tiny krill for food – but a recent paper suggests it may be that their mouths would have to be too big (may already be too big, proportionally) to keep that humongous body fed! That’s why I love reading about evolutionary trade-offs and constraints, and allometry!

Let me leave you with two more posts that share the physical, emotional, and intellectual excitement of studying life on this planet of ours. Over on NCF’s blog eco logic, Manish Chandi describes his unexpected delight in discovering brooding geckos and gorgeous snakes while on a short focused ethnographic research trip to Chowra island in the Nicobar archipelago. And Hielochica expresses her excitement in studying hydrothermal vents – which she considers a mysterious love-child of geology and biology! What could be more fun than that?

So have a happy and safe holiday my friends, and I wish you all a wonderful, productive new year full of many an unexpectedly delightful discovery. And don’t forget to ring in the new year with the next edition of Scientia Pro Publica: issue #19 will be curated by GrrlScientist and Bob O’hara (submit entries per instructions here) and hosted at the latter’s Deep Thoughts and Silliness,

Scientia Pro Publica will be here shortly… but check out Valley Cafe Sci in the meantime!

Just a quick note to say that I am compiling the 18th edition of Scientia Pro Publica as promised… but have been held up with distractions such as grade submissions, grant applications, needy grad students, preparing a paper for presentation at SICB in two weeks, planning Café Scientifique, plus a broken vehicle – some things that kind of took a higher priority. Also something about doing the job I’m paid for rather than all this bloggity-blog-blog blogosity, if you can believe it?!

But, fear not – I am back on this job as I settle into the comfy couch listening to the gentle drumming of rain on the roof as we get doused by another round of winter rains. Enjoying reading the subsmissions, and will have a round up for you by tomorrow.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t got anything special planned for the evening of the first Monday of the new year (that’ll be January 4th), and happen to be in the neighborhood, why not partake of the next event from the Central Valley Café Scientifique, where Paul Mills of the UCSF Fresno Medical Educational Program will talk about the epidemiology of lung cancer in the Central Valley. And we’ll be at a nice new venue, the Peruvian fusion joint Limón in the River Park area of Fresno.

I myself will have to miss it, however, because I will be in Seattle presenting the above mentioned paper at the SICB meeting that week. But do go – the Café is a lot of fun!

Now I better get back to reading those blog submissions…