Friday, December 30, 2011

Mining Fracking Sand

Frack Sand Mining- Ozark Waters
 By now, everyone is familiar with hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas extraction, a.k.a. "fracking."  The environmental concerns about effects of the process on our aquifers were outlined in last year's blog.  The first report of possible ground water contamination was released by the EPA on December 8, 2011.  Unfortunately, that isn't the only possible side effect of fracking.

Even areas of Missouri which are spared the concerns or potential wealth of fracking may be facing environmental side effects of mining the special sand which is used in the process.  David Casaletto has outlined the concerns in the current issue of the .

Without becoming an alarmist, there are some real potential problems that should be considered before major mining takes place in environmentally sensitive areas (meaning around water, land and wildlife).  David's article explains this fully and can't be summarized any better than he has done.  Click on Ozarks Water Watch newsletter for a quick review.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

An Irruption of Owls

This story from Charley Burwick of GOAS* and Master Naturalists fame.

Click to enlarge- Greg Swick, GOAS
“Irruption,” yech! - sounds like something you would hear from your doctor.  However, in the birder’s world that is a word that really grabs attention.  An irruption, in the avian world, specifically means some bird, or group of bird species from the tundra, or northern boreal forest moving much farther south than the norm during the winter months.  While it includes many songbird species, the one that really grabs our attention and excitement is when raptors, and more to the point owls, are the ones coming far into the lower 48 states. 

A few years ago, the Great Gray Owls, and Northern Hawk Owls came flowing south into the lower 48 northern tier of states.  Both of these species can be seen in Minnesota from time to time, but this particular year, they were down in huge numbers.  The numbers were much, much higher than ever recorded, or noted in history.  On a visit to Minnesota during this event, my friends and I saw a few of the Hawk Owls (hence my license plate HWK-OWL), and on one day spotted over 70 Great Gray Owls.  Because these birds are not typically around humans, they have no fear of us.  You can stand within just a few yards of them, and they pretty much ignore you.  We observed one, just a few feet from us, fly from a stump, and dive into the deep snow, and come up with a rodent to eat.  What an exhilarating experience.

What caused this irruption?  It is believed there had been an explosive number in the population of rodents, and consequently, a very successful fledging rate of Great Gray Owls.  The sad part of this event is that many of the Great Gray Owls, which were mostly immature birds, starved, and a significant number ended up being road kill.  Once again, not being around metal animals, they would just sit in the middle of a road, and watch a vehicle as it would run them over.  In response, special teams organized to catch and relocate the birds.  To what level of success, we don’t know.

Now, this year, we are experiencing another irruption of owls.  Only this year the species is the Snowy Owl.  It is not unusual for a Snowy Owl or two, to show up in the very northern counties of Missouri during the winter months.  One may stick around in one area long enough for one of us crazy people to make a run to the north to spot one.  I have been so fortunate twice in past years.  However, this year, we are experiencing, once again, an irruption of numbers of a historical magnitude.  At first, two, and then three Snowy Owls were hanging around Smithville Lake, just north of Kansas City.  I had to make the run to see this owl species once again.  They really are a magnificent bird to see, and it is not just the same as viewing them on TV, or a picture on a calendar.  Fortunately, my friends and I spotted three that cool morning.  Remarkable- I never, in my wildest dreams, ever expected to see three Snowy Owls in one morning within a mile of each other in our state.

The story for this year is not over yet.  Just this past week, five Snowy Owls were spotted around Smithville Lake and another one was spotted in Columbia, next to a Holiday Inn, along I 70.  On at least two Christmas Bird Counts, a Snowy Owl was noted on the counts, including one at the Squaw Creek refuge, northwest of St. Joseph.  Yet, the numbers are still going up, as at least another 6-8 have been noted across other northern counties in the state this past week.  Several have been reported in Kansas, from Topeka, to Wichita, and Hutchinson area, and as far south as Oklahoma, northwest of Tulsa.

The next chapter is already being played out.  Several Snowy Owls in the state have been reported found dead, thought to be from starvation.  And, yes, the metal monster has already harvested a few.  As we can note, the numbers are still increasing every day.  When will the numbers slow down?  Who knows?  What has caused this irruption?  Right now, who knows?  The major tool being used to track this activity is eBird (, a citizen science reporting system sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and National Audubon Society.  Take a look at the eBird web page; learn more about the Snowy Owl, and what is going on during this irruption.  eBird is an outstanding tool, not just for Snowy Owls, but all birds, even the ones in your backyard.  Watch out, you may get hooked.

*GOAS- Greater Ozarks Audubon Society

Monday, December 26, 2011

Solar Power- Green with Brown Spots?

70,000 Solar Panels- Click to enlarge
A news release from reminds us that everything has its price.  Even something as "green" as solar power has environmental costs beyond the production of the solar panels themselves.   

The pictured field shows 40 acres of unused land on Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada with 70,000 solar panels.  With hundreds of thousands of acres of solar fields being considered, we need to have an estimate of the environmental costs.  Unfortunately, we don't.

Many of these fields are planned for desert areas where species survival can be fragile.  Habitat changes would include fragmentation from power lines and roads, soil disturbance creating excessive dust and evaporation ponds for the collection of toxins.  Pollutants such as the necessary dust and rust suppressants could threaten the area.  The facilities will generate heat, electromagnetic fields, noise, and polarized light whose cumulative effects on the environment are unknown.

Environmental impact studies will need to be performed before solar fields proliferate.  Solar power is definitely renewable, but once again, everything has its environmental price.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Remote Pollution

from Lund University
There is new evidence of nitrogen pollution that began with the industrial revolution, and it is found in remote lakes.  Studies reported from Lund University in Sweden have found increased nitrogen levels occurring since the late 19th century in lakes thousands of miles from cities.

Studies in the USA, Canada, Greenland and Svalbard, Norway show the nitrogen pollution levels started in 1895 and have accelerated in the last sixty years.  This correlates with the rise in combustible fuels and increasing artificial fertilizer use across the developed world.
 “I have studied lakes on Svalbard, where the effects of the increased nitrogen deposition are clearly visible in the algal flora”, says Sofia Holmgren.  She explains that both the species composition and production of diatoms – microscopic siliceous algae – have changed dramatically in the lakes on Svalbard since the start of the 20th century, with the most significant changes over the past decades.
Like acid rain in the past, these remote changes demonstrate the continued planet-wide impact of humans.  We act at the local level by educating our neighbors about preserving our clean water supplies.  One way is to start with our 5th graders at the Watershed Festivals held by JRBP.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Belly Button Biodiversity

Bob Ranney
Fellow Master Naturalist Bob Ranney sent me this offering, so I will let him take over from here.

Master Naturalists like to think that we have a pretty good understanding of the environment and the interrelationships of natural life, but you probably have no idea of the complexity of life in your own belly button.

Are you aware? REALLY aware?? Do you want to be?!?!?  For those bold enough to go where bacteria have gone before, go to

Editor's Note
 In the words of the authors of the Belly Button Biodiversity Project, "Lady Gaga may live the wild life, but she also hosts it." For a head to toe assessment of what's growing on your body (or your spouse/friends/kids/grandparents) go to The top 10 life-forms living on Lady Gaga (and you).

...and remember, this was Bob Ranney's idea!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Caterpillar Mimicry

Monarch Caterpillar- Wikimedia
New research has found that some caterpillar's coloration mimics the appearance of other toxic caterpillars.  Studies done in the Caribbean and the upper Amazon and reported by found that some caterpillars of the Danaini group (which includes Monarch butterflies) have taken on the pattern of their toxic cousins as a defense against predators.  This is a well known defense in butterflies but not commonly recognized in their larval stage.

Many species of butterflies have caterpillars that can ingest toxic chemicals from their larval food plants without harm.  These chemicals are incorporated into their bodies and remain in the adult butterflies.  A predator that eats one and gets sick won't want to eat another one or anything that looks like it.  Many of these butterfly species have distinct bright warning patterns, called aposematic coloration, which advertises their toxicity.

Some butterflies have evolved similar patterns even though they lack the toxicity, and are therefore avoided by predators.  This is called Batesian mimicry.  Examples include the viceroy butterfly which resembles the toxic monarch.  The toxic pipevine swallowtail has several mimics including spicebush and black swallowtails.  You can see these examples again when the Friends of the Garden Butterfly House opens this May at the Botanical Center.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Atlatl- MDC
This year Missouri became the second state to allow deer hunting by atlatl.  In a return to the past, the first successful deer kill by atlatl in Missouri has just been reported. While  not performed by a hunter dressed as the one on the right, the principle was the same.

Tim Smith writes about the atlatl in the MDC Fresh Afield blog.  This was the standard weapon used by Missouri hunters from the days of the mastodon until at least 1,000 BC when the bow and arrow first came into use.  This new technology became the standard with time, but in truth, the atlatl still had some advantages.

Modern bows using advanced materials and technology have greatly increased the force of the arrow.  Modern arrow heads have blades you could shave with, able to penetrate all the way through the deer's chest.  Not so with the early bow and arrow.

An atlatl on the other hand can be thrown by one hand.  It provides more force by extending the effective length of the hunter's arm.  The heavier projectile, called the dart, traveling with greater velocity creates deeper penetration of the point.

You can find the history of the atlatl and its reintroduction to deer hunting in Missouri in the Missourian article and see an atlatl in action in a video from Missourian.
For the atlatl obsessed, see the resources at AtlatlNewsletter.html.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Butterfly Range

Clouded Sulfur
December 12th, fifteen degrees the night before but in mid-afternoon it was a sunny forty degrees.  To my surprise there were clouded sulfur butterflies flitting around in the short brown grass, landing on the green spots of chickweed and other winter annuals.  The books say that they fly until November but obviously these specimens lack either the books or a calendar.  Perhaps they are just glad to be flying without the threat of my net.

Like other animals, butterflies have a temperature range in which they can survive.  Having laid their eggs on members of the pea/bean family such as clover, their eggs have hatched by now and their over wintering caterpillars are under cover for the winter.  These butterflies are apparently following their biological imperative out of habit, perhaps for one last fling.

Research described by EurekaAlert describes the double jeopardy facing some butterfly species with tolerance to a very narrow range of temperatures.  They are threatened by climate change in their native range as well as changes in their habitat.  Fragmentation of habitat limits their ability to seek new territory and constricts their gene pool.

Fortunately, our ubiquitous clouded sulfurs are oblivious to both threats and the calendar.  With more hard freezes ahead, I just hope their kids are safely tucked in bed for the winter.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Bad Day for Eared Grebes

Alex Chamberlain, Blue Desert Digital
A news story from describes a crash landing of tens of thousands of Eared Grebes in Cedar City, Utah during a winter snow storm.  They escaped a cold sky through the clouds and apparently mistook snow covered surfaces with lights on them, such as parking lots, for lakes and tried to make a water landing.

Thousands were injured or killed on the solid landing and others were stranded in the cold as they require a large water surface to get airborne again.

Apparently, the birds can not survive the cold or land on frozen water and came down en masse to find shelter from the storm that hit Cedar City.  An estimated 15,000 grebes died but the community was able to save 3,500 by transporting them to nearby open water.

We can do little to prevent these situations but as we move into nature and remove some natural food sources, it serves as a reminder that it is time to refill the bird feeders.

Note from Charley Burwick:
We hear about this type of wet surface crash landing at night during ran storms fairly often.  A few years ago we had shorebirds that crashed on several Springfield streets at night during a rain storm.  One of the birds was a species we typically only spot at our large waterfowl refuges.  Interesting stuff. 

Pictures are at
Thanks to Katie Gerecht for the lead.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Long-tongued bee- Wikime
Linda Ellis sent me an interesting article on Gaura (Gaura longifolia), also known as bee-blossom.  It is a native member of the evening primrose family and grows on prairies, glades, fallow fields and disturbed soil.  Its pollinators are particularly interesting, including a few hawk moths as well as long-tongued bees which I didn't know existed.

Long-tongued bees include bumblebees and some species have tongues over a half an inch long.  National Geographic described some species that even collect different fragrances from flowers, concocting their own fragrance which stimulates any males within sniffing distance.

by Linda Ellis
Some flowers have their pollen and nectar deep inside where it can't be reached by the typical butterfly.  Hummingbirds and hawk moths that are capable of hovering flight take advantage of this food source without having to stand in line with the usual pollinators.

Linda's article with some of her beautiful photography as seen on the right can be found at this link.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Hellbender on Survival

Bouncing Baby Hellbender- St. Louis Zoo
For those who don't have access to this Springfield News-Leader article, here is some good news about a threatened Ozark species.  The St. Louis Zoo, in cooperation with the Missouri Department of Conservation, has successfully bred an Ozark Hellbender in captivity for the first time.  The event occurred on November 15 and since then there have been 62 more births and there are 120 eggs to go.  National Geographic has more information on the breeding facility.

This endangered species occurs in only these few counties in Missouri and Arkansas.  Ozark Hellbenders have a long lifespan but a very low reproductive rate.  Currently less than 590 individuals are estimated to be living in the wild.

Ozark Hellbender- Jeff Briggler
According to a report by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the reasons for extinction concerns are multiple.  They require clear water in fast moving streams and have suffered from pollution and silting in of their native streams and the increased damming of rivers in recent decades. 

Their biggest threat is a chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, which has been found in all the wild Missouri populations.  Probably brought here from the importation of African clawed frogs, it is causing disease in many amphibian populations.  It can be spread by the feathers of birds and by bullfrogs which carry it but are relatively immune to its effects.  It has been the cause of 75% of deaths in the St. Louis Zoo’s captive population of Ozark Hellbenders.

More information on the endangered Ozark Hellbender and its more common Eastern Hellbender cousin is at Wikipedia.
Update: January 2012 on NPR.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Fall is Falling

Snow Geese with 2 blue morphs-Wikimedia
With the falling temperatures and overcast weather of late, it is hard to remember that it is still officially fall until December 21.  The bare trees and a light snow add to the winter illusion.  Leave it to the birds to keep the seasons straight.

This past week there were faint sounds* over Bull Creek.  Looking up into the cold grey skies there were tiny spots almost too small to see initially,  large V and U formations of geese headed in a east-southeast direction.

Greg Swick from Audubon (GOAS)*** tells me that these were snow geese and there have been flights of 7,000 to 40,000 per day for nearly the whole week.  "They have intensely overpopulated and have taken over and destroyed nesting habitat for many species of concern in the tundra.  Still there is something strikingly beautiful about seeing them."

The snow goose, also known as blue goose**, declined in numbers until hunting was stopped in 1916.  Hunting was allowed again in 1975 and the populations have increased dramatically in spite of it.  They now have created habitat destruction at both ends of their range.  According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service:
"In the northern breeding grounds, snow geese are 'grubbing' the soil to dig up high-energy roots and tubers.  Plant regrowth is extremely slow in the tundra climate.  Without plants to cover the soil, salts in the subsoil begin to accumulate on the surface, creating a saline environment hostile to desirable plants.
Within the Rainwater Basin, snow geese are aggressively competing for limited water available and waste grain in crop fields. Snow geese are known carriers of avian cholera.  This fatal disease occurs annually in the Rainwater Basin when birds become concentrated on areas with poor water quality and quantity."
This damage not only affects the tundra but harms the snow geese and other bird species that live there in season.  After returning south, snow geese feeding on natural vegetation create more damage.  Like human excesses, nature can suffer from too much of a good thing.

*  This sound can be heard by turning your speakers way down and clicking on this sound.
**  There is a snow goose genetic variant called the blue goose.  It occurs from the mating of a goose with a single dominant gene and one with a homozygous recessive gene.  Offspring may be either color.  See Wikipedia
***Greater Ozarks Audubon Society (GOAS) has an informative website above and meets at 6:30 PM the third Thursday each month at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bison Purity

Bison at Prairie State Park, MDC
When humans first arrived in North America, bison roamed much of what is now the United States, upwards of sixty million of them by some estimates.  By the end of the nineteenth century there were only around 400.  This was a result of hunting pressures to feed settlers and the building of the railroads and the value attached to their hides and eventually even their bones.

Conservation efforts since the turn of the century have restored herds into some of their native range as well as some bison being raised on farms and ranches.  DNA studies now show that few of the restored bison herds are "pure." Over the last 200 years, most bison mated with a cow along the way.  Bison have their needs, you know, and cattle were much more available.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal* (of all places!) called attention to the fact that the herds of bison are being culled of members which show the contamination of their genes with cattle genes.  Those impure bison are sold to become steaks and burgers in an attempt to promulgate pure bison. With improving DNA techniques however, we may well find that there is a little bit of cow in every bison.

The quest for pure bison stock has led to a great deal of tail pulling.  After a calf is put in a restraining pen, special pliers are used to grab a bunch of tail hairs to study its DNA.  Since their hairs are firmly attached, this startles (to put it mildly) the 300 pound calf and puts the puller at risk from the pullee.  Rapid extraction and retreating is the preferred technique as "the bison will start pooping and their tail acts as a manure spreader."

So the decision of what to do with the impure herds remains.  A purist would eliminate any "genetically tainted" members of the herd.  Another school of thought voiced by ecologist Rurik List is that "If they look like a bison, behave like a bison and live in the historical range, let's keep them."

The problem with this search for purity is that the gene pool is being drastically diminished by killing and eating bison with miniscule amounts of cattle DNA.  The smaller the pool of animals left to interbreed, the less protection there is from disease and genetic errors along the way.

What if advanced DNA techniques show that there are no "pure" strains left?  Somewhere we have to draw a line between the ideal and the practical.  Sometimes perfect becomes the enemy of good.

* Wondering If That's A Genuine Bison?  Try Pulling Its Tail, Wall Street Journal, November 26, 2011.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Mighty Opossum

Opossum- MDC Photograph
Opossums seem to me to be the Rodney Dangerfields of Missouri mammals- they don't get no respect.  When I read this story at they went up in my opinion.  Would you believe that this hissing marsupial, whose main defense is to play dead, eats venomous snakes and has some immunity to their toxins?  Snake venom contains multiple toxins including proteins that block blood coagulation, causing their victims to bleed to death internally.

According to MDC, our common opossum, Didelphis virginiana, is an omnivore which eats insects, reptiles, frogs, crayfish, bird eggs and earthworms as well as browsing garbage cans.  Oh, and apparently, the odd rattlesnake and copperhead.  They have co-evolved with these pit vipers and thus developed a defense against their venom. It has previously been thought that snake venom evolved just as a tool to capture prey, but it also seems to be a defensive mechanism against predators. 

A key clotting factor is called von Willebrand's factor and our opossum is one of a few related species that has a gene that has rapidly evolved to affect it, further blocking the effect of the toxin.  Studies indicate that it is undergoing much more rapid selection than usual.  To quote Robert Voss, Curator of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History, "We've known for years that the venom genes evolve rapidly in snakes, but the partner in this arms race was unknown until now.  Opossums eat snakes because they can."  This means that the snakes are prey rather than predator in this circumstance.

 The full study with further details is at and information on the opossum antivenom is at this site.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Fragile Earth

Earth is alive- full of change minute by minute.  We tend to think of this globe as ours to use, and in truth we are becoming more responsible for its changes every year.  Ten thousand years ago humans had little impact on this sphere floating around in an infinite universe.  Not so any more.

I would suggest that you watch this beautiful video and think about the next thousand years, .... or even the next ten.