Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Moon in 2015

This NASA video simulates the moon through 2015, as seen from the northern hemisphere. Each frame represents one hour and the major lunar landmarks are labelled - if you stop the video so you can read them (view full screen). You can also use their "Dial-a-moon" tool to see the moon phase and all its glorious, technical data.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Rock On, Geminid Meteors

Four Geminid meteors slice through the sky above weak northern lights, viewed over Lake McDonald, in Glacier Park early Monday morning (c) John Ashley
Four Geminid meteors slice through the sky above weak northern lights, viewed over Lake McDonald,
in Glacier Park early Monday morning. The orange glow (bottom right) is light pollution from the lodge.

Our perennial winter clouds parted for one evening on Sunday night and Monday morning, just past the peak of our annual Geminid meteor shower. A good number of meteors still rained slowly down throughout the night, joined late by a little bit of green aurora glow. As comet-caused meteor showers go, the Geminids' source is far stranger than any comet we currently know of.

When the Geminid shower first appeared in 1862, it was weak with few "shooting stars." But it has grown in intensity ever since and is now one of our most prolific storms. The amount of debris left in the Geminid stream outweighs other meteor streams by 5X to 500X. Yet the source managed to evade our eyes and instruments for another 121 years.

Finally in 1983, the storm's brooding source was discovered and named "Phaethon" (after the underachieving son of "Helios," the Greek sun god). Phaethon is an asteroid-like object whose orbit takes it closer to the Sun than any other named asteroid - less than half the distance between Mars and the Sun. At its closest point, Phaethon's surface reaches 1,400 degrees farenheit.

It was originally thought that, at such extreme temperatures, solar heating would blow and shake dusty debris off the asteroid's surface. Its passes near the Sun (every 17.5 months) have been carefully observed and analyzed since 2009, and indeed Phaethon doubles in brightness like a comet. But, surprisingly, the amount of debris blown off during each orbit only adds 0.01% to the mass of Geminid's debris stream. Phaethon does not kick up enough dust and gravel to keep the Geminid shower stocked with meteors.

Now we need new categories. Perhaps Phaethon is the remains of a nearly-dead comet. Its elliptical orbit and dark surface color are both comet-like. Maybe it's made enough trips around the Sun that it's been left parched and gravelly - at my age, I understand.

So what does all this ambiguity leave us? Introducing, "rock comet." As the lines blur between asteroids and comets, the idea of desiccated comets of rock and gravel is gaining ground. Rock on, Geminid mother, whatever you are.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Complex and Capable Western Red Cedar

Life is challenging - just ask the venerable "tree of life," the title that many Pacific Northwest Native Americans give to the species we also call, western red cedar (Thuja plicata).

Fragrant and fast-growing, these massive trees once provided the raw materials for a complex assortment of life-sustaining goods. From dug-out canoes to chewing gum and medicines, to soft and fibrous bark useful for everything from diapers to ropes, baskets and fishing nets. Red cedar would eventually become the official tree of British Columbia in February, 1988.

Cedar tree retrofitted as the Tilikum
Seventy-seven years earlier, a mariner from Victoria, British Columbia, purchased an old, 38' cedar dugout canoe from a Nootka Indian woman for $80 in silver. After a major retrofit, including the addition of three masts and a cabin, Captian J.C. Voss named the former cedar tree, Tilikum ("friend"), and attempted to sail around the world.

From Victoria, the seaworthy tree set sail in 1901 for Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and South America before coming to port in England in 1904. In three years and three months, the tree called "friend" safely crossed three major oceans. After laying derilect for years, the Tilikum was eventually returned to Victoria where it now resides in the Maritime Museum of B.C.

This famous cedar tree somehow survived a dangerous journey across disparate cultures and technologies when it sailed into waters dominated by steamships. An analogous journey is now underway, this time into the unseen shoals of climate change.

"Flagging" on a western red cedar branch
Last summer a concerned park visitor asked me why all of the cedar trees bore brown limbs. I assured her that "flagging," as it's called, is perfectly normal. While deciduous trees drop all of their leaves at the same time, evergreens drop only their oldest needles each year. Typically - I said in my comforting, know-it-all voice - the brown cedar flags on our trees are clumps of three-year-old needles located closest to the trunk. Younger, green needles fill out the rest of each branch and keep the tree looking mostly green year round.

That was the simple answer, and it calmed her concerns about the cedars growing in Glacier Park. Evergreen needle lifespans typically average 2-17 years, depending on the tree species. But just like the venerable cedar tree, reality is far more complex.

In reality, evergreen tree needle longevity can vary quite a bit, within one species and even within one tree. A study in northern Idaho found that cedar needles from mature trees averaged 8.9 years old. But the needles averaged 6.8 years in the upper third of the tree and 10.6 years in the lower third. Location within the tree affected the amount of shading, as well as the average needle age.

Location, as in elevation and latitude, also affects the lifespans of evergreen needles. In a report from 1939, ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) needles from California averaged 3 years on the coast and 5-8 years at higher elevations. Lodgepole pine (P. contorta) needles growing in Wyoming averaged from 9.5 to 13.1 years between low and high elevations (2,800 m to 3,200 m). In Europe, Scots pine (P. sylvestris) needle longevity tripled, from 4 to 12 years, along a 3,000 m elevational transect.

But when various evergreen tree species from different elevations and latitudes are grown together in common gardens, the needle age differences fade within each species. Genetics provides the ability, but not the impetus.

What's the common theme here? Environmental stress. Needles grow faster and and die younger in sunny, warm and wet environments. Needles grow slower and older in relatively shady, dry, cold, high, and nutrient-poor environments.

And stress is where climate change rears its ugly head, but not just stress on trees. I'm thinking of the stress on concerned scientists, trying their level best to model the future effects of an unknown climate on our boreal forests. A rapid increase in atmospheric carbon, as carbon dioxide, over the past 300 years has shipped us all headfirst into uncharted waters.

During the day, trees use carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Carbon is sequestered from the environment and stowed away into plant parts - needles, etc. - to be released only very slowly during decomposition. So while climate change provides trees with extra warmth and carbon, carbon sequestration in all plants helps to buffer the rate of climate change - a very fortunate thing for us animal types. Unfortunately, natural variations in needle growth and carbon sequestration are proving rather difficult to model.

Until recently, almost all climate change models used a constant for needle growth in boreal forests. More sophisticated models are starting to incorporate a nuanced approach to predicting how our northern trees will respond to increasing carbon levels, and thus a more accurate picture of what lies ahead.

But as good as our science is - and it's amazingly detailed already - we don't know our destination, and there are no known ports on the horizon. Sort of like the Tilikum, some among us are clinging to obsolete, carbon-based technology with a dated mindset, merely hoping for the best. We are capable of so much more, and our best climate scientists are working hard to produce accurate maps for what will surely be a challenging journey.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Back to Work for Drakes

male Hooded Merganser (c) John Ashley
Male Hooded Merganser displays: ritualized drinking (left) and crest raising (right)
It's late October, and our adult male Hooded Mergansers have all molted back into their handsome breeding plumage. These fancy feathers come out for a compelling reason - courtship has begun, even though nesting is still 6-7 months away.

Hooded Mergansers are seasonally monogamous. The pairs only stay together for one breeding season, and the bond dissolves when the females start incubating eggs. The males then molt into a drab, "basic" plumage and lay low for the rest of summer. About the time the juveniles are grown and the adult females are released from their motherhood duties, the adult males molt back into their fancy feathers and the whole thing starts again.

By late summer we start seeing antagonistic displays, as males grapple among themselves, and courtship displays where males vie to impress females. If he's successful, she pairs off with him and they spend the winter together before nesting next year.

The male Hoodeds do almost all of the courting while the females mostly just observe. There are a dozen or more ritualized, exaggerated movements, including: head shake, head pump, upward stretch, crest raising and crest depressed towards the female.

But my favorite courtship behavior is a serious head throw with croaking - as in frog sounds. The male starts with a crest raise, fanning his white head patch and pointing his black brow feathers forward into a point. With gusto, he whips his head back and releases a low-pitch croak that sounds exactly like a summer-time frog (listen here). Others have photographed this but, unfortunately, I've never been allowed. I've tried blinds and remote cameras, but the males always move away from the slightest shutter sound.

My second-favorite Hooded Merganser behavior is ritualized drinking. An excited bird dips its bill in the water and flings it skyward. Males perform this move with their crest depressed, and both sexes do this near each other as a pre-copulation behavior. Once pairs form, copulation can occur during fall and winter, before spring's longer days alter duck hormones to allow for fertilization and egg-laying.

Duck copulations in October are a part of pair bonding, and copulations through winter and spring are for pair maintenance. This usually involves two more behaviors. Females incite mating with a soft "gack" call while head bobbing, and steaming is the male's exaggerated swim away from her after mating.

What makes this all fun for me is to anthromorphize, watching the earnest ducks and comparing them to the odd behaviors seen in flocks of young humans who are still years away from raising a family. It's about the only way I can understand some exaggerated human behaviors.

male Hooded Merganser (c) John Ashley
Male Hooded Merganser performs a ritualized and exaggerated drinking motion

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Hunting, Fishing & Wildlife Watching

Montana pack train (c) John Ashley
A pack train hauls hunting gear into the Bob Marshall Wilderness last week
It's opening weekend for general rifle hunting season across almost all of Montana's wild public lands. Bird watchers and Rambos alike will don orange vests for the rest of fall, lest they be mistaken for an elk. Or a deer, a horse, a cow, a llama.

Unfortunately, it happens.

Aside from national parks, virtually all of Montana's wild lands are managed in favor of hunters. And most of our lakes and rivers are stocked with non-native fish species, put there to appease anglers.

And Montana's wildlife watchers? Well, it would be nice to not get shot at while hiking. The majority of us are definitely not against hunting in the traditional sense, but as the U.S. population ages, it's the non-lethal wildlife watchers who must become our modern conservation leaders.

So who are these three user groups in modern times? The most recent government census on recreation (from 2011) sheds some light on who we are, and why we face a growing dilemma.

In 2011, more than 90 million adult Americans participated in wildlife-related recreation. They spent a combined $144.7 billion dollars - that's billion with a B. But these dollars don't always line up in straight rows, and paying for wildlife management is a growing problem.

That year, the average big game hunter spent $1,457 on his sport. Did the average hunter bring home $1,457 worth of wild meat to to feed his or her family? Modern hunters are moving away from our "tradition," and only 46% of hunters nationwide say they hunt to put venison on the table. We have shifted from meat to trophies (the distinction is clearly spelled out here).

Still, in spite of hunting's steady shift from food to fun, and in spite of how willing trophy hunters are to spend lots of money, the number of people participating in hunting is in a long-term and steady decline. And the fall of hunting has a major impact on the funding of wildlife management.

Wild land managers are being forced to come to terms with the fact that there are almost twice as many wildlife watchers (71.8 million) as hunters (13.7 million) and fishermen (33.1 million) combined. Nation-wide in 2011, wildlife watchers outnumbered fishermen by 1.5:1, and they outnumbered hunters by more than 5:1. Here in Montana, wildlife watchers outnumbered fishermen by 2:1, and they outnumbered hunters by 2.7:1.

Yet hunters still receive preferential treatment from state game agencies because money talks. Half as many hunters and anglers spent almost as much money in 2011 as twice as many cheapskate wildlife watchers. Hunters dropped $41 billion, fishermen $49 billion, and wildlife watchers $55 billion, nation-wide.

Apparently, bird watchers love their shiny Swarovski spotting scopes as much as hunters love their walnut-stock Winchester Model 70's. And people really love their long arms here in Montana. Even though they're vastly outnumbered, hunters in our state spent $524 million on their hobby, while anglers spent $488 million. Montana's wildlife watchers only put out a measly $226 million, getting outspent by a margin of more than 2:1.

This disparity in spending is the crux of our management problem. Hunters and anglers pay an 11% excise fee on their equipment, money that funds our state wildlife agencies. There is no comparable fee on bird seed, binoculars or guide books.

Who will pay for wildlife management going forward? One estimate has hunters declining by -25% over the next 15 years. Between 2001 and 2011, the documented number of anglers decreased by -5% while the number of wildlife watchers increased by +9%.

Various measures to "tax" wildlife watching gear through equipment excise fees have been floated in Congress during 2000, 2008 and 2009. None passed, even though they were popular among all three wildlife user groups- especially the birding community. No, these solutions failed only because of the "no new taxes" political environment, in complete disregard of their merit and widespread support.

Almost single-handedly, hunters footed the bill for wildlife management through the 20th century. After a century of unregulated over-hunting, they changed course and participated in the recovery of many decimated wildlife populations, including most of the so-called "non-game" species now enjoyed by wildlife watchers.

Today, a majority of wildlife watchers would be willing to pick up the tab in the 21st century. Voluntary donations aren't cutting it, and we must contribute more in some sustainable way or our numbers will eventually crush the ability of state wildlife agencies to function.

Unfortunately, common sense looks like a big fat llama to half of this Congress.

Great history of U.S. hunting and a plea for "ethical literacy" among hunters.
History of state non-game wildlife funding
National census on wildlife-related recreation (large PDF)
Montana census on wildlife-related recreation (large PDF)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Weather Worn

October 2014 solar eclipse (c) John Ashley
Partial solar eclipse on October 22nd
Thursday's partial solar eclipse disappears into dark storm clouds rolling in behind a weather-weary grain silo and rusty railroad tracks. What began as blue sky and distant clouds turned into fat raindrops soon after the eclipse faded from view. 

Wind and rain chased me out of the mountains and eastward across Montana. I found a small patch of blue sky and this abandoned grain silo near Kevin, just south of the Canadian border. With a tight deadline, I was unable to find anything "wild and free" that was tall enough to include in a solar eclipse photo. I'll try to do better next time - on August 21st in 2017. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fiery Dust From a Famous Snowball

Orionid meteor and northern lights this morning over the Livingston Mountain Range, in Glacier National Park

Orionid meteor flying through its namesake constellation
Every time I climb in the truck and circle into town, I leave a few miles of gravely dust between home and the highway pavement.

Comets sorta' do the same thing.

Every time Halley's Comet makes its 76-year loop around the Sun, it leaves a trail of dust along the inner part of its elliptical orbit. As the comet reaches our inner solar system, the Sun heats and degrades this big, dirty snowball, causing it to drop debris along its path.

And every time the Earth makes its annual lap around the Sun, it flies through this narrow trail of comet dust in late October. Right now in fact. Some of the dust burns up in our atmosphere, causing the "falling stars" that we call the Orionid meteor shower. It should be called the "Halley's meteor shower," but it's called Orionid instead because most of these meteors appear to originate from the vicinity of the constellation Orion. These mostly-tiny particles hit the upper atmosphere about 60 miles above ground and burn up at a blazing 418 miles per hour.

One calculation I found estimates that Halley's Comet might loose an astonishing 6,283,174,472 tons each time it loops around the Sun. At this rate, with a 76-year orbit, Halley's Comet would make 95 laps over 7,220 years before completely disintegrating.

Halley's Comet last passed through the neighborhood in 1986 and won't return until July of 2061. But the comet's dusty trail is also the source of falling stars during the Eta Aquariids meteor shower, which takes place every May. Twice a year, Halley serves up two heavenly reminders of how amazing our little solar system really is - when we stop to look.

Great infographic on how comets and meteor showers are connected
A 500-pound meteorite from Halley's Comet fell on Texas in 1910

Or, another possible source for that beautiful shooting star you saw

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Electrified Cat Tails

Mushrooms and moss (c) John Ashley
"Electrified Cat Tails" moss with mystery mushrooms
I've spent the last several decades diligently determined to never learn the identity of a single mushroom. So far so good. It's not that mushrooms aren't interesting - they are. It's more because mushrooms can be dangerous to wanna-be mycologists, especially hungry ones.

We recently discovered this pair of thumbnail-sized mushrooms while stumbling down a steep, deeply-shaded river canyon. Their true identity remains a mystery to me.

Mosses, on the other hand, are a step up from mushrooms because, one, I've never been tempted to taste them, and, two, If I did I doubt I would end up in the emergency room. I could be wrong about that, but mosses just always look friendly somehow.

Of the six native mosses listed on the Montana Heritage Program's (incomplete) field guide, this one looks to me like "Shaggy Moss" (Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus). Another common name is "Goose Neck Moss." But I prefer a third common name because it's much more likely to stick in your memory - "Electrified Cat Tails." This one looks fuzzier than most other mosses because its leaves grow on the stems as well as the branches. It's also a safe bet because it's the most common moss found growing on Montana's western slopes.

If you want to try your hand at mycology, here are a couple of dichotomous and photo identification keys for Montana's mushrooms. Good luck but, still, don't eat your discoveries.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Rocky Mountain Juniper

Robins eating juniper berries (c) John Ashley
American Robins gobbling up Rocky Mountain Juniper berries last week
Bugs begin to disappear when temperatures fall. Most of Montana's songbirds also vanish, high-tailing it south before they're left without enough six- and eight-legged morsels to eat (insects and spiders). But some songbirds linger into fall and even stay through winter by changing their diets.

Enter winter's wild fruits.

Junipers are one of our most valuable wildlife trees in winter because they provide food and thermal cover. Of the 11 U.S. juniper species that reach tree size, our Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) has the most far-flung distribution, which generally follows its namesake mountain range. And there's a flock of good reasons for that - a flock of winter bird species.

Hungry birds love Rocky Mountain Juniper berries, especially during the fall and winter. Eastern Bluebirds, Evening Grosbeaks, Townsend's Solitaires, Sharp-tailed Grouse, jays (Mexican, Pinyon, Scrub, Stellar's and Blue) and wild turkeys all eat the berries, tossing them down whole. An American Robin (above) can gobble up 200 juniper berries a day. And Bohemian Waxwings have been documented passing 900 juniper seeds in 5 hours - what I want to know is, who got to count them?

Each juniper berry contains 1-3 seeds, and passing through the digestive tract so quickly has little impact on germination. The fleshy berries really aren't berries at all, but "indehiscent strobili," or 3-8 pointy scales that fuse into a cone after fertilization. Male and female flowers occur on separate trees, which is why some some trees are barren while others are loaded with fruit.

Rocky Mountain Juniper berries remain on female trees through the winter, unless eaten by birds, and some berries hang on for 2-3 years. Berries are produced every year, but heavy crops only occur every 2-5 years. Females don't start bearing fruit until they're 10-20 years old, and the primary producers are 50-200 years old. "Grandmother" trees often live for another 100 years or more. Some Rocky Mountain Junipers in New Mexico have been aged at 2,000+ years, and one massive tree in Utah is estimated to be 3,000 years old.

That's a lot of hungry winters, hundreds of songbird generations, and an unimaginable number of Rocky Mountain Juniper seeds dispersed on the wing.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Eclipsed Reality

Tuesday night's "Hunter's Moon" squeezes between Great Northern Mountain and purple clouds
On Tuesday evening, October's full "Hunter's Moon" rose into the purple tatters of a petulant, western Montana sky. A few hours later, the cloud layers conspired to cloak the moon while the Earth's shadow crossed its cratered face - the second lunar eclipse of 2014.

Exactly six months ago, Montana's last lunar eclipse also occurred on a cloudy, full moon night. What are the odds of that?! Ominous omen? Messenger of doom and despair from the sky? No and no. Of course, mountains lift air masses and create clouds, so we expect western Montana to endure more than its share of shady days and nights - especially when I'm trying to photograph something interesting in the sky.

But just a few hours after Tuesday's eclipse, I found myself laying face-down while a well-educated medical person worked at quenching the embers of my old neck injury. It's hard to speak when your face is squashed, especially while paying someone to inflict pain. So when he started wondering aloud about the "end days" because four eclipses in a row will occur on Jewish holidays, I grimaced.

It's true, Tuesday's eclipse fell on the eve of Sukkot, or "Feast of Booths," and the previous eclipse took place on Pesach, better known as "Passover." Lunar eclipses will occur on these holidays next year, too. While this has led to mischief-making in the press by conspiracy nuts and snake-oil salesmen, the rest of us rational people - especially astronomers and photographers - are downright giddy over these heavenly events.

You see, these two Jewish holidays are six months apart, and they always take place on a full moon. And many (but not all) lunar eclipses are also six months apart, and every eclipse also occurs on a full moon. With 2 eclipses and 2 holidays in 12 months, you end up with a 1 in 3 chance of an eclipse landing on one of these holidays. And when one eclipse lands on Sukkot, it isn't unreasonable for the next eclipse to fall on Passover, six months later. (Detailed explanation here.)

The kicker? Not one of these lunar eclipses is visible from Israel.

This is the stuff of basic geometry, not black magic. This cycle of four lunar eclipses - called a tetrad - is normal but uncommon. (Our last tetrad was a decade ago, and the next one will begin in 2032.)

So if you want to prepare for the "end days," you can start by gifting me your truck today. Otherwise, back away from the television and critically evaluate your sources of information. (Hint: Fox "news" is the leading source of misinformation.) The end of this world has already been scheduled to occur in 6 billion years, give or take, when the Sun runs out of helium. It's probably not something worth worrying about during your lifetime.

It's always a little deflating to me when otherwise intelligent people confuse coincidence for revelation (apophenia), conflate superstition and religion (fundamentalism), or constantly pass off myth as fact (stupidity). Still, it's hard for some of us to pass up an opportunity for mischief.

A while back, when the Mayan calendar end-of-times foible was making the rounds, one couple in our neighborhood started preparing for the end. I so wanted to ask for the keys to their new but soon-to-be-unneeded truck, but I resisted temptation in the end. They're still of this earth, and I'm still making payments on our old truck.

Lunar eclipse cycles are explained in relatively easy (here), hard (here) and challenging (here) terms.

"Apophenia" helps explain delusional behavior and conspiracy theories.

Wednesday's early-morning lunar eclipse punching through cloud layers in western Montana