Saturday, January 10, 2015

Dawn Over the Saint Mary Valley

Dawn drapes the Saint Mary valley, on the east side of Glacier Park, in pink clouds and a last-quarter moon.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Last Sunset of 2014

The sun sets behind Huckleberry Mountain's fire lookout on December 31st, 2014, in Glacier National Park. (Change your settings to HD for a smoother video.) I filmed this in the same general neighborhood as the comet image, below, but it was +14F for sunset and -11F for the comet.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

(Another) Comet Lovejoy

Comet Lovejoy over Huckleberry fire lookout (c) John Ashley
Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) passes behind the fire lookout on Huckleberry Mountain
Okay, it doesn't get much easier than this one. For the next month or so, the newest Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) will be naked-eye visible in a good and dark, nighttime sky. And it's buzzing past Orion, probably the easiest constellation to find in winter. This one won't trail across the daytime sky, like some of the famous comets, but it's still worth the little bit of effort required. (Sky charts here.)

Currently, Lovejoy is sporting a fuzzy-green coma and, in really dark skies, a blueish tail. It will be challenging to see the comet's tail as our moon fattens towards full, on January 4th. But any old pair of binoculars will give you a great view of the coma, and dark skies will return as we head towards the next new moon, on January 20th.

I say "another" comet Lovejoy because this is the fifth such comet named for its discoverer, Australian astronomer Terry Lovejoy. But this particular comet Lovejoy only visits our neighborhood every 14,000 years or so, making it "new" to us. In other words, this is your best, worst, and only chance to see it.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Winter Wolf Track

Wolf track in snow (c) John Ashley
Shaggy moss revealed by a passing wolf
Worked in a foot or so of crusty snow last week, along lower McDonald Creek in Glacier Park. I cut a single trail of large canid tracks not too far from the road, so I just assumed without paying attention that someone's dog was running loose (not legal off road, by the way). The dog tracks followed two sets of deer tracks headed downstream, and I followed all three tracks for as long as time allowed.

As I looked more closely, the tracks slowly morphed into wolf prints. They were 1-2 days old, and melting tracks grow in size, but these were quite large to begin with - at least as big as my own outstretched hand. Every now and again the wolf had veered off to inspect a stump or tree, but otherwise it followed the deer tracks exactly. In one wet area the wolf tracks melted out to reveal bright green shaggy moss waiting patiently beneath the snow.

In previous winters I've seen wolf tracks in the snow along upper McDonald Creek, but not along the lower creek. Twenty-plus years ago, a healthy mountain lion triggered a remote (Park Service) camera that I'd strapped to a tree in this same area. And I remember one radio-collared lioness who denned not too far from here, many years ago, with a single kitten. What we actually witness is such a puny portion of what's happening in the woods - what I wouldn't give to have the senses and attention span of a wolf, deer or lion.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Jupiter Rising

Jupiter rises over Glacier Park and the North Fork of the Flathead River (c) John Ashley
Jupiter rises over the North Fork of the Flathead River earlier this week in Glacier National Park. Truck headlights light up the trees along the North Fork Road while the stars spin in their circular tracks.
'Twas the week before Christmas and all through the park
Creatures were staring, inspired by the dark
- except those in the pickup, following twin beams
Where headlights banished the night,
and chased Jupiter from their dreams

Now you see why I don't write poetry. But a few nights ago I felt inspired - beyond common sense - by Jupiter's "magical" return to Glacier Park's starlit horizon. The glowing planet reflected from currents in the North Fork's Flathead River, while the stars spun around in their traditional paths. It was a peaceful way to start the holidays.

These days, most of us are enjoying the aroma of fresh-cut Christmas trees inside our winter homes. Decorated evergreen trees are a winter tradition that pre-dates Santa Claus. But what about the tree-topper?

When did we bring an evening "star" indoors?

Human cultures have always looked skyward for hope and inspiration, trying to bring order to a chaotic world. The Sun's orderly movements create our annual calendar, star locations at dusk and dawn mark our seasons, and the Moon faithfully tracks our monthly intervals. These celestial certainties form the frames for virtually all of humanity's myths, stories and religions.

Today marks the winter solstice, when the Sun makes its lowest pass across our northern skies, when the night makes its longest visit of the year. This date has been a celebration of death and renewal for thousands of human generations.

Late in the game, the relatively new Christian church joined the festivities. In the 4th century A.D., church fathers finally decided to officially celebrate Jesus' birthday, but they had scant information on the correct date. So Christian leaders appropriated the pre-existing pagan celebration of death and renewal by placing Christmas on the winter solstice. (The solstice date was December 25th in Caesar's day.) Thereafter, Christmas would slowly replace solstice as our celebration of a benevolent cosmos.

And this is where our Christmas tree-topping star story begins.

No one knew when Jesus was really born, and years weren't even numbered until 525 A.D. That was the handiwork of a Roman monk, Dionysius Exiguus, who calculated that Jesus was born in the year 1 B.C. Other church scholars disagreed, and placed his birth day in 2, 3, or 4 B.C. Clues to the date were provided by Matthew. He wrote that a Christmas star was seen by three wise men, "in the days of Herod the king." Biblical scholars placed Herod's death at 4 B.C. and concluded that Jesus must have been born sometime around 7-6 B.C.

More recently, another scholar dated the birth during 3-2 B.C. That gave us two time tables to look for a Christmas Star that was not seen before or after. Modern astronomers spun the night sky backwards for almost 2,000 years and began searching.

There are a number of celestial candidates that could suddenly appear and then disappear again. Meteor fireballs are bright enough, but they don't fit Matthew's description of the Christmas Star. Comets fit his description quite well, and in 12 B.C. the Chinese recorded the passing of (what would become known as) Halley's Comet, but no comets were reported during the years of our search.

New stars (nova) and exploding stars (supernova) would suddenly appear in the sky. Again, the Chinese recorded such events during 5 and 4 B.C., but these fell right in between our two search periods. Plus, King Herod did not see the Christmas Star, and he surely would have noticed a supernova, even in daylight.

No, what we needed were eyes well-versed to the night sky. As luck would have it, such eyes apparently belonged to the three wise men, or "magi." Magi were specialists, trained observers belonging to an Iranian religious caste. Five hundred years before Jesus, their religion had absorbed Greek knowledge of astrology, and the very term, magi, had become synonymous with "astrologers."

In fact, in six different 20th century translations of the Bible, Matthew directly refers to the men as astrologers. As such, the magi's "Star of Bethleham" might have been a rare event that only a night owl would notice.

When we turned the night backwards to search for a Christmas Star appearing sometime between 7-6 or 3-2 B.C., something almost magical popped up - conjunctions. Three rare conjunctions occured during 7 B.C. The planets Jupiter and Saturn briefly merged into one bright point in the sky on May 27th, October 5th and once more on December 1st. And during 3 B.C. there were nine conjunctions between bright planets and stars. These were events that few besides the Magi would notice, events which occurred during the right time frames and matched Matthew's description.

Of these candidates, the most impressive conjunction took place on June 17th, in the year 2 B.C. On that spectacular night our two brightest planets, Jupiter and Venus, "merged" into one spectacular "star" in the magis' western sky.

Christmas presents in June, anyone?

So celebrate early and often. Traditionally, the star on top of your evergreen represents the Christmas Star, promising mankind's "rebirth" - a tradition that was appropriated from winter solstice, which celebrates nature's rebirth - and confirms order in the cosmos. And if you are so inclined, the star on your tree can also represent the inspirational beauties that twinkle through the longest night of our year.

Of course, all of this is fanciful speculation. But then, that's the point. We still yearn for meaning from above, so we still weave sky stories - old ones and new ones - into our modern lives. This solstice and Christmas, may you find a few quiet moments to appreciate the winter Sun during our short days, and the other, more-distant stars (and bright planets!) during our lingering nights. Celebrate your journey with them, and wonder anew.

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 Fahrenheit (blazing when compared to Halley's maximum temperature of 135 degrees).

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)