Friday, October 24, 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 leave 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

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

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Wild Montana Wolves

Watched a wild wolf last week. In contrast to what you read in letters-to-the-editor around here, he looked something less than fearsome. His eyes weren't glowing red, there was a definite lack of blood dripping from his canines, and he wasn't standing over a dead animal and gloating. No evidence of blood lust whatsoever. In fact, he looked downright defenseless.

Wild Montana wolf (c) John Ashley
Wild wolf mousing near Polebridge
Solid black, the wolf wandered slowly around a freshly cut hayfield, up near Polebridge, on a sunny afternoon. The heat seemed to be getting to him as he half-heartedly stalked mice in the short stubble. He was just far enough from the gravel road to feel unconcerned by the occasional passing truck, but well within rifle range so he probably won’t make it to winter.

This black wolf was just about 10 miles south of where I laid hands on a different young wolf many years ago, just a stone's throw across the Canadian border.

In the summer of 1987, I was a young wildlife biology student living in the North Fork while working on a white-tailed deer study. On weekends I also tagged along with the Wolf Ecology Project biologists to document the “Magic Pack,” a pair of wolves who moved south into Glacier Park, met, and raised a family.

That morning in late June – my birthday – three of us crossed into Canada to check a baited trap line that Mike, the wolf biologist, had set along a gravel road on the previous evening. The hidden traps were foam-padded and heat-treated to weaken them, leaving them just strong enough to hold onto the wolf’s leg without injury. The trap itself was attached to a 20’ chain with a large grapple hook on the other end.

This technique allowed a captured wolf a degree of mobility. Once caught it would head into the forest, dragging the chain along until the grapple hook caught on a tree. The wolf would then be hidden from the road, and it would have enough freedom to move into the shade. 

Parking our truck and checking the third trap location, we followed the grapple drag marks into the woods and discovered a medium-sized, gray-black wolf laying in the deep shade. She was a young non-breeder from the Magic Pack, already wearing a radio collar, so all we needed to do was sedate her, take measurements and check for any injuries before releasing her.

Mike prepared the jab stick – a long pole tipped with a hypodermic needle filed with sedative – then slowly crept up to the wolf and jabbed her in the left hindquarters. She jumped to her feet from his “attack” but soon settled back down as the sedative began to do its job. Mike marked the time, and we waited five minutes.

“Find a forked branch to hold her down with,” Mike told me. Say what?

Mike had calculated a small amount of sedative to minimize her down time, though by four minutes she was laying completely prone. So armed with nothing more than a questionable, four-foot long, dried-out old forked branch, I slowly tiptoed towards this wild wolf who had just been trapped, cornered and attacked by a similar-looking man.

Just as my branch touched her neck, the wolf sprang to her feet and lunged – but not at me. After all she’d been through, this "fearsome" predator ran away from me, dragging the chain through the forest until the hook caught up on the next pile of wood.

I looked back at Mike, who was bent over with surprise and stifled laughter. He quickly prepared a small amount of additional sedative in a second needle and jabbed her again, and finally we were able to take our measurements.

Glacier Park Magic Pack wolf (c) John Ashley
Sedated, female Magic Pack wolf in summer of 1987
Of course, I’d never held a wolf in my hands before. She left lasting impressions, but not for the reasons I'd read about. She was small, not much bigger than my golden retriever. And in mid-summer her coat was wispy thin – she was battling heat by losing hair. But most impressive of all, she lunged away from me when she had every reason to defend herself instead.

I saw her once more, my birthday wolf, three months later.

She was lying in a dusty pool of dried blood in the back of a battered old pickup. One of the Canadian locals saw her walking in the woods, spied the radio collar, and decided to shoot her (legal in Canada) just for spite. He drove her down to the border station to brag and show off her carcass to the biologists. We thanked him for letting us take measurements, but I mostly bit my tongue.

I realized that what I’d read in the newspapers – written mostly by foaming-at-the-mouth "hunters" who have never actually seen a real wolf – was somewhat less than accurate. Their angry words certainly didn't jibe with my on-the-ground observations, from that summer or in the 27 years since.

Yes, wolves survive by killing other animals. In this part of the world, they eat mostly white-tailed deer in winter, and deer and small mammals in summer. They face starvation every day, and because it’s more efficient they tend to prey on the old and sick – removing the weakest genetics and making the surviving deer herd stronger.

Hunters also kill other animals. I know a few old-timers who hunt just for the meat, and I'm fine with that. But most of today’s well-fed hunters – many experiencing the ills of obesity – kill just for fun. It’s called “sport” when the other side is unarmed. Hunters always look for the biggest deer to kill, thus removing the healthiest genes and leaving the herd weaker – exactly the opposite of natural predation. And of course, a percentage of them proceed to parade the dead carcasses around town on their trucks for several days, a show of male machismo.

I used to be a hunter, and I've shot my share of deer. But that was back in the days when most hunters were conservationists, and back when we honored the ethics of fair chase. Those days appear to be over. From everything I've seen in the woods and at game-check stations over all these years, it’s pretty obvious which animals are brimming with blood lust – and it’s not our wild Montana wolves.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Northwestern Lights

Northern lights over Kintla Lake (c) John Ashley
Northern lights over Kintla Lake, in Glacier National Park
A pair of coronal mass ejections (CME) from the sun earlier this week set off three nights of weak to moderate northern lights that were visible from most northern states, including Montana. The first CME burst forth on August 22nd and 23rd, reaching Earth on the 26th and 27th. The second CME sent a glancing blow across our night skies on the 29th, but clouds interfered with that one. The clearest skies occurred on the first night, when a small group of campers gathered on the shores of Kintla Lake to enjoy the late-night lights.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Pecking Order

Adult Loon near the lily pads
No young Loons this year, here at the end of the road. Our resident pair of Loons hatched two chicks, but one only lasted one week and the other lasted two. So the adults have been free-floating this summer, appearing and disappearing at will, and even tolerating a few visiting Loons from time to time.

Because they aren't tied down to the marsh this year, which they use as a nursery to raise their young, the adult Loons have been spending more time on our side of the lake as summer wears down. And having resident Loons with time on their hands is causing strife in the neighborhood.

Juvenile Hooded Merganser
Many of the neighborhood ducks hang out on this side of the lake specifically to avoid the bad-ass Loons. Twice as big as our largest ducks, the Loons are territorial while nesting and chase other Loons off the lake. But now that they're not nesting or raising young, the Loons have turned their attention to the ducks, especially the little diving ducks that eat the same food.

The juvenile Hooded Mergansers feed in a narrow opening between our shoreline and the lily pad thicket. Feeding quietly, or resting on a log, they'll suddenly explode out of the water and rush to shore, facing towards the lily pads. This is our cue to search for the hidden Loon.

Eventually a skulking Loon surfaces like a submarine just beyond the lily pads, or even in the middle of the thicket. Earlier this week, our favorite neighbors saw a Loon apparently grab a Merganser from underwater, as the Hoody exploded towards shore and the Loon suddenly appeared where the duck had been.

We don't attribute the ability to rationalize to birds, and this is just considered normal behavior. The Loons aren't mean or angry or frustrated, they're just doing what their hard-wired brains tell them to do. And the Mergansers who survive these encounters will be the ones to pass along their genes for vigilant behavior. Just the natural pecking order here at the end of the road.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Great Spangled Fritillaries

If you have any native flowers currently gracing your Montana habits, then maybe you've noticed the frequent aerial chases between orange and black butterflies. Here's a secret - that isn't competition for food, it's the age old chase for a mate.

Female (top) and male (bottom) Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies (c) John Ashley
Female (top) and male Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies
They fooled me into thinking there were two different species not wanting to share the same flowers. But in reality, the dark ones are females and the orange ones are males of the same species, Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies (Speyeria cybele). Males hang out in open areas, looking for females to chase after - sort of like college town bars during spring break.

This late-summer courtship is just about the only time you'll ever get to see this secretive species, because the camera-shy adults are extroverts compared to their mysterious young caterpillars.

Adults nectar on lots of different flowers, including the thistles and beebalm in my yard. But the females seek out one specific flower family when it's time to lay eggs - wild violets. Later this month, each female will lay up to 2,000 eggs close to the ground, near (but seldom on) violet plants, and the first instars hatch out 2-3 weeks later.

The young caterpillars drink a little water but don't eat for 7-8 months. Instead, they burrow down into the leaf litter and enter diapause, a state of rest for the winter. Come spring, they climb back above ground to eat the fresh, new violet leaves and flowers - but only during the cover of darkness. By day they burrow back down below ground, away from the violet plant.

Is it any wonder that you and I have never seen a secretive, nocturnal, ground-dwelling Great Spangled Fritillary caterpillar?

In July the caterpillar anchors itself to the underside of a rock or log to pupate, and the adult butterfly emerges three weeks later. By early August, the largest members of the Fritillary family start chasing each other around the yard like newlyweds, giving us one good chance to see this otherwise modest animal.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

High on the Hog

Juvenile American Robin (c) John Ashley
Juvenile Robin on our front porch
I no longer wonder why there are so many American Robins. Today our front porch Robins fledged their third brood of the short Montana summer. One nest, two parents, twelve chicks in total. That's in addition to the two broods fledged each by our side and back porch Robins. And while their nests were out of view from each other, their foraging areas overlapped somewhat, leading to occasional arguments and chases around the yard. Now the neighborhood is at peace again - and now Tracy and I can finally use our front porch for the little bit of summer that remains.