Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Name Game

Male willow catkin in bloom this week (actual size 1")
For all these years, I thought pussy willow was a generic name for the first catkins of spring. Low and behold, I just learned that there really is a willow species by that name (Salix discolor in Latin) but it mostly lives north and east of Montana. So what are these willows growing around here? I don't know - and I probably never will.

That's because 19 or 24 or 25 willow species live here in the Rockies, depending on which plant guide you read. Most willows are highly variable and many hybridize with each other. Correct identification is a conundrum for a non-specialist, and that's a perfect segue to the little willow dart moth (Cerastis salicarum), which just became my first moth discovery of spring.

We know next to nothing about this moth. They are brown, there's one flight of adults in the spring, and the larvae might feed on willows. And, the species was named posthumously in 1857 by a non-specialist named Francis Walker, who was also called a "taxonomic mercenary" and a "taxonomic narcissist."

Willow dart moth, named Cerastis salicarum
in 1857 by Francis Walker
Walker was born four miles north of London in 1809 to a wealthy and educated British family. By the time he had passed in 1856, Walker managed to ruffle the dusty wings of just about every entomologist of his day. You see, a family friend awarded Walker the contract to catalog the British Museum's vast collection of insects. But entomology wasn't his forte. Instead, Walker had a gift for making up names.

Carl Linneaus, the father of binomial nomenclature (giving each species a unique two-word name), described and named about 13,200 species during his illustrious career (9,000 plant species and 4,200 animal species). Most of those names still stand today. Walker, on the other hand, produced names and descriptions for a whopping 46,000 species of insects, including 10,000 species supposedly new to science - and many of his names were utterly useless even as he published them.

Walker attacked the museum's massive project with a "laborious assiduity." For 27 years he doggedly described the specimen at hand when he should have been describing the variety within each species. The result of Walker's industriousness was that he gave a single species many different names, over and over again for nearly three decades. One moth species, for example, was described as six different species under six different names in the same publication. This led the editor of Natural Science journal, in 1894, to coin the term "Walkerism" for giving one species a number of different names. This kind of work needs no comment," he wrote, "it sufficiently condemns itself.” 

Numerous complaints had no effect on Walker's contract or on his boss' continued support. The museum was mostly interested in Walker's production and unconcerned with the resulting taxonomic tangles. Upon his passing in October of 1874, an anonymous obituary in the Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine summed up Walker's life thus:

"More than twenty years too late for his reputation, and after having done an amount of injury to entomology almost inconceivable in its immensity, Francis Walker has passed from among us." 

Francis Walker 1809-1874
Francis Walker 1809-1874
But a little more than 100 years later, a 1980 comparison of accuracy between Walker and the professional entomologists of his time told a different story. Walker's insect names scored an unimpressive 64% correct. Eight of his contemporaries working with the same insect groups scored between 50-67% correct. For his era, Walker proved no worse than some of his colleagues. The same anonymous obituary managed to balance Walker's taxonomic injury against his generous nature,

"Even those who felt most keenly the disrepute into which he brought the entomological section of our great Natural History Museum, will miss with regret his courteous salutation and simplicity of manner."

And so it is, 159 years later I notice a generic moth on an anonymous willow, and I can't name either one without help from specialists. I think back to Francis Walker, and I can't help but crack a smile.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Venus Visits the Pleiades

Venus and the Pleiades (c) John Ashley
Evening clouds frame Venus and the Pleiades


After the sun and moon, planet Venus is our third-brightest sky spectacle. This week Venus makes a close flyby to a favorite constellation, the Pleiades, passing about 2.5 degrees away in last night's evening sky. The Pleiades is also known as the Seven Sisters in many cultures, as M45 to astronomers, and as the six brothers of Miohpoisiks, or the Bunched Stars, in local Blackfoot culture.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Magpie Behaviors

Black-billed Magpie carrying nesting material (c) John Ashley
Black-billed Magpie (probably a male) carrying nesting material

Growing up the youngest of seven sons, I was always half as big and half as strong as my older brothers. So I adapted by spending a lot of time alone in the woods, somehow surviving to fledge into an adult-sized, curious biologist. This probably explains why I always pull for the underdog. Or in this case, the "underbird."

Magpies have a bad rap, even among birders, because they're raucous and they sometimes eat the eggs and chicks of other birds. But I've consumed more birds and eggs during the past year than any magpie has managed in a lifetime. They don't judge me for surviving on Costco's broiled chickens, so I don't judge them.

All of Europe and much of Asia is home to one or more of the 13 magpie subspecies. In North America, the Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) is strictly a bird of western U.S. and Canada. Humor me for a few minutes by keeping an open mind while I offer a few reasons why our Montana magpies should be mentioned whenever we talk about our most interesting native birds. Actually, we have a lot of behaviors in common.

Right off the bat, magpies are undeniably smart. They cache food for later use, and they vary the distribution of their caches depending on how many other magpies are in the area - more magpies present causes individual birds to protect their caches by spacing them farther apart. Magpies also recognize themselves in a mirror and seem to understand the concept of self, a complex cognitive ability that we like to reserve for "higher" animals. In addition to magpies, self-recognition has been demonstrated only in elephants, dolphins and apes (including most people). It suggests that the magpie's corvid cousins, the crows and ravens, might also posses this ability.

Magpies also proclaim a "cheeky" behavior around their hawk, owl and human predators. They sometimes approach, land nearby and sing to their enemies. This reminds me of a melodious version of the old warring Scots who, before battle, would lift their kilts to moon their enemies. It's hard to say for sure, but we suspect that this magpie behavior is used to gain status within a non-breeding flock or within a group of nesting adults, another way of proving one's fitness - if one survives.

And this brings us to another interesting behavior that I've yet to witness, but it has been documented by other people many times - the magpie "funeral." When a magpie discovers a fallen comrade, he calls loudly to attract other magpies, and a noisy group gathers around the deceased. After 10-15 raucous minutes, the entire flock of "mourners" suddenly flies away in silence.

Meanwhile, a magpie myth was recently proven false. One of the definitions for magpie in the Collins English Dictionary is, "a person who hoards small objects." But a 2014 study published in Animal Cognition actually showed the opposite for our avian magpies. In a controlled experiment, magpies avoided unfamiliar, shiny objects like rings and tin foil. They even avoided tasty nuts that were placed close to the shiny objects. Magpies are not the compulsive thieves of human legend.

Our native magpies are honestly handsome when viewed without preconceived notions. Their glossy and bold, black and white suit underlies the subtle beauty of iridescent feathers that appear blueish-greenish-purplish-black, depending on the viewing angle. (Iridescence involves refraction inside the feather and reflection from inner and outer feather surfaces.) Add in the longest tail of any corvid - half of the magpie's body length (9"-12", 23-30 cm) is tail feathers - and these birds present a compelling if not comical package, sort of like a prom night senior strutting about in his rented tuxedo.

Partly due to that long tail, magpies can't out-fly their enemies, but they can out-maneuver them. Magpie territories almost always contain edge habitat where grassy foraging areas mix with tree or brush cover. When pursued by a hawk or owl, a magpie flies in among thick tangles of branches where the larger bird can't follow.

Magpies also deter predators by building their large nests out of thorny sticks and small branches. Nest construction lasts 3-6 weeks and culminates in a complex structure 2-4 feet (1 m) wide. Magpie nest building occurs in five distinct phases. It begins with a muddy, grassy base wedged into the crotch of a branch. Stage two involves adding sticks to form the floor and roof while leaving the sides open. Then a mud base is built on top of the stick floor, which is then lined and finished with fine grasses and animal hair. After the actual nest cup is built, the outer walls are filled in with thorny branches to leave two small openings into the inner nest.

Female magpie carries mud for nest construction (c) John Ashley
Female magpie carrying mud for nest construction
For the most part, males deliver sticks to the nest and build the superstructure, and females do the detailed work of creating the inner nest and cup. But I have seen both members carrying sticks and flying to their nest simultaneously. In subsequent years, old magpie nests are often claimed by raptors. The sturdy stick nests seem to be a favorite for great horned and long-eared owl nests and day roosts at Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge.

Magpies don't migrate, and pairs usually build their new nest in the same area where they nested last year, just over 900' away (275 m), on average. Like us, most magpies mate for life but are subject to occasional "divorce." Some remain with the same mate for their entire adult life (average 4 years, record of 9 years), and some will pair again if their mate passes away. And about one-third of males and females divorce their partner when they have an opportunity to trade up to a higher quality territory, or home life. Sound familiar?

Males and females both have been documented soliciting extra-pair copulations from neighbors on higher-quality territories. (Unpaired adults don't produce eggs or sperm and don't seek copulations.) An interesting anecdote comes from a researcher trying to catch magpies using a live female decoy. All of the resident females flew in to attack the trespassing female, while male behavior varied. If his mate was nearby, he flew in and attacked the new female. But if his mate was distant, he flew in and courted the female decoy instead. In this example, avian research bore an interesting resemblance to a vice squad sting operation.

Male and females both vigorously defend their nest territory. But magpies often nest in loose groups with territories adjacent to each other, often close to a raptor nest. This was noted by Meriwether Lewis on the first day that the Expedition entered Montana, April 27, 1805 - two hundred and ten years ago.

Earlier that same month, Lewis and Clark packed up "Sundry articles" for shipment from Fort Mandan back to President Jefferson in one trunk, four boxes and four cages. The cages held live specimens of "new" species, including a prairie dog, one sharp-tailed grouse and four magpies. Only one of the magpies survived the four-month trip. Jefferson sent the handsome black and white bird to Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia, where this magpie took up residence at the first building in the Western Hemisphere to be built specifically as a museum.

None of our other native bird species can make that claim.

Like us, magpies have so-called "vices" that are mostly adaptations for survival. Some adaptive behaviors turn into vices when a society forms and polices what is acceptable behavior within that society. But societies are species-specific (e.g., a magpie breeding population, the citizens of Montana), and we really shouldn't project our rules of behavior onto other animals. So unless magpies start "stealing" broiled chickens from Costco, I'm willing to give them a lot more credit for their interesting behaviors and abilities.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Western Wildflowers Rise for Easter

Long hairs on an unopened pasqueflower bud yesterday on the east front 
Pasqueflower is Montana's first dash of springtime color dotting the monochrome fields of winter. This lavender flower's early rise is nicely illustrated by a variety of cold-weather names and adaptations. By Easter this plant of many names can be found blooming along the lower slopes while snow still flies and melts intermittently.

In the mid-1700's Carl Linnaeus gave this plant the Latin name, "Anemone patens" from a specimen collected by English botanist William Hooker. Anemos is the Latin word for wind and patens means spreading. At about the same time another English botanist, Philip Miller, gave it the Latin name, "Pulsatilla patens." Pulsatilla is from the Latin word for pulsing or striking, which may have referred to blood from the sacrificial lambs of Passover. So his name might mean Passover flower struck (spread) by wind.

If you know any botanists, then you might not be surprised that names for this plant just kept sprouting. The German-American botanist Frederick Pursh studied a specimen of this plant that was collected by Lewis and Clark and, in 1814, named it "Clematis hirsutissima." Clematis is from the Greek word klema, which means to break off, possibly referring to the seeds breaking off in the wind. Hirsutissima is a Latin superlative meaning covered with hair. Thus, breaking off hairy plant.

Four years later, the English botanist Thomas Nuttall moved the genus back to Anemone and called this plant "Anemone ludoviciana," which means wind flower from the Louisiana Territory - that massive chunk of western land that included modern-day Montana. Swiss botanist Augustin Pyramus de Candolle soon changed the name to "Anemone Nuttalliana," or Nuttall's wind flower, and this was changed again in 1825 to Nuttall's pulsing flower, or "Pulsatilla Nuttalliana," by German botanist Christian Sprengel. In 1867, American botanist Asa Gray reclassified Hooker's original specimen as a distinct variety of this plant, naming it "Anemone patens var. Nuttalliana." Then in 1900 the American botanist Amos Arthur Heller switched the genus name again, to "Pulsatilla ludoviciana," or Louisiana Territory flower that blooms at Passover.

Modern analysis of our earliest spring wildflower sent us back to the start, but it hasn't ended the phylogenetic competition. In 1994 the Linnaean Plant Name Typification Project designated the name as "Anemone patens Linnaeus," and The Flora of North America (v. 3, 1997) claims that Linnaeus' designation is the correct name. But the 2011 North American Plant Atlas lists this plant as "Pulsatilla patens," claiming that this name super-cedes the one given by Linnaeus. Competing Latin names like these are sometimes referred to as scientific synonyms. So round and round we go, like winter into spring.

This plant also has many common names, including prairie crocus (it's not a crocus), prairie smoke, wind tulip and April fool. Blackfeet call it kippiaapi (related to kipitaaakii, or old woman, possibly because of the white hair of both). The first half of the name, pasqueflower, is from the Hebrew word, paschal, which means relating to Passover. This Easter's pasqueflower crop is starting to show up between lingering patches of winter snow and regular dustings by spring flurries. Yesterday I found a small number of starts and blooms on a few dry, rocky exposures along the east slope south of Saint Mary. The flowers were short and unopened, but that might just be because it was cloudy. Pasqueflowers close for the night and open for the sun, which they tend to follow across the sky like sunflowers. While open, the curved sepals reflect sunlight inward and raise the flower temperature by as much as 18F (10C), helping to speed up the development of pollen and seeds during springtime's cool temperatures.

Early-season shortness helps counter springtime winds, as does a covering of many hairs. Pasqueflower's hairy surface serves several other purposes as well. They're thought to be an irritant that discourages browsing by animals. The hairs also work as a thermal blanket in two ways. Frost forms out on the hairy tips, away from the more delicate plant parts. And the hairy surface also traps air like a down coat, creating a micro-climate that is slightly warmer that the surrounding air when the sun isn't shining.

As if irritating hairs weren't deterrent enough, pasqueflower foliage also contains a blistering agent that affects the mouth and intestinal linings (mucus membranes) of any mammal that tries to eat it. It's probably a good idea to have a double line of defense when you are the first green plant seen in spring by hungry herbivores. As the flowers mature, their styles elongate into 1.5" (3.8 cm) long plumes with a small seed on one end. While the flowers hug the ground, the plant stems elongate through spring to lift the feathery seeds of summer into the wind. A gusty "strike" sends the seeds on their way to start another generation of cold-weather flowers whose name varies, depending on who you ask and where you are.

Beyond the bloom: The Rural Municipality of Lansdowne, in Manitoba, is the proud home of the world's largest prairie crocus monument, located in Arden (population 150). Arden's tourism committee puts on a pasqueflower photography competition each spring, and you can see past winners here. There's also a native prairie grassland site north of Arden where thousands of native prairie crocuses bloom every April. 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Eclipsed Once Again

lunar eclipse (c) John Ashley
Cloudy lunar eclipse at 6 a.m. over Divide Mountain

Eclipse illustration from EarthSky.org
Our first full moon of spring - what the Blackfeet call, When the ice breaks up in the river moon - was also the shortest total lunar eclipse of the 21st century. The moon passed through Earth's full shadow (umbra) for just 2 minutes and 17 seconds, but it spent almost six hours in Earth's partial shadow (penumbra). Our next lunar eclipse falls on September 28th, and it will be the last in this series of four total lunar eclipses known as a tetrad. The next tetrad won't begin until 2032.

The Earth's shadow crossing the moon will only be visible from Montana 14 times during the next 10 years, so lunar eclipses are slightly more frequent than your birthday. And like birthday cake, I'll enjoy a slice every time I get the chance. That's why I drove 6+ hours overnight for a so-so chance at photographing the eclipse over Divide Mountain, in Glacier Park. At 3 a.m. the sky was clear and the wind calm, and a northern pygmy owl called from a nearby clump of leafless aspens. And as soon as the eclipse started at 4:16 a.m., of course, clouds rolled in.

Near the time when the moon was supposed to be fully shadowed and rosy red, at totality, the eclipse snuck a peek through broken clouds for 10-15 seconds. But it ducked back behind the thick, blue blanket just as soon as it saw that I was still watching and waiting. I captured a quick shot of the recluse, like some sort of lunar paparazzi, and that's what I have to show for 6+ hours of driving and missing yet another night of sleep.

But that's still better than the fate of French astronomer Guillaume le Gentil. He was away from home for eleven and a half years in an effort to record either of the two transits of Venus during the 1760's. But he was stuck at sea during the first transit, and a cloud formed just at the moment of the second transit. He finally made his way back home where he discovered that his family had him declared dead before plundering his estate. And that's when Gentil gave up astronomy.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

New Book, "Glacier National Park After Dark"

Glacier National Park After Dark

During the Leonid meteor storm on November 1833, an estimated 200,000 meteors per hour sparked across the Montana sky for more then nine hours. Several Plains Indian tribes recorded the spectacle as the, "Winter When The Stars Fell." For me personally, the past three months was the winter when the stars fell into place.

I finally carved out a chunk of time to write the book that I've been photographing and working towards for the last 28 years. At 4:30 this afternoon I signed off on the last color proofs, and at 5:00 I took Magpie (our energetic border collie) for our first hike since December. The new book is on its way to the printer, coming to a bookstore near you in late June.

The book's title is, "Glacier National Park After Dark." It's 96 pages, 100+ photographs and 30-something essays of the night skies over northern Montana. It's part guide book and part astronomy, part Blackfoot sky stories and part personal journal. There are photographs of Glacier landmarks with comets, northern lights, shooting stars, star trails, sunsets and sunrises, full moons, lunar eclipses, constellations, planets, Milky Way, nocturnal animals, and more. I also wrote a couple of chapters about how we can come to terms with light pollution, plus a couple of tables for sky events over the next 10 years. My teammates for this project included Blackfeet elders, university professors and college instructors, a well-respected author and career park service employee, among others. After nearly three decades of photographing, and three months of writing and layout, it's all signed and sealed and soon to be delivered.

Over on our photography website, we're offering free U.S. shipping for those of you who are willing to pony up and pre-order to help us pay for printing this book (roughly $15,000, ouch!). I also designed a companion calendar to go with the book, and the free shipping offer applies to it as well. The link to order is here.

To be honest, the book is a labor of love that I needed to create. Because my motivation was personal and not financial, I had no expectations for how it would be received by the general public. So far, the reception has been almost scary. Every single person who has seen draft has reacted with great enthusiasm and genuine interest. This will open doors for me to bring conservation issues to strangers and have a positive impact on their lives. We already have several public presentations in the works, and I expect many more. Now I need to put together a slide program and bone up on the medical aspects of light pollution.

So my conservation work continues, but now that the book production phase is finished I hope to get back to writing Wild & Free Montana features after this winter hiatus. Let's get outdoors see what spring has delivered to western Montana!

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.