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Howling to be Heard: Wolf Evolution and Behavior

May 18th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

by Mike Rosekrans, M.Ed. Graduate Student
This is the second article in Mike’s “Howling to be Heard” series; you can read the first one on wolf folklore here.

Wolves have been a part of the American landscape for a much longer time period than humans have. Evidence shows that gray wolves appeared in North America around 15,000 years ago during a period of oversized mammals. The gray wolf’s much larger cousin, the dire wolf, was the primary predator until it went extinct about 8,000 years ago. It is believed by scientists that because dire wolves were much larger they could not keep up with the ungulates that had become much faster and adapted to run through forested areas after the retreat of the last glaciers at the end of the ice age. The smaller and quicker gray wolf, which hunted in packs, was much more suited to this newly forested environment. Following the extinction of the dire wolf, the gray wolf became the top predator in North America.

The gray wolf is the largest member of the Canid family and the third largest predator in the Northwest after the grizzly and black bears. The gray wolf’s closest relative, the coyote, has taken over much of the gray wolf’s former range due its near eradication during the early 20th century. It is believed that these two species separated on an evolutionary scale about 1.5 million years ago. In fact, all domestic dogs have evolved from gray wolves.

Other than primates, wolves have the most complex social structure amongst land mammals. The social structure of the wolf is centered around the pack, a group of 2-20 wolves that take on specific roles and functions within the community. Each pack has an alpha pair consisting of one male and one female, which is usually the only breeding pair within a pack. The rest of the pack members consist of the alpha pair’s offspring. Some pack members may eventually break away and set off on their own to either establish their own packs or join another. If a male leaves a pack or is kicked out by the alpha it will often become the alpha of another pack.

» Continue reading Howling to be Heard: Wolf Evolution and Behavior

SalishSea

The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest

April 14th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

As part of our “Nature in Writing” series, Joseph K. Gaydos and Audrey DeLella Benedict read from The Salish Sea, Thursday, April 16, 7 pm, in the Readings Gallery at Village Books in Bellingham. Free!

We paddle and sail on it, comb its beaches, stroll its shores. We are drawn to it for fishing, birdwatching, tidepooling, crabbing, sunset gazing and occasionally even swimming. The Salish Sea defines life in the Fourth Corner, providing not only livelihood and sustenance but also opportunities for relaxation, play, adventure and spiritual nourishment.

A new title from Sasquatch Books, written by the Chief Scientist for the SeaDoc Society and the founder of Cloud Ridge Naturalists, aims to educate Pacific Northwesterners about the intricate ecosystem of our inland sea. Joseph K. Gaydos and Audrey DeLella Benedict combine engaging science writing with an array of stunning photographs to produce The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest.

Several local photographers provided images for the book, including Brett Baunton, John D’Onofrio, Jessica Newley, John Scurlock, Art Wolfe and the Whatcom Museum archives.

The idea for grouping together the Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Strait of Georgia under one moniker originally came from Bert Webber, a retired professor of environmental and marine science at Western Washington University. Thinking of the interconnected, transboundary waters as one cohesive whole — the Salish Sea — helps citizens to “think like a watershed” and better strategize international management of the ecosystem and its wealth of resources.

Wise management is crucial as approximately eight million people live in the Salish Sea ecosystem, with another million projected to settle here over the next ten years. The impacts from extensive human development of the shorelines and uplands are being felt throughout the region.

The Health of the Salish Sea Report, issued by the US Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada, gives our treasured inland sea mixed grades.

What they’ve found: 113 marine species and sub-species are formally listed as being at risk or vulnerable to extinction, including 56 birds, 37 fish, 15 mammals, three invertebrates and two reptiles. Also, marine-dissolved oxygen is in long-term decline, and the last few decades have seen steep declines in iconic orca whales and Chinook salmon. Ten of the 17 rivers studied show strongly significant decreasing summer flow trends due to lower snowpacks in the mountains, surface and groundwater withdrawals, and other issues.

On the positive side, air quality has been improving, freshwater quality is general holding steady, nearly 4,00 acres of previously closed shellfish beds in Puget Sound have re-opened due to improvements in water quality and levels of PCBs and PCBEs are declining in harbor seals.

This new book — which is divided into sections that explore different ecological niches like “Life at the Edges,” “Denizens of the Deep” and “Bizarre and Beautiful Fish” — takes the approach of saving the Salish Sea by educating people about it.

“Once people know a place…they become connected to it,” the authors write. “And once people connect to an ecosystem, it becomes personal and they want to protect and restore it.”

Through maps, charts, satellite imagery, nature photography and writing, Benedict and Gaydos concoct an engaging presentation of the natural history of our “jewel of the Pacific Northwest.”  Their mantra of “know, connect, protect and restore” is a hopeful way forward in to a challenging future.

Read the Health of the Salish Sea Report at http://www2.epa.gov/salish-sea/marine-species-risk

TriumphofSeeds

The Triumph of Seeds: An Excerpt

April 9th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from The Triumph of Seeds by Thor Hanson. It comes from Chapter Eight: By Tooth, Beak, and Gnaw.

By Thor Hanson

“Oh rats, rejoice!
The world is grown to one vast drysaltery!
So munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon,
Breakfast, supper, dinner, luncheon!”

Robert Browning
The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1842)

Appendix F of the International Building Code stipulates requirements for keeping rats and other rodents out of all habitable dwellings. These include two-inch (five-centimeter) slab foundations, steel kick-plates, and tempered wire or sheet-metal grating over any ground- level opening. Conditions for grain storage or industrial facilities can be even stricter, involving thicker concrete, more metal, and curtain walls buried two feet below grade. In spite of all this, rats and their relations still consume or contaminate between 5 and 25 percent of the world’s grain harvest, and regularly gnaw their way into important structures of all kinds. In 2013, a trespassing rodent shorted out the switchboard at Japan’s ill-fated Fukushima nuclear plant, sending temperatures in three cooling tanks soaring and nearly setting off a repeat of the 2011 meltdown. The story made headlines around the world, with journalists, bloggers, and TV commentators all wondering what makes rats so interested in electrical wires. But the real question isn’t about what rodents like to eat; it’s about how difficult it is to stop them. Why on earth should a rat be able to chew through concrete walls in the first place?

The name “rodent” comes from the Latin verb rodere, “to gnaw,” a reference both to the way rodents chew and to the massive incisors that help them do it so well. These teeth evolved in small mouse- or squirrel-like creatures approximately 60 million years ago. That’s approximately 60 million years before the invention of concrete, Plexiglas, sheet metal, or any of the other manmade materials that rats and mice now chew through. Experts still argue about the exact origin of rodents, but there is little doubt about what those big teeth were good for. While the family tree now includes oddballs like beavers, who chew wood, and naked mole rats, who use their teeth for digging, the vast majority of rodents still make much of their living the old-fashioned way: by gnawing seeds.

Rodents

» Continue reading The Triumph of Seeds: An Excerpt

6.26.15 Corvids E Petrovski

Welcome to Subirdia: Q&A with John Marzluff

April 1st, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

As part of our “Nature in Writing” series, John Marzluff reads from Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife, Friday, April 3rd, 7 pm, in the Readings Gallery at Village Books in Bellingham. Free!


Q: You started your research studying crows, jays, and ravens. What was the catalyst for making the transition to birds and wildlife in urban areas?

JM: Moving to Seattle in the late 1990s, I was confronted with a rapidly growing urban area that was spilling into relatively wild country. When a large forest near my home became a high-end subdivision, I knew I had to take a closer look. Previously, scientific information for urban systems was mostly descriptive or nonexistent.  Researching how birds and other wildlife responded to development was a perfect way to combine my love of pure science with my desire to offer planners, developers, and others relevant ecological knowledge.

Q: Could you please define subirdia?

JM: The geography of life, or a physical place (the rich mix of built, planted, and natural lands that fringe our cities) and the web of life linking people with their natural world.

Swainsons_Thrush
Swainson’s Thursh

Q: The research you and your students and postdocs undertake requires many patient and persistent observers. How long and about how many have contributed to our understanding of subirdia?

JM: In this type of work, a year’s effort yields only a single data point. To understand the ups and downs of bird populations and the natural booms and busts of birth and death requires a decade or more of standardized measurement. For thirteen years, eight to ten of us took to the woods and streets every spring and summer. During this time, my team included many undergraduates and interns, three postdocs, eight doctoral students, and six master’s students. I am proud that they now teach in some of our nation’s top universities, contribute to the management of our wild resources, and direct research in non-profit conservation organizations.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from their experience of encountering Welcome to Subirdia?

JM: A better understanding and appreciation for the ecosystem we call “home” and the tools needed to nurture a life enriched by our wild neighbors.

Banded_Spotted_TowheeBanded Spotted Towhee

Q: What is your favorite bird or wildlife encounter you relate in the book?

JM: The great thing about field research is the collection of memories I take home each season. I can still recall the broods of hungry thrushes I measured and the extraordinarily old birds I was able to recapture. But my favorite memories from subirdia mostly involve mammals. For example, sitting quietly as a band of angry crows approached and seeing that the object of their scorn was a brash bobcat; playing bird calls by a mist net in the cold dawn and having a coyote rush in; and the look on one kid’s face as he extracted his bicycle from a (different) net and wondered what he was going to tell his mom. (Well that’s not in the book, but it was sure fun!)

European_Jay_Peppered_mothsEuropean Jay and Peppered Moth
All bird art is by Jack DeLap, taken from Marzluff’s book, Welcome to Subirdia. DeLap writes, “While I produce images in various media, from graphite, pen and ink, to acrylic and oils, the current work in its final form was created freehand using a digital tablet and stylus (Wacom Cintiq). My process involves sketching in the field, as well as from museum specimens and photographs to create an original composition that seek to capture aspects of the species’ natural history and physical form. Dr. John Marzluff and I collaborated on the conceptualization and narrative sequence of images. My primary objective for these illustrations was to utilize my passion for drawing in direct service of natural science education.”
Juvenile_American_Robin

Welcome to Subirdia: An Excerpt

March 31st, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

As part of our “Nature in Writing” series, John Marzluff reads from Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife, Friday, April 3rd, 7 pm, in the Readings Gallery at Village Books in Bellingham. Free!

by John Marzluff

My research and that of other urban ecologists suggest that, despite the great loss of biodiversity caused by our actions, we also have a lot to celebrate. I’ve spent most of my spring and summer mornings counting birds in national parks, industrial parks, and suburbs. It is not surprising that the most-heavily paved portions of the city hold few birds, but it is not the case that the least-disturbed places on Earth always hold the most birds. Wild reserves provide shelter for unique birds not found in the city, and they are absolutely essential. But the greatest variety of birds is often found in the suburbs. [1]

With my graduate students I have counted birds from Seattle’s urban core to its fringing forests nearly every spring and summer morning for the past decade. We expected the suburbs between the city center and the forested reserves to support an intermediate number of species, but when we listened as these neighborhoods awoke each morning, we were astonished by the dawn chorus of thrushes, tanagers, wrens, towhees, finches, crows, and woodpeckers. Here we often tallied 30 or more species in a single count. We found birds from the industrial city mixed with some from the protected forest, and we encountered a whole new set of birds that use more open country. [2]

Black_throated_gray_warblerBlack-throated gray warbler

Compiling standard bird surveys from more than 100 locations in and around Seattle revealed to us a consistent, but unexpected, relationship between the intensity of development and bird diversity. The greatest diversity was not in the most forested setting. Instead, bird diversity rose quickly from the city center to the suburbs and then dropped again in the extensive forest that eases Seattle into the high Cascades.

We had discovered “subirdia.”

» Continue reading Welcome to Subirdia: An Excerpt

Grizzly-Bear-In-Water-1024x768

Institute Comments on North Cascades Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan

March 24th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

To: Superintendent, North Cascades National Park Service Complex

From: Saul Weisberg, Executive Director, North Cascades Institute

Subject: Institute Comments on North Cascades Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan

Thank you for the opportunity to comment during the scoping process for the North Cascades Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan / Environmental Impact Statement.

North Cascades Institute strongly supports active restoration of grizzly bears to the North Cascades ecosystem.

For nearly 30 years North Cascades Institute has brought students of all ages to explore the mountains and rivers of the North Cascades. Ranging in age from 8 to 80, our participants come to experience, discover, learn from, and share this special part of the world. Now, the National Park Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and their partner agencies have the opportunity to restore a critical missing part of the wilderness puzzle that is the North Cascades – healthy populations of Grizzly Bears.

There are many reasons why grizzly bears should be restored to the North Cascades:

  • Grizzly bears are a keystone species of the North Cascade. Through predation, scavenging and ground disturbance they impact the ecosystem and its wildlife and vegetation in profound and important ways. The loss of the few remaining grizzly bears would significantly degrade the ecosystem, from both a ecological and cultural point of view.
  • With the restoration of grizzly bear and pacific fisher populations, the North Cascades ecosystem will have its full complement of native wildlife. This represents a plus for park visitors, as well as sustainable growth in local and regional economies through increased visitation and longer stays. Grizzlies, and wolves, fuel year-round visitation, guiding services and education opportunities in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
  • Public support for grizzly restoration in the region is strong. While there would be challenges to restoration, in a predominately wilderness ecosystem of nearly 10,000 sq. miles, conflict with humans and livestock should be limited and controllable. Ongoing education and monitoring will be needed and has demonstrated success in other regions of the west.
  • Restoration would contribute to ecosystem biodiversity and benefit present and future generations of Americans who live in ever increasing numbers in the ten counties that make up and surround the North Cascades.
  • The North Cascades provide excellent grizzly bear habitat. Even though these magnificent animals have been nearly eliminated from the ecosystem, research indicates the North Cascades provide excellent grizzly habitat. Grizzly restoration would likely succeed with active support from the land management agencies and local communities. Such activities should begin soon.

 

Because North Cascades Institute brings significant numbers of people to the ecosystem to take part in conservation education programs, we have looked into issues of safety and risk management with peer organizations that operate in grizzly country. Yellowstone Association Institute and Teton Science Schools have worked with tens of thousands of school children, families and adults for over 40 years in the Yellowstone backcountry. If grizzlies were restored to the North Cascades, the additional protocols we would put in place, in addition to standard “bear aware” practices that we already require from all participants, is a minimum group size of four, with group leaders carrying bear spray. These protocols are basic for anyone visiting wilderness areas that contain large carnivores.

At North Cascades Institute we look forward to educating our students about grizzly bears, and one day standing with those students, looking out over an intact, healthy ecosystem, knowing the grizzly has returned home.

Mount Rainier Milky Way

Starstruck: One Grad’s Perspective on the Night Sky

March 19th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

by Lauren Ridder, M.Ed. Graduate Student

There are only a couple of things that can stop me in my tracks. When clouds part to reveal a night sky full of stars, my gaze is irresistibly drawn upwards, and I feel my perspective shift. My breathing slows and my awareness sharpens, as my mind races far away from the Earth’s surface to find those familiar patterns in the sky.

What I love about constellations is that I could be anywhere in the world, feeling lost and overwhelmed by the chaos of everyday life, but as soon as I spot those sparkling forms high above my head, I feel re-oriented. It feels like an ancient connection to not only centuries of human folklore, but also to pages in stars’ life stories that are long gone as their light travels through all the layers of time and space to reach Earth.

I have several favorite constellations to search for including: Orion, Delphinus, Cygnus, and Andromeda. Orion is the first constellation that I can remember identifying on my own, and I’ve loved tracing its path across many night skies throughout my life. As a winter constellation, Orion appears in the Northern Hemisphere in late November. Orion is usually portrayed as the Great Hunter charging across the sky with shield in one hand and sword in the other. Another more seasonally linked version of the story comes from the Ojibwe people who name this star group, Biboonkeonini the Wintermaker. The prominence of the three stars that make up Orion’s Belt leads to this constellation’s familiarity across cultures. Alnitak, the leftmost star in the Belt, means “the girdle” in Arabic; Alnilam in the middle, translates as “string of pearls”; and Mintaka, on the right, means “the belt”. On March 6 of this year, Orion was due south, standing upright at his highest.

The two most recent additions to my constellation library, Cygnus and Delphinus, are located near each other in the northern early summer and mid-autumn skies. Cygnus swims along the Milky Way with Delphinus leaping out near the swan’s left wing. Cygnus is easy to spot on a clear night with the bright star, Deneb, marking the swan’s tail, and four other prominent stars within its body that form a grouping also known as the Northern Cross. Delphinus is harder to pick out and requires a softening of the gaze and a little patience. Once the little Dolphin makes itself known though, it’s hard to forget.

» Continue reading Starstruck: One Grad’s Perspective on the Night Sky