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To be a butterfly……

26 Jan

I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man? – Zhuangzi

Over the last four years while volunteering at the national wildlife refuges around the country, the two animals that have captured me, and for which I have devoted most of my time, are birds and Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). They chose and adopted me, not I them. And we have developed an interesting relationship.

My academic career before retiring was focused on plants, their ecology and pathology, and later, pathopysiology and molecular cell biology. My last ten years was spent in a university academic ‘high tower’ in Dallas, Texas. The typical routine of 14-16 hours of my day in labs and offices, trains and traffic, slowly sucked the life out of me.

I missed the field, the dirt, sweat, the odors of wet soil and plants, and the sounds of all creatures other than Homo sapiens. They were part of my spirit and soul and I was tired of doing time in “the machines”. So I left it all behind.

My contribution to the refuges has involved assisting with the biology programs: bird surveys, banding birds, developing and implementing habitat surveys and management programs, training interns, assisting with outreach education programs, and other tasks that help fill in gaps in each refuge’s biology needs.

During one of my early commitments at a refuge, a butterfly flew by me one late morning. Large red and black wings flapped three times and then glided to alight on my arm. While looking at it, a smile formed on my face, and the butterfly stayed on my arm, slowly folding and unfolding its wings. Although possibly only 30 seconds, it seemed much longer as we both had a conversation inside and between our realities. That was my first intimate monarch butterfly encounter.

Several people have participated in forming my relationship with these animals. Especially a contract lepidopterist that conducts butterfly and moth surveys all over the Pacific Northwest. I still remember well our too-short and too-few excursions in the field sharing our observations and stories of butterflies, and life in general.

Another individual that also contributed at the beginning was a refuge anthropologist. Her excitement over my discovery of a relatively large population of breeding monarchs on the refuge initiated a survey documenting not only presence but also at least two generations of breeding monarchs on the refuge. After the initial disbelief by other staff that monarchs actually ooccupied and used the breeding resources (also said to be of rare presence) on the refuge, she and I provided documentation of presence, resource use and habitat value. That database was circulated to regional resources for future use.

Since then, my commitment at every refuge I have worked at has involved butterflies, especially monarchs. Last summer that expanded to a two-month moth survey in collaboration with lepidopterists at Oregon State University, and the friend and colleague mentioned previously.

Recruiting other volunteers to assist in sorting and identification of the moths was a greater success than I ever anticipated. The weekly sessions, sometimes lasting three to four hours, were eagerly attended. They regretted that the survey ended in late September. The moth samples are now in the hands (literally) of the expert lepidopterists in Oregon for authoritative identifucation and documentation.

Now at a refuge in Texas, I am netting butterflies again.

Several refuge staff, volunteers, and acquaintances have over the past years urged me to write posts about working with birds and butterflies. I shrugged that off because of the plethora of  websites about both on the Internet. Two monarch researchers that I collaborated with also suggested writing and posting observations on monarch natural history, ecology, and critiques of published literature.

A friend and professional writer finally pushed me to follow that through. And this is the first post in that series.

Stay tuned for additional posts.



A community working together for wildlife

6 Oct

We get dirty sometimes. Mosquitoes practice their vampire act on us. Often times we get wet, such as falling in marsh water with chest waders on. Sunshine beats on us and the wind might push us around. But everyone has a good time, from the refuge staff, to dedicated local volunteers, perhaps a photojournalist thrown in, to the occasional beauty pageant queen.

Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge encompasses over 10,000 acres of marsh land and forest, most in various phases of restoration. It is a part of the overall Montezuma Marshes, a wooded swamp and marsh complex named in 1973 and designated as National Natural Landmark. The entire complex is around 100 acres of low land at the northern end of two of the Finger Lakes, Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. In addition to the federal refuge, large holdings are also managed by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and Audubon. Together, they form the Montezuma Complex with similar goals: to restore, conserve and protect habitat for wildlife.

The Montezuma Complex is important for conservation because the marshes, pools, and channels are stopovers for migrating birds on the Atlantic Flyway. Songbirds, shorebirds. waterfowl, swans, and raptors use the riparian areas and food sources for shelter, rest, and to fuel their migration south and north. Also of significance are the slowly increasing population of sandhill cranes. As of this summer, five or six nesting cranes were documented on the complex, most of them on the national wildlife refuge. They form a new but small component of the Atlantic Sandhill Crane Population.

The refuge was also instrumental in the successful reintroduction of bald eagles to New York State, and the first such program in the U.S. Since the program began in 1976, many of those eagles, and now their offspring, still return to the Montezuma complex to nest. Two of the nests that we monitored this summer had three nestlings fledge per nest, a sign that the species is doing well.

Another raptor species recovering from near decimation in this area is the osprey. Four of the five nests atop utility structures that line the road to the refuge entrance were full of nesting osprey and their young. These raptors are now a common sight as they elegantly dive for fish in the channels and marshes.

In addition to eagle surveys, the refuge participates in monitoring other species: ducks, geese, great blue heron, swans, grassland birds, black terns, and shorebirds. A new species added this year is the monarch butterfly: testing habitat evaluation tools and management protocols for monarch and all pollinators.

But there is more to just counting and banding ducks on the refuge.

Some of the refuge is accessible to the public to enjoy birds and native vegetation.A visitors’ center, wildlife drive, and hiking trails weave through the refuge pools, marshes, forests, and fields. Visitors can observe birds in the water and in the air. At the nearby Audubon Center, visitors can stroll through native fields in colorful bloom, or even rent a canoe or kayak to paddle on the creek and nearby canal.

But many parts are closed to the public, too. Because many waterfowl species -ducks, swans, geese, sandhill cranes, great blue herons, and eagles- nest summer-long in the marsh water, fields or trees, they need undisturbed places to successfully rear their young.

dscn2386These marshes, forests and fields are also field laboratories for children and adults. Many educational events occur on the refuge and the Audubon holdings for children to experience hands-on education on ecology, biology, botany, and team building. The DEC staff conduct training sessions for young hunters. And even the staff of the refuge and DEC partake in skill building and training workshops. This past summer we participated in a three-day workshop on waterfowl habitat management and a two-day course in duck banding in cooperation with the American Bird Banding Laboratory.

Most impressive to me was the cooperative and successfully productive network with the state, private, public, and federal entities. At the core of this are the committed staff and dedicated volunteers. Thanks to the large membership and contributions of the Friends of the Montezuma Wetlands Complex, many projects in the complex are supported by donations and volunteer work. The most successful is the MARSH! program.

MARSH! is part of a larger effort to restore, protect, and enhance wildlife habitat on nearly 50,000 acres in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex.

We formed this VOLUNTEER program to support the habitat restoration efforts of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Montezuma Audubon Center and other partners at Montezuma. This group works on controlling invasive species in grassland, shrubland, forest, marsh and river. The work is hands-on as we cut and pull invasive species & replant with natives that will be more beneficial to wildlife & less harmful to Montezuma habitats overall!

Staff from both the national refuge and the NY DEC work with volunteers on a variety of projects:

  • surveying seedling tree survival,
  • controlling invasive species, such as swallow wart, honeysuckle, etc.
  • black tern surveys,
  • collecting wetland and upland native plant seed,
  • surveying for invasive plant density using GIS apps on phones and iPads, etc

We always finish off with lunch together, sharing stories and laughs. My last MARSH event with them culminated with a presentation I gave on the monarch life cycle and habitat. Sharing those events with them this summer was a unique and satisfying experience that will be memorable.

Especially when a local beauty pageant queen worked with us for one MARSH day.

A photographer and column writer from a local paper watched and photographed us all one day while we collected emergent marsh plant seed. He called me the next day to request an interview, which I really did not think would be published. But it did.
(Follow link below for full article)

THE BIGGER PICTURE: A visitor from the Land of Enchantment


Link to full article.

To be, or not to be, which species? Why question?

22 Sep

Over the past several years I have participated in the genetic and taxonomic debates over the Red wolf: is it Canis lupus (wolf)? Canis latrans (coyote)?  Canis rufus (current classification)? Or a hybrid?

Depending on which author’s paper you read, the general consensus is that the animal shares more genetic similarity with the coyote than wolf. To complicate the game, a few genetic markers associated with (note my avoidance of ‘unique to’)  the red wolf can be found in a sub-population of the timber  wolf, most notably the Great Lakes or Algonquin wolf.

The typical argument against introgression of the two wild canid species, C. lupus and C. latrans, is behavioral boundaries between them. Under normal circumstances, the two species do not tolerate each other and will not mate to form hybrid offspring. When they are sympatric (when their territories overlap), wolves usually kill coyotes or they just avoid each other.

However, a group of geneticists hypothesize that despite traditional behavioral and geographical boundaries that usually prevent introgression between species, these very boundaries are plastic. In other words, they may fail and individuals of both species may mate and produce viable offspring.

A scenario of this transgression might be in a geographical area that borders territories of both species. If resources are severely limiting, such as during a long drought cycle, a few individuals of each species may mate due to poor mating opportunities within their own species.

Another scenario is more common today: when human land use encroaches upon and shrinks traditional habitats, forcing trespass from one species into territory of the other. This is the primary explanation given for the increase of the current  ‘coywolf’ population in the northeastern US.

As one geneticist posits, such introgression may have occurred more than once, especially in an arid region, such as the southwestern area of the red wolf’s former territory: Texas. After several generations of backcrossing and/or admixture with coyotes, isolation of this growing population could conceivably be on the way to speciation, resulting in the historical  and extant Canis rufus.

Now, here lies the question: is this animal a species? Or a sub-species? Is it ‘wolf’? Is it ‘coyote’? Or is it a hybrid? And this is when the poor animal falls into the vortex of the ‘species concept’ debate. And possibly one of life or death.

Tonight I reread a paper published in 2006 and that was once used as a focal topic paper in a journal club session: “On the failure of modern species concepts”, by Jody Hey (Trends in Ecology and Evolution, vol. 21, No. 8). An excellent paper that stirred a three-hour debate between eight students and monitors. Shame on me for forgetting the final two paragraphs (‘Lessons on the method of multiple concepts’).

“Definitions cannot be forced to serve the arbitration of entities that are truly ambiguous. The fact is that species are hard to identify for a variety of reasons related to the various ways that they can be indistinct and no criterion that presumes to delineate natural boundaries can overcome this.

As scientists we should not confuse our criteria for detecting species with our theoretical understanding of the way species exist. Detection protocols are not concepts. This point would be child’s play if we were talking about electrons or disease agents, but because real species are so difficult to study, and because our best understanding of them includes their often being truly indistinct, we have had trouble separating the detection criteria from our more basic ideas on the existence of species.”

Right now, the fate of the red wolf in large part revolves around whether or not it is classified as a true species, sub-species, or a hybrid. The Endangered Species Act does not recognize and therefore does not include hybrids for protection from extinction. Both government agencies, policy administrators and scientists are still embroiled in the vicious vortex of yea or nay. Nor can the biologists agree on how the species concept applies to a possible animal caught in the cycle of speciation.

I am a victim of my own Trickster antics of playing in the ‘species concept’ debate. Tonight this is resolved and I am absolved: it doesn’t matter which species the red wolf is tagged with. It doesn’t matter if it is a hybrid or not. In fact, as a hybrid it’s protection and conservation is even more important. We have the opportunity to watch and learn what happens during the course of a mammalian hybrid as it continues its course of speciation.

May the Red wolf howl and carry on safe from human impact and intervention other than a helping hand for protection from human-caused anhilation. Perhaps you can teach us humans humility. Especially us scientists.

The Loon

17 Dec

Sometimes a creature grabs you from the inside and holds you. It might be a particular flower whose beauty is translated to your heart. It might be a shimmering butterfly that dances in your mind’s eye. Or it might be the song of a meadowlark that fills your ears with sweetness.

There is one that captured me in my childhood and still pulls me like a siren and muse. Its voice can be ethereal, or wild and almost supernatural. It tugs at primitive strings in my soul and tethers me between a vast space of a wildness we can’t even comprehend, and the short time of our humanity that seems so pitiful compared to the beauty and innocence of this creature.

My childhood and most of my adulthood were spent in the northern regions of this country: Maine, New York, and Oregon. I know the voice of the loon. I know this bird. It is ingrained in my being like the beating of my heart. It stirs deep inside like a wolf howl.

The loon may lack the iridescent and bright colors of many other birds, but its simplicity makes it regal, humble and honest. Both parents share the care of their young and carry them on their backs in the water. And they stay with their chosen mates throughout nesting and migration. Yet, their numbers decline rapidly due to habitat loss and a sensitivity to toxic minerals, especially mercury and lead, in the mainstay of their lives: water.

If you have heard the call of a loon during an early foggy morning on a lake, you don’t forget it. Ever. It haunts you like a siren. The voice of the loon has no threat. Instead, it elicits a profound feeling of innate and inexplicable comfort and alliance. It literally gives me goosebumps and simultaneously, a surge of happiness. It stirs inexplicable primitive feelings for which no words can explain. It is the call of a species at the brink of possible extinction, calling for another chance.

Their voice brings me to tears and stirs my soul. All I can do is close my eyes and become a part of the sound, the bird and its environment.

Turkey Day on the Refuge

27 Nov

As I sit in my ‘home on wheels’ drinking my early morning coffee on Turkey Day catching up on correspondence (and rare Internet connection), I hear the air boat out on the large marshes across the road and RV ‘Village’ on the Refuge. One of the biologists is out this morning picking up dead snow geese. They are carriers of and susceptible to avian cholera. With the prolonged unseasonal cold weather we’ve had here, we’re seeing early mortality of snow geese. I also wonder how much stress levels from extremely high human visitation with the recent Crane Festival adds to increases in mortality rate, possibly compounding overall stress from cold temps, high animal density, lower water volume, and less corn/feed access than in previous years. One of the biologists mentioned last week that recent mortality incidents are earlier than normal.

During the Festival I was fortunate to accompany as an aide a six-hour Sandhill Crane Behavior class. The instructor was crane biologist Paul Tebbel and his associate. Our group of 15 Festival participants was out by one of the ‘Crane Ponds’ in the dark at 5:45am to watch the ‘fly out’. The ‘fly outs’ and ‘fly ins’ are the daily celebratory attractions for people from all over the country as tens of thousands of snow geese and nearly 10,000 sandhill cranes take to the sky in the morning and land in the evening. We chose one of the smaller marshes for a closer and more personal view of the cranes. It was indeed magical and awe inspiring despite temperatures in the mid-20’s. Even the cranes were reluctant to take flight until the sun warmed them a bit. We could see ‘bracelets’ of ice on their legs when they moved around in the marsh.

Paul has been involved in sandhill crane biology and conservation for decades. Formerly the director and manager for the 1400-acre wildlife sanctuary on the Platte River in Nebraska (the bottleneck for sandhill crane migrations), he is now head of the Effie Yeaw Nature Center north of Sacramento. His expertise is crane behavior and he has conducted workshops here at Bosque del Apache Refuge for 20 years!

He is one of the best naturalist instructors I have had the fortune to meet and work with! His casual approach to imparting information on biology and animal behavior elicited a genuine and more personal interest from all participants. I especially enjoyed how he and his associate demonstrated the crane’s pre-flight signals between members of crane family units (forward leaning and looking back to see if other family members and uits were attentive). The two presenters mimicked the crane behaviors accompanied by a human speech interpretation: “Look, Junior, I’m leaning forward now! It’s time to fly! Are you paying attention? Is Mom there, too?”

I learned more about cranes in those six hours than I could ever accumulate from reading literature! And I now have a greater personal and scientific understanding of cranes, as well as an increased overall appreciation of how special they are. Not just because they are ‘big and pretty’ (the most common response to Paul’s question to participants why people are interested in cranes), but also because they have extraordinarily complex social behaviors. And bird/animal behavior is my primary interest (second to biology).

The Festival overall was a huge success for all involved: participants, the Refuge, the Friends of BdA, and the volunteers. It was crazy busy for us all, but well organized. Every single Refuge staff member worked long hours and every day along with the rest of us, and it was truly a great ‘team player’ experience. Even the Refuge Manager was on board daily with smiles and encouragement. All the vendors and auxiliary representatives from public (federal and state) agencies and other non-profit organizations (e.g. wildlife conservation and rehabilitation groups) were tremendously friendly and interactive with both Festival staff and visitor participants.

Now that the Festival is over, all of us get a chance to relax and enjoy more personal time. I volunteered to help conduct raptor surveys every Saturday, which I enjoy immensely. Especially when pointing out one of the bald eagles to visitors that may be around me when surveying the two main marshlands. Folks are thrilled to see them.

I have to admit that I have grown very fond of our smallest falcons, the American kestrels. I was giddy with excitement when close to a rehabilitated female kestrel and a male Great Horned owl (both serve as foster parents!).  Additionally, I now have the opportunity to see many of the male duck species that nest at Malheur NWR in all their winter plumage! One of my favorites is the male bufleheads; they look like large floating black and white Nike sneakers. The only waterfowl missing here from my ‘Favorite List’ is my old friends, the loons. They are a very rare occurrence here.

Since serving the wildlife refuges is my new retirement ‘career’, my intentions are to improve and expand my professional capacities that will enhance my skills and performance as a naturalist and a biologist. This was my goal upon retiring: to devote myself to the conservation of wildlife and contribute to enhancing the connection between wildlife and people. And I admit that doing so is enormously satisfying and often full of adventures.

Our volunteer group here is planning a large turkey dinner potluck this afternoon, including those of the Refuge staff that live on site. Now that we all have more free time I plan to finally take my camera out and hike in the mornings! Although I think I might invest in a pair of insulated coveralls 😉

Happy Holidays to all of you!

Water Wars

19 Aug

We really have to face up to that long-term history and the ecological reality of living in and building a civilization in a desert region. There is no way to sustain any city in the long run if its water footprint exceeds the natural supply, however many straws we stick into the aquifers. -ecologist Madhusudan Katti

With continuing urban expansion into desert environs, the battle for our most precious resource will escalate. Unfortunately, our typical world view of blaming everything but ourselves, and demanding solutions while ignoring the causal relationships, follows the path of ‘give us more!’. Denying the reality of desert environments and expecting to proceed along ‘business as usual’ will soon face a rather rude awakening. Rightly so.

Ecologist Katti published an excellent commentary addressing this topic on his blog, Reconciliation Ecology. I highly recommend reading it.

Conserving border wildlife crossings

5 Jul

Wildlife don’t recognize international borders. They don’t read signs, they aren’t hip-deep in politics, they don’t create laws prohibiting movement, and they don’t build giant fences – the human act of pissing on their own territory perimeter thereby isolating themselves and keeping the ‘Others’ out.  Wildlife pass from place to place to find food, shelter, water, and mates. With increasing loss of and encroachment on their habitat, their options for life sustainment grow smaller, and biodiversity shrinks. Unfortunately, state and federal governments have no qualms about further loss of wildlife habitat with the mandated tall fences and the recent so-called ‘border protection’ bill.

The Fence (TM) is a long-standing political embarrassment and money glutton. Especially since the latest statistics reveal that fewer immigrants from Mexico and South America are illegally (and legally) crossing the border into the US. In fact, the tide has turned; emigration has increased from the US into countries south of the border; Americans and non-Americans.

What is more important, and damned frightening not just for wildlife but also people living in the borderlands, is the recent Borderland Protection (BP) bill. The legislation, introduced by Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, would override protections on lands within 100 miles of the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, handing unrestricted access to these areas to the Department of Homeland Security. In addition, the bill would override “36 environmental, safety and other regulations, including the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Antiquities Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Migratory Bird Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, the Fish and Wildlife Act, among others.”

The Fence affects only the southern US borderlands. However, the BP bill will impact the entire perimeter of the US:  the Redwoods, Joshua Tree, Channel Islands, Isle Royale, Everglades, Biscayne, Dry Tortugas, Glacier, North Cascades, Voyageurs, Virgin Islands, Olympic, Arcadia, Hawaii, Alaska, all the national seashores, and the Big Bend National Park in Texas. Many US citizens see this as a threat to our freedom and liberties, but it is a dangerous threat to all wildlife on both sides of US International borders.

Texas, a private company (Cemex), the US, and Mexico have partnered together to conserve a large area of the Chihuahuan desert on both sides of the border for wildlife corridors and habitat. Including a mixture of ecosystems -brush and mesquite desert, high desert grasslands, mountains, and sky islands – this area contains probably the greatest biodiversity of all North American desert lands. Wide swaths of untouched land on either side of the Maderas del Carmen range offer protected habitat and skies for land animals, resident and migratory birds. Unknown to many, small springs dotting the area south of the border also harbor endemic aquatic species. The jewel is that it is the first international wildlife conservation project of its size on the North and South American continents.  Evidence that two countries, and their respective political agencies, can cooperate for a common goal to protect wildlife for now and the future.

Wildlife biologists, ecologists and conservation specialists are beginning to speak publicly in support of conserving wildlife corridors next to and across the borders. Jon Beckman, conservationist with the the Wildlife Conservation Society’s North America program, recently wrote an opinion piece in an online issue of UT San Diego. His piece is reposted below:

The southern border region is one of the most bio-diverse areas in the United States and a crossroads for many carnivores. Today, the area is more widely known for the highly charged border politics involving people than for how those politics may affects the bears, jaguars, mountain lions and other wildlife that make the area home.

For hundreds of years, as national borders have been redrawn by various governments, these species have maintained a natural distribution across the region. A recent study provided insight into the critical role that movement corridors – the paths that wildlife follow to access seasonal resources such as various foods, water and mating opportunities – play in ensuring the persistence of bears and other large carnivores in this region.

The collaborative study, by the Wildlife Conservation Society and federal and state land and wildlife management agency partners, found that bears in the southern United States are more closely related genetically to endangered black bear populations in northern Mexico than to those in central Arizona and New Mexico. These data suggest that bears and other carnivores are likely dependent upon cross-border corridors to travel between the naturally, patchily distributed habitat in the region.

Corridors serve many species and purposes in the border region. Recent evidence suggests that jaguars and ocelots, for example, have begun to return northward from Central America and Mexico to reoccupy their former range in the United States. Other studies indicate that a number of species cross the border when times are tough (such as in drought years) and suitable habitat exists only on “the other side.”

The current debate about whether to continue or expand a border fence out of legitimate national security concerns, combined with changing land-use patterns that have led to increased road-building and urban sprawl in previously wild places, makes a conversation about how all of this will impact wildlife more important than ever.

The study showed that linkages across the border are essential in ensuring that bears and other species have access to habitat and resources, and to keep them from being genetically isolated from other subpopulations. Can we maintain such linkages in the context of a border fence without compromising immigration and national security goals?

The answer is yes, if we plan in advance. The border fence is not a homogeneous structure along its entirety, but is a collage of various fence types. For example, there is pedestrian fencing that generally is near dense human population zones and often represents a complete barrier for wildlife; and there is vehicle fencing, which is generally more permeable to wildlife movement.

There is opportunity for conservation scientists, Homeland Security representatives, land and wildlife management agencies and the engineering community to look at innovative ways to allow animals, but not humans, to cross border barriers. One solution may be a combination of permeable fences combined with intensive remote monitoring at crucial wildlife corridor crossings identified by field data.

The issue of habitat connectivity for wildlife at our borders is an important one and now is an ideal time to tackle this issue. What happens along the southern United States will likely set the precedent for similar fencing/border security activities that have recently been discussed for our northern border with Canada, where a variety of other important species that require large expanses of open land can be found.

Enforcing our immigration laws and protecting U.S. citizens is critical, but do we have to sacrifice wildlife and ecosystems to secure that protection? For years, the governments of Tanzania and Kenya have worked cooperatively to ensure the safe migration of millions of wildebeest and other species from the Serengeti across their shared border. Let us now work with Mexico and Canada to do the same.

How can you help? Contact your representatives in the House and Senate to voice opposition to the Border Protection bill, for both wildlife and people living in the borderlands. Support efforts by government and non-government organizations to conserve and protect wildlife corridors across both state and national boundaries. Sign petitions, make your voice heard. We are the people, yet people also have to represent the rights of wildlife so that they too may thrive on their own territories without borders.

Links for further reading:

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