Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Binoculars and the state of the Wild

This is a fresh newspaper column from me:

My first Zeiss-brand binoculars were so good they could pick up – in sharp focus – clumps of purple loosestrife growing in narrow marshlands on the shore of the Susquehanna River below the Council Cup promontory. From where I stood atop the rocky point, the distance was a good half mile.
It was the chance to see migrating raptors – birds of prey – that attracted me to the big rock pile a couple of miles upstream of Berwick. After all, Council Cup was much closer to home – Conyngham – than the very well known Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.
And there they were: Broad-winged hawks, American kestrels and peregrine falcons in September, bald eagles and ospreys in October and red-tailed hawks and other species in early November.
It was loosestrife that I thought of today, though, when I picked up my just-acquired copy of the new book Invasive Species and Global Climate Change.
Invasive, exotic (i.e., non-native) plants are, in themselves, bad enough for the future of our natural heritage. But we’re making things much harder to fix with our unrelenting burning of gunk fossil fuels.
Even folks who care only about the dollar bill and related economic matters should care and support efforts to take action. Here’s why: Non-native invasive plants and animals are taking over ecosystems in every state, crowding out habitat for native species and costing billions of dollars in control efforts and lost productivity. In the case of just one invasive – loosestrife – the effects of its invasion are long-lasting.
It destroys wetland habitat. Period.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers this assessment: “The impact of thriving non-native species can be devastating to the environment. Non-native plants that propagate and become invasive can have tremendous negative impacts—both ecologically and economically.  An estimated 5,000 alien plants exist in the United States, displacing native species. One example is the European purple loosestrife. It has been spreading at a rate of 115,000 hectares a year and has been blamed for reducing the biomass of 44 native plants and endangered wildlife, including bog turtles and several species of ducks that depend on the native plants.
“Loosestrife now occurs in 48 states and costs $45 million per year in control costs and forage losses.”
Our planet’s changing climate (again, don’t confuse the daily weather with “climate”), is hastening the spread of invasive plants and animals to places where they are invaders, not natives.
The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the agency that looks after our state parks and other public lands, says this: “Climate change adaptation is preparing for and responding to the impacts of climate change. While reducing greenhouse gases, a process referred to as mitigation, is essential, it won’t prevent the inevitable changes resulting from to the greenhouse gases already in atmosphere. Consequently, we need to begin developing strategies to deal with both the direct and indirect effects of climate change.”
A Google search turned up scores of papers and other documents discussing how warmer temperatures will aid and abet the spread of weedy invasive plants. One that looks at what is happening in the mid-Atlantic region can be read at
In all-day hikes across Pocono wild lands in the late 1990s, finding a clump or more of loosestrife and other invasive species like Japanese knotweed was a no-brainer. These and other alien plants take quick advantage of human activities like road-building and other development.
What can nature-watchers do to help?
-        Learn to identify invading plants and animals;
-        Take care not to spread them into new areas;
-        Report invaders to a land manager;
-        Volunteer to assist with removal or control programs.
Finally, tell the person who represents you in state and federal governments to take positive action, not to kowtow to moneyed special interests.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Obama waging a war on coal? Hah, hah

Not even remotely, this open letter from PEER states:
The mid-term election results sent the distressing message that these were the good old days and it’s only downhill from here.  Anti-environmental riders will be springing up faster than Uber drivers.  Political battle-lines will become so embedded that Hill denizens will contract trench-foot.
A seam running through much of this fighting revolves around coal.  Newly re-elected Senate (now) Majority Leader Mitch McConnell campaigned hard against what he termed Obama’s “War on Coal” and how it was costing Kentucky good jobs and creating hardships. In fact, it seems that coal is waging war on Kentucky:
  • Black lung disease among coal miners in eastern Kentucky has risen tenfold in the past 15 years.  This progressive massive fibrosis is lethal with few treatment options and no cure;
  • Coal mining remains very dangerous work and it is getting harder to enforce mine safety laws. One bit of solace is the criminal indictment of former Massey Coal CEO Don Blankenship – four years after chronic safety violations killed 29 miners; and
  • Mounting evidence about the social and human health cost of coal mining – especially mountaintop removal techniques –  documents shattered lives and communities.
Mitch McConnell could not survive a month working in a coal mine – though it is an intriguing notion.  His advocacy is rooted in pander-ship, not leadership. Even coal-state stalwarts, such as the late Robert Byrd of West Virginia, saw the need to help transition his state away from dependence on only coal. But McConnell – and more importantly his financial backers – benefit if rural Kentucky remains in a third-world, mine dependent and extraction scarred condition.
The other canard is that President “All of the Above Energy Plan” Obama is actually waging a war on coal.  If he was, he is letting a strategic opportunity slip through his fingers.
The coal industry enjoys a huge subsidy because it does not have to clean up after itself.  Coal mining creates the biggest waste stream in the country. The country’s second largest waste stream is coal combustion wastes – 120 million tons a year of the intensely nasty arsenic, lead, and other heavy metal-laden stuff that scrubbers block from billowing out of smokestacks.

Thanks to a vacuum in federal regulation, the coal industry does not have to properly dispose of this vast sea of highly toxic combustion wastes. Imagine if the nuclear power industry was allowed to shred its spent fuels rods and throw them into the pits of old uranium mines and call it “beneficial reuse.” That is exactly what coal plants are doing.

As a result of a horrendous coal ash lagoon blowout in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008 – an event labelled one of America’s ten worst human-caused environmental disasters –   the new Obama administration pledged to regulate coal ash by the end of 2009.  Their proposed regulation was long-delayed, watered down and required litigation to finally get an adoption schedule 

Meanwhile, PEER is pressing Obama’s reluctant coal warriors to –
Help us make the coal industry clean up after itself responsibly. 
Jeff Ruch
Executive Director

Friday, November 14, 2014

Recovery of Mexican lobo suffers another blow

The politicians netted another win while the Southwest's premier natural predator suffered another loss with the administrative BS noted in this article.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Watching a site where a family began

A week or so passed before I ventured far enough down-slope to see the spot where a family was started.
The flat rock, protected from weather by a rock/earth overhang, had been used not too many years previous by a nesting pair of Common Ravens. A collection of sturdy, weathered sticks – likely pulled from snags and live trees – marked the nesting site. I photographed it at least a dozen times, but those pix were taken with slide film and I just can’t fathom the notion of loading tray after tray of slides onto my aged projector to find the Raven nest pix. (The slides are priceless as slide film and slide projectors aren’t freely available anymore.)
Ravens, known by the scientific name Corvus corax, haven’t nested now for at least two decades on that ledge that’s part of the Council Cup promontory overlooking the Susquehanna River valley. But Peregrine Falcons returned as nesters a few years into the new century, a sign that a bit of avian wildness had returned to the river valley.
Ravens, though, remain a favorite of mine because even to hear one croak as it flies over, oftentimes too distant to see with naked eyes, is a positive sign of Wild Nature.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Web site says this about the calls of ravens: “Common Ravens make many different kinds of calls varying from a low, gurgling croak to harsh grating sounds and shrill alarm calls. Scientists have placed their vocalizations into as many as 33 different categories based on sound and context.
“The most commonly heard is the classic gurgling croak, rising in pitch and seeming to come from the back of the throat. It’s much deeper and more musical than a crow’s simple, scratchy caw. Ravens make this call often. It’s audible for more than a mile, and ravens often give it in response to other ravens they hear in the distance. Among their other calls, ravens make short, repeated, shrill calls when chasing predators or trespassers, and deep, rasping calls when their nests are disturbed.
“Dominant females sometimes make a rapid series of 12 or so loud knocking sounds that lasts about a second. Common Ravens can mimic other birds, and when raised in captivity can even be taught words.”
You can listen to the classic cr-r-ruck call and other sounds ravens make at
In Pennsylvania, ravens like forested mountainous areas. Many times, though, while observing and tallying birds for the Southern Bradford County Christmas Bird Count, ravens voiced their thoughts, their rasping notes carrying for long distances across the otherwise quiet early-winter landscape. But the species sometimes shows up in spots closer to humans. On overnight visits to a friend’s home at Boalsburg, Centre County, it was commonplace to both see and hear ravens nearby.
How do tell a raven apart from the more common American Crow? The principle field mark is size: Ravens are much larger. offers these clues: “Not just large but massive, with a thick neck, shaggy throat feathers, and a Bowie knife of a beak. In flight, ravens have long, wedge-shaped tails. They're more slender than crows, with longer, narrower wings, and longer, thinner ‘fingers’ at the wingtips.
“Common Ravens are entirely black, right down to the legs, eyes, and beak. Common Ravens aren’t as social as crows; you tend to see them alone or in pairs except at food sources like landfills. Ravens are confident, inquisitive birds that strut around or occasionally bound forward with light, two-footed hops. In flight they are buoyant and graceful, interspersing soaring, gliding, and slow flaps.”
A raven that was rehabilitated from an injury is now among the educators at The Wild Center, the natural history museum of the Adirondacks, Tupper Lake, N.Y.
Nieces and I watched studiously as a museum docent – raven perched on his gloved hand – told museum visitors the bird’s life history. For me, it sparked memories of “Ravens in Winter” author Bernd Heinrich’s visit to Penn State Hazleton for an early 90s’ public lecture.