Sunday, 23 April 2017

March for Science

Earth Day
Waterloo, ON
22 April 2017

     Scientists in the United States are feeling under threat from all sides as the Trump administration becomes entrenched, with its cadre of moronic climate change deniers filling key cabinet positions. Mining companies are once again legally permitted to dump their effluent into rivers and streams, the very existence of the Environmental Protection Agency is in jeopardy, clean air regulations are being abandoned, international treaties are not being respected, emission standards for vehicles are being weakened, coal mining is being revived....and so it goes.
        It is not so long ago that Canada, under the anti-science Harper government, was faced with these kinds of challenges, where science became a political tool for the ruling party and researchers were forbidden from public statements about anything that would challenge the government's position. Science had become a tool of ideology. And if you think that smacks of totalitarianism you are absolutely correct.
       At that time, the scientific community in the United States became a staunch ally of embattled Canadian scientists, and supported them in myriad ways, out of reach of the Harper government as it were, and it was time for us to reciprocate. In fact, in major cities all over the world, people came out in droves to March for Science in support of embattled American scientists.
       Miriam and I were determined to show our support for evidence-based science and we marked the day on our calendar. Miriam, who is always a little more creative than I am, made herself a two-sided sign and proudly displayed it at the rally.

        Early on the crowd started to grow as many like-minded people came together.

        We saw lots of friends and fellow nature club members there and Miriam posed for a picture with Michelle Tomins and Jenna Quinn.

      There was a festive air about the whole event as people came together to express their passion for science and to know that they were in the company of other citizens who deplore the corruption of knowledge for ideological gain.

      The event was jointly m-c'd by our good friend Jon Walgate, an Oxford University physics PhD, and Christina Tan who is double majoring in Environmental Science and Business at the University of Waterloo.

      Jon still looks like a young graduate barely out of school - the years have been kind to him!

        The logistics of the whole day were put together by Hang Lu, and masterfully done it was. Everything went off without a hitch. 

          Hang Lu is a BSc honours grad with a major in math and a minor in computer science. She is spending her first postgraduate year pursuing mathematics, engineering and computer science.
          One of the featured speakers was the highly renowned Dr. Neil Arya. Dr Arya is Chair of the Canadian Physicians for Research and Education in Peace, and the former Vice President of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

         People were encouraged to write with erasable chalk, messages that would express the meaning of science for them, and even the youngest members of the audience got into the game. I am inclined to think that this was a pictorial representation of the planet earth!

          The crowd had become very large and everyone was deeply appreciative of the inspirational messages delivered by all who spoke, both the featured guests and impromptu comments from the audience. A friend and fellow naturalist, Dawn Miles, delivered an impassioned contribution about the value and role of citizen science. It was unrehearsed, straight from the heart and powerful. Well done, Dawn. (Photo courtesy of Next Cliche Images)

          As we scanned around we saw Jim Huffman and Francine Gilbert seated together. Francine looks as though she is about to applaud or is invoking the mythical Gods of Rationality to strike all the naysayers down dead!

           Every speaker was of the highest calibre and Bob Lemieux, Dean of Science and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Waterloo, was among them. He said how absolutely thrilled he was to be there and emphasized the founding principle of all science - a curious and inquiring mind.

          Cheryl Chan is a Master's candidate in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo.

          Cheryl spoke with the passionate idealism of a young person embarking on a career and moved everyone who heard her message.

           Another impassioned, impromptu contribution was made by our friend and fellow naturalist, a former professor at the University of Waterloo, Greg Michelenko, sporting a very apt tee shirt designed by a friend of his.

          An American woman who moved to Canada several years ago made us all begin to believe that perhaps in the not too distant future impeachment charges can be initiated to remove Trump from office. She is convinced it will happen, but as she sadly pointed out, Mike Pence is not much better.

           Jonathan Baugh is a faculty member of the Department of Chemistry and the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo, Here he is seen with his partner in research, Debbie Leung.

          Our very good friend, Debbie, is a faculty member of the Department of Combinatorics and Optimization and the Institute of Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. Public exhortation is unfamiliar to Debbie, but she did a fine job of pleading for fact-based science to prevail over ideology.

          The final impromptu speaker was a government scientist who was anxious to make the point that scientists deal with facts, politicians deal with policy, and she implored the public to always differentiate between the two.

           As the rally wound down people mingled and chatted, new friendships were made and people proudly displayed their signs.

          Even the young scientists-in-waiting are not too young to make their feelings known.

          An enthusiastic group of supporters of science marched through downtown Waterloo, much encouraged by words of support from passing motorists.

          It was a very worthwhile way to spend the afternoon. The event was well organized, timely and immensely important. Congratulations to all who made it happen; we are confident it will make a difference.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Western Osprey in Burlington, ON

18 April 2017

     We are very fortunate in Southern Ontario to have a very robust population of breeding Western Ospreys Pandion haliaetus and my good friend, Franc Gorenc, captured in amazing detail the sequence of an individual patrolling over the water and diving to capture a fish. 
     In the first image the bird is scanning the water for signs of prey, when it started to hover, indicating that it had sighted its quarry.

     It prepared to plunge down into the frigid water.

     Franc masterfully captured this image as it began its descent, never for a moment taking its eye off the fish.

     When an osprey hits the water it goes right under and following a successful dive emerges with a fine meal.

     It requires a lot of power lift out of the water with heavy prey and you can see the effort required of those huge wings to get the osprey airborne again.

     This dive yielded a very large fish and we watched the bird strain to lift off with it.

     The fish is taken from the water broadside on and the osprey then rotates it to achieve maximum aerodynamic efficiency.

     What a spectacle we witnessed. I have seen this drama take place many times but it never gets any less riveting. We all were left feeling privileged to have been able to see this magnificent raptor capture its prey. We wished it well as it flew off to find a perch to eat it.

     Thanks to Franc for his fine work and for permitting me to use these images on my blog.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Salamander Monitoring at SpruceHaven

12 April 2017

     As we expand our efforts to investigate and catalogue the biodiversity at SpruceHaven we are constantly turning our attention to different taxa and seeking to implement programmes to identify their habitats, lifestyles, breeding strategies and so on.
     Last fall we laid out salamander boards in an area of the woodlot where a vernal pool is present after the snow melt of winter, so that we would be ready to commence monitoring in the spring. In the meantime, ongoing discussions have been taking place with the Ecology Lab at the University of Waterloo to explore ways to have undergraduate students involved in these activities. We have now arrived at the point where salamander monitoring can be taken over by the Ecology Lab, providing students with valuable field experience.
     A regimen of salamander monitoring has been operational at the rare Charitable Research Reserve in Cambridge for several years and we owe a debt of appreciation to Jenna Quinn, a research scientist there, for her unstinting co-operation in helping us to get our monitoring activity underway. She has been generous indeed with her time, including making two visits to Sprucehaven. Thanks to Jenna's guidance in navigating us through the various protocols involved, we will be able to amass data to submit to the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas in a manner which will furnish significant information about the salamander population at SpruceHaven.
     I would be remiss if I did not express my personal appreciation to Anne Grant, Ecology Lab Manager and Bev Raimbault, Ecology Lab Coordinator for the way in which they have embraced this opportunity (and others still to come). It has been an absolute joy to work with them and we have become a team to be reckoned with! 
     The first visit of the spring saw Anne and Bev visit SpruceHaven with students Taylor Larking, Callie Stirling and Kale Meyer.
     Here is Bev lifting the first board to see what awaits us underneath.

       We measured the temperature, humidity and wind speed at the most North, South, East and West boards, and at each board we measured light, soil moisture, soil temperature, the number of salamanders found, size, type, and noted any disturbances that were observed.

Taylor Larking, Anne Grant, Kale Meyer, Callie Stirling, Bev Raimbault
     Once we had fully dealt with Board No. 1 we moved on to Board No. 2.......and so on.

      Here we are measuring an Eastern Red-backed Salamander Plethodon cinereus, not always  a straighforward thing to do, for they are tiny creatures and seem to be permanently coiled to one degree or another. It is important not to handle these Plethodontid salamanders which are lungless, and conduct respiration through their skin and the tissues lining their mouth. Handling them could easily close off the respiratory openings in the skin, restricting their ability to take up oxygen, causing death.

     Here is a little better view of one of them.

     In addition to monitoring the boards installed last year, we began to install new boards around another vernal pond which holds high promise for a robust salamander population. Franc Gorenc made many of our boards last year and has already begun to supply more. He has researched the boards well and has come up with a stellar design. The boards are made of rough cut pine with two boards glued together with grain opposite. They are then both screwed and nailed together to prevent splitting, and Franc has crafted a handle with a smooth finger grip so that the board can be easily lifted. He is continuing to work on a method to mount a flag on top of the board for rapid identification. Franc came out to bring his new boards and to see where they will be located. It really is quite wonderful to have a corps of people like Franc willing to lend their skills to our project.

Franc Gorenc

     The woodlot is starting to come alive as warm temperatures encourage growth. Eyelash Fungus Scutellina scutellata seemed to be everywhere one turned over a few leaves.

     And before long Bloodroot Sanguinaria canadensis will carpet the forest floor.

     This has been a great start to an exciting new venture. So far we have found only Eastern Red-backed Salamanders, but we are looking forward to new discoveries. I'll be sure to let you know what we find.
     As always a huge vote of thanks is owed to Dave, Sandy and Jamie who continue to  encourage us in every way possible in the environmental stewardship of their property. Long may it continue!

Friday, 14 April 2017

Leucistic American Robin in Waterloo

     American Robin Turdus migratorius seems to be more prone than other birds to the condition known as leucism, a condition where there is a partial loss of pigmentation, resulting in white, pale or patchy colouration of the feathers, but not the eyes. I have seen leucistic robins fairly frequently and have blogged about this phenomenon before
     Recently, Mary Voisin located a leucistic bird in her neighbourhood and let us all know about it. Franc Gorenc captured these two photographs of the bird.

     As you can see this bird has very substantial loss of regular colour.
     Based purely on observation and without applying scientific rigour it seems to me that these birds do not seem disadvantaged in any way, as might be the case with an albino bird, for example. It begs the question, however, whether they are more visible to predators, and are thereby in greater danger of capture.
     I was curious about the following bird which I saw the other day, which has two small white patches on its back.

     I am assuming that is leucism to a very minor degree but it verges on serendipitous that the spots would be geometrically arranged in this way.
     Leucism certainly compels us to examine American Robins closely for interesting variations in plumage.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Book Review - The New Neotropical Companion - Princeton University Press

     As a frequent traveller to Central and South America, I have relied many times on the wealth of information contained in A Neotropical Companion, the comprehensive work by John Kricher, published in 1997. I acquired my copy in 2000, and it is well thumbed, dog-eared here and there, and even bears the stain of an errant glass of wine. It is indeed a companion!
     I was, therefore, delighted to learn of a "new and improved" edition and very happy to be asked to review it. 

     Unlike the spurious claims of consumer products which are alleged to be superior to an earlier version, it is no vain boast to state that this book delivers what it promises.Filled with myriad glorious colour photographs and a revised text based on knowledge that has been acquired since last publication, it is a joy to read, and new insights are to be gleaned from every page. As we continue to enhance our understanding of neotropical ecology it is important to deliver this knowledge in a format that the layman can understand. For this reason Kricher has avoided excessive use of scientific jargon.

     The book is in every sense a readable travel companion, which is exactly what it is supposed to be.

     It is instructive to review the chapter headings to see just how comprehensive the coverage is.

Chapter 1:  Welcome to the Torrid Zone.
Chapter 2:  Why is it Hot, Humid and Rainy in the Tropics?
Chapter 3:  Rain Forest: The Realm of the Plants.
Chapter 4:  Finding Animals in the Rain Forest.
Chapter 5:  Sun plus Rain equals Rain Forest.
Chapter 6:  Essential Dirt: Soils and Cycling
Chapter 7:  If a Tree Falls......Rainforest disturbance dynamics.
Chapter 8:  Evolutionary Cornucopia.
Chapter 9:  Why are there so many Species?
Chapter 10: Tropical Intimacy: Mutualism and Coevolution. 
Chapter 11: Evolutionary Arms Race: More Coevolution, More Complexity.
Chapter 12. Cruising the Rivers to the Sea.
Chapter 13: Scaling the Andes.
Chapter 14: Don't Miss the Savannas and Dry Forests.
Chapter 15: Neotropical Birds: The Bustling Crowd.
Chapter 16: From Monkeys to Tarantulas: Endless Eccentricities.
Chapter 17: Human Ecology in the Tropics.
Chapter 18: The Future of the Neotropics.

     For the seasoned traveller and the neophyte alike there is a fountain of information in these chapters. This is especially true for those patrons of the all-inclusive resorts who are simply seeking to escape the cold and gloom of a northern winter. Take a few days and explore outside the resort, learn a little of what make the ecosystem operate the way it does,
become familiar with a few of the birds, mammals and reptiles that are easily seen, and your whole experience of Neotropical America will be enhanced. Furthermore your curiosity will have been piqued and you will thirst for additional knowledge. The New Neotropical Companion will help you to explore the environment further and point you to sources of more detailed specialization.

     Whether you are looking for information on how to protect yourself from mosquito bites or the logic behind buying shade grown coffee; or what to do in the unlikely event of a snake bite or how you can be a responsible ambassador for your country, Kricher provides sage counsel in a very readable format devoid of arcane terminology.
     Perhaps most important of all, however, the book gives guidance from beginning to end in the ways we can both cherish and enjoy the Neotropics and ensure that it will remain unspoiled for future generations.
     The scientific and lay community alike owe a great debt of gratitude to Kricher for this sparkling revision to what was already a very fine book. I recommend it highly.