Birds and seeds: change and diversity

Maybe it is just what seems to be a very long, cold winter (As I start writing this it is snowing again, but I hope not for long.) that is getting to me but I’m thinking this morning about natural ebbs and flows of plants and animals and the influence of man for both good and bad.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

We participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count every year and they are reporting some preliminary findings from February’s count.

Although much more data have yet to be recorded, here are some of the trends noted so far.

  • Fewer Finches After last year’s “superflight,” this year’s GBBC reports for 10 irruptive species (mostly finches) are down considerably. This includes reports for the White-winged and Red crossbills, Common and Hoary redpolls, Pine and Evening grosbeaks, Pine Siskin, Purple Finch, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Bohemian Waxwings. These are believed to be natural fluctuations in numbers because of variation in seed crops.
  •  Snowy Owl Invasion Continues A massive irruption of Snowy Owls into the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and Great Lakes States of the U.S., as well as southeastern Canada, is easily seen in GBBC numbers. Preliminary results show participants reported more than 2,500 Snowy Owls in 25 states and 7 provinces of the U.S. and Canada!
  • The Polar Vortex Effect The frigid cold in many parts of North America has resulted in unusual movements of waterfowl and grebes. With the Great Lakes almost completely frozen, some species, such as the White-winged Scoter and the Long-tailed Duck, have fled the frozen lakes and stopped at inland locations where they are not usually found at this time of year.

The trends just naturally change from year to year.  But the mention of seed crops brings me to this story that caught my eye.  Seed Libraries.  I’ve heard of some companies starting to grow more variety of plants for seed and of the seed vault where seeds are being kept in case one day we need to start over, but not of seed libraries.  The Boston Globe reported

A basic principle of any library is that you return what you take out. By that standard, the new scheme at Hampshire College’s library is a roll of the dice. Since last November, librarians have been lending out packets of seeds, allowing people to plant them, and checking them back in if—and only if—the borrower manages to grow thriving plants in the meantime.

The Hampshire College project is part of a small but growing group of “seed libraries” across the country, local centers that aim to promote heirloom gardening and revive a more grass-roots approach to seed breeding.

A seed library

A seed library

The concept is pretty simple:  You check out some seeds, plant them, let some of them go to seed and then return the seeds.  But there is always the chance that you won’t get back the same variety.

“Self-pollinating” plants like beans, peas, tomatoes, and lettuce have both male and female parts in the same flower, so they tend to predictably produce seeds that grow the exact same kind of plant. But “open-pollinating” plants like squashes and corn require pollen to travel from one plant to another—and there’s a significant chance that pollen from some other variety of plant, borne by wind or insect, will get in and create an unwanted hybrid. Katie Campbell-Nelson, vegetable extension educator at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says that one year she planted kale too close to collard greens. She saved seeds from that year’s harvest, and, “The kale I got next year was just this bitter horrible cross.”

Why is plant diversity important?  Think about the Irish Potato Famine.

The agribusiness model has given the world cheap, abundant food, but it has also reduced the variety of crops we eat to a handful of massively grow-able varieties. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost over the last century as farmers have moved to high-yielding, genetically modified seeds. This dependence on a few kinds of plants leaves our food supply not only genetically impoverished, but also more vulnerable to blight. (Peru, which grew many varieties of potatoes, survived the potato blight much better than Ireland, which grew only one.)

One of the many reasons I’m looking forward to summer is the re-opening of local farmer’s markets and the opportunity to try new varieties.  Plant diversity is another reason to grow and buy locally.

The Polar Vortex (and who had ever heard of it before this winter) has changed the migration and winter nesting of some birds, but man also changes patterns with building, clearing for agriculture, dams, and other structures.  Factory farms lead to less diversity in what we can purchase and eat and can lead to blight requiring more pesticides and fertilizer.  This impacts every thing that eats whatever is grown this way.  I know we will never go back to the era when everything was grown on the family farm – there are just too many of us and more and more of us are living in urban areas – but being aware never hurts.

Photograph:  Northern Cardinal Ella Clem

Photograph:  Seed Library: Lesley Becker/Globe staff

Globe Story:  Kevin Hartnett

Ms. G. predicts more winter

Groundhog Day.  February 2.  For some reason that groundhog in Pennsylvania gets all the press even though I’m not sure how he can predict the weather for the entire country.  But Massachusetts has Ms. G.  According to New England Cable News

Ms. G. predicts more winter.

Ms. G. predicts more winter.

Massachusetts has its own groundhog to make predictions about the weather on Groundhog Day.

Both Punxsutawney Phil and Ms. G, the Mass. groundhog, saw their shadows this year. Legend has it; this means that there will be six more weeks of winter.

“We don’t feel like Punxsutawney Phil has much sway here in Massachusetts. I mean, we wouldn’t use a weather forecaster from Pennsylvania to tell us our local weather,” said Tia Penney of a Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary.

Dozens of families gathered at the sanctuary on Sunday to witness Ms. G give her forecast. But, not everyone was happy with her prediction.

“I didn’t see the shadow and I wanted spring to be here, cause then, after spring, there is no school,” said Asia Faline, a Wellesley school student.
Blue Hill Weather Observatory says Ms. G is correct in her forecast 60% of the time.

So what is the origin of Groundhog Day?  Is there any science to it?  Today EarthSky news told us everything you always wanted to know about this important day.  Here are some of the interesting facts.

We all know the rules of Groundhog Day.  On February 2, a groundhog is said to forecast weather by looking for his shadow.  If it’s sunny out, and he sees it, we’re in for six more weeks of winter.  On the other hand, a cloudy Groundhog Day is supposed to forecast an early spring.

What you might not know is that Groundhog Day is really an astronomical holiday.  It’s an event that takes place in Earth’s orbit around the sun, as we move between the solstices and equinoxes.  In other words, Groundhog Day falls more or less midway between the December solstice and the March equinox.  Each cross-quarter day is actually a collection of dates, and various traditions celebrate various holidays at this time.  February 2 is the year’s first cross-quarter day.

In the ancient Celtic calendar, the year is also divided into quarter days (equinoxes and solstices) and cross-quarter days on a great neopagan wheel of the year.  Thus, just as February 2 is marked by the celebration of Candlemas by some Christians, such as the Roman Catholics, in contemporary paganism, this day is called Imbolc and is considered a traditional time for initiations.

The celebration of Groundhog Day came to America along with immigrants from Great Britain and Germany.  The tradition can be traced to early Christians in Europe, when a hedgehog was said to look for his shadow on Candlemas Day.

Try this old English rhyme:  If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another flight.  But if it be dark with clouds and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.

So even though it has now turned a little cloudy here in Boston, the sun was out this morning and Ms. G. says more winter.  In fact,  I think the prediction is for snow on Wednesday.

Photograph is a still from the NECN story.

Increased violence. Another consequence of global warming?

I read a lot of mystery stories.  Old ones, new ones, ones set in times past and ones set it the future.  A common thread is it is summer and a heat wave so crime is up.  You hear this every spring from the Boston Police and the Mayor – we need to prepare for the combination of hot weather and school being out.  So is this just an urban myth?  Maybe not.  A new study to be published in the journal, Science, was summarized in Sunday’s New York Times.

But researchers are now quantifying the causal relationship between extreme climate and human conflict. Whether their focus is on small-scale interpersonal aggression or large-scale political instability, low-income or high-income societies, the year 10,000 B.C. or the present day, the overall conclusion is the same: episodes of extreme climate make people more violent toward one another.

In a paper published this month in the journal Science, we [MARSHALL BURKE, SOLOMON HSIANG and EDWARD MIGUEL] assembled 60 of the best studies on this topic from fields as diverse as archaeology, criminology, economics, geography, history, political science and psychology. Typically, these were studies that compared, in a given population, levels of violence during periods of normal climate with levels of violence during periods of extreme climate. We then combined the results from those studies that concerned modern data in a “meta-analysis,” a powerful statistical procedure that allowed us to compare and aggregate findings across the individual studies.

We found that higher temperatures and extreme rainfall led to large increases in conflict: for each one standard deviation change in climate toward warmer temperatures or more extreme rainfall, the median effect was a 14 percent increase in conflict between groups, and a 4 percent increase in conflict between individuals.

Global mean surface temperature difference fro...

Global mean surface temperature difference from the average for 1880–2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The study went beyond the present day, back to the collapse of several civilizations:  The Maya, Angkor Wat and the Akkadian in Syria.  Climate appears to have played a role in the collapse of each.

Our findings held at very high levels of statistical confidence. To illustrate the consistency of the results: of the 27 quantitative studies we looked at that examined a link between temperatures and modern conflict, all of them found that higher temperatures were associated with more violence. This sort of pattern in the results was extremely unlikely to happen by chance. (Imagine trying to get 27 “heads” in a row when flipping a coin.)

What explains the strong link between climate and conflict? Different mechanisms are most likely operating in different settings, but the two most important factors appear to be aggression and scarcity. The aggression factor is intuitively easy to understand (again, recall summer in the city), and it probably underlies the finding that anomalously hot months have significantly higher crime rates in cities in the United States. As for scarcity, the logic is only slightly more complex. In low-income countries largely dependent on agriculture — like those in much of sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia and Latin America — when the rains fail and temperatures scorch, crops wilt and die. This leaves many people dangerously close to the edge of survival, which can lead to social strife and even civil war.

So besides gearing up for more shootings, stabbings and homicides on the summer streets, what are the implications?  The study concludes

Our findings help us better understand both the past and the present, but they are particularly important for what they imply about the future. Many global climate models project global temperature increases of at least 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) over the next half century. Our results imply that if nothing changes, this rise in temperature could amplify the rate of group conflicts like civil wars by an astonishing 50 percent in many parts of the world — a frightening possibility for a planet already awash in conflict.

Decision makers must show an understanding that climate can fundamentally shape social interactions, that these effects are already observable in today’s world and that climate’s effects on violence are likely to grow in the absence of concerted action. Our leadership must call for new and creative policy reforms designed to tackle the challenge of adapting to the sorts of climate conditions that breed conflict — for instance, through the development of more drought- and heat-resistant agricultural technologies.

As we contemplate intervention in Syria and look at the increasing and never-ending violence in Africa, we also need to ask ourselves some questions about violence here at home.  Will global warming lead to increased domestic violence?  What do we do with this knowledge and all the guns on the streets?  And will anyone pay any attention?

More on the Storm of 2013 – with Dustin Pedroia

We have a lot of snow here in Boston and the hot discussion is whether the T or train system could have reopened faster – not until tomorrow morning for the Monday commute.  For those of you who don’t know, the train is partially underground and partially above.  I can hear them working on the orange line which runs down the hill from our house and is above ground where we are.  And while our street has been plowed there are places where the wind has blown snow back across it and people are getting stuck.

But Brendan Lynch at public radio WGBH is trying his best to look forward to spring.  He is measuring the snow in Dustin Pedroias.  Dustin is the shortest member of the Red Sox.  I think that Brendan is working on the official Major League height and Dustin is actually shorter, but here is what was posted yesterday morning.  There have been so new totals since then so you can do your own math.

Spencer (which is near Worcester, MA) is now reported at 34.5″  clearly half a Pedroia.  Logan Airport (which will be the official Boston total) is 24.9″   And Jamaica Plain, a section of Boston right across those Orange Line tracks from us, is 25.5″  These totals are from David Epstein’s Weather Wisdon blog.

So while we aren’t quite half a Pedroia here in Boston, that is still a lot of snow!

Highland Park 2-9-2013

Another view of the park across the street.

Snowed in

The blizzard of 2013 is what we are calling it here in Boston.  And it is still snowing.  No cars allowed on the streets and highways, no public transportation.  Because of the blowing snow it is hard to figure exactly how much has fallen, but it is currently in excess of 20 inches and another 5 to 8 may accumulate before it is all finished.  Luckily we didn’t lose power but we are snowed in.  It is also cold currently 20 degrees.

From Boston.com (The paper is not being delivered today.  Also no mail.)

Hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents have lost power because of the mammoth blizzard that lashed Massachusetts with hurricane-force winds and dumped more than two feet of snow in some areas overnight.

The state is at a standstill, with residents hunkering down at home under a rare travel ban imposed by the governor on Friday, and the MBTA saying it will not be able to restore service today. Snowplows are out in force struggling to clear the roads, but the storm is expected to continue dumping snow into midday.

National Guard troops are heading to coastal communities to assist in possible evacuations due to giant waves whipped up by the storm that are expected to batter the beaches at high tide at 10 a.m., potentially devouring beaches and homes.

State emergency management officials said there were no reports of major injuries due to the storm, even though there were two truck rollovers and about 30 stranded motorists had to be rescued from the roads.

According to New England Cable News (NECN) the Governor had this to say

Governor Patrick says he’s impressed with the fact there have not been any serious injuries yet as a result of this storm.

“When you consider the scope of the storm and the severity of it, it’s really a minor triumph that we haven’t had serious injuries,” Governor Patrick said. “We had a couple people out last night, I guess, defying the ban and taking their chances, and we had vehicles driving the wrong way on the Pike, on Storrow Drive … but no serious injuries.”

I guess it takes all kinds!

This picture was just posted on Boston.com

This is in the Charlestown section of Boston.

This is in the Charlestown section of Boston.

We have cousins who live in this area of town.  Like where we live, the streets are narrow and winding.

So why was the storm so bad?  Like Hurricane Sandy, two fronts converged over New England.  According to the Boston Globe

The fierce nor’easter that began walloping New England on Friday was the product of two storms that merged, causing a rapidly strengthening storm known in weather jargon as a “meteorological bomb.”

“We just have the right setup,” said Lance Franck, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Taunton. “It really is just a classic snowstorm.”

Forecasters said Friday night the storm remained on track to produce prodigious amounts of snow. But, in many ways, it reflects an utterly typical winter weather pattern, meteorologists said. Its path just happens to be dead-on, landing at a meteorological sweet spot to produce substantial snowfall in New England.

The jet stream that flows from west to east, 18,000 feet above the surface of the Earth, has two branches: a polar stream that takes a northerly route and a second, more southerly stream. When those branches converge, which is a pretty routine event during winter, snow is a possibility, as the frigid air from the north mingles with the humid air from the south.

“This winter has been interesting because the two streams have been largely separate,” Franck said.‘But the process of this happening isn’t unusual, it happens almost every winter.’

Until Friday.

This time, separate storms were brewing in each branch of the jet stream. The storm in the northern branch had deposited light snow in the upper Midwest. The storm in the southern branch had spawned rain in the mid-Atlantic, Franck said.

They separately swept toward New England, and by Friday night, meteorologists were saying the storms appeared destined to combine — very near a spot meteorologists call the “benchmark” because it is a pivotal spot for understanding how storms are likely to behave.

“The intersection point where the storms will ultimately become one . . . just south of Block Island, in that area — that’s just the perfect location,” said David Epstein, a meteorologist whose forecasts appear on Boston.com.

The bottom line is that the two fronts merged at the sweet spot to produce our blizzard.

Here are some pictures I took from the house this morning.

my street

my street

The park across the street

The park across the street

Snow: It seems to be a theme these days

I’m sitting here working on this post and snow is falling.  We are only supposed to get a couple of inches before it turns to freezing rain.  That should make lovely driving.  But snow seems to be on people’s minds.  How much snow will we get?  Will the ski season be a good one?  And how will climate change impact snow?

Mark Vanhoenaker wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times Review yesterday.  He began

SNOW was my first love. From November’s first flakes and the season’s first blizzard, to unexpected midnight dustings and late March blasts, snow fell frequently and happily on my childhood in western Massachusetts. I never complained about the unshoveled, post-blizzard darkness of my paper route, nor about scrambling over icy drifts en route to school. In the evenings I read in front of our wood stove, captivated by thoughts of Narnia’s endless winter.

Snow gives us a new world. It gives us (not least) a day off to contemplate it. Snow bestows silence: deep snowfalls “spread their peace,” said Saint-Exupéry. Above all, snow gives meaning to the great indoors. Thoreau wrote that in winter, “warmth stands for all virtue.”

But, he wonders, will snow go away?

Fortunately, despite worries about a warming planet, no one is predicting the end of snow anytime soon. Some cold places will see more snow, because warmer air can carry more moisture. In the Northern Hemisphere, snow coverage this past December was the greatest since records began in 1966, Rutgers University’s Global Snow Lab reported. But Dr. David Robinson, a climatologist at Rutgers, warns that year-to-year fluctuations and regional differences can deceive casual observers. In general, he says, there has been an “overall decline in snowfall.”

Other studies echo that conclusion. The United States Global Change Research Program’s recently released draft National Climate Assessment reports that “Overall snow cover has decreased in the Northern Hemisphere, due in part to higher temperatures that shorten the time snow spends on the ground.” The report also notes a decline in the frequency of very snowy winters and in snow accumulations in the American West, and said we can expect more rainstorms “in previously snow-dominated settings.” A recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council warns that without action on climate change, the snow season in the Northeast will be halved by 2100.

That is a long time off and maybe it won’t happen.  Yes, I think that there use to be a lot more of the white stuff.  The first couple of years after I moved to Boston the snowfall total was measured by Robert Parish.  Then one year a few years ago, it was Shaq O’Neal.  We seem to like to measure by Boston Celtic centers.  But  then I saw Zippy this morning.

Zippy snow

I started thinking about the biggest snowstorm I can remember from my New Jersey childhood and it may be the one from the mid-1950’s.  If Bill Griffith and I are remembering the same storm, it would have still been snowing when they came out of the Museum because the March 1958 storm dropped 11.7 inches on Central Park over several days.

We were living on a small New Jersey farm outside of Philadelphia.  It snowed from March 19 through the 21st.  There wasn’t a lot of warning and it kept snowing and drifting.  I think you could call it a blizzard.  We lost power at some point and it stayed off for at least a week.  The road near our farm looked a little like this.

We did have a small generator and ran the heat and various appliances separately.  I know we had to run the big freezer in the basement often enough to keep things frozen.  We had lots of meat and frozen vegetables.  I think after it stopped snowing, my father may have grilled outside.

We had drifts like this.

There was a path to the chicken house my father and grandfather tried to keep shoveled because the chicken had to be fed and watered.  I think we used the old well and hauled up water in buckets once it stopped snowing.

Looking back is romantic, but I’m sure we were cold, tired of makeshift meals and a little bored.  I still like snow.

Photographs from Google Images of the March 1958 storm

Dovekie in Roxbury (Corrected)

[This post has been edited to correct the Laura Ingalls Wilder reference (I had the wrong book) and to expand with some quotes from The Long Winter.]

The dovekie is an Arctic bird that plays off the coast of New England near Georges’ Bank in the winter but I don’t think one has ever been found in my neighborhood before.  The Boston Globe had the story  and picture on last Friday. 

The dovekie, called a little auk in Europe, was dropped off at the Boston Rescue 2 firehouse on Columbus Avenue in Egleston Square on Thursday night, said Greg Conlan, a firefighter with Rescue 2.

Conlan said the small bird was brought into the station at 7 p.m. by three 10-year-old children.

The bird, which was in a box, looked plump but exhausted, he said.

“It looked tired. It definitely wasn’t going anywhere, but it wasn’t on its last leg or anything,” he said.

Firefighters named the dovekie Olive, the name given to every animal that comes through the firehouse, Conlan said. There is a cat and a turtle living at the station, both with the name Olive.

Here is Olive in her box.

Dovekie

The bird was transported to the New England Wildlife Center in South Weymouth, Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald said.

Wayne Petersen, director of the Important Bird Areas program for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, received a call from the wildlife center this morning asking for advice about where to release the bird, he said.

“The bird was obviously blown into the city by the big storm on Thursday,” Petersen said. “It’s a species that once it’s on the ground, they have great difficulty taking off.”

He advised the caretakers to release Olive in waters not heavily populated by gulls, because the small bird could be prey for larger species.

The nice thing about the story is that 3 10 year old boys were thoughtful enough to try to take care of the dovekie by trying to feed it crackers [I’m sure they feed pigeon being city kids.] and then bringing it to the fire station.

In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book, The Long Winter, a little auk lands near their house and the family releases it off Silver Lake.  “They had never seen a bird like it.  It was small, but it looked exactly like the picture of the great auk in Pa’s big green book, ‘The Wonders of The Animal World’.”  The little auk had been found in a haystack.  The next day Pa, Laura, and Mary go to release the bird.

He squatted down by the thin white ice at the lake’s edge and reaching far out he tipped the little bird from his hand into the blue water.  For the briefest instant, there it was, and then it wasn’t there.  Our amoung the ice cakes it was streaking, a black speck.

“It gets up speed, with those webbed feet,” said Pa, “to lift it from the….There it goes!”

This is the only other time I can remember hearing about them in unusual places.

No word yet on a successful release here in Boston, but we have been having a snow/rain and now wind storm for the last 24 hours so probably no one has tried yet.

Little auks when not in Egleston Square.

Little Auks

Little Auks (Photo credit: Alastair Rae)