Monday, December 29, 2008

Silver Creek in the Winter

Photo: Swans in winter, taken by Sam Stronach near the Hemingway Monument

Most people visit Silver Creek Preserve during the summer to fish, hike, bird, or just look around. Not too many people think about coming during the winter months but winter is actually a great time to visit the Preserve. The visitor center is closed but the Preserve is open to snowshoeing, skiing, birding, and on some days, waterfowl hunting (please sign in at the visitor center prior to entering the Preserve and check the posted rules).

Often it is possible to have the Preserve completely to yourself—a quiet and beautiful retreat. This winter, several rare birds (for this area) have already been seen. Harris Sparrows, White throated sparrows, and a Mockingbird were sited in November and December. I find ‘the regulars’ just as exciting and these include Western Harriers, Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, waterfowl of all kinds, Tundra and Trumpeter swans, to name a few. You may also see moose, elk, coyotes, deer, fox, bobcat, otter, mink, and other critters. One of my favorite activities is to grab a cup of hot chocolate and hang out on the deck of the visitor center and just look. Or, better yet, take a long ski around the Preserve and end it with a hot drink on the deck.

Please call for private tours, 788-7910 or 208-720-5465. Hope to see you this winter!

Dayna and the Silver Creek staff.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Summer Dreams for North Idaho

With much of the Idaho Panhandle receiving 34 inches of snow in 34 hours, summer vacation there seems a long, long way away.

But this just-released video celebrates North Idaho in the summer, specifically The Nature Conservancy's Ball Creek Ranch Preserve.

Jeff Wilson, of HGTV's Regular Guy series, visited the preserve last July as part of his Green Family Summer. His recently released set of videos include ideas for summer vacations around the west, including Nature Conservancy preserves. Wilson recommends Ball Creek as an off-the-beaten path destination great for wildlife and beautiful scenery.

But you may want to wait a few months before visiting.--Matt Miller

Monday, December 15, 2008

Holiday Gifts, Part IV: Good Conservation Books

For me, the holiday season without some good books under the tree would be like Thanksgiving without the turkey. For the book-loving naturalist on your list--or if you're looking for something to pack along on your holiday travels-- here are some of my favorite recent releases.

Take away large predators from a landscape, and the whole ecosystem collapses. That's the intriguing premise of Where the Wild Things Were, by former Nature Conservancy magazine writer William Stolzenburg. In this well written book, Stolzenburg shows a growing mound of research that demonstrates the disastrous impacts on all species when large predators are removed--and how quickly whole ecosystems can recover when predators are restored. This is not a dry collection of research statistics--it's full of stories of otter-eating orcas, elk without fear, raccoons gone wild, anti-social howler monkeys and more. If you read one nature book this year, make it this one.
The lives of humans and the lives of insects are inextricably connected, in more ways than we realize--including our warfare. Jeffrey Lockwood's Six-legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War may seem an obscure subject. But history enthusiasts will find a lot of interest here, from new looks at key battles to intriguing tactics by top generals. The book examines the human-insect connection in many conflicts, from hurling wasp nests over castle walls to the use of fleas to carry bubonic plague in World War II. Most chilling is Lockwood's analysis for insects' potential uses in bio-terrorism. Lockwood is an entomologist who is also an excellent writer; his books Locust and Grasshopper Dreaming also examine the ways humans interact with insects--and why we should all care.
The comparison has probably already been made, but Bryan Christy's The Lizard King features a cast of characters, a plot and a setting that seem pulled from a Carl Hiaasen novel. This, though, is a true story. Christy delves into the little-known world of reptile smugglers,
a world of organized crime, shady characters and obsessed reptile afficionados who pay exorbitant sums to own rare and endangered species. This is a page-turner, and the scope and extent of endangered species poaching is shocking. Christy, a reptile enthusiast, treats all the people involved (including the smugglers) with fairness and respect, which makes this a richer, more complex story. Aldo Leopold still looms large over the conservation landscape. His ideas stand the test of time, and few have written as beautifully about the central issues as he did in A Sand County Almanac and other writings. Leopold's land ethic was the result of an evolution of thought, as described by Julianne Lutz Newton in Aldo Leopold's Odyssey: Rediscovering the Author of A Sand County Almanac. The author traces how Leopold's life experiences, education and scholarship developed into his land ethic--a mindful journey that included changes of opinion and rethinking strong personal beliefs. Perhaps today, Leopold would be called a "flip-flopper." But I don't think one can read this book without recognizing a truly great mind at work. For the avid life lister on your list, it would be hard to beat Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding by Scott Weidensaul. Famous explorers, egg collectors, hawk shooters, angry activists, inspired teenagers and obsessed listers all play a role in this story. Weidensaul is one of the best nature writers working today; more people should read his work.

Finally, for the hard-core nature enthusiast, Whit Bronaugh's Wildlife of North America: A Naturalist's Life List is a great addition to the library. This book features complete species lists of the most "watchable" wildlife: mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and dragonflies. There is space to record dates and notes of sightings. A large-format, 512-page work, this is not one to carry into the field, but serves rather as a master list for your outdoor ramblings.

As the snow falls outside, it's the perfect time to curl up with a good book. I hope you enjoy these holiday recommendations, and feel free to suggest your own.--Matt Miller

Friday, December 12, 2008

Holiday Gifts, Part III: Wooden Toys, Jewelry and More

A few weeks ago, I walked up a trail in the Kootenai Valley of northern Idaho, looking for deer. In the mud and snow patches, I saw all the creatures that had also passed this way: deer, elk, moose, grizzly, pine squirrel, turkey, grouse. I wasn't on public land, but rather a privately owned forest.

Increasingly, conservationists realize that these private forests are critically important to a wide variety of wildlife species. It helps, of course, if they're managed sustainably. The Forest Stewardship Council is a third-party certification to ensure that private forests are managed in a way that benefits wildlife, clean water and local communities. FSC is the most rigorous sustainable forest certification, and is endorsed by a wide range of organizations, including The Nature Conservancy.

It's a worldwide program, so it also ensures that your wood product purchase isn't from wood illegally cut in Borneo (as much as 25% of all hard lumber and plywood on the market today is from wood illegally harvested or unsustainably managed). When you buy FSC-certified products, you're helping grizzlies and orangutans, and communities in the Rocky Mountains and Indonesia.

It can admittedly be a challenge, though, finding FSC-certified products. That's why The Nature Conservancy's on-line FSC gift guide is such a handy reference: There are lots of cool wooden products to buy, all guaranteed to be from sustainably harvested forests. The guide tells you what's available and where to buy them.

There' s a diversity of items, like the Natural Pod toy chef kitchen (pictured above). Natural Pod has a variety of home toys--all wood--that receive rave reviews on-line. There are also other toys from Toys R Us, earrings, ornaments and many other items.

We need wood products, and we need well-managed forests. Buying FSC-certified products is a great way to support those forests, and the wildlife and communities that depend on them. --Matt Miller

Monday, December 08, 2008

Holiday Gift Ideas, Part II: Plant a Billion Trees

This holiday season, you can buy that conservationist a gift that will benefit millions of people: A tree. Not just any tree, but a tree in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil.

Each dollar donated to the Plant A Billion Trees Campaign plants a tree in Brazil. Consider planting one--or a whole patch--for your friends this season.

Forests, of course, provide so many benefits to us: They store enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, stabilizing climate change. They reduce erosion, keeping water clean. And they provide habitat for a multitude of creatures.

Few forests are in such trouble as Brazil's Atlantic Forest. There are some protected tracts, like the forest around Iguassu Falls (above). But only 7% of this forest remains, mainly in isolated patches.

This forest may not be as well known as the Amazon, but it's still one of the most important places on earth for wildlife. Many of the remaining forest tracts are located near Brazil's famous coastline, providing a beautiful backdrop.
More of this forest can be restored, and every dollar helps.

With a goal of having all the trees planted by 2015, the reforestation effort will remove 10 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year (the equivalent of taking 2.5 million cars off the road). It will provide 70,000 new jobs. It will reduce erosion, providing cleaner water for nearly 120 million people. And it will provide homes for a whole host of creatures (including coatis, pictured below).

How many times can you give a dollar and benefit millions of people, create jobs, reduce the impacts of climate change and lend wildlife a helping hand? Buy a tree this holiday season, and help restore another special place for people and nature. --Matt Miller

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Holiday Gift Ideas, Part I: Mochilas for Monkeys

For the next several weeks, Idaho Nature Notes will feature some special gift ideas for the conservationist on your list this season. Cotton-top tamarin monkeys (above) are found in the tropical dry forest of Colombia, but they face major challenges to their survival.

You can help cotton-top tamarins, also known as titi monkeys, by purchasing a mochila bag on-line from Proyecto Titi, a Nature Conservancy partner dedicated to conserving cotton-top tamarins.

Two problems plague the tropical dry forest of Colombia. Communities surrounding the tropical dry forest face high unemployment, so to survive they often extract from the forest: they cut trees, poach wildlife for food and collect the endangered monkeys to sell to the black-market biomedical industry.

The other problem is a lack of refuse collection, leading to an astounding number of plastic bags in the countryside. The solution: Mochilas for monkeys.

First, a local community collects clean plastic bags, which are then cut into strips by women (and one man) in the village.

The bags are then sewn into mochilas, beautiful hand bags. They are sold on-line and at places like Disney's Animal Kingdom. The proceeds go back to the community.

The bags are all quality tested for strength and uniformity. The sale of these bags has completely transformed the community. They no longer have to poach in the forest, they have cemented their floors, their schools have improved.

The community celebrates this improvement by recognizing the monkey, holding a titi festival every year and crowning a titi queen (above), who greets all visitors to the village. She takes her job very seriously. School children learn about the monkeys and perform songs about them.

By purchasing mochila bags on-line from Proyecto Titi, you are benefiting monkeys, the tropical dry forest and people. You are helping to create a future of hope--a future where local communities can prosper along with, rather than against, wild animals. --Matt Miller

Monday, December 01, 2008

Owl Courtship

When you think of birds courting, displaying and breeding, you most likely start thinking about spring. It's when sage grouse strut, turkeys gobble, ducks pair off and robins build nests.

But great horned owls begin calling to potential mates as early as October. They will pair off this month. They can often be heard calling to each other at this time--what is called "duetting." Perhaps you've heard this recently. Over the weekend, two were calling just outside our bedroom window--a dramatic series of calls that only faintly resembled hooting. On a long walk, I came across another pair hooting to each other. One was so intent it was not bothered by my presence, despite me standing just a few feet away.

The owls will breed in January and February--among the earliest of any birds on the continent. If you take an evening walk this month, listen carefully--you may hear the haunting hoots echoing across the landscape.

And you have a good chance of hearing great horned owls wherever you are in Idaho. They are one of the most adaptable birds in the Americas, found from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, in small woodlots and vast wilderness, in sagebrush and city parks, in deserts and along rivers. The same, by the way, is not true of all owls. Great horned owls may be very adaptable to a wide variety of habitats, but many owl species have very specific needs. Like burrowing owls (pictured above).

These little owls actually live underground in abandoned holes. They thrive in grassland and shrubland. They can be spotted in the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area in Idaho, but their real stronghold once was the Great Plains, where they lived among the vast herds of bison and huge prairie dog colonies.

One can only imagine how many of these owls could be found on the plains. I had a taste of what it must have been like on a recent trip to Colombia, in the Orinoco Grasslands. There, one of the most intact grasslands left on earth, burrowing owls were all over the place. One rancher told a story of catching 20 by hand as a youngster (her mother made her return the owls to their burrows).

Owls are, to my mind, among the coolest looking creatures on the planet, and burrowing owls especially so. Some, like great horned owls, will thrive without our help. But many other species need our help to survive. --Matt Miller