Monday, November 28, 2011

Green Gift Monday

With cyber Monday, the holiday shopping season is in full swing, with the usual crazy stories of excess and insanity. But can your holiday gift buying help the planet?

The Nature Conservancy is asking you to give green this holiday season. Support Green Gift Monday and sign the pledge.

The Nature Conservancy wants to encourage you to find responsible, meaningful holiday gifts—make something, give an experience, donate to a cause or purchase an eco-friendly product.

You can find gift guides and useful tips for your holiday traditions. We hope you join us--and make a difference for the planet this holiday season.

Monday, November 21, 2011


The wolverine gets all the press.

But the wolverine isn't the only tough, solitary, mysterious and tough member of the weasel family.

Meet the fisher.

The fisher roams the forest in search of any prey it can catch. It's one of the few predators that successfully and regularly hunts porcupines (but, contrary to popular outdoor lore, it doesn't flip over the porcupine and scoop out its soft underside).

Due to their solitary nature, wide home range and preference for heavy forest cover, fishers are not well studied.

In Idaho, they're also quite rare. In fact, fishers were exterminated from the state by the early 1900's due to a deadly combination of over-trapping and clear cutting.

Fishers were reintroduced to Idaho in the 1960's. How are they doing? That answer is unclear, but it's undeniable that they remain one of the state's rarer mammals.

Fishers require heavy forest cover. Conservationists often list them as one of those animals that can only thrive in large, unbroken, roadless tracts of forest--the kind of forests Idaho has in abundance.

And that is true...sort of.

Fishers do require heavy forest cover, and they do need room to roam. But fishers might require a bit more--and a bit less--than we imagine.

Fishers were eliminated from my home state of Pennsylvania, as in Idaho, more than a century ago. With much of the state clearcut, fishers were concentrated into remaining pockets of forest--where they became easy for trappers to catch.

From 1994 through 1998, 190 fishers were reintroduced to six areas of northern Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is a smaller state than Idaho, but has 10 million more residents. The forests are today a mix of deciduous hardwoods and conifers. There are far more roads, and far more people recreating in the forests.

And yet, fishers thrive in Pennsylvania. They've spread over much of the state, including into areas considered unsuitable for their needs. The state now allows a limited trapping season, and still the fishers appear to be spreading and thriving.

It's a similar story throughout the eastern United States. Fishers in West Virginia, New York and New England flourish while those in less populated regions of the Rockies do not.

This may in part be due to the maturity of forests in the east. Fishers require heavy forest cover, and seem to prefer hunting around dead tree snags on the ground. They do not survive well in second-growth forest.

There is also an abundance of prey in eastern forests. Despite their specific habitat requirements, fishers adapt readily to any available prey. The fisher's most common prey of Canadian boreal forest--snowshoe hares--are not common in Pennsylvania. But they have adapted to the abundant gray squirrels, cottontail rabbits and even carrion from road-killed deer.

Conservation is complicated. The fisher does have specific habitat needs. But that doesn't mean it can only survive in huge, roadless areas. In this case, the forests of Pennsylvania--while more fragmented and less "wild"--appear to be much more suited to fishers today than Idaho.

Clearly, though, there is much room for research on this little known carnivore. Perhaps as we learn more, we can bring back this fascinating animal to the Rockies, much as has been done in the eastern forests. -- Matt Miller

Monday, November 14, 2011

Starling Murmuration & Other Flock Behavior

A flock of starlings may not seem like a phenomenon to inspire awe. But a recent viral video proves otherwise.

Starlings (in a group, technically called a murmuration rather than a flock) can amass in huge numbers. When they fly, their movements look coordinated--even when the flock consists of thousands of birds.

As the video captures beautifully, these flocks shift shapes and move in ways that hardly seem possible.

Among the many breathless news reports on this video, one sees repeatedly that the videographer caught something extremely rare, something almost never seen in nature.

Well, not quite.

This is a natural phenomenon that you can see this fall, in Idaho, fairly easily. Just find a roosting or feeding area of starlings, blackbirds or other birds that live in large flocks. With a little patience, you'll be rewarded by these amazing flights.

In fact, just last week I saw a blackbird flock flying in patterns nearly as astounding and magical as the viral video. And I didn't have to travel far: The flight took place near the Albertson's on Federal Way and Gowen Road in Boise. Blackbirds roost nearby, and you can often see this behavior at dusk.

The flock I saw looked at first like a tornado, then moved in waves much like the flock in the video. At times, the birds seemed to turn simultaneously.

Seeing this behavior raises many questions. How do they coordinate movement? How do they keep from running into each other? Where are they going?

The study of flock behavior is quite fascinating. Birds form flocks largely for protection from predators. An individual bird (or fish, or wildebeest) is much less likely to become a predator's meal in a large group.

A flock also makes it difficult for a hawk or owl to pick out one specific target. Can you imagine trying to focus on one bird when they are moving in ever-shifting waves?

Although the movements may look choreographed, the birds are not moving in a planned direction. Each bird reacts to the birds next to it, setting off a chain reaction. The birds react in milliseconds--too fast for us to perceive--so it only looks coordinated.

There are no leaders in such flocks. Each bird reacts only to what the others are doing. As such, one bird's flinch can set off a chain reaction in the air, resulting in the wildly fantastical shapes and bends to the flocks. At times, one birds' reaction can cause swirling mid-air for several minutes (as in the video).

Eventually though, the swirling flock gets back on track and proceeds to its destination.

Many amazing natural phenomena can be seen right in your own backyard. Get outside: the large flocks await.

Photograph by Edibob, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Trout Rescue

Each year, many trout swim into irrigation canals when those canals fill with water.

When the canals are drained in the autumn, the fish are trapped and then die.

Last week, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy staged a rescue operation for rainbow trout trapped in irrigation canals. Working with the canal companies, they netted the fish as the water levels in the canals began dropping.

More than one thousand fish were rescued and transported to Crystal Creek, a newly restored spring creek located on Heart Rock Ranch.

In addition, the Hemingway Chapter of Trout Unlimited has rescued more than four thousand fish this fall, which were released in Silver Creek and the Big Wood River.

Heart Rock Ranch was bought last year by Harry and Shirley Hagey, who acquired two ranches south of Bellevue to protect and restore the wildlife habitat and agricultural heritage on the properties.

Shirley is pictured above rescuing trout from canals.

Spring creek restoration was one of their first goals, and that project commenced this summer. The streams are already looking excellent. Now there are rainbow trout--fish that would have otherwise died--to inhabit these waters, tributaries of the Big Wood River.