Archive for the ‘owls’ Tag

SciSun: Looking at the World with Rose Colored glasses   Leave a comment

Humans think we’re pretty special. But other than the combination of our hands (which other animals have – from apes to squirrels); and large brain (that might even be larger and more complex in whales and dolphins); humans miss out on a lot of talents and abilities other species take for granted. Many animals are faster than the average human; can run, swim, and fly longer and further (humans, of course; can’t fly at all); have better hearing and sharper eyesight; and have learned to use resources in ways that allow for a thriving life now, without destroying what might be needed in the future. A skill humans are still struggling with. But aside from obvious differences, many animals hold hidden abilities that, by human standards, mirror the powers of any super-hero.

What we would see as a rather bland brown and grey owl becomes bright red under UV light. They just don't want humans - or mice - to know how magnificent they are.

What we would see as a rather bland brown and grey owl becomes bright red under UV light. They just don’t want humans – or mice – to know how magnificent they are.

As far as we know, no animals can use time-travel or freeze rays or control others’ minds only through the power of their thoughts (although sometimes dogs seem to come close to achieving that one. OK, just one more treat). While heat- or x-ray vision isn’t something any animals seem to possess, many species have far greater ability to distinguish the color spectrum than humans could ever dream of: Some types of snakes and other reptiles can see infrared light, colors in the spectrum longer than reds, the highest colors humans can see; many insects depend upon shorter ultraviolet (or UV) light to help direct them to flowers; and it’s been recently discovered that some birds – particularly berry- and fruit-eating birds – not only possess UV abilities, but can adjust the structures in their eyes according to the time of day and surroundings. Special pigments, picked up through foods, are metabolized into the eye in ways that allow birds to adjust to higher or lower light waves, almost as we would use a camera filter or sunglasses. It’s not known if the birds actually choose how to apply these ‘filters’, if the effects can be varied or are constant, or even if the effect is temporary or long-lasting. What has been noted, however, that as the birds vision shifts, it also becomes more cloudy and unfocused. Because you can’t wipe your glasses on your sleeve when the filters are on the inside of your eyes.

Michonne Says: Flowers come in all colors and I’ve never known any marmot who looks through inferior lights or light spectumms or any of those other things in this story. But of all the flowers to eat the purpley ones are usually very tasty, so they must be those ultra-best-violet ones.

Posted August 14, 2016 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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SunSpecial: Death Rays   Leave a comment

Every day people use more and more electricity to power almost every activity of our lives, from lights and air conditioners to refrigerators and factories and even the gas pumps that put fuel in our cars; or the charging stations for hybrid autos. Yet while electricity seems easy to come by (just plug it in!), it’s really an expensive, difficult, and sometimes dangerous process to generate power from the source into the electricity we depend upon. Usually electricity originates from some sort of generator powered by water, or steam, or natural gas, or even using a little electricity to generate more electricity (all ways that are really old-school and often wasteful); but recently, solar – power from the sun – has become one of the go-to solutions for our energy needs. After all, the sun is always ‘on’, it doesn’t ask for anything in return, and once the solar collectors are built, it’s free! But while solar power might appear to be relatively free of expense, that doesn’t mean there’s no cost – and for birds in the California desert, the cost for our electrical needs might be their highest price of all.

At Ivanpah Dry Lake near the California-Nevada border is the world’s largest solar power plant built to test out a new technology called ‘power-towers’ (Not ‘Tower of Power’. That’s a popular 1970’s Blues band). In the desert about 30 miles south of Las Vegas have arisen three 40-story tall steel and concrete structures with super-size water boilers resting on top. Each tower is surrounded by over 100,000 mirrors, each about the size of a garage door – over 300,000 in total – that are angled to reflect and concentrate sun rays – named ‘solar flux’ – onto the boilers, which create steam and result in electricity. Which is fine in theory – the entire complex is estimated to be able to generate electrical needs for 140,000 homes – until the towers were fully activated a few months ago, and birds starting falling from the sky. Not in shock, or disoriented, or needing to rest, but burnt and blackened, feathers singed and unable to fly, most dead when they hit the ground. The ‘solar-flux’ created by the system (a name which itself sounds bit disturbing) are enough to scorch birds in mid-flight.

Almost every old science fiction movie featured someone with a ‘death ray’, a powerful, mysterious beam of energy that seemed impossible to stop until the hero found the off switch. But more than sci-fi, today a search for more energy has resulted in rays powerful enough to incinerate insects; temporarily blind pilots flying one of the most congested airways; distract drivers on a nearby highway and burn feathers and skin off birds. It’s not unknown that concentrated solar power can be very, very powerful – a solar experimental unit at Sandia Laboratories in New Mexico can burn through inches of metal, or even melt bricks (after all, this is a refection of the sun where surface temperatures are about 10 million degrees) – but no one suspected the ‘power towers’ would be dropping birds as they fly by, even though engineers did estimate temperatures as high as 1000 degrees could be produced.

“Behold, the power of the Sun!  Or three suns, that's even better!”

“Behold, the power of the Sun! Or three suns, that’s even better!”

But possibly what’s most concerning is this current project is only a test, and as power company representatives have pointed out since the towers were fully activated in February ‘only’ about a thousand birds have been killed. They go on to remind us that house cats kill hundreds of millions of birds each year and the companies have even offered to establish a fund to study and help prevent bird deaths at the hands – or paws and teeth – of loose cats. But environmental groups and the US Fish and Wildlife Service state this won’t help birds in the path of the solar towers – which already have claimed raptors, water birds, and a variety of warblers and sparrows. What’s most troubling is the actual proposed ‘production’ facility is planned to include a ‘power tower’ 750 feet tall – about 70 stories, equal in height to some of the tallest buildings in New York City – and will be built on land near Joshua Tree National Park, bordering a flyway where millions of birds, including threatened and endangered species, travel each year to and from the Salton Sea, one of the most significant inland nesting sites in California.

But to meet current and future energy needs, all this is worth it, right? And certainly better than pollution-filled coal or depleting natural gas supplies or the dangers of nuclear? (Pick one: Dead birds or mutated radioactive monsters). At 2.2 million dollars, the Ivanpah plant actually costs more to operate than the energy it produces, and the planned ‘super tower’ is estimated to cost over 5 million dollars just in construction, not to mention operation expenses. The power companies state that excess costs will simply be passed on to consumers. US Fish and Wildlife research show that not 1000, but 28,000 birds have been killed by ‘solar flux’ in the past few months with the potential of millions of deaths if the Joshua Tree location is built. Every day airline pilots are reporting glare from the towers is preventing them from seeing other aircraft or hazards, and local Native American groups say the towers, and wildlife deaths, are causing spiritual damage to the land.

In today’s world easy, convenient, always-ready electricity is a necessity – but also a responsibility. Not in the sci-fi future, but in our everyday lives each one of us holds the power of the death ray in our hands – but, like the hero, we also know the location of the ‘off’ button.

Posted August 24, 2014 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SunSpecial

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SciSun: Out of the Flames, but not out of the Fire   Leave a comment

In an update to the story a few weeks ago about the Rim Fire that’s burning through thousands of acres of forest near Yosemite National Park in California, we’ve come across some surprising, troubling, and problematic news. As you remember, in the previous story we mentioned that many types evergreen trees have developed very thick, protective bark that allow the trees to survive most forest fires, which are usually fast-moving and seldom intense. But in research and post-fire surveys, scientists are now finding the majestic Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), can be just as affected by fire as any other species. Generally considered ‘fireproof’ because of its extra-thick bark and extreme height (averaging 300 feet) which usually place the tree crown – the uppermost part holding the leaves – above most fires, the Redwoods are spared as the forest around them burns. However, due to a disease that doesn’t even affect these giants, the Sequoia is now as much at risk from fire as any other tree.

The Sudden Oak Death Pathogen (Phytophthora ramorum) is a disease that’s killing many species of Oak trees and shrubs along the central and northern California coast, and into Oregon. While this doesn’t directly affect any plants other than Oaks, when these plants die they usually don’t fall but remain standing (original concept for a Zombie series – ‘The Standing Dead’) and during a fire become giant torches – increasing the fuel load – carrying flames up the trunk to the highest part of the oak tree…which is often very close to the Redwood crown…which catches fire and the Sequoia, usually removed from a fire, is now scorched or killed.

And despite how devastating and destructive wildfires can be to the forest environment, it’s also true some species depend upon fires to live and thrive. In 2012, the Mill Fire – also in California, north of Sacramento – burned almost 30,000 acres (that’s less than 10% of the area currently affected by the Rim Fire) – and some of the lasting effects of the Mill blaze were miles and miles of blackened landscape; fallen, burnt trees; ash-clogged streams; and generally what appears to be un-livable conditions. Plus, the area, on the edge of the Mendocino National Forest, is popular with campers, hikers and outdoorsmen, so state and national forest services are eager to clean up and restore the land. However, this ‘clean up’, recently authorized by the US Forest Service, is actually entitled ‘the Salvage and Harvest tree removal Project’ and requires any tree identified as ‘hazardous’ to be immediately removed – ‘hazardous’ meaning, of course, potentially dangerous (or just unsightly?) to humans – not to the wildlife who might consider a burnt tree as a good home or seek out the fresh plant sprouts that emerge from the burnt landscape.

It doesn't take long for wildlife to return to a burned area.

It doesn’t take long for wildlife to return to a burned area.

In fact, within the area of the Mill Fire lives the Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina), a threatened species. And while Owls normally don’t seek out burnt or fallen trees to live in (they prefer the fresh pine scent of healthy trees), the Northern Spotty species are very secretive, easily stressed, and any unfamiliar and disturbing activity – like groups of workers suddenly arriving and cutting down and hauling away trees with 18- wheelers – could be enough to make the birds leave their hunting areas and homes. Really, men cutting down trees and hauling them away is enough commotion to make a lot of wildlife leave.

Forest Fires – wildfires – can be caused by many reasons, and some of the largest and most recent fires are still under investigation. But what’s most troubling to forest managers, fire researchers, and scientists is not the fires themselves – which are a necessary part of a healthy environment – but the changes that are being observed in the size, intensity, and damage we’re seeing today. Due to the actions and decisions of man, as well as diseases, drought, and hotter summers, the Giant Redwood – the tallest and among the oldest plant on earth – is now in danger; and the Spotted Owl, already threatened, is facing more challenges. For generations, these species have overcome countless environmental pressures and wildfires. But now, escaping the flames doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safe from the fire.


Michonne Says: Fires sound very scary. I’m glad marmots live in the rocks where fire doesn’t go. It doesn’t go into the rocks, does it?

Posted September 22, 2013 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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SciSun: Hoo, Who?   1 comment

The Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) is a medium-sized owl that lives only in the deep, old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. (‘Old-growth’ forest is generally a forest that has never had trees cut down for lumber, or roads built, or otherwise disturbed. The most forest-y a forest can be). Unfortunately, this type forest, because it hasn’t been touched, is one of the few places left where there are trees large enough to cut down for big, strong, durable pieces of wood that people want for decoration and oversized tables and that one-of-a-kind massive exposed beam in a house that makes all the neighbors jealous. So lumber companies and land developers have been eagerly looking at cutting down the giant, old trees in what remains of those forests. But scientists and researchers noticed there didn’t seem to be many Spotted Owls in the forests; and after much work, they found only about 2000 pairs (they stay together their entire lives) in the region of approximately 25 million acres. That’s not many owls for such a large area, and owls are very important indicator species in the forest; species with great impact that scientists can study and learn about the health of entire environments. To try and protect the Spotted, they were placed on the Endangered Species list, which means they are protected from direct harm and any changes to their environment must be carefully monitored and regulated. So, while still in danger due to their low numbers and continued logging at the edges of the forests, the future was looking positive for the Spotted Owl.

But now, a new and unexpected threat has arrived – and not in the form of man cutting down the forest, or changing climate, or any health or medical emergency, but from another owl. The Barred Owl (Strix varia) is a large bird native to the Eastern United States. For thousands of years the Barred – also known as the Striped Owl, Wood Owl and Hoot Owl – has lived in forests from Eastern Canada to the Southeastern US, and can often be seen in suburban neighborhoods where they do a great job keeping rats and mice and other small animals from overpopulating and causing damage and spreading disease.  Recently, the Barred has been moving west, and now can be found in the same old-growth forests where the endangered Spotted Owl is trying to hold on.  Because the Barred is slightly larger, adapts more easily to changes, lays more eggs, and generally seems to be doing a little better in this forest environment, that’s putting pressure on the Spotted Owl and their numbers are getting lower and lower.

So this brings up a difficult question; does the Barred Owl ‘belong’ in the northwest forests? The Barred isn’t doing anything wrong, it’s just trying to live the best it can. It’s not a species that’s invaded from from one environment to another, it’s always lived in the forest – just the Eastern and Southern forests, rather than the far west. No one caught and re-located these owls, they found their own way – and probably because their natural environments were being destroyed or changed to the point they couldn’t live there any longer. But, scientists agree that if the Barred Owl continues to be as successful as it has been in the west, one day there could be no more Spotted owls.

There are plans to try and control the numbers of Barred Owls and protect the Spotted, but it will be almost impossible to watch for every Barred that enters the forest. Some researchers and friends-of-Spotted think that with the Barred Owls in the forest, lumber companies and developers might see that as an excuse for cutting down the old-growth: Without the protected Spotted Owl to act as a mascot, it might be much harder to protect the forest for all the plants and animals.

Owl NorthernSpotted_USFWS

Watching his back


Are the Barred Owls moving where they don’t belong? Should these forests be set aside for Spotted Owls only? What do you think?

Learn more about Who’s Who in the world of Owls:

Posted July 15, 2012 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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SciSun: Infrequent Flyers   Leave a comment

We all know birds can fly, and mammals can’t. But what about Penguins – they’re birds, and they can’t fly. And Bats are mammals that fly so well they can flutter and swoop in complete darkness. So maybe there are other animals that don’t fit the stereotype, too – like this little guy, the Flying Squirrel! (Glaucomys sabrinus and Glaucomys volans). These are the Northern Flying Squirrel (sabrinus); and the Southern Flying Squirrel (volans).  Actually, there are many other types of flying squirrels around the world– almost four dozen – but these two are the only members of the family that live in North America. You’d think the Southern type would live in the South, and the Northern in the North – but actually, the Southern live in the Central and Eastern US, while the Northern can be found in the far North, and West. Both prefer dense, deep forests with tall trees….because, they don’t actually fly like a bird or a bat; the squirrels are very skilled at gliding, by climbing high on a tree branch, jumping off, and spreading their arms wide! (Editor Note: Do NOT try this at home! These squirrels are trained professionals!).

Flying squirrels have an area of skin, called the patagium, that stretches between their wrists and legs, almost like a furry built-in para-sail. By simply moving their arms and legs (and with help from their slightly flattened, furry tail) as they fly glide between trees they can soar for almost 300 feet, steering to avoid obstacles, even flying upward at times, and gently landing at just the spot they wanted. All without making any sound – without even feathers to rustle because they don’t flap their wings like a bird, but just sail on the wind. It sounds like a good life, but then we realize a flying squirrel is often flying to avoid his main predator, the Owl. In nature, there’s always a reason to every behavior.

The Northern and Southern are both about the same size – a foot or so long; are of similar grey/brown/reddish color (although the Southern is a bit lighter); and have similar behaviors, including a nocturnal lifestyle- being most active at night. In fact, their eyes are VERY large, for better night vision, much larger than they eyes of a ‘typical’ tree squirrel. Both flyers are secretive, living deep in the forest and seldom making themselves seen or heard. They would make formidable Ninja candidates, however it is believed they have dedicated their lives to peace. And nuts. 


Flying Squirrel Northern

This photo is perfectly focused. To provide a sense of motion, we prefer to call it 'Speed Blur'.


Check out more on Flying Squirrels!,4570,7-153-10370_12145_12205-32998–,00.html

Posted March 11, 2012 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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SciSun: Maybe they have letters to deliver…..   Leave a comment

There’s a very rare event happening over much of America that has many people excited. For the first time in years, hundreds of Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) are traveling from their homes in far Northern Canada and the Arctic to as far south as as Ohio and Kansas, and even into Northern California!. While rare, this is not un-heard of and the scientists even have a name for it – ‘irruption which is defined as a sudden increase in an animal’s population (this shouldn’t be confused with ‘eruption‘, which is ‘to suddenly and violently burst out’. And we wouldn’t want to see the owls do that. No one wants to be around an angry owl). 

Snowy Owl USFWS Potters Field Alaska

This fellow was found at a place named Potters Marsh. Seriously.

It seems the owls are here looking for someplace less crowded. We wouldn’t think Northern Canada and the Arctic is particularly crowded, but last year there were many, many lemmings that were born – lemmings are little mouse-like animals that the owls like to eat. There were SO many lemmings, that the owls thought they had it easy, and they laid more eggs, so there would be more baby owls, that would eat more lemmings. It’s all a balance thing. However, now there are so many young owls eating the lemmings, it’s getting too crowded for some of the owls and they’re flying further away then they usually would to find space of their own.

The long flight from the Arctic can be over 1000 miles, so the owls are very tired and hungry. Also they aren’t used to being around humans or cars or power lines or airplanes or other things we see every day, so that adds to their stress. Scientists, researchers and bird-watchers say the owls will probably hang around here until early Spring, then they’ll return home. Remember they’re visitors, so be careful not to disturb any Snowy Owls (or other wildlife) you find, just let them have their space. But if you live anywhere in the northern or central US, particularly the Midwest, you might see one of these rare birds. You can’t miss him, he’s almost all white with a few black markings, and about the size of a small-to-medium dog. Sitting in a tree or other perch, or flying with a five-foot wingspan! In fact, they look very much like a popular owl you may have read about…that lives in a school in England…that has an important job….who I can’t talk about due to strict copyright laws.

Let’s just say these Snowy Owls don’t wear a wig on their head. If you know what I mean.

You can learn more about Snowy Owls both at your local library, and here:

Posted January 15, 2012 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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SciSun: Who, Who’s there?

Got a case of the weekend blues?

Is a new week about to begin and you don’ t feel any smarter than you did last week?

Want to amaze your friends and annoy your enemies?

Is that’s what’s bothering you, Bucky?  Then you’ve come to the right place!   This is ScienceSunday (SciSun) – the place for news, updates, and generally interesting stuff related to the Environment and Stewardship.

Today:  Owls!

Owls are very important in our world, and there are many different types than the usual ‘owl sitting on dead tree at night’ variety.   In fact, there are over 250 species of owls!   And they don’t just live in trees – in fact, owls can be found living in abandoned buildings, on cliffs, in burrows in the ground, and even inside cactus!   Most owls are out and about at night, though – they’re hunting their food which is often small rodents, snakes, and large insects.   Owls are not dangerous to man  – as long as you leave them alone.   They have very sharp beaks and talons (claws), so it’s best to observe from a distance.

Photo from our friends at the Oregon Zoo, AZA.

Who you talking about? Who, who??

Owls have better eyesight than most humans, but they can’t see in the dark.   They usually come out around twilight, and when it becomes too dark for them to see they depend more on their hearing than their vision.   Notice how the face of an owl is round and ‘flat’?  That’s called a facial disk and it helps direct sound to the ears, almost like a satellite dish.  Even if the food they’re looking for – their prey – is small and quiet or hidden, the owl can usually find it.    And those little tufts of feathers some owls have on top of their head?  That’s not their ears, it’s just for decoration.   Their actual ears are hidden on the sides of their heads, underneath feathers and they don’t have any external ears like we do.

So the next time you see an owl, remember they are specialized to live in the darkness, that they do a very important job by eating small rodents and insects that could be harmful to man, and that they can probably see and hear you before you see them.  But they can’t turn their heads all the way around.   That’s a fable.   Their head will only go around about three-quarters of the way, which is still more than we could ever do!

Dig Deeper!

There are lots of great places to learn more about Owls. Here are a few to get you started:

And always check out your local library!


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