Conversations Between Birders

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Christopher Skaife Illustration by João Fazenda

Thanks to Sarah Larson for this:

Bird-Watching with the Ravenmaster

The yeoman warder charged with caring for the ravens of the Tower of London hikes along the Hudson.

When he’s at work, at the Tower of London, Yeoman Warder Christopher Skaife typically wears a uniform featuring a royal-blue tabard with scarlet ornamentation, a brass-buckled belt, and a bonnet. (Formalwear involves stockings and a ruff.) Skaife lives at the Tower, too, with his wife, in a house with forty-foot walls and arrow slits for windows. Skaife is the Tower’s Ravenmaster—his new book, “The Ravenmaster,” just came out—and in that role he cares for its most famous current residents, Merlin (a.k.a. Merlina), Erin, Rocky, Jubilee II, Gripp II, Harris, and Poppy, and gives tours to some of the Tower’s three million annual visitors. Recently, while vacationing in Manhattan, Skaife, who is Beefeater-shaped, with a bristly beard, was incognito, dressed in a zippered jacket and cargo shorts. He has tattoos on his calves depicting ravens, as well as, he said, “the skulls of those who were executed on the Tower Green.” On a crisp Friday, Skaife met up with his friend Gabriel Willow, a trim man in a cap, who works with New York City Audubon, to embark on a raven quest.

After a long absence, ravens have returned to the metro area: about six pairs nest in or around New York City. Willow and Skaife visited three potential hot spots—Pelham Bay Park, in the Bronx (mallards, cormorants, egrets; no ravens), far West Twenty-third Street, and Inwood Hill Park, at the northernmost tip of Manhattan. At West Twenty-third and the Hudson River, Skaife and Willow peered through binoculars. “I did see a raven this morning up in Central Park—a big flyby,” Willow said. “I heard cawing and calling, and a murder of crows swirled around, chasing a raven.” Continue reading

Who Will Farm In The Future?

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Four-year-old Emma is already helping out at Field and Farm Co., doing things like transplanting onions. SNARE FAMILY / FIELD AND FARM CO.

Thanks to Madelyn Beck:

Handing Off: The Reality Of Land Transfer Between Older, Younger Farmers

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This farm near Springfield, Illinois, has been in the Curry family since 1886, though Kim Curry only moved there in 2008 when her father was dying of cancer. She, her sister and her niece grow and sell pigs, piglets, chickens and cows.
CREDIT MADELYN BECK / HARVEST PUBLIC MEDIA

As life expectancy increases, farmers are staying in the business, but there’s still a need to plan for what happens when they die. At the same time, young farmers who come from non-farming backgrounds are looking for the space to grow their own careers.

A land transfer may seem simple, but challenges abound: How do retiring farmers connect with beginning farmers? When does a farmer confront death? How can smaller farm organizations fit into the ever-growing 1,000-acre farm scene?

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Formerly a biochemist in Michigan, Curry now works in disability claims for the state of Illinois on top of helping run the family farm. She said dinnertime often comes late, about 8 or 8:30 p.m.
CREDIT MADELYN BECK / HARVEST PUBLIC MEDIA

Past the likeness of Western movie icon John Wayne etched in stone, a ways down North John Wayne Road and at the end of a long dirt driveway is Kim Curry’s place. A few of the farm’s seven dogs meander up to the gate to bark at anyone who pulls up, while chickens and occasional escapee piglet scrounge for food around the yard.

The Curry Family Farm is near Springfield, Illinois, but unlike most of that area, it has green, rolling hills, a few creeks and a few ponds. It’s been in the family since 1886.

“It’s just so restful and relaxing out here. We’ll have to show you the pigs,” Curry said. “They’re all eating.”

The 59-year-old lives there with her sister and niece, but the three of them can’t keep up with it all, especially because she has a full-time state job working with disability claims.

So, she is selling about 80 acres, which she said “really has potential with someone with younger, more energy.”

And that’s where it gets tricky for people trying to offload land in Illinois, which doesn’t have an online system like several other states — Iowa, Nebraska and Montana, for example — that specifically links older farmers with newer ones looking for land.

Continue reading

Charisma & Conservation

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Botanist Steve Perlman rappels into the Kalalau Valley, a biodiversity hotspot on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. COURTESY OF BRYCE JOHNSON/FLUX HAWAII

Thanks to Janet Marinelli and the team at Yale e360 for a reminder that charisma is not all that matters in decisions about conservation:

Extreme Botany: The Precarious Science of Endangered Rare Plants

They don’t make the headlines the way charismatic animals such as rhinos and elephants do. But there are thousands of critically endangered plants in the world, and a determined group of botanists are ready to go to great lengths to save them.

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The plant known as cabbage-on-a-stick (Brighamia insignis) has been grown at Limahuli Garden & Preserve on Kauai, which is within the historic range of the species. SEANA WALSH

To save plants that can no longer survive on their own, Steve Perlman has bushwhacked through remote valleys, dangled from helicopters, and teetered on the edge of towering sea cliffs. Watching a video of the self-described “extreme botanist” in actio­­n is not for the faint-hearted. “Each time I make this journey I’m aware that nature can turn on me,” Perlman says in the video as he battles ocean swells in a kayak to reach the few remaining members of a critically endangered species on a rugged, isolated stretch of Hawaiian coastline. “The ocean could suddenly rise up and dash me against the rocks like a piece of driftwood.”

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A botanist collects pollen from the flower of Brighamia insignis. NATIONAL TROPICAL BOTANICAL GARDEN

When he arrives at his destination, Perlman starts hauling himself up an impossibly steep, razor-sharp cliff 3,000 feet above the sea without a rope, his fingers sending chunks of rock tumbling down to the waters below. Finally, he reaches the plants and painstakingly transfers pollen from the flowers of one to those of another to ensure that the species can perpetuate itself. At the end of the season, he will return to collect any seeds they were able to produce. Continue reading

The Science Of Camouflage

This is more science-y than is our custom, but Nature magazine has been appreciated on this platform as a source of intriguing findings about creatures from time to time, so here goes:

Cuttlefish wear their thoughts on their skin

Elaborate video system tracks how pigment cells controlled by neurons generate complex patterns of camouflage.

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Cuttlefish are masters of quick-change camouflage, thanks to skin cells that act as coloured pixels. Credit: Pasquale Vassallo/Getty

Cuttlefish are masters at altering their appearance to blend into their surroundings. But the cephalopods can no longer hide their inner thoughts, thanks to a technique that infers a cuttlefish’s brain activity by tracking the ever-changing patterns on its skin. The findings, published in Nature on 17 October1, could help researchers to better understand how the brain controls behaviour.

The cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) camouflages itself by contracting the muscles around tiny, coloured skin cells called chromatophores. The cells come in several colours and act as pixels across the cuttlefish’s body, changing their size to alter the pattern on the animal’s skin.

The cuttlefish doesn’t always conjure up an exact match for its background. It can also blanket itself in stripes, rings, mottles or other complex patterns to make itself less noticeable to predators. “On any background, especially a coral reef, it can’t look like a thousand things,” says Roger Hanlon, a cephalopod biologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “Camouflage is about deceiving the visual system.” Continue reading

Lost & Found, Apples & Ciders

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The Harrison apple tree that Thomas Vilardi found near Newark in the fall of 2015. “I knew I had seen apples on a tree,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to find a Harrison.” Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Thanks for this article to Rachel Wharton, who is batting 1000 for our taste in food writing:

Finding Lost Apples and Reviving a Beloved Cider

George Washington was among the many fans of Newark cider, a long-missing treat now being recreated by a former ad man on a mission.

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Charles Rosen, left, and Cameron Stark in the new taproom they opened last week at Ironbound Hard Cider in Asbury, N.J. It will serve limited-edition ciders made by Mr. Stark, the head cider maker.CreditBryan Anselm for The New York Times

ASBURY, N.J. — Ironbound Hard Cider may seem an odd name for the business Charles Rosen has built here on 108 acres in central New Jersey. The farm, where a new taproom offers pastoral views of the still-ripening fruit, doesn’t appear to share much with the Ironbound, an industrial neighborhood 50 miles to the east in Newark.

Yet they do have common roots, thanks to four very old apple varieties now growing on Mr. Rosen’s land.

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Mr. Vilardi and Fran McManus at the old apple tree he found three years ago. An apple expert connected him to Ms. McManus, who had written an article about Newark cider in 2010. Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Mr. Rosen, the former chief executive of a Manhattan advertising agency that promoted Svedka vodka and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, wants to reintroduce Newark cider, an 18th- and 19th-century alcoholic drink once famously compared to Champagne.

Newark cider was both a point of pride and big business for the region — requested by name, reportedly lauded by George Washington and produced by dozens of Newark-area cideries with acres of orchards. The secret wasn’t a recipe, but the blending of a quartet of superior apples born in the region: Campfield, Poveshon, Granniwinkle and Harrison, the most celebrated of the four.

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The 1- and 2-year-old apple trees in Ironbound Hard Cider’s nursery include the Harrisons shown here and Poveshons, a New Jersey-born variety thought to be extinct until 2015. Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

As a result of urbanization and then Prohibition, when many of the nation’s remaining cider orchards were destroyed, Newark cider hasn’t been made for at least a century. But after years of planning and planting — not to mention the accidental discovery of two lost apple trees and the investment of what Mr. Rosen called “100 percent of all the money I ever had in my entire life” — Ironbound Hard Cider is on the precipice of bringing it back. Continue reading

110 Million Years And Counting

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In a village near Watamu, Kenya, a sea turtle accidentally caught by a fisherman was turned over to Local Ocean Conservation. Credit Amy Yee

These creatures have been around forever, more or less. Survived everything that nature threw at them over the epochs. Until mankind and its addiction to plastic. And now it is clear their days are numbered, so any initiative anywhere that tries to slow the clock and keep the species going, we are happy to hear about it and share on this platform. Thanks to Amy Yee for bringing this to our attention:

Rescuing Sea Turtles From Fishermen’s Nets

An organization on the coast of Kenya tries to persuade local residents to help return the trapped reptiles to the ocean, rather than sell their meat and shells for a living.

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A green sea turtle trapped in a gill net. Scientists estimate the global green turtle population has declined 50 to 70 percent since 1900. Credit Jeff Rotman/Science Source

WATAMU, Kenya — The young hawksbill turtle was accidentally caught in a net in the Indian Ocean off Kenya’s coast.

The fisherman called Local Ocean Conservation, a nonprofit based in the town of Watamu that is the only turtle rescue and rehabilitation center on the East African seaboard. The hawksbill, critically endangered in this region, was a mere seven pounds; adults can weigh up to 160 pounds.

X-rays showed that the reptile’s intestinal tract was clogged with plastic. Hogaar, as Local Ocean named her, floated and couldn’t dive. Gas had built up in her innards after she had eaten small pieces of plastic mistaken for food such as jellyfish. Local Ocean staff members placed Hogaar in a rehab pool and gave her laxatives. She passed feces laced with shreds of packaging and had little appetite. After more than four months at Local Ocean, Hogaar died. A necropsy revealed her gut was also full of sharp shards of white, blue and pink plastic and tangles of blue and gray string.

Turtles are reptiles that have existed for at least 110 million years and survived the mass extinction that killed off dinosaurs. But today, sea turtles worldwide are threatened with extinction. And it’s estimated that only one of 1,000 turtle eggs laid survive to adulthood. Continue reading

Macro Views

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(Clockwise, from upper left) Seven-square-mile views of Manhattan; Chaganbulage Administrative Village in Inner Mongolia; Venice, Italy; and farms in Plymouth, Washington  © Google

Every now and then, it is good to just let the mind wander. And some of those times, visual prompts are the fastest way to get from here to there.

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A seven-square-mile snapshot of the 2,700,000-square-mile Amazon rainforest in Brazil © Google

Thanks to the Atlantic’s Senior Editor of the photo section, Alan Taylor, for this:

 Seven Square Miles

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Multiple channels of a braided river in southern Iceland. See it mapped © Google

Spending time looking at the varying and beautiful images of our planet from above in Google Earth, zooming in and out at dizzying rates, I thought it would be interesting to compare all of these vistas at a fixed scale—to see what New York City, Venice, or the Grand Canyon would look like from the same virtual height. So, the following images are snapshots from Google Earth, all rectangles of the same size and scale, approximately three and a half miles (5.6 kilometers) wide by two miles (3.2 kilometers) tall—showing seven square miles (18.1 square kilometers, or 4,480 acres) of the surface of our planet in each view.

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A section of Upsala Glacier in Argentina. Explore more here, in Google Maps.  © Google

Continue reading

Scotland, Land Of Regret-Reducing Renewable Resources

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Scottish Power’s Whitelee windfarm on Eaglesham moor, just south of Glasgow. Photograph: Global Warming Images/REX

My daily contribution to this platform is a habit vaguely in the tradition of meditation–finding something each day that is worthy of gratitude, or otherwise worthy of sharing with friends, family, and anyone else who cares to listen. Because of the good fortune I have had to visit and work in many amazing places, it is important to me to never regret the places where I still have not been. Scotland is one of those places that, if I were a regretter, I would be feeling it now. I owe that place a visit (even if the company name sounds like a Bond villain):

Scottish Power shifts to 100% wind generation after £700m Drax sale

Big six energy firm drops fossil fuels for generation and say cheap green energy is the future

Scottish Power has ditched fossil fuels for electricity generation and switched to 100% wind power, by selling off its last remaining gas power stations to Drax for more than £700m.

Iberdrola, Scottish Power’s Spanish parent company, said the move was part of its strategy to tackle climate change and would free it up to invest in renewables and power grids in the UK.

The deal also marks a significant expansion and diversification for Drax, whose main business is a coal- and biomass-fired power station in North Yorkshire. Continue reading

Forests, Deforestation & Climate Change

Trees cleared in the western Amazon region of Brazil in September 2017. CARL DE SOUZA / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

If you have been following the news recently, you may have noticed a report that indicates the urgency from climate change is greater than scientists previously thought. Everyone who cares has been digesting the science and we appreciate every effort to clarify what the science is saying. Fred Pearce, writing for Yale e360, has this:

Conflicting Data: How Fast Is the World Losing its Forests?

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Forest cut to make way for an oil palm plantation in Papua, Indonesia in April 2018. ULET IFANSASTI / GREENPEACE

The latest UN report on climate says reducing deforestation is crucial to slowing global warming. But researchers must first reconcile two contradictory sets of statistics on tree loss in order to determine whether promises made by nations to protect and restore forests are on target.

The world is losing trees faster than ever. An area the size of Italy disappeared last year. Or did it? New research suggests three-quarters of those lost forests may already be regrowing. That hardly means we are out of the woods. Fighting climate change and protecting biodiversity still needs a global campaign to reforest the planet. But it does suggest that, given the chance, nature will do much of the work. Continue reading

Citizen Science, Children & Bees

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Scientists expected bees to gradually cease buzzing as the sky darkened during an eclipse. Instead, they stopped altogether. Credit Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

After following the work of Nicholas St. Fleur for a couple years now–his beat includes archaeology, paleontology, and space among other of the things we care about on this platform, including conservation–his most recent story below is my favorite for one reason, namely citizen science. Specifically the participation of youth in such an important scientific investigation:

The Moon Eclipsed the Sun. Then the Bees Stopped Buzzing.

Researchers worked with a small army of elementary school children to collect audio recordings of bees as they visited flowers along the path of last summer’s total eclipse.

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National Forest Service workers at the Bridger-Teton National Forest Office in Jackson, Wyo., took a break to watch the Great American Eclipse last year. Credit Celia Talbot Tobin for The New York Times

Last year’s Great American Eclipse drew hundreds of millions of eyes to the sky. But while people across the country “oohed” and “aahed” at the phenomenon, it appears the bees went silent.

So found a new study that monitored the acoustic activity of bees before, during and after totality — the moment when the moon completely blocked the sun — during the solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. Researchers at the University of Missouri, along with a small army of elementary school children and other volunteers, collected audio recordings of honeybees, bumblebees and other types of bees as they visited flowers along the path of totality Continue reading