Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Spring in the low desert

Spring has sprung in the low desert of the southwest. With no transition from the near-freezing nights, we suddenly find ourselves basking in mid-70s temps, with poppies, daisies, and lupine proclaiming spring's arrival. Thanks to the December rains this year, we will enjoy a stellar wildflower season.

Birds are also in full swing "doing their thing": lots of hot lovin' among the Gambel's Quail, Greater Roadrunners, Gila Woodpeckers, Burrowing Owls, and the rest. As I type, a male Black-tailed Gnatcatcher is giving his squeaky-scratchy "ssssshhhhh!" to a too-close towhee, and the bully-ish Cactus Wrens (our largest North American wren species) have begun scolding my kitties simply for sitting on the deck -- male territorialism run amuck. While the confrontational "attitude" from the Cactus Wren is a bit comical, male bravado in general produces some of nature's most recognized and celebrated images, such as this, this, this, and this. (Endless opportunities for yuk-yuks at the male [Homo sapiens] expense; I'm deleting as much as I type here.)

Soon the snakes will be sunbathing during mid-day (if not already). Not long after, perhaps by April, the scorpions will be out in early evening. I can hardly wait to post on that.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Beauty and the Beasts

In the woods of the Pacific Northwest, one can expect to see most anything. Meth labs, salal poachers (who sell the evergreen to floral shops), fiddlehead pluckers (for stir fry), bear, cougar, tanks (another post), and one of my favorites: illegal loggers.

While working as a wildlife technician in the Puget Lowlands, collecting data on birds for a University of Washington professor, I saw it all. In particular, I recall the day I came upon an illegal logging site. To frame things a little, the research project I was part of took place in the seemingly endless expanse of woods on the Fort Lewis Military Base. Because it was federal land, and the woods for that matter were specifically being managed for a green wood certification study, I knew that any loggers encountered out there would have to be trespassing.

I came upon a downed cedar, at least 2 feet in diameter, probably 70+ years old. It was more than 60 feet high, now lying on the ground in a profound statement of premature death. Bright orange and smelling of a hope chest, I could tell it was recently cut. The stump stared up at me, weeping, open, painful its freshness. Let me be clear on this: I'm all for selective cutting, and I do believe there is a middle ground where a healthy timber economy can be commensurate with sustainable forestry. But this... this was illegal, it was wrong, and it was screwing up the selective cutting of the woods which I was working my hind end off to study the ecology of. On behalf of the science, I took it personally.

So I whipped out my royal blue sharpee and decided to leave a message for the loggers, who would undoubtedly be back to cut up the rest of their kill. The message I left on the fresh, orange cut of the trunk read:

{drawn human eye}

The blue shone so brilliantly against its decapitated background! The eye was drawn large, open, and the round pupil looked right at you. Let the superstitious hillbilly bastards get a taste of the witchettyness of these woods! It wasn't much, but I felt better. I was putting my marker away and lamenting that I'd regret not seeing their faces when -- it would figure -- I heard the sound of a struggling truck engine. Working alone for long days in the woods with no cell, no way of communicating with the outside world, and a long way from any main roads, is a disconcerting thing only when you hear a vehicle coming your way through the remoteness.


I grabbed my pack and clipboard, and dashed as far as I could into the 6-ft tall fern. There is nothing "quick" about moving through the thick underbrush of the Pacific Northwest. It is mean stuff. I managed to get a good 40 meters away when the multi-colored, rusted Chevy pulled up. Out hopped a big-bellied, stained-shirted fellow toting a canned beverage (not likely Coca Cola), and his look-alike buddy from the other side. They lowered the tailgate and drug out two menacing chainsaws. I never thought about it until that moment, but I realized they could be anyone, do anything, and I could be in a lot of trouble. They kept their voices low, and stood with their saws dangling at their sides as they examined my blue sharpee message. Take that. I thought I heard a chuckle, followed by a glance (nervous glance, I'd like to think) at the surrounding woods. They both turned to face the hill I was crouched on. Double crap, they probably knew it was fresh ink.

I couldn't help it, I probably could've waited until their saws started, but instead began a slow creep up the hill through the brush. The swashing and slapping against me of salal and hazelnut, of oregon grape and ocean spray, of three species of blackberry wrapped about my ankles as I kicked it off me, made it impossible to move stealthily. One of the sawer-men started in my direction up the hill, his buddy shouting after him to encourage him on.

Screw it, I thought, and made no pretense at stealth. Tearing through the brush was deafening, I couldn't hear my pursuer over even my own heavy breath, and I dared not take my eyes off the terrain ahead -- numerous hidden logs, branches, and dips lay in wait. I finally came to a stop, exhausted and out of breath, with long chunks of fern caught in my pack. Surely the out-of-shape sawer-man could be nowhere close. I crouched low and waited. His faded red baseball cap was barely visible through the tops of the ferns downhill; he was long behind, having quit before the veg. got thick and the hill too steep. Ninny, I thought. He didn't even have a pack to carry. He headed back down the hill, removing his cap to wipe his sweaty brow. The excitement in his voice was clear as he remarked on the "chase" to his buddy: must have been a "big bear". Excuse me?! Ah, well. Serves me right. But if I had the chance to do it over again, I'd have drawn eyes on the stump, too.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Something nice

Posting on music might be a little off-topic from the birds, bugs and occasional political indulgence. But I'm a sucker for singer-songwriters and this guy, Foy Vance, is too good not to share. Plus, he has a funny accent. Music starts at 2:32...

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Roach panic

An expectant mother in the UK spotted two cockroaches under a sink in a ground floor lavatory of the hospital she's anticipating giving birth in. Story here in the Local London. She reported it, the reporters covered it, and the hospital proudly reported calling in "pest control". The article doesn't indicate what the pest control services for the hospital entailed, but it was likely one of two things (or possibly both): 1) spray the interior of the hospital with pesticides; 2) institute an integrated pest management (IPM) program .

Though I do not know what pest management actions the hospital requested, my urban entomology experience tells me it likely wasn't the IPM option.

The hospital suggests the cockroaches were accidental invaders due to disturbance from nearby construction. Sounds plausible. Given this, I hope their pest expert/company had enough integrity to resist a knee-jerk reaction to spray pesticides inside the hospital first and ask questions later. Ideally, the hospital requested IPM services. This means assessing the level of pestiness first with a thorough inspection, monitoring traps, and questions for staff about roach activity. What would have followed from that: proper identification of any found cockroaches, followed -- again, ideally -- by pest proofing (e.g., door sweeps) and minor habit changes among the staff to discourage pests (e.g., waste management). To cap it off: monthly service calls thereafter from their pest professional to inspect the insect monitoring traps for roach activity and make further recommendations for structural improvements or modified habits as needed. Only if an infestation were found would pesticides be needed, and even then only as an initial knock-down. This is good IPM; long term solution, minimal pesticides used and minimum risk to human health.

One would think that particularly in this case (hospital, sick people, pregnant women, newborn babies) IPM would be a no-brainer. But for reasons I can only chalk up to lack of awareness, I see the opposite happen all the time. People choose the traditional option - hose it now, ask questions later. "Spray and pray" is another term of endearment. But when panic sets in -- and public sympathy for a pregnant woman over a "dirty" hospital is excellent fodder for controversy-driven panic -- the customer usually requests a lid on the eco-bright ideas for the PR-assuaging approach of spray (!). Ironically, everyone assumes that if pesticides are applied, the problem is taken care of. Everyone feels better.

IPM methods are not only eco-friendly and human-health-friendly, but the technique also demonstrates significant reduction in pests over the hose-and-go approach. Not embracing this is, well, a loss of opportunity for some great PR at the very least. THAT'S what this story should have been about (i.e., "Hospital addresses patient health with progressive pest control").

Ah, well. Hope they dealt with those 2 cockroaches.


Addendum, 2.23.08: Coincidentally, NPR aired a story yesterday about a fleet of Turkmenistan newscasters being fired by the country's President because a cockroach was a repeat visitor on the set. Assuming the almost unbelievable story is true, it makes absolutely no sense. I wouldn't even know where to begin addressing this in a post, except to say: 1. How did he get into office? 2. Good thing this didn't happen in Turkmenistan.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Viva la revolucion

A squabble in Sunnyvale, CA, is pitting one enviro-neighbor against another. The issue: their redwoods are blocking his rooftop solar panels. Complete article in the LA times here.

That's unfortunate (for them). But I'm a bit elated in wondering: when did suburbians adopt the bastion of eco torch-bearer? When did the equivalent of "your hedge is blocking my sun" evolve into a battle on behalf of environmental integrity? I sure don't know, but it's pretty cool.

Equally thought-provoking and along the same lines: apparently it has become trendy for "eco-parties" to replace tupperware parties, wherein suburban moms dish on the latest biodegradable plastics and other savvy environmental innovations. One article recently went so far as to suggest enviro-friendly lifestyle changes are the newest status symbol. It's almost unbelievable that this is happening. For some, like me, who've always been labeled a little outside the norm (reading Stephen Schneider's books on climate change for fun as a teen, growing up conservative and devolving to liberal, etc.), it seemed that popular culture would never dare to care. Not like this. Not in my lifetime.

A cultural paradigm is forming right before us. So I got to thinking about what solar panel vs. redwood litigation and the like might portend for the future. The eco revolution is here, and it will begin to change the way we interact with not just the environment, but eachother. With so many eco-friendly lifestyle options to choose from, and some of them increasingly contradictory (cut the trees down for energy-harnessable sunlight, or let the trees grow as a carbon dioxide sink?), people are bound to conflict eventually. Here's what I predict: eco-typing.

Eco-types will begin to emerge based on their unique brand of enviro-friendly lifestyle choices. For example: rural "folk" might replace traditional agricultural practices with land-consuming environmental innovations, such as... wind energy (already happening, of course), or massive solar arrays. Both of these are currently in the realm of chic nouveau, but aren't above being poo-poo'd by the wildlife eco-type who are rallying on behalf of migratory birds against the giant windmills claiming their little lives. The wildlife eco-type, a sort of bourgeoise class, will buy into Natalie Portman's vegan-friendly shoes and shun the crudeness of the hick eco-types. (Or blue-collar eco-type, to remain consistent with the class system analogy.)

And for the redwood trees vs. solar folks from the article: climate eco-type (I'm getting tired, less imaginative) vs. economy eco-type. Money saving and environmentalism are not, after all, disparate. Even bottom-liners will find themselves in guilt-free type company.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


I've lost my cell phone, so for now I can't download any of the beautiful pix I took during my work trip in Mexico this week. We almost drove off a cliff, which didn't make us look too professional. But other than that it was a highly productive trip toward improving urban health and the urban environment of our second world neighbors.

Until the cell turns up, what I thought I'd blog about instead is the Great Backyard Bird Count. Again. If limp intimidation in the Feb. 11 post didn't work, then...well...I failed, and you aren't as great as you think. But perhaps by nagging I can appeal to the better part of your inner self. Three days remain to contribute to this North American survey, and not only is the impact to your day minimal, but you'll thoroughly enjoy every minute of it, too. The Birds Etcetera blog demonstrates how simple this great program can be right in -- you got it -- your backyard. A ton of folks will procrastinate, so be unique: do your 15 minute bird count today! Go on, dust off those binocs (you were gonna break 'em out for the satellite vs. rocket show next week, anyway!).

I'll be joining you from my backyard as soon as I fork over an appendage (and not a vestigial one) for repairs at the dealership.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Hold up, Uphold

If you have plans to cross the US/MX border by land then you'll need twice the amount of time. At least, if you intend to do so legally. With the new identification requirements put into effect January 31st, I was treated to not one but TWO hours of exhaust-filled air in crossing back to 'my homeland'.

What's the hold-up, you ask? Instead of a border patrol agent simply asking you your country of citizenship, they now require two forms of identification. In the case of US citizens, this includes:
  1. state-issued ID (e.g, driver's license); and
  2. proof of citizenship (e.g., a passport, birth certificate, etc.)
In lieu of a passport, there are a couple other options. I didn't bother to catch them, but you can learn more about the new ID requirements at the U.S. Custom's and Border Protection website.

Oh, I'm not complaining. Maybe I don't know enough to. Honestly, I'm surprised it took so long after 9/11 to institute this added and relatively simple security measure. What else has our federal government been doing to further national defense along the border? Constructing a FENCE 700 miles long. Unfortunately, it will do NOTHING to keep the most desperate (and dangerous) people out of the U.S., but will have a clear and negative impact on scores of endangered and struggling wildlife whose survival hasn't evolved to the level of fence-climbing.

said the reds, there's that damned endangered species law getting in the way again... It's so inconvenient. Wish we could just ignore it. Hmmmm....

The Bush administration couldn't get rid of the endangered species law earlier in the administration, so now they've just taken to driving right over it and forging ahead regardless. (Kinda like how hundreds of illegal aliens will soon be doing to their fence.) Also under fire from border fence construction: The clean water and air acts, and a few other federal laws created to uphold protections for our country, citizenry, and homeland. Why the fence again? To protect our country, citizenry, and homeland. Anyone else confused?

But I digress.... There's a little extra wait at the border, folks. On the bright side, it's a great opportunity to stare at the fence and contemplate the issues.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Citizen Science: Great Backyard Bird Count

Who: You. Ya, you.

What: The annual Great Backyard Bird Count

Where: Your backyard. Duh.

When: Feb. 15th (this Friday) through Feb. 19th. Participate in one or all four days -- your choice.

Why: Because you're smarter than you think, and we have more backyards than ornithologists.

Bird experts are salivating for you to tell them what you've got, how many, and when. Doing so will supplement information on bird species gathered from the annual Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Count, and frame a better picture for ranges and movement patterns among birds. Tracking species occurrences and habitat usage (urban vs. rural, for example) provides information about natural or unnatural fluctuations in bird populations and, therefore, in our environment. These bird counts also enhance our understanding of how major shake-ups in the natural environment - such as those caused by global warming and widespread development - are impacting birds. Any information is good information , whether you have natives or invasives, ten birds or none.

Just click on the link above. Go for it... Embrace your inner scientist for fifteen minutes and participate in a program that you, and no one else, is an expert on: your backyard. You'll feel better for doing it, promise.

Free online bird ID with maps, pictures, descriptions, etc.:
USGS Patuxent Bird Identification Info Center

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Post from the Deck

In spite of living in the snowbird region of the United States, I rarely get out to hike anymore on these sunny winter days. That may change, but for now my nature fixes come from time spent on my deck. And what a deck it is!! A voluptuous backdrop to my view: a butte, covered in desert plants, maybe 250' high. Below it, a long and narrow green belt that begins to pitter out just where my deck begins. Completing the trio: a watering hole that lies immediately below. In a climate where water is gold, it cajoles life from far and wide to come and drink.

Most of the wildlife I see comes in a constant trickle -- morning, day and night -- from the greenbelt, the "jungle". It's like a gondola in there. Under the tiny-leaved desert trees and below brittle desert bushes, hiding inside hollowed out grey trunks and deeply dug ground burrows they take refuge: javelina, coyotes, a great horned owl and his daytime niche-mate the red-tailed hawk, hoards of cream-colored ground squirrels, scorpions, warblers, the occasional giant jack rabbit, and the surreptitious roadrunner, among many, many others. All of this lies within the confines of a major metropolitan area, surrounded by miles of blacktop.

I come out here to work, but things rarely get done. With the courtship and calls of early spring in full swing, today was particularly unproductive (for the human). My favorite: the resident roadrunner. Today he had a tree lizard dangling haphazardly out both sides of his bill. He eyed me for a bit, I eyed him, and then we both continued on (me with my keyboard, him with... more predating and courting). The Greater roadrunner is smaller than most people realize; Wiley Coyote's nemesis was freakishly large, and most people are shocked when they see the real thing. But one look at their surreptitious movements tells you roadrunners are every bit as calculating as the cartoon version, and certainly as cool. The Greater roadrunner cooing call, used in courtship, is the one I hear most often -- especially at this time of year. Imagine the clapping sound of shuffling cards, and then muffle it, reverberate it as only the syrinx of a bird can, and you get something akin to a roadrunner coo. I've also compared it to a mini version of something you might here in the movie Jurassic Park (and equally hair-raising). More than other birds, the roadrunner conjures to mind their distant dinosaur relatives.

It's hard not to be entranced and romanced into distraction by the desert life. Poor me.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Your six words

The ever-entertaining Bryant PArk Project on NPR aired a segment on a new book out: Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs By Famous and Obscure Writers. The written comments that followed were so entertaining I may have to check out the book. But it got me to thinking, as I am sure you already are: what would mine be? Here's a few of the less embarrassing I came up with...

  • Plans in disarray... Laughter in heart
  • A bug's life is also mine
  • Contemplating life change: concubine or professor?
  • Love child. Bred on Mom's birthday
  • Seeking male scientist: 30's, affectionate, brilliant
  • Six years left, then artificial insemination

Try it. Eerily, a theme begins to emerge. At the very least, they're each fodder for a pretty decent post.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The ABC's of IPM

Almost unbelievably, subterranean termite casts could be seen along vertical cracks in the concrete wall of the kitchen. An uncapped sewer pipe somewhere in the building walls was breeding drain flies, which were accumulating -- dead -- in a kitchen sink below an overhead air vent. A container of "insect (dust) killer" was found in the custodial closet, likely applied liberally and at-will in classrooms. Throughout the elementary school my entomology colleagues and I were inspecting, the list of uh-oh's and no-no's was a mile long.

I was on my side under a counter reaching for a long-since-forgotten insect monitoring trap covered in kitchen grease, dead geckos, and insect feces. Jada was holding a flashlight and sat contorted around a floor drain apparently boasting its own flora and fauna. And my colleague, the biggest bug enthusiast among us, was picking black specks from a narrow space of floor between the refrigerator and wall, cradling them delicately in the folds of his big hands.

"Feces, we've got feces!" He shouted. It was like a cattle call. Stampede to the pest poo.

We three peered eagerly into his outstretched hand, like kids in a candy store. Jada eyed the black specs and whispered her deduction, "Tapered end.... sphincter. Mice. We've got mice!"

Some cockroaches have similar-looking poo as some mice, a quick tell between the two comes from the tapered end that mice produce. Cockroaches, along with other invertebrates, don't have anal sphincters as mammals do. ...Add that to the growing crib sheet, I thought. As an entomologist I already knew this of course, but outside the confines of a lab or classroom, wearing my pest inspection hat, bits of facts like this take on a whole new application, and are handy at-the-ready.

This is integrated pest management. Urban integrated pest management. It's purpose: to manage "bugs" (insects and their chitinous cousins), birds, weeds, and other unwelcome intruders in an eco-friendly way, relying first on non-chemical, practical methods and secondarily on least-toxic pesticides. Originally developed to manage agricultural pests, IPM today has a large and ever-growing contingency of entomologists and pest managers bringing the practice full form into our homes, offices, and schools. And I'm one of them. IPM is safe, effective, and works exceedingly well. And unlike the alternative, everyone has a part to play in the practice of it. As if all that weren't enough, IPM gives you bragging rights from knowing that your ecological footprint just got a little lighter.

We all know what the alternative looks like: when no one's around, the exterminator arrives to hose the place down and slap you with a bill. What IPM looks like is this: a bug geek crawling around on their belly to see the world from a bug's point of view, using sticky traps to piece together bug clues, drawing conclusions about the pest situation like a Sherlock Holmes murder mystery, and educating you about what pests are present, where they're occurring, and how they might have gotten there (i.e. what's attracting them). The pest expert will have a plan of action ready to propose, and it will likely involve you doing (or stop doing, in some cases) one or two very simple things to help discourage the bugs for good. Problem solved. Alternatively, you can continue with the "traditional" spray-and-pray approach... And you know, that method is working so darned well that, shoot, people always seem inclined to ask them back the next month to do it again. IPM or spray-and-pray? Tough choice. But people are slow to change, and as I mentioned in my Jan. 2 post, option "D" is still more prevalent. This baffles me, but that's a topic for another post.

IPM works because the techniques to deal with pests are based on known aspects of their ecology (behavior, life cycle, food, etc.). Solving bug problems with IPM methods hinges on the cardinal rules governing a bug's life: survive and reproduce (not unlike college frat boys). This is science-speak for food, water, shelter and sex. Pretty straight forward. So it's rare to come across a bug problem that is anything other than readily definable and fixable. People, on the other hand, pose much more of a roadblock. Try getting a teacher to regulate classroom food, or a kitchen manager to keep corrugated cardboard (aka roach airlines) out of the pantry. Try convincing the custodial staff to hang their mops and brooms, or atleast prop them head-up, or a busy principal to enforce IPM-friendly habits among their staff. Good luck! Honorable and overloaded, these folks are nevertheless tough to sell on the idea that everyone in a school has a role in IPM. It's not another job, we tell them; it's the same job done a little different.


So to finish my story... Within two days of the elementary school's inspection, we produced a comprehensive report to the district administration and school principal identifying the pest issues alongside simple (cheap!) IPM solutions to each. 99% of their pest problems (and solutions) were in the hands of the school's various staff. The school had an awesomely proactive principal, and enthusiastic implementation of our ideas began almost immediately. But to the school district admin., the concept was nebulous. They limped along with the idea of going district-wide for less than half a year, and eventually backlogged it into ambivalence. We failed, pure and simple. We failed to connect with someone at a district level, someone with the power and pull to say "go!" and thereby positively impact the health of hundreds of students and staff. We failed to sell IPM for the long term cost-savings it brings, the energy-saving perks it offers, and the pest-reduction benefits it's so well known for. Or simply as "the right thing to do" for its own sake.

As entomologists, we nailed the bug problems. But in this particular case we failed at the "integrated" in integrated pest management.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Sound off

The fewer the voices on the side of truth, the more
distinct and strong must be your own
-William Ellery Channing

...the more distinct and strong must be your own. If Channing were a zealot, he could have made this quote from the far left or the far right with equal conviction. Clearly, people are destined to disagree - and that's not an unhealthy thing. Even when stances are polar opposite, our self-made soapboxes were fashioned out of the same materials, using the same laws of physics, to support the fundamentally same belief - that our position is the just one. Of course, world events of today are a clear reminder that we can't ALL be right! Right? By the way, I have no idea who Channing is or what he stands for. That, too, seems to serve my point though. (I found this quote in my day planner, Jan. 26th's "daily dose of wisdom".)

This preamble is a gentle reminder to myself: tread smartly on your convictions, avoid becoming too entrenched. That's good stuff, and I'm glad I got it out there. (Self-congratulatory pat on the back.) Because now I'm throwing most of it out the window, and cannonballing into the domain I know so well: self-righteous opinions and the science to back it up. Boo-yah, woo hoo! Ahem.

My post from last month (Jan 23rd) touched on a topic that I've been itching to follow through on: pest management. For a lot of people, a dead bug is the best kind. In their backyard, in the park, wherever. To them I say hit the road, come back without earmuffs. To everyone else... When you see a "bug" in your home (ant, cockroach, spider, or in my current neck of the woods a scorpion) you likely do one or more of the following:

A. Scream and leave the room, hoping it goes away;
B. Grab a can of something - Pam, WD-40, Raid, anything - and spray the sucker until it crumples into a pile of goo;
C. Smash it with a shoe or paper towel, and perhaps contemplate how it got in;
D. Call an exterminator or other "expert" to come out and "address the problem"

In my experience, and I'm speaking in terms of my geographic area, the majority of people do D. They might do C, too, but D is usually used to punctuate the problem - especially if it's an ongoing pest issue or one of many intermittent ones. So what's the problem with D? Let me just first say, I am not advocating sleeping with the creepy crawlies (any more than a single woman has to these days). The "bugs" have their place, and it is not in a home, office, or school setting. This is especially true if there are infants, children, elderly, or otherwise immobilized people around. We shouldn't have to stand by and be invaded... The bugs need to stay out. Action must be taken! I think that last bit just about captures the emotions expressed by a recent group of homeowners battling long standing scorpion issues. Yes, action must be taken. On this point we are all (with rare exception) agreed: professional pest managers, entomologists, public health proponents, urban environmental health advocates, and of course, the homeowner-slash-school principal-slash-office worker. The point at which we all begin to deviate and invoke the Channing quote comes when deciding on which action(s) to take for dealing with these critters. And I take issue with D (note link).

So what's legal? What's safe? What's sane? And, of course, what's effective?

This is where my job gets really interesting.