Thursday, April 30, 2009

Empty Nest Syndrome

Leaving the nest is Science. Remember the Robin's eggs hatched on April 17. Thirteen days later, the babies have flown the coop.

I saw all three, but could only photograph two. Now the journey begins. Remember I mentioned a mortality rate of about 80% for Robins. I saw a stray cat in the backyard this morning, just after I took these pictures. The cat was no where near these guys, though. Still, danger lurks.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Robins on the Attack

Robins protecting their young is Science.

These are not the best pictures, but this is what I have to deal with when taking pictures of the babies. She comes right at me.

If these were Blue Jays I would be wearing a hard hat because I have dealt with them before and they will strike you. The Robins are not quite as aggressive.

She's doing a good job. So far the babies are safe and growing like weeds.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Recycle this

Rethinking Recycling is Science. I don't mean, stop recycling. But lets look at where the trash comes from.

In the top circle, Gross National Trash, notice that only 2.5% comes from municipal solid waste. Most, 76%, comes from industrial waste.

Look at the bottom circle. What do you recycle? Paper? Some plastics? Yard trimmings? Even if we recycled 100% of the waste we generate in our homes, it would still just be a fraction of the waste that is generated in the country.

So, we need to focus on making sure we support companies that work to reduce waste, and encourage all industries to do better.

This article from Mother Jones, via my cousin at Niches, explains it all.

Whose waste do you think is more damaging to the environment. The neighbor's yard clippings and newspapers or the waste generated by the Mercedes Plant? Now don't get all over me for picking on Mercedes, I just used them because they are close by and big.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Robins of Power

Growth rates are science.

Baby robins and most other birds grow fast. These guys are getting feathers and their eyes are open and they will flying the coop within a few days.

My pictures are not as good, but of course my robins are 12 feet up in the air and hard to get to, but outside the White House Press room is a nest, and this photo by Ron Edmonds of the AP shows one of the babies being fed a worm. Ron has primo photo equipment, I am sure.

Earth, the movie, is science. Speaking of birds taking their first steps, or flights, did you see Earth, the movie? We saw it this weekend and the baby ducklings jumping from the tree to the ground was great.

I give the movie 5 stars because it reminded me of watching Disney on Sunday nights on a black and white TV when I was growing up. But the shots in this movie far surpassed the nature scenes of 50 years ago. The New Guinea Birds of paradise were unbelievable, as was the "circle of life" footage. Not all nature stories have happy endings (at least for the prey, the hunter seems pretty satisfied).

And on Earth Day 2010, Oceans will premiere.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Plants and Animals

Behavior is Science. When I climb on the ladder to get a picture these baby Robins now open their mouths wide thinking Momma is here with food.

But when Momma and Daddy Robin notice I am there and start squawking the babies shut their mouths and flatten out so the supposed predator might not notice them.

Medicinal plants are science.

Foxglove is Digitalis purpurea and is the plant from which some cardiac glycosides such as digitoxin and digoxin are derived.

Roses that change color are Science. Mutabilis is a rose from prior to 1894 (about the same age as our house). It opens a peachy yellow, changes each day, first to a light pink and then to a dark pink. The change is caused by sunlight acting on the pigments. The fragrance changes daily too.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day

Earth Day is Science. Today is Earth Day. Read my essay on Human Responsibility As Part of God's Creation if you haven't already.

See the movie Earth. Here's the trailer.

I've been trying to get pictures of the baby robins and they all turned out fuzzy, then I realized that the babies are fuzzy.

Daddy Robin was not happy with me hanging around for so long, and tried to distract me. What was very interesting was that as Momma and Daddy Robin were calling to lure me away from the nest, a male cardinal showed up to assist. I guess they feel they were successful, because I went on about my business in another area of the yard.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Big Momma

Protecting kids is science. Well at least protecting baby robins is. During the storm yesterday momma robin stayed on the nest, and spread herself into a wide bodied robin to keep her babies dry. She covered the entire nest.

After the storm (between storms, I should say) when the sun came out for a few minutes, momma robin left the nest to go find worms. The babies were dry and safe from harm (but not from a marauding photographer).

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Hatching is Science. Yesterday I noticed poppa Robin on the nest with momma Robin. If you look closely, you can see two birds in the picture. Momma's sitting and Poppa is behind her.

I thought he was just bringing her some food (they did exhibit some beak to beak action) but his interest may have gone beyond that. The eggs hatched yesterday, two days earlier than I predicted. Here two have hatched and there is one egg that has a hole in it and the baby inside can be seen.

Later all three eggs had hatched and now they are hungry. They are pretty much all beak and eyes at this point (though their eyes are not open). I can't get a picture looking straight down into the nest because of the way it sits in the Camellia bush, so one hungry mouth is all we see.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Jonesboro Community Garden

Community Gardens are Science. Education about nature and gardening, the public health aspects of gardening and of feeding the community. Yes, that is science.

Community Gardens come in many forms. Some are planted just to enjoy, others are planted to provide food, and others are planted to be educational. The Jonesboro Garden will meet all three of those purposes. We are getting there.

Near the garden a family of doves is in the making. The momma dove lays two eggs in a loosely constructed nest of twigs. Later the baby doves will be fed partially digested regurgitated food called "pigeon milk."

This rose (Rosa multiflora) which lines the alley would be considered a pest in some areas, but here (at least in my opinion) it is a welcome early bloomer.

This rose can be distinguished from similar species by the fringed stipules at the leaf petiole base.

Coreopsis is growing and blooming in an opportune place along an alleyway.

Inside the garden this rose is Zephirine Drouhin, an old Bourbon rose climber from 1868. It is one of the most fragrant roses, but to enjoy the fragrance you will have to get on your knees for now. It won't take long for the vine to grow up on the structure it is planted next to, however. This rose is thornless, and will provide repeat blooms all season (once established) after a flurry of early spring blooms.

A nice surprise for us was this growth from a weeping willow that we planted and that we later thought had died. Now there is new growth, and it will probably grow pretty fast. We will stake it up soon.

There are also raised boxes for community members to plant vegetables. Last year there were sunflowers, squash, tomatoes, corn and more. These are sitting empty so far.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What Males Do

What anoles do is Science.

I know you all think I just sit around taking pictures of lizards and flowers, but really I don't. I just walked out the back door yesterday, and here was this guy, showing his stuff, like the males of so many species do (humans included).

The males are highly territorial. The dewlap, or "throat fan" is extended when approached by another male or if he feels threatened. They bob their head up and down and if the other male continues to advance, a battle may occur.

Humans are so lizard like in this respect. But, if I get into that, my natural science becomes more social science, so I will let it rest.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Robin's Dark Secret

Viral Transmission is Science. I said before that Robins are not your innocent backyard birds, and while we are waiting on the blessed event, expected Sunday, I will share with you the dark secret of the Robin.

It seems that they are heavily involved in the spread of West Nile Virus. CDC West Nile info

People are infected with the West Nile virus after being bitten by an infected mosquito. Mosquitoes become infected after taking a blood meal from an infected bird. The virus gets into the bird's salivary glands, and when the mosquito takes a blood meal from a human, say, flipping burgers on the grill in the backyard, the virus is injected into a person.

Now before you barricade yourself inside...even in areas where the disease is spreading, very few mosquitoes carry it and even if an infected mosquito bites there is less than a 1% chance of the person getting the disease and becoming seriously ill.

Look at how the virus spread. Here is the incident map from 1999.

Incident map from 2000. The disease spread fairly slowly that first year.

Incident map of 2001. The disease, while not very prevalent, occurred over a much greater area, including our area of Alabama.

Incident map of 2002. Boom. An explosion of cases across the country.

Here is the 2008 West Nile activity map, with human case numbers for each state. Notice Alabama had 21 cases.

So what is the Robin's role? It turns out that Robin's are one of the preferred birds for the mosquitoes to feed on.

Not all mosquitoes carry West Nile. Culex mosquitoes are the principle transmitter of West Nile. Culex pipiens is a common mosquito around here. In a 2006 study , researchers found that while robins were less than 4% of the birds in the areas of study, they accounted for 43.4% of mosquito feedings. the researchers found that the virus does well in Robins, and determined that Robins may account for more than 50% of infected mosquitoes. This is important for humans because Robins arrive earlier than many birds, thus epidemics can start earlier in the year. And if Robins leave, the mosquitoes then turn to humans for their food, thus spreading the virus.

Listen to to NPR's "All Things Considered" 2006 report on Robins and West Nile.

But even though Robins hold this dark secret, they are not the bad guys. As long as they are in your backyard, the mosquitoes are less likely to bite you.

To avoid mosquito bites:

Use repellents with DEET, picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus.

Wear long sleeves and pants when outdoors. Mosquitoes can bite through thin clothing, so spray the clothing with repellent as well.

Be aware that dusk to dawn are the mosquito's favorite feeding hours.

To reduce mosquitoes:

Drain standing water. Flower pot saucers, bird baths, pet water dishes, buckets and any other container should be emptied and changed at least once or twice a week to interrupt the mosquito life cycle.

Install or repair window screens.

Clean up the neighborhood. Alleys, parks and vacant lots can have containers that hold water and allow mosquitoes to breed.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gravity Waves

Gravity Waves are Science. Uncommon, but science. I remember we had this happen back in the late 90's when I lived on the edge of Shades Mountain and we thought we were going to blow off the crest.

The National Weather Service gives this definition:

Gravity Wave
A wave created by the action of gravity on density variations in the stratified atmosphere. A generic classification for lee waves, mountains waves, and many other waves that form in the atmosphere .

Here is a video of such an occurrence.

What happens is there is a large area of rain, a thunderstorm. On the back side of the storm, some drying occurs in the middle layers of the atmosphere. An updraft of air occurs and this disturbs the atmosphere. The air runs into a stable air mass and is redirected downward. When those winds near the surface, they spread out, producing the high winds that cause the damage.

Gravity waves can really be serious when they occur in conjunction with a tornado. In April 1998, the tornado that caused so much damage and killed 32 people in and around Oak Grove near Birmingham was a relatively weak tornado until it was hit by an undular bore, a type of gravity wave, which amplified it into an F5 killer.

Gravity waves are difficult to predict. The damage can be substantial. Many people had it worse than us, we just had a neighbor's tree fall into our yard.

But another neighbor had this happen. Remarkably, there is minimal damage to the house.

Monday, April 13, 2009


Habits of anoles (and herpetology students) are science. I can't exactly claim that riding on the hoods of cars is habitual for anoles, but something told him to leap up on the front of the car, unknown to us. These pictures, from inside the vehicle, were taken about 9 blocks from our home, when a green anole, Anolis carolinensis, popped up onto a windshield wiper. I assume he had hitched a ride from home.

My hope was that he would stay on the car (he disappeared under the edge of the hood when we resumed travelling) until we got home. Of course that would mean staying put while we ate lunch at Popeye's.
When we got home I found him, brown by that time, squeezed into a cranny of the wiper apparatus. I prodded him out with a twig and got him over to the fence, where he belonged.

I wonder what he told his buddies.

Riding on the hoods of cars was habitual for students of Dr. Robert Mount at Auburn. Dr. Mount was my professor at Auburn for some herpetology instruction. Part of our training involved capturing and identifying various species of reptiles and amphibians, and one of the best ways to catch certain salamanders was to drive slowly along country roads at night, while a student or two sat on the hood looking for critters crossing the road. (Why does the salamander cross the road?) Frogs are sometimes captured this way as well.

From Dr. Mount's book, The Reptiles & Amphibians of Alabama:

"Salamanders of the amphibian variety are secretive in habit and are most often found in damp places under logs, rocks, or in piles of debris. On wet nights they move about in the open and may be spotted with a light."

We took "open" to mean "open road" and "light" to mean "headlight".

Some salamanders such as the spotted salamander prefer temporary woodland ponds and other flooded areas for breeding. Often these are beside the roads, so we assume the salamanders are crossing the roads in search of a love pond.

Anyone up for a hunt?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Columbine (the flower)

Incubation is science. Ms. Robin seems to have stopped at three eggs, as there has been no change since Saturday. Sunday she was spending more time on the nest, so possibly incubation began then.

That would put hatching to be expected on 4-19-09.

Momma keeps the eggs warm from her own body temperature. A robins's body temperature is 104F. Feathers insulate her body and keep the heat in, so to keep the eggs warm, the feathers on her belly fall out creating a "brood patch" of bare skin.

Picture credit Bill Hinton, Jr.

You would notice if you watched Ms. Robin return to the nest that she might turn the eggs with her beak and then when she sits she wiggles around a bit to get the brood patch exposed and making contact with the eggs in just the right way.

Receptors in the brood patch allow the bird to monitor the egg temperature and she will adjust her incubation accordingly. Pretty neat, huh?

Columbine is Science. If you have followed my other blog in the past years you know that Columbine is one of my favorite flowers. The wild variety, Aquilegia canadensis, is common in our yard, and possibly in the woods nearby, but more likely north of here and into Canada.

The European Columbine, A. vulgaris, is nice also, and is common in our yard. I suspect the former owner of the house, who was very cosmopolitan, they say, introduced these. They come in several colors and the pink ones are what we have.

They are tall and just dance in the wind. They might be doing the jitterbug this afternoon, from the looks of the weather report.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Dr. Susan Solomon

Southeast cooling is science.

Dr. Susan Solomon gave a wonderful informative presentation last night at the UAB 2009 Ireland Distinguished Visiting Scholar Lecture last night. Dr. Solomon was very complimentary toward the city and the University for our supposed interest and understanding of the issue of climate change.

I really feel it is a privilege to hear such a renowned person speak on the subject.

One thing she said that surprised a lot of people is that there are areas of the world where cooling is taking place. The south east United States is one. South of Greenland is another. Look at this map, which shows trends from 1901 to 2005. This may or may not be the same map she showed, but it shows the same thing. The blue areas indicate a cooling trend. The reason, she suspects, for the cooling in the south east is due to the re-forestation of so much land. And warming in the south east will catch up over the next few decades.

Picture credit IPCC

But the little blue spots are surrounded by the big red areas. Sort of like Jefferson County. Sort of like...

But there I go, getting political.

I don't really have room or time to put forth an argument that climate change is real and is influenced by the actions of man. People who do not recognize this are just either dumb, don't care to look at facts, want the world do die or are looking to make a buck.

Like Dr. Solomon says, though, this is not a political issue, and we need to separate what we believe from what we know. That's why you just find the facts of science here. And the fact is, global temperatures are rising. Look at the last 150 years. See a trend?

As Dr. Solomon pointed out, there are many anecdotal facts about weather and temperature that are used to deny science, but while they may be true, they are not relevant. Climate change is not about weather, it's not about what happens this year and next.

It's about trends.