Saturday, August 30, 2008

S&T in the 2008 Campaign

Scientists and Engineers for America just announced that Barack Obama has responded to their technology policy questionnaire. Take a look at their site for a very detailed look at how Obama would approach science and technology under his administration.

John McCain has so far not responded to SEA's questionnaire. However, recent items on the web point out that Palin is in favor of teaching creationism in schools and does not favor Federal funding for stem cell research.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Valle Grande Crop Circles

Kent, Ric, and I went up to the Valles Caldera National Preserve yesterday (23 Aug) and had a splendid time.

While circumnavigating Cerro la Jara, we came across indisputable evidence of extraterrestrial visitations: crop circles. See photo above. About 4' in diameter, we came across these three first. Within a hundred yards we found dozens more.

Actually, these are elk "beds," areas where elk have bedded down for the night. During our visit there was a large herd of perhaps 200 elk further out in the middle of the caldera. With binoculars or Kent's 600 mm lens one could see the big bulls acting as guards around the perimeter of the herd.

The Valle Grande and its surrounding smaller valleys are the remnants of a volcanic uplift that collapsed a million or so years ago. The dramatic grasslands outline what was once a lake, much like Crater Lake in Oregon. 11,000 years ago the East Fork of the Jemez River cut into the lake via headwall erosion and drained the caldera.

Until 2000, the Valle Grande was within Baca Location Number One, a large private ranch. Cattle and lumber industries took their toll on the land. But at the turn of the millenium, it came into government hands for everyone to enjoy.

Today the Valles Caldera is an experiment in land-use management. As a "National Preserve" it is unlike any other BLM, Forest Service, or Park Service unit. Their aim is to be economically self-sufficient by 2015. At the moment they are at 20%.

So if you're in northern NM, take the time to drive up into the beautiful Jemez Mountains and visit this unique and special place. Many of the remote hikes require advanced reservations and a scheduled van will take hikers to and from the trail head. Although that seems an awkward restriction on the freedom hikers and anglers typically enjoy, its worth the effort. There are at least three short hikes that don't require reservations and they are very worthwhile.

The Valles Caldera website needs reworking for usability, but if you persist with it, you'll be able to make your reservation. One drawback is the online maps that show the locations of the hikes--they don't show the larger context within the entire preserve. Unless you're a local, you won't have much of an idea of what you are signing up for. This may improve when they get their dynamic maps up and running. Contact this blogger if you would like more details on specific areas.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Running Down a Roadrunner

This morning on my way to do some errands, I saw our neighborhood roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) making his rounds. I'm fairly sure this is a young bird; I've only seen him around for the last few months. Unfortunately, he was hopping awkwardly and holding one foot oddly. I grabbed the handy phone and called my sister-in-law the founder of and veterinarian at the New Mexico Wildlife Center for advice.

From there I was referred to Shirley Kendall the resident Albuquerque roadrunner paramedic. Basically, the trick is to take a sheet, throw it over the bird, go in under the sheet with your hands and grab the beast. Then put it in box with a lid for transport to the wildlife medical experts.

For those of you who have never met a roadrunner, they are fascinating birds--extremely fleet of feet and, somewhat like a pheasant, capable of bursts of flight. They also have a 2" beak that can dispatch rattle snakes. I was more than a little hesitant to go mano-a-mano with the bird and its bill until Jack Kendall reassured me that they only used them on lizards and snakes, not humans.

The neighbor's boy Connor volunteered to help and we set off with a blue sheet and a banker's box. We found the bird straight away just at the end of the cul de sac and implemented our strategy. That strategy consisted primarily of keeping the bird from getting into someone's backyard where it would be almost impossible to follow.

The first thing we learned is that a road runner with one broken leg can hop faster than a human, even a very fit 14 year old, can run. He literally left us in the dust. Our only hope was to come at him from two directions and surround him.

It led us across the street into a Euonymus hedge, up into a Ponderosa pine, across an 8" courtyard wall, and very nearly over a fence. Connor deftly out flanked the bird and chased him back into the front yards. Whenever we thought we had him cornered, he'd escape using some narrow gap in our two-man perimeter.

It was only when Connor's father Joe arrived that we started to make better progress. Essentially, we wore the fellow out. It led us on a merry chase (I'm sure that with an injured leg, it wasn't merry for him). At one point it dashed into a sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri) and Joe was able to throw the sheet over the entire plant. The three of us anchored the edges and then I blindly groped under the edge to find the poor guy.

He or she weighed almost nothing, maybe 8-12 oz. I didn't want to further traumatize the bird by inspecting the leg, so we just placed him carefully in our box, where I allowed myself one photo. Connor and I drove up to the Taco Bell on 4th St and did the handoff to Jack, today's on-call animal ambulance driver.

By now our roadrunner is Shirley's capable hands and with luck the leg can be repaired. After all, the road runner is our state bird.

Stay tuned for further medical updates.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Humming in the Morning

Its 6:21 AM, the sky is opalescent, and its 63 degrees. Despite clear skies, its windy--15 mph with stiff gusts probably up to 30. So what is that hummingbird doing trying to get a sip of nectar from a wildly waving Agastache?

Here in Albuquerque we're at 35 N and 106 W. Its the 35 degrees north latitude that is making the difference. We're about 35 days from the autumnal equinox and the sun is almost 14 degrees north of the equator. That means we have 13 hours and 25 minutes of daylight today.

More importantly to our friendly hummingbird outside my window, we have 10:35 of darkness. That's down from 14:31 or more than 27% since the solstice. And that's 10:35 hours without food for a metabolism that's running 100 miles per hour.

Now of that 10+ hours of darkness, not all of it is really dark. Geoclock, the little program that does such a splendid job of charting and mapping the movement of the sun and move over the Earth, lets me set a variable for twilight. Why, do you ask, is twilight a variable?

There are three definitions of twilight: civil, nautical, and astronomical. Civil twilight is defined as the sun being less than 6 degrees below the horizon. Nautical twilight has the sun less than 12 degrees down and astronomical twilight has the sun less than 18 degrees beneath the horizon. That means there's still a good bit of light around although the sun might be well below the horizon.

The chart above shows civil twilight as a function of date and latitude. On August 16 at 35 N we have almost 15 minutes of twilight. That's an extra 5% of flight time each day for our hungry hummer, who has spent the night in a torpor to reduce metabolism.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Hibiscus Synchronism

This month has seen the Crocosmia come and go, the Agastache kick into overdrive, and the beginning of the Hibiscus blooms. The Hibiscus blossums are huge--over 20 cm (8") in diameter. Over the past two weeks they've grown more numerous but somewhat smaller.

Interestingly, there are three plants--one in full sun, one in partial shade, and one of a different variety. None-the-less, all three opened their first blooms within 24 hours of each other on July 24-25.

At first one would think photoperiod or other external driver, but a neighbor about a half mile away had his (in full sun) open a couple weeks ago. I'm thinking that these three plants are sharing signals, possibly airborne but more likely subterranean. The moist mulch of this garden has had its share of mushrooms and other fungi this season, including a slime mold. I am suspicious of mycchorizal interconnections and the inter-plant transmission of a blooming trigger.

Below you can see the odd man out, the different variety with its more rugous petals and purplish leaves. Compare with the bright green leaves in the background. This is almost certainly due to more anthocyanins adding a purple tint to the leaves and even a bit to the flowers themselves.