Saturday, March 30, 2013

Turdus migratorius (backyard Robins)

This is not a Robin
How the ordinary can be missed...

Winter is over and I’m delighted to report it’s warm enough to sleep with my window open! My island in the Pacific is temperate, not tropical, so spring warmth is always welcome. With the window open, the first and last thing I hear each day is singing birds.

This time of year, Robins are the ones singing. Around here we don’t have the dainty European ones (they were introduced about in the early 1900s, but didn’t take like the starlings and house sparrows did). Instead, we have a member of the thrush family, Turdus migratorius or American Robin. I’ve read that robins go through puberty once a year (article here) as hours of daylight increase. By this time of year they’re looking for a mate and the search is a noisy affair.

While I was out walking around a local bog, Red-wing Blackbirds were conducting a similar noisy quest as the robins. I heard the blackbirds long before seeing them, a feat my walking companion took to mean I’m an expert on birds. I’m not. Red-wing Blackbirds and Robins are the a few bird calls I recognize (Bald Eagles are another - majestic bird, ridiculous sound). We couldn’t see the birds at first, so we stopped and gazed out into the bog. Eventually, between the dried cattails, we saw flashes of fire-engine* red as the males jockeyed to catch the eye of the females.

I do purposely go out to see birds, but unintentionally I do it poorly. I have a bird identification book and binoculars, which I almost always forget to take with me. I have a check list for local birds that I’m filling out, yet I can’t tell the difference between different species of gulls. I’m a member of the local natural history society and they regularly do outings to watch birds, yet I’ve never gone with them.

There is always at least one Robin in my backyard, so I don’t have to go out of my way to see them. Unlike the Resplendent Quetzal, a bird I traipsed through the jungle in Costa Rica to see, the ubiquitous Robin is easy to ignore. They lack the iridescent green body and brilliant red breast of the quetzal. Even the flashy red wings of blackbirds eclipse a robin’s colouring. A Robin’s breast is the same shade of the liquid that seeps out of a bucket of nails left in the rain. Additionally, most Robin’s wings droop just a bit, giving them a goofy look which is augmented by the bird’s tendency to endlessly pursue their reflection in a window.

Soon, the Robins will sort out who to mate with and the songs will fade. Fragments of delicate blue egg shells will be discarded as the next generation of ordinary Robins are hatched. From my desk, I can watch a Robin bounce over the ground, stop and tug an earthworm out of the ground, a comical procedure. As the bird flies away with a worm in its beak, I’m always left wondering how does the Robin know the worm is there?

* actually, around here, most of the fire-engines are yellow.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

How I work

a page out of my messy notebook
an even messier page
I’ve been thinking about how I work - be it my writing or scientific work (which tend to be offshoots of the same thing as the tangents here are often of stuff that don’t fit with my science). When I started my current project I made an effort not to work the same way as I did with my previous project. I wanted to be more deliberate and structured - basically, I wanted to work from a plan.

I like structure and I like thinking about how to apply structures to my work. I do this with most projects I work on, even my garden has a carefully thought out structure which starts as sketches in one of my notebooks. Structure is form of a plan which allows me to put separate pieces together and not miss anything.

One of the things that stuck with me from my army days was having a plan. At the very least by having a plan, I have a place to write my changes on. It gives a place to start and can be shared with others. When I go out and do field work, I always have a plan. Things may not go according to the plan, and that’s okay. Sometimes deviating from a plan when an opportunity arises can create better results. Or, if things aren’t going well, I can quickly determine what’s important to my grand scheme and what isn’t and can be canceled.

For the thinking/analyzing work I do when I get home, I don’t see how a straight forward plan would work as I’m looking at data that has never been seen before. I worked somewhat aimlessly on a previous project, which resulted in me taking more time that I would have liked. For my current project, I try to work within a structure based on notes. I’m trying (hopefully successfully) to combine the new things I find with other work to create a story worth telling - not analyze every piece of data with every possible analytical tool.

I’ve been following note keeping ideas from Organizing Creativity (he seems to have really thought about how to work and many of his ideas work well for me). I keep multiple Circus Ponies notebooks that are annotated and organized. The outline of the paper I’m currently working on has been assembled from these electronic notebooks. But, I don’t start electronically (perhaps I’m a luddite).

I find that I need to physically write things down to internalize them. Plus, keeping notes prevents me from skimming the source material since academic papers tend to be very dry reading. As I read, ideas often pop into my head which I write down with a different coloured pen. Since, I like to make visual connections between ideas, my notebooks are littered with diagrams and mind maps.

Keeping physical notes allows me to get away from screens for a time, which is good for me (there is plenty of current research that shows sitting in front of a screen all day isn’t the best for your health). I haven’t figured out how to juggle reading a paper and having a laptop on my lap while sitting in my comfy chair. Yes, I could read the paper on an electronic device, I’m just not that technically advanced nor do I have the will to be. Sitting away from my computer for a time works for me.

My written notes all get transcribed into an electronic form. This may seem time consuming, but I find it gives me the opportunity to rethink some of my ideas and remind me of important details in other work.

Since, I think about how I work, over time I’m likely to change my working habits. I doubt there is a magic working method that I won’t evolve over time.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Waves in the Ocean - redone

A photo of waves taken from the safety of the shore
Some time back, I wrote about how, once you are out of sight of the shore, waves in the ocean look the same at different heights (original post is here). I reworked the post, removing the helicopter scariness for the UVic Ocean Student Society's blog - find the post here.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Upside down grazers

possible alien world?
Imagine a world where animals graze on a surface of green extending above our heads. To me this sounds like a scene from a science fiction movie set on an alien world that requires ‘unabtainium’ or a ‘flux-vortex’ to exist. Yet, habitats like this exist on earth. The underside of sea ice is one (caves are probably another).

In the Arctic, the sun returns long before the ice melts. Since first year ice is relatively clear, sunlight can pass through. Algae takes advantage of this light and sets up shop on the bottom surface of the ice. A two-dimensional world is created in the normally three-dimensional euphotic zone.

Ice algae plays an important role at the base of the ecosystem. These algae blooms represent the beginning of the Arctic grazing season as no photosynthesis can occur during the long winter polar night. Since other phytoplankton are scarce this time of year, creatures flock to the icy roof for a meal. Diners include diatoms, protozoa, nematodes, copepods and others. Copepods in particular are a food source for bigger creatures and fish such Arctic cod. These fish are eaten by bigger fish, birds and marine mammals.

Light is critical for ice algae to thrive, so any snow covering the ice can have a negative impact. Too much snow and there won’t be enough light for the algae to grow. Additionally, particulates in the ice can block sunlight. A large mining or smelting operation could coat the ice in particles, blocking the algae’s light.

This ecosystem, like all others on our planet, will be impacted by climate change - and we don’t know exactly what the end result will be. Ice algae need the clearer first-year ice to grow. If warmer conditions made this ice melt sooner, the algae would sink and die. The grazers that depend on the algae would starve. On the sea floor, algae would decompose potentially creating anoxic conditions, a potentially fatal environment for bottom dwellers such as turbot, Greenland sharks and Arctic skate. Or, if warmer conditions result in less multiyear ice, potentially more first year ice could form. Ice algae would have more space to grow and more food could be available for all (assuming there was enough nutrients). 

Image is from here