Lark Sparrow

At least there is one sparrow that is always easy for us to identify.

The Lark Sparrow.

This large sparrow may be brown, but its harlequin facial pattern and white tail spots make it a standout among sparrows. Males sing a melodious jumble of churrs, buzzes, and trills reminiscent of an Old World lark. Their courtship is also unusual, involving a hopping and crouching display unlike other sparrows. Lark Sparrows occur in the West and the Great Plains in prairies, grasslands, and pastures with scattered shrubs. In winter, look for them in small flocks in brushy areas.

Getting a nice long look at Lark Sparrows always makes the long drive out to visit to the grasslands and prairies complete.

However on a more serious note, prairie and grassland birds and their habitats are perhaps the most threatened birds and ecosystems in North America. A recent article in Forbes, yes Forbes, brings this problem to light and how one major bird conservation group is working to address it.

Seeking Solutions: E-Butterfly

Yes it’s winter and for most of us in the Northern Hemisphere butterflies are few and far between this time of year. However summer will arrive soon enough and the skies will  once again graced with these butterflies large and small.

Butterflies are vital pollinators and their populations strongly affected by climate change. Research funding to study how climate change amongst other things effects butterflies is in short supply so researchers have created an online platform called E-Butterfly which allow individuals to log their butterfly sightings and photos into a database much like the platform E-Bird used by many in the birding community.

A recent interview with entomologist Kathleen Prudic the co-director of E-Butterfly was published in the Conversation. The data entered into E-Butterfly is used for numerous research projects including butterfly conservation and much like the data used on E-Bird can be used to visualize the migration of several butterfly species. E-Butterfly also contains informative articles any butterfly enthusiast would find interesting to read. It is a great way for us all to get involved in conservation and another addition to the ever expanding role of citizen science in conservation research.

Browsing the site is a fine way to spend a minute or two on a dreary winter day.

And for more information on Citizen Science visit Citizen Science. org

Statistic of the decade

As this decade comes to a close we ran across an interesting statistic produced by the Royal Statistical Society in the UK. In fact it was the societies statistic of the decade and one that is nothing to write home about-deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

The estimated accumulated deforestation of the Amazon being equivalent to around 8.4 million football pitches or about 24,000 square miles. In a decade!

A recent article in the Conversation provides further insight into this statistic describing some of the more obvious consequences of this deforestation and rebutting arguments that conversion of the rainforest to ranching, resource extraction and farming is required for economic benefits of nations and the people within those nations. In fact there is data to suggest that if left alone the economic benefits of the amazon rainforest outweigh its destruction for short-term profits. However, another recent article suggests the worst is yet to come in the deforestation of the Amazon. With the cost of  reforestation at over $2,000 an acre cost alone, not to mention political forces, make restoration less likely day by day.rae_8

The amazon rainforest has been called the lungs of the earth breathing in carbon dioxide and stabilizing the earth’s climate and exhaling oxygen-oxygen that fuels life animal life in all its myriad forms.

  • One in ten known species on our planet including over 2,000 species of animals and probably more plant species than can be counted.
  • Half of the earths remaining tropical rain forests.
  • Over 4,000 river
  • Over 2.6 million square miles.

A grim statistic to have won the honor of statistic of the decade but one we ought to heed as we move forward into the next.

It is hard to appreciate this fact for us living far from the Amazon in places already striped of natural landscapes.  However, when we drive past a once fertile farm field just down the road now being plowed over for a new round of strip malls we get an inkling of what the future holds. A planet impoverished for the enrichment of a few, until it all falls apart.

Perhaps the statistic of the next decade in 2030 will something like this “the decade humanity work together to solve the climate crisis for the good of all”.I know it’s not really a statistic but we will be able to quantify the results and turn that into the next statistic of the decade.


Success Stories: National Geographic

More good news stories for 2019 this time from National Geographic in an article titled “Wildlife wins: 7 good-news stories from 2019“. The article begins with an all to often heard hours of

Optimism can be in short supply when it comes to wildlife and conservation.

Going on describe several events that are disconcerting to those who consider conservation a worthy cause including the following events:

Masai giraffes were declared endangered, fires in the Amazon devastated jaguars, turtles, and other wildlife, and cheetah researchers accused of spying were sentenced to years in prison in Iran. Demand for wildlife and wildlife products—such as pet turtles, lion bone, and shatoosh, scarves made from the fleece of rare Tibetan antelopes—is thought to be on the rise”

Conversely and giving us a bit of hope the main focus of the article presents several key victories in the conservation of species and preservation of wildlife around the globe. Another article that both gives hope yet points that there is still no reason take pause in the fight for conservation of non-human life on the planet.

Success stories: Audubon Society

While this past year has felt like one negative story after another with respect to environmental and conservation news there are successes to be recognized and accomplishments lauded.

The national Audubon Society recently published a list of their success stories for this year that will bring a little cheer to a birders holiday season.

Successes occurred on numerous fronts including clean energy projects, local conservation measures, increasing awareness for endangered bird species, protection of habitats and several others all of which are detailed here.

For me the Audubon report entitled “Survival by Degrees” will stand out as a crowning accomplishment. It is bringing widespread awareness to how climate change will endanger up to 389 bird species in North America and was widely reported on in the media.

Yes, there is good news to be found and reading it felt like a much needed gift from Santa himself.

Wishing you all a very Happy Holidays.

Rare is common?

Rare is common?

A recent report published in Science Advances suggests that up to 40% of plant species are actually very rare and these rare species are extremely vulnerable to extinction via climate change as well as destruction of native ecosystems for human land use.

In the introduction to the paper the authors state:

“Why some species are common and others are rare has intrigued ecologists at least, since Darwin. Rare species are orders of magnitude more likely to go extinct, making it puzzling how so many rare species can be maintained.”

To make their conclusions thirty-five research teams form over 20 institutions complied 20 million observational records of plants from around the globe. Their analysis revealed over 435,00 plant species with about 36.5% being classified are rare.

The rare species were clustered in regions around the globe that through time have had more stable climates especially during the planets last ice-age. These rare plant hotspots included regions of the Northern Andes, Costa Rica, Madagascar and regions of Southeast Asia. However as the planet warms and the ever present march of human conversion of land for agriculture, housing and tourism continues these rare plant regions are threatened.

The authors state that:

“If nothing is done, this all indicates that there will be a significant reduction in diversity — mainly in rare species — because their low numbers make them more prone to extinction.”

A very interesting report and a short summary can be found at Science Daily.


While none of these photos depict rare plants, or so I think, these are the types of places rare plants might live.

What will be lost when we only have the common left?

Click Image for slide show


  1. Brian J. Enquist, Xiao Feng, Brad Boyle, Brian Maitner, Erica A. Newman, Peter Møller Jørgensen, Patrick R. Roehrdanz, Barbara M. Thiers, Joseph R. Burger, Richard T. Corlett, Thomas L. P. Couvreur, Gilles Dauby, John C. Donoghue, Wendy Foden, Jon C. Lovett, Pablo A. Marquet, Cory Merow, Guy Midgley, Naia Morueta-Holme, Danilo M. Neves, Ary T. Oliveira-Filho, Nathan J. B. Kraft, Daniel S. Park, Robert K. Peet, Michiel Pillet, Josep M. Serra-Diaz, Brody Sandel, Mark Schildhauer, Irena Šímová, Cyrille Violle, Jan J. Wieringa, Susan K. Wiser, Lee Hannah, Jens-Christian Svenning, Brian J. McGill.The commonness of rarity: Global and future distribution of rarity across land plantsScience Advances, 2019; 5 (11): eaaz0414 DOI: 1126/sciadv.aaz0414
  2. University of Arizona. “Nearly 40% of plant species are very rare and are vulnerable to climate change.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 November 2019. <>.





A common pesticide delays migration and causes significant weight loss in white crowned sparrows.

Neonicotinoids are the most commonly used class of pesticides in the world protecting crops from insects but not without untoward side effects including killing beneficial insects that pollinate the crops we need. Additionally this class of pesticides has been show to have negative effects on songbirds in laboratory studies.1 Migrating songbirds frequently forage and ingest seeds treated with these pesticides during their migrations. Until now the effects of neonicotinoids on free living wild birds had not been studied.

As reported by Kristine Liao in Audubon:

“A new study published online today in Science provides the first evidence that neonics harm songbird populations in the wild. University of Saskatchewan researchers found that White-crowned Sparrows that consumed small doses of a neonic called imidacloprid suffered rapid weight loss and delayed migration, both of which can hinder birds’ survival and ability to reproduce.”2

This is an interesting study where researches captured free-living White Crowned Sparrow and feed them them either a low dose, high dose pesticide or a control meal as well as fitting them with a tiny radio transmitter that allowed  the freed birds to be tracked over a 100,000 square-kilometer area.

The sparrows fed the highest dose lost on average 6% of their body weight and 17% of their fat reserves both of which are vital for fueling successful migrations.3 Sparrows who consumed the pesticide then delayed their migration between 2-4 days compared to the control fed birds.

As for the potential consequences of songbirds delaying their migration in response to pesticide intake, one of the studies authors, Bridget Stuchbury,was quoted in a report by Smithsonian as saying:

“that extended rest stops can leave birds—already disoriented by the toxic chemical—vulnerable to predators. At the same time, she explains, late arrival to a final migration destination may reduce a bird’s chances of finding a mate, particularly if it has a shorter breeding season.”

Neonicotinoids are considered cheap insurance against insect-pests for many crops including corn, canola and soybeans and one of the most widely-applied pesticides in the world. The scientific evidence is now clear that these pesticides have harmful effects on bees, fish and now bird populations. How much more evidence will be required before we stop using these chemical willy-nilly… Before, or after,  we loose innumerable bees, birds and fish?



3. A neonicotinoid insecticide reduces fueling and delays migration in songbirds. Margaret L. Eng, Bridget J. M. Stutchbury,  Christy A. Morrissey, Science  13 Sep 2019:Vol. 365, Issue 6458, pp. 1177-1180.  DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw9419


Our world is vast and much is still to be discovered and described by science.

A recent article published in Science Daily reports on the discovery of 71 new species by researchers at the California Academy of Sciences in 2019. The article provides a nice overview of the species discovered and includes the following quote remaining us that there is much work to do to identify what we have on this wonderful planet. A nice short read if you can find the time.

“Despite decades of tirelessly scouring some of the most familiar and remote places on Earth,” says Shannon Bennett, PhD, and Academy Chief of Science, “biodiversity scientists estimate that more than 90% of nature’s species remain unknown. A rich diversity of plants and animals is what allows life on our planet to thrive: the interconnectedness of all living systems provides collective resilience in the face of our climate crisis. Each newly discovered species serves as an important reminder of the critical role we play in better understanding and preserving these precious ecosystems.”


1.California Academy of Sciences. (2019, December 5). Scientists at the California Academy of Sciences describe 71 new species in 2019. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 10, 2019 from

And just for fun a smattering of those species we already know.

Song birds are shrinking

Bergmann’s rule posits that populations and species of larger sizes are found in colder regions while in warmer regions species are smaller.

A study published yesterday in the Journal Ecology Letters reports that over the pervious four decades there has been, on average, a 2.4 percent decrease in the size of the length of the tarsus bone, a standard marker for bird size,  in a sample population of over 70,000 birds from 52 species. The changes in tarsus length were correlated with the increase temperature. The lead authors of the study suggested two explanations for the decrease in body size.

“The first is developmental plasticity, in which individuals that mature in warmer temperatures tend to develop into smaller adults,” Weeks explained. “The second is natural selection, in which smaller birds tend to do better — in survival, reproduction, or both — in warmer temperatures, leading to a shift in the average size of individuals in a population.”

In addition, the study found consistent increases in the wing length of 1.3 percent in 40 of the species. The reason for in increase in wing length is unclear  but the authors hypothesized that increasing wing length may represent a compensatory adaptation to maintain migration as reductions in body size have increased the metabolic cost of flight. Like many of the consequences of climate change, the changes measured in bird size, are not perceptible to the naked eye.

There is a good summary of the study here by the Audubon society.

Click any image for slide show.


Seeking Solutions: A global deal for nature


As humanity marches on seemingly ignorant, yet keenly aware, the earths climate continues to warm faster than predicted and the sixth-extinction event picks up momentum like a snowball rolling down hill one group of scientists recently published a paper titled “A Global Deal For Nature: Guiding principles, milestones, and targets” in the journal Science Advances proposing a solution to put a halt to our global crises.  In this paper the authors make the case that:

 “the most logical path to avoid the approaching crisis is maintaining and restoring at least 50% of the Earth’s land area as intact natural ecosystems, in combination with energy transition measures.”

The authors clearly state that measures to protect ecosystems, biodiversity and any aversion or mitigation of anthropogenic climate change is a time bound matter and action must come sooner than later.

The paper lists five major goals of the project:

(1) represent all native ecosystem types and successional stages across their natural range of variation—or “representation”

(2) maintain viable populations of all native species in natural patterns of abundance and distribution—or “saving species”

(3) maintain ecological function and ecosystem services

(4) maximize carbon sequestration by natural ecosystems

(5) address environmental change to maintain evolutionary processes and adapt to the impacts of climate change 

In addition the paper gives clear scientific evidence for their proposal and priorities that include: protecting biodiversity, mitigating climate change and reducing future threats. This is a well presented paper and one clearly worth reading.

A short article summarizing the project can be found here and is a good jumping off point prior to reading the whole study. It’s a beautiful world and diverse world and something too important to loose.

Click image to view slideshow.

1) A Global Deal For Nature: Guiding principles, milestones, and targets.