I asked for warmer weather … got a roofalanche!

Just like the mountains, warm weather brings increased risk of avalanche.  Our (relatively) new metal roof sheds snow quickly as it is much smoother than the former shingles.  This year, though, the ice from the storm in December was still there as it has been below freezing since.  Today got up to +5ºC (forgot where that + sign was: ++++ love that).

So today it all came down (except the ice sheet that took down our TV satellite dish last Friday).  More work I didn’t need, but good cardio workout I suppose.

My spade was buried in the ice and snow as I only used it yesterday to clear another snow fall.  I had to dig it out first as the regular snow shovel just pushes it, and is too flexible to dig into 5cm-thick ice.  It shows the scale in the second picture.  Over 1m of ice and heavy, wet snow.   Maybe on the weekend I can get the ice off the path too, before we drop below freezing daytimes again.

Before and after:

Roofalanche cleared
Roofalanche cleared

Are you still here, Winter? Go away, turkeys have had enough

Wild turkeys are sick of snow, running short of food

The good news?  It was only -5ºC this morning.

The bad news? Another 30 cm of snow.  I am tired of shovelling and the plough took out Laurie’s tail lights.

The depth of snow means the birds are having a hard time getting food, especially as last night’s fall is on top of packed snow on top of an ice sheet on top of more packed snow.

The turkeys flew in, looking for scraps from the feeder.  They are getting bolder as the food elsewhere runs out.  They probably skipped yesterday as it was Bird Count Day but today the whole flock of about 30 arrived, on the wing as it is too deep to walk easily.  They crashed into the snow as they arrived and looked like ducks because their legs were below the surface.


The other good news is that our satellite dish got fixed, after a roofalanche of snow on top of 5cm of clear ice came down and snapped the arm carrying the block feed right off, so Laurie and Carol are back in the Olympics judging business.

Great Backyard Dinosaur Count

Today is the last day of Great Backyard Bird Count so I diverted a half hour to counting. Here are some pictures and the count.

I almost missed the bird count.  Thanks Twitter for last minute reminder.  As soon as I started the clock, every bird fled for cover in the trees but a few flew back over the half hour I could spare.
Here’s some pictures.

This shot of our local pair of cardinals would have been better for Valentine’s Day.  They are always together.

Cardinals in thornbush
Cardinals in thornbush

All the birds round here can fly.  Even the turkeys are pretty good at it given their size.  None of those showed up for the count, haven’t been around for a couple of days since we mutually startled each other when they were hiding a few feet away from me. So here are some juncos.

Junco flying 1
Junco flying 1
Junco flying 2
Junco flying 2

It is still only -10ºC, up from -20 this morning, so they’re still fluffing up their feathers.

Junco in dogwood
Junco in dogwood

Plenty of protection in the thorn bush – they’re safe from the hawk here. Another no-show for the count, though.

Juncos in thorn bush
Three Juncos in thorn bush

Finally, a negotiation over the feeder.  The cardinal crouched and snapped its beak at the blue jay. The cardinal got to keep its spot but the blue jay just moved 10cm away and they ignored each other after that.  Human disputes over territory should work as well.

Blue Jay and Cardinal negotiate sharing
Blue Jay and Cardinal negotiate sharing

Here are my counts for 1/2 hour starting at noon. Full sun, 60cm snow cover (hard packed, icy).

Species Count
Blue Jay 3
Junco 23
Red-breasted Nuthatch 1
Chickadee 3
Downy Woodpecker 1
Cardinal 2
Crow 3

I’m sure all the others will be back now I’ve stopped counting.
Dinosaur count? Birds are the last of the dinosaurs.

Darwin Day – what it means to me

In which I celebrate Darwin Day in my own rambling fashion.

Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.  It was certainly true for me and it shows the flaw in the early biology education I received.
Although I was very interested in nature and biology when in the fifth form (aged 15) in grammar school and Ma Hazelwood, my biology teacher, was an incredible advocate for the natural world, including her efforts on conservation and her early work on amphibians as canaries in the global coalmine, I switched to math and physics in the sixth form instead of specialising in biology.  Why? Because we didn’t learn evolution and so biology didn’t make sense to me as a science.  I don’t know why, maybe that didn’t come until the sixth form, but I needed reasons for things in those days, as I do now.

It was only a decade later after a detour through philosophy, a change of country and a spell as a social worker that I went back to studying biology as an amateur, with the intention of returning to University to study it.  Biology, it appeared, had become a “real science”. OK, it had done so in the 1950s but it takes a while to filter through to schools and textbooks.   But since then, I started paying attention.  Somehow I collected (and read, cover-to-cover) a lot of books on the subject.

Darwin day 2014 collection
Darwin day 2014 collection

On the right of the stack of books are (top to bottom)

  • a microscope (and there are binoculars on the left)
  • a King James Bible
  • a stack of Science and Nature journals

In the journals, I read quite a lot of the articles and many are about evolution.  The ones in the pile are just my backlog of unread or with little stickies in for “need to reread and think some more”.  They go on to multiple people after me.

The Bible I’ve read 1.5 times.  There is an alternative theory described, but the evidence is a little thin.

The microscope and binoculars just amplify the vision a bit for the real evidence that is just outside the window.  A bit more “fossilized” than I’d like these days as it’s a bit nippy outside.  Thanks to the woodpecker for representing the dinosaur clade.

Evolution Books
Evolution Books

I added the books again in a bit higher resolution in case anyone wants to see the titles. I was going to give a bit of a review of each as I thought I just had a few but the task became a bit more daunting when I started piling them up.  I mention a few below.

Once I understood evolution, everything changed.  Although I had always learned that all life descended from the same common ancestors, understanding the details was like getting my first microscope; it was all so much clearer that the connections were so much more than common ancestry. Now I could see the outlines of how and why organisms in ecosystems fit so well together. Life is a whole in so many other ways than just common descent.

When I first saw the Grand Canyon, I was spell-bound in wonder.  When I look at the natural world with that extra lens in place, it can be like that.  A day in the woods with a few lenses for eye and camera can be all too short.

My wife and I often watch the BBC nature shows.  She thinks they are amazing, too, but I think that I see more in them, just as she sees more than I do in works of art because she has studied them more and paints herself.

I still read the good popular books on evolution because somehow they manage to teach me something I didn’t know.  There are some really good ones.  If you don’t know much at all about evolution, do yourself a favour and read at least one.  It is like having a guide book when you go to an art gallery, you will see so much more when you watch what Richard Dawkins called “The Greatest Show on Earth”: life itself.

That Dawkins book is as good a place as any to start, but I also like “Your Inner Fish” by Neil Shubin and it might appeal to others because it looks at it from the point of view of the human body, easy to read and with touches of humour.

If you get through one of those and want more, try Sean B. Carroll’s “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” which is a great introduction to EvoDevo, the idea that you can’t fully understand how evolution works until you understand how the genetic program drives the development of the organism and can’t understand why development goes the way it does until you understand how it evolved.  Remember that the embryo is just as much the organism as the adult.  I found it so interesting I bought and read several textbooks on development.

For those with more knowledge of biology, I can also recommend two books I’m still working through, that celebrate the 150 years since Origin by giving an in-depth look at what we have learned since then.  Although I read Nature and Science as much as I can find time for each week, it is good to have these kind of reports organized in a way that lets you see how they hang together to advance our understanding.  The books are:

  • Evolution Since Darwin, edited by Bell, Futuyma, Eanes and Levinton.
  • Evolution – The Extended Sythesis edited by Pigliucci and Müller

Both of these are the output of symposia rather than collections of articles from primary journals and as such bring a little more coherence to the discussion.  Hard to choose between them but you will need roughly the equivalent of an undergraduate degree to follow either of them.

For philosophers and indeed thinkers of any discipline, you can also find how Darwin’s Law can guide your thinking in anything where complexity arises from simple beginnings without the need for a creator.  The place to read that is Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett.  You’ll find quite a bit of biology in the book, but it is not a biology book.  I’m a theory guy myself so I don’t know if any laboratory scientists will like it, but you will certainly get a new perspective on the power of Darwin’s thinking.

On Darwin himself, I must admit that although I enjoyed The Voyage of the Beagle as a very accessible scientific adventure, a kind of biologist’s “Indiana Jones” (with less fighting), it took me a long time to get far with the Origin until the 150th anniversary, when the Illustrated Edition came out, edited by David Quammen, which showed that my inner child still needs a picture book for the hard stuff.  With a few distractions to give the opportunity to come up for air from the vast amount of detail that Darwin needed to provide convincing argument for the theory that was to rock the world, I was able to get through the whole text and emerge with a new respect for the power of his thinking.

If you read any of these, you will also learn a lot about the biology of current and past organisms, as well as that wondrous process that produced it.  The reverse of Dobzhansky is also true: “Nothing in evolution makes sense until you learn a lot of biology”.  Even though the basic laws of evolution are every bit as simple as Newton’s laws, the implications are so much more powerful that you really need the weight of all that evidence both to be convinced it is true and to appreciate its vast powers of explanation.

I can’t resist mentioning the article in New Scientist that I read a few minutes ago.  The Borneo Hills diet: Pitcher plants’ strange prey.  Unfortunately you’ll need a subscription to read the whole article but it explains another of nature’s weird tricks.  These plants get mountain tree shrews to poop in them and get their nitrogen from there rather than the usual trick of trapping insects.  Indeed the plant has quite a resemblance to a western porcelain toilet. A creationist god must have quite the sense of humour.   You can see a picture on Ch’ien C. Lee’s web site.

Finally, you can find evolution in music.  I really enjoy The Darwin Song Project.  Some of the UK’s best folk musicians.  Definitely worth listening too.  I’ve played it lots because the words and music are both excellent.

I only mentioned a few of the books I showed, but I will certainly find time to read more so if you have favourites of your own, please tell me in the comments below.  Comments are moderated.  I usually only reject spam, but I know that this topic can provoke a lot of vehement opposition so please don’t be rude or too lengthy.  If you are, I will reject.