Dispatch from India: Watching for the greenish warbler

Every winter, waves of migrating birds flock to India. Millions are drawn to the Western Ghats, one of the world’s premier biodiversity hot spots. Some birds, like Siberian cranes and bar-headed geese, actually fly over the Himalayas on their epic journey. Black redstarts and blue rock thrushes leave for warmer climes. Wagtails, godwits and sandpipers follow water. Pied cuckoos, ospreys, bee eaters and drongos head south.

Photo courtesy Migrant Watch

Photo courtesy Migrant Watch

And then there’s the greenish warbler.

They flit among tree canopies on their southward migration, heard rather than seen. The tiny leaf-warbler’s incessant chiswee chirp has the repetitive lulling of a generic meditation soundtrack.

Getting a photograph of them is out of the question, and even in a picture, the paradise flycatcher would steal the show anyway. Most birders would just pass by the warblers’ tree, searching for more aesthetically interesting species.

But warbler counts are an essential part of tracking long-term trends. The commonness of greenish warblers makes them a great candidate for bird counts. With larger numbers, statistical anomalies can be minimized and it’s easier to tease apart different factors affecting the population. Common birds can be illuminating indicator species that reflect the health of other species and ecosystems. Yet barely a handful of short-term studies have been done on the greenish warbler and its leaf-loving kin. Continue reading

Audio: Montana researchers listen for clues to conserve threatened bats

This package aired on Montana Public Radio and the Northern Ag Network.

Millions of bats are dying from a poorly understood disease called white nose syndrome. The disease is heading West and scientists fear it could devastate Montana’s bat populations. That would have big consequences ecologically, and also economically, since bats help farmers and ranchers by eating pest insects. A study published in Science estimates that bats in North America are worth at least 3.7 billion dollars per year to the agriculture industry. But little is known about Montana’s bats. Reporter Allison Mills of Science Source took to the field with researchers who are learning more about the nocturnal critters by listening closely to their ultrasonic sounds.

Icons of change: Glacier Park’s namesakes retreating rapidly

This story was published in the Flathead Beacon, Missoula Independentand Char-Koosta News.

In the center of Glacier National Park, Mount Gould’s rounded ridge cradles Grinnell Glacier. On a September afternoon, Dan Fagre walks over a smooth patch of bedrock toward the ancient slab of ice. Below it, newly splintered icebergs fill an opaque blue lake.

In Glacier National Park, U.S. Geological Survey researcher Dan Fagre treks toward the melting margin of iconic Grinnell Glacier.

In Glacier National Park, U.S. Geological Survey researcher Dan Fagre treks toward the melting margin of iconic Grinnell Glacier.

The U.S. Geological Survey research scientist, who studies the retreat of the park’s namesakes, stops at a small boulder and taps it with his trekking pole.

“You can tell that this was only recently uncovered by the retreating ice,” Fagre says, pointing out the dusty rock flour left behind by the slow grinding of the glacier. He’s likely the first person to ever touch the boulder.

Fagre moves forward, climbing up four-foot rock ledges like stairs, making his way to Grinnell Glacier’s melting margin. The glacier and its brethren are the park’s most iconic features. They’re also, Fagre says, “icons of change.”

“The fact that they’re disappearing suggests that even the nastiest weather pockets in Glacier are becoming more benign, they’re warming up,” he says. Continue reading

Audio: Glacier Park’s shrinking glaciers a visible barometer of climate change

This package aired on Montana Public Radio.

The melting of Glacier National Park’s namesakes stand out as a very tangible effect of global climate change. When the park was created, in 1910, there were 150 glaciers. Today, there are only 25, and scientists predict the 7,000-year-old slabs of ice will disappear entirely within a few decades. Reporter Allison Mills recently hiked to the retreating margin of one of the park’s most iconic glaciers, Grinnell, with U.S. Geological Survey researcher Dan Fagre and his crew.

U.S. can export coal, but not the pollution, Chinese activist warns

This story was published in the Missoulian and Char-Koosta News.

Particulate matter is the bane of Missoula skies. On smoky days, like those of September 2012, tiny airborne particulates can reach levels higher than 200 micrograms per cubic meter. By comparison, particulates in U.S. airport smoking lounges hover around 190 micrograms per cubic meter, according to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That would be a nice day in Beijing, China: Last January, the city’s pollution peaked at 886 micrograms per cubic meter.


China’s air pollution problem, as seen here in Beijing, has led the country to ban new coal-fired power plants in Beijing and two other cities.

The main culprit is burning coal.

On September 12, the Chinese government announced an action plan to improve what it called the country’s “grim” air pollution problem, which has “harmed people’s health and affected social harmony and stability.” The plan will ban new coal-fired power plants in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, and reduce the percentage of the country’s energy derived from burning coal.

On the same day, almost 50 people gathered at the University of Montana in Missoula to testify against a controversial coal export terminal in Longview, Wash. It and another proposed dock near Bellingham, Wash., would together ship upwards of a million tons of coal—mostly from mines in Montana and Wyoming—to Asia each year. Washington state’s environmental review of the proposed ports will consider carbon dioxide emitted by burning the coal and the effects of trains carrying coal from faraway mines, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided in June that it will not consider such cumulative impacts.

But it’s those cumulative impacts that worry Lifeng Fang, an environmental activist from Beijing who spoke at the gathering in Missoula last Thursday. “Air pollution knows no boundaries,” Fang said, referring to the jet stream that carries pollution from China across the Pacific to the U.S. When coal is shipped to and burned in Asia, Fang said the pollution “just floats back.” Continue reading

Western native plant societies urge USDA to ban exotics

This story was published by the Idaho Statesman and Missoula Independent.

Forage kochia is a small shrub, a bouquet of stems with narrow, light-green leaves. It appears unremarkable, belying its utility. Forage kochia grows in alkaline and salty soils, provides forage for livestock and wildlife, creates effective firebreaks and competes with cheat grass. Its usefulness explains why it’s been seeded on between 400,000 and 700,000 acres of public rangelands around the West since 1984.

Researcher Erin Gray studying forage kochia in southern Idaho

Researcher Erin Gray studying forage kochia in southern Idaho

“After watching rangelands sit for year after year with nothing but cheat grass and seeing how forage kochia can help there, it does seem to be a miracle plant in some cases,” says Blair Waldron, a research geneticist in the USDA Forage and Range Research Laboratory in Utah.

But forage kochia is an exotic species, one that evolved in the steppes of Central Asia, and a coalition of native plant societies from around the West, lead by Montana’s, are trying to halt its planting.

In early August, native plant societies in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada sent a letter (PDF) to the USDA encouraging the agency to stop seeding introduced species, such as forage kochia and Canada bluegrass, and use native plants instead. Continue reading

Audio: Fort Belknap welcomes wild bison

This package aired on National Native News.

On August 22, the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana became home to a new herd of bison originally from Yellowstone National Park. This follows a Montana Supreme Court decision in the spring that allowed the transport of bison between tribal lands. The decision was disputed by local ranchers because of concerns about the spread of brucellosis and past problems with the tribes’ commercial bison herd. Allison Mills has the story.