Friday, July 3, 2020

Hopes for the Healing of a River: Northern River Otters on the Tuolumne

I had the delightful privilege of watching a River Otter family hanging out along the Tuolumne River the other day. There were three of them, two adults and a juvenile. It's the most time I've ever seen any of them out of the water. It's a good sign that recovery is possible in a river system despite the abuses we've heaped on our wonderful gift of nature.

The Gold Rush of 1848 was catastrophic to the Tuolumne. Miners dug up river vegetation and processed literally all the river gravels for the elusive metal. Gold dredges did incalculable damage to stretches of the rivers in the Great Valley by ripping out the riparian vegetation and destroying the soils along the river floodplain. Underground mines brought minerals to the surface that oxidized to form acids and other toxins. Mercury used in the gold recovery process leaked into river waters. In the twentieth century we built massive dams that altered the water quality and flow levels. These have wreaked havoc with what remains of the natural ecosystem.

One of the bellwethers of the health of a river system is the presence or absence of apex predators and other native species. The predators cannot thrive if their prey species are not present, whether from pollution, drought or other cause. I'm always looking for signs that the native species are present and hopefully thriving. In the last few years I've run across bobcats, foxes, raccoons, beavers (gnawed trees, anyway), hawks and ospreys and Northern River Otters (Lontra canadensis). There was even a report recently of a Mountain Lion downstream in Modesto.

There used to be an even more diverse group of predators and prey species along this river. In historic times there were California Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, and Gray Wolves, along with the California Condor. In prehistoric times, the tally included Sabertooth cats, Dire Wolves, and several other rather scary beasts. The river was populated by gigantic tusked salmon up to nine feet in length.

Geologically, our river otters were a relatively late addition to the river ecosystems of North America. Their family evolved more than 30 million years ago, and spread throughout the Old World and migrated into the Americas, including the Giant Otter of South America. But the Northern River Otter fossil record only goes back to the beginning of the ice ages about 1.9 million years ago. They are related to European species, and probably came across the Bering Land Strait when sea levels were lower (although being an aquatic species, they could have swam the relatively short distance between Russia and Alaska).

The current range of the otter ends in our region. It's their frontier. According to the River Otter Ecology Project, there have been sightings on the Tuolumne River, and just one or two in the Merced River one drainage to the south (some otters were spotted in Yosemite Valley for the first time in decades recently). I'm hoping they will be able to spread farther south into the San Joaquin River drainage. I have seen them on the valley floor in the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in a slough of the San Joaquin.

The otters cooperated long enough that I was able to get some video too. Enjoy!

Monday, June 22, 2020

Last Light on the Longest Day: Green Flash on the Summer Solstice

It isn't really a time for traveling, but a funeral had us traveling up the California Coast yesterday evening. We stopped at Clam Beach north of Arcata to watch the sun set. It was almost 9:00PM and the sun was setting nearly half an hour later than it did back home (hundreds of miles south). It was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.

To my surprise, the skies were clear (we expected coastal fog and overcast conditions), so we got to see the disk of the sun dipping below the horizon. I was watching for the 'green flash', and saw it, although it was most visible between snaps of the camera. You can still pick out some greenish color at the top of the sun's disk.

The green flash is a sudden flash of greenish light above the sun at the moment of sunset, and it is said to last only a second or so. As the sun dips into the horizon, the layers of the atmosphere will cause some of the sunlight to be refracted, with red and orange on the lower parts of the disk along with green (and rarely blue) across the top.

I saw one in 2013, but not since then.
It was the last day of a strangest spring, and probably a similarly strange summer. Stay healthy. Wear that mask in public. It's all we've got to fight this thing.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

When Treasures are Discovered, for Better or Worse: A Tale of Two Tuolumne Rivers

Today on "my" river.

It looks like I'm about to complain bitterly, but it is more nuanced than that.
The river is not mine of course, I just inhabit it almost every day. It belongs to our community. But there has never been a day like this. The parking lot has 85 spaces, and including street parking there were 100 cars parked there today (I've never seen more than 20 or so). With the nearby state parks and recreation areas closed, this was a free spot to gain access to the river, but they had to "earn" it by going down and then back up a 135-step stairway (close to  a 100-foot climb). Then they had to climb down an embankment to get to the rocky river shore, carrying the canopies, bbqs, and ice chests. But it looks like the family groups were spread out. And nobody seemed to be blocking the stairwell by exercising (that was BIG issue yesterday; total lack of physical distancing with 30 junior high kids). So all good.
But I'm really worried about how this is all going to look tomorrow (or Tuesday; I'm not going down there until they're all gone). Ever since the shutdown, the garbage on the trail has increased radically. It's bad enough that some of the trail regulars are carrying trash bags and picker-uppers when they hike.

I'm glad people are discovering the treasure that flows through their community, but I wish they also had a sense of ownership and a desire to take care of it and keep it clean and beautiful. The Tuolumne is a special river.
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper

So what was I doing on this hot, but beautiful day? I'm not going to take chances during a pandemic with so many careless people, so Mrs. Geotripper and I headed upstream to a couple of other spots that are less "discovered". We had a pleasant walk up a dirt road that we had to ourselves along the Tuolumne. It was lonely, beautiful...and quiet.
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
 There are treasures somewhere near you. Seek them out!

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Eruption of Mt. St. Helens at 40 years: Why it Still Matters and Why Science Matters

It is the 40th anniversary of the eruption of the St. Helens volcano and as I think of those days, I realize that even though a majority of the population wasn't even alive at the time, the volcano still matters. Not because of the potential for future eruptions (although that remains a distinct possibility), but because of the way we process and deal with the natural hazards that we all face, no matter where we live.

When the volcano began rumbling and sending ash into the atmosphere, we had only a few avenues to get information, mainly television news, radio, and newspapers. I think now how limiting these sources were compared to the nearly instantaneous delivery of news over the internet in the present day. We can look up earthquakes just moments after they happen, and webcams allow us to monitor volcanoes around the world in real time. There is both good and bad in this profound change. There were terrible sources of news in those olden days, like the Weekly World News or the National Enquirer, but they pale in comparison to the sewage found on the internet today. Back then, national news outlets and newspapers practiced careful journalism in most instances, but it often seems today that the only reward for excellence and honesty in reporting is decreased ratings and falling revenues. To get attention in a crowded internet environment media outlets have to dress their stories as shiny objects and provide them with the worst possible clickbait titles. In the olden days we often had to wait impatiently for information about natural disasters, but the information that came through the media was more often vetted and checked for accuracy. The journalistic filters today are completely gone in many media sources, and it can be difficult to distinguish between the trash and the truth.

There are so many conspiracy theories floating around today about natural disasters and potential disasters. The eruptions of Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone National Park numerous times after years of quiescence caused a blizzard of posts on the internet pondering whether Yellowstone has been disturbed and may blow as a "supervolcano" eruption soon (and we'll all die). The same has happened after a number of recent small earthquakes. But a reading of the reality-based data says that Yellowstone caldera has not had a lava flow or eruption of any kind in 70,000 years, and no knowledgeable geologist sees any evidence of precursors to any new eruptions. A few years back, an earthquake and an internet video of a group of bison running "away" from Yellowstone caused the same kind of internet speculation (it turns out the bison were running towards the caldera).

Of course it is true that the Yellowstone caldera was born in one of the most colossal eruptions ever recorded. Learning the story of the eruption of the Huckleberry Tuff is fascinating. It brings an entirely new appreciation of the incredible scenery to be observed in a place that contains 70% of all the world's geysers. It should be enough. But there are so many individuals out there who would like to make a buck by scaring people needlessly. And there are too many gullible and ignorant people out there who can't pick rational accounts out of the confusing mix of conspiracy theories that exist on the internet.

And then there is the Big Island of Hawai'i. There were some serious and tragic things going on summer before last when the longest eruption in recorded history reached a climax. The activity endangered lives and destroyed homes as Kilauea underwent major changes from the "norm" of the eruptions that had been ongoing for the last 35 years. The U.S. Geological Survey and Hawaiian civil defense authorities did a pretty good job of providing up-to-date information about the latest activity, but that didn't stop all kinds of stories from popping up on the internet about the "Ring of Fire" which has nothing at all to do with Hawai'i. It was just too easy to pick up stories of eruptions in Alaska and Indonesia and think there was a pattern of increasing volcanism or earthquake activity (OMG, a magnitude 6 quake in the Kermadec Islands and an eruption at Mt. Cleveland in Alaska! It's a pattern and therefore Seattle will fall into the sea very soon!). The problem is one of perspective: if you had signed up for earthquake notifications and volcano advisories from the USGS or other geologic research institutions, you would have realized that these things happen all the time, and that a cluster of events is not unusual.

It's one thing to make up stories about normal volcanic activity to scare people. One can argue that they are ultimately harmless because the eruptions aren't actually taking place or hurting anyone. But there are real-world consequences of ignoring journalistic standards. Many of those who make their money with false headlines about such things will also traffic in climate change denial. When science becomes a matter of believing whatever one wishes, the very real problem of global warming becomes just another "scare" story, and the alarm bells being sounded by climate scientists become just more noise in an internet full of noise. But the real-world consequences are happening now, and action is needed to counteract the changes or to stop them. But it has become too easy to ignore the problem because it is so incremental and slow-acting. It just can't compete with the shiny baubles and clickbait on the web.
People in Hawai'i mostly trusted the geologists who studied the volcanoes all their lives and thus made the correct decisions about evacuating homes and businesses. In the same way they trusted the seismologists when a tsunami threatened the islands in 2011 after the massive earthquake in Japan. No lives were lost when the tsunami hit because people had evacuated the low-lying areas. The wave surge was 8 feet deep in places and caused millions of dollars of damage. Many people could have been killed, but they accepted the authority of the scientists who predicted the timing and magnitude of the seismically induced waves.

There has been one characteristic about the natural disasters that I've described above. They were local events that profoundly changed lives, but in large and yet limited regions. When earthquakes and volcanic eruptions strike, survivors can turn to other regional state and national governments for support, since those entities were not so badly affected. Now we face a different set of natural disasters: those that affect the entire planet. Pandemics and climate change affect all of us. Witness the spread of the COVID-19 virus to literally every corner and every country of the planet in a matter of weeks.

Scientific experts have long predicted the emergence of dangerous new strains of viruses, and previous administrations used the best scientific minds to prepare for their inevitable arrival. But those administrations were replaced by one that denigrated scientific expertise and fired the experts who could have crafted an appropriate national response to the COVID-19 virus. And today we see the result: nearly 100,000 deaths in the U.S. already with many more to come, lack of critical medical supplies and stockpiles, and no coordinated federal response. Even worse is a propaganda campaign that is convincing people that the disease is not as bad as it clearly is. Other countries listened to their scientists and saved countless lives. We are instead loosening critical restrictions even as the numbers in many areas of the country continue to rise.

And that's why the Mt. St. Helens eruption of 1980 matters today. Scientific expertise matters. Pandemics will be a continuing problem in our interconnected world. And climate change is an even more profound danger to society than any virus, earthquake or volcanic eruption. We need people to give climate scientists the same kind of respect they give geologists when volcanoes are rumbling and smoking. They are the ones to listen to, not the hucksters on the internet who are out to make a buck, or trying to protect those industries that make their profits off of producing greenhouse gases. We seem to talk little these days about integrity and striving for excellence, but scientific researchers are among those who still have those traits. There are always exceptions, but I would trust a scientist over a politician every time (unless it is clear that the politician knows how to listen to a scientist).

There is a sign seen at some of the March For Science protests that have been happening for the last two years around the country: "At the start of every disaster movie there's a scientist being ignored". Unfortunately, it is too true in real life as well.

This has been a highly abridged and updated version of last year's St. Helen eruption anniversary reflection.

Monday, May 11, 2020

A Tuolumne River Mystery for the Fish Experts

Paging my fish expert friends...what are these fish? I realize the pictures aren't great, since they were across the river from me and I couldn't get much of an angle on them. They were rather big, between 1 to 2 feet long, I'm guessing.
I cannot even pretend to be any kind of an expert on the fish of the Tuolumne River, but I can't help but wonder if these are Chinook Salmon. They were bunched up on the far shoreline, and seemed to be competing for space among the pebbles and rocks in the shallow water. There was a lot of splashing and chasing.

But the thing is, there apparently hasn't been a springtime salmon run in a long time around these parts. But I did find an intriguing statement on a NOAA website: "Recently, ‘spring-running’ Chinook salmon have been observed in the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers. Some scientists believe this means a very small population of self-sustaining (i.e., capable of reproducing without hatchery influence) CV spring-run Chinook salmon may exist in the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers". So I am curious...I would be so thrilled to know that salmon might be back on the river.
I know I'm expressing my ignorance, so someone please gently correct me and identify these fish if you can! I appreciate the assistance.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

A Bit of Drama on the Tuolumne River...

Every visit to the wilds holds the possibility of the unexpected surprise. There is the "usual" sense of discovery when one finds a new bird species, or some otters playing in the water, and then there is the just plain weird. I don't see snakes very often, as there are a fair number of people on the trail and the snakes wisely stay out of sight. In fact, the only snake I'd ever seen before today was dead.

But today was something. I was on a low bluff over the river gravels, and I happened to look down to see what looked like a huge snake (of course every snake looks really big at first). I realized it was a California Kingsnake (corrections welcome), and it was big, maybe three feet, but not huge. I got the camera out and got a few shots before it disappeared into the brush.
But then the weird part: it was being followed by a California Quail. I couldn't tell if it was chasing or harassing the snake or carefully monitoring the snake. I have to think that in some way it had to do with the defense of a nest, but I have no real basis for the speculation. Maybe it was just curious...

Monday, April 27, 2020

Can You Find the Nest? A Near-future Killdeer Family on the Tuolumne River

The Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) is a sneaky little bird that hides in plain sight. That sounds like some kind of negative judgment, but really I admire these little Plovers. I wonder sometimes how the species survives, given their habit of building nests right out in the open on stony ground, within easy reach of all manner of predators. And yet somehow they persist.

We watched a nest last year at the Great Valley Museum's Outdoor Nature Lab. This year, the Killdeer nest I "found" is along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail, but not so much on the trail as on the grounds of the Waterford water treatment plant. They have gravel roads around the aeration ponds, and that's where the Killdeer put its nest. Luckily a city worker noticed and put up a traffic cone to protect the nest from being run over.

If a threat presents itself, the Killdeer will make a lot of distracting noises and actions. The Killdeer are famous for their broken-wing act by which they draw a predator away from the nest. And as you can see from the picture above, the eggs themselves are well-protected by camouflaged coloration.

I found myself wondering how the eggs avoid being fried by the sun in their rocky nest out in the open, but if you look at mama Killdeer watching her nest, you'll notice she is shading her eggs, not sitting on them.

I missed the hatching last year, but if the stars align I might get to see the babies this year, seeing as how my summer field classes got cancelled, and we are still on a shelter-in-place order. We'll see.

A final note...if you are wondering if I was invading the personal space of the bird in this picture, I was actually on a bluff around a hundred yards away. I love the zoom lens on my camera!