Saturday, March 29, 2014


The New York Times website has an interactive graphic to let you see the Oso, Washington area before and after the recent tragic mudslide.

Click on the label to show the area before and after.

Frog Crossing

Last night we had the first real rainstorm of the Spring season.  

That means that under the drifts of leaves and the remaining drifts of snow the frogs and salamanders were waking up from their winter's sleep and heading to the nearest water.  Driving the back roads on rainy nights in early Spring is the best way to see them.
A wood frogsicle

Wood frogs in particular respond to that first rain.  Wood frogs spend the winter frozen solid.  Really.

When the warmish rains of early spring soak into the leaves where the frogs are buried, they thaw out, start breathing again, and make their way to ponds to breed.

A wood frog with his black mask
Wood frogs are easy to recognize by their masks.  Their call is also distinctive.  No 'jug-o-rum' for these guys.  A pond with a few wood frogs sounds like a flock of ducks all quacking at once.  A pond with a lot of wood frogs sounds like heavy machinery clanking through the woods.

On this morning's walk I went by the old mill raceway.  The streams were full of snowmelt and were thundering down the gorge.  The air was full of bird song as pairs of crows and robins and chickadees flew by.  It seemed like every male bird in town was screaming the bird equivalent of 'hey, bay-bee!'
Wood frog eggs from my frog pond
last year.  Soon they will be there again.

The raceway was full of water.  There were lots of ripples as the wood frogs moved about.  Soon there will be masses of eggs.

Most of the eggs will never become frogs.  Ducks will fly in and eat some of them.  Then the raceway, which is no longer connected to the brook, will dry up.  Only a few will survive to return to the raceway next year.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Spring At Last

Robins are no longer the first sign of spring.  They used to show up in early March.  Now they hang around all winter.

However, robin song is a true sing of spring, and I heard it for the first time today!  The lengthening days have worked their wonder on the brain chemistry of the male robins (they have darker heads).

And while about 80% of my yard is till covered with snow, in a few places it has melted and is covered with crocuses.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What Will Happen On Wednesday?

For West Hartford to get the most snow, a storm must pass over the 40/70 benchmark.  That is, it must pass right over a spot that is at 40 degrees north latitude and 70 degrees west longitude.

That would send cold, wet winds over us from the northeast.

As of right now the upcoming storm will go too far to the south and east to really affect us. Rhode Island and Cape Cod will be buried.

I am predicting a regular school day on Wednesday, with increasing chances of a late opening the further east you go.

I will update this Monday night.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Darwin's Orchid

Part 1:

Evolution is not random.  (Take that, anti-reality people!)
Lady with pocket-rat.

People have turned one species of dog into hundreds of different breeds depending on their wants.  Want a larger dog?  Take advantage of natural differences in individual dogs.  Breed only larger dogs until you get a Wolfhound or a Great Dane.  Want a little yap-dog?  Breed only the smaller dogs until there are people walking around with dogs in their handbags (yuck).
Hamburgers, not milk from this breed

People have turned one species of cow into many different breeds.  Some produce more meat, some more milk.  The process is the same.  Take advantage of natural differences in individual cows, and breed the ones that have what you want.

Unless you hunt for meat or wild plants, everything that you eat every day has been modified over thousands of years by farmers.
Charles Darwin at the time
he traveled around the world

In the early 19th century, many scientists were puzzling over how evolution works.  There were several hypotheses (a hypothesis is an educated guess, based on observations).  Charles Darwin and many others came up with the theory (an explanation of facts based on testing) of natural selection - that nature chooses among individual differences.

In other words, nature does the same thing as any farmer or dog breeder.   Nature chooses among differences in individuals, based on their ability to survive and breed.

The faster antelope escapes the lion and lives to breed.  The sneakier lion gets the antelope and lives to breed.  The plant that can spread its seeds further has more babies.

The reason why Darwin gets credit for this explanation is that he had both the wealth (no need to work) to devote his life to research and the influential friends to make sure that his voice was heard above the others.

Part 2:
Conservatory at the NYBG

Yesterday I visited the orchid show at the New York Botanical Garden.  

Snowdrops, not snow!
There was no snow there, and spring flowers were blooming.

Orchids are fascinating.  There are an uncountable number of species, and they do some very kinky things.  Many orchids are shaped like and smell like female insects.  
What species of insect could love this "female"? 
Frustrated male insects fly from flower to flower, spreading pollen as they try to mate.

Most of the orchids at the show are hybrids, man-made versions of wild orchids (choose among the individuals that show some trait you want, and keep doing that over many generations until you get something you like).

But then there was Darwin's Orchid.

A scientific theory must not only explain what we have observed, it must also be able to predict what we will see in the future.  

For instance, Darwin would not be surprised that as we add antibiotics into the environment we get more and more bacteria that are resistant.

Darwin's Orchid, with a foot-long nectar spur
Some plants use sweet nectar to bribe insects into landing on them to spread pollen.  The nectary is where the nectar is kept and is usually at the back of the flower so that the insect has to crawl all over the pollen to get fed.

When someone showed Darwin an orchid with a very long nectary (that long green tube behind the flower in the photo), he predicted that there was an undiscovered moth out there with a foot-long tongue that could pollinate this orchid.

A moth with a foot-long tongue.  Photo from
Houston Museum of Natural Science
Darwin was right, and now we have Xanthopan morgani or the Morgan’s sphinx moth. This moth was not discovered until 1903, but proved Darwin’s theory and was originally named Xanthopan morgani praedicta in honor of his prediction. The moth has an unbelievably long tongue which can reach down into the flower to retrieve the nectar. In doing so, the moth rubs its head against the pollen producing organ of the plant and transfers the pollen to the next flower it drinks from.

That's what science does.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


The low winter's Sun
December 20, 2013.  The Winter Solstice.  The northern hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun, the sunlight comes in at a low angle, and in Connecticut we get only 9 hours and 8 minutes of light.

What we expect to see on March 20
March 20, 2014.  The Spring Equinox.  The hemispheres get an equal amount of daylight as the Sun shines directly done on the Equator at noon.  We have gained 3 hours of daylight since December.

June 20, 2014.  The Summer Solstice.  The northern hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun and we have gained another 3 hours of light.  Then the light recedes.

So on March 20, we are halfway between the shortest and the longest day in Connecticut.  

The talking heads on television and radio will be screaming about the first day of Spring.  You already know what I think of that.

Mr. Opossum is looking for love
Spring is a season, not an astronomical event.  Seasons depend on weather and the response of living things to the changing amount of light.

It is halfway between December and March that the amount of daylight increases enough for nature to take notice - that's February 2.

That is when maple sap runs, the skunks and
Who can pay attention to traffic 
when you are in love?
woodchucks wake up to mate, the hawks make their nests, and things start stirring underground.  The birds that live here all year have been singing for almost a month and the first of the migrants appeared a week ago.

So, despite being buried in snow during an extremely cold spring, it is the middle of spring now, not winter, and March 20 marks the middle of the season.  Only 6 more weeks until things start to bloom all over, marking the beginning of nature's summer.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Happy To Think For You

The original goal of the Republican Party (still given lip-service today) is that government should not be any larger than it need be.  Not a bad idea, really.  Provide those things that the average individual can’t, like roads and fire departments and defense against invaders and criminals and cheats (from muggers to corporate vice presidents) and then leave us alone. 

So why does it now want to control what we think (education), our personal lives (women’s health, gay rights, equal opportunity for all) and science (understanding reality as it is, not as it is portrayed on television), while not protecting us from people who want to take advantage of us?  

The answer is, as always, "follow the money".

Not surprisingly, a state that derives a large proportion of its income from coal does not want students to learn about such things as climate change.

An amendment to the Wyoming state budget proposed by state legislator Matt Teeters (R-Lingle) makes sure the new science standards (which the Grumpy Old Scientist, a former teacher, thinks are just fine) won’t get adopted:

“… neither the state board of education nor the department shall expend any amount appropriated under this section for any review or revision of the student content and performance standards for science. This footnote is effective immediately.”

While many states are adopting new national science education standards—a set of benchmarks outlining students’ science understanding in schools—the Wyoming Legislature has taken steps to specifically prevent the adoption of the new science standards outlined.

These new standards include stating as facts such scientifically testable things as evolution and climate change.   Apparently, in Wyoming, the new science standards are so contrary to what the religious fundamentalists and fossil fuel lobbists want us to think that the legislators don't even want those in charge of education to look at them.

State legislator Matt Teeters (R-Lingle) apparently wants to change the state slogan to "Wyoming: Forever Stupid."

More information about this anti-intelligence movement in Wyoming has been posted by Phil Plait here.

Friday, March 14, 2014


There have been 19 deaths from the flu in Connecticut so far this year.  

Why haven't you had your shot?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Late Start on Thursday

The rain started later than originally expected, but most of the precipitation should be over by morning.

The reason for opening late tomorrow will be the ice.

The temperature will be dropping about 30 degrees overnight.  Everything will be frozen.

Be careful.  And bundle up.

Because Shouting Things Loudly on Cable News...

Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller

And this, from the Rachel Maddow blog on msnbc (which was written by Steve Benen):

Quite a few alleged horror stories about “Obamacare victims” have been debunked in recent months, but for some reason, the story of Michigan’s Julia Boonstra has taken on more significance than most.
To briefly recap, Boonstra is featured in a Michigan attack ad sponsored by the Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity, in which she talks about her fight against leukemia. In the commercial, Boonstra says she’s transitioned to a new coverage plan, which she criticized as “unaffordable.”
It wasn’t long before the claims started looking dubious. We soon learned that Boonstra, at worst, would break even, all while benefiting from more secure coverage.
But as the controversy surrounding the attack ad grew, Boonstra felt compelled to provide more information about her circumstances. The Detroit News learned which plan she chose and reported yesterday that she’ll save “at least $1,200 compared with her former insurance plan.”
In other words, this “Obamacare victim” will, now know for certain, pay less money for better coverage and won’t have to change doctors.
When advised of the details of her Blues’ plan, Boonstra said the idea that it would be cheaper “can’t be true.”
“I personally do not believe that,” Boonstra said.
Facts are not dependent on belief.

To read the rest of the story, check out this article.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Universe and Thursday's Weather

This week’s storm reached the west coast yesterday, and the computer models have become more precise.  But before I tell you whether there will be school in Connecticut on Thursday…..

The absolutely most amazing man in the world right now is Neil DeGrasse Tyson, head of the Hayden Planetarium in New York.  He is not only a genius, but he has a way of communicating that just blows my mind away.

If you were in my science class in the last few years, you saw him often on the projection screen.  If not, here are two of my favorites:

And now NDTyson is hosting (on Fox, for irony) the remake of Cosmos.  Watch it.  If you missed the first episode last Sunday, watch it live at or or anywhere else you can find it.

And now:

That L on the weather map shows where there is low pressure – warm(er), wet(ter) air being pushed up by heavier air (you figure it out) rushing in to take its place.

That air that is being pushed up cools and drops the water it is carrying.

So Low pressure areas are where the wet stuff falls.

Thursday's storm as of Tuesday morning.  We will be on the warm
side on Wednesday and the cold side on Thursday.
(modified from Weather Underground)
Because the Earth rotates, winds tend to turn to their right in the northern hemisphere.  The air rushing into low pressure areas start storms spinning anti-clockwise.

Storms spin anti-clockwise.

This storm is passing very close to us.  We will be on the side where warm air is moving from the south.

Wednesday, especially in the afternoon:  RAIN.  Lots of it.

Then as the storm passes by, we will be on the colder side.  Thursday will be frozen. 

Students, if your outdoor practice is normally canceled for rain, you will NOT have practice on Wednesday.  Do your homework for Thursday.

Teachers, be prepared for a likely late opening on Thursday.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Messy Monday and Something On Thursday

This male cardinal knows that Spring is here.  He is outside
my window, singing his fool head off.
Don't worry.  The snow you will see on Monday will have no affect on schools other than an increase in Mommies lining up in the school driveways at the end of the day.

As for Wednesday, it looks like rain, followed by a little bit of frozen stuff at night.  Possible late opening Thursday, but don't count on it.  

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Signs of Spring, and a Snow Storm.

Just went out to enjoy a day above freezing.  

Skunk Cabbage
Skunk cabbage is blooming.  

Skunks and opossums are wandering in the roads looking for mates and getting run over.  

Red maple buds are swelling, creating red smudges on the hillsides.
Red maple buds are swelling

Male birds are going insane.  There is no quiet anywhere, what with the cardinals, juncos, titmice, chickadees, 
goldfinches, woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, red-shouldered hawks, and robins all screaming for attention.
Pileated woodpecker in my back yard this afternoon.  I have been
trying to get a photo of one of these giant woodpeckers for years.  
They are very shy.

As for that major storm next week, maybe, maybe not.  Stay tuned.  There will be more accurate predictions once the storm actually forms.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Weather Update, Long and Short Term. Updated Saturday

[Saturday - What might become a storm here on Thursday is still over the Pacific.  It will not reach the west coast until Monday.  Projections show it going south of us, but we won't know until Monday or Tuesday.}

There has never really been any controversy about climate change.  There have simply been those who can understand the facts and those who make money by denying them.  So...

Short term:  NOAA has issued an El Niño Watch for the summer and fall of 2014, giving a 50% chance that an El Niño event will occur. 

What this means is that a drop in the easterly trade winds will result in a warmer than usual eastern Pacific Ocean, which might mean …

Fewer hurricanes will form in the Atlantic, they would be weaker, and would be more likely to drift away from the coast of the United States.
Precipitation patterns will change.  In particular, the southwest will be much wetter than normal, possibly ending the years-long drought or else washing everyone away.  For Connecticut, normal or slightly drier air.

As for temperature, Connecticut will be fairly normal, while the northwest is warmer and the Gulf Coast is colder.

Longer term (but not all that long!):  According the the US Navy, by 2030, the Arctic’s Northern Sea Route could be ice free and navigable for at least nine weeks each year. The Bering Strait could be ice free for a whopping 27 weeks a year.  

Also, new research from the Institute of Physics predicts that temperatures greater than the 2 °C global average will be experienced in Northern and Eastern Europe in winter and Southern Europe in summer; however, North-Western Europe -- specifically the UK -- will experience a lower relative warming (the shutdown of the Gulf Stream will refrigerate that area).

And researchers  are reporting the first hard evidence that malaria does -- as had long been predicted -- creep to higher elevations during warmer years.  So all of those cities that were built up high to avoid the mosquitoes….

And right now...!   The snow is melting, the birds that normally stay here all winter (chickadees, crows, woodpeckers) are pairing off and looking for nest sites, the buds on the maple trees are swelling....

And as of right this minute there is a 40% chance that there will be no school next Thursday.  Stay tuned for updates.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Tip Of His Tail

This year we are "enjoying" one of the effects of climate change:  more energy in the atmosphere means more energy in the weather.  England is drowning, Australia is roasting, and New England is freezing.

Also, during the highest tides the main streets of Miami are under water.

A less obvious sign of the warming planet is the number of plants and animals that are on the way north.  I now see birds at my feeder that would not have been seen north of Virginia years ago.  Southern plants are becoming northern plants.  Crocodiles have moved another State further north. And tropical diseases are now being found in Connecticut.

Opossum, showing his frost-bitten ears
One of the animals that have moved north is the Opossum.  They are one of the earlier migrants, thanks to their willingness to eat anything, including human garbage.

The Opossum is famed for the defensive trick of flopping down on the ground with its tongue out and eyes closed when threatened.  That, along with its foul body odor, make it unpalatable to predators who like fresh meat.

That the Opossum is not really adapted for northern winters is obvious by the loss of ear tips and tail tips to frostbite.  Also the fact that they like to freeze to death in my woodshed.
Here you can see that the tip of his tail has frozen off

Opossums are lone creatures except in early March when, of course, it is mating season.  My bird feeders seem to be serving as singles bars.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

No Snow For You

In case you missed the earlier post, no snow.  No delays, not closings in central Connecticut.


With the temperature above freezing, I went for a wander through the Nassahegan State Forest.

Peaceful.    With ravens.

Think It Is Cold In Connecticut?

Check out this satellite photo of the Great Lakes.

This doesn't happen often.  It is COLD up there!