Dutch snowy owls from Newfoundland by ship?


This is a video about a snowy owl on Vlieland island in the Netherlands, on 12 January 2014.

A snowy owl has been seen this winter in Zeebrugge, Belgium. Snowy owls have been seen on Texel, Vlieland and Terschelling islands in the Netherlands. Also on the continent of Noord-Holland province.

Today, there was an owl on a roof in De Goorn village in Noord-Holland. Not the same owl as in Zeevang.

One would expect these snowy owls to have migrated from Arctic Eurasia to the Netherlands. However, the blog of the wardens of Vlieland island suggests that at least some of the owls may have a different origin.

A warden spoke to a passenger, Frans van der Esch, of the trans-Atlantic ship MSC Monterey. As the ship was going east to Europe, about fifty miles from Newfoundland, on 9 December 2013, in stormy weather, nine tired snowy owls landed on the ship. They were two males and seven females. They huddled together for some protection from the ocean spray.

As the ship came near European coasts, some owls left. The passenger says that on 15 December 2013, the ship was near Zeeland province in the Netherlands. Then, the last two snowy owls left.

Snowy owl on ship

This photo shows a snowy owl aboard the ship. A slide show with more photos is here.

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Canadian spies lied to the courts


This video is called Greenwald: Canadians Should Be Worried About CSEC/CSIS Spying; More Stories Coming Soon.

By Ed Patrick and Keith Jones in Canada:

Canada’s spy agencies lied to the courts

18 January 2014

The Canadian state’s principal spy agencies—the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS)—have been found by a senior federal judge to have “systematically” lied to the courts, omitting and concealing information in numerous warrant applications.

In late November a handful of reports appeared in the press referring to a secret Nov. 22 ruling by Federal Court Justice Richard Mosley. Identified in these reports as “Canada’s foremost jurist on national security,” Justice Mosley was said to have complained that CSIS and CSEC had concealed from him that they were enlisting the help of the CSEC’s “Five Eyes” partners in spying on Canadian “terrorism” suspects when they travelled abroad.

The “Five Eyes” unites CSEC, the US National Security Agency (NSA), and the eavesdropping agencies of Britain, Australia and New Zealand in a global consortium that—as has been revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden—illegally spies on the world’s communications.

A state-redacted version of Justice Mosley’s “Further Reasons for Order” was released late last month. The veil of government censorship notwithstanding, the public version of Mosley’s ruling makes clear that CSIS and CSEC have been concealing information from the courts for years and have done so in order to get legal sanction for operations that otherwise would not have been approved.

Mosley found that Canada’ intelligence agencies had deliberately kept the courts in “the dark” when obtaining 35 or more special “CSIS 30-08” warrants. Such warrants authorize CSEC to provide technical assistance to CSIS in intercepting the electronic communications of Canadians traveling abroad whom CSIS has designated as domestic security threats.

The spy agencies, ruled Mosley, had misrepresented “the scope and extent of the foreign collections that would flow from the Court’s issuance of a warrant” and done so in at least two ways.

CSIS and CSEC had claimed the spying would be done from Canada and they concealed CSEC’s intention to enlist its “Five Eyes” partners’ help in conducting the surveillance.

In 2007 another Federal Court judge, Justice Edmond Blanchard, had refused to grant a warrant authorizing CSIS and CSEC to spy on Canadians outside of the country and to enlist Five Eyes help as needed, saying that the courts lacked the jurisdictional authority to do so.

The following year, CSIS and CSEC renewed their attempt to get court sanction for spying on Canadians abroad, this time applying for a warrant from Justice Mosley. Canada’s spy agencies were apparently anxious to get some legal cover for their ever-expanding activities, especially as CSIS’s and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s connivance in the detention and torture of several Canadians travelling abroad, including Maher Arar, had led to a public outcry and forced Canada’s government to convene two public inquiries.

However, the 2008 warrant application was framed differently. Fearing it might again be denied, CSIS and CSEC omitted mention of enlisting the help of “second parties”—i.e. CSEC’s Five Eyes partners—and stipulated that Canadians’ electronic communications would be spied on from listening posts within Canada.

Indeed, reports Mosley in his “Further Reasons” finding, when former CSEC director James Abbott was recalled before the court last fall, he “candidly stated” that the evidence he had given five years before in applying for the first-ever 30-08 warrant had been “’crafted’ with legal counsel to exclude any reference to the role of the second parties.”

Mosley continues: “Based on the documentary record before me and Mr. Abbott’s evidence, I am satisfied that a decision was made by CSIS officials in consultation with their legal advisors to strategically omit information in applications for 30-08 warrants about their intention to seek the assistance of the foreign partners. As a result, the Court was led to believe that all of the interception activity would take place in or under the control of Canada.”

The judge concludes, “The failure to disclose that information was the result of a deliberate decision to keep the court in the dark” and this deception constituted “a breach of the duty of candour owed by” CSIS “and their legal advisers to the court.”

In his ruling, Justice Mosley insists he would never have authorized CSIS and CSEC to ask CSEC’s Five Eyes partners to spy on Canadians, noting that it could lead to violations of their rights by foreign states. Commenting on this part of Mosley’s decision, University of Ottawa law professor Craig Forcese, said, “Imagine a circumstance where CSIS says, ‘We’ve got concerns about these Canadians overseas and we’d like you to intercept their communications … And the [CIA] decides it’s time for a Predator drone.”

The exposure of CSEC’s and CSIS’s systematic lying before the courts comes at a time when the federal Conservative government has been rattled by revelations that CSEC—in flagrant violation of the law—has been systematically spying on the metadata of Canadians’ electronic communications and acts as a veritable arm of the NSA in its spying operations around the world

The government’s response has been to mount a campaign of disinformation and lies. Claims that CSIS and CSEC are committed to defending Canadians’ constitutional rights and bound by the law are trumpeted at every opportunity.

While this was most assuredly not his intention, Justice Mosley’s finding that CSIS and CSEC systematically lied to the courts to extend their powers is a stunning refutation of the government’s claims.

CSIS and CSEC have effectively rejected Justice Mosley’s decision. In response to it, CSEC declared its “activities respect Canadian laws and Canadian values”, while CSIS asserted, “Everything that CSIS does, alone or with trusted partners, is consistent with Canadian law and Canadian values.”

It is possible that Canada’s spy agencies will appeal Justice Mosley’s ruling. Whether they do or not, their cavalier dismissal of his ruling is tantamount to a declaration that in practice they will ignore it and continue to expand their collaboration with the NSA and CSEC’s other Five Eyes partners, including in spying on Canadians.

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Private prison corporation Geo Group kills immigrants


This video from the USA is called GEO Background – Investigation shows GEO group has history of prisoner abuse.

It says about itself:

1 Dec 2008

WILLACY COUNTY – The GEO Group, the prison corporation at the center of the indictments has a long history filled with allegations of prisoner abuse. The abuse has sometimes even turned deadly.

A former corrections officer who did not want to be identified says she was on-duty at the Willacy State Jail in 2001 when Gregorio De La Rosa, Jr. was beaten to death by fellow inmates. She says he was bloody and not very responsive after the incident. De La Rosa died just four days before his release date.

His family sued the prison owner at that time, the GEO group known then as Wackenhut. The family won a $47 million settlement.

Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, a prison watchdog group, says that the GEO Group has a bad reputation for a reason. “They gain their contracts through lobbying and cronyism and political favoritism,” Wright said. “They make their profits once they have the contracts through short staffing their facilities and underpaying their staff.”

Wright says the GEO runs prisons full of problems. “Very high incidents of escapes, assaults, murders, sexual assaults and riots as well,” he said. However, the former corrections officer of the jail says that there’s always going to be riots and assaults in a prison setting. She says those incidents don’t make it to the news because they are kept in-house. Lawmakers are calling for a review of all GEO’s contracts in Texas, though they claim it has nothing to do with the Willacy County indictments, which accuse the Vice President of the U.S., Dick Cheney of wrong doing since he owns a stock in company connected to the GEO group.

By Paddy McGuffin in Britain:

Privateer ‘lacks humanity’ but wants probation

Friday 17th January 2014

Firm bids for sold-off service despite being slammed by prison watchdog

A privateer accused yesterday of lacking basic humanity is in the running to scoop lucrative contracts as ministers flog off the probation service.

HM Inspectorates of Prisons uncovered an appalling litany of failing at Geo Group-run Harmondsworth immigration removal centre.

Among the most alarming documented incidents was the death of an 84-year-old immigration detainee with dementia after he was taken to hospital in handcuffs.

The Canadian national, believed to be Alois Dvorzac, spent three weeks at Harmondsworth despite doctors saying he was unfit for detention.

His death is one of a number of “shocking cases where a sense of humanity was lost,” HMIP said in its report on an unannounced visit last August.

Prison Reform Trust director Juliet Lyon asked: “Have the authorities responsible for Harmondsworth forgotten the basic principles of humanity and decency that must apply to any form of custody?”

Geo, a British subsidiary of the US group of the same name, also runs Dungavel House immigration removal centre in South Lanarkshire.

The firm, which has been dogged by allegations of abuse, mistreatment and fraud, runs an estimated 96 facilities and provides services to the US concentration camp Guantanamo Bay.

But the Ministry of Justice announced in December that Geo Group UK and Geo Delta were among the firms which had made it through to the next round of bidding on the spoils of the government’s selloff of 70 per cent of probation services.

Probation union Napo general secretary Ian Lawrence said: “Yet again we are hearing another private contractor’s failure to meet the requirements of their contract and it is the people they are charged with looking after that are suffering.

“The very idea that these companies should be in charge of monitoring and rehabilitating offenders in the community is ludicrous and dangerous.

“The public need to start asking this government why they insist on putting costs cuts before public safety.”

Last year, an 84-year-old man with Alzheimer’s disease died in handcuffs in a British immigration centre: here.

Fears over public safety have led to a delay in privatising a large part of the probation service, shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said yesterday: here.

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How prehistoric fish learnt to walk


This video is called Finding Tiktaalik: Neil Shubin on the Evolutionary Step from Sea to Land.

It says about itself:

27 Feb 2013

Professor Neil Shubin talks about the discovery of Tiktaalik and one of the greatest evolutionary events in Earth’s history: when the very first fish ventured out onto land.

Widely known as the “fishapod”, Tiktaalik roseae is a 375 million year old fossil fish discovered by a team of six palaeontologists in the Canadian Arctic in 2004.

Tiktaalik looks like a cross between the primitive fish it lived amongst and the first four-legged animals, a group called “tetrapods”. Derived from “tetra-”, meaning four, and “-pod”, meaning foot, all animals that descended from these pioneer amphibians, including us, can be called tetrapods.

Tiktaalik lived about 12 million years before the first tetrapods (which are approximately 363 million years old). With the earliest appearance in the fossil record of tetrapod features in a fish, the discovery has become a key piece of evidence in the transition from life in water to life on land.

Watch more footage from the interview with Neil Shubin:

From LiveScience:

Strange Ancient Fish Had Front And Back Legs

By Charles Q. Choi, LiveScience Contributor

January 13, 2014 11:34am ET

The closest known relative of the ancestors of limbed animals such as humans likely evolved the foundation for rear legs even before the move to land, researchers say. This ancestor may have even been able to walk underwater, they added.

These findings reveal that a key step in the evolution of hind limbs happened in fish, challenging previous theories that such appendages evolved only after the move to land.

Scientists investigated fossils of a 375-million-year-old fish known as Tiktaalik roseae, discovered in 2004 in northern Canada’s Ellesmere Island. Possessing a broad flat head and sharp teeth, Tiktaalik resembled a cross between a fish and a crocodile, growing to a length of 9 feet (2.7 meters) as it hunted for prey in shallow freshwater. [See Images of Bizarre Tiktaalik Fish Fossils]

Bizarre fish

This ancient creature was undoubtedly a fish, possessing gills, scales and fins. However, it also had features seen in modern tetrapods — four-limbed creatures like amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals — such as a mobile neck and robust ribcage.

This extinct fish had large forefins and shoulders, elbows and partial wrists, enabling it to support itself on ground. This makes it the best-known example of an intermediate between finned animals and limbed animals marking the evolutionary leap from water to land for vertebrates, or creatures with backbones.

Prior analyses of other fossils dating from the water-land transition found their back appendages were small and weak compared with their front appendages. This suggested the earliest ancestors of tetrapods perhaps had a “front-wheel drive” form of locomotion that depended more on their front limbs, and that a “four-wheel drive” form of locomotion with strong hips and back limbs only developed after tetrapods evolved.

Until now, the only specimens of Tiktaalik researchers had examined were of its front portions. To find out more about the fish, researchers investigated additional blocks of rock recovered from the dig site where Tiktaalik was discovered. Although some of these blocks were first excavated in 2004, researchers did not look at them more closely until recently, mainly because the blocks did not seem to contain much bone. Moreover, it took years to carefully and properly remove the rock surrounding the fragile fossils.

Titaalik‘s hind quarters

The scientists discovered the rear portion of Tiktaalik, which contained hips as well as partial pelvic fin material. This made a direct comparison of the front and rear appendages of the animal possible. [10 Useless Limbs (and Other Vestigial Organs)]

Unexpectedly, the researchers found Tiktaalik had big, strong pelvic bones with similarities to early tetrapods.

“I was expecting to find a diminutive hind fin and pelvis,”study lead author Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago,told LiveScience. “Seeing the whopping pelvis set me back a bit — I looked at it again and again, because I was quite surprised.”

The pelvic girdle of Tiktaalik was nearly identical in size to its shoulder girdle, a tetrapodlike feature that would help support strong rear appendages. It also possessed a deep ball-and-socket hip joint that connected to a highly mobile femur — analogous to a tetrapod thighbone — that could extend beneath the body.

In addition, crests on the hip bone served as points for muscles to attach to, indicating strength and advanced fin function. Furthermore, although no femur bone was found, the fossil pelvic fin material they did unearth included long fin rays, suggesting the back fin was at least as long and as complex as its front fin.

“We had long thought that expanded hind limbs and hips were features of limbed animals,” Shubin said. “Tiktaalik shows that our closest fish relatives had expanded hips and hind fins; hence, this feature may well have arisen in fish.”

The hip of Tiktaalik was still clearly fishlike. For instance, whereas early tetrapod pelvic girdles are split into three parts, the hip of Tiktaalik was undivided. Still the increased size, mobility and robustness of its pelvic girdle, hip joint and fin would have made walking underwater possible, as well as swimming.

Shubin cautioned that Tiktaalik is not the ancestor of all limbed vertebrates. It is currently the closest known relative, “but not the sole, direct ancestor,” he said. “It is more like our closest cousin.”

It remains uncertain how the hind appendages of the earliest limbed vertebrates were used. “Were they used to walk, swim or both?” Shubin asked.

The scientists detailed their findings online today (Jan. 13) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

See also here. And here.

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Passenger pigeon, extinct 100 years ago


This video from the USA is called How to Bring Passenger Pigeons All the Way Back: Ben Novak at TEDxDeExtinction. It says about itself:

1 April 2013

Ben J. Novak is a young scientist pioneering the emerging field of “de-extinction”. The science of studying extinct species and applying their ecology and genomics to building future ecosystems is widely interdisciplinary, and demands a broad knowledge base. Ben studied ecology and evolution at Montana State University, specializing in paleontology, ecology, and genetics.

He trained in Ancient DNA lab techniques under Dr. Hendrik Poinar, at the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre. His personal study of the history of the passenger pigeon and pigeon biology brings the spectrum together to work with and coordinate multiple teams to bring the passenger pigeon back to life in a project now named “The Great Comeback”, a Revive and Restore initiative under the Long Now Foundation. He has joined Dr. Beth Shapiro in sequencing the genome of the passenger pigeon at University of California at Santa Cruz, and is working on developing the future designs for making de-extinction possible to diverse species beyond the passenger pigeon.

From daily The Guardian in Britain:

2014: the year of the passenger pigeon

In 2014, spare a thought for Martha the last passenger pigeon, who passed away 100 years ago.

Name: Martha
Species: Ectopistes migratorius
Dates: ?–1914
Claim to fame: The last individual of her species
Go visit: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

In the middle of the 19th century, the passenger pigeon was by far the most common bird in the United States, if not the world. It was a species that flocked in mind-boggling numbers, seemingly endless clouds of densely packed birds darkening the skies for hours, sometimes days.

One of the most striking accounts of this phenomenon was recorded by Major W. Ross King, who witnessed “an extraordinary flock of birds” in the vicinity of Niagara in 1860.

“I was perfectly amazed to behold the air filled and the sun obscured by millions of pigeons, not hovering about but darting onwards in a straight line with arrowy flight, in a vast mass a mile or more in breadth, and stretching before and behind as far as the eye could reach,” he wrote in The Sportsman and Naturalist in Canada.

The flock took 14 hours to pass overhead and, based on a flying speed of 60 mph, King estimated that “the column…could not have been less than three hundred miles in length”. Using these parameters, several people have had a go at calculating the size of this flock, as naturalist Joel Greenberg explains in his newly published book A Feathered River Across the Sky. One authority figured it must have contained just shy of four billion individuals. Even if this is an overestimate and the birds were only travelling at half the speed King suggested, this colony would still have been over one-billion strong, says Greenberg.

It is testimony to humankind’s great powers of destruction that within 50 years of this event, only a single captive pair remained, named after the US’ first president and lady George and Martha Washington. George perished in July 1910 at Cincinnati Zoo. Martha survived for four more years, sufficient time for her to garner celebrity as the sole-surviving member of her species. So when she eventually died on 1 September 1914 “at 1 P.M. of old age”, she was frozen in [a] huge block of ice and sent by train to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

It fell to two men – William Palmer and Robert Shufeldt – to prepare the body for taxidermy. Shufeldt described the procedure in a short paper published in the The Auk. This makes for remarkable reading, an incongruous blend of anatomical and domestic detail. They set to work, for instance, in Shufeldt’s home “(3356–18th Street, Washington D.C.)” and “(on the third floor, back room)”. Shufeldt marveled at “the great size of the pectoralis major muscle”, consigned the brain and eyes to alcohol and Palmer removed Martha’s skin. “Immediately after this we partook of a ‘late lunch’ in the dining-room below.” It almost comes as a surprise that Shufeldt did not think to share the menu.

Inside Martha. The last passenger pigeon’s skin is still attached to the base of the mandibles (left). It is at around this point in the dissection that Palmer and Shufeldt went for their “late lunch”. Photograph: Internet Archive

Once stuffed, Martha’s skin went on display in the bird hall at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). During the course of the 20th century, the taxidermy left Washington D.C. on two occasions: in 1966, she attended a conservation conference at San Diego Zoo to mark the institution’s 50th anniversary; and in 1974, she travelled to Cincinnati Zoo for the dedication of a new building in her name. On both occasions, she flew once more (this time by aeroplane), travelling first class and escorted by a dedicated flight attendant.

Martha, as rendered by the Smithsonian's taxidermist Nelson Wood. Photograph: Robert Shufeldt/Internet Archive

The plight of “last individuals” – think Lonesome George – is always going to move people, especially when the hand of humankind has been so heavily involved in the extinction. So it seems likely that 2014 will be the year of the passenger pigeon as people mark the centenary of Martha’s death.

In addition to Greenberg’s excellent book, which devotes a chapter to Martha and boasts a terrific appendix of passenger pigeon-related miscellany, we can also look forward to A Message to Martha by Mark Avery, former conservation director at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Martha herself will be the star turn in a special exhibition at NMNH. Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America will run from 27 June 2014 to 14 June 2015 and tell the story of the passenger pigeon and other extinct birds, including the great auk, the Carolina parakeet and heath hen.

Martha (right) peers at the passenger pigeon entry in Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (London, 1729). The pigeon in the foreground is a male. Photograph: Daria Wingreen-Mason

Tale ends

The act of researching Martha’s story has raised several questions that I have not been able to answer to my satisfaction. If you can help solve any of these outstanding animal-related mysteries, please leave a comment or send me a message on Twitter @WayOfThePanda.

  •  There is a lot of uncertainty over the year of Martha’s birth. Her original owner (before she reached Cincinnati Zoo) did not keep good records and the zookeeper responsible for her was rarely consistent in his reporting, says Greenberg. It is often said she was 29 when she died, but I guess we’ll never know for sure.
  • In Shufeldt’s report of Martha’s autopsy he made a very mysterious observation. On returning from his “late lunch”, he noticed “a slit-like opening” half a centimetre long on the right side of Martha’s skinned abdomen. He enlarged it. “Much to my surprise,” he wrote on page 31, “I found a quantity of blood (not clotted) in the abdominal cavity, and the right lobe of the liver and the intestine almost entirely broken up,” wait for it, “as though it had been done with some instrument.” As if this weren’t puzzling enough, he went on to note that the intestine “was missing altogether, while the right lobe of the liver was in scattered fragments.” At the risk of encouraging conspiracy theorists, any idea what could have caused this damage?
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Snowy owl and northern hawk-owl in the Netherlands


This video from Canada says about itself:

A Snowy Owl Success Story

In late November 2011, an emaciated snowy owl was rescued by Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society. He was far from his Arctic home, probably driven south by a lack of food in the north. After less than a month he was fit enough to be released, to return home when he’s ready.

This morning, a male snowy owl was seen in the sand dunes, on Vlieland island in the Netherlands.

On 28 December, a male snowy owl had been seen in the north of Texel island, not so far from Vlieland. Was this the same owl? However, the Texel observer describes the bird as not yet an adult; the Vlieland observer as adult.

The northern hawk-owl is also still in Zwolle today.

Northern and southern light videos


This is a northern light video from the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

This video, Comet and the Northern Lights, is from Tromsø in Norway.

This video is from Oregon in the USA.

This video is from Michigan in the USA.

This video is called Aurora Australis TimelapseTasmania, Australia – May Day 2013.

This video is from Alberta in Canada.

This video says about itself:

12 Nov 2013

Flying on a Virgin Atlantic flight from London to New York when the aurora forecast was high, I balanced my camera on a rucksack and left it snapping away out the window … what an amazing spectacle was to be seen! You can see some of the still pictures that formed this time-lapse here.