Sep
23
2006

Elk buck: After nearly being wiped out of the state's habitat, elk are starting to make a comeback in Minnesota. Today, there are around 150 elk in the northwest corner of the state. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Elk buck: After nearly being wiped out of the state's habitat, elk are starting to make a comeback in Minnesota. Today, there are around 150 elk in the northwest corner of the state. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Several falls ago, I had the great opportunity to go to Yellowstone National Park in late September. What made the trip extra spectacular was that the elk were in rut and were hanging around everywhere. They were sitting in parking lots and building lawns. They had no fear of people and consequently, we were able to get to see these majestic animals much closer than you’d ever expect. (We still kept at a safe distance. You don’t want to mess with those antlers.)

Anyway, the whole experience turned me into an elk junkie. Driving around I was always looking for elk. At restaurants, I was ordering elk burgers or elk steak. Early in the morning and at night me ears were tuned into hear their distinct bugling.

So to my great surprise I read in the Sept. 20 Star-Tribune that elk used to roam over most of Minnesota back in the 1800s. Today, they’re confined to two little pockets in the northwest corner of the state.

But here’s the good news, they’re numbers are starting to rebound. Today, the two herds number about 150 total wild elk. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources expects their numbers to keep growing through its management plan.

One herd straddles the U.S./Canada border near Minnesota’s border with North Dakota. That herd is numbers around 100 right now. Southeast of there, near the town of Grygla, another wild herd has established itself. It numbers about 20 or 30.

While I’m crazy about elk, farmers generally aren’t. They see the big creatures as a threat to their crops and that’s considered a main reason while the elk population and range in Minnesota has been cut back over the past 150 or so years. In the past 20 years, farmers in the northwest corner of Minnesota have been paid $60,000 for crop losses caused by elk.

A factor that has reduced that elk/farmer tension is the establishment of food plots on public lands near the herd’s home bases. Those plots keep them closer to their home bases and less likely to seek food in farm fields.

Even though elk numbers are still low, there is a limited hunting season for the animals in Minnesota. This fall’s hunt could harvest up to eight elk in the Grygla area. There is no hunt planned for the border elk until their numbers get up around 200 head.

What to see or hear more about Minnesota elk? Check out this link: www.startribune.com/outdoors

Add one more ring for Saturn! Scientists discovered a faint, new ring circling the planet Saturn. The ring appears to be composed of debris from two of Saturn’s moons when meteoroid impacts occurred. Just in case you are wondering, the exact number of rings around Saturn is not known.

Sep
21
2006

Hawk watchers at Hawk Ridge: Photo courtesy Mark Ryan
Hawk watchers at Hawk Ridge: Photo courtesy Mark Ryan
Duluth, Minnesota is one of the best places in the Midwest for watching hawks and other birds of prey as they make their annual migration south for the winter.

Red-tailed Hawk in flight: Photo courtesy National Park Service.
Red-tailed Hawk in flight: Photo courtesy National Park Service.
Since the migrating birds avoid crossing large expanses of water, Lake Superior acts as a funnel, forcing them into Duluth where the lake narrows to its western point, and crossing is easier. This means that thousands of hawks and raptors fly over the region, coming down from Canada and other points north. One of the best sites to see them is at Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve, which is situated, in eastern Duluth at an overlook along the city’s Skyline Parkway.

The observation site draws not only vast numbers of birds (averaging over 94,000 per year) but also vast numbers of visitors who come each fall to watch the migration and enjoy the stunning panoramic views of Lake Superior and eastern Duluth.

If conditions are right, a lucky visitor may see Broad-wing Hawks, Osprey, Bald and Golden Eagles, Red-tailed and Rough-legged Hawks, American Kestrels, Northern Goshawks, and Peregrine Falcons. Great Horned and Long-eared Owls can also be seen at times.

The raptors can be seen just about everyday during Autumn, except when it’s raining, Generally, the birds begin migrating over Hawk Ridge in mid-August through November. The best time to spot them is when the wind is blowing in from the west or northwest for a couple of days straight. Official counters scan the skies with binoculars most days and tally the migration. During “The Big Days”, which generally take place between September 10-25, tens of thousands of Broad-winged Hawks can be spotted soaring over the ridge. This past week over 28,000 of them were counted in just two days!

For directions and further information visit the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory website. Then pack up your binoculars and camera, and head north to Duluth.

Sep
21
2006

The CDC has more than 100 million doses of this year's flu vaccine available--enough so that anyone who wants one can get one. (Doctors and clinics will start receiving the vaccine next month.)

Last year 86 million doses were available, but 4.8 million went unused. Yet 200 million Americans are either considered high risk themselves or have close contact with someone at high risk and should consider getting the shot.

People on the CDC's priority list include:

  • Health care providers,
  • Children between 6 months and 5 years old,
  • People with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease,
  • And people older than 50.

It's best to get vaccinated in October or November so there's time for immunity to develop before the flu season hits. But numbers of influenza cases usually peak in February, so even a late shot offers some protection.

Every year somewhere between 5 and 20% of the US population catches influenza. 200,000 of them need hospital care, and 36,000 die.

So...will you be getting a flu shot this year? Vote in our poll, and tell us why or why not.

Sep
21
2006

Today the CDC announced its new recommendation that all Americans between the ages of 13 and 64 be routinely checked for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Why the change? About one million Americans are infected with HIV, but 25% of them have no idea that they're carrying the virus. Routine testing should help check the spread of the disease and preserve health as infections are caught earlier.

The CDC's recommendation isn't binding, but it does influence what doctors do and what health insurance covers. And the blanket recommendation might help reduce the stigma associated with HIV testing.

What do you think? Will you get screened for HIV at your next physical? Why or why not?

The US Forest Service has a neat page with up-to-date information about fall foliage hotspots and peak dates, plus information about why leaves change color in the fall. Check it out, and maybe plan an outing to take advantage of the colors before they're gone.

Sep
21
2006

Artist's concept of Eris.: Image courtsey NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Artist's concept of Eris.: Image courtsey NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The “Tenth Planet” that caused Pluto to lose its planetary status has been classified and named, and to the dismay of many, it was not named Xena. The International Astronomical Union has classified it as a dwarf planet and named it Eris, after the Greek goddess of Chaos, which is appropriate for the chaos it cause in the astronomical community over what should be defined a planet and what should not.

The debate centered around the argument that if Pluto was considered a planet, then 2003 UB313, as it was known at the time, should be a planet as well as it was larger than Pluto. The debate culminated at the International Astronomical Union meeting last month where Pluto was stripped of the title “planet” and relegated to “dwarf planet” along with Eris and the former asteroid Ceres.

Eris' moon was also given a formal name: Dysnomia. In Greek mythology Dysnomia was the daughter of Eris.

Sep
21
2006

Orion Launch: The Orion crew vehicle launches on board the Ares I launch vehicle.  Photo courtesy Lockheed Martin Corp.
Orion Launch: The Orion crew vehicle launches on board the Ares I launch vehicle. Photo courtesy Lockheed Martin Corp.

A new space capsule and launch system are being developed to bring the next generation of explorers to the International Space Station, back to the moon, and later to Mars. The new Orion space capsule and Ares launch system will be the long awaited replacement for the Space Shuttle and are scheduled to begin use by 2014.

A throw-back design

The Orion capsule borrows its design from the Apollo-era space capsules, and improves on the best features of Apollo and the Space Shuttle programs, but is significantly larger than the old Apollo spacecraft and utilizes the latest technology in computers, electronics, life support, safety, propulsion and heat protection systems.
Orion will be capable of transporting cargo and up to six crew members to and from the International Space Station. In addition, it will return humans to the moon to stay for long periods as NASA prepares for the longer journey to and an extended stay on Mars.

Orion in Lunar Orbit: Photo courtesy Lockheed Martin Corp.
Orion in Lunar Orbit: Photo courtesy Lockheed Martin Corp.

Safer manned space flight

The new capsule and launch system will be significantly safer than the Space Shuttle because the design allows for an “escape tower” at the top of the capsule that allows for the separation of the crew capsule from the rocket below in the event of an emergency during launch. Further, there is minimal chance of debris damage as the capsule sits on top of the rocket.

To watch a video about the Orion and Ares systems, go here.

Neurologists used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to study the brain function of a woman who'd been in a coma for five months. To their surprise, when they asked her to respond to commands or imagine things, her brain "lit up" in the same way that the brains of healthy subjects did. The scientists caution that this is likely not the situation for many vegetative patients.