“We were laying in bed just the other night, looking at the ceiling, and I said: ‘You know, it’s been thirty years, and it’s never felt worn. There’s never been a sense of tiredness with you.’”
In late July and August, something remarkable happens in the air above Lake Murray, South Carolina. Around sunset, hundreds of thousands of purple martins come streaming towards the center of the lake from every direction, swirling together in a massive flock that darkens the sky. After an hour of wheeling and singing they settle down on a small island.
For the past 25 years, Lake Murray has boasted the largest purple martin roost in the United States. The birds gather there in the hundreds of thousands before beginning their epic migration to South America. Every year hundreds of boats full of purple martin admirers crowd the waters around the island. Every year 500,000 birds put on a breathtaking aerial performance.
But not this year.
This year, the boats went out as usual. But the birds didn’t show up.
And so Skunk Bear (NPR’s science tumblr) has gone mobile in search of the missing martins. We – that’s photojournalist Maggie Starbard and science reporter Adam Cole – have vowed not to return to HQ until we’ve located the errant flock … or until Tuesday morning. Whichever comes first.
We’re starting our search where the birds were last seen: in American backyards. Purple martins on the east coast rely entirely on human-built dwellings to breed, and thousands of humans have taken it upon themselves to provide these nesting colonies. We’re hoping this slightly crazy fellowship of purple martin “landlords” (that’s what they call themselves) can point us in the right direction.
Maybe we’ll find out where the birds went. Maybe we’ll find out why they are so dependent on humans. And maybe we’ll find out why all these people are so invested in their survival. Stay tuned.
North American Beaver - July evening, Central Michigan
The beaver is not your typical rodent. It’s the largest one on the continent, and the only one that can cut down mature trees. Beavers use the timber to build large, elaborate nests—dome-shaped lodges with underwater entrances—inside ponds. If there is no pond, beavers will create one by building a dam to block a stream. The resulting moat around their lodges keeps wolves, coyotes and other predators at bay.
As semiaquatic rodents, beavers have closeable ears and nostrils, webbed hind feet and very dense fur coats. Their paddlelike tails appear to be covered in scales like a fish, but they aren’t. Rather, the skin is grooved in a scaly pattern, which makes the thick tail more flexible.
Beavers can drastically alter landscapes. Working in family groups of four to eight, a beaver colony can cut down more than a ton of trees per year. This colony has dammed a stream with logs, mud and stones to make a pond. The land is so newly flooded that some trees have not yet drowned.
By altering streams, beavers expand wetlands , offering rich habitat for other species. Beaver ponds can also control runoff and reduce erosion. Eventually, this pond will clog with sediment. At that point, or when all accessible trees are cut, the colony will abandon its effort and begin again elsewhere.
In the past several months, Dr. Sheik Umar Khan has been a leader in the fight against the deadliest and largest Ebola outbreak in history.
Khan, 39, has treated over 100 Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. He’s a “national hero,” the country’s health minister said Tuesday.
Now the doctor has caught the deadly virus himself, Reuters reports. Khan is being treated at an isolation ward in Kailahun, run by Doctors Without Borders, the Sierra Leone government said in a statement.
"He is a very respected medical professional in the country," says Meredith Dyson, a health worker with Catholic Relief Services in Freetown, Liberia. “Everybody here in Sierra Leone is praying for him right now.”
Since the outbreak started in March, more than 1,000 people have been infected in three countries; 604 people have died, the World Health Organization said Saturday. Sierra Leone has reported 442 cases and 206 deaths.
Khan had worked for years treating people for another viral disease, called Lassa fever, which causes symptoms similar to Ebola. When cases of Ebola started to emerge in Sierra Leone, Khan immediately turned his attention to the outbreak and started treating patients at a hospital in Kenema.
Photo: Wellington boots, part of health workers’ protective gear, hang out to dry at the Doctors Without Borders’ treatment center in Kailahun, Sierra Leone. Dr. Khan is now an Ebola patient in the center’s isolation ward. (Tommy Trenchard for NPR)