Sunday, January 21, 2018

Glorious Snow

After a nearly snowless winter so far, we are finally receiving a good dose of precipitation with this latest Pacific storm.  Starting overnight, the snowfall has reached about 4 inches on our Littleton farm and another 2-3 inches are expected before the system pushes off to the northeast.

The mountain snowpack, well below normal to date, is vital to our water supply and to the health of our regional semi-arid ecosystems; of course, the ski areas have been under-supplied as well and the less snow they receive the more snow they make, pulling water from the mountain streams.  The same scenario develops on the heavily populated Colorado Piedmont; the less rain and snow we receive through the winter and spring, the more precious water is used for irrigation.

The current storm will certainly not correct our deficit but we can hope that the atmospheric pattern has changed and that more beneficial storm systems will follow in the coming months.  Indeed, down here along the urban corridor, our heaviest snowfall tends to occur in March and April when moisture-rich upslope storms develop across the east slope of the Front Range.  For now, we'll enjoy the splendid scenery that this storm has produced, knowing that, beneath the surface snow, our drought persists.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

A Ruddy Morning

Participating in the January waterfowl count at South Platte Park this morning, I was fortunate to be placed in the Reservoir group, offering me another opportunity to observe the yellow-billed loon that has been wintering in Littleton.  While the temperature was mild, a strong south wind produced a choppy surface across the partly-frozen reservoir and an uncomfortable wind-chill on the levee.

A host of diving ducks joined the celebrity loon, including lesser scaup, buffleheads and common goldeneyes.  But the highlight of our count was a large number of ruddy ducks, small, stiff-tailed divers that are primarily winter residents along the Front Range.  After breeding in the prairie pothole country of the northern Great Plains and Western Canada, ruddies head for large rivers, lakes reservoirs and coastal estuaries across the southern U.S. and the Pacific Northwest.  There they are often seen in large rafts, bobbing in the waves and waiting for dawn or dusk when they tend to be most active.

Ruddy ducks dive to feed on both aquatic invertebrates and aquatic plants.  Despite their small size and comical appearance, they are aggressive and territorial during the breeding season and produce rather precocious youngsters that are independent within a couple weeks.  Though abundant in some coastal regions during the winter months, ruddies are always a welcome sight when they join more common waterfowl species on inland lakes and reservoirs.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Heat before the Snow

As Pacific storm systems move west to east across the U.S., a southerly flow develops ahead of the cold front.  In the central and eastern States, this flow draws warm, humid air up from the Gulf of Mexico, fueling rain and/or snow as the storm arrives.

Here along the Colorado Front Range, well west of the Gulf of Mexico, the southerly winds bring warm, dry air up from the Desert Southwest; downsloping winds east of the Continental Divide further heat and dry the air, often producing summer-like warmth in the middle of winter.  Today, we reached a near-record high of 67 degrees F as the front approaches from the Great Basin.

Once the cold front crosses our region, expected to occur by tomorrow afternoon, the winds shift from the north and the temperature plummets.  Depending upon the latitude of the central low, we may receive upsloping northeast winds, pulling in moisture from the Great Plains and leading to significant snow accumulation.  For Metro Denver, such an upslope snowstorm is most likely to develop when the central low moves long the Colorado-New Mexico line; currently, the forecast indicates that the storm will follow that pattern and snow is expected to develop by the early morning hours on Sunday.  Since the storm system is forecast to move rapidly to the northeast, our snow accumulation will likely be modest (though we could use a foot or more).

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Taiga Shrike

This morning, while wandering through South Platte Park, I encountered a northern shrike, hunting from a barren tree in a lakeside meadow.  A native of the taiga across Alaska and Northern Canada, this species spreads south to the northern and western U.S. during the winter months when its smaller cousin (the loggerhead shrike) has moved on to warmer, more southern climes.

Generally solitary in winter, northern shrikes hunt from an exposed perch in a tree or tall shrub, dropping to snare songbirds or small mammals with its hooked beak and talons.  Its habit of storing excess prey by impaling it on thorns or barbed wire has earned it (and other shrikes) the nickname of "butcher birds."

By mid spring, northern shrikes return to their breeding grounds, favoring the open woodlands where boreal forest meets the Arctic tundra.  There they nest in stunted conifers, adding large insects to their diet and that of their growing youngsters; in a landscape of ephemeral pools and perpetual summer daylight, that prey is especially abundant.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Nature in Winter

We humans, native to the Tropics, tend to prefer warm, sunny weather.  Indeed, a significant portion of our population shuns winter altogether, venturing outdoors only to get the mail, walk the dog or fill the bird feeders.

Such disdain for winter is unfortunate since nature has much to offer during the colder months; if prepared with warm, layered clothing and appropriate footwear, one can take advantage of her gifts.  Those who brave the elements to visit nature preserves will find that non-hibernating mammals, invigorated by the chill and driven by the need for sustenance, are especially active and conspicuous.  Vistas are broader, trails are firmer and those pesky insects have either died off or escaped to their wintering sites.  Birders know that many avian species can only be observed during the colder months and that rare visitors (especially irruptive species) are most often encountered at this time of year.

Finally, for those of us who treasure solitude, the winter season offers abandoned trails, uncluttered parks and the opportunity to explore nature's ecosystems in quiet mode. We may have evolved in the Tropics but our adventurous spirit has taken us across the globe and into winter's realm.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Yellow-billed Loon visits Littleton

A yellow-billed loon is visiting South Platte Reservoir, in Littleton, attracting flocks of Front Range birders to the site.  Present for a week or so, the loon may hang around as long as it finds enough food or until spring arrives.

Natives of Arctic Canada and Alaska, yellow-billed loons are the largest members of their family.  After breeding on tundra lakes during the endless sunshine of the Arctic summer, they head for coastal waters of southern Alaska and British Columbia for the winter months.  There they ride out the season on coastal bays, diving for fish.

Some may winter farther down the Pacific Coast but yellow-billed loons rarely head for inland lakes.  Our current visitor is thus creating a great deal of excitement in Colorado and reminding us all that you never know what you'll find until you get out there and look!

Monday, January 8, 2018

Killers on the Highway

Heading back to Colorado, I drove from Columbia, Missouri, to Hays, Kansas, today.  The weather on the Great Plains was sunny and mild, a welcome change from the recent Arctic plunge.  Raptors seemed to appreciate the change as well, perching along the highway or soaring overhead.

Though I did not make an official count, I'm sure I saw more than 200 red-tailed hawks on today's journey, at least 20 of which were in pairs.  American kestrels were also common, though not as numerous, and several red-shouldered hawks were observed in Missouri.  Two bald eagles flew across the highway, one in west-central Missouri and the other above the Kansas River in Kansas City.  Six northern harriers (all male) were observed on the trip and a lone rough-legged hawk was encountered near Russell, Kansas (many more rough-legs will likely be seen tomorrow as I cross the High Plains of western Kansas and eastern Colorado).

Joining these hunters was a mystery raptor in eastern Kansas.  A light-colored falcon with a distinct yellow bill swooped across the Interstate and curved back to the east before I could get a close look.  My initial impression was that this bird was a gyrfalcon, an Arctic species that may be observed across the northern Plains in winter but would be extremely rare as far south as Kansas.  The other (and more likely) possibility is that it was a light-colored prairie falcon.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Evolution of Male Baldness

While male baldness has become stylish in recent decades, it has long been a source of anxiety in men, especially when it develops at a young age.  Just look at the trouble our President goes to in order to hide his balding pate.

The evolutionary benefit (if any) of male pattern baldness has long been the subject of debate.  It is known that genetics play a major role; an X-linked gene (inherited from the mother) is clearly involved in many cases while inheritance from the father also occurs but is less well understood.  We also know that male baldness occurs in chimps, a species that shares more than 98% of our genes.

The question remains, however, why these genes have been retained throughout human history.  Some have suggested that male baldness is just the next stage in our evolution as the "naked ape" while others surmise that balding is sexually selected as a sign of maturity.  Since we evolved in the tropics, it is possible that hair loss from the scalp (which is highly vascular) may have been beneficial in the dissipation of heat during strenuous hunting activity.  In the end, baldness may just be genetically linked to other metabolic traits (e.g. higher testosterone levels) that somehow benefit survival. 

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Trump and our Natural Heritage

Many Americans could offer a variety of reasons why President Trump should be removed from office but those of us who care about the health and welfare of Earth's natural ecosystems are especially alarmed by the actions of his Administration.  Slashing environmental regulations and ridiculing the science of climate change, they have favored economic development at every turn.

Having opened up National Monuments and Wilderness Areas for oil and mineral extraction, the Trump Administration has now indicated their intention to permit offshore oil drilling along all coastal areas of the U.S., including the Arctic Ocean.  Seemingly blind to the potential complications of such a policy (do they not recall the Deepwater Horizon disaster?), these right-wing zealots are proceeding with reckless disregard for our natural environment.

No doubt, their conservative political convictions are tied to religious beliefs that grant them dominion over the planet (in Trump's case, it's just pure narcissism).  Were they to accept the fact that we humans are part of nature, just another species on the vast tree of life, they would surely be less sanguine about their policies.  Our natural heritage is at risk and a change in national leadership cannot come soon enough. 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Ancestry Craze

One can hardly watch television, surf the internet or peruse a magazine without encountering ads for companies that want to research your ancestry.  Since DNA analysis has become less expensive and more widely available, it is only natural that entrepreneurs have found ways to make money with that technology.

While most humans are interested in their "recent" ancestry (i.e. where their great grandparents were born), relatively few of us care to know that we are, for example, 20% Somalian, 30% Irish, 15% Russian and 35% Polynesian.  We understand that human cultures have been mixing (sexually) for thousands of years and that we are all genetic mosaics.  On the other hand, one can hope that such data might put a lid on racial supremacy and zealous nationalism.

At no charge, I offer the following ancestral revelations.  Wherever we may have been born, we are all Africans from the perspective of our genetic heritage; indeed, we share more than 98% of our genome with chimpanzees from which our ancestors diverged 7 million years ago.  In addition, those humans of European or West Asian descent are 5% Neandertal (genetically speaking) while those of East Asian or Australian descent harbor Denisovan genes (4-5% of their genome); anthropologists also suspect that early humans interbred with Homo erectus, the immediate predecessor of Homo sapiens.  See also Human Hybridism.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

North to a Frozen Landscape

Leaving Longboat Key early on New Years Day, we were enveloped in relatively cool pre-dawn air (61 degrees F) as we headed north.  By the time we reached Tampa, light mist was coating the windshield and bands of showers continued to fall throughout northern Florida; this precipitation marked the leading edge of the cold front that had placed most of the central and eastern U.S. in a deep freeze.  Sunshine broke through the clouds as we crossed into southern Georgia but the temperature was a humid 39 degrees F.  The cooling progressed as we travelled northward through Georgia and, when we reached Chattanooga for our overnight stay, it was 12 degrees in the Tennessee River Valley. 

This morning, we crossed the Cumberland Plateau before dawn, the winter landscape lit by a bright super-moon, and we were greeted by a 5 degree air mass in the Cumberland River Valley at Nashville.  Neither the Tennessee nor the Cumberland River had ice floes but, farther north, all lakes, ponds and small rivers were frozen over and a dusting of snow coated most of the farmlands; ice floes clogged both the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers at St. Louis.

We finally reached Columbia by mid afternoon where, despite the bright sunshine, it was 15 degrees (having climbed from an overnight low of minus one).  As the massive dome of frigid air moves eastward, we'll slowly warm up here in the Heartland; above freezing temperatures are expected by this weekend.  After almost two weeks in the warm, Subtropics, it may take us that long to adjust.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Aesthetic Evolution: Not Convinced

Since I have been a birder for more than forty years and have long had an interest in natural history, my son gave me a copy of The Evolution of Beauty, How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World--and Us, by Richard O. Prum.  An ornithologist himself, Prum devotes most of his book to the discussion of exotic mating rituals in birds and the last couple chapters to the evolution of human sexual behavior.  In my opinion, the ties between the two are a bit of a stretch.

Mr. Prum points out that Darwin's first book, On the Origin of Species, is renowned for presenting his theory of natural selection but that his second book, The Descent of Man, makes a case for the role of sexual selection in evolution, a theory that has received a cool reception among most evolutionary biologists.  Prum's book, by his own account, is an effort to defend and expand upon Darwin's theory that sexual selection (i.e. mate choice) has long played a significant role in the evolution of animals.  While his data is very thorough and interesting, I fall into the category of what Prum calls neo-Wallacians (those who are inclined to accept the unvarnished adaptive evolution model proposed by Alfred Russell Wallace, Darwin's colleague).

First of all, I think the phrase "Evolution of Beauty" is misleading and actually works against his argument.  While most of us accept the fact that sexual selection has played a major role in the evolution of intelligent hominids (i.e. humans), physical appearance is but one of many factors in the selection of a mate (a point that Mr. Prum thoroughly discusses himself).  To suggest that female birds choose mates based solely on the beauty and complexity of the males' mating displays is to imply that they are capable of subjective choice and that other factors are not involved.  In the end, the concept of aesthetic evolution seems to simplify a very complex process that, most naturalists believe, is devoted solely to the propagation of one's genome.  Nevertheless, I recommend that you read Prum's book and decide for yourself.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Politics of Ignorance

As his first year as President draws to a close, Donald Trump is once again ridiculing the science of climate change and peppering his tweets with a series of lies.  While embellishing his own achievements and belittling his predecessors, Trump relies on the ignorance of his base to sustain what little approval he receives.

Fomenting distrust of the Judicial Branch, blaming immigrants for crime and terrorism, linking job loss to globalization, questioning the loyalty of his own Cabinet members and obliterating a host of environmental regulations, Trump feeds a steady stream of propaganda to his uneducated legions.  As a result, he has squandered the reputation of this nation and diminished our influence across the globe.

Whether the President and his campaign officials colluded with Russia or not, his disdain for American democracy, his attacks on our free press, his distrust of science and his willingness to threaten the welfare of our environment are reason enough to warrant impeachment.  We cannot condone his lies, his bullying and his ignorance.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Honoring Brutality

This morning, my wife and I visited the De Soto National Memorial Park, northwest of Bradenton, Florida, at the mouth of the Manatee River.  It is one of several sites along the Gulf Coast where the Spanish Conquistador, Hernando de Soto, was thought to have come ashore as he and his party explored Florida and the Southeast in the mid 1500s.

While our visit was prompted by river views and the Park's trail network, trail signage and the Memorial's Interpretive Center reminded us of the negative aspects of Spanish exploration in the New World.  Though one might focus on the courage and tenacity of the Conquistadors, we must also acknowledge the brutality that occurred as they plundered Native American civilizations and forcefully instilled their Catholic faith.

Earlier this year, following the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, many American cities began to remove the statues of Confederate war heroes, concluding that their historic and artistic value did not outweigh the cause for which those men fought.  It seems to me that the actions of Spanish Conquistadors were at least as atrocious and that they do not deserve public memorials to honor their conquests.  Museums, which (hopefully) offer a complete picture of their historical "adventures," are better suited to define their role in history.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Leffis Key Preserve

At the extreme southeast end of Anna Marie Island, Leffis Key juts eastward into Sarasota Bay.  Centered on a reclaimed spoil pile that rises 26 feet above the bay, the Leffis Key Preserve protects and continues to restore natural habitats of this small island and is accessed by a fine network of sandy trails and boardwalks.

The boardwalks wind through coastal mangroves and over tidal creeks, leading out to decks at the edge of the bay.  From these view points, the visitor can observe a wide variety of gulls, terns, pelicans, cormorants, waders and bay ducks.  The most unique feature of the preserve is the spoil pile itself, now covered with upland trees and shrubs; trails lead to the summit, which offers broad views of Leffis Key, Sarasota Bay and adjacent landscapes.  Local birders know that it is one of the better regional sites to observe resident and migrant songbirds.

Among the songbirds observed today were common ground doves, blue-gray gnatcatchers, northern cardinals, northern mockingbirds and palm, yellow-rumped and black and white warblers.  Sightings on and along the bay included red-breasted mergansers, brown and American white pelicans, ospreys, little blue herons and snowy egrets, among other species.  Visitors are advised that dogs are not permitted in the refuge.  

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Perico Preserve

Perico Island guards the north end of Sarasota Bay, east of Anna Marie Island; it is separated from the mainland by Perico Bayou.  Perico Preserve, stretching across 176 acres of the island, has been established to reclaim natural habitat that was destroyed by agricultural, residential and industrial development.  Mangroves, tidal creeks, saltwater bayous, freshwater ponds, coastal scrublands and upland woods of slash pine, live oak and cabbage palm characterize the preserve.

While restoration of this Manatee County refuge is still underway, Perico Preserve is open to the public and is accessed by 1.5 miles of sandy trails; scenic wooden bridges ford the tidal streams and take visitors out to the edge of Perico Bayou.  Birders will find a large diversity of coastal species and, this morning, we observed 22 of them; highlights included American white pelicans, wood storks, little blue herons, roseate spoonbills and common gallinules.

The entrance to Perico Preserve is on the north side of Route 64 (Manatee Avenue), a short distance east of the drawbridge.  Dogs (other than those used for assistance) are not permitted in this recovering sanctuary.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Celebrating the Birth

On this Christian Holy Day, celebrating the birth of Jesus, I thought it appropriate to celebrate the birth of life itself.  While religious scripture suggests that Jesus was born 2000 years ago, scientific data reveals that life first evolved 3.6 billion years ago, some 10 billion years after the birth of the Universe.

Today, devout Christians, many convinced that the Earth is but 4000 years old, will flock to their churches and engage in rituals that date back to the birth of their faith.  That faith, central to their lives, fosters the belief that they are chosen among men, a mindset that has fueled intolerance, discrimination and hatred throughout the centuries.  Like all religions and despite its humble beginnings, Christianity has long been a divisive force in human society and, by extension, a threat to the welfare of our planet.

As for myself, I will visit the sea on this Christmas morning, the cradle of all life on Earth.  It took more than 3 billion years for life to escape her realm but her health remains vital to all plants and animals (humans included) that inhabit this planet.  Indeed, our welfare is tied to the health of all natural ecosystems; part of nature, we must dedicate ourselves to protecting her and resist the mysticism that arose with the dawn of our species. 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Terra Ceia Preserve State Park

The Terra Ceia Preserve State Park is a 2000 acre refuge along the south shore of Tampa Bay, in Manatee County.  A mosaic of mangrove swamps, freshwater wetlands, open meadows and upland woods of slash pine, cabbage palm and live oak, the preserve was established to restore natural habitat in an area once used for agriculture; though it is a State Park, there are no "amenities" at this point and parking is very limited.

The refuge is accessed by a network of graveled roads and sandy foot trails.  This morning, my wife and I encountered 21 bird species as we hiked through the preserve; turkey vultures, great egrets, American robins and palm warblers were most numerous while highlights included anhingas, wood storks, ospreys and noisy common gallinules.  Alligators inhabit the refuge but were not observed this morning.

Well off the beaten path, this Park is reached from Route 19, just south of I-275.  Drive east on Terra Ceia Road and proceed about 0.5 mile to Hightower Road.  Turn left, passing under I-275 and then continue westward to the parking area and gated entrance.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Crinum Lily in Bloom

Walking through the Joan Durante Park on Longboat Key this morning, my wife and I came across a crinum lily in bloom.  Also know as giant spider lilies or swamp lilies, these large plants are native to the subtropics of Southeast Asia but have since become naturalized in tropical and subtropical regions across the globe.

Up to six feet tall and represented by almost 200 species worldwide, crinum lilies are perennial, evergreen bulb plants that favor swamps or riparian woodlands; they propagate by suckering (producing large clumps) or by seed.  The natural species have 2-6 fragrant white flowers which curve and merge to yield a globular flower head; in tropical and subtropical habitats, flowering occurs throughout the year.

Though we have explored the Joan Durante Park on many occasions (and in all seasons) over the years, this was our first encounter with a crinum lily in bloom; it would have been hard to miss the large flower cluster or its pleasant fragrance.  Just another reminder that timing plays a major role when we experience natural ecosystems.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Mystery Flycatcher

Yesterday, while walking along the boat canal at our condo complex, I spotted a flycatcher at the top of a small tree.  It lacked eye-rings, had white wing bars, had a white chest with dusky sides and had a faint yellow wash on its abdomen.  My initial impression was that the bird was a willow flycatcher which, by December, should be in Central or South America; in fact, this flycatcher is not even a regular migrant in South Florida, tending to move southward through Mexico.

Indeed, the only flycatchers that winter on Longboat Key are eastern phoebes, great crested flycatchers, western kingbirds and scissor-tailed flycatchers.  My report to eBird was thus appropriately questioned and I promised to search for the bird again and, if possible, obtain a photo of the mystery flycatcher.  Alas, today's efforts were in vain though I did observe the bird from a distance; I will continue my quest over the next week.

Such are the joys, challenges and frustrations of birding.  Expected species are often not found while rare visitors turn up out of the blue.  The ranges in the field guides can be misleading and migrant birds may be found far from their usual routes.  "Hunting" for these wayward travelers fuels the enthusiasm of veteran birders.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Low Tide on Longboat Key

By mid morning, the subtropical sun had baked away a dense, overnight fog and a low tide produced extensive shallows along the edge of Sarasota Bay.  American white pelicans floated through the thinning mist while a wide variety of waders (herons and egrets) stalked the expanding mudflats.

Fish, dominated by mullets, were now confined to the deeper waters, attracting a bottle-nosed dolphin that cruised up and down our boat channel.  Brown pelicans, royal terns and ospreys also took advantage of the concentrated prey, diving to snare a mid-morning meal; they were joined by double-crested cormorants and red-breasted mergansers that dove for fish from the surface.

Over on the beach, nervous flocks of sanderlings raced ahead of the incoming waves, laughing gulls lounged in the morning sun and sandwich terns dropped like rocks into the restless Gulf, always emerging with a small fish.  Though I scanned the horizon for northern gannets, they did not appear on this warm, December morning but I expect to see them before our visit ends.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Highway Birding: Day Two

When we left Chattanooga this morning (see yesterday's post), it was still dark and a steady rain was falling.  The first light of dawn brightened the clouds as we drove through Dalton, Georgia, but the rain continued until we reached Atlanta.  Other than a few crows, I had not observed any birds to that point on this soggy morning.

South of Atlanta, the clouds began to break up and massive flocks of vultures (both turkey and black) soared overhead.  Farther south, in southern Georgia, I encountered flocks of tree swallows on the power lines and saw a few anhingas and great egrets in roadside wetlands.  Soon after we crossed into Florida, a peregrine falcon swooped over the highway but vultures, crows and rock pigeons continued to dominate the sightings.

Approaching Tampa, the avian diversity increased significantly, including white ibis, wood storks, cattle egrets, laughing gulls, cormorants and ospreys.  Indeed, of the 32 species that I encountered between Columbia, Missouri, and Longboat Key, more than a third were observed in the vicinity of Tampa Bay.  While I certainly anticipated that the final count would be much higher, the periods of rain took a toll and birding at 70 mph offered its own challenges.  Nevertheless, birding on the road made the journey more interesting.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Birding on the Road

As we left Columbia, Missouri, this morning, on our way to Longboat Key, Florida, I decided to count the number of bird species that I observed along the highways; after all, one needs something to make a long drive through familiar terrain more interesting.  Cloudy weather, with intermittent fog and drizzle, didn't help nor did a massive traffic jam in Nashville, Tennessee; the latter assured that the remaining portion of today's journey (ending in Chattanooga) would occur in darkness.

As one might expect, open-country species accounted for most of the observations; these included Canada geese, American crows, mourning doves, red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, ring-billed gulls and turkey vultures, among others.  Two bald eagles were observed (in eastern Missouri and western Illinois) and two flocks of American white pelicans were unexpectedly encountered; these tardy migrants were on Rend Lake, in southern Illinois, and on Lake Barkley, in northwestern Kentucky.

After a night in Chattanooga, we should complete our trip to Longboat Key by tomorrow evening (weather and traffic permitting).  Hopefully, bird sightings will increase as we travel through more southern latitudes and I will include the total species count (for the entire journey) on my next post.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

A Ladybird in December

On this mild, sunny afternoon in central Missouri, I was reading on our back deck when a ladybird beetle landed on my arm.  This beloved beetle, typically associated with warm summer days, usually overwinters in large congregations, choosing protected sites in barns, sheds, loose bark or brush piles.  However, during periods of warm winter weather, they may become active and I was pleased to encounter one today.

Appreciated for both their cute, colorful body and their taste for harmful insects, ladybirds (often called ladybugs) are always a welcome sight but today's visitor brought an unsettling message as well.  These days, it's hard to discover dandelions or ladybirds in December without acknowledging that our climate is warming.

While periods of mild winter weather have been occurring for decades, usually the result of atypical weather patterns and unrelated to climate change, we have now become increasingly aware of global warming and of our role in its development.  It is thus difficult to enjoy the presence of a ladybird beetle, a week before Christmas, without thinking of the ecological effects that our species has wrought.