Thursday, February 11, 2016

South Valley Park

A hogback of Cretaceous sandstone forms the eastern edge of the Colorado Front Range, rising sharply from the Piedmont.  Just west of this hogback is the Morrison Valley, underlaid with Jurassic shale; at its western edge is the Lyons Formation (Permian in age), a yellow-gray ridge of sandstone.  West of this ridge are the scenic red rocks, outcrops of salmon-colored Pennsylvanian sandstone known as the Fountain Formation.  Shrublands of Gambel's oak, junipers and yucca-studded meadows cover the lowlands between the rock ridges, spreading onto lower slopes of the Front Range foothills.

South Valley Park, part of Jefferson County's Open Space System, stretches north from Deer Creek Canyon to Ken-Caryl Ranch; the refuge provides access to the foothill shrubland ecosystem and offers spectacular views of both the rock formations mentioned above and the foothills to the west.  A combined loop using the Coyote Song and Swallow Trails, perhaps the most popular route in the Park, yields a hike of 2.7 miles; parking lots are located on Deer Creek Canyon Road and along South Valley Road (just south of Ken-Carly Ranch).  Permanent avian residents of South Valley Park include golden eagles, scrub jays, black-billed magpies, spotted towhees, canyon wrens and gray-headed juncos; among the summer residents are white-throated swifts, Say's phoebes, black-headed grosbeaks, lazuli buntings, green-tailed towhees, lesser goldfinches, rock wrens and Virginia's warblers while Townsend's solitaires, Steller's jays, northern shrikes, golden-crowned sparrows and rosy finches may visit during the colder months.  Mammalian residents include mule deer, red fox, coyotes, rock squirrels, and Colorado chipmunks; black bear and mountains lions are rarely encountered and herds of elk winter in the valley.

Today, thanks to the ongoing thaw, patches of slushy snow and sandy mud coated the trails but the mild air and clear skies made my hike especially pleasant.  Scrub jays, towhees and magpies provided a steady background chorus and small herds of mule deer browsed along the meadows.  Though I repeatedly scanned the foothill meadows, no elk were observed; an early morning or late day visit would have been more productive in this regard. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Winter takes a Hit

Down at South Platte Park this morning, crunchy snow still covered the ground and a layer of ice coated the larger lakes.  Winter ducks congregated on the river and open pools; northern shovelers were most abundant, joined by buffleheads, common goldeneyes, lesser scaup, American coot, ring-necked ducks, common mergansers and a pair of redheads.

A great blue heron hunted in the shallows and red-winged blackbirds, sensing spring, called from the icy wetlands.  Red-tailed hawks and black-billed magpies basked in the bright Colorado sun while downy woodpeckers scoured dead limbs for hibernating insects.  Finally, a pair of belted kingfishers chattered above the river, seemingly in celebration of the mild, sunny weather.

Indeed, the extended forecast calls for highs in the fifties and sixties (F) over the next ten days, putting a significant dent in winter's handiwork.  Then again, March and April lie ahead, two of the snowiest months along the Colorado Front Range.

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Field of Snows

My journey back to Colorado, across the Great Plains of North America, was mostly uneventful. Except for strong northwest winds across the High Plains, the weather cooperated and the usual mix of raptors and grassland songbirds made their appearance.  A common snipe did zigzag across the highway west of Salina, a lone trumpeter swan claimed a small farm pond east of Russell and, to my amusement, a pair of adult bald eagles sat in the middle of a Kansas crop field, far from any large lake or river.

But the highlight of my excursion came west of Russell, Kansas, where snow covered much of the landscape.  Coming over a rise, I saw what appeared to be a snow covered field; seconds later, to my surprise and pleasure, the snow exploded into the air, breaking into a thousand or more pieces.  A massive flock of snow geese circled into the bright blue sky, beginning the next segment of their journey to the Arctic.

They were my first snows of the season and are always an inspiring sight.  Traveling at 70 mph, I put down my window to enjoy their calls but the intense northwest wind drowned out any noise from the swirling flock.  While I was escaping to spring-like warmth along the Colorado Front Range, they were heading into the teeth of the latest Canadian Clipper; one has to admire their fortitude.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Parents & Football Trauma

Within a few hours of my writing this post, the 50th Super Bowl will be underway.  I will not be watching; that's the least I can do.

Having played football in grade school, I switched to swimming and baseball in later years.  Our son also shunned football, opting for soccer, tennis and swimming, evoking reference to "sissy sports" from some extended family members.  Indeed, a large number of boys choose to play football, encouraged by fathers who played the sport or by those who wish they had experienced the glory.  Chasing the promise of wealth and fame, fueled by the same public voyeurism that filled the Roman Coliseum, those with exceptional talent stay the course, ignoring the risk of serious injuries that include spine fractures and traumatic encephalopathy.

Finally acknowledging these risks, the NFL and the NCAA have enforced a number of safety rules and are seeking to improve the protective gear.  While such efforts are no doubt sincere, the financial windfall is too great to significantly alter or abolish the sport; besides, rabid fans, the media, the sporting goods industry and wealthy alumni would not condone such a drastic move.  In the end, it will be up to parents to turn the tide, discouraging their boys from playing football (at least in its present form).  Those who ridicule such an idea, seeing it as just another move to "pamper" our kids, are either blindly committed to the sport or insensitive to the growing list of tragedies.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Introducing Grandkids to Eagles

Watching our grandsons for the day, we decided to coax them away from their cartoons and computer games by suggesting a visit to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area.  The promise of seeing bald eagles seemed to do the trick and we set off with our binos and field guide amidst an air of enthusiasm.

Arriving at the refuge on this cool, sunny morning, we were fortunate to spot an adult eagle within a few minutes, perched near its massive nest; the boys were thrilled by the encounter and they remained attentive for a half hour or so.  We saw mallards, Canada geese, American coot, great blue herons, ring-billed gulls, red-tailed hawks, white-tailed deer and several more eagles as we circled through the refuge but their interest rapidly waned.  Attempting to boost their enthusiasm, we stopped to skip pebbles across a frozen slough and to watch a freight train beyond the swift flowing Missouri.  Alas, reports of hunger and boredom shortened our visit.

Too young to fully appreciate the floodplain refuge, their focus had turned toward the digital entertainment awaiting at home.  But I have no doubt that they will remember our trip and will surely mention the eagles to their schoolmates and friends.  Hopefully, it will spawn requests to return to Eagle Bluffs in the months and years to come, gradually expanding their interest in the magnificent diversity that nature has to offer.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Wintering Tundra Swans

Breeding across the Arctic tundra of Alaska and Canada, North American tundra swans are represented by two populations, each currently comprised of about 100,000 birds.  The western population, which breeds in Alaska, winters on estuaries of the Pacific Northwest and on lakes of California's Central Valley and the Great Basin.

The eastern population, which often stops to rest and feed in wetlands along the Great Lakes during migrations, winter primarily on coastal bays of the Mid-Atlantic region.  Nevertheless, small flocks may turn up anywhere between these major wintering areas, including lakes along the Front Range of Colorado and New Mexico, reservoirs of the Great Plains and riverine wetlands along the Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas and Ohio Valleys.

Resting on open waters, these magnificent birds feed primarily on aquatic vegetation and on waste grain in nearby agricultural fields; they are also known to consume clams and other marine invertebrates.  Like snow geese, their spring migration (which peaks from February to March) is often more gradual and less direct than their autumn flights and the swans generally travel in smaller flocks.  Smaller and slimmer than trumpeter swans, tundra swans are also identified by their high-pitched calls (hence their nickname: "whistling swans") and by a small yellow patch at the base of their bill.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Labels, Partisanship & Freedom

To date, candidates in the Presidential primaries seem to be more focused on labels than on policies.  Quick to question one another's conservatism or liberalism, they are playing to the extreme elements of their parties, favoring partisanship rather than independence.

We humans, tribal by nature, have long been enamored with labels, using them to declare our allegiance to certain groups; nationalism, political party affiliation and church membership are among the most common social labels in modern society.  Of course, such partisanship is one of the most divisive forces as well, fomenting discrimination and intolerance and derailing efforts to cooperate.

In the end, our personal freedoms are threatened by partisanship, potentially placing us at the mercy of extreme elements within society.  Admitting one's commitment to moderation and compromise may be political suicide in American political primaries but a willingness to discard labels and partisanship offers the only hope for our dysfunctional government.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Into the Light

Forget the silly groundhog ritual, spring is on its way.  By early February, the higher sun angle and lengthening daylight are evident to all who venture from their winter caves.  Though Old Man Winter has yet to lose his grip, Mother Sun is beginning to reclaim the American Heartland.

Snow and greater white-fronted geese are taking notice of the change and will soon invade our region, stopping to rest and feed on their way to the Arctic.  Periods of thaw are taking their toll on the landscape and the green tips of crocuses, snowdrops and hyacinths are peeking through the barren flowerbeds.  Perhaps most noticeable, morning birdsong is starting to intensify as the nesting season approaches; robins, cardinals, mourning doves, Carolina wrens and white-throated sparrows tend to be most vocal.

Of course, there will be blizzards, ice storms and raw weather ahead but the tide has surely turned.  As long as we humans can adopt the patience of our wild neighbors, we'll enjoy our journey into the light.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Laurentian Divide

The Continental Divide of North America stretches from Alaska to Mexico, generally following the Brooks Range and Rocky Mountain corridor; this divide is commonly known to separate the streams flowing toward the Pacific Ocean from those draining toward the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.  Actually, the northern section of the Continental Divide, from Alaska through the Yukon Territory of Canada, separates streams flowing toward the Pacific from those flowing into the Arctic Ocean.  As far south as the U.S.-Canada border, it divides streams heading for the Pacific from those flowing toward Hudson Bay.

Geographers and hydrologists thus recognize the Laurentian Divide (also known as the Northern Divide), which stretches west to east between the Continental Divide and the Labrador Sea, dividing streams that flow northward to the Arctic or to Hudson Bay from those that flow southward toward the Gulf of Mexico or eastward to the Atlantic Ocean.  From Triple Divide Peak in Glacier National Park, this divide straddles the U.S.-Canada border through Montana, separating the watersheds of the Saskatchewan and Missouri Rivers.  Farther east, it angles southeastward through North Dakota and then northeastward through Minnesota, dividing the watershed of the Red River (which flows northward to Lake Winnipeg and thence northeast to Hudson Bay via the Nelson River) from those of the Missouri, Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.  Running north of the Great Lakes, the Laurentian Divide follows the northern edge of the St. Lawrence watershed, eventually running atop the crest of the Laurentian Mountains as they curve through Quebec and Labrador.

The Laurentian Divide ends at the mouth of the Hudson Strait on the Labrador Sea.  While some argue that Hudson Bay and its Strait are hydrologically part of the Atlantic Basin (which they are), the ecology of the Hudson Bay region is closer to that of the Arctic than to Temperate latitudes to the south.  For purists, the Arctic Divide runs north of the Saskatchewan watershed and north of Hudson Bay, demarcating the southern edge of various watersheds (including that of the MacKenzie River) that empty into the Arctic Ocean.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Surviving on Mars

This afternoon, my wife and I watched The Martian on streaming video.  The movie is about an astronaut who is stranded on the Red Planet after a storm aborts his team's mission and about NASA's efforts to rescue him.

Throughout the film, emphasis is placed upon the importance of courage, scientific knowledge, human ingenuity and international cooperation in both the astronaut's attempt to survive and in humanity's effort to retrieve one of its own.  There are no scenes invoking the intervention of deities or implying that miracles play a role in the process.  Frankly, mysticism is left our of the equation.

Unfortunately, in our modern world, that is not the case.  Science, especially when it contradicts traditional beliefs, is ridiculed and social support for scientific exploration is waning.  From my perspective, The Martian is less about one man's determination to survive than about the survival of our species.  The latter will require both respect for science across the globe and the willingness of all humans to adopt lifestyles that protect our planet; if not, we may all need to escape to Mars.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Canada's Missouri

The Missouri River of the U.S. rises along the Continental Divide in Montana and flows eastward across the Great Plains, receiving numerous tributaries along the way.  It eventually empties into the Mississippi, north of St. Louis, which drains southward to the Gulf of Mexico.  During the early European exploration of North America, the Missouri was an important route for traders and trappers; of course, it also provided navigation for the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

Farther north, in Canada, the Saskatchewan River mirrors the drainage of the Missouri.  Its North Fork rises in the Rockies southwest of Edmonton while its South Fork heads as the Bow River, west of Calgary.  After flowing through those respective cities, the primary forks cross the Central Plains of Canada and merge northeast of Saskatoon.  From there, the combined Saskatchewan River continues eastward until it enters remnants of Lake Agassiz (Cedar Lake and thence Lake Winnipeg).  The Nelson River drains Lake Winnipeg, flowing north and then northeast before entering Hudson Bay.

Like the Missouri, the Saskatchewan River, after dropping from the Rockies, once drained a vast prairie ecosystem, now converted to crop fields, ranchlands, towns and cities.  And, like the Missouri, it played a vital role in the exploration and settlement of North America.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Church of Kindness

Since establishing this blog in 2006, I have frequently expressed my disdain for organized religions, the most divisive and oppressive institutions ever conceived by human beings.  Throughout our history, they have spawned more suffering, conflict and intolerance than any other element of human civilization.

While we might admire the art and architecture of cathedrals, temples and mosques, they were built and have been maintained primarily by common laborers yet remain symbols of the wealth and power enjoyed by religious hierarchies.  Kept in line by fear and guilt, the faithful are obliged to participate in rituals, adhere to church rules, engage in public piety and, of course, donate to the coffers.  Meanwhile, church officials, above reproach in many cultures, have long escaped prosecution for their abusive behavior.

In my opinion, morality has no direct relationship to religion.  We don't need the trappings of religion to be kind to one another and, in the end, kindness is key to the welfare of humanity.  If God is out there somewhere, I suspect she would agree (see also Human Kindness and The Nature of Morality).

Monday, January 25, 2016

March in January

Were it March, today would be described as a raw day; showers are threatening, the afternoon temperature is hovering in the low-mid forties (F) and a gray overcast shrouds the landscape of central Missouri.  However, since it's late January and today's weather arrived on the heels of snow and frigid temperatures, this mid-winter thaw seems mild by comparison.

In fact, the relatively mild conditions coaxed us down to the Forum Nature Area in the Hinkson Creek Valley.  There we completed a two mile circuit through the preserve; unfortunately, pockets of residual ice on the muddy trail forced us to pay more attention to the path before us than to the surrounding winter landscape.  When we did stop to peruse the scene, little activity was noticed though the calls of blue jays, crows, flickers and Canada geese echoed through the Valley.

Nevertheless, this March-like interlude was more than welcome and, according to the current forecast, we can expect another by this coming weekend.  Of course, the battle between winter and summer will continue over the next few months and our definition of "warm spells" will change as the season advances.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Sun, Snow & Songbirds

Since returning to Columbia, Missouri, earlier this week, cold, sunny weather has been the rule and several inches of snow continue to cover our lawn and flower beds.  As a result, my bird feeding area (see Giving Up on Feeders) has attracted a large number and variety of songbirds.

House finches, house sparrows, juncos, tufted titmice, chickadees and white-throated sparrows have been most abundant, joined by lesser numbers of cardinals, blue jays, Carolina wrens, American goldfinches, northern flickers and mourning doves; though not yet observed this seasons, purple finches and fox sparrows may join these feeding groups.  Other residents and visitors, while not typically ground feeders, are often attracted to the scene by the activity of birds listed above; these include red-bellied, downy and hairy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, yellow-rumped warblers and cedar waxwings.

No doubt, all of these species would manage just fine without human handouts but persistent snow cover is certainly a stress for ground-feeding seed eaters.  Besides, what better way to attract such a large variety of birds in the middle of winter, especially for those new to birding; fifteen or more species from the comfort of your family room is a great way to start!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Anatomy of an Eastern Snowstorm

This morning, a massive snowstorm is developing over the Eastern U.S., fueled by several atmospheric and geographic factors.  A potent area of low pressure, currently over western Alabama, is sweeping Gulf of Mexico moisture across the Southeast.  In concert, a high pressure dome over the Great Lakes region is funneling cold air down from Canada, spreading sub-freezing air across all but the southernmost States.

The clash zone between the warm, moist southerly flow and the cold, dry air to the north is currently producing snow across the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys; along the southern edge of this band, an ice storm (including sleet and freezing rain) is expected to develop.  Later today, as the low pressure moves to the Eastern Seaboard, energized by the subtropical jet stream, it will intensify, pulling in copious moisture from the Atlantic Ocean.

Rather than moving rapidly up the coast, the storm is forecast to creep northward, stalled by the high pressure dome to the north.  This "blocking high," combined with the potent low, is expected to produce a long-lasting blizzard in the Mid-Atlantic region, perhaps dropping more than two feet of snow (especially along the eastern flank of the Appalachians).  Major cities and their airports will likely shut down, affecting at least 45 million people in this heavily populated region of the country.

Update:  As of 1-23-16, the storm has spread farther north than initially expected, now affecting at least 85 million people.  Power outages and coastal flooding (especially in New Jersey and southern New York) have become major problems.  Forty inches of snow have fallen in some areas of Virginia.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Politics, Science & the Environment

As the field of Republican Presidential candidates continues to dwindle, those left are courting the Right Wing of their Party, hoping to garner their support.  Of course, this means that they must ridicule global warming, oppose environmental regulations and promise to reduce federal funding for science, including space exploration and medical research.

Were it up to that segment of the American populace, we would eliminate the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency, would defund Planned Parenthood and stem cell research and would repeal subsidies for clean energy technology.  Opposed to most environmental regulations, they would curtail (if not repeal) legislation devoted to reducing air and water pollution, protecting wilderness areas and limiting human impact on vital ecosystems.

Fortunately, young voters seem inclined to adopt lifestyles that foster human health and protect the welfare of our environment.  Hopefully, they will use the power of the ballot to elect individuals who share their commitments.  After all, it is their future that is most threatened by the anti-science rhetoric and pro-industry policies of Right Wing Conservatives.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

North into Winter

Leaving Longboat Key before dawn yesterday morning, winter was already knocking on the door; it was 45 degrees F in southwest Florida.  As sunrise commenced near Tampa, flocks of wood storks streamed across the orange sherbet sky while farther north, near Ocala, sandhill cranes foraged in the chilly morning air.

Though sunny skies prevailed all the way to Chattanooga, the temperature remained near freezing for the rest of the day.  High, wispy clouds stretched above the north Georgia mountains and, west of Chattanooga, a gray overcast shrouded the Cumberland Plateau, signaling the change to come.  Indeed, we stopped in Nashville, Tennessee, for the night, where snow was expected by morning; unfortunately, we received sleet and freezing rain, coating our vehicle with ice.

Heading north from Nashville, we encountered the snow near Clarksville, where plows seemed to be out of service; crawling along on the snow-packed Interstate, we eventually reached clear pavement south of Paducah, Kentucky.  From then on, our journey through the snowy landscape was unimpaired and we reached Columbia my mid afternoon.  To be honest, after almost two weeks in Florida, I was glad to be back in the American Heartland, where four honest seasons unfold; I'll take my summer heat with the glorious colors of autumn, the invigorating snowstorms of winter and the slow, uneven recovery of spring.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Ibis Patrol

Those of us who have homes in the Temperate latitudes of North America are familiar with flocks of robins, starlings or grackles that patrol our lawns, searching for insects, worms and grubs.  Down here in Florida, white ibis also perform that duty.

Roaming about in sizable flocks, these attractive birds feed in a variety of habitats, including fresh and saltwater wetlands, tidal mudflats, sloughs and fields, searching for crustaceans, marine worms, frogs, fish, small snakes and a host of aquatic invertebrates.  White ibis also patrol lawns, often marching side by side while probing the grass for insects and slugs; one such group, composed of four adults and two juveniles, has been feeding along our condo complex in recent days.

Highly social, white ibis nest and roost in large colonies, often in the company of egrets and herons.  They breed along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast, from North Carolina to Mexico and are permanent residents throughout Florida.  Indeed, there are few birds so closely associated with the Deep South than these curve-billed waders.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Night of Tornadoes

Awakened by tornado warnings on our cell phones last night (just before 3AM), we turned on the TV and watched as a twister raked Siesta Key and moved northeastward through Metro Sarasota; three others followed in its wake but were less intense than the first.

The severe weather developed ahead of a potent cold front and were fueled, in part, by a strong subtropical jet stream, an atmospheric feature associated with El Nino.  Indeed, while most Florida tornadoes occur during the annual hurricane season (June to November), the strongest tend to develop during the winter months, especially in El Nino years.

Here on Longboat Key, we received heavy rain last night and continue to experience strong northwesterly winds behind the cold front this morning.  Fortunately, we escaped the brunt of the storms and were treated to a spectacular light show across Sarasota Bay as they moved onshore.  Unfortunately, at least two individuals were killed by the tornadoes.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Florida's High Country

The State of Florida lies completely within the Coastal Plain Province of North America and is not known for hilly or mountainous terrain.  Its highest point, Britton Hill (345 feet above sea level), lies within the North Florida Highlands of the Panhandle, near the Alabama border.

If one were to choose a classic "high country" region, however, it would be along the Lake Wales Ridge that runs north to south in Lake and Polk Counties (between Lakeland and Orlando); from this topographic and geologic ridge, streams flow into several of Florida's major watersheds.  To the northwest are the tributaries of the Withlacoochee River, which eventually enters the Gulf of Mexico at Yankeetown.  To the northeast, streams feed the middle portion of the St. John's River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville.  Directly west of the Ridge, several rivers (including the Alafia and Manatee) drain into Tampa Bay while, to the southwest, the Peace River and its tributaries flow toward Charlotte Harbor.  Finally, east and southeast of the Lake Wales Ridge, the Kissimmee River flows SSE to Lake Okeechobee (and thence into the Everglades).

While it may seem inappropriate to speak of high country in Florida, water sculpts all landscapes, even those with modest relief.  The highest point along the Lake Wales Ridge (Sugarloaf Mountain) may be only 312 feet above sea level but this central Florida upland feeds some of the largest rivers in the State.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Death of a Loon

Walking along the canal this morning, I found a dead common loon, bobbing behind a sailboat.  Its carcass appeared to be fresh and no injuries were evident.

Like many humans, he had come south to escape the snow and ice of our northern climes and to fish on the warm waters of Sarasota Bay; no doubt, he had made several journeys prior to his death.  Now, a thousand miles from his north country birthplace, his remains float in subtropical waters, soon to sink to the canal's muddy bottom.  There, crabs, fish and a host of marine invertebrates will strip away his flesh and his soft, avian bones will be scattered by the tidal current.

We humans, encountering such a victim, mourn his tragic death.  We grieve to find the lifeless body of such a romantic species so far from his boreal homeland.  But nature's cycle endures and, for many of us, the fate of this loon, to blend with the magnificent ecosystem of Sarasota Bay, is far more appealing than to be buried in a quilted box.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Gannets on the Horizon

After several days of a persistent east wind, the Gulf of Mexico was smooth as glass this morning.  Unfortunately, the resident birds were unimpressed and, during our two mile walk along the beach, we encountered only small numbers of shorebirds, least terns, brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants.

However, whenever I stopped to scan the calm sea, I observed flocks of northern gannets on the horizon, diving for their breakfast; at one point, a few moved closer to shore and could be observed without binoculars.  After breeding on rocky cliffs along the northern Atlantic Ocean (see Gannets of Bird Rock and Bonaventure Island National Park), these large sea birds disperse across the Atlantic for the winter months, where juveniles remain year-round until old enough to breed.  In North America, they may be observed off the East Coast, from the Canadian Maritimes to the Gulf of Mexico.

Today's events highlight the importance of knowing what to look for, having the patience to stop and scan the environment and having the tools (binoculars or spotting scopes) to observe distant wildlife. What may have been an unproductive birding walk proved to be far more interesting.