Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Cackling Geese

On my walk along the South Platte this morning, I encountered a large flock of cackling geese, resting on the river.  Prior to 2004, these "small Canada geese" were considered to be subspecies of their larger cousins.  They are now classified as a separate species though they, themselves, are represented by several subspecies.

After nesting on the Arctic tundra of Northwest Canada and Alaska, cackling geese winter in the Pacific Coast States or in the south-central U.S.; their numbers seem to be increasing along the Colorado Front Range, both during migrations and throughout the winter.  When mingling with Canada geese, cackling geese are relatively easy to identify due to their smaller size, stubby bill, shorter neck and, in some subspecies, a white collar at the base of their neck.  They also have a higher-pitched call than Canada geese and, in my experience, tend to be calmer and quieter when resting on lakes or rivers.

Cackling geese are perhaps easiest to identify when flying at a distance.  While their coloration matches that of Canadas, their small size makes them look more like ducks than geese.  Should the flock approach your location, their higher-pitched calls confirm the identification.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

When Idols Dismiss Truth

While perusing the New York Times this morning, I came across a report that Stephen Curry, an NBA Superstar and surely an idol for millions of children and adults across the globe, stated on a podcast that he doubts humans landed on the moon.  Far from an expert on space exploration, Curry should have checked the facts before making a statement that might influence his admirers.

Celebrities have the opportunity to do a great deal of good during their lives, especially by calling attention to the plight of poorly educated and underserved communities; I suspect that Mr. Curry has already donated a significant amount of time and money to such causes.  But to make rash statements that undermine historical and scientific facts is both dangerous and irresponsible.

America is already challenged by a President who dismisses truth and ridicules those who attempt to counter his lies about climate change, the judicial system, our free press and a host of other issues vital to our Democracy.  We certainly don't need others, especially well-known celebrities, to exacerbate attacks on truth; one can only begin to imagine the number of history and science teachers who will be called upon to negate Stephen Curry's offhand remarks. 

Monday, December 10, 2018

December on the Great Plains

Leaving Columbia, Missouri, at dawn, I headed west and soon dipped through a dense ice-fog that filled the Missouri River Valley.  Throughout western Missouri, frost-backed cattle grazed in icy fields while stoic red-tailed hawks patrolled the highway from barren trees and phone poles.

In eastern Kansas, an atmospheric inversion had put a lid on the Kansas River basin, producing hazy air and keeping the effluent of factories and power plants within a few hundred feet of the ground; the inversion broke down west of Junction City and bright sunshine lit my course for the rest of the trip.  Throughout central Kansas, where snowbanks lined the highway, numerous flocks of crows, meadowlarks, longspurs and Canada geese moved about the farmlands; the highlight in this region was a large flock of snow geese that funneled down to a crop field, east of Hays.

Farther west, on the High Plains of western Kansas and eastern Colorado, bright sunshine, dry air and a steady southwest wind warmed the temperature into the low fifties (F).  Raptors were abundant across this flat landscape, including rough-legged hawks, prairie falcons, northern harriers, American kestrels and some red-tails.  As I approached Denver, the Front Range was backlit by a spectacular sunset, producing a silhouette of mountains from the Pike's Peak massif to the Wyoming border and a scenic end to my December journey across the Great Plains.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Short-ear Strike-out

Since short-eared owls have been spotted at Bradford Farm over the past week and since I return to Colorado tomorrow, I thought one last visit was in order.  Unfortunately, most of the observations have occurred near dusk and my early morning effort was, once again, unsuccessful.  On the positive side, there is a decent chance that I will see them out West.

Short-eared owls breed across Canada, Alaska and the northwest quadrant of the Lower 48, favoring open country where they fly close to the ground, hunting for rodents and birds.  Come fall, these raptors head for prairies, wetlands and coastal dune fields across most of the country and may be found in small groups where prey is abundant.  Unlike most owls, short-ears are often active during the day, especially just after dawn or just before dusk.

My interest in finding these predators is partly based on nostalgia.  I discovered my first short-eared owl along the southeast coast of North Carolina, in 1976, when my birding "career" had just begun.  Flapping above the dunes at Wrightsville Beach, that winter visitor was one of a few species that truly ignited my enthusiasm for birding.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Eagle Bluffs' other Birds

Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain, is best known for its water birds (waterfowl, waders, shorebirds, pelicans, etc.) and its raptors (especially, of course, its bald eagles).  As a result, many visitors focus on the fields and wetlands, ignoring the woodlands unless it happens to be the spring warbler season.

On this sunny but cold morning, the pools were frozen, occupied by only a dozen trumpeter swans and a modest number of mallards and gadwalls.  And while the raptors were represented by a lone bald eagle, four red-tailed hawks and a red-shouldered hawk, there was not much activity on the icy fields.  I thus turned my attention to the riparian woodlands that line some pools and the Missouri River; this decision was rewarded with the sighting of about 20 species, including a pileated woodpecker, a fox sparrow and two red-breasted nuthatches (the first I have ever encountered at Eagle Bluffs).

While not as spectacular as the favored quarry, these woodpeckers and woodland songbirds account for a significant percentage of the annual sightings at Eagle Bluffs (currently 246 species on eBird) and each is just as important to the floodplain ecosystem as their more glamorous cousins.  Today, I gave them some justified attention.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

A Midwest Winter

So far, this Midwest winter is true to form.  Cloudy, cold, damp weather has dominated my month in Central Missouri and is forecast to persist until I return to Colorado next weekend.  Caught between Canadian cold fronts and warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, this region is known for its unpleasant winters.

The humid air and a dearth of sunshine make the cold air feel colder and a low, gray overcast makes it look colder than the thermometer might indicate.  The large shade trees, so colorful in October, are now barren and their brown, soggy leaves clog our gutters and downspouts.  Snow, often mixed with rain, provides the natural beauty of this season, at least until its gray, slushy piles line our streets and parking lots.

While we may be unable to avoid the Midwest winter weather, we can escape to the woods and wetlands, where our wild neighbors and seasonal visitors are unfazed by the conditions.  After all, their survival depends on that attitude and, fortunately for us, their cheerfulness and optimism is contagious.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Heaven makes the News

This morning, while watching a news report on the death of President George H.W. Bush, I was appalled when the anchor concluded her remarks with the statement that the former President is now in heaven with Barbara (his late wife) and their daughter, who died at the age of three.

Just as there must be a separation of Church and State in the Government, there must also be a separation of faith and fact in the news media.  While it is certainly acceptable for news organizations to report on the activities of and crimes within religious groups, they should not take sides when it comes to mysticism.  Their job is to investigate information and to report truth, not to express personal beliefs that may have no basis in fact.

Mysticism corrupts human society, injecting intolerance, placing limits on scientific research and raising doubts about science-based data.  While religious faith is a personal right, it should not be preached from the newsroom.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Migrant Black Scoters

Black scoters have been turning up in both of my primary eBird areas (Arapahoe County, Colorado, and Boone County, Missouri) in recent weeks.  These sea ducks breed along Arctic Coasts and on tundra lakes of Alaska and Northern Canada, wintering along both coasts of North America as well as the Gulf Coast.

While they occasionally turn up on reservoirs and lakes of the interior, they are not as common away from the coasts as their white-winged cousins.  Black scoters are usually encountered in flocks, bobbing in the water of coastal bays and diving for mollusks, crustaceans and other aquatic invertebrates.  When observed on lakes of the interior, they tend to be alone or in small groups; most move on to coastal areas for the winter but some stay on inland lakes if adequate food is available and the waters remain open.

Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to observe this year's visitors to Colorado and Missouri but I have often seen wintering black scoters off Longboat Key, Florida, where we own a condo.  Wherever they are found, one cannot help but admire these hardy migrants from the far North.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Kings of Bradford Farm

Bradford Farm, an agricultural research center operated by the University of Missouri, stretches across open country east of Columbia.  On this cold, cloudy morning, a friend and I drove along its graveled roadways, hoping to see longspurs or uncommon grassland sparrows.  Instead, we encountered a host of raptors, the kings of this farmland refuge.

We were initially greeted by a rough-legged hawk, hovering above the snow-laden fields; this heavy-bodied buteo, down from Northern Canada, is an uncommon but regular winter visitor in central Missouri.  Later on, a pair of northern harriers crossed our path, flying low over the crop stubble in search of rodents and unwary songbirds.  A red-shouldered hawk patiently hunted from the limb of a large tree and two American kestrels observed our approach from above; one of these small falcons was feasting on a field mouse that dangled from his talons.

Oblivious of the frigid weather, these hunters enjoy an advantage during the colder months, their prey forced to forage in barren, icy fields.  Red-tailed hawks and kestrels are generally the most common raptors at Bradford Farm but bald eagles are regular visitors and short-eared owls may be observed here in winter.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Flashback Post XI

After all the negative things that I have said about President Trump, I thought I should contribute to his fear-mongering when it comes to immigrants.  I have thus provided a link to a worrisome post from July of 2007.

See: Armored Immigrants

Monday, November 26, 2018

After the Blizzard

We in Columbia, Missouri, were on the south side of a potent winter storm that raced across the northern Midwest last evening.  Though we only received about three inches of snow, the high winds plastered everything outdoors with snow and ice.  So what to do on the morning after?  Head down to Eagle Bluffs, of course, to see what the storm blew in.

Nearly alone on the floodplain, I drove slowly through the wintry landscape, stopping at favored viewing points along the way; since most of the refuge is still closed for the duck hunters, I completed my route in less than an hour.  A squadron of trumpeter swans arrived from the north, as did wavering v's of snow geese and greater white-fronted geese.  Large flocks of mallards, gadwall and coot dominated the scene, joined by smaller groups of green-winged teal and a few northern shovelers.  While I expected to encounter a large number of raptors on this cold, cloudy morning, a pair of bald eagles and a lone kestrel were the only avian hunters.  Perhaps the highlight of my visit was a large, restless convention of horned larks, fluttering about an ice-crusted field.

Our sudden blast of winter is expected to abate over the next few days and we'll return to more "seasonal" conditions.  The residents of Eagle Bluffs will likely appreciate a milder respite but they are equipped to deal with any challenges that nature throws their way; they need only worry about natural predators and the threats imposed by human society.


Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Mute Swan Problem

As my wife and I walked around Philips Lake in southeast Columbia this morning, a pair of adult mute swans flew overhead.  Graceful and quiet as they cruised above the lake, they were a beautiful sight to behold; one would not imagine that those swans are a potential menace.

As I discussed in my post from September of 2016, Mute Swans in the U.S., these large birds are native to Eurasia and were first introduced to North America in the late 1800s.  Since that time, they have colonized the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Coasts as well as the Great Lakes Region.  Looking at their range map on eBird, one finds that mute swans now inhabit or visit portions of all of the Lower 48 States.  Unfortunately, they are aggressive birds, known to attack native waterfowl species, and are voracious consumers of aquatic vegetation, threatening the health of both coastal and interior wetlands.

Wildlife managers along the Eastern Seaboard attempted to establish a hunting season to control their population but that effort was blocked by swan-loving citizens.  While efforts to eliminate invasive plants rarely catch the attention of the general public, the killing of swans, long associated with wilderness, royalty and fairytales is another matter; the fact that they may impact the welfare of our native trumpeter and tundra swans seems to carry little weight.  Such are the consequences of careless introduction programs, a human habit that continues today.

Friday, November 23, 2018

November Rain

November rain, like that of March, is generally cold and unpleasant.  And, unlike the pop-up showers and thunderstorms of the warmer months, it is usually a long-lasting affair.  After all, it most often develops along a cold front, where dense, chilly air noses beneath a warmer, humid air mass.

Unlike rain that occurs in March, the November precipitation falls on ground that has not yet frozen, allowing the water to percolate into the soil and diminishing the risk of runoff flooding that so often muddies the landscape in late winter and early spring.

Today's precipitation in Missouri was typical November rain, developing by mid morning and not letting up until late afternoon.  The temperature hovered in the forties (F) for most of the day and a low, gray overcast precluded any sunshine.  It proved to be good weather for watching college basketball but I'll take December snow over November rain any day. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Beaver Moon

November's full moon, currently brightening the night sky, is commonly known as the "Beaver Moon," a designation attributed to the Algonquin Tribe and now imbedded in American folklore.  The name reflects the fact that beaver are especially active at this time of year, repairing their dams and lodges and storing food for the winter months.  The latter usually consists of small deciduous trees and limbs that are placed underwater for sustenance while ice coats the stream or pond.

My wife and I, frequent visitors to Philips Lake in southeast Columbia, have recently noted extensive beaver damage to small trees along the 40-acre lake.  Once a farm pond, the lake is stocked with fish by the Missouri Department of Conservation and the surrounding land was dedicated as the A. Perry Philips Park in 2011.  This is the first year that we have noticed the beaver damage and have been surprised that these large rodents made their way up from the nearby Gans Creek Valley.

If left alone, the beavers will soon have destroyed most of the small trees and shrubs along the lake and one wonders whether Park managers will extirpate the squatters; such is often the dilemma faced by those charged will balancing human recreation and natural ecosystems.  I'm guessing the beaver will be relocated (or worse).