Monday, March 2, 2015

Black on White

Crossing the wintry Midwest today, there were few signs of life on the snow-laden farmlands; even the ubiquitous red-tailed hawks and European starlings were relatively sparse.  The lone exception was provided by flocks of American crows, picking through barnyards, feasting on carrion, gathering in the snowy corn stubble or cavorting above the winter landscape.

Members of the Corvid family, which includes crows, ravens, jays and nutcrackers, American crows are hardy, intelligent and aggressive birds.  Highly social, these omnivores cooperate in locating food and fending off predators; in winter, they are especially gregarious, roosting in large flocks.  As any birder knows, today's observation was not unusual; when severe weather or heavy snow cover discourage other species from venturing into open country, crows take advantage of their absence.

Many humans despise crows due to their raucous calls and aggressive behavior; after all, they sometimes raid feeders and gardens and, like jays, may consume baby rabbits and mice.  But, like all predators and scavengers, they play a vital role in nature's cycle and I admire their tenacity.  Against the white winter landscape, their black forms seem to defy any challenge that the season may impose.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The March of Winter

March may be the first calendar month of spring but winter still grips most of the U.S.  Here in northeastern Ohio, the latest bout of snow began last night and is expected to persist through this evening.  While the afternoon high may reach the mid thirties (F) today, teens and twenties are forecast for the remainder of the week.

Indeed, it has been a long, brutal winter for most of the eastern U.S., especially across New England.  Today, a cold front lies across the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic region; a low pressure center, currently over western Kentucky, is sweeping moisture above the cold air, producing snow from southeastern Missouri to northwestern Pennsylvania.  As the low drifts eastward so will the snow, bringing yet another round of frozen precipitation for the Northeastern States.

On the positive side, this copious moisture will feed streams and wetlands; though flooding will surely develop across the lowlands, the watery landscape will provide nutritious feeding grounds for migrant waterfowl, waders and shorebirds as they move north through early May.  Once the soil begins to thaw, the moisture will also ignite the leafing and flowering of plants which, in turn, will provide fuel for nature's vibrant web of life.  Winter may be reluctant to leave but spring is now in sight.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Unseen

On a visit to the Great Lakes Science Center, in Cleveland, we watched an Omni-Max production of National Geographic's Mysteries of the Unseen, which focused on phenomena that we humans cannot observe without the aid of technology.  In addition to radiation that has wavelengths outside the range of our vision (i.e. ultraviolet, infrared and beyond), the film reviewed a wide range of natural creatures, structures and processes that are too small, too fast or too slow for us to observe (e.g. bacteria, lightning, the blooming of flowers) without microscopes or specialized cameras.

Indeed, the range of our vision is but a small fraction of the entire spectrum of radiation and the natural world that we observe is but a small proportion of the life forms and biologic processes that comprise the ecosystems of Planet Earth.  In other words, those ecosystems are far more complex than our superficial observations might lead us to believe.

The more we study the Universe and the more advanced our technology becomes, the more we realize the limitations of our knowledge and how much occurs beyond the range of our senses.  Ironically, those most willing to place faith in an unseen deity are often those least accepting of discoveries that modern technology has enabled.  After all, unseen complexity threatens their simplified view of life.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Forensics in the Snow

On another walk around the frozen suburban lake, we came across the carcass of a ring-billed gull.  Recognizable only by a wing and head, much of the victim was scattered along and near the snowy trail.  Since there was no blood on the snow, I assumed that the gull had died before its dismemberment and that it had likely been brought to the trail from the site of its demise.

Predators of gulls include hawks, falcons, owls, coyotes and fox, among less common hunters.  While no clues were evident on the trampled path (i.e. no wing marks or specific tracks in the snow), the vigorous destruction of the carcass suggested the work of a fox or coyote.  Indeed, further down the trail, fox tracks led up from the frozen lake, indicating that the killer may have ambushed the gull as it slept on the ice (or merely nabbed its carcass post-mortem).

Winter is the culling season and predators enjoy a distinct advantage.  Weakened by a lack of food and the stress of winter weather, prey animals are easier to catch or simply provide freeze-dried carrion for carnivores and scavengers.  Of course, the young, old and sick are most susceptible to predation or winter kill, leaving a healthy, vigorous and hardy population to propagate the species when spring finally arrives.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Swans on the Little Miami

On a short walk along the Little Miami River yesterday, I was surprised to encounter five swans, mingling with a flock of Canada geese; the birds were just upstream from the Loveland bridge in northeast Metro Cincinnati.  Unfortunately, since the walk was spontaneous, I did not have my binoculars and could not accurately identify their species.

Given their facial silhouette and dark bills, they did not appear to be mute swans, an invasive species that is now common in wetlands across northern Ohio; the fact that mute swans are relatively nonmigratory and tend to be aggressive further supported that conclusion.  They might have been trumpeter swans, natives of North America that were extirpated from Ohio during the 19th Century and have been reintroduced since 1996; however, those large, vocal swans have not been migrating to southwestern Ohio.

That left me with the assumption that the visitors were tundra swans (formerly known as whistling swans), which breed on the Arctic tundra and winter along the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts; indeed, large flocks of migrant tundra swans are observed in the Lake Erie marshlands of northwest Ohio as the birds travel to and from the mid Atlantic Coast.  Smaller flocks are less commonly sighted throughout the State and, since ponds and lakes are frozen throughout the region, this small group may have set down on the Little Miami to rest and feed.  Regardless of their species, the swans were a pleasant and unexpected discovery.


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Crunch Time

On this sunny, cold day in southwestern Ohio, my wife and I opted for a hike around a suburban lake.  Due to recent snows and frigid nights, the trail was snow-packed, marked only by the boot prints of humans and the paw prints of their canine companions.

As we trudged along the path, the distinctive crunch of hardened snow provided our background chorus, broken only by the harsh calls of distant crows and blue jays.  Indeed, that rhythmic crunch is a nostalgic sound for many of us, associated with brilliant sunshine, cold, dry air and afternoons on the sledding hill.  In our later years, it becomes the sound of winter, signaling hardship for some and adventure for others.

For me, the crunch of snow evokes a sense of wildness;  it brings to mind the calm winter woods or a frozen yet sun-drenched meadow.  Wood smoke scents the air.  Noisy geese pass overhead.  A fox sniffs along the distant ridge.  Another step, another crunch.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Morning Snows in Missouri

We left for Ohio this morning under clear, frigid skies; the temperature in Columbia was 5 degrees F.  Prepared for an unexciting journey across snowy, familiar terrain, my spirits were suddenly lifted about ten miles east of town.

There, a massive flock of snow geese swirled above the Interstate, having spent the night on adjacent farm fields.  As the vocal migrants circled higher, groups flew off in various directions, getting their bearings as they travelled toward Arctic breeding grounds.  En route, they will likely make several more stops to rest and feed, oblivious of conditions that keep most humans in our heated shelters.

Always an emotional experience, the sight of migrant snow geese (this time a thousand or more whites and blues) leaves me inspired and humbled.  Their determined flight, while instinctual, is an ancient journey of survival and their magnificent, wavering flocks have graced the skies long before we humans came to understand the extent and purpose of their seasonal travels.  

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Giuliani Syndrome

Hailed as "America's Mayor" after demonstrating calm and decisive leadership following the tragic events of 9-11, Rudy Giuliani has since experienced the humbling effects of running for national office, including the exposure of his personal failures before and after the peak of his glory.  As a result, he has become marginalized among the power brokers of American society and is clearly desperate to remain in the spotlight.

Individuals caught in such a scenario often attempt to gain public attention by making outrageous or inflammatory comments; after all, the American media, from bloggers to industry giants, are always thirsty for controversial material, especially when provided by celebrities.  Mr. Giuliani's assertion that President Obama does not love America and that he did not share "our upbringing," outraged most Americans but was red meat for racists, nationalists and right-wing Republicans across the country.  Insinuating that the President is an outsider who does not share our values, Giuliani both fueled the rage of those who despise Obama and attempted to re-inflate his own stature in the Republican Party.

Such is the nature of celebrity in American society.  Hailed as gods, their human frailties are often overlooked; eventually, those personal failures surface (often in response to the special treatment that they receive) and we toss our heroes aside.  Hoping to regain their celebrity status, many engage in bizarre and reckless behavior or, in Giuliani's case, become spokesmen for extremists who threaten the fabric of our democracy.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Pity for the Birds

It's that time of year when severe cold and heavy snow cause many humans to pity the wildlife, especially those cute little birds.  Of course, unlike humans, birds are naturally equipped to deal with the conditions and can find plenty of food without our assistance.

In addition to their layered feathers, their ability to tolerate periods of hypothermia and their skill at finding natural food, birds possess certain advantages that we humans, endowed with a large brain, are too smart to enjoy.  Unlike humans, birds are unencumbered by thermometers and weather forecasts; neither do they know of warm lands to the south nor count the days until spring.  Functioning by instinct, they have no reason nor ability to wallow in self pity or to complain about the weather; either they take winter in stride or they succumb to its threats.

We humans, natives of the Tropics, would be ill-equipped to function in a wintry environment were it not for our intelligence and creativity (which ultimately led to our use of warm clothing and heated shelters).  Nevertheless, our deep-seated fear of the cold fuels pity for creatures that cannot take advantage of such modern conveniences, whether they need them or not.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Closet Agnostics

It seems to me that any intelligent human with even a modest science education would dismiss the simple stories and beliefs of organized religions.  Yet, most are unwilling to do so (at least in public).

Public piety trumps intellectual honesty in most cases, especially for those in public office.  Admittedly, in today's world, it is political suicide to admit to one's agnosticism.  So too is it difficult for leaders of industry, chairmen of foundations, presidents of universities or CEOs of businesses to be open about their lack of belief, lest the public boycott their products and services or boot them from office.  Of course, deep-seated fear and guilt, instilled in childhood, also plays a role.

Would it not be best if the leaders of this world placed emphasis on kindness, fairness and charity without paying homage to organizations that divide us and promote intolerance?  Unfortunately, these intelligent and well-educated individuals will likely stay in the closet, where they're safe from public scrutiny and where their jobs are not at risk.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Toward an Arctic Wall

Heading east on the Great Plains yesterday afternoon, we encountered a dense cloud bank that stretched across the eastern horizon.  It had the appearance of a massive mountain ridge, topped by a pink layer of snow that reflected the setting sun.

As we continued eastward beneath a clear sky and enveloped in mild air, the dark ridge of clouds rose higher.  Finally, when we stopped for the night in Colby, Kansas, the atmospheric wall loomed above the city, evoking the image of a towering mesa in the twilight of dusk.

In fact, the wall was the western edge of an Arctic trough that is plunging through the Heartland.  While the temperature in Colby was in the low 30s (F), the air east of the "ridge" was in the teens.  Though one often encounters cloud formations along the edge of fronts, this Arctic wall was especially striking in appearance, reflecting a dramatic clash of air masses; today, we'll pierce that barrier and enter the depths of winter.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Stone Age

Simply put, the Stone Age stretches from the first documented use of stone tools by human ancestors to the advent of bronze metallurgy (the Bronze Age).  To date, the earliest evidence of stone tool use has been found in the East African Rift Valley, where Australopithicines were using them by 3.4 million years ago (during the Pliocene Period).  Throughout the Pleistocene and into the Holocene, the diversity and sophistication of these tools gradually increased; humans (Homo sapiens) would not evolve until 130,000 years ago, late in the Pleistocene Epoch.

While anthropologists divide the Stone Age into Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic Periods, that exercise is rather academic for the non-professional students of human history.  In general, the onset of the Mesolithic Period coincides with the first evidence of permanent human settlements while the Neolithic includes the early domestication of animals and the cultivation of plants.  The end of the Stone Age (the beginning of the Bronze Age) occurred about 6000 years ago in the Middle East and Northern Africa but would not occur until 4000 years ago in Europe and somewhat later in the Americas; in Australia, the Stone Age persisted until the arrival of European explorers.

Clearly, efforts to define periods of human history are complicated by the uneven advancement of human culture across the globe.  Nevertheless, all students of anthropology must concur that the Stone Age began more than 3.2 million years before the appearance of humans and accounts for more than 95% of our history.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Healing Power of Nature

In the movie Wild (based on a memoir), a young woman hikes the Pacific Crest Trail in an effort to face her poor life choices, brought on by the death of her mother.  Though nature does not impose introspection, she offers a setting devoid of judgment, sentimentality and interpersonal distractions.

Indeed, nature offers solitude and tranquility while delivering challenges that are neither predictable nor personalized.  She is neither demanding nor understanding; rather, nature conducts her cycle oblivious of our presence.  Though we might try to mold her landscapes and harness her forces, she will always have the final say.

Some might suggest that nature is cold-hearted, capable of inflicting hardship without apology or remorse.  Yet, she is equally inspirational, lending her beautiful yet complex ecosystems to all who care to immerse themselves.  Those who take advantage of the opportunity find that nature's healing powers are formidable indeed; we are, after all, part of her realm.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Minke Whales

Relatively common and widespread, minkes are small baleen whales that are represented by three species: the northern (true) minke, a circumpolar species of the Northern Hemisphere, the Antarctic minke, a larger circumpolar species of the Southern Hemisphere, and the dwarf minke, a subtropical species of the Southern Hemisphere; regional subspecies of the northern minke have also been described.

Weighing up to 10 tons, minkes may reach 33 feet in length, though most adults do not exceed 26 feet; females are a bit larger than males.  Like other baleen whales, minkes feed on krill or on schools of small fish, often in the company of dolphins and sea birds; while most often observed alone or in small groups, they may congregate at favored feeding areas, especially in northern latitudes.  Unlike the larger baleen whales, northern and Antarctic minkes often remain in colder waters throughout the year.  All minke species breed in summer and gestation is about 10 months in length; since the calf nurses for another 10 months, females generally breed every two years.

Commonly observed on whale-watching excursions, minkes are identified by their relatively small size and by a curved dorsal fin; northern and dwarf species also have white bands on their flippers.  The worldwide population of minkes appears to be stable, having benefited from the decimation of their larger cousins in recent centuries.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Snowstorms: Boston vs. Denver

Boston and Denver are known to be snowy cities; the annual average snowfall in Boston is 44 inches while Denver's average exceeds 57 inches.  However, the seasonal timing and dynamics of their snowstorms are significantly different.

Boston, now in the midst of a crippling series of snowstorms, generally receives regular periods of snowfall during the winter months as cold fronts drop across the Great Lakes and New England; the associated center of low pressure typically moves southeastward, toward the Mid-Atlantic region, and then heads up the Eastern Seaboard, sweeping Atlantic moisture over the entrenched cold air.  Depending on the intensity of that low, blizzards and coastal flooding may develop, as we have seen over the past month.

Denver, on the other hand, far from the ocean, receives most of its annual snow during the late autumn and early spring, when a gyrating jet stream pulls Gulf of Mexico moisture into the Great Plains and a potent storm system (typically moving east along the Colorado-New Mexico border) sweeps it toward the Front Range; rising with the terrain, the moisture laden air cools further, dropping its cargo of precipitation.  During the winter months, when Arctic fronts drop across the High Plains, some upslope flow may develop but the air is often too dry to generate much snowfall; should the cold blast arrive from the northwest, the high wall of the Front Range wrings out most of the precipitation, sparing the urban corridor.

Friday, February 13, 2015

An Early Drumroll

After a few days of spring-like weather along the Colorado Front Range, the first tentative drumming of the flickers has begun, at times accompanied by an abbreviated version of their hysterical mating call. This annual ritual usually begins by late February, peaking in March and then gradually fading through April.

Generally triggered by the lengthening daylight, the drumming and calls often wax and wane, depending on the weather.  Since upslope snowstorms are common along the Front Range in late winter and early spring, the flicker displays tend to be more intense on warm, sunny days and rather subdued when cold and snow invade the urban corridor.

Nevertheless, the mating displays of northern flickers are among the earliest signs of spring and are certainly welcomed by most naturalists and homeowners.  Then again, if dead snags are not available for their drumming, these common suburban residents like to use aluminum roof vents, often spooking human residents with their frenzied percussion.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Random Death

The tragic death of CBS correspondent Bob Simon in a car accident last evening reminds us that death is often random and unforeseen.  Over the course of his career as a journalist, Mr. Simon reported from dangerous war zones across the globe and was held captive in Iraq for forty days in 1991.  Having survived these ordeals and won many awards for his professionalism and reporting skills, he died on a Manhattan street after his cab swerved and struck a median.

Many humans live sheltered lives, avoiding situations that, they believe, increase their risk of death; examples include travel to unfamiliar cities and foreign countries or even air travel itself.  While some judgment is in order, excessive caution limits the richness of our lives and, in the end, may have no effect on our longevity.  Unfortunate accidents and genetic-based disease inject uncertainty in our lives and a degree of randomness to our death.

In my opinion, we focus too much on our past and our future, dwelling on mistakes and fearing what lies ahead.  Living in the present is the key to personal happiness, taking advantage of the love, friendships and opportunities that we have while acknowledging that it may all end in an instant.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Yampa River

The Yampa River, 250 miles in length, rises along the west flank of the Park Range, flowing north to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and then turning westward, eventually merging with the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument.  When the river formed, Tertiary deposits covered most of northwestern Colorado, a mix of erosional debris, windblown sand and volcanic ash.  Intrusive volcanic plutons and buried anticlines of Precambrian and Paleozoic rocks were spaced throughout this Tertiary blanket, later uncovered by the Yampa and its tributaries.

Today, the Upper Yampa has stripped the Tertiary deposits from the underlying Cretaceous strata; that portion of the river runs atop Mancos shale, producing rich farmlands as far west as Hayden.  From there to Craig, the Yampa enters a plateau of  Cretaceous Mesaverde sandstone and its valley of shale gradually narrows.  West of Craig and through Maybell, the river carves its valley through the Browns Park Formation, composed of eolian Tertiary sandstone, siltstone and Tertiary volcanic debris.  Further west, the Yampa appears to have drilled its way through the Cross Mountain ridge, an uplift of Precambrian rock flanked by Mississippian limestone; in reality, the river first became entrenched in overlying Tertiary sediments, cutting down through the ridge and removing the younger sediments in concert.

Beyond Cross Mountain, the Yampa enters the eastern portion of Dinosaur National Monument, carving a long, winding canyon through Weber Sandstone (Permian in age) before joining the Green River in Echo Park.  Though its broad, rich valley near Steamboat Springs is well known to hordes of skiers and summer visitors, the Yampa River watershed harbors some of the most remote and least traveled landscapes in Colorado, a region of stark beauty and home to the State's largest herds of North American pronghorn.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

West of Salina

Driving west through Kansas on Interstate 70, one enters the Flint Hills west of Topeka.  The highway undulates across this uplifted plateau of Permian sediments, which has been carved into a series of parallel ridges and valleys by stream erosion.  At Junction City, the traveler leaves the Flint Hills and, in  order, crosses the valleys of the Smoky Hill, Solomon and Saline Rivers; the latter two streams are tributaries of the Smoky Hill River but all three flow eastward across western Kansas.

West of Salina, one begins to sense a steady climb toward the High Plains.  The Interstate ascends a series of low escarpments and, to either side of its route, the traveler notes cones, domes and truncated ridges that are erosional remnants of once higher terrain; though the highway dips along the way, the climbs are greater than the descents and the road's elevation gradually increases.  At Salina, the elevation is about 1200 feet, at Russell it is above 1800 feet, at Hays it exceeds 2000 feet and at Wakeeney it is 2450 feet.  The staircase topography is most evident between Salina and a broad ridge across Lincoln and Ellsworth Counties, which harbors the vast Smoky Hills Wind Farm; beyond that ridge, the terrain begins to flatten out and becomes especially featureless on the High Plains of western Kansas and eastern Colorado, where a veneer of Tertiary sediments lie atop the Cretaceous strata of the Great Plains.

The traveler will also note that the landscape becomes gradually drier west of Salina as one proceeds farther from the plumes of Gulf moisture that invade the Heartland and closer to the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains.  Trees, relatively abundant in Salina, become less widespread as one continues westward; by the time the traveler reaches the High Plains, trees are restricted to stream beds and irrigated homesteads.


Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Nature of Life

Life might be defined as the capacity to conduct respiration and to use the energy from that process to construct and repair the structural and functional chemicals of an organism (guided by the nucleic acids, DNA and RNA); once life fails (due to disease, injury or aging) and death ensues, the organism degrades and ceases to exist.  While the term "respiration" is commonly associated with breathing and lung function, biologic respiration refers to the process of energy production from glucose (which, itself, may be derived from complex carbohydrates, fats or proteins).  This intracellular process may be aerobic (relying on the presence of oxygen and generating carbon dioxide and water) or anaerobic, in which case lactate is the waste product. (See also Carbon & Life)

Life first evolved in the primordial seas of Earth about 3.6 billion years ago; for the first half of that history, all life was unicellular.  Once more complex, multicellular life forms evolved, cellular specialization, governed by the regulation of gene expression, resulted in the development of organs and tissues that provided unique physical characteristics and functional capabilities; through the process of natural selection, those traits that favored survival were retained.

Though reproductive capability is essential to the survival of a species, it is not vital to the life of an individual except with regard to tissue repair and growth.  All life forms must be able to ingest food, generate energy, repair defects and dispose of waste but the ability or inability to reproduce has no significant impact on an individual's lifespan; indeed, risks associated with pregnancy and birthing have long shortened the life of many female animals.  Finally, while many humans believe that there is a spiritual element to life, science has yet to confirm its presence.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Standoff on Philips Lake

On this mild February afternoon, most of Philips Lake, south of Columbia, remained frozen but a large flock of Canada geese, joined by a few mallards, had settled on a swath of open water.  For such a large congregation, they were remarkably still and quiet.

The reason for their attentiveness stood just fifty yards away.  A pair of bald eagles, one adult and one immature, lounged on the ice. looking like a couple of prison guards watching the inmates.  The standoff continued for almost an hour, the eagles relocating along the periphery of the open pool from time to time, seemingly intent on spooking the geese into the air.

Eventually, the eagles gave up and flew off in search of less determined prey.  Once they had cleared the area and as I headed for the parking lot, the geese began to celebrate, their loud distinctive honks ringing across the parkland; clearly proud of their victory, they were likely anxious to move on to nearby grasslands for an afternoon meal.