Saturday, October 19, 2019

Pelicans Grace Eagle Bluffs

This morning, a friend and I visited Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area where large flocks of American white pelicans moved above the floodplain, congregating at a single pool.  We had counted 740 of those magnificent birds when other flocks began to arrive from the north, gliding southward above the Missouri River Valley.  We estimated that a total of 1100 pelicans visited the refuge on this sunny, cool morning, stopping to rest and feed on their journey to the Gulf Coast.

Were it not for the pelicans, our visit to Eagle Bluffs would have been disappointing.  The southern half of the refuge was chained off (reason uncertain) and other bird species were relatively limited in number and variety; only large flocks of red-winged blackbirds rivaled the pelicans.  Several double-crested cormorants dove for breakfast in the central channel, a couple dozen great-blue herons stalked the shallow pools and thirty-five great egrets moved about the refuge.  Shorebirds were limited to a dozen greater yellowlegs and a lone killdeer and raptors were represented only by kestrels and turkey vultures.  Canada geese and mallards were the only waterfowl that we observed, a rare lack of diversity for mid October; as discussed in an earlier post, I suspect that the extensive floodwaters upstream are disrupting the usual schedule of waterfowl migration this autumn.

Perhaps the large number of migrant pelicans will prove to be the vanguard of waterfowl migrations to follow.  Regardless, the sight of these graceful birds, flapping and gliding above the floodplain, was both welcome and inspiring.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Vikings in Scotland

During our tour of Scotland, we were shown a variety of Viking culture artifacts, especially in the Orkney and Hebrides Islands.  Indeed, the Norsemen occupied much of northern and western Scotland from 790 AD through most of the 12th Century.

Those of us who were born and raised in North America learned about Viking exploits across the North Atlantic, including their settlements in Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland.  In fact, these skilled mariners explored coastlines as far south as Northern Africa, as far east as Russia and southward through the major rivers of Europe.  Contrary to their image as savage plunderers, the Vikings set up trade networks throughout their realm and dominated commerce in that region for 400 years.  Not inclined toward mysticism, their "pagan culture" eventually gave way to the expansion of Christianity (which brought far more brutality than the Norsemen ever did).

Visiting the National Museum of Scotland today, we saw a partial set of chessmen, carved from walrus tusks, that were unearthed on the Isle of Lewis more than 700 years after the Vikings left Scotland. What a fitting remnant from a time when those hardy explorers occupied the region and before religion-fueled wars raged across the country.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The View from Calton Hill

Calton Hill rises 100 meters above northeast Edinburgh; graced by an observatory and several monuments, it offers a panorama of the city and adjacent landscapes.  On this cloudy, cool morning, my wife and I joined throngs of other tourists atop this geographic prominence.

To the north, the wide Firth of Forth stretched out toward the North Sea while the River of Leith Valley was evident to the west.  To our south, the higher ridge of Holyrood Park rose toward Arthur's Seat, a scenic backdrop for the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the ruins of its 12th Century Abby; the Palace, the residence of Mary Queen of Scots in the 1560s, is now the Scottish home of British Royalty.  Stretching west from the Palace is the Royal Mile, leading to Edinburgh Castle atop a volcanic stump; most of that road is now lined with cafes, pubs and tourist shops.

Indeed, Scotland's capitol city, like many tourist destinations across the globe, has become a mix of historic structures, parks and tourist-related amenities, the latter including endless lines of sight-seeing buses that wind through its central corridors.  The relative solitude atop Calton Hill was appealing but I already miss the spectacular, open landscapes of the Highlands, where sheep far outnumber the humans.

Monday, October 14, 2019

A Visit to the RBGE

Having evolved since the late 1600s, the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh was formally established in the 1870s and has occupied its current location ever since.  Free to the public (except for access to its Glass Houses (greenhouse exhibits), the gardens stretch across a hilltop in north Edinburgh, offering broad views of the historic city.

Its 70 acres, accessed by a fine network of paved, graveled and grassy paths, are adorned with plants from across the globe and from every major ecosystem on our planet.  Almost equally diverse are the visitors, arriving from many countries to enjoy the history and public amenities of this attractive city. We were fortunate to explore the gardens on a mild, sunny day (seemingly rare in Scotland) and were pleased to learn about the cooperative research that the RBGE conducts with more than 40 other countries across the globe.  In this era of climate change and ongoing habitat destruction, that commitment is especially important.

If I were to offer one suggestion (as I am inclined to do), I would label the plants with their common names, secondarily identifying them with their scientific Genus and species; at this Gardens, scientific labeling was primarily utilized.  Since most visitors have had no formal training in botany, they would likely be more appreciative of the fabulous diversity of plants if their common names were known.  After all, public support for the complex work of conservation organizations is vital and it is best if visitors are not overwhelmed by the scientific terminology.  Just my opinion.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Hebrides

The Hebrides, an archipelago off the west coast of Scotland is comprised of two groups of islands.  The Outer Hebrides are bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to their west and The Minch (Strait) and the Sea of Hebrides to their east; the Inner Hebrides are bounded by The Minch and Sea of Hebrides to their west and a complicated network of sounds, firths, lochs and bays to their east, separating them from the Scottish Mainland.

A few days ago, we caught a ferry from Ullapool, in western Scotland, to Stornoway, on the northern portion of the Outer Hebrides; while it is one land mass, this region is divided into the Isle of Lewis, in the north, and the Isle of Harris to its south.  Much of the former is characterized by extensive peat bogs, still used to heat homes and to infuse Scottish whisky with a smokey flavor; traveling through Lewis, we also encountered spectacular seascapes, visited an early settlement in Arnol, explored a Neolithic stone circle at Callanish and learned that the Gaelic language and culture remain dominant throughout the Outer Hebrides (as they are in many Highland regions of Scotland).  The Isle of Harris is more mountainous than the Isle of Lewis and harbors pristine beaches; its southernmost region is a "moonscape" of rock-studded grasslands.  As in almost all rural areas of Scotland, sheep grazing is extensive and this island is home to the famous Harris tweed.

A second ferry took us from Tarbert, on the Isle of Harris, to the Isle of Skye, the largest island of the Inner Hebrides.  Known for its resort towns, fabulous scenery, rocky beaches and towering sea cliffs, this island is accessible via a bridge from the mainland and is thus a popular destination for residents of Scotland's urban centers.  After two nights in Portree, we have returned to Edinburgh for the remainder of our visit to Scotland; it has certainly been a fascinating journey through this scenic and history-laden country.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Northwest Scotland

The main route that leads NE to SW through northwest Scotland is a one lane road; regular pull-offs allow oncoming cars to pass one another, sometimes at an alarming speed.  The scenery, on the other hand, is spectacular.

Numerous lochs, firths and rivers dissect the landscape, which is composed of rolling hills, low ridges and taller ranges.  All of these uplands are adorned with rocky grasslands, reminiscent of the alpine zone of North America's western mountains.  Of course, unlike the latter alpine ecosystems, which usually bask in brilliant sunshine, these Scottish highlands are subject to the effects of the North Atlantic and rapidly changing cloud formations enhance the beauty of the region.  Sheep are everywhere in this open-range territory, often grazing along the road and oblivious of the vehicles that speed past; indeed, their presence augments the tranquility of this remote landscape.

Arriving in Ullapool last evening, we will spend a day in this port on Loch Broom, a marine inlet of the North Atlantic, before taking a ferry out to the Hebrides.  That excursion will begin tomorrow morning.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Escorted by Gannets.

This morning, after visiting a sea cave on the Orkney Mainland in driving sleet, we caught the ferry back to the Scottish mainland, crossing the turbulent Pentland Firth.  Oblivious of the roiling sea and gusty winds, a small flock of northern gannets escorted the ship, veering off at times to dive for fish.

Scotland is home to 40% of all northern gannets; indeed, the gannet rookery on Bass Island, in the Firth of Forth (near Edinburgh), is the largest on Earth.  On this brutal morning in Northern Scotland, it was inspiring to watch these large, hardy seabirds and I certainly appreciated their company.

Once we reached shore, the sun broke through the clouds and the winds died down.  Our journey across the Northern Coast of Scotland was both scenic and pleasant as we crossed several rivers and firths before angling southwest through Northwest Scotland, perhaps the most spectacular region of the country.  More on that landscape in tomorrow's post.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

The Orkney Mainland

The Orkney Islands are an archipelago of 70 islands and islets off the northeast coast of Scotland; the largest of these is known as The Mainland and it is that island that we explored today.

Famous for its collection of Neolithic "architecture," including stone circles, a burial chamber (Maeshowe) and the remnants of a village  (Skara Brae), all dating back to 3000 BC, as well as Viking engravings (at Maeshowe) from the 12th Century AD, the island's pastoral, rolling landscape is pleasing to the eye.  A large, natural harbor (second only in size to that of Sydney, Australia) stretches across the center of The Mainland while several saltwater bays, freshwater lakes and low ridges disrupt the hayfields and grasslands.  Massive cliffs of granite rise along the western coast, lashed and sculpted by monstrous waves from the North Atlantic.

During our tour of the island, we also encountered large flocks of greylag geese and a large number of swans (primarily whooper swans migrating from Iceland and perhaps some Bewick's swans, arriving from Siberia to winter in Scotland).  Tomorrow we leave the Orkneys to travel across the northern Scottish mainland as we head toward The Hebrides, another archipelago off the western coast of Scotland.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Northward through Scotland

Yesterday morning, we left Edinburgh, Scotland, in a light drizzle, heading northwest across the rolling hills of the Central Lowlands, quilted with hay fields, cattle ranches and sheep pastures.  Just beyond Callander, we crossed the Highland Boundary Fault and climbed into the scenic Scottish Highlands, eventually dropping toward the North Atlantic through the spectacular Glen Coe Valley.

After enjoying lunch in Fort William, we traveled northeastward through the Great Glen, its floor lined with a series of four lakes (called lochs in Scotland); the last (most northeast) of these is the famous Loch Ness, claimed by some to harbor a prehistoric plesiosaur.  We spent last night in Inverness and then headed northward along the North Sea Coast of northeast Scotland, crossing several large firths and enjoying scenic ocean vistas before reaching the lighthouse just northeast of John O'Groats, the most northern town on the Great Britain mainland.

A ferry carried us across the choppy, wind-driven Pentland Firth, which connects the North Atlantic and North Sea, to the Orkney Islands; there the economy is sustained by agriculture, ranching, fishing, tourism and distilleries.  We are spending the night in Kirkwall and will explore the main island tomorrow; though the weather has been cloudy, cool and breezy, we have been spared any significant precipitation since leaving Edinburgh.  More on our tour of Scotland in coming posts.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Into the Chill of Scotland

Having left 94 degrees F in Washington D.C. last evening, we arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland, this morning, greeted by cool, cloudy weather; the temperature was 34 degrees F and gradually climbed into the upper 40s throughout the day.

Sandwiched between the North Atlantic and the North Sea, Scotland receives less of the warming effects from the Gulf Stream than does Iceland and cool, cloudy, damp weather is common throughout the year.  Indeed, thick clouds covered the ocean as we approached from the west and the first identifiable geographic feature was Solway Firth, well south of Glasgow; the word "firth" applies to large bays and estuaries.  Curving northward, our flight took us near the North Sea Coast of southern Scotland and then into Edinburgh over the Firth of Forth.

Since our tour does not begin until tomorrow, my wife and I spent the day walking about that historic city, including a climb to Edinburgh Castle, its most prominent and well-known landmark.  The chilly weather was invigorating but rain is forecast to begin tonight and, unfortunately, is forecast to hang around for most of the week (thanks to the remnants of Tropical Storm Lorenzo).

Monday, September 30, 2019

Childhood Memories

Having recently discussed earliest memories with friends and family members, there seems to be a general consensus that events occurring prior to age three or four are lost to our conscious memory as we grow older.  More than an interesting consequence of human neurologic development, this phenomenon triggers concern (and sadness) that interactions with our young children or grandchildren may not be remembered as they age.

Of course, those early interactions do live on in their subconscious memory, cementing attachments and fostering interests.  In concert with gene expression, the experiences of early life play a major role in who we become and how we approach relationships, challenges and opportunities.  And if we endure neglect, abuse or trauma as young children, these subconscious events may hinder our emotional growth, surfacing as psychological disorders, substance abuse or abnormal behavior.

Our young children and grandchildren may not recall the details of the love and nurturing that they received but they will sense the effects throughout their lives.  We should never hold back on the emotional support and intellectual stimulation that we provide; it will, after all, be the foundation of their character.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Flooding & Waterfowl Migration

A friend and I visited Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on this pleasant, mid-Missouri morning; we observed a decent variety of birds on that floodplain refuge, including almost a hundred great blue herons, great egrets, a bald eagle and a peregrine falcon.  Noticeably absent were waterfowl, except for a handful of Canada geese, eight pied-billed grebes, a lone mallard and a backlit flock of ducks, too distant to identify.

How to explain a dearth of ducks on the Missouri River floodplain in early autumn?  Based on my recent journey up the Missouri Valley, I suspect that persistent river flooding, from South Dakota to northwest Missouri may be to blame, offering extensive shallows that attract the migrant waterfowl.  Indeed, massive flocks of coot and ducks were feeding in those floodwaters when I passed through.

Though I have no personal knowledge of the tally, I would guess that blue-winged teal hunting was a bust in central Missouri this September; those ducks are usually abundant at Eagle Bluffs by now and not a single one (except, perhaps, in that distant flock) was observed this morning.  Climate change is already delaying the arrival of autumn migrants and I wonder if the extensive Midwest flooding (perhaps also related to global warming) is augmenting that tardiness.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Genes and Talent

Today, I learned from a sister that one of our brothers has taken up painting at the age of 58; that brings the number of painters among our eight siblings to five.  While only one of my brothers actually made a living from his fine art, it does speak to the role that genetics plays in determining human talent and behavior.

My father used to enjoy drawing and both of my genetic children are artists, one a designer and the other a painter; I have no idea how many of their 17 genetic cousins are engaged in some form of artistic endeavor but I suspect quite a few.

I write this post not to brag about the talents of my family but to illustrate how genes govern the course of human development.  While familial exposure may encourage the display of innate talent, I suspect that the numbers reported above would not change if we had all been separated at birth.  Furthermore, genetic-based talent is not merely technical skill; rather, it includes both the impulse to express that talent and the emotional reward derived from that expression.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Declining Bird Populations

This week, in the New York Times, Carl Zimmer reported on findings published in Science that the total bird population of the U.S. and Canada has fallen 29% since 1970.  While success stories related to bald eagles, ospreys and other raptors have grabbed the headlines, following the discontinuation of DDT use, other, less glorified species have lost significant ground.

According to Zimmer's article, the population of grassland birds (including maligned European starlings) has been impacted the most, likely related to the loss of prairie habitat to agriculture and oil exploration.  Also hard hit have been the warblers, many of which are dependent on extensive, old growth forests.  By contrast, vireos have thrived, perhaps (in my opinion) from the expansion of suburban habitats with open woodlands and a diversity of shrubs.  Not surprisingly, waterfowl populations have remained stable or increased due to habitat protection and restoration led by conservation and duck-hunting organizations.

Similar disturbing studies have been released in Europe, demonstrating that this phenomenon is worldwide and likely related to the expanding human population with all of its secondary effects: natural habitat loss, pollution and global warming, among others.  It is the latest warning that we humans are destroying our home planet; it is only a matter of time before we destroy ourselves.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Our Climate Change Capitol

Since our current Capitol is dominated by climate-change deniers and fossil fuel lobbyists, I think it's time to designate a Climate Change Capitol of the United States.  Cities that are already impacted by global warming seem to be reasonable choices and I would support any of the following.

Charleston, South Carolina, and Miami, Florida are already dealing with the complications of a rising sea level, enduring floods from nothing more than high tide episodes; these cities are also regular targets of increasingly severe hurricanes.  Then there is New Orleans, perhaps the most obvious choice, partly below sea level, walled off from tropical storms and Mississippi River floods by levees and relying on pumps to keep the city dry.  Finally, an ironic choice would be Houston, Texas, the home of Big Oil but the victim of recurrent catastrophic floods over the past decade, all fueled by bathtub temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico.

There are surely many other candidates, including some of our larger "Green Cities" and most towns along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, but, unlike the Democratic Presidential Field, it may be best to start with a limited number of well-qualified localities.  I may nominate other candidates down the line but the sooner we yank climate-change policy from Washington, D.C., the better!