Friday, January 20, 2017

Loud People

Sitting at the Tampa airport this morning, awaiting our flight. we have already moved once due to a pair of chatty young women discussing their Facebook entries.  Now we are listening to another couple, commiserating about their health problems, preferred beauty products and plans for the week.

Loud women seem to prefer broadcasting news about their relationships, medical issues and life struggles while loud men want to impress us all with their business activities, sports knowledge or investment expertise.  In either case, the individuals are oblivious of their obnoxious behavior or crave the attention that their pontifications elicit.

We humans are social creatures and generally need a willing foil with whom to share our ideas and problems.  But those who consciously or subconsciously broadcast their personal thoughts to an unwilling public either have self-control issues or need the attention to fuel their self esteem.  No doubt, their disrespectful banter is learned behavior in many cases (who can forget the Loud Family on Saturday Night Live) and complaints from others will likely have only a temporary effect, if any.  As one who appreciates solitude more than most, I hope readers will excuse this spontaneous rant; if nothing else, it's a harmless diversion from the disastrous coronation in Washington, D.C.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Red Tide in January

A red tide, the common name for a harmful algal bloom, has developed off Southwest Florida over the past few weeks.  Its effects have become noticeable on Longboat Key in the past two days as dead fish have appeared on the beach and cough-inducing air has blown ashore.

Caused by an excessive bloom of Karenia brevis, a dinoflagellate, red tide plagues areas of the Gulf Coast every year, especially during the summer months.  While nutrient rich effluent has been blamed in the past, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission reports that the blooms usually develop 10-40 miles offshore and may be fueled by a combination of environmental factors, including intense sunshine, calm surface waters, warm sea temperatures and upwelling currents.  Until such conditions abate, the bloom can worsen and toxins released by the algae kill many species of marine fish, shellfish and even manatees.  Carried by onshore winds, algal debris often irritates the eyes and respiratory tract of humans, aggravating asthma and emphysema in persons with those conditions.

Since warm sea temperatures may play a significant role in the development of harmful algal blooms, it seems likely that such events will increase in frequency and severity as our climate warms.  In our personal history on Longboat Key, spanning13 years, this is the first time that we have encountered a red tide during the winter months.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A Primordial Experience

Last evening, several hours after sunset, my wife and I took a walk on the beach.  Equipped with a flashlight, we moved across the soft sand, searching the exposed flats at low tide.

Overhead, the clear sky exposed a bowl of stars, including those of Orion and the Pleiades.  The soft roar of the surf was the only sound and the surrounding landscape was shrouded in darkness, disrupted only by the distant lights of condominiums that loomed beyond the dunes.

There are few if any experiences more primordial (and more humbling) than a clear night on an ocean beach.  After all, life itself evolved in the sea, some 3.6 billion years ago, and would not come ashore until 420 million years ago, relatively recent in the course of Earth's history.  The chemicals that formed our planet and enabled life to evolve were formed within stars, spreading through space during massive supernova explosions.  Standing on a beach at night, we sense a connection to those past events and are forced to acknowledge our relative insignificance.

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Beached Cormorant

Strolling along the beach on Longboat Key this afternoon, my wife and I encountered a double-crested cormorant that had become stuck in the dry, mounded sand just above the tide line.  As we approached his struggles intensified and he managed to lunge toward the surf, eventually swimming to safety.

To our surprise, he came ashore once again (about fifty yards up the coast).  This time he stopped on the hard, wave-swept portion of the beach, his wings spread to dry in the late afternoon sun.  Clearly, his previous landing had been too far from the surf (perhaps aggravated by a rogue wave) and his attempt to rest and dry his plumage had almost been fatal.

Designed to dive for fish, cormorants have short legs set far back on their torso; they can hop a bit but are not able to walk.  In addition, their plumage has a low oil content (to make them less buoyant and better able to dive); as a result, they must perch on rocks, channel markers or other firm surfaces to dry their soaked feathers and prevent hypothermia.  Both traits and a bit of bad luck converged to threaten the cormorant today.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

People Beaches

Many of Florida's beautiful beaches are maintained for humans.  Frequently restored with sand and raked daily to remove seaweed and other natural flotsam, they are like broad, flat parking lots, ideal for beach parties, volleyball or frisbee tossing.

But while they appeal to the human eye and adorn countless picture postcards, such beaches rarely attract much wildlife.  Our wild neighbors prefer uneven coasts, molded by waves and coated with gifts from the sea (including dead fish and driftwood).  Predators and scavengers patrol the shore, searching for a wide variety of invertebrates or feasting on the remains of marine plants and animals.  Such beaches often repel humans, not enamored with the ocean "debris" or the odors that come with it.

Fortunately, the beaches along Longboat Key are kept nice enough to appeal to humans while retaining natural characteristics that bring in an excellent variety of wildlife.  When it comes to enjoying the beach, I prefer the company of pelicans, shorebirds, crabs and their kin.  I'll gladly skip the people beaches, replete as they are with umbrellas, coolers, jet skis and, of course, sun-baked humans.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Visitor at the Door

Yesterday, my wife and I returned from a walk on the beach to find a large, attractive moth on our screen door; initially mistaken for a dead leaf, the moth had leathery looking, red-brown wings.
Touching its wing to encourage it to fly off, I uncovered a hind wing with a large eyespot; of course, the other hind wing had a matching eye (see photo in right column of this blog).

After some research, we found that it was a female Io moth (the male is yellow in color) and that most species are found in Central and South America.  Seven species inhabit North America, from southeastern Canada to the Gulf Coast.  Each species seems to have favorite plants for laying its eggs and those in South Florida may use red mangroves.  The large eyespots are thought to discourage attack by predators and the larvae of Io moths are known to sting potential enemies.

Our visitor was still clinging to the screen this afternoon and she is amazingly tolerant of my touch.  Perhaps she will move on during the night or maybe our screen door is her last stand.  In either case, I'm glad she stopped by.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Robinson Preserve

Stretching south from the entry to Tampa Bay and east from Perico Bayou, the 487 acres of Robinson Preserve, owned and managed by Manatee County, stretch across broad tidal flats.  Visitors can bike, or hike across the fascinating landscape, passing lakes, salt marshes, tidal pools and mangrove woodlands; a lookout tower, boardwalks and scenic wooden bridges complement the natural beauty and launch sites provide access for those wanting to explore the refuge with canoes or kayaks.

Birders will observe an excellent variety of raptors, waders and costal sea birds at the preserve.  This morning, my wife and I saw ospreys, wood storks, white ibis, American white pelicans, anhingas, yellow-crowned night herons and a host of shorebirds, among other species.  Those interested in the natural and human history of the preserve are advised to stop by the Visitor Center in the Valentine House, across from the parking lot.

From Manatee Blvd. in northwest Bradenton, turn north on 75th St. and proceed to 9th Avenue; turn left (west) on 9th and drive to its intersection with 99th Street.  Turn right (north) on 99th and continue to the Robinson Preserve entrance, on your left.  Refuge access is free to the public but the hours vary throughout the year (generally from sunrise to sunset).  Plans to expand the preserve to the south are currently underway.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Spreading my eBird Wings

After joining eBird last spring, I filed my reports from Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, in Columbia, Missouri, from South Platte Park, in Littleton, Colorado, and from my residences in both of those cities.  Today, I had my first opportunity to add Longboat Key, Florida, to that list; while we visit this location far less often, it hosts a fascinating diversity of avian life that cannot be observed at our other properties.

Our condo sits on the west shore of Sarasota Bay and is within a couple hundred yards of the Gulf of Mexico beaches.  I intend to file some reports from the bay side, some from the Gulf and most from both ecosystems.  While there is a good deal of avian overlap between those habitats, each offers its unique mix of residents and visitors.

Today, ospreys, American white pelicans and red-breasted mergansers were unique to Sarasota Bay, while ruddy turnstones, sanderlings and sandwich terns were only observed on the Gulf Coast; brown pelicans, royal terns and laughing gulls, on the other hand, were well represented in both areas.  In general, the bay is best for wading birds (herons, egrets, ibis, spoonbills), especially at low tide, and the Gulf beaches attract shorebirds, gulls, terns, black skimmers and offshore species such as magnificent frigatebirds and northern gannets.  But, as in Littleton and Columbia, it's the possibility of finding rare visitors that keeps me vigilent and engaged.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Caving to a Narcissist

Donald Trump is not yet President of the United States but he has already managed to place leaders of industry and officials within his own party under his bigoted thumb.  Though he has refused to release his tax returns, declined to attend security meetings, ridiculed the findings of the FBI and CIA, denounced the press and humiliated adversaries via his Twitter account, the Republican establishment, except for a few Congressmen, has refused to criticize him in any meaningful way.
As Mitch McConnell so predictably noted, any rebuke of Trump and his behavior is just "sour grapes" from the defeated Democrats.

Can there really be that many educated Americans who are willing to accept this narcissist as the leader of our country?  Is this the image that we want to project across the globe?  Can business leaders and stockholders truly be swayed by every spontaneous Tweet that emerges from this self-centered powerbroker, a man who denies climate change and is prone to engage in conspiracy theories?

If his own party, blinded by the opportunity to repeal Obamacare, boost corporate profits and load the Supreme Court with Conservative judges, cannot find the courage to reign in their pompous figurehead, then the rest of us must do what we can (via demonstrations, lawsuits and a vigorous press) to derail his agenda and remove him from office.  It feels like the Nixon Era all over again and the same energy is needed to restore the ideals of American Democracy.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Preparing to Change Seasons

Tomorrow, my wife and I will return to our condo on Longboat Key, Florida, for the first time in a year.  Coming on the heels of a significant winter storm, the journey will be especially welome.

While I would never want to live in the Subtropics on a permanent basis, an escape to mild, balmy air is appealing (if not therapeutic) in the midst of a northern winter.  After all, we humans evolved in the Tropics and our deep-seated attraction to warm weather and sunshine is impossible to deny.

So I'll leave the boots, gloves and heavy coat in Colorado and fill my carry-on bag with T-shirts, shorts and sandals.  Bidding adieu to the winter songbirds and waterfowl, I'll look forward to encountering ibis, spoonbills, shorebirds, ospreys and frigatebirds, among others.  Of course, as always, I'll document my experience in this Blog!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Jim Bridger

Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1804 (the same year that the Lewis and Clark Expedition began), Jim Bridger moved to St. Louis, Missouri, during his childhood; after his parents died, Jim joined a fur trapping company at the age of 16 and spent most of his life exploring the Rocky Mountain region, from Southern Colorado to Canada.

Despite having received little formal education, Bridger became fluent in French. Spanish and various Native American languages.  In 1842, he and his fur-trapping company established a trading post in Southern Wyoming on the Blacks Fork of the Green River; this was an important supply center on the Oregon Trail and would later become Fort Bridger, a military post.  After a life in the wilderness, Jim Bridger settled in Kansas City where he died in 1881.

Anyone who travels through the Rocky Mountain region encounters evidence of Bridger's historic importance.  Among the natural features named for this intrepid explorer are the Bridger Range, NNE of Bozeman, Montana, the Bridger-Teton National Forest, a major component of the Yellowstone ecosystem, Bridger Pass, near the south end of the Great Divide Basin (in southern Wyoming) and Bridger Peak (11,004 feet), the highest summit in the Wyoming portion of the Sierra Madre Range (which extends southward into north-central Colorado).  For an uneducated orphan, Jim Bridger accomplished a great deal during his 77 years on this planet!

Friday, January 6, 2017

From Drought to Flooding Rains

California's ten year drought may end with extensive flooding.  Following this week's winter storm, which coated the Sierra Nevada with up to 80 inches of snow, another Pacific storm is approaching from the west, directing a plume of Pacific moisture toward Northern and Central California.

Accompanied by a warm air mass, the system is forecast to drop a foot of rain across higher terrain; falling on the heavy snow pack, the rains may unleash flash flooding in the western canyons of the Sierra and trigger mudslides in the foothills.  Of course, the highest peaks will receive more snow, increasing the risk of avalanches.  In concert, a cold front is expected to dip southward from the Pacific Northwest, enhancing precipitation across most of the State.

Unfortunately, prolonged droughts often end with dramatic shifts in weather patterns and the parched landscape cannot absorb the copious precipitation.  Excessive runoff thus leads to stream flooding, sometimes threatening dams and levees.  While the deep Sierra snowpack is a welcome development, the heavy rains will likely be more damaging than beneficial.  What California needs is a series of wet winters and springs, not a fire hose of moisture from the Pacific.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Assisting Predators

This morning, with six inches of snow on the ground and flurries still in the air, the feeding area at our Littleton farm was especially active.  The visitors were the usual suspects: house finches, Eurasian collared doves, dark-eyed juncos, black-capped chickadees and a northern flicker; a pair of lesser goldfinches were also present (see More Tardy Migrants).

Hoping that the crowd of local winter residents might attract a rare vagrant, I decided to observe the feeders for an hour and submit a report to eBird.  Just over a half hour into my watch, a sharp-shinned hawk swooped in to grab a meal; though he missed his target, the feeder party was over.

Such is the nature of Feeding Birds.  Many benevolent humans do so to help the birds through the winter (an altruistic but unnecessary gesture) while avid birders do so to attract rare visitors to their property (as well as to enjoy watching the locals).  Of course, such an unnatural congregation of songbirds serves to augment the success of predators (especially feral cats and accipiters).  Once again, I was forced to confront the wisdom of interfering with nature.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Before the Storm

With a winter storm bearing down on the Front Range, I headed to South Platte Park before conditions worsened.  Though only scattered flurries had developed, the air was frigid, a low gray overcast blocked the intense Colorado sun and a light, northeast breeze intensified the chill.  Most of the ponds were frozen but the South Platte River and Redtail Lake (which connects with the river) remained open.

All of the usual winter ducks were present (with the exception of redheads); they were joined by a large number of Canada geese, two stoic great blue herons and a lone, juvenile double-crested cormorant.  Two red-tailed hawks (one a Harlan's hawk) surveyed the bleak landscape and a noisy flock of black-billed magpies moved across the refuge.  Other sightings were limited to a few ring-billed gulls and common winter songbirds: American robins, black-capped chickadees, northern flickers and song sparrows.

The storm should arrive by this afternoon and is expected to intensify overnight; about six inches of snow is currently anticipated though sub-zero temperatures will likely be more problematic.  Fortunately, the storm system will move rapidly to the east and warm sunshine should return to the South Platte Valley within a few days.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Snow from Coast to Coast

A potent winter storm is directing a massive plume of Pacific moisture toward the Sierra Nevada, where up to six feet of snow is expected; no doubt, this is a welcome development in drought-plagued California.  Moving eastward across the Intermountain West, the storm will also bring heavy snow to the Southern Cascades, the Wasatch and the Colorado Rockies.

Moving onto the Great Plains, the winter storm is forecast to drop 6-8 inches of snow along the Colorado Front Range (beginning tomorrow afternoon) before dipping across the Southern Plains, where cold air will be entrenched.  Currently, bands of snow are expected across both the Central Plains and the Southern Plains; the latter should include southern Oklahoma, North Texas and central Arkansas.  The more northern snow band is expected to progress through the Ohio Valley while the southern track will bring snow, sleet and freezing rain to the Deep South, from Mississippi to Georgia.  Farther east, the bands are expected to merge in the Mid Atlantic region before moving off the Atlantic Coast.

While the Pacific moisture will be "wrung out" by the Sierra Nevada, Great Basin Ranges and Rocky Mountains, the storm will sweep Gulf of Mexico moisture across the Great Plains and Southeast before drawing in Atlantic moisture across the Piedmont of Virginia and the Carolinas.  The combination of entrenched, sub-freezing air and copious moisture will ensure plenty of snow from Coast to Coast.

Monday, January 2, 2017

San Gabriel Mountains

Anyone who has watched the annual Rose Bowl, from Pasadena, California, has surely noticed the majestic wall of the San Gabriel Mountains that looms north of the city.  Stretching for almost 69 miles east to west, this range, like most of the other Transverse Ranges, is fault-block in nature, its steep edge facing south and its more gentle flank dipping northward.

The west end of the San Gabriels is at Weldon Canyon, where Interstate 5 enters the mountains and their east end is at Cajon Pass, traversed by Interstate 15.  The San Andreas Fault runs along their northeastern flank, which is bounded by the Mojave Desert; the Santa Clara River Valley aligns their northwestern edge while the Los Angeles Basin stretches south from the range.  The highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains is Mt. San Antonio (also known as Mt. Baldy) which rises to just over 10,000 feet north of Ontario, California; six other peaks exceed 9000 feet in elevation and many more have summits above 8000 feet.  Tributaries of the Santa Clara River drain the relatively dry, northern flank of the range while the watershed of the San Gabriel River covers most of the southern flank, which receives most of the annual precipitation.

During the Miocene Period, some 25 million years ago, rifting began to develop across northwest Mexico, producing the Sea of Cortez.  This rift extends the East Pacific Rise and connects with the San Andreas Fault; as the Sea has opened (and the Baja has swung westward), tectonic forces have lifted the San Gabriels and other ranges of Southern California.  Of course, the process continues today, triggering earthquakes throughout the region.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Human New Year

At 12 am today, the Human New Year began; we have all agreed that it is 2017, based solely on the religious beliefs of a segment of our global population.  This round, the first day of our New Year is eleven days after the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and eleven days after the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.

While we humans ring in our New Year with a wide variety of celebrations, wildlife have no clue that a significant transition has occurred since it has no direct relationship to any solar or astronomical event. Many northern species (whales, birds) are wintering in the Tropics or Southern Hemisphere as our New Year begins while natives of the southern latitudes are raising their young which were born over the past few months.

The Human Year is perhaps the most conspicuous global symbol of our disconnect from nature.  While early humans paid close attention to solar and lunar cycles, building structures to document the winter and summer solstices, modern humans, still subject to mysticism, openly declare our independence from nature, a folly that will eventually doom our species.  Happy Human New Year to all!  

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Music & Memories

Music has played an important role in human civilization since the dawn of our species.  For those of us who have lived in the age of mass media, it also marks the emotional roller-coaster of our lives.

During childhood, jingles and holiday songs invade our innocent minds, tied to the seasons and their cultural highlights; as we mature, we are exposed to musical genres that reflect both our upbringing and our personal experience.  Associated with strong emotion from life events or close relationships, certain songs trigger memories until death or dementia intervene.

Music seems to be especially potent in this regard.  As a writer, I try to provoke thought and elicit passion in readers but my success pales in comparison to those who write or perform music.  When lyrics are tied to a beautiful or stirring melody, they resonate in both our mind and our soul and their link to our past is forever sealed.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Autumn Rewind

Patches of snow may cover the ground and the ponds may be frozen over but it feels like early autumn along the Colorado Front Range today.  After a few weeks of wintry weather, autumn has returned, courtesy of downsloping, southwest winds.

Our afternoon high in Littleton is approaching 70 degrees F, some 25 degrees above normal for the date.  But winter "normals" along the Front Range urban corridor are merely numerical averages and it is not unusual to experience temperature swings of forty degrees or more in the course of 24 hours.  Indeed, periods of warm winter weather are rather common in this region and often follow an outbreak of Arctic air; in other cases, the warmth portends a coming change as southwesterly winds intensify ahead of an approaching cold front.

Such is the case this week.  While we bid adieu to 2016 amidst sunny, autumn-like weather, 2017 will be ushered in by the next winter storm.  Within a few days, snow will return to the Front Range, afternoon highs may not reach 20 degrees F and overnight lows will plummet to zero or below.  For now, I'll head back outside in my T-shirt and jeans to enjoy the autumn reprieve.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Sparrows in the Rabbitbrush

Rabbitbrush is a common shrub in semiarid regions of the American West.  For much of the year, it likely goes unnoticed by hikers and casual naturalists but, in autumn, its canopy of pungent, bright yellow flowers attracts everyone's attention.

By early winter, the flowers have faded to dull-colored seed heads and dense stands of rabbitbrush attract a variety of wintering songbirds, especially sparrows.  The abundant seeds offer a plentiful source of food and the shrub's dome-like structure "shades" the ground from snowfall, providing open forage areas and refuge from predators.  Here along the Colorado Front Range, white-crowned sparrows are often abundant in these stands in late autumn, replaced during the colder months by American tree sparrows, song sparrows and, on occasion, Harris' sparrows; spotted towhees, dark-eyed juncos, house finches and goldfinches (both American and lesser) also feed on or beneath the rabbitbrush.

Birders who visit South Platte Park, in Littleton, generally focus on the excellent diversity of waterfowl and raptors.  Unless they stop along the trails to survey the rabbitbrush, they may miss the more reclusive songbirds.