Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Snows in the Morning Sky

Returning from my campus walk this morning, I thought I heard the distant call of snow geese (despite my headphones).  Sure enough, a large flock wavered overhead in the cold, blue December sky.

Farther west, a much larger flock, linear in configuration and at least a mile long, passed in front of the half moon.  Over the next ten minutes, six more flocks arrived from the northwest, taking advantage of strong winds behind this week's storm system.

The snows were all heading southeast, following the Missouri River toward the Mississippi.  After breeding on the Arctic tundra, they gradually move southward as lakes and wetlands begin to freeze.  While they once wintered exclusively in Gulf Coastal marshes of Louisiana and East Texas, many are now stopping along the broad floodplain of the Lower Mississippi where they feast on waste grain across the vast crop fields.  Come February, they'll move northward through the Heartland, traveling in smaller flocks and lingering at favored rest stops for days or even weeks at a time.

Monday, November 30, 2015

No Drone Zones

Advancing drone technology has led to the increasing use of these unmanned craft by the military, security agencies, agriculture, engineering firms and other industries.  Of course, they have also become very popular among want-to-be pilots.

This explosive growth of aerial drones has led to a variety of concerns, including infringement on privacy rights, augmentation of noise pollution and threats to public safety.  For those of us who relish the sanctuary of nature preserves, the prospect of drones zooming overhead is a development we prefer to avoid.

Hopefully, before the domain of drones begins to encroach on sensitive natural habitats, the Department of the Interior will forbid their use in Wilderness Areas, National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges and other fragile ecosystems.  After all, ATVs, snowmobiles and dirt bikes already disturb the tranquility and threaten the welfare of many State and National preserves.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Volcanic Rocks

Volcanic rocks are those that form from compacted volcanic ash (tephra) or from cooled volcanic lava.  Tuff, a light weight, porous rock, forms from layers of tephra that are subjected to heat and compression over millions of years.

Lava rocks are grouped into those that form from mafic magma (rich in iron and magnesium) or from felsic magma (rich in silica).  Basalt, which has a silica content near 50%, is the primary mafic magma rock while andesite, dacite and rhyolite have a silica composition of 60%, 65% and 70%, respectively.  The higher the silica content, the more viscous the lava; basalt generally forms extensive surface flows or shield volcanoes above volcanic hotspots or mid oceanic ridges while the felsic magmas, most common along subduction zones, produce more explosive stratovolcanoes.  Pumice is a porous, spongiform rock that forms during stratovolcano eruptions when the felsic magma contains a large amount of water and gas.

Unlike granite, which cools slowly within the Earth's crust and is thus rich in crystals, the extruded felsic magmas cool rapidly and possess smaller and fewer crystals; the higher the silica content of the magma, the more finely grained the volcanic rock and the less its crystalline structure.  Obsidian (rhyolite devoid of crystals) is essentially volcanic glass.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Thanksgiving Crowd

On this Thanksgiving Day, it looked very much like late November in central Missouri.  A gray overcast, broken by pockets of blue, stretched above the dull, pre-winter landscape; while most of the trees are barren, the oaks still retain their dead, brown leaves.  Despite the late autumn landscape, it felt more like September to those of us who ventured outside; strong southerly winds had developed ahead of an approaching cold front, pushing the afternoon high into the upper sixties (F).  Heavy rains are expected later this evening and cold air will dive south behind the front.

Just before 3 PM, a large flock of cedar waxwings descended on our property, feasting on honeysuckle and holly berries.  They were soon joined by an even larger crowd of American robins and the activity of these berry lovers attracted a wide variety of permanent and winter songbirds; among these residents were black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, northern cardinals, blue jays, white-breasted nuthatches, white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos.  At the peak of the activity, there must have been a thousand birds in our modest-sized yard.

We Americans stop to express our thanks for the love and support of family and friends on this national holiday; some of us are also inclined to thank Mother Nature, grateful for her magnificent landscapes and diverse ecosystems.  Today's crowd of avian visitors reinforced that sentiment.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Ineffective Sunshine

As I walked around a suburban lake in Greater Cincinnati this morning, bright sunshine bathed the valley.  Unfortunately, what little warmth is offered by the November sun was wicked away by a strong, cold east wind.

Mallards, domestic ducks and their hybrid offspring dabbled in the shallows where thin ice had developed along the shoreline.  Joining them was a stoic great blue heron and a noisy flock of Canada geese.  Out on the open waters, a large squadron of ring-billed gulls soared and swooped above the lake or rested on its shimmering surface.

Less than a month from the winter solstice, the sun angle is too low to provide much heat, its radiation passing through a broad swath of the Earth's atmosphere.  For the next few months, warm days will only develop when southerly winds bring up mild air from the Gulf Coast or Desert Southwest.  Of course, these southerly winds are generally short lived, developing ahead of Pacific storm systems or Canadian Clippers; in their wake, snowstorms and/or cold, dry air sweep into the Midwest.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Dark Side of Nationalism

It was heartening to watch as the French people came together after the attacks in Paris and it was equally inspiring to learn that other countries offered their support.  Throughout the U.S., flags were flown at half staff and the French flag was widely displayed.

But now we see the ugly side of nationalism as Conservative Republic Presidential Candidates vie for the title of Isolationist in Chief.  Many want to halt the inflow of Syrian refugees while others are willing to accept "Christians" only.  Stoking fear in their constituents, they argue that our current vetting process is not effective and that "all it takes is one terrorist" to wreak havoc in the U.S.

Don't these politicians remember the Oklahoma City bombing and the Charleston church shootings, both carried out by white Americans?  Our lenient gun policies, supported by these same politicians, put us at far greater risk of violence than we might incur from International terrorists.  But fear is an effective political tool and the Paris attacks may prove to be a great source of American votes.  Perhaps we could extend Trump's proposed "beautiful wall" around the entire country; we don't need seascapes anyway.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Blue over Brown

Traveling to Ohio today, I crossed the drab November landscape of the Glaciated Plain, lit by bright sunshine and covered by a blue dome of cloudless sky.  Turkey vultures tilted in the north wind, red-tailed hawks perched in the barren trees and a few flocks of ring-billed gulls and Canada geese lounged on the fields or farm ponds.  An occasional coyote nosed through the corn stubble but mammals were otherwise limited to herds of livestock (and varied species of roadkill).

Though I repeatedly scanned the clear, blue sky, migrant snow geese were not encountered; nor were migrant ducks observed on the ponds and flooded fields.  Rustic barns, old silos and the clean-edged farm fields made for pleasant scenery but there was little to excite a naturalist on that seven-hour drive.

But Mother Nature is not in the business of entertaining travelers.  Racing along at 70 mph, we miss most of her complex handiwork and rely on random encounters to enjoy her spectacles.  Today she offered a two tone panorama of earth and sky.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A River of Rain

A potent winter storm, centered over south-central Kansas this afternoon, is pulling a swath of Gulf moisture northward through the Heartland.  Stretching from Houston to Chicago, the broad atmospheric river of heavy rain and thunderstorms has produced flooding throughout the region; along the leading edge of the swath, where warm, southeast winds intersect the cold front, a few tornadoes have developed.  Yesterday, as the storm's dry-line pushed across the Great Plains, 23 tornadoes were unleashed across Texas, Oklahoma and western Kansas.

Today, on the backside of the central low, blizzard conditions stretch from south-central Nebraska through western Kansas and southeast Colorado.  Up to a foot of snow has fallen and wind gusts to 70 mph have been reported.

The storm system is racing eastward and the swath of heavy rain and thunderstorms should reach the Mississippi Valley by early evening.  Here in central Missouri, the precipitation will taper off overnight as cooler and drier air moves in from the west.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Starling Tsunami

Anyone who regularly crosses open farmlands or the Great Plains of North America has surely witnessed spectacular starling ballets.  These aerial displays are, after all, one of the few reasons to appreciate the abundant European immigrants.

Today, on the plains east of Russell, Kansas, I observed what might be called a "starling tsunami" when a massive flock of starlings moved across the crop stubble, rising and falling in a rhythmic, wave-like motion.  Though I can't say with certainty, there must have been more than 5000 birds in that undulating black cloud.

Other sightings on the Great Plains included an unusually large number of prairie falcons in Eastern Colorado, 100 or more wild turkeys along the Republican River east of Flagler, Colorado, a large flock of Franklin's gulls west of Salina, Kansas, and a rough-legged hawk in the Flint Hills.  But those starlings, perhaps the most maligned birds in North America, provided the highlight of my journey.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Rise of Inhumanity

Yesterday's tragic attacks in Paris underscore the rise of inhumanity across the globe.  Spawned by religious zealotry, sectarian hatred, racism, oppression and cultural self-righteousness, terrorism threatens our common rights of life and liberty.

While focused disruption of terror networks and oppressive dictatorships is essential to combating this scourge, large scale warfare will only feed the hatred and distrust that underlies the violence.  It is simplistic to think that we can destroy extremist philosophy through military action alone.  Rather, we as a species must address the factors that divide us, including long entrenched hatred and beliefs, and provide remedies through education, economic opportunity and political inclusion.

Until we respect one another as fellow human beings, endowed with personal rights and freedoms, violent attacks will, in the minds of those who commit them, seem justified.  Unfortunately, religious zealotry and nationalism have long defined our species and modern technology (including weaponry, electronic communication and global travel) facilitates the activity of terror networks.  But it is the rise of inhumanity within our civilization, whether directed at immigrants, refugees, other races or other cultures, that provides recruits and fuels the violence.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Millipede Migration

Yesterday afternoon, while hiking at South Platte Park, I encountered hundreds of small millipedes crossing the paved bikeway.  Worm-shaped and close to an inch long, some had been accidentally crushed by passing walkers and cyclists.

This mass exodus was taking place one day after a six-inch snowfall blanketed the region; as the snow melted in the bright Colorado sun, saturated soil may have triggered their movement.  On the other hand, millipede migration is known to occur in autumn as these abundant invertebrates seek new food sources (decaying plant and animal matter) and search for wintering sites.

Primarily nocturnal, most terrestrial invertebrates are seldom encountered during the warmer months unless one is an active gardener.  While most insects overwinter as eggs or pupae, pillbugs and millipedes are among those invertebrates that may live for many years; when threatened by cold weather, most seek shelter beneath leaf litter or in loose soil but some escape to basements and garages, a choice not generally appreciated by homeowners.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Ferruginous Hawks

Driving through the Plum Creek Valley (south of Denver) this afternoon, I encountered several ferruginous hawks.  These large buteos, though named for their reddish shoulders, back and feathered legs, are perhaps best identified by their size, their long, pointed wings and by the light coloration of their chest, abdomen and under-wings.

Often hunting from the air, soaring or hovering above potential prey, ferruginous hawks also use perches (poles, trees, rock outcrops) and may stalk prey directly on the ground, staking out the burrows of prairie dogs and ground squirrels.  Their bulky nests are generally placed in solitary trees or on rock ledges in open country; 2-4 eggs are usually produced.

Ferruginous hawks are permanent residents in Colorado and throughout most of the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin, favoring semiarid plains, sage grasslands and open woodlands of pinon pine.  Rabbits, ground squirrels and prairie dogs are their primary prey but they consume a wide variety of small mammals and sometimes kill snakes and game birds.  North of Colorado, ferruginous hawks are primarily summer residents while wintering individuals may be found across the Desert Southwest and southern High Plains.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

From Subtropics to Snow

A week after leaving the balmy, subtropical weather on Longboat Key, Florida, I am back at our Littleton, Colorado, farm, anticipating a snowstorm tonight.  Of course, as often occurs in this region, there are no clues this morning; bright sunshine, crystal clear air and mild temperatures envelop the Front Range urban corridor.

But yesterday, as I drove westward across the Great Plains, southerly winds were sweeping Gulf of Mexico moisture to the north, priming the region for severe storms in the coming days.  This morning, a potent cold front stretches across the Great Basin and Northern Rockies, poised to drop through the Heartland; later today, as the cold front approaches, clouds will build along the Front Range and, overnight, an upslope flow behind the front will drop up to four inches of snow (per the current forecast) on Metro Denver.

Out on the High Plains, blizzard warnings have been posted; 60 mph winds are expected to combine with the modest snowfall to produce white-out conditions.  Further east, across the Central and Southern Plains and Mississippi Valley, the powerful system will likely ignite severe thunderstorms, some of which may spawn tornadoes.  As winter delivers its first major punch, the Heartland will bear most of its impact.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Perfect Families

Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 60s know what they look like; the Cleavers, the Nelsons and the Stones were perfect families, challenged only by the occasional misguided antics of their teenaged children.  There was no divorce, physical or substance abuse, depression or intolerance.  These were the families we planned to assemble for ourselves.

Then, in 1971, All in the Family broke the mold, exposing both superficial and deep-seated defects that exist in human families.  Racism, homophobia, religious zealotry, alcoholism, infidelity and abuse were faced head-on, as were many other issues that disrupt our social fabric.  Since then, movies and television shows have increasingly focused on problems that challenge the modern family, often smoldering beneath the surface and undetected by extended family, friends and neighbors.

Indeed, having intimate knowledge of issues within our own family, we too often assume that others enjoy perfect relationships, sailing through life without financial concerns or personal troubles.  This, of course, is a mirage, a bubble often burst by divorce or some other tragedy.  Rather than resenting others for their seemingly perfect families or criticizing them for their failed relationships, it is best that we acknowledge the limitations of our perspective.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Keystone on Ice

Finally, the Obama Administration has decided to nix the Keystone Pipeline, at least until their reign is over.  My only question: "What took so long?"

As I detailed in Pipeline to Oblivion, last year, the project risked environmental disaster and would have reinforced our dependence on fossil fuels.  To lead an International effort to combat global warming while proceeding with the Keystone Pipeline would have been the height of hypocrisy.

Of course, the Republican Presidential Candidates will use this decision to ridicule the current Administration, promising to renew the project once their nominee takes back the White House.  Anyone who is concerned about global warming and supports a transition to clean, renewable energy should help to assure that climate change deniers do not govern this country.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Selective Scientist

Dr. Ben Carson, one of many Republicans running for President, is a neurosurgeon.  During his medical training, he learned the principles of biochemistry, physiology, pathology and medical technology, among other scientific disciplines.  We also know that he is an avid user of Twitter and that he strongly supports the military, replete with its sophisticated instruments of war; both of these industries are based on technical knowledge gained through advances in physics and electronics.

Yet, this avowed scientist, in accordance with his extreme religious beliefs, does not accept scientific evidence related to evolution and the origin of our Universe.  Even more disturbing, he believes that such evidence, which contradicts simplistic Bible stories, reflects satanic influence.

There is little doubt that presidential candidates embellish their religious faith in order to gain favor with segments of the American public.  But Dr. Carson represents a worrisome trend in the Republican Party, a willingness to back science that supports their goals and to trash science (e.g. climatology) that threatens those who fund their political programs and candidates.  While I have previously expressed my opposition to the candidacy of Donald Trump, the prospect of having Dr. Carson in the Oval Office is far more alarming; the war on science education, conducted by religious zealots, must not be headquartered in the White House.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

All Quiet in Duckland

After two weeks in Florida we're back in Missouri and, when I'm in Missouri, Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area is where I like to be.  After all, this is early November, long the peak of the fall waterfowl migration; in addition, as a cold front descends on our State, cool, overcast, showery weather has enveloped the region, ideal for waterfowl watching.

It was thus with optimism that I approached the Missouri River floodplain this morning, expecting to see a wide variety of ducks, hopefully joined by migrant sandhill cranes, American white pelicans and even some early geese.  Unfortunately, though the refuge was inviting with its late autumn colors, the lakes, pools and sloughs were relatively devoid of waterfowl; except for hundreds (if not thousands) of American coot, which foraged in the marshy shallows, I saw only a few small flocks of mallards and gadwalls.  A lone northern pintail joined these ducks and distant flocks of blue-winged teal wheeled above the floodplain.  As usual, bald eagles, great blue herons, red-tailed hawks and northern harriers were observed but no cranes or pelicans were present.

A delayed autumn waterfowl migration is becoming an annual phenomenon, perhaps related to global warming.  While songbirds migrate in response to the light cycle, waterfowl move southward when food becomes scarce or when ponds and wetlands begin to freeze; neither has yet to occur this year.  Within a few decades, we birders may have to travel north to observe migrant geese, ducks and cranes.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge

The Hiwassee River rises in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northeast Georgia, flows northward into North Carolina and then angles WNW, eventually merging with the Tennessee River northeast of Chattanooga; the Ocoee River of Georgia and Tennessee is a major tributary of the Hiwassee.

At its junction with the Tennessee River, the Hiwassee harbors the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, 6000 acres of water and land that attracts the largest population of wintering, migrant sandhill cranes in the southeastern U.S.; whooping cranes may also be observed on the refuge.  Migrant sandhill cranes of eastern North America breed near James Bay and the Great Lakes, using the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwestern Indiana as a staging area before flying to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge; while some move on to Florida (joining permanent residents there), 14,000 or more cranes winter at or near the Hiwassee Refuge.  The cranes start to arrive in late October and begin to depart in February; peak numbers generally occur in January.  While the refuge is closed to visitors from mid November through February, an observation deck along the southern edge of the preserve (off Highway 60) is open to visitors year-round.

This morning, on our journey back to Missouri, we stopped by the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge.  Unfortunately, foggy conditions limited visibility and, worse yet, not a single crane was observed or heard.  Clearly, the cranes are a bit tardy this year and we'll try again on a mid-winter trip through the area.  Nature offers no guarantees!

Monday, November 2, 2015

A Massive Flock of Frigatebirds

Looking out across Sarasota Bay this morning, I saw a large flock of dark birds soaring above the main channel.  Though I initially mistook them for turkey vultures, some of the birds began to dive and I grabbed my binoculars for a closer look.  As it turned out, they were magnificent frigatebirds in a congregation far larger than I have ever encountered in the past.

After nesting in colonies on oceanic islands, primarily south of the U.S., magnificent frigatebirds move northward along the coasts of Florida during the warmer months.  There they are usually seen alone, in pairs or in small groups, often harassing gulls, terns, pelicans and ospreys to steal their catch.  These agile fliers also glean small fish, shrimp, baby sea turtles and a host of marine invertebrates from the surface of the water and are known to grab seabird nestlings from mangroves or beaches.

Should they come across a large concentration of prey (often signaled by the feeding activity of dolphins, gannets or pelicans) they may congregate in large flocks to join the feast.  I suspect this morning's sighting was such an event, drawing in hundreds of frigatebirds from the Gulf of Mexico and adjacent areas of the Bay.

Lizards for Breakfast

Florida's anoles, the pet store lizards that many of us owned as children, are abundant at our condo complex on Longboat Key.  They climb on the screens, scale the palms and lounge on the railings at the pool.  But their life in paradise is not without its dangers.

Yesterday morning, I watched as a great egret made his way along the bay side of our building, moving at a snail's pace and swaying his long neck and head, mimicking the movement of the foliage.  Every few steps, he stopped to survey the shrubs, patiently stalking his victims.  With lightning fast jabs, he would snare the hapless anoles, rarely missing his target; I watched as four of the lizards were swallowed whole, still squirming before disappearing down the long slide to the egret's stomach.

As ospreys fished on the bay and squadrons of brown pelicans passed overhead, the elegant hunter continued his calm, steady pursuit of the agile lizards.  For many, it would be their last morning in the bright Florida sun.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Visitor from the Plains

Two days ago, while driving southward through Longboat Key, Florida, I observed a male scissor-tailed flycatcher, sitting on a power line.  Though I have seen this bird many times across the Great Plains, this was the first time I encountered one in the Sunshine State.

Indeed, scissor-tailed flycatchers are common summer residents of the Southern Plains, from Kansas and western Missouri to Texas and northern Mexico.  While the great majority winter in Mexico and Central America, a relatively small population travels to South Florida and the Bahamas for the colder months.  This latter group is known to wander widely during their autumn migration, turning up almost anywhere in the Southeastern U.S.

Frankly, this elegant flycatcher, sporting a long, forked tail, seems to be more at home in Florida among the other colorful species of subtropical wetlands.  Yet, he is better known across the hot, semiarid terrain of the Southern Plains, where trees are sparse and water usually arrives in widely spaced torrents.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Shorebird Diversity in Florida

Birders who visit Florida's beaches during the autumn months enjoy a changing mix of shorebirds.  By mid summer, permanent residents are joined by the first "autumn" migrants, arriving from their breeding grounds across the Arctic tundra and Northern Plains; various species continue to arrive through early November and shorebird diversity peaks during the winter months.

When we arrived on Longboat Key last week, permanent residents, including willets, piping plovers and ruddy turnstones, mingled with sanderlings, short-billed dowitchers and black-bellied plovers, down from the north.  Early this week, flocks of red knots began to appear and, yesterday, a few dunlins foraged on the beach.  Other species, such as long-billed dowitchers, semipalmated plovers and western sandpipers are surely in the area but have yet to cross my path; still others, including spotted  and least sandpipers, whimbrels, marbled godwits, yellowlegs and American avocets prefer tidal mudflats and wetlands and are not generally observed on the beach.

The mixed shorebird flocks will begin to thin out in April as the earliest spring migrants depart for the north.  By late May, only permanent residents and non-breeding juveniles (which may remain on their wintering grounds until sexually mature) are found on the beaches of the Sunshine State.