Sunday, October 25, 2020

Clueless at Earthquake Hollow

Looking for a new destination on this cloudy, cool day in central Missouri, my wife and I chose Earthquake Hollow Conservation Area, south of Fulton.  The small refuge consists of an open field and a parcel of forest, the latter bisected by a deep ravine (hence the name of this preserve).

Before leaving Columbia, I read that Earthquake Hollow is serviced my a small parking lot and accessed by a loop trail.  As we were hiking across the field on the entry path, it was clear that the refuge is not heavily utilized; the trail was merely a stomped down route through the grass and weeds.  Upon reaching the forest, our disappointment and confusion only increased as the forest floor was littered with leaves and broken limbs and no signage or blazes indicated the trail's location and route.

We thus spent an hour or so wandering through the forest and down into the ravine, partly looking for the trail but primarily just enjoying the forest; our only company was provided by a noisy pair of red-headed woodpeckers.  In the end, the scenery, exercise and fresh air were rewards enough for our visit. 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Early Hunting, Late Waterfowl

The southern half of Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area has been closed for duck hunting since October 15 and will remain inaccessible to the public until mid January.  Why the season was extended is uncertain, especially since migrant waterfowl have been arriving later in central Missouri for several years.

Indeed, the number and diversity of waterfowl have been low this October, a phenomenon that may reflect global warming; unlike songbirds, waterfowl migrate in response to weather conditions, escaping to the south when northern ponds and wetlands begin to freeze over.  This morning, a friend and I encountered about 60 mallards, 20 blue-winged teal and two ruddy ducks on the accessible portion of the refuge, hardly a large number and variety of waterfowl for late October.  Other sightings of interest included about 75 American coot, 16 American white pelicans, 5 pied-billed grebes, 3 double-crested cormorants and 3 bald eagles.

Since cold, snowy weather is currently moving across the Northern Plains, waterfowl may soon arrive at Eagle Bluffs in large numbers.  For now, the hunters have a head start, as non-productive as their early efforts may be.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Life in Review

During our youth, we humans tend to plow through life, unconcerned with our mortality and making choices based on what will make us happy.  To be fair, most of us make responsible choices, especially regarding our education and job opportunities, but our focus remains on ourselves.

By middle age, we cannot (and should not) ignore the needs of our spouse and children but we remain in the "what mode."  What should we do to ensure our family's welfare?  What can be said or done to influence the behavior and success of our children?  What career and financial choices will be most beneficial in the long run?

Once we are older, the whats have been responded to and the consequences are known.  More conscious of our mortality, we begin to ponder the whys of our life and have time to reflect on how it unfolded.  During that process, some regrets arise but, more importantly, we come to grips with who we are and why we made the choices that we did.  Such a review is enlightening and is at the heart of the wisdom that comes with age; whether that wisdom can be used to influence those in the "what stage" of their life is another matter. 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Summer Blows Back

After a string of cool, wintry days, summer has returned on strong southwest winds; this afternoon, our high in central Missouri has just passed 80 degrees F.  Clockwise winds around a high pressure dome, currently centered over the Carolinas, and counterclockwise winds around low pressure over southeastern Colorado are funneling warm air up from the Southern Plans and the Gulf of Mexico.

However, not far to our north and northwest the chilly air persists; Des Moines, Iowa, is 46 degrees F and Omaha, Nebraska, is 44.  Our summer-like interlude will be brief as the warm dome shifts eastward, northerly winds develop and Canadian high pressure invades the Heartland.  Highs in the 40s are expected for much of the next week with lows near freezing; indeed snow is forecast for next Tuesday (five days from now).

Such is the undulating pattern of autumn weather, especially across the Great Plains and Midwest.  Until the jet stream levels out for the winter (usually well south of our region) the atmospheric battles will continue.  In all likelihood, this is summer's last gasp but predicting the weather is a humbling pastime.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Winter Sparrows Arrive

Over the past few days, I have encountered winter sparrows in our yard and at local nature preserves.  Migrating in response to the solar cycle, they pay little attention to the gyrations in weather that often characterize a Midwestern autumn and, as natives of Canada, they are well equipped to deal with harsh conditions.

White-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos tend to be the most common winter sparrows in suburban areas while white-crowned, swamp and American tree sparrows prefer more rural habitats.  All of these species are relatively easy to identify (with a bit of practice) but their attraction to tall grass and thickets can pose a challenge for all birders.  Then there are the permanent residents (house, field, savanna and song sparrows) and the relatively uncommon winter species (fox and Harris' sparrows, for example) that mingle with the new arrivals and further complicate identification efforts.

An avid birder for more than forty years, I still find sparrows to be the most difficult species to distinguish in the field.  Nevertheless, I welcome the arrival of our winter sparrows and admire their willingness to spend the dark, quiet season in the less-than-balmy Heartland.

Monday, October 19, 2020

First Punch of Winter

An atmospheric trough dips through the Great Plains and Midwest today, bringing wintry temperatures as far south as North Texas.  Afternoon highs in the twenties (F) stretch across Montana, North Dakota and northern Minnesota while pockets of snow are scattered through the region, especially in southern Minnesota and Iowa.

Here in central Missouri, our temperature stands at 43 degrees F under cloudy skies, the coldest day of the season so far.  Just beyond the reach of the trough the warmth of mid-October persists and it will return to much of the Midwest as the dip in the jet stream moves off to the east.

This early taste of winter may or may not signal a long or especially severe season.  What it will likely do in the meantime is hasten waterfowl migration through the Heartland as ponds and wetlands begin to freeze up north.  After a sluggish start, that development would be welcome indeed.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

October at Bradford Farm

On this cool, cloudy morning in central Missouri, I visited Bradford Farm, east of town.  An agricultural research center of the University of Missouri, it is also a local birding hotspot; three ponds and several tree lines add diversity to the rolling crop fields.

This morning, a flock of gadwall graced one of the larger ponds, joined by a trio of ruddy ducks, a few mallards and a pair of pied-billed grebes.  Northern harriers, American kestrels and American crows patrolled the farm while mourning doves, European starlings, red-winged blackbirds and savannah sparrows foraged on the dry fields.  Other sightings included killdeer and white-crowned sparrows.

While my visit was not terribly productive from a birding point of view, I always enjoy an excursion to Bradford Farm where one can just pull over and enjoy the rural landscape, all the while scouring the skies for raptors and migrant waterfowl.  It is still a bit early for the latter but flocks of snow and greater white-fronted geese will soon arrive from the north, lifting the spirits of many outdoor enthusiasts during this difficult year.  

Thursday, October 15, 2020

An Early Death

Running errands this morning, I encountered a fawn, smeared across the pavement of a local highway.  Carcasses of raccoon and opossum also littered that stretch of road but the death of a young deer was especially sad.

No doubt, many Americans would not mourn the death of a white-tailed deer, regardless of its age.  Relegated to narrow greenbelts by the development of human neighborhoods, the deer often help themselves to the plants that adorn our properties.  After all, they lived here first.

Of course, in nature, the young and the old are often the victims of predation, a gruesome fact that is well-known but rarely observed (except when glimpsed in a nature documentary).  But to die young in the "circle of life" is one thing; to succumb to a speeding vehicle, often at the hands of a careless driver, is quite another.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

DNA Transfer

We have all had the experience.  Setting off on a road trip, we soon discover that an unwelcome passenger is along for the ride.....a house fly.  Such an event occurred today as we left Denver early this morning and drove to Columbia, Missouri.

Try as we might, we could not dislodge (or kill) our stowaway and it would intermittently buzz our heads.  Leaving the windows open or the doors ajar at rest stops did not encourage his departure.  For all I know, he is still in the car, now in Columbia, or may be exploring our yard.

Such experiences often make me wonder if we are disrupting the natural balance of the planet, potentially injecting alien genes into the local fly population.  Perhaps we will create an army of super-flies; alternatively, we may decimate the regional fly population by releasing the foreign agent.  It's not like I won't be able to sleep tonight; just food for thought!

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Before Dawn

By mid October, sunrise is late enough that I must haul the garbage down to the curb in the dark.  This morning, that fact was especially rewarding.

To the east, a Cheshire moon smiled above bright Venus.  To the south, Orion the Hunter warned of the coming winter, trailed by his faithful hound Sirius.  To the west, the Red Planet (Mars) gleamed above the invisible mountains, now in direct opposition to the Sun.  And finally, a bowl of distant suns speckled the dark sky, shining through the clear, chilly October air.

Trash day may be a human routine but, from October through February, it can remind us of our relative insignificance.  At the very least, it may prove to be an inspiring chore.

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Spring Mountains

Another golf tournament, more interesting topography.  Anyone who watched the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, a PGA tournament from Las Vegas, Nevada, this past weekend, could not help but notice the mountains rising in the distance.

This range, northwest of Las Vegas, is known as the Spring Mountains, among the most prominent geographic features of Southern Nevada.  Aligned northwest to southeast, this fault-block range tops out at Charleston Peak, elevation 11,918 feet.  Known for its biologic diversity, the range harbors the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

Of particular interest to geography buffs, such as myself, the Spring Mountains, named for the numerous springs in the range, rise along the topographic margin of the Great Basin.  Streams on the west side of the range flow into the Mojave Desert of the Great Basin while those that drain its eastern flank are part of the Colorado River watershed.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Three High Pressure Domes

As I write this post, three domes of high pressure dominate the weather map across North America.  One dome is centered over the northern Great Basin, the second is over the Gulf of Mexico and the third is over Eastern Canada.

In the central region of high pressure domes, air is sinking and cloud formation is suppressed; along their outer rim, however, air is circulating in a clockwise direction.  Where they interact, cold or warm fronts arc across the landscape and centers of low pressure produce uplift; if sufficient moisture is present, rain or snow develops.

Currently, strong southwesterly winds are raking the Front Range urban corridor, just ahead of the cold front associated with the Great Basin dome; we are in the mid 70s F while Cheyenne, Wyoming, 90 miles to our north, is in the mid 50s F.  Across the Great Plains and Southeast, the Gulf of Mexico dome is in control and afternoon temperatures are in the 80s and 90s F.  Finally the cool Eastern Canada dome reaches down to the Mid Atlantic region and out across the Great Lakes.  Rain is falling across the Northern Plains and Mid Atlantic States, where these atmospheric domes abut one another.  Unfortunately, we do not expect any significant moisture from the cold front as it drops along the Front Range. 

Friday, October 9, 2020

Delta slams the Louisiana Coast

Hurricane Delta is about to make landfall in southwestern Louisiana.  Currently a category 2 storm, it is already pummeling the State with storm surge, heavy rains and gusty winds.

Crossing much of the same territory that was raked by Hurricane Laura, it will surely hamper recovery efforts in that region and may scatter the debris that is still piled along the roadways; of course, tornadoes also pose a threat, as is typical with land-falling hurricanes.  Once over land, Delta will weaken but will spread flooding precipitation across the lower Mississippi and Tennessee River Valleys before reaching the Mid-Atlantic Coast.

The first Greek numbered storm to ever make landfall in the U.S., Delta is also the 10th named storm to strike the country this year, a record for a single hurricane season.  Any doubt that global warming is playing a significant role in the current outbreak has surely been put to rest, at least in the minds of those who respect science-based evidence. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

A Death Squad

Looking out the kitchen window this evening, I saw our resident fox chewing on the carcass of what appeared to be a cottontail.  Repeatedly trying to swallow it whole, the young hunter was clearly frustrated and resumed his efforts to tear off pieces of the victim.

All the while, like vultures on the Serengeti Plains, a flock of black-billed magpies circled the fox and his prize, attempting to snare the carcass whenever the hunter stopped to rest.  Soon, the fox gave up and stretched out below a nearby tree while the magpies fought over the remnants of his kill.

Notably young and thin, I wonder if the red fox has the hunting skills to survive the upcoming winter.  He has clearly put a dent in our cottontail population (or spooked them into seclusion) but his nutritional status is suspect.  The magpies, on the other hand, gregarious, aggressive and omnivorous, will do just fine.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

When Physicians become Enablers

Patients rely on their physicians to keep them well, to diagnose their medical or surgical conditions and to treat them appropriately.  In doing so, physicians must earn their trust, convince them when hospitalization is indicated and resist their desire to go home when a discharge would be unsafe or endanger others.

Having practiced Internal Medicine for forty years, primarily as a hospital-based physician, I understand that conflicts between patients and their physicians routinely occur.  In many cases, a second opinion or consultation serves to dissolve the crisis.  In some cases, a patient may need to undergo evaluation to determine if they are competent to make decisions, especially when an important therapy is declined or when a threat to leave the hospital against medical advice occurs.

Unfortunately, physicians may give in to patient demands in the interest of efficiency or due to legal concerns; no doubt, physicians have played a significant role in the ongoing crisis of narcotic addiction.  Now we see that political pressure may also sway their behavior; allowing the President, infected with Covid-19, to leave the hospital for a photo-op and to be discharged ahead of schedule to appease his personal whims are disturbing choices.  Perhaps Trump was forced to sign-out on both occasions but, if so, the public should be informed of that fact.  Otherwise, putting the health of the President, his staff and other contacts in danger suggests a willingness to enable compulsive behavior with potentially tragic consequences.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Paint Mines Interpretive Park

About 35 miles east of Colorado Springs and two miles south of Calhan, Colorado, a creek and its side streams have sculpted a badlands from the north flank of a high ridge.  Now protected within Paint Mines Interpretive Park, the badlands are a colorful mosaic of bluffs, domes and hoodoos, representing Tertiary and Quaternary deposits.  The Park's name is a reference to the fact the Native Americans used the clays for decorative purposes.

Accessed by a network of sand-gravel trails that overlook and wind among the rock formations, the park is home to an excellent variety of plants and animals that characterize the Western High Plains; among the resident wildlife are coyotes, red fox, white-tailed deer, ferruginous hawks, prairie falcons, thirteen-lined ground squirrels and short-horned lizards.  Unfortunately, perhaps due to the number of visitors, we only encountered the ground squirrels this morning.

A wind farm now stretches atop the ridge above the park but the ecology of this hidden, geologic gem appears to be undisturbed.  The stream itself is an upper tributary of Big Sandy Creek which drains part of the Arkansas River watershed, south of the Palmer Divide.  Finally, from atop the ridge, one (I imagine) enjoys a spectacular view of the Pike's Peak massif and the distant Continental Divide; unfortunately, a smoky haze from the Western wildfires obliterated that view today.