Saturday, February 16, 2019

A Magnificent Visitor

Back on Longboat Key, Florida, I was birding along Sarasota Bay this morning, watching American white pelicans, red-breasted mergansers, double-crested cormorants, brown pelicans and laughing gulls feast on the recovering fish population (see Birdlife after the Red Tide) when a prehistoric figure soared in from the Gulf; it was a magnificent frigatebird, the first I have seen this year.

Spending most of their lives at sea, these marine aerialists snatch fish from the ocean surface, scavenge refuse from fishing boats or steal prey from other sea birds.  Visiting subtropical and tropical bays throughout the year, they only land during the summer breeding season when they gather in colonies on mangrove islands.  Ill equipped to maneuver on land and unable to rise from the ocean surface, they do not swim and cannot walk; rather, they must wait for winds to takeoff from their mangrove perch.  Each pair raises one chick per year and the female provides food for its first year of life.

Though I have seen large flocks of magnificent frigatebirds in the past, a lone winter wanderer is especially inspiring, knowing that he has been aloft for six months or more, often sleeping as he soars above the warm but turbulent waters of tropical and subtropical seas.  The fact that he often steals his meal does not diminish my admiration.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Cheated by Clouds

Many of us who enjoy plane travel relish the opportunity to observe our planet from 30,000 feet.  Indeed, that perspective gives the traveler a unique opportunity to observe and appreciate the topography and hydrology of our varied natural landscapes.

Anticipating my roundtrip flight between Atlanta and Denver this week, I hoped to view the southernmost Appalachians, the Tennessee River Valley, the lower Mississippi floodplain and the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas, among other landforms; I also expected to catch aerial views of Birmingham, Memphis, Little Rock and Wichita, which are along our scheduled flight route.  Alas, thick clouds obscured the landscape in both directions (except for the sun-baked terrain of Colorado); indeed, even my views of the Atlanta area were limited to the airport itself.

Of course, we naturalists understand that weather is unpredictable and that nature's whims do not always match-up with the hopes and expectations of human travelers.  Maybe next time!

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Flashback Post XII

On this Hallmark Holiday of Romantic Love, I thought I might share a few past posts on this complex human emotion.

See: The Nature of Love, Human Love and Love at First Smell

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

A Change in the Trees

Returning to our Littleton farm after a ten-day absence, I initially saw nothing new; pockets of snow covered the brown "grass," a deep blue dome stretched overhead, the bright Colorado sun offered its warmth and reassurance and goose poop still littered the driveway.  But there was a change in the trees, one that was even more evident at South Platte Park this morning.

Looking at the canopy of deciduous trees, I could see that the buds had enlarged significantly, a product of rising sap; after all, this is maple syrup season across the Northeastern U.S. and this February phenomenon occurs in many other trees as well.  Awaiting warmer conditions before they burst into flower or leaf, the swollen buds are an early sign of the coming spring.

No doubt, most humans pay little attention to this annual process, focused as they are on the cold, snow and the weather gauntlet that still lies ahead.  But naturalists know that nature's year is a continuum and that a host of natural events connect the classic seasons.  The rise of tree sap is one that often goes unnoticed.

Monday, February 11, 2019

To Winter and Back

Due to some personal business, I have left warm, sunny Florida and will return to Denver for a few days.  It was 76 degrees F when I boarded the plane in Sarasota this morning for the 1.5 hour leg to Atlanta; as I write this post, I am sitting in the Atlanta airport, staring out at cloudy skies and light fog.  It is 45 degrees.

My flight to Denver leaves later this afternoon and I can expect to be greeted by near-freezing temperatures there; ah the joys of modern travel, trading in summer for winter.  After a brief stay in Colorado, I'll then return to Longboat Key for another respite before our drive back to Missouri.

We humans, having evolved in the Tropics, relish a journey to warm climes in the winter but are often slow to adapt when we return; fortunately, the dry air and intense sunshine in Colorado will ease my abrupt transition.  Besides, what better destinations for an outdoors enthusiast?

Sunday, February 10, 2019

South to Gasparilla Island

As I have mentioned in the past, my wife and I often take day trips from our condo on Longboat Key and have explored most areas of the Florida Peninsula.  On this warm, sunny Sunday, we decided to visit Gasparilla Island (90 minutes to our south), which stretches along the west side of Charlotte Harbor.

This long barrier island, named for a legendary pirate, is accessed via a toll bridge at its north end.  Home to Boca Grande, an upscale community of spacious homes, golf courses, restaurants and a marina (where we enjoyed a pleasant lunch on the bay), Gasparilla Island is renowned as a fisherman's paradise and hosts Gasparilla State Park, which stretches along the southwest edge of the island.

Accessed by a series of small parking lots (which were packed with visitors today), the Park is a strip of Gulf beaches and their adjacent dune ecosystem.  Shelling is a popular activity there and shells were certainly abundant on our brief afternoon walk; on the other hand, wildlife was all but absent, represented by only a couple of ring-billed gulls (no pelicans, terns, shorebirds or other seabirds on the beach, on the Gulf or in the air).  I am often amazed when seemingly pristine habitat fails to attract even a modest variety of wildlife; no doubt, this phenomenon was transient but it was disappointing nonetheless.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Old Miakka Preserve

East of Sarasota, Florida, Fruitville Road crosses a mosaic of cattle ranches which attract sandhill cranes, cattle egrets and a host of raptors.  Just over 11 miles east of Interstate 75, that road ends and a short graveled lane, which leads to the Old Miakka Preserve, begins.

This 132-acre preserve offers four miles of grass/sand trails that cross pine flatwoods, open scrub habitat and creeks that flow to the upper Myakka River.  On this sunny, mild morning, we roamed that network of trails, encountering turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers and an assortment of open country songbirds. Gopher tortoises inhabit the preserve but were not observed today.

Though there is a great deal to enjoy and explore on Florida's Coasts, much of the State's unique fauna an flora are found on the prairies and in the flatwoods and wetlands of the Peninsula's interior.  Each time we visit Longboat Key, we plan at least one excursion to that fascinating region, landscapes largely ignored by the hordes of tourists.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Birdlife after the Red Tide

Returning to Longboat Key, Florida, for the first time since last summer's devastating red tide, I have found that the regional bird populations have been affected.  While the land birds remain as common as usual, those that feed on fish and marine invertebrates seem to be far less abundant.

Though we have only been on the island for 24 hours, most ospreys, pelicans, waders, cormorants, mergansers, gulls and terns appear to have moved to areas where prey is more readily available.  Far fewer fish are jumping on the Bay and schools observed from the seawall are less widespread and composed primarily of smaller fish.

Perhaps our initial observations are deceiving but there is little doubt that the 2018 red tide had a dramatic impact on the local marine ecosystems, both on the Gulf of Mexico and in Sarasota Bay.  A full recovery will eventually occur but the fish and bird populations will likely remain low for an extended period of time.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Entering Spring

If spring was lurking in central Alabama, I wouldn't know.  A dense fog enveloped the highway from Birmingham to Montgomery and the adjacent landscape was all but invisible.  South of Montgomery, however, early leafing of shrubs and small trees was evident, a reliable sign that we had entered the season of renewal.

When we reached Interstate 10, in the Florida Panhandle, we found ourselves in the midst of extensive tree damage from Hurricane Michael that ravaged the region last October.  Mixed among the carnage were flowering red maples, another sign that we had changed seasons.  Heading east on the Interstate, we found that the tree damage extended to the outskirts of Tallahassee; thereafter, the greenery of spring was persistent, including a green blush in the canopy of large trees.

Later, driving south down the Florida Peninsula on I-75, we eventually reached the Subtropics where the classic seasons are replaced by two: the Dry Season, from December to May, and the Wet (Hurricane) Season, from June to November.  We had reached Spring and left it behind in the same day.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Driving toward Spring

Leaving Columbia this morning, we headed toward spring; it was cloudy and cool in central Missouri and patchy snow still covered the ground.  As we drove eastward to St. Louis and then southward through western Illinois, we encountered multiple flocks of snow geese and greater white-fronted geese, vanguards of the coming season.

When we crossed the swollen Ohio River, we were greeted by sunshine and warm conditions but a brown, wintry landscape still stretched along the highway.  A large flock of American white pelicans, also a harbinger of spring, graced Lake Barkley, southeast of Paducah and green fields finally appeared in southern Kentucky.

Throughout Tennessee and into northern Alabama, mild, sunny weather persisted but convincing signs of spring remained elusive.  After dipping through the Tennessee River Valley and then knifing into the southern end of the Appalachian Chain, we stopped for the night near Birmingham.  Spring still lies farther south (stay tuned).

Saturday, February 2, 2019

First Spring Migrants

On this cloudy but mild afternoon in central Missouri, my wife and I took a walk around Philips Lake in south Columbia.  Following the recent Arctic weather, the lake remained completely frozen over and, despite the pleasant weather, birds were few and far between.  A female norther harrier strafed the adjacent fields and a red-shouldered hawk hunted from his perch in a marsh-side tree; otherwise, songbirds were limited to northern cardinals, northern mockingbirds and song sparrows.

While watching a noisy flock of Canada geese pass over the lake, I caught sight of another wavering flock of geese, smaller and more slender than their Canadian cousins.  On close inspection, they proved to be greater white-fronted geese, 35 in number; heading northwest, they were the first spring migrants that I have observed this year.

Summer residents of the Arctic, primarily across Alaska and northwestern Canada, these long-distance migrants are most abundant west of the Mississippi, wintering in the Central California Valley, southern Mississippi Valley, the western Gulf Coast, the Southern Plains and Mexico.  There they feast on grasses, waste grain and wetland plants before beginning their return trip in February, among the earliest spring migrants on the planet.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Watching Metal Birds

As I write this post, I am sitting at Denver International Airport, watching human flying machines takeoff and land.  Within a couple of hours, I will be in the air myself, enjoying the scenery and then the urban lights on my way to Columbia, Missouri.  That stay will be brief, since we plan to drive down to our condo on Longboat Key.

Though I cannot fly a plane, I enjoy views of the Earth from above and certainly appreciate the efficiency of jet travel.  While it cannot match the freedom of avian flight, it is the closest we humans will likely get (except for the use of gliders) and I look forward to every opportunity.

Even the sight of those big birds landing and taking off is inspiring; a British Airways 747 just arrived from London, highlighting the technological progress that our species has made.  Who knows what the future may hold but, during my lifetime, the ability to observe our planet from 30,000 feet is rewarding enough.

See: Meeting Stan Freden

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The President is Speaking

I don't watch much television, except for some news, sports, business and weather, but when I hear the words "The President is Speaking" I have a Pavlovian response, immediately turning off the set until his allotted time to display his ignorance is over.

Who can respect or even believe the words of this man, famous for his endless lies and narcissistic rants?  How can we trust someone who sidles up to dictators, denounces the free press, degrades immigrants, fosters racism and ridicules the science of climate change?  And how can anyone who cares about the health of our environment respect this enemy of conservation, devoted to the coal, oil and gas industries and determined to eliminate every environmental regulation that Congress or the EPA have enacted?

No, I cannot respect this man.  The 2020 elections cannot arrive soon enough and it is my hope that Impeachment ends his reign well in advance of that democratic process. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Midwest Deep Freeze

Residents of the Upper Midwest are awaking to temperatures of 20 to 30 degrees below zero (F) this morning; by mid afternoon, record low high temperatures will be recorded across the region with most areas staying at or below minus 15.  In addition, steady winds will produce a wind-chill of minus 50 or lower.

The cause for this extreme weather event is a dip in the northern jet stream, allowing Arctic air to plunge southward and then eastward; meanwhile, in Alaska, where the jet is curving northward, temperatures are well above normal.  As the atmospheric trough of frigid air drifts eastward, the atmospheric ridge that is now over Alaska will follow, allowing temperatures across the Upper Midwest to rebound in dramatic fashion; by this weekend, highs near 40 degrees F will bathe the frozen landscape.

No doubt, those who deny global warming will use this extreme, record-breaking chill to bolster their argument.  Of course, this is pure folly on their part; even as the climate warms, regional weather patterns will allow polar air to spill southward at times.  It is the persistent rise in global average temperature that has begun to threaten Earth's ecosystems and, eventually, the welfare of mankind.