Thursday, January 29, 2015

Southwest Monsoon in January

The Southwest Monsoon, bringing welcome rains to the Desert Southwest, occurs in summer each year, though its intensity and extent often varies.  The nourishing rains and thunderstorms develop as moist air is swept in from the Sea of Cortez and the Gulf of Mexico by winds generated between low pressure over southeastern California (or the Upper Baja) and high pressure over the Southern Plains.

Such an atmospheric scenario is currently developing in that region and thunderstorms are expected to rumble across the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico over the next few days; unlike the summer monsoon, this weather pattern will bring snow to the higher elevations of the Four Corner States, especially in northern Arizona, New Mexico and southern Colorado.

While the summer monsoon brings vital moisture to these dry lands and this week's storms will augment the region's snowpack, the current "monsoon" may also douse some of the revelry over Super Bowl Weekend (held in Phoenix this year).  Apparently, Mother Nature is not a football fan.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Early Snows over Kansas

Driving back to Missouri over the past two days, I encountered the usual mix of winter wildlife, including rough-legged and red-tailed hawks, scattered flocks of Canada geese and roadside flocks of Lapland longspurs.  But the highlight of my journey would appear in central Kansas.

Riding the warm, southerly breeze, several flocks of snow geese wavered above the Interstate between Salina and Junction City.  Several weeks early, those vocal Arctic residents were perhaps seeking some cool air as this week's heat wave invades the Great Plains.  They'll likely settle down when they begin to encounter frozen lakes and may turn back south if necessary.

Unlike songbirds, that migrate in concert with the daylight cycle, waterfowl are fickle travelers, often delaying their fall exodus if open water and food is plentiful and sometimes jumping the gun in late winter or spring, taking advantage of strong tail winds or mild weather.  Of course, such behavior can prove fatal if late season snowstorms coat their feeding grounds; then again, snow geese are hardy creatures and their burgeoning population demonstrates that they are both adaptable and "street wise."

Monday, January 26, 2015

Northeast Blizzard, Western Heat

As residents of the Northeast urban corridor brace for blizzard conditions tonight, those living along the Front Range or across the High Plains are basking in summer-like warmth; the afternoon high in Denver today was in the low 70s (F) and the warm sunshine is expected to continue tomorrow.

The snow and high winds from Philadelphia to Maine are courtesy of a powerful low pressure center off the Atlantic Coast which will sweep moisture across the entrenched cold air; the latter has dropped southward through an atmospheric trough (a dip in the jet stream).  By contrast, summer conditions in the West are developing beneath an atmospheric ridge (a northward curve in the jet stream) which is allowing warm air to flow up from the Desert Southwest; in addition, this air is descending across the eastern slope of the Rockies, augmenting its heat and dryness.

While global warming deniers will latch onto the Northeast blizzard to support their misguided view, they will ignore the January heat in the West.  In fact, both extremes reflect transient atmospheric conditions and are unrelated to climate change (unless, of course, global warming is fueling a more restless jet stream).

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Gull Flocks at Dawn

Our Littleton, Colorado, farm sits on the west wall of the South Platte Valley, commanding a broad view to the east and southeast.  As a result, we enjoy spectacular sunrises, the multi-colored cloud banks catching the first rays of the sun.

Another spectacle on winter mornings is provided by massive flocks of gulls that rise from our regional reservoirs and spread out across the Metro Area and adjacent farmlands; the great majority of these omnivores are ring-billed gulls but, from miles away, it's impossible to identify the various species that winter along the Front Range.  Gulls, like Canada geese, roost on lakes and reservoirs (frozen or not) to be safe from nocturnal predators such as fox and coyotes; come dawn, the gulls are the first to disperse (usually before the sun pokes above the horizon), heading for fields, rivers, smaller lakes, landfills, parking lots and other sites where they might scavenge a meal.

While birders, such as myself, enjoy identifying species at close range, many of us are more stirred by the spectacle of massive, distant flocks.  Backed by the glorious colors of sunrise, the morning exodus of gulls in the South Platte Valley is always an inspiring sight.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Into Raptor Country

Stepping outside yesterday morning, I was greeted by a snowy landscape, bright sunshine and, to my good fortune, the sight of a golden eagle soaring above our Littleton farm.  Motivated by that encounter, I decided to visit a large swath of raptor country south of Chatfield State Park.

Bordered by the Highline Canal to its north and by the convergence of Sharptail Ridge and the Front Range foothills to the south, that landscape of horse farms, cattle ranches, rural homesteads and massive prairie dog towns is always a good area to observe raptors; cottonwood groves and powerline towers offer perch sites for the hunters.  Titan Road crosses this open area from east to west while Roxborough Park Road (mostly unpaved) runs north to south near the eastern ridge and Rampart Range Road passes suburban developments along the foothills.  Those wanting to hike in the area can use the Highline Canal Trail (just south of Chatfield State Park via Roxborough Park Road) or the trails of the Sharptail Ridge Open Space (off the southern portion of Roxborough Park Road).

Winter visitors to this area may encounter golden and bald eagles, American kestrels, merlins, prairie falcons, red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks, ferruginous hawks, northern harriers, Cooper's hawks and sharp-shinned hawks; those visiting at dawn or dusk may also observe great horned owls.  During the warmer months, Swainson's hawks and burrowing owls also inhabit the area.  On my visit yesterday, raptor sightings were limited to kestrels, red-tailed hawks and a lone rough-legged hawk but I also encountered a large number of magpies, western meadowlarks and American goldfinches.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Our Window of Freedom

It seems to me that a window of freedom is vital in our lives, a period during which we are independent of others and have no one dependent on us.  Unfortunately, many individuals with a limited education and a low income do not enjoy such a window; married or pregnant in their teens, they remain dependent on others for much of their lives while raising dependent children themselves.

Most middle income Americans experience a rather brief window of freedom which typically begins with their high school graduation and ends with an early marriage or with their college degree.  Those who extend their education in graduate or professional school and/or put off marriage until their thirties may enjoy a window of freedom that lasts twelve years or more.

During this period, an individual is free to focus on their education, explore personal interests, travel the world and come to appreciate their own talents, passions and goals in life.  In turn, society benefits from their maturation and both marriage and parenthood tend to be more stable and less stressful.  Finally, a delayed marriage limits family size, diminishing our impact on Earth's natural ecosystems.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Dead Sea Transform

The Dead Sea Transform marks the western edge of the Arabian Plate, extending from the East Anatolian Fault (in southeastern Turkey) to the northern portion of the Red Sea.  Much of the Transform is occupied by the Jordan River Valley; 220 miles long, the Jordan River rises on the slopes of Mt. Hermon (along the border of Syria and Lebanon) and flows southward to the Dead Sea, passing through the Sea of Galilee en route.  The southern end of the Dead Sea Transform is occupied by the Gulf of Aqaba, the northeastern arm of the Red Sea (and the eastern edge of the Sinai Peninsula).

The northward movement of the Arabian Plate (which continues today) began in concert with the opening of the Red Sea (part of the East African Rift), a tectonic process that dates back to the Miocene (some 10-15 million years ago).  Whether the Dead Sea Transform is merely a transform fault between the African and Arabian Plates (comparable to the San Andreas Fault between the North American and Pacific Plates) or whether it, like the Red Sea, is a true rift valley is a matter of debate among geologists.

The Dead Sea, 1300 feet below sea level, is the lowest point on Earth's Continents.  Whether the Jordan Valley is a spreading rift valley or not, one suspects that it will one day be flooded by the sea, continuous with the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Just Enough Snow

The latest cold front moved across Colorado two days ago, producing a mild upslope flow and cooling our afternoon high by 20 degrees; however, that airmass, moving in from the Northern Plains, was too dry to produce rain or snow.  By this morning, however, high pressure over the Southern Plains was sweeping moisture northwestward toward the Front Range; lifted by the terrain and by the cold upslope from the northeast, this moist air triggered snowfall, leaving 3-5 inches across Metro Denver by late afternoon.

The heavy, wet snow was just thick enough to coat the drab, winter landscape while not causing tree damage or significant travel problems.  Highlighting the barren limbs of our deciduous trees and adorning the green foliage of our pines and junipers, the snow was welcome for both its moisture and its beauty.

Of course, a coating of snow is good for birding as well, drawing more species to the feeders when natural seeds are temporarily out of reach.  It also brings more raptors to our farm, their prey more visible against the smooth blanket of white.  Sunshine and milder temperatures will return tomorrow and today's winter landscape will fade beneath a bright blue sky.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Second Try at Red Rocks

Two months ago, a friend and I endured single digit temperatures at Red Rocks Park, hoping to observe rosy finches and this winter's resident golden-crowned sparrow.  While those goals were unsuccessful, we did see a good variety of foothill shrubland species, including scrub jays, magpies, dark-eyed juncos, house finches, black-capped and mountain chickadees and a lone spotted towhee.

Today, blessed with sunshine and temperatures in the 40s (F), I made another visit to Red Rocks, concentrating on the feeder area behind the Trading Post.  While the weather conditions were far more enjoyable, the bird population was essentially unchanged from November; no rosy finches or golden-crowned sparrows were found and, presumably, the same single towhee joined the more numerous species.

Returning to our Littleton farm, some 16 miles southeast and 1000 feet below Red Rocks Park, I observed all of the same species at or near our feeders (though blue jays replaced the scrub jays).  Indeed, there were more species on the farm than there were in that scenic foothill landscape; collared doves, red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, northern flickers, downy woodpeckers and American goldfinches were among the additions.  This is a common experience for most birders; having traveled to well-known refuges to view unique species, we return home to find a greater variety in our own backyard.  Then again, I've never observed rosy finches or golden-crowned sparrows on the farm!

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Mid Winter Thaw

Thanks to downsloping chinooks over the past few days, we are enjoying a mid winter thaw along the Colorado Front Range; today's afternoon high may reach 60 degrees F.  At South Platte Park, in Littleton, the lakes are reopening and the waterfowl are spreading out from the river.

This morning, mallards, green-winged teal and gadwall were still primarily on the South Platte but large rafts of northern shovelers, spinning to stir up a meal, were observed on one of the riverside lakes; among the other common residents and visitors were buffleheads, common goldeneyes, common and hooded mergansers, American coot, lesser scaup and ring-necked ducks.  Less abundant but also present were redheads and wood ducks.

Not to be ignored, noisy flocks of Canada geese moved about the refuge, muskrats plied the open waters, red-winged blackbirds sang in the wetlands, belted kingfishers chattered above the river, black-billed magpies cruised along the valley and northern flickers called from the cottonwoods.  While there were no rare or unusual sightings at the Park, a warm, sunny day in mid January was rewarding enough for this visitor.    

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Combating Terrorism

For decades now, we have been fighting terrorism with intelligence, police enforcement and military action; our success has been limited at best.  While these measures play vital roles in the overall effort, our ultimate success will depend upon our ability to cut off the supply of terrorist recruits.  As in the case of youth gangs, new members generally arise from a population of disenfranchised young men who face a bleak future of discrimination, unemployment, poverty and personal failure.

In order to end the reign of terrorism we must focus on that population, offering opportunity through education, skills training, citizenship and full participation in society.  Hopelessness leads to personal frustration which, in turn, makes these young individuals receptive to the overtures of gangs and terrorist groups; government policies must instill hope to break that chain.

Critics of such an approach point to the cost and dismiss it as socialism; they prefer to combat crime and terrorism with law enforcement and military strikes.  Of course, those measures are equally (if not more) expensive and do not address the recruiting power of violent zealots.  To be clear, terrorists will arise regardless of the policies that we adopt but we must ensure that their message does not resonate with the youth of this world.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Counting in the Chinooks

It was mild and sunny along the Colorado Front Range this morning, but the monthly waterfowl count at South Platte Park was hampered by frozen lakes and intermittent, gusty winds.  The westerly winds, known as chinooks, plunge from the Continental Divide, compressing and heating the air in the process.  Beginning during the night, the chinooks kept the morning low in the uppers 30s (F) and will warm the urban corridor over the next few days.

For the waterfowl count, our group was assigned to Cooley Lake, the largest body of water in the Park.  Entirely frozen, it attracted massive flocks of Canada geese and ring-billed gulls but most of the wintering ducks were concentrated on the open waters of the South Platte River.  On our circuit along the lake, we also encountered red-tailed hawks, black-billed magpies, northern flickers and a host of winter songbirds; a small number of coot, mallards, shovelers and common mergansers had also gathered on open waters near an inlet.

But the highlight of this beautiful yet unproductive morning was the arrival of an adult bald eagle.  Soaring over the lake, his appearance panicked the gulls and geese, sending them into frenzied flight above the South Platte Valley and leaving only coyote tracks on the broad, frozen lake.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Mild Air, Frozen Ground

Heading back to Colorado this morning, I left Columbia under clear, cold skies; the temperature was 26 degrees F.  Before long, I encountered a warm air mass pushing in from the southwest, displacing the Arctic chill that enveloped the Heartland over the past week.

Indeed, by the time I reached Kansas, the temperature had risen into the 40s, eventually peaking near 60 degrees in eastern Colorado.  Though I traveled under clear blue skies and the wind farm turbines whirled in a mild, southwest breeze, the ground remained frozen; with the exception of the Missouri River, which was clogged with ice flows, and a few of the larger lakes, all other rivers, streams and ponds were frozen solid.  Snow banks, coated with dust, lined the north side of the Interstate, from central Kansas into eastern Colorado, seemingly unaffected by the low January sun.  Fortunately, the warm air mass was dry (flowing in from the Desert Southwest) and fog did not form above the cold ground.

Cattle lounged in the hayfields, clearly relishing the mild conditions, and a few wildlife sightings were of special interest on this mild winter day; a bald eagle soared above the icy Missouri, a dozen trumpeter swans joined Canada geese and wintering ducks on an open lake east of Kansas City, a flock of greater white-fronted geese wavered above cropfields near Wakeeney, Kansas, and large herds of pronghorn browsed the grasslands of the Palmer Divide, north of Limon, Colorado.  

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Facing Death

Like all other life forms that inhabit this planet, we humans live with a death sentence in our future; how and when that sentence will be executed is, for most of our life, a mystery but its certainty has a significant impact on how we live.  Many turn to religious faith, looking for strength in their time of crisis and drawn by the promise of eternal life.  Others focus on preventive health, determined to delay the onset of disease and its ultimate sequela.  Still others, inclined to accept the whims of fate, lead a carefree existence, willing to risk illness or injury in their pursuit of adventure.

Of course, those diagnosed with a fatal illness have a better idea of when death might occur.  While some develop depression and withdraw from their usual activities, others become highly engaged in their treatment, intent to extend survival as long as possible.  For most, the sentence of death focuses the mind, clarifying what is truly important in their life; dwelling on the past or on the future becomes less important and the benefits of living in the present are suddenly very apparent.

While everyone hopes to avoid pain and dependence at the end of their life, the fear of death itself varies widely among individuals; ironically, those who believe in a last judgment and a vindictive God have the most to fear.  Though many hope to die suddenly (preferably in their sleep), the awareness of one's approaching death has certain advantages; granted the time to deal with financial matters, achieve personal goals and, most importantly, to express one's personal feelings to family and friends can have a calming effect on what might otherwise be a stressful experience.  For those of us who accept death as part of life, the chance to celebrate the latter is a fitting way to bow out.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Snows in a Blue Winter Sky

Returning to Missouri over the past two days, we left the colors and fragrance in south Georgia and, as we approached the Appalachians, were once again shrouded by low, gray clouds.  This morning, we crossed the Cumberland Plateau in heavy rain and then crawled through a Nashville rush hour in a steady drizzle.  The precipitation ended as we entered Kentucky but the wintry overcast gave no sign of breaking up; only the hunched forms of red-tailed hawks provided signs of life along the highway.

Finally, as we traveled through southern Illinois, patches of blue began to appear and cold sunshine broke through west of Mt. Vernon.  Even better, a flock of snow geese wavered in the clear, blue sky, circling above the dry fields of crop stubble.  As I reported in December, I had endured a complete autumn season without observing those vocal travelers (my personal favorites) and had concluded that my next opportunity would be during their "spring migration" in February; today's sighting was thus a special and unexpected treat.

Not long ago, almost all of the snow geese that migrate through the Missouri and Mississippi Valleys wintered in coastal marshes of East Texas and Louisiana.  Now, benefitting from nutritious crop fields of the American Heartland, many never reach the Gulf Coast, stopping to winter in agricultural areas of the lower Mississippi and Arkansas Valleys.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Least Terns

Easily identified by their small size, yellow bill, buoyant flight and quick, sharp dives for fish, least terns are permanent residents of South Florida, where they feed near shore and on bays and estuaries.  During the breeding season, they are found along the coast, from the Mid Atlantic to Central America, and along major rivers, from the Mississippi Valley to the Front Range of the Rockies.

Though they prefer to nest on sandy beaches, least terns may also use flat, graveled roofs.  A shallow depression in the sand or gravel serves as the nest cup and eggs are laid by mid spring.  Those that breed along rivers of the Interior or along the Mid Atlantic beaches head to more southern latitudes during the winter months, some migrating as far as the northern coast of South America.

The damming of rivers and the development of pristine beaches has reduced the availability of good breeding habitat in many areas.  Nevertheless, the population of these adaptable sea birds appears to be relatively stable; perhaps our relentless construction of big box stores with massive, flat roofs has balanced our destruction of natural beaches.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Freedom, Truth & Zealotry

In our search for truth, humans adopt a wide variety of religious, political and cultural beliefs.  While it is imperative that we are free to follow and express those beliefs, it is equally vital that others are free to question their validity and to expose their effects on society as a whole.  Unfortunately, as we have seen in Paris this week, zealots cannot tolerate such criticism and often turn to violence to intimidate those who reject their rigid doctrines.

Indeed, zealotry and the intolerance that it spawns are the greatest threats to human freedom.  An unwillingness to consider other points of view or to question our own beliefs stifles social progress, promotes human conflict and derails the advancement of science.  Threatened by knowledge, zealots use fear to disrupt the channels of human enlightenment.

While Islamic extremists have become the most recent symbol of human zealotry, zealots exist in all religions and among all divisions of human society; all claim to represent truth and they restrict the freedom of others to enforce that illusion.  But truth is universal and will only be manifest when freedom of thought and expression are fostered and protected.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Winter Reaches the Gulf

The Arctic Blast that spread across the Great Plains and Midwest over the past few days pushed into the Deep South overnight.  This morning, temperatures hovered near 20 degrees F along the northern Gulf Coast and had dipped to 40 here on Longboat Key, off Sarasota; the afternoon high is forecast to reach 60 but a strong northeast wind will make it feel much cooler.

Bundled up for a walk on the beach this morning, we encountered only one other group of humans and found that the beach was devoid of birds.  The latter discovery was more a reflection of low tide on Sarasota Bay than it was a result of the cold weather; indeed, the expanding shallows and mudflats on the bay had attracted ospreys, gulls, terns, pelicans, cormorants, mergansers and a wide variety of wading birds, including the first roseate spoonbills and wood storks that we have observed on this visit to Longboat.

The unseasonably cold weather is expected to persist for a couple more days before winter retreats back to the north.  By then we will follow in its wake, returning to Missouri after the heart of the Arctic air mass has (hopefully) moved on to the north and east.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

More Visitors on the Bay

Two more bird species turned up on Sarasota Bay this morning.  A common loon, down from the lakes of Alaska, Canada or the northernmost U.S., spent much of the day fishing near our sea wall.  Usually seen alone during the winter months, these northern visitors favor large inland reservoirs or relatively shallow bays and estuaries along the coast.  Their famous yodeling is rarely heard until their spring migration begins and they will remain on open water until nesting season is under way.

A pair of pied-billed grebes also graced the bay this morning.  Though permanent residents throughout most of the continental U.S., including Florida, these small, stocky grebes favor freshwater lakes and brackish inlets; in my experience, they are seldom observed on large, open coastal bays and today's visitors were certainly unexpected.  Quick to sink below the surface if disturbed, pied-billed grebes spend much of their time diving for small fish and aquatic invertebrates.

In addition to the bird sightings, large schools of mullet are currently moving through Sarasota Bay, attracting dolphins from the Gulf of Mexico.  A trio of those energetic mammals, always welcome and entertaining visitors, fed near our condo this morning.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Java Sea

Recently in the news due to the crash of Air Asia Flight 8501, the Java Sea is the southern section of a vast shallow sea that extends southward from Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to the southern islands of Indonesia.  Averaging just 150 feet in depth, the Java Sea was an inland plain during the Pleistocene Ice Age.

Indeed, the archipelagos of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines occupy a broad peninsula of the Eurasian Plate, extending southward from what is now the Southeast Asia mainland.  Subduction volcanoes rim the peninsula, where the edges of the Australian, Pacific and Philippine Plates are being shoved beneath the Eurasian Plate.  As the climate began to warm near the end of the Pleistocene, some 15,000 years ago, continental and cordilleran glaciers began to melt and sea levels rose; of course, this process continues today, intensified by our use of fossil fuels.  Moving up coastal river valleys, the ocean waters spilled across lowlands of the Eurasian Peninsula, producing archipelagos of high ground.

Transient shallow seas, such as the Java Sea, have left sedimentary strata across the Continents; marine limestones, dolomites, shales and siltstones cover most of the ancient Precambrian basement rock, as do sandstones deposited as beaches along the shallow seas.  Seemingly a permanent feature of Earth's landscape from the perspective of our brief human life span, the Java Sea will expand and contract as sea levels rise and fall; its sediments, now scoured to retrieve aircraft debris and human remains, may, in the distant future, be uplifted and sculpted into mesas, plateaus or mountain ranges.