Thursday, November 30, 2006

Tropical Man

The first big storm of the winter season is providing plenty of fodder for the cable news and weather stations. Warnings about icy highways, heavy snow, severe cold and ground blizzards have many Midwesterners glued to their sets and worried about their upcoming travels.

This inate and justified fear of the cold is likely imbedded in the collective human memory. Afterall, our species evolved in the tropics and we are not naturally equipped for cold weather. While northern races have developed body traits that improve cold tolerance, early man had to adapt to life in the temperate and arctic zones through the use of fire and animal skins. Now, snug in our heated homes, we still sense the danger of winter's wrath.

On the other hand, birds and wild mammals are well prepared to withstand the winter chill. Feathers and fur provide excellent insulation and their natural instincts direct them to food or prompt them to den up until conditions improve. Better yet, they have no thermometers to check or TV weathermen to instill fear in their souls.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

From Spring to Winter

Walking to work this morning, the weather was downright balmy. Temperature near 60, a gentle south breeze and traces of an early shower on the pre-dawn streets. But, to the west, flashes of lightening lit the sky and rumbles of thunder warned of an imminent change. In fact, the temperature in Kansas City, 120 miles away, had already dropped into the forties and a chilly rain was falling. By noon, the storm front had rolled through Columbia and the wind had shifted to the northwest. Low clouds, intermittent rain and a steady north breeze made for a raw afternoon and, by the time I walked home, I regretted my morning choice of a light jacket. The ice and snow should arrive by tomorrow!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Missouri Valley Reststop

Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, in northwest Missouri, is a fabulous destination for wildlife watchers. Spreading across the Missouri River floodplain, just south of Mound City, the refuge was established in 1935 to protect wetland habitat for migratory waterfowl.

In late November, large flocks of snow geese begin to arrive at Squaw Creek; having left their breeding grounds along the Hudson Bay, they stop to rest and feed for a few weeks before heading on to coastal marshlands of Louisiana and Texas. Some 300,000 snow geese stage at the refuge, joined by smaller flocks of Canada geese, Ross' geese, brants and more than 100,000 ducks. Attracted by this large congregation of waterfowl, some 300 bald eagles take up residence, feeding on sick and injured birds. Visitors may also see peregrine falcons, prairie falcons and long-eared owls at Squaw Creek. White-tailed deer are common at the refuge and coyotes are often spotted on the meadows. A 10-mile auto tour road provides access to the preserve which is open from dawn to dusk.

Monday, November 27, 2006

A Buckle in the Jet

For most of November, the jet stream has been staying up along the Canadian border and a dome of high pressure has brought sunny, warm weather to much of the lower forty-eight. At the same time, this high-riding jet has directed a series of Pacific storms into the northwest, drenching coastal areas and bringing heavy snows to the Cascades. Now these steering winds have buckled, producing a deep trough over the mountain west and allowing cold, Arctic air to spill southward.

While snow is flying out west, Missouri remains east of the trough and warm, moist air is moving up from the Gulf of Mexico. As the leading edge of the cold air nears our State, these gentle showers will likely change to late autumn thunderstorms and, within another day or so, the rain will change to snow. By then, high temperatures are forecast to be in the twenties.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Un-Woodpecker

Northern flickers are large woodpeckers that are commonly found in open woodlands and residental areas. Their brown-barred back, black bib and white rump are good field marks and their hysterical call often greets the day on spring mornings. Many suburbanites are also familiar with their habit of drumming on metal vent pipes, apparently having learned that they resonate better than dead wood.

Come autumn, flickers begin to move about in small flocks, often perching in trees in the manner of crows. While they hunt for insects in trees and fallen limbs like other woodpeckers, flickers also feed on the ground, sifting through leaves or drilling the soil for beetles and grubs.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Wind Shift

We awoke this morning to another warm, sunny day with a gentle southerly breeze. By mid day, the south wind had intensified and clouds moved in from the west, indicating the approach of a cold front. Since little moisture had moved in ahead of the front, only a few scattered showers developed in our region and, as the winds shifted to a westerly heading, I knew that the front had passed through Columbia. As expected, the air cooled, the clouds began to disperse and, by evening, a crescent moon hung in the clear, southwestern sky.

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Bark Bird

Few birds are as aptly named as the brown creeper. This small, reclusive bird is a winter resident in Missouri and is fairly common in residential areas. Usually solitary and easily overlooked, creepers circle up tree trunks, snaring insects and larvae from the bark crevices with their thin, curved bill. Once they reach the top of the central trunk, creepers fly to the base of another tree, relegating the smaller branches to chickadees, nuthatches and titmice.

The brown feathers of the creeper have a streaked appearance, blending the bird with the rutted bark on which it feeds. Its stiff tail feathers, similar to those of woodpeckers, provides a braking mechanism for this vertically-oriented hunter.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Giving Thanks

While I am not a religious person, I certainly have plenty to be grateful for on this national Day of Thanksgiving. Family, friends, health and freedom would certainly top the list. And, of course, I am thankful for the natural world with its wonderful variety of landscapes, flora and fauna. For it is there that I find peace and inspiration.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Living on a Sea Bed

The landscape that we observe is a product of regional geology and subsequent erosion, both past and present. Columbia, Missouri, is built on a thick slab of Burlington Limestone, deposited in shallow, Mississippian seas, some 320 million years ago. Outcrops of this sedimentary rock are evident at roadcuts, along stream valleys and along portions of the MKT trail, which follows an old railroad bed to the Missouri River floodplain.

South of town, Rock Bridge Memorial State Park harbors a spectacular collection of bluffs, caves, sinkholes and springs, all products of our soluble bedrock. The rock bridge itself is the remnant roof of a limestone cave. A superb network of trails lead you through the Park and adjacent Gans Creek Wild Area, taking you past these classic "karst" features.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Heat Wave

High pressure is settling in over the central U.S. and will bring unseasonably warm temperatures for the Thanksgiving Weekend. No doubt, the topic of Global Warming will be triggered once again, though temporary swings in regional temperatures have nothing to do with that phenomenon. Throughout the history of our planet, there have been recurrent periods of global warming and cooling, often lasting thousands, or even millions, of years. Indeed, some geologists believe that the Holocene, in which we live, is merely another warm, interglacial peroid of the Pleistocene Ice Age. The cause for these climate changes is an ongoing subject of scientific debate, with factors such as continental drift and alterations in ocean currents among the leading candidates. Short periods of cooling have been directly attributed to massive volcanic eruptions and large meteor strikes, which increase the particulate matter in the upper atmosphere and thereby reduce the amount of solar radiation that reaches the Earth.

Man has clearly had a significant impact on Earth's ecosystems in a variety of ways. The combustion of fossil fuels, the clearance of forests and the pollution of our waterways have all been detrimental. Whether you believe that the current phase of Global Warming is due totally or only partially to man's activity, it seems to me that we can all agree on one thing. We, as a powerful yet dependent species, should do whatever we can to minimize our impact on the ecology of our home planet.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Pioneer Trees

Now that the deciduous trees have lost their colorful leaves, red cedars are more conspicuous across the Midwest landscape. These small, sun-loving evergreens are tolerant of poor soil and are thus the first trees to colonize rocky glades, forest clearings and abandoned farmland. Their berry-like cones are consumed by a variety of birds and small mammals, including bobwhites, mourning doves and field mice, which serve as vehicles to disperse the seeds. With time, the cedars fertilize the soil with their own debris, allowing the adjacent forest to invade the grove; shaded by the taller trees, the cedars die and their seeds must wait for man, storms or disease to open up the forest and permit their germination.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Comet Dust

I had hoped to watch the Leonid meteor shower last night but a heavy cloud cover foiled that plan. The Leonids, which grace the night sky between November 16 and November 19, are caused by remnant debris from the Tempel-Tuttle comet, which orbits the sun every 33 years. Their name reflects the fact that they seem to radiate from the Leo constellation.

While I missed the Leonid show, I know that I can observe meteors on any night of the year. As earth hurtles through space, it is constantly impacting debris from past comet excursions. These particles, which range in size from grains of sand to small pebbles, enter earth's atmosphere at 37 miles per second, superheating the air and producing the brilliant streak that we see in the night sky. While most meteorites vaporize in the atmosphere, an estimated 25 million strike the earth each day, adding 100 tons to our planet's mass.

Meteor viewing is best on moonless nights, away from the urban glare. Anyone who has traveled across the Great Plains or High Desert knows how spectacular the night sky can be. I'll have to head out there to watch the Perseid shower in August.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Autumn Hunters

A late autumn drive through the American Midwest can be a dull experience. Low, gray clouds, barren trees, brown pastures and depleted croplands yield a stark landscape. But this is raptor season and watching for these birds of prey will make your trip more enjoyable.

Kestrels, small members of the falcon family, hunt from powerlines or hover above the grassy medians, searching for mice. Red-tailed hawks perch along the highway and soar above the farmlands while northern harriers fly low over fields and marsh, flapping and tilting as they hunt. Bald eagles, increasingly common across the Midwest, are best found near our larger lakes and rivers. Finally, short-eared owls, often active during the day, may be seen resting on a stump or patrolling an open grassland.

Friday, November 17, 2006


The snowbirds are back. They've been drifting into Missouri over the past month as a series of Arctic fronts drove them from their Canadian homeland. More properly called dark-eyed juncos, these small, hardy birds will sustain themselves on seeds that they find in open fields, among streamside thickets or beneath our backyard shrubs. Free to move on to southern climes, they are content to winter in the cold, gray Midwest and, come April, will escape the balmy air to return to the cool Northwoods.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

After the Storm

A strong winter storm that pulled out of the Rockies earlier this week has brought deadly tornadoes to the Gulf Coast States. In its wake, strong northwest winds are pushing cold, dry air into central Missouri. Flocks of migrant waterfowl will take advantage of these tail winds as they head for wintering grounds across the southern plains and lower Mississippi Valley. Following the flocks of ducks and geese, bald eagles and peregrine falcons will feast on weak and injured birds. The cycle continues.