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Showing posts from March, 2007

Tornado Alley

North America is the tornado capital of the world and the majority of these twisters occur in the Southeastern and Central U.S. Tornadoes may occur during any month of the year but their numbers peak from March through June.

The largest and most powerful tornadoes tend to develop in a broad swath from central Texas to Nebraska, a zone dubbed "Tornado Alley." This region is prone to the formation of super cell thunderstorms: giant, rotating storms with cloudtops near 50,000 feet. These super cells usually form along the "dry line," which trails southward from the front's zone of low pressure. At this line, dry air from the west clashes with warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico; just east of the line, the dry air temporarily overrides and caps the muggy air at the surface. Eventually, this cap breaks down and the warm, unstable air rushes into the cold, upper atmosphere, where the jet stream injects more energy and triggers rotation: a super cell is born.

Bean Trees

The redbuds are blooming in Columbia. These small trees, festooned with pink-purple flowers, are used as ornamentals throughout the eastern U.S. In the wild, redbuds are understory trees and are generally found along wood margins, in glades and on rocky hillsides.

Redbuds are a member of the legume family which includes many herbs (lupine, bluebonnets, clover), vines (wisteria, kudzu), crops (alfalfa, peas, beans, peanuts), shrubs and trees. Most of the legumes have nitrogen fixing bacteria in their root system, which help to enrich the soil, and nearly all produce elongated seed pods. The numerous seed pods of the redbud can be a nuisance for the homeowner and often produce weed-like seedlings in every nearby flowerbed.

Other legume trees include the acacias, mesquite and paloverde trees of the desert Southwest, Kentucky coffeetrees, mimosa, black locusts and honeylocusts. Most of these trees are drought tolerant and the latter two grow especially well on our farm in the semiarid …

Coming Ashore

Life evolved in the ocean 3.6 billion years ago but it would be another 3.2 billion years before plants and animals colonized the land. It was during the Silurian Period (440-400 million years ago) that the ozone layer had thickened sufficiently to permit life forms to leave the protective waters of the primordial sea; of course, these plants and animals had also developed features that allowed them to survive on land.

Vascular plants, equipped with stems, first appeared in the Silurian. Stems harbor tubules which permit the transport of water and nutrients throughout the plant, protecting it's various parts from dessication; this feature was vital to the evolution of land plants. The first species, of course, colonized the shoreline, relying on the tides for nourishment; over time, root systems became for efficient and the plants lost their dependence on the sea.

The first land animals are thought to have been millipede-like creatures which also inhabited the tidal zone. Initially …

Trilling Toads

After a week of warm, rainy weather, the toads were calling last night. Their high-pitched, musical trills indicated that they were American toads, one of the more common amphibians in the eastern U.S. The males emerge from their winter burrows in late March or early April and soon gather at shallow ponds or temporary pools to breed; their song attracts the larger females, which lay up to 20,000 eggs in long, gelatinous strips. The eggs will hatch into small, black tadpoles within 10-12 days and these will morph into toadlets by June.

Recognized by their dry, warty skin and a large parotid gland behind each eye, the American toad favors rocky woodlands but is also common in Midwestern suburbs. Solitary creatures, toads are primarily nocturnal, spending the day under rocks, logs or shrubs. They are most often seen at dusk as they hunt for insects, slugs, worms and moths; since they feed on many destructive insects, they are a welcome resident in any garden.

The Rift Valley

The Rift Valley of East Africa is the southern end of a 4000 mile rift that begins in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon and extends southward through the Jordan River Valley, the Dead Sea, the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea. At the southern tip of the Red Sea, an eastern branch runs through the Gulf of Aden, extending to the mid-oceanic ridge of the Indian Ocean.

The African portion of this Great Rift, which began to develop 40 million years ago, is comprised of two parallel rift valleys which stretch from Ethiopia to Mozambique. The western channel harbors some of the larger lakes in Africa, including Lake Tanganyika, one of the deepest freshwater lakes in the world. The eastern rift is well known for its early hominid fossils (especially within the Olduvai Gorge) and is characterized by a chain of basin lakes; with no outlet to the sea, these shallow lakes flucutate throughout the year, leaving broad salt flats during the dry season.

As is true with other rift areas, volcanic features are co…

Man and his Lawn

The lawn, pride of the American homeowner, is not a natural landscape. Lawns are generally a blend of hybrid grasses and, unfortunately, are often maintained by the application of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. They may be good for picnics, frisbee tossing and croquet, but they can be a detriment to the natural environment.

If you hope to attract a wide variety of wildlife to your property, try to minimize your lawn coverage. Expand wild borders with trees, berry-producing shrubs and native wildflowers. Leave grass clippings to fertilize the lawn and try to maintain its health with aeration and limited watering. Learning to accept dandelions, clover, plantain, wild violets and other "weeds" will make your landscape more colorful and more attractive to wildlife. Moles and birds will keep the grubs in check.

Of course, the lawn maintenance companies would scoff at this advice; then again, they're not in the conservation business.

Early Birds

In birding lingo, a summer resident is a bird that arrives in spring, breeds and departs in the fall for southern climes or lower elevations, escaping the harsh winter conditions. Most summer songbirds feed on insects or nectar and must leave before cold weather kills off their source of nourishment. In the Midwest, the majority of summer residents arrive in April, after the risk of a hard freeze has passed. Two exceptions are the eastern phoebe and tree swallow, which turn up during the latter half of March.

Tree swallows usually arrive in large flocks, gathering in bottomland woods along our lakes and rivers. Identified by their blue-green back, white underparts and slightly forked tail, these insectivores will soon pair off and look for a tree cavity in which to nest; some will use bluebird boxes or other man-made structures. Eastern phoebes, which look like miniature eastern kingbirds, take up residence along streams and wetlands, flycatching from saplings or from limbs that o…

From Teays to Ohio

During most of the Cenozoic Era, the Teays River and its tributaries drained a large area of the eastern U.S. Heading in the mountains of northwest North Carolina and southwest Virginia, this large river flowed northward through West Virginia, northwestward across Ohio and then westward across northern Indiana and Illinois before merging with the Upper Mississippi. As the Nebraskan and Kansan Glaciers plowed into the Midwest (2 million to 600,000 years ago), the channel of the Teays was blocked with ice and a large lake, comparable to Lake Erie in size, covered southern Ohio, northwestern West Virginia and northern Kentucky. Eventually, these lake waters spilled to the west-southwest, creating the Ohio River channel.

The New and Kanawha Rivers of West Virginia are remnants of the Teays, as is the Scioto Valley of southern Ohio; the Scioto River now flows southward through the old Teays valley. The upper Ohio River, east of the Kanawha junction, was formerly a tributary of the Teays. Al…

Hysteria in the Suburbs

As March blends with April, the hysterical call of the flicker greets the day. Not content with the sound of his own voice, this frenzied woodpecker hammers away at metal vents and downspouts, sending loud vibrations throughout the neighborhood.

Spurred on by hormones, such territorial displays are common at this time of year. The loud cries of the red-bellied woodpecker are also ringing through the suburbs and the drumming of downy, hairy and pileated woodpeckers echo across our woodlands. This is their mating season and female woodpeckers must love percussion.

Early Bloomers

The late winter and early spring flowers are the ones we appreciate the most. They bring the first splash of color to a bleak winter landscape and give us hope that the tide has turned toward longer, warmer days.

Snowdrops, winter aconites, scilia, hyacinths, periwinkle and crocuses are the first to appear, often by late February in Missouri. By mid March, clumps of daffodils brighten our yards, soon followed by the early tulips. Wild cherry and forsythia are among the earlier shrubs to bloom and, by mid-late March, red maples, hawthornes and deciduous magnolias paint the suburbs. Peach and apricot are usually the first fruit trees to flower, often losing their blossoms (and potential fruit) to the cold snaps of our fickle March weather.

The Hualapai Travesty

So the Hualapai Indian Tribe has dedicated their glass-bottomed walkway over the rim of the Grand Canyon, a marvel of engineering and a disgrace to mankind. It reminds me of the "frontier village" that Colorado sanctioned at the Royal Gorge Bridge. Many humans cannot seem to appreciate the majesty of nature until it becomes a source for the almighty dollar!

These "Native Americans," as it turns out, are not much different from the tycoons of Wall Street, some of whom likely backed the project. I suspect the walkway will soon become the centerpiece of a "Grand Canyon Wonderland," complete with tourist shops, fast food restaurants and roller coasters. Those who visit and support such blights on our landscape are hypocritical "nature lovers."

The Colorado Plateau

Harboring some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet, the Colorado Plateau stretches across western Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, northern Arizona and the southeastern half of Utah. Composed of a layer cake of sedimentary rocks, with the oldest at the bottom and the youngest at the top, this Province offers a geologic history that is relatively easy to read. The rock layers are horizontal and disturbed only by erosion throughout most of the Plateau; there is very little folding and faulting in comparison to other regions of our country. Only laccolithic mountains (which formed as magma within the sediments) and true volcanic peaks, disturb the geometry; the La Sal Mountains, east of Moab, Utah, are laccoliths while the San Francisco Mountains, north of Flagstaff are volcanic.

For the most part, the rock layers range in age from the late Paleozoic to the early Cenozoic Eras; Mesozoic sediments dominate across much of the Plateau. Older rocks can be found in the deeper canyo…

Love Birds

By mid March most of our resident songbirds have paired off and are engaged in courtship behavior. As far as we know, they have no personal feelings for one another. Rather, they are responding to the lengthening daylight, which triggers their instinct to breed.

Mourning doves huddle together in the trees while cardinals, house finches and blue jays (yes, even the macho jays) offer morsels of food to one another. Most birds are not monogamous but will stay together for the breeding season, cooperating to build the nest and feed their ravenous offspring. Once the young are independent, the parents go their separate ways; some birds, such as robins, will stay together long enough to raise a second brood.

The Invisible Chorus

The ice has melted and western chorus frogs are calling from the wetlands of mid Missouri. These small tree frogs, usually under 1.5 inches in length, are gray or brownish in color with faint dark stripes on their backs; a white line across the upper lips is one of their better fieldmarks. Now that you know what to look for, good luck!

While their calls echo across swamps and wet prairies from late winter to mid spring, it is very difficult to observe the frogs themselves. The males usually sing from mats of vegetation that collect on shallow pools or sloughs but fall silent at the slightest disturbance. Your best bet is to sit quietly at the edge of a pond or marsh, watching for their vocal sacs to expand and contract as they resume their distinctive call. The latter is a rising "prreeep," resembling the sound of a thumbnail plunking the teeth of a comb.

The males usually sing through mid May and, unlike most tree frogs, deliver their calls day and night. Attracted by their s…

White on Green

Just as the landscape was starting to green, two inches of heavy, wet snow cover the lawns and shrubs this morning; only clumps of wild onion poke above the wintery blanket to celebrate this Irish Holiday. Snowfall on St. Patrick's day is certainly not unusual in the American Midwest and is downright common along the Colorado Front Range; indeed, March is the snowiest month in Denver.

Spring has been put on hold for a day but, by March, the sun is too high to allow winter to linger. Highs tomorrow should be near 60, today's snow will be but a memory and the moisture left behind will accelerate the greening.

Cows, Pigs and Whales

One of the most fascinating events in evolutionary history is the divergence of whales from terrestrial mammals during the Eocene. Recent DNA studies indicate that modern whales and dolphins evolved from ancestral artiodactyls, the even-toed ungulate family of cows, pigs, hippos, deer and camels.

Early in the Eocene, about 50 million years ago, the artiodactyls were represented by a hoofed, dog-like mammal. Within 5 million years, a branch of this family evolved into alligator-shaped, amphibious mammals that lived along the coast of Africa and southern Asia. By 40 million years ago, this group had become totally aquatic and looked like elongated dolphins. During this ten million year evolution, the nostrils migrated from the tip of the nose to the top of the head, the tail became incorporated into the body, the forelegs became fins, the hind legs were reduced and internalized and, by the end of the Eocene, horizontal flukes developed.

As the Eocene gave way to the Oligocene, 38 million …

Nature's Gliders

Fifty or more turkey vultures circled above the Hinkson Creek valley, in south Columbia, last evening. No doubt enjoying the balmy conditions, they would soon settle for the night on wooded cliffs of the valley walls, roosting in large flocks.

Turkey vultures can be seen in Missouri throughout the year but are more common during the warmer months. After sunning themselves on boulders or dead branches through the early daylight hours, they catch thermals that develop by late morning, soaring above the countryside in effortless fashion. Skilled gliders with a 6-foot wingspan, they seldom flap their wings once airborne and are easily recognized by their habit of holding their wings in a shallow V. When soaring near the treetops, they often tilt from side to side, deftly catching the breeze.

Up close, turkey vultures are far less beautiful. Their small, red-colored head (gray-colored in immature birds) is featherless, an adaptation to their diet of carrion. Not equipped with the powerful ta…

Evolution and the Pleistocene

The Pleistocene Epoch, commonly referred to as the Ice Age, was just the latest of many glacial periods in our planet's history. Stretching from 2 million years ago to 10 thousand years ago, this Epoch was characterized by four glacial advances and three warm, interglacial periods; some climatologists believe that the Holocene, the Period in which we live, is just another respite from the cold.

The unstable climate of the Pleistocene likely had a dramatic influence on evolution over the past 2 million years, forcing rapid adaptations and favoring intelligent creatures. Homo erectus appeared in Africa at the dawn of the Pleistocene and reached southeast Asia within 100 thousand years; not equipped to deal with the cold, he stayed south of the periglacial region, migrating along the southern coast of Asia. Neandertals diverged from the human lineage some 200,000 years ago, moving northward into western Asia and Europe. Humans did not appear until 125,000 years ago but, by the end of …

Spring Fever

Spring fever has spread across the country....literally. High temperatures will be in the 70s from California to Denver to Washington DC. Only the northern tier of States will remain relatively cool and the only snowfall in the lower forty eight will be in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest.

This first major outbreak of spring warmth is brought to us by the jet stream, as usual. These steering winds are flowing west to east across southern Canada, protecting us, for a few days at least, from any Arctic air. By the end of the week, the jet will drift southward, bringing back more seasonal conditions and restoring our sense of reality. Afterall, it is March.

Give Me Solitude

When hiking, I prefer solitude and wild places. While I appreciate the role that nature centers, State Parks and urban greenbelts play in recreation and public education, I would rather tramp through conservation areas and undeveloped preserves. Manicured trails, rustic bridges, educational signs and modern restrooms come with a price: plenty of other people. It's difficult to immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of nature when cell phones are ringing!

And, if you hope to see a good variety of wildlife, secluded woods, fields or wetlands should be your destination. Veteran naturalists know that wildlife is best observed by unhurried walks through natural habitats; early morning or late day hikes tend to be most rewarding.

The Low Country Owl

While great horned owls usually hunt on upland meadows and crop fields, the barred owl favors bottomland forest, wooded swamps and stream valleys. Visit a wetland in March or April and you have a good chance of hearing its distinctive call, which, unlike those of other owls, is often delivered during the day.

Easily recognized by its dark eyes, bulky frame, grayish, streaked plumage and round, "earless" head, the barred owl is common throughout the eastern U.S. and increasingly common in the Pacific Northwest. Reclusive and skittish, barred owls must often be viewed from a distance and are best observed at dusk. Their varied diet includes mice, crayfish, frogs, cottontails and small birds.

Barred owls nest in late February or early March, using a tree cavity or the abandoned nest of a hawk; the young hatch by early April. Though their call can be heard throughout the year, it is most common and persistent during this breeding season. I know I will always associate "Who, w…

Changing Sides

As the Permian Period dawned, some 270 million years ago, the Iapetus Ocean, predecessor of the Atlantic, was closing and the continents began to merge into Pangea. One hundred million years later, during the Jurassic, the Atlantic Ocean started to open; the pattern of this rift did not match the old suture line of the Iapetus and some sections of land changed continents.

The segments of the North American plate beneath eastern Massachusetts and south Florida were part of Africa when the Iapetus Ocean divided those continents. In like manner, Nova Scotia was on the European plate and Ireland, Scotland and part of Norway were North American.

So, if you've always wanted to live in Europe, just hang around for a hundred million years. You may not even have to sell your house!

San Luis Sandhills

The Rocky Mountain sandhill cranes winter in New Mexico. Come February, they begin to migrate toward their summer range in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Their one and only stop will the the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, a high basin surrounded by majestic peaks of the San Juan, La Garita and Sangre de Cristo Ranges. The cranes are attracted to this valley by its shallow wetlands, crop fields, mudflats and wet meadows; though the San Luis Valley sits at 7600 feet and receives only seven inches of precipitation each year, abundant ground water is supplied by streams and subsurface flow from the adjacent mountains.

More than 20,000 sandhill cranes arrive in the Valley by late February and usually find enough worms, tubers, insects and waste grain to keep them around until mid April; their numbers generally peak in mid March. One of the better places to observe these migrants is the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, six miles south of Monte Vista, Colorado. The refuge is acc…

Pockets of Canada

As the Pleistocene Glaciers pushed into the American Midwest, the vegetation zones shifted southward in advance of the ice. The periglacial zone was characterized by trees and plants that favor a cool, moist climate; today, such vegetation is found across the vast northern forest of Canada.

When the last Glacier, the Wisconsin, began retreating northward, some 15,000 years ago, this boreal forest moved along with it and was soon replaced by the deciduous woodlands that characterize the Midwest today. But pockets of the periglacial vegetation remained behind, finding a cool refuge in deep gorges or shaded stream valleys. Hemlock, Canada yew, mountain maple and northern white cedar are among the plants that typify these areas. Known as glacial relics, they are usually found on north-facing slopes where the soil is moist and the summer sun is less intense.

Ohio is especially rich in glacial relic vegetation. Clifton Gorge, near Yellow Springs, Hocking State Park, southwest of Logan, and th…

Muscatatuck

During my years in Cincinnati, I made frequent trips to Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, in southern Indiana. Located a few miles east of Seymour, this 8000 acre refuge was established to protect nesting habitat for wood ducks. In March, the preserve's lakes, ponds, sloughs and flooded fields attract a wide variety of wintering and migrant waterfowl; those who visit early in the month have a good chance of seeing tundra swans, introduced at Muscatatuck in 1998.

Diving ducks, such as buffleheads, redheads, ring-necked ducks, canvasbacks, common goldeneye, mergansers, lesser scaup and ruddy ducks will be found on the larger lakes, often in the company of coot and grebes. Shallow backwaters, ponds, sloughs and flooded fields attract mallards, American wigeon, gadwall, shovelers, teal, pintails and wood ducks. Large flocks of Canada geese move about the refuge and smaller groups of white-fronted geese may also be seen.

In addition to the waterfowl, Muscatatuck's varied hab…

Greenland and Iceland

Halfway through the Cenozoic, the Era in which we live, a broad land bridge connected Europe and North America. Then, about 30 million years ago, two rift zones developed in this bridge; over time they would open to form the North Atlantic and the land between the rifts would become Greenland. Today, basalt flows on the east and west coasts of the island bear witness to the process of its emancipation.

The eastern rift remains active as the North Atlantic spreading zone, where new ocean floor is produced and where the Eurasian and North American plates are pulling apart. Volcanism is common along such "mid-oceanic ridges" and the volcanic island of Iceland formed above the North Atlantic ridge, first emerging from the sea some 16 million years ago; volcanic activity continues on the island today and the rifting process is clearly visible in some areas. Iceland is a country that straddles two tectonic plates!

Avian Acrobats

Ever since I took up birding, more than 30 years ago, nuthatches have been one of my favorite groups of birds. The white-breasted nuthatch was the first "unusual" bird that I discovered in my backyard and I was amazed by its ability to move along the trunks and branches at all angles, seemingly immune to gravity. I soon learned that it is but one of four species of nuthatch in the U.S., all of which hunt for insects and larvae in a similar, death defying manner.

White-breasted nuthatches are common throughout most of the U.S., absent only where open plains or desert keep the woodlands at bay. Their red-breasted cousins inhabit mountainous and northern regions of the country, descending to lowlands and more southern regions during the winter months. Both of these species are usually found alone or in pairs, though they often feed with mixed flocks of titmice, chickadees, kinglets and downy woodpeckers.

Pygmy and brown-headed nuthatches are very similar in appearance and behavio…

Eagle Bluffs

One of my favorite places in all of Missouri, Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area stretches along the Missouri River floodplain, southwest of Columbia. A mosaic of ponds, wetlands, crop fields and bottomland forest, the refuge is accessed by a network of gravel roads and foot trails. March, the peak month of the spring waterfowl migration, is an excellent time to visit this preserve.

After weeks of cold weather, many of the ponds remained frozen this morning but there was enough open water to attract an excellent variety of waterfowl. Canada geese and mallards dominated the scene but there were also good numbers of pintail, shovelers, gadwall, green-winged teal, lesser scaup and American coot. Huge flocks of red-winged blackbirds roamed the crop fields where red-tailed hawks and northern harriers hunted for mice. As the refuge name would indicate, I also saw a half-dozen bald eagles during my visit.

But migrant flocks of snow geese were the highlight of my day. Though few stopped at Ea…

The Permian Swath

The Permian Period, the last geologic division of the Paleozoic Era, stretched from 270 to 225 million years ago. This Period is known primarily for two significant events: the merging of Earth's land masses into the mega-continent of Pangea and the greatest mass extinction in the history of our planet. The latter, which occured at the end of the Permian, eliminated 70% of terrestrial species and 95% of marine life, including the trilobites.

Permian rocks are exposed in many areas across North America but are concentrated in a swath that stretches from northeast Kansas to southeast New Mexico. Beginning at the north end, the Flint Hills, carved from Permian sedimentary rocks, rise north of Manhattan, Kansas, and run southward to the Oklahoma border. This scenic ridge and valley topography harbors our most extensive remnants of tallgrass prairie.

Permian redbeds color the landscape of south-central Kansas, expanding southward through all of central Oklahoma and into north-cent…

The First Robin

The annual rite of looking for the first robin of spring is both a silly tradition and a sad commentary on the knowledge that most Americans have about their environment. While residents of the northern States may be justified in connecting robin sightings with the onset of spring, this common member of the thrush family can be found year-round throughout most of the country. What non-naturalists actually notice is the robin's dietary shift in early spring.

Robins are very common across central and southern latitudes of North America during the winter months; in fact, they often roost and travel about in huge flocks. During this season they retreat to wetland thickets, juniper glades and wooded stream valleys, where they find enough insects and berries to sustain them. Come March, as the soil thaws, they return to suburban lawns and parks to feast on earthworms, drawing the attention of winter-weary humans.

Robins are, indeed, hardy birds. They begin to nest earlier than most s…

Fickle March

After a long, cold winter, we look forward to March, the first calender month of spring. Yet, the spring equinox is still three weeks away and, for most of us in the Midwest, there's plenty of cold, blustery weather ahead. Last night's thunderstorms have given way to a raw, cloudy day with brisk, northwest winds; hardly spring-like conditions.

Such is March in the American Midwest. Bridging winter and spring, it is a month of cold rain, wet snow and sloppy landscapes. But the days are steadily longer and the thaws outlast the periods of ice and snow. The aroma of moist soil is once again in the air, the lawns are beginning to green and the buds are ready to pop. Snowdrops, aconites, crocuses and hyancinths are bringing color back to the landscape and a chorus of birdsong greets each day. Out in the wild lands, tree frogs are calling, waterfowl are flocking and the fledglings of great horned owls are peering from their nest. Cold though it is, spring is in the air.