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Showing posts from February, 2008

Fountain Grove

Stretching north from the junction of the Grand River and Locust Creek, the Fountain Grove Conservation Area covers over 7100 acres of north-central Missouri. A mosaic of ponds, lakes, wetlands, fields and riparian woodlands, the refuge is accessed by graveled roads and levees; it is best reached via Route W, which leads south from U.S. 36, east of U.S. 65.

Late February through mid April is a great time to visit Fountain Grove. Huge flocks of snow geese stop by early in this period and the number and variety of waterfowl rise through March. Wintering ducks, such as bufflehead, ring-necked ducks, lesser scaup and redheads favor the deeper waters while mallards, pintail, gadwall, wigeon, coot and teal feed in the shallows. Canada geese noisily move about the refuge and both wood ducks and hooded mergansers ply the wooded streams.

Bald eagles are common at Fountain Grove during the colder months and peregrine falcons often turn up to feast on the abundant waterfowl. Other residents o…

Horseback Lessons

During my late pre-teen years, my friends and I would often follow a large creek into the wild and rural lands adjacent to our subdivision. On one of these excursions, we came across a speckled, gray mare grazing at the edge of a pasture. In response to a dare from my friends and prompted by my love for horses, I climbed the fence and approached the placid mare; to my delight, she let me rub her neck and back while she continued to munch on the grass. Encouraged by this success, I took advantage of a tree stump and climbed onto her back. Sitting atop the mare, my friends gawking in awe from beyond the fence, I experienced one of those glorious moments of childhood.

The glory was short-lived as the mare suddenly took off across the pasture. Lying on her back and hanging on around her neck, my cool confidence gave way to terror. Nearing the edge of a woodland, the horse suddenly stopped and I flew off into a patch of thickets, scratching up my arms and face. Though my friends were still …

Morning Serenade

This morning dawned cold and gray in mid Missouri, not a hint of spring in the air. Yet, as I walked to work, I was serenaded by a host of resident and wintering birds. Northern cardinals dominated the show, with a background chorus from robins, white-throated sparrows and Carolina wrens. Even the soft, sad tune of the mourning dove, so remniscent of balmy, April mornings, drifted through the neighborhood.

Of course, these birds are responding to the lengthening daylight and will soon initiate their breeding cycle, regardless of the conditions. Unlike humans, they pay little attention to the fickle nature of our Midwestern weather and are more confident than we are that the verdant spring will soon arrive. They are subject to neither impatience nor skepticism; we would do well to adopt their attitude.

Night Flight

In past blogs, I have expressed my love of flying and my conviction that it is the best way to appreciate our natural landscape. Flying at night provides a different perspective.

Our flight from Tampa to St. Louis began an hour after sunset; the route took us up the west coast of Florida to Tallahassee and then northwestward to St. Louis. Low clouds obscured many of the towns and cities across Florida but, by central Alabama, the night sky was clear. Birmingham was the first large city to light up the darkness while, off to its northeast, the glow of Atlanta stretched across the horizon. After crossing the dark swath of the Appalachians, the lights of Jackson and Nashville, Tennessee, sprawled beneath us and the distant galaxies of Chattanooga and Knoxville beamed from the east. Further north, the shining clusters of Bowling Green and Elizabeth-town, Kentucky, led toward the faint glow of Louisville.

While daytime flights reveal how man has altered the natural landscape with his dams, p…

The Silent Brigade

On our last afternoon at Longboat Key, a large flock of red-breasted mergansers moved south on the calm waters of Sarasota Bay. Demonstrating military discipline, they moved in unison, heads directed forward. Numbering 150 or more, not a bird fluttered or peeped as they passed our vantage point. The adult males, uniformed in their crisp, sharp-edged colors, occupied the flanks of the brigade, clearly the captains of this militia; the females and immature mergansers, dressed in dull-brown fatigues, dutifully followed their direction. The silent flock eventually moved beyond the edge of a mangrove island and the avian parade was over.

Red-breasted mergansers summer and breed across northern Canada, Alaska and Greenland. Often migrating in large flocks, they winter on coastal bays of North America, as far south as Mexico. Tolerant of salt water, they are far more common on brackish bays than are common or hooded mergansers. Like their cousins, they dive from the surface to catch fish and …

Florida's Dry Prairie

Before white settlers reached Florida, vast prairielands covered the region north and west of Lake Okeechobee. Having developed on flat terrain with sandy soil and a calcareous, clay subsoil, these grasslands were maintained by periodic wildfires, which suppressed the invasion of adjacent woodlands. Today, only remnants of this "dry prairie" have survived man's impact; fire control, irrigated croplands, orchards, cattle ranching and residential development have all taken a toll.

Remnant prairie areas are characterized by a variety of drought-tolerant grasses (wiregrass, bluestem, sawgrass, needlegrass), saw palmetto and scrub oak. Ephemeral ponds and marshes develop in depressions while hammocks of sable palm, pine and live oak invade drainages. Prairie birds include burrowing owls, Florida grasshopper sparrows, crested caracaras, sandhill cranes, short-tailed hawks, white-tailed kites and loggerhead shrikes. Among the other residents are glass lizards, eastern indigo sna…

Birding Alligator Alley

Heading down to see our son in Miami, we crossed Alligator Alley, the hundred-mile stretch of I-75 between Naples and Greater Ft. Lauderdale. A toll road, the highway makes a beeline across South Florida, crossing (from west to east) the Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades. As usual, I saw the journey as an opportunity to do some birding along the way.

If you don't count the ubiquitous grackles, the most common birds were vultures (black and turkey), which soared above the tropical landscape, roosted in trees or wrestled for roadkill along the Interstate. Double-crested cormorants and anhingas were also very common, dotting trees above the roadside canals. Of course, herons and egrets were well represented and a flock of wood storks was a highlight of the trip. Ospreys were the dominant raptor and were especially common above the tree-lined waterways of the Big Cypress Swamp. Cattle egrets, sporting their orange breeding highlights, foraged on the grassy medians and belted kingfis…

Storms and Sea Birds

On our first day in Florida, a line of powerful thunderstorms pushed across the Gulf of Mexico. By the following morning, the tail of this front lingered near Sarasota, producing dense fog across Longboat Key and the other barrier islands. Visibility was limited on our walk along the beach but not enough to obscure my view of long-winged sea birds, flapping and gliding just above the waves. Several flocks passed by, moving southward less than 30 yards offshore.

These uncommon visitors were Cory's shearwaters, likely pushed toward the coast by the strong cold front and its massive storms. Over the next few days, numerous gannets appeared off Longboat Key, diving for fish with the various terns and brown pelicans; after breeding on the rocky, offshore islands of northeast Canada, gannets winter on the open ocean, including the Gulf of Mexico, and are seen near the coast after storms or during migrations.

Sea birds are especially vulnerable to the vagaries of weather. While terres…

Escape to Fragrance

Last week, a two-hour flight took us from the cold, dry air of the American Midwest to the warm, humid air of South Florida. More than a change in weather conditions, the trip brought a return of natural fragrance to our daily life, a feature missing in northern winters.

The frozen landscape of the north offers little fragrance; only the resinous scent of conifers comes to mind. Rather, Midwestern winters are characterized by the odors of human culture: wood smoke, industrial effluent, exhaust emissions and, in rural areas, the smell of hay and fresh animal waste. But in southern Florida, the land of perpetual warmth, natural odors flood the senses: flowering plants, wet sand, cut grass, rotting vegetation, marine air and marsh muck are just a sampling.

Fragrance will move north with the spring and should be in Missouri by mid March or so. It is an essential ingredient of seasonal change.

Bosque del Apache

Established in 1939, the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge covers 57,000 acres along the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. A mosaic of irrigated crop fields, wet meadows, riparian woodlands (bosques) and wetlands, the Refuge sits at the north edge of the Chihuahuan Desert and is best known for its huge wintering flocks of snow geese and sandhill cranes.

In addition to the showcase species, winter birders should see Ross's geese, a wide variety of ducks, bald and golden eagles, northern harriers, red-tailed and ferruginous hawks, wild turkey, ring-necked pheasants, greater roadrunners, scaled and Gambel's quail and the usual mix of Southwest winter songbirds. Spring and fall migrations bring ospreys, shorebirds and mountain bluebirds to the Refuge and a variety of herons, rails and bitterns inhabit the preserve during the warmer months. Resident mammals include pronghorn, mule deer, coyotes, porcupine, beaver and muskrats.

Bosque del Apache is reached by taking Exit 1…

Desert Snow

A deep trough of low pressure has moved in across Southern California and its counter-clockwise winds are pulling in moisture from both the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez. To the north, High Pressure is injecting cold air into the lower reaches of the trough, setting up significant snowfalls across the Desert Southwest.

Snow will likely coat the saguaros above Tucson and heavy accumulations may occur across the Mogollon Rim and atop the desert ranges of Southeastern Arizona. Moving eastward, the storm will then bring snow to the mountains and high deserts of New Mexico, southern Colorado and West Texas.

While pushing cold air into the Southwest Deserts, the zone of High Pressure, centered over the Great Basin, will also produce northeast winds across the mountains of southern California, a classic setup for Santa Anas.

Reunion at Guanella

Guanella Pass, in Colorado, is a high, broad ridge that connects the Mt. Evans massif with the Continental Divide. This windswept ridge, 11,669 feet above sea level, is covered by alpine tundra and willow thickets; access is provided by the Guanella Pass Road which connects I-70, at Georgetown, with U.S. 285, at Grant, Colorado. While the roadway can be traversed by the family car through most of the year, a four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended in winter and the route may be closed after periods of heavy snow.

Birders flock to Guanella Pass to see white-tailed ptarmigan, elusive residents of the alpine tundra, which congregate here during the winter months. Smallest of the North American ptarmigans, this species is solid white in winter, blending with the snowy landscape; only its black eyes, bill and red eye comb contrast with the white plumage. The birds are drawn to Guanella by its plentiful willow thickets which provide shelter and nutrition; willow buds are among the highes…

Man and Monogamy

On this Hallmark Holiday of romantic love, it is a good time to ponder the nature of monogamy. Anyone old enough to have experienced the phases of human life knows that sexual attraction, romantic love and commited relationships are distinct entities which do not always develop in the idealized sequence.

If one is able to strip away the psychological, societal and religious constraints from human biology, it is clear that males are designed to be seed dispersal machines, capable of fathering thousands of children; were it not for the above contraints, most would likely do so. Females, on the other hand, have a limited number of eggs and, due to the physiologic demands of pregnancy, are realistically limited to twenty offspring or so; "knowing" this and wanting to ensure the continued welfare of their genes, they are much more descriminating when choosing a mate and thus control the evolutionary direction of our species.

Man's immediate primate ancestors are not monogamous …

The Cretaceous Period

The Cretaceous Period (135 to 65 million years ago) is the last Period of the Mesozoic Era, the Age of Dinosaurs. Tyrannosaurus rex ruled the Cretaceous, which also witnessed the appearance of horned dinosaurs, duck-billed dinosaurs and coelurosaurs; the latter were feathered (though flightless) dinosaurs, thought to be the ancestors of birds.

A shallow sea bisected North America through most of this Period, stretching from Texas to the Arctic. Marsupials arose early in the Cretaceous, spreading throughout the Southern Continents (which remained attached at that time); South America split from Africa about 100 million years ago and finally broke from the rest of Gondwanaland 75 million years ago, beginning 72 million years of isolation. Madagascar, originally part of Africa, split from India-Antarctica-Australia 100 million years ago and India broke away 15 million years later.

Broadleaf trees first appeared in the Cretaceous and, during the second half of the Period, ants, social bees …

Winter of Superlatives

This winter season has been characterized by a series of weather extremes across the country. Crippling ice storms in December, a massive snowpack in the western mountains, an unrelenting drought in the Southeast and last week's record tornado outbreak have all grabbed headlines. Just yesterday, International Falls, Minnesota, known for its frigid winters, set an all time record low of minus 40 degrees F. All of which is fodder for the corner evangelists who warn that "the end is near."

But our weather "records" reflect data that stretches back only a few hundred years, a mere instant in Earth's history and even a very small percentage of human history. We know from climate studies that the planet has been far warmer and much colder in the distant past but scientifically-advanced humans were not around to record it. Our brief life spans give us a snapshot of the planet's weather pattern, a very limited perspective from which to appreciate its true h…

Dusk at the Feeder

On cold winter days, our backyard feeder, filled with black sunflower seed, gets a wide variety of visitors. Cardinals, chickadees, titmice, house finches, blue jays, nuthatches and goldfinches are among the most common; juncos and a variety of sparrows are also regular visitors, foraging beneath the feeder. And while the woodpeckers and Carolina wrens prefer the suet block, they also grab their fare share of seed.

As dusk descends on the neighborhood, most of these birds head off to their roosting areas to prepare for another frigid, winter night. But two of our regular visitors stick around late in the day and actually begin to peak in number as their cohorts depart. Northern cardinals and white-throated sparrows seem to prefer a late day meal; the cardinals gather in the adjacent magnolia, alternating their trips to the feeder while the white-throats scratch among the husk litter, searching for intact seed. If not scared away by an opossum or raccoon, both species will often remain …

The Chiricahuas

The Madrean Archipelago is a group of mountain ranges that rise above desert landscape between the Colorado Plateau and the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico. Among these isolated ranges are the Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona. Forty miles north to south and up to 20 miles wide, this volcanic range reaches a maximum elevation of 9760 feet; near the northern end of the uplift, thick deposits of rhyolite tuff, released by the Turkey Creek Volcano 27 million years ago, have eroded into a scenic maze of rock spires.

The Chiricahuas are well known to naturalists, since they rise at the intersection of four major geophysical regions: the Sonoran Desert to their west, the Chihuahuan Desert to their east, the Colorado Plateau to their north and the Sierra Madre Occidental to their south. As a result, these mountains harbor a rich diversity of plant and animal life. Desert grasslands surround the range, mixing with shrubs and cacti that typify the adjacent life zones. A chapparal shru…

Kettle Lakes

The Pleistocene glaciers created numerous lakes across the North Country. In many cases, the glaciers scoured lake basins from the underlying bedrock (e.g. the Great Lakes) while, in others, they dammed streams with lobes of ice or glacial till.

A third type of glacial lake, the kettle lake, formed when slabs of ice broke from the glaciers. Generally calving during glacial retreat, these terrestrial icebergs were surrounded and covered by mounds of glacial till. As the climate continued to warm, the ice melted, leaving depressions in the landscape that were later filled by surface streams or ground water flow. Over time, the smaller kettles have accumu-lated thick layers of soil and plant debris, creating northland bogs.

Kettle lakes dot Canada, New England and the Great Lakes States. The most famous kettle lake in the U.S. is Walden Pond, Thoreau's inspirational homesite in Massachusetts. Further south and west, Stage's Pond, north of Circleville, Ohio, is protected in a State …

Vanguard of Spring

Driving back to Missouri yesterday, I encountered several large flocks of snow geese in the broad, Kaskaskia Valley of central Illinois; one of the flocks must have contained thousands of geese. Attracted by the flooded fields and corn stubble, they had stopped to rest and feed on their long journey to the Arctic. Last night, I awoke to the high-pitched calls of another flock as they moved northward over Columbia.

While the spring duck migration peaks in March, cranes, swans and geese begin moving north in February, taking advantage of southerly winds that develop in advance of cold fronts. Enroute, they follow north-south river channels and descend at favored rest stops. Birders and hunters know these routes well, as do the bald eagles and peregrine falcons that follow and feed on the migrants.

For me, there are few sights in nature more stirring than a large, noisy flock of snow geese. More than a spectacle, they are the true vanguard of spring!

Floodscape

A visit to Ohio over the past few days took us along I-70, crossing Illinois and Indiana. From the Mississippi eastward, all of the rivers and creeks were at or near capacity and many had spilled across their floodplains, creating vast, shallow lakes. While most of the flooding invaded valley fields and bottomland woods, even upland pastures and croplands were partly covered by water.

The warm, moist, southerly flow of this past week triggered the deluge, dropping large amounts of rain and melting a thick snowpack that had covered northern portions of these States. Some degree of flooding is common across the Midwest, especially from February through early April. In late winter and early spring, the clash of cold and warm, moist air masses produces an abundance of precipitation which cannot be absorbed by the cold, hard ground. Furthermore, what moisture does percolate into the soil is not taken up by the dormant trees and foliage; the upper soil is rapidly saturated, runoff is ac…

Butcher Bird

Mention predatory birds and most people think of hawks, owls, falcons and eagles. Few would include shrikes on that list but these robin-sized hunters are known for their aggressive nature. Identified by their black mask, hooked bill and mockingbird coloration, the shrike is usually found alone, surveying open country from a fencepost or tall sapling.

Loggerhead shrikes breed throughout the U.S. and parts of southern Canada, wintering across the southern half of our country; their slightly larger cousin, the northern shrike, breeds in boreal woodlands of Canada and Alaska, moving southward into the northern U.S. during the winter months. Both species favor open grasslands with scattered trees, where they hunt for mice, shrews, small snakes and songbirds; loggerheads may also be found in desert regions and often consume large insects (especially grasshoppers) during the warmer months.

Regardless of their prey, shrikes have a habit of impaling their victim on barbed wire, thorns or sha…

Tertiary Terrain

The Tertiary Period, 65 to 2 million years ago, extends from the demise of the dinosaurs to the onset of the Pleistocene Ice Age. Bedrock from the Period, generally consisting of soft sediments or hardened lava, are found primarily from the High Plains westward; an exception is the limestone of north-central Florida, deposited on the Florida Platform during the early to mid Tertiary.

Tertiary sediments of the High Plains, typified by the Badlands of South Dakota, consist of erosional debris from the Rocky Mountains and windblown dust from the volcanic regions of the West; among the later were the San Juan volcanoes of southwest Colorado, the volcanic fields of northern New Mexico/Arizona and the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest. West of the Rockies, Great Lakes covered the tristate region of Wyoming, Utah and Colorado early in the Tertiary, depositing the famous Green River formation; uplifted later in the Period, this formation has been sculpted into the high mesas of that region. …

Roaming Season

Late winter is the mating season for most of our non-hibernating mammals. Cottontails, raccoons, opossums, mink, river otters, bobcats, lynx, fox and coyotes are just a sampling of the North American residents that seek out mates at this time of year.

The males of these species often range widely in search of receptive females. Intent on passing along their genes, they wander day and night, often limiting their sleep and food intake. For those of us who enjoy watching wildlife, late winter is thus a good time to view these species.

Early morning or late day visits to open spaces and nature preserves are best for finding these romantic wanderers. Trails through wetlands or along the border of fields and forest are usually most productive. Of course, slow, quiet travel, with frequent stops for observation, increases the opportunity to observe these wary creatures.

George

In my childhood, travel was an annual excursion on I-75 (either to Lake Erie or Florida) and nature was yard work, a trip to the zoo or thirty minutes of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. It was not until I was 10 or 11, freed to explore on my own, that I developed my interest in wild creatures and wild places.

But this early fascination lay dormant for many years, covered over by adolescent interests, high school life and the academic pressures of college. It was not until medical school, at the age of 22, that a good friend rekindled my interest, showering me with his enthusiasm for all things outdoor. An avid birder, weekend explorer and fisherman, George brought back my early sense of adventure and introduced me to many new places over the coming years, from local nature preserves to the lakes of Ontario and from the Outer Banks to the wilds of Wyoming.

Today, George lies dying in a hospital bed in our hometown of Cincinnati. I will miss his company, his exhuberance and his zest f…