Showing posts from February, 2010

A Weekend of Snows

Even naturalists, who spend a great deal of time in a wide variety of ecosystems, can recall a handful of adventures that are especially memorable. Many of the day trips on my short list would involve snow geese and the events of this weekend will long be remembered.

On Saturday morning I visited the Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, along the Missouri River, southwest of Columbia. There I encountered a massive flock of snow geese (some 10,000 by my estimation), which had gathered in a field near the south end of the auto tour road. The restless geese, stirred by their urge to migrate, rose and fell in small groups, changing positions as other flocks arrived from the south. The ponds, fields and marshes of the refuge also harbored a wide variety of their cohorts, including Canada geese, greater white-fronted geese, a group of white pelicans and just about every duck known to migrate through the American Heartland. Surveying all of these waterfowl was an excellent mix of raptors, inc…

The Japan & Chile Earthquakes

Today, the Pacific Ocean continues to open along the East Pacific Rise, which runs from the edge of the Antarctic Plate to the Sea of Cortez. West of this mid oceanic ridge, the Pacific Plate is moving to the northwest while, to its east, the Cocos and Nazca Plates are moving eastward; these latter plates are remnants of the oceanic Farallon Plate which once stretched along the western coast of the Americas.

Encountering the west edge of the South American Plate, the Nazca Plate is forced to subduct, creating an offshore trench and giving rise to the volcanic range of the Andes. Friction along this line of subduction drags down the edge of the South American Plate and, when this pressure is suddenly released, an earthquake results. This morning's 8.8 magnitude quake, off the Chile coast is expected to produce a significant tsunami across the Pacific as the overlying ocean was pushed upward by the rebounding plate. Traveling over 500 miles per hour, the tsunami wave is expected to r…

Playing with Killers

This week's tragedy at Sea World is just the latest in a long series of deaths related to man's inappropriate interaction with wild creatures. While zoos can play an important role in education and conservation, the use of wild animals as pets or for human entertainment deludes the public and tempts disaster.

Yet, animal menageries, circuses, stage performances and theme parks continue the practice, claiming to celebrate the magnificence of these creatures while stripping them of their freedom and dignity. Feeding on the human impulse to "tame nature," these shows highlight our limited success. Alas, the repeated tragedies remind us that we cannot control the natural instincts that dwell within these powerful creatures.

Convinced of our divine right to govern this planet, we humans impose our will on "lesser mammals," capturing or killing them for a host of reasons, from trophy hunting to the procurement of aphrodisiacs. Their use for public entertainment…

First Mourning

While the robins and cardinals have been singing for weeks, there was a certain irony this morning that the first somber tune of the mourning dove wafted through our neighborhood on the coldest dawn in more than a month. One of the most distinctive melodies of spring and summer, the soft, melancholy song of this bird is, for most of us, associated with balmy weather.

The latest Canadian front, combined with clear skies and dry air, had dropped our overnight low to 8 degrees F. Nevertheless, stirred by the lengthening daylight, the mourning doves are singing and their breeding season will soon begin. Having spent the winter in Missouri, they are well adapted to cold weather and, not inclined to check the thermometer, they carry on with their parental duties, oblivious to the ice and snow.

Frigid air and frozen ground make it feel more like January than late February but the season moves along, ruled by the sun. We know, intellectually, that the tide of spring will soon take hold; wil…

The Gifts of Winter

Once we get past the holidays, many (if not most) humans deplore winter. Not naturally equipped to deal with the cold, we shun the outdoors and wait to be rescued by spring. But winter, more than a season of darkness and death, is essential to nature's cycle and offers many benefits to man as well.

The winter snow pack is vital to many ecosystems across the globe, feeding our streams and aquifers. Despite the bleak landscape, nature' recyclers are busy, decomposing the litter of last year's bounty and returning essential nutrients to the soil. Wintering deciduous plants take advantage of this process, expanding their root systems and storing food for the verdant months ahead. Nature's predators, extended the gift of winter weakened prey, find plenty of sustenance to expand their own numbers while ensuring that the population of primary consumers remains healthy and under control. And, within the soil, in pupae or at the bottom of ponds, insect larvae prepare for their s…

A Flock of Hope

It's been a long, cold winter in Missouri and throughout most of the central and eastern U.S.; no doubt, it's been a tough season for the global warming business. Trudging home into a stiff, northwest wind last evening, I was reminded that the spring equinox is still more than three weeks away and that old man winter has not yet given up on the Midwest.

But, just a hundred yards from home, I heard the distinctive call of snow geese and looked up to watch a large flock of those inspiring travelers, pushing north despite the conditions. Spurred on by the lengthening days, the geese are heading back to their Arctic breeding grounds and will likely make several more stops to rest and feed along the way. Though they take advantage of southerly winds and may have their journey delayed by severe weather, snow geese are among our first spring migrants and their determined flight brings hope to winter-weary humans.

While yesterday's flock is another sign of the oncoming spring, a …

Driving on Thin Ice

Over the 43 years of my personal driving history, I have had no serious accidents. Always interested in the landscape and wildlife along the road, I have never been prone to excessive speed; in fact, of my few moving violations, one was for driving too slow, late at night in New Mexico, when my son and I were watching for meteors in the spectacular desert sky. Unfortunately, this impeccable driving record ended yesterday morning.

Descending southward from the Palmer Divide, north of Limon, Colorado, we entered a freezing mist and ice began to accumulate on the windshield. No sooner had I mentioned this observation to my wife than our pickup began to fishtail on the highway. Remembering to avoid braking and to steer in the direction of the slide, I managed to keep the truck on the highway but took out a berm marker in the process; alas, my cherished Tacoma now has a vertical dent just behind the cab.

Of course, the outcome could have been far worse and, though I was already driving below…

Creativity & Depression

History is replete with creative people who have had their career disrupted or cut short by alcoholism, drug addiction or suicide; Ernest Hemingway, Jackson Pollock and Jimi Hendrix are but a few well-known examples. Many assume that such self-destructive behavior is triggered by an inability to cope with fame, criticism or the unreasonable expectations of their fans.

While these factors may play a role, I suspect that more inherent traits are at play. As a physician and a writer, I have long believed that creative people have manic-depressive tendencies; periods of high productivity are often followed by interludes of melancholy and self doubt. Though, for most artists, writers and performers, this cycle is mild, others experience wild gyrations in their mood, eventually leading to clinical depression, usually fanned by an obsessive degree of introspection. Reluctant to seek professional help, many find solace via drugs, alcohol or, in extreme cases, suicide.

Our genetic makeup, in con…

River of Ducks

After a long, cold winter, most of the ponds and lakes of the Colorado Front Range are frozen over but the South Platte River, constantly in motion, provides open water for resident and wintering waterfowl. A walk along the River turned up an excellent variety of ducks this morning.

Mallards, gadwall, shovelers and green-winged teal dabbled in the shallows, joined on occasion by the stately form of a great blue heron; a lone muskrat also skimmed across the river before escaping into a stand of cattails. Deeper pools of the main stream and its side channels attracted mixed flocks of buffleheads, common goldeneyes, ring-necked ducks, common mergansers and lesser scaup. A single pied-billed grebe graced the scene, a few belted kingfishers patrolled the river and noisy flocks of Canada geese and red-winged blackbirds moved through the valley. Watching all of this activity from the top of a distant cottonwood, an adult bald eagle basked in the mid morning sun.

As the weather warms over the c…

Weather Blame

Despite its collection of world class athletes in a beautiful, natural setting, the chatter from the Winter Olympics seems to be devoted primarily to the weather. One would think that outdoor athletes, attuned to the fickle nature of our environment, would take the weather challenges in stride; nevertheless, a steady stream of comments about ice and snow conditions has dominated the coverage. Some athletes and commentators even imply that more could have been done to insure that skating, sledding and skiing surfaces were in prime shape.

Do any of these critics know of a place on Earth where the weather is reliably predictable or where man has significant control over natural events? Can we ever guarantee that it won't be too warm, too windy, too cold, too wet or too dry? Can snowfall be controlled by human decree, insuring that it will be sufficient but not too heavy? Perhaps it would be best if we held all Olympic events indoors, using climate control and artificial terrain.


Post Rock Country

When white settlers arrived in north-central Kansas, during the 1870s-1880s, they found a dearth of wood for the construction of fences. After all, natural woodlands of the Great Plains are restricted to stream channels, some of which run dry for much of the year. Lucky for the settlers, a shallow sea had covered this area during the Cretaceous Period (135-65 million years ago) and a layer of limestone, deposited in that sea, lies just beneath the thin soil of this region, outcropping in many areas.

This rock, now known as the Fencepost Limestone, is the upper layer of the Greenhorn Formation, a layer cake of shales, mudstones and limestones, deposited in the vast, late-Mesozoic Sea. Rather soft, the Fencepost Limestone hardens with weathering and, since it is devoid of longitudinal faults and is only a foot thick, this rock layer proved to be ideal for making posts to support barbed wire fencing. Of course, this readily accessible limestone was also used for the construction of homes,…

Into the Blue

We left Columbia this morning with a thick blanket of clouds covering much of Missouri. The final flakes from last night's snowfall were still drifting in the breeze and a steady, northwest wind heightened the chill of the cold, humid air. Wet pavement and road grit along I-70 coated our windshield with back-splash all the way to Topeka, where the low level moisture began to dissipate. Unfortunately, a shelf of high clouds kept the morning sun at bay and the filtered light had little impact on the drab, February landscape.

As we approached Salina, narrow swaths of blue appeared above the western horizon, in striking contrast to the gray winter sky; it looked as if a painter had attempted to brighten the scene with a bit of color. As we continued west, past the Smoky Hills Wind Farm, the patches of blue became more numerous and more extensive, giving the flat, gray sky the appearance of a tattered blanket. Near Russell, we reached the west edge of the cloud mass, though its shaggy m…

Love at First Smell

We humans interpret our environment primarily through our senses of sight and sound. Unless deprived of these capabilities, all other senses tend to be less significant and, in comparison with many other mammals, relatively underdeveloped. On the other hand, it is certainly possible that these lesser senses play a more significant role at the subconscious level.

We know that pack animals (especially canines) identify clan members by smell and that this sense may be important in the prevention of inbreeding; in the earliest period of human history, we were also pack animals and it seems reasonable to assume that our sense of smell may have been equally important. Indeed, modern studies have shown that smells and tastes (the latter being a corollary of smell) are more keenly imprinted in our memories than are sights and sounds. Furthermore, it is well known that pheromones play an essential role in chemical signaling among a wide variety of creatures, from insects to mammals, and that th…

The February Chill

The cold weather outbreaks of February are generally not as severe or as prolonged as those of mid winter. Accompanied by longer days, a higher sun and the first hints of spring, many find them easier to take.

On the other hand, these late winter blasts are usually associated with more precipitation and the cold, humid air can be especially chilling. Interspersed with periods of milder weather, which gradually sap our adaptation to winter conditions, these outbreaks often feel colder than the thermometer might indicate.

But the real problem with the February chill is its effect on the human psyche. Natives of the Tropics and not designed for cold weather, we endure winter like nomads in a strange and dangerous land; even if we enjoy the beauty and activities of the winter season, we have a collective, subconscious attachment to warm, sunny weather. In February, as we sense that our homeland is on the horizon, the last gasps of winter throw psychological roadblocks across our path; not p…

The Lesson of the Illinois Quake

The current topography of our planet represents just the latest frame of a long film that began 4.6 billion years ago; in fact, this frame is gradually morphing into the next, transitioning at a rate that is too slow to appreciate during our brief human life span. For man, earthquakes and volcanism are the only clues that Earth's evolution is still underway.

The modern Continents, sitting on their large tectonic plates, have changed size, shape and location throughout the history of our planet. They are the products of past land masses that have merged, rifted apart or collected small, exotic terrains along their margins. Some suture lines, from past mergers or terrain accretions, and valleys, from ongoing rifts, are evident today; the former are often represented by mountain ranges, where continents (or sub-continents) have collided, while rift valleys, and their associated volcanism, are currently represented by the Rio Grande Rift of North America and the East African Rift Valle…

Public Racism

The Super Bowl victory by the New Orleans Saints has been infused with symbolism, a sign that the city has finally recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and is charting a new course to regain its position as a major center of the American South. Unfortunately, the team's adoption of the "Who Dat" chant, suggests that the city remains mired in the racist environment of the early 20th Century. Said to have originated at LSU in the early eighties and to have inspired the "Who Dey" chant of the Cincinnati Bengals in the late eighties, the phrase hearkens back to the era of Buckwheat and Huckleberry Finn. It is, indeed, a not-so-subtle proclamation that African-Americans are, by nature, an ignorant subclass of human society.

Many would disagree, accepting the phrase as a harmless chant that has unified the fans and citizens of New Orleans, regardless of their race. But the in-your-face racism of yesteryear has given way to a more insidious form in moder…

Midwest Trumpeters

When white settlers first reached North America, trumpeter swans were abundant across the Midwest, breeding primarily north of the Missouri and Ohio River Valleys; during the colder months, these birds, the largest swans on the planet, wintered as far south as the Gulf Coast. Over hunting and the drainage of wetlands decimated their population and, in 1918, they were brought under federal protection; nevertheless, their numbers continued to dwindle and, by the 1930s, only 69 trumpeters survived in the lower 48 States, all inhabiting southwest Montana.

The Trumpeter Swan Society, founded in 1968, has spearheaded a comeback of these magnificent birds and reintroduction programs were developed across the Upper Midwest in the 1980s; by 2004, 4500 trumpeter swans inhabited federal, state and private refuges, from South Dakota to Ontario, Canada. While these restoration projects have successfully established Midwestern breeding populations, the swans have been reluctant to roam too far from …

The Snows of Eagle Bluffs

Yesterday, at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, southwest of Columbia, the February sun was taking a toll on the winter landscape. Slushy roads, muddy sloughs, half frozen ponds and snow splotched fields set the scene. Flocks of Canada geese, mallards and a mix of winter ducks huddled along the banks or cruised the open waters. Red-tailed hawks patrolled the area from barren trees, a lone bald eagle circled overhead and a group of crows chased a northern harrier across the corn stubble.

The afternoon sun glowed through a sheet of high clouds, the temperature hovered in the mid thirties and a chilly west wind reminded visitors that winter had not yet abandoned the refuge. Then, out of the south, appeared a flock of snow geese, their wavering lines moving just above a distant ridge. As they approached, their white plumage reflected the sunlight and their high-pitched calls echoed across the valley. Circling the refuge, they surely sensed the coming storm and were looking for a safe s…

Winter Waterfowl Magnets

By mid to late winter, most ponds and lakes of the American Midwest have frozen over; but deeper waters, especially near dams of our larger rivers and reservoirs, often remain open, even in the coldest of winters. These open waters attract a large number and wide variety of wintering waterfowl, inland gulls and the predators that feed on them. Among the more common visitors to these winter oases are Canada geese, ring-billed and herring gulls, common mergansers, buffleheads, lesser scaup, ring-necked ducks, redheads, common goldeneyes and bald eagles.

Avid bird watchers know that less common winter residents and rare seasonal vagrants also turn up at these sites. Canvasbacks, tundra and trumpeter swans, greater scaup, scoters, Barrow's goldeneyes, oldsquaws and smew are among the prized waterfowl that may be encountered; wandering winter gulls may include glaucous, Thayer's and black-backed species. Almost any North American loon might visit these pockets of open water and pere…

Physicians & Meteorologists

As one who has practiced medicine for almost 35 years and who has had a long interest in meteorology, I have come to recognize a number of similarities between the two professions. Members of both disciplines tend to have a high level of enthusiasm for their careers, are devoted to protecting the public from natural forces and accept the fact that 24/7 service comes with the territory.

Yet, both physicians and meteorologists practice inexact sciences, forcing them to make educated guesses on a regular basis. This fact does not escape the scrutiny of the general public and, as a consequence, some individuals are loathe to accept their recommendations. For example, efforts by physicians to eliminate tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption and obesity are often impaired by a patient's awareness of friends or relatives who lived long lives despite these habits. In like manner, the warnings of meteorologists regarding hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and blizzards often go unheeded, esp…

Barely Snow

Heavy, wet snow is falling in Columbia this morning and up to five inches of accumulation is expected; since road surfaces have warmed up in recent days, most of the buildup will occur on grass-covered surfaces. While the snowfall was beautiful in the glow of street lamps and headlights this morning, its high moisture content soaked my coat during the half-mile walk to work.

This latest winter storm, centered over Mississippi, is pulling a steady stream of Gulf moisture into the Ohio and mid-Mississippi Valleys, where surface air temperatures hover near 32 degrees F. As this moisture falls through the atmosphere, it freezes just enough to produce snow, leading to the slushy accumulation that has developed this morning; were colder air in place, the snow would have a drier consistency and potential snow depths would likely be reduced. Heavy, wet snowfalls are typical of early spring and late autumn, when winter's grip is less severe.

Over the next twenty four hours, our precipitat…

Skunk Cabbage

Over the next few weeks, skunk cabbage will bloom across the swamplands of the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. This precocious event is facilitated by the plant's capacity to generate heat, which allows its flower stalk to rise through the frozen soil and its overlying coat of ice or snow. Biochemical reactions, fed by a rich supply of starch in the root stalk, supply the heat, which attracts pollinating insects to the plant's hooded globe of flowers.

These pollinators, primarily carrion flies and beetles, are also attracted by a foul odor, emitted from the flowers, for which the plant is named. Late winter hikers may also detect this smell and will encounter purplish sheaths (spathes), which enclose the globe of cream-colored flowers. Within a few weeks, these spathes begin to decay and a rosette of bright green leaves, resembling a cabbage, appears. This foliage grows into a whorl of broad leaves, several feet in length, which mature by May and decay by mid summer.


Winter's Fading Glory

Arctic outbreaks, heavy snow and ice storms will continue to plague us for the next couple of months but, by early February, winter begins to lose its grip. A higher sun gradually takes a toll on the ice bound lakes and frozen ground and the longer daylight triggers wanderlust in our earliest migrants.

Within a few weeks, snowdrops and crocuses will adorn our lawns, skunk cabbage will grace the wetlands and tree frogs will call from their icy pools. Heeding the call of their cohorts and attuned to their own instinctual drive, swans and geese grow restless, soon to leave for breeding grounds above the Arctic Circle. Many other birds, stifled for the past few months, also sense the growing daylight and begin to sing as their mating season approaches.

We humans, consulting the calendar, anticipate the coming change. Less influenced by instinct, we are prone to impatience and disappointment. Knowing that spring lies ahead does not speed its arrival and, as past experience has taught us…

Fame & Influence

Humans have long been enamored with the rich, famous and powerful members of our species. After all, for better or for worse, they have always had a significant impact on some aspect of our lives.

But, when compared to our family, close friends and teachers, these celebrated figures are just symbols of human culture, fodder for reporters and historians but having little influence on our development as individuals. Our personal traits, including our capacity for commitment, empathy, enthusiasm and curiosity, reflect the environment in which we are raised and educated. An effective and admired teacher likely has more influence on more people than does any president, CEO or media celebrity.

Too often, people judge their lives and their careers by comparing themselves to the news makers and power brokers of our society. In reality, we all have the opportunity to instill passion, knowledge, tolerance and a sense of fairness in a large number of individuals. If everyone acknowledged and seize…