Friday, April 30, 2010

Politics, Energy & Conservation

Conservative Republicans have long pushed for drilling at all promising oil sites, including the Alaskan Wilderness tracts and in offshore areas along all American shorelines. Favoring the oil industry and claiming that their motivation is independence from Middle Eastern countries, they have minimized the impact that this approach might have on our natural environment; after all, a minority of their supporters are conservationists.

Among this party of pro-drillers has been the conservative leadership of Louisiana, the only State that has tolerated the practice of offshore drilling. This week, we are witnessing the unfortunate ramifications of that policy as coastal ecosystems and their wild residents are threatened by a major oil leak from a damaged well. Of course, the damage will extend well beyond the natural environment, threatening the livelihood of fishermen and shrimpers in that State.

On the opposite side of the political spectrum, Northeastern liberal conservationists have long opposed offshore wind farms along Cape Cod. This clean source of energy, posing little if any threat to the environment, might diminish their pristine view of the ocean. No doubt cheering the development of wind farms across the Great Plains, this provincial-minded group took the "not-in-my-backyard" approach to conservation. Fortunately, they have lost the battle and construction of the wind farm is scheduled to proceed (pending any further legal maneuvers by these wealthy conservationists).

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Warning from the Gulf

Though it has been achieved with relative safety for decades, deep water drilling is fraught with potential danger to the environment and the extent and ramifications of the current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico have yet to be determined. In our endless search for fossil fuel, we have developed technologies which, in most cases, have proved safe and effective; the current crisis, on the other hand, demonstrates that our systems are not foolproof and that the risk to natural ecosystems can be substantial.

While accidents involving land-based wells and transport ships can also be disastrous, as the Exxon Valdez proved, our ability to deal with deep water failures is clearly limited and the ongoing tragedy in the Gulf is a warning to put the breaks on offshore drilling. Whether caused by hurricanes, material defects or human error, a major oil leak in the relatively shallow and close-in waters of our Continental Shelf can have devastating effects on marine and coastal habitats.

It is ironic that this disaster developed within weeks of President Obama's announcement that his Administration will support the expansion of offshore drilling along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts of the U.S. If I were religious, I might believe that last week's explosion was a message from a higher authority.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Aggressive Mimic

While they are permanent residents throughout most of the southern and eastern U.S., northern mockingbirds are especially conspicuous in spring. It is then that the male delivers his endless, colorful song and becomes very aggressive, chasing rival suitors from his territory.

Fairly common in suburban residential areas, mockingbirds favor broken country with scattered woodlands in which to nest; the latter is usually a bulky structure of sticks and plant material, hidden among vines, shrubs and immature trees near the edge of a woods. Those who travel along country roads will often see these birds; robin sized, they are easily identified by their light gray plumage, long tail, thin bill and prominent white patches on their wings and tail that become obvious in flight. Highly adaptable, mockingbirds feed primarily on insects and berries, adding seeds to their diet during the colder months.

Like their cousins, the gray catbird and brown thrasher, northern mockingbirds are known for their melodious but varied song, composed of short phrases which, in the case of the mockingbird, are each repeated at least three times. These component phrases usually mimic the song or call of other birds in their region but may reflect other local sounds such as trilling toads, squeaky gates or yappy dogs. Male mockingbirds often sing on moonlit nights and, last week, one settled outside our window; awakened at 3 AM, I listened to his melody for twenty minutes or more and, among other tunes, heard the distinctive notes of a northern bobwhite and the tremulous call of an eastern screech owl.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Early March in Late April

After a slow start in Missouri, spring progressed steadily through April, with gradually warming days and balmy evenings. This idyllic pattern was disrupted on Sunday, April 25, as we found ourselves on the back side of this week's powerful storm and experienced a steady flow of cool, moist air from the northwest; scattered showers continued overnight and, by Monday morning, our temperature had fallen into the upper forties.

Anyone who expected a rapid return to typical, late April weather was in for a disappointment as a second storm pulled out of the Northern Rockies, bringing light snow to the Front Range and northern Plains. By yesterday afternoon, this system was centered over Iowa and our cool, damp weather was reinforced. Smaller than its predecessor, this storm was more tightly wound and a potent, northwest breeze continued through the day, giving us a taste of early March in late April.

This morning, the second storm has pushed to our east, the winds have subsided and only the chilly, gray skies remain; our low this morning was 42 F. By this afternoon, a southerly flow should develop, the sun will reappear and we are expected to reach the mid sixties. More seasonable weather is forecast for the rest of the week and this cold, cloudy interlude will be just a bad memory; of course, once the intense heat sets in, it will be missed.

Monday, April 26, 2010

King Al

Every movement has its hero and, as we all know, Al Gore is the champion of the global warming crowd. After losing the U.S. Presidency by a few hanging chads (if, indeed, he lost at all), Al fired up his career as the guru of global warming, produced an award winning documentary and has been travelling about the planet to promote his cause.

But, like Gandhi heading for Vegas, his life style seems to obscure the message. A bloated image of his former self, Al turns up at celebrity galas, mingling with the most extravagant consumers that human society has ever known. His own palace, while said to utilize the latest tools of green technology, hardly fits the image of a devoted conservationist and his world travels surely burn more fossil fuel than that used by most oil company executives.

This rant is not an effort to diminish Gore's message about global warming. Rather, it is inspired by the hypocrisy that often exists among the rich and famous of human society. Wealthy, pompous evangelists live in luxury, reaping donations from an impoverished congregation that is drawn to their message of faith, hope and charity. Hollywood celebrities host telethons for the victims of earthquakes or famine and then return to their opulent estates in private jets. Oil barons buy up tracts of rainforest, using the carbon credits to avoid an expensive commitment to pollution reduction technology. And King Al jets across the globe, attending parties and spreading his message of global warming.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

From Trough to Tornadoes

Until this week, severe weather season was off to a slow start across the central and eastern U.S. Relatively cool Gulf of Mexico waters and a high riding jet stream kept much of the region unusually warm and dry. What storms developed, deprived of a jet stream punch, were fairly mild and the seasonal tornado count was well behind average.

Then, early this week, a deep trough developed across the western U.S.; produced by a dip in the jet stream, cold air invaded the region, bringing mountain snows and chilly rain to the lowlands. Gaining strength as it crossed the Rockies, the storm emerged onto the High Plains, dropping hail along the Front Range and igniting tornadic thunderstorms ahead of its trailing cold front, in West Texas. While the central low has crept eastward across Colorado and Kansas, its cold front has billowed through the Southeast; fed by copious Gulf moisture and energized by the jet stream, powerful thunderstorms, producing heavy rain, frequent lightening and tornadoes, blossomed in the warm sector, just ahead of the front.

Yesterday, this squall line pushed across the lower Mississippi Valley, bringing destructive storms to Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee; this morning, with the central low spinning over northern Missouri, the potent storms have shifted into the Florida Panhandle, Georgia and South Carolina. Here in Missouri, after a two-day deluge, we are left with chilly, wrap-around showers, gray skies and the relief of having dodged a bullet.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Carbon Credit Ruse

Like any other field of human endeavor, the environmental movement has opened the door to a variety of con men and entrepreneurs, looking to make money from laws and programs designed to promote conservation. Among the more recent profiteers are the carbon credit merchants, middle men who take a cut from the transfer of pollution rights. Offering money to those who reduce carbon emissions by protecting forest, by adhering to no-till farming or by a host of other means, these agents then sell the emission rights to various industrial or transportation companies, eliminating their need to implement pollution control technologies.

In effect, this system uses carbon-reduction practices to offset the release of carbon by other segments of human society. Those who engage in this carbon-neutral system boast that they are protecting the environment though there is no net decrease in carbon production. Indeed, this system discourages a move toward technologies that reduce pollution by providing a cheaper means of compliance with federal regulations.

If the power brokers of human society truly cared about the health of our environment, they would transition to cleaner forms of energy, implement better pollution control technologies and, in addition, donate funds to conservation organizations that work to reduce the destruction of forests and grasslands. Of course, this approach would eliminate the need for carbon merchants; perhaps they could sell bicycles.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Forty Years: Mixed Results

Forty years ago today, the first Earth Day celebration highlighted the grass-roots environmental movement that had been developing among political, educational, agricultural and community groups since the early 1960s. The event is credited with having brought the tenets of environmentalism into the public consciousness, triggering a wide variety of conservation programs that continue to this day.

Yet, over these past forty years, the results have been mixed. While there has been increasing attention paid to recycling, protection of endangered species and the control of air and water pollution, enforcement has been uneven and the power brokers of industry and government have provided only token support. In many ways, the health of our natural environment has worsened: suburban sprawl, industrialized farming, deforestation, rampant consumption and an ever expanding human population have all taken a toll.

Even the annual celebration of Earth Day has become commer-cialized, providing an opportunity for retailers to cash in on what is now known as the Green Movement. While a recent commit-ment to wind energy and hybrid vehicles, triggered by the political climate and high oil prices, is reassuring, the search for fossil fuels continues to expand across the globe. American suburbanites, encouraged by regional governments, have joined the recycling bandwagon but continue to douse their yards with chemicals and try to consume their way toward happiness. Despite its many success stories, the environmental movement, more than ever, faces an uphill battle against the tide of human nature.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Warbler Trees

Warblers are small, colorful songbirds that arrive in the Midwest from late April through mid May. While some stay for the summer, many are just passing through, on their way to northern climes. Active insectivores, most warblers feed in the canopy of shade trees, flitting among the branches in pursuit of their quarry; as one might expect, they are often difficult to observe.

By late April, most of our shade trees, including oaks, maples and tulip trees, are in full leaf, further aggravating our efforts to identify these small birds. Black walnut and sycamore trees, on the other hand, are slow to leaf out and thus offer better sites for warbler watching. Fortunately, we have several of these large trees bordering our yard and I tend to focus my attention on their open branches during my evening surveys.

To date, I have only seen yellow-rumped warblers, which winter in our region. Their cousins should begin to arrive within a few days and the warbler parade will continue into mid May, an annual highlight for avid birders.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Window Boxing

Songbirds tend to be an agreeable bunch. They may squabble at the backyard feeder but, for most of the year, they live in harmony. In fact, during the colder months, mixed flocks of songbirds roam together, cooperating in their search for food.

However, when nesting season arrives, most male songbirds become territorial. Like bull elk, they charge at invading rivals, using their threatening calls and postures to keep others at bay; physical encounters are rarely necessary. This past weekend, a tufted titmouse noticed his reflection in our large picture window. Fluffing up his feathers, he developed an agitated shiver, produced a shrill, high-pitched warning call and flew toward the window, hovering just before the glass. Returning to his perch in the magnolia, he repeated this sequence numerous times before giving up and moving on.

Such displays are, of course, purely instinctual, driven by a primal urge to ensure that one's genes are passed on to future generations. Whether a titmouse or an elephant, the stronger, healthier and more persistent suitor wins the battle and, as a result, the future welfare of that species is enhanced. This is the basic principle of natural selection, the engine of evolution.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Iceland Message

Europeans are angry. The Iceland volcano has crippled air traffic, ruined vacations and threatened their economies. They want to know when it will stop belching ash. They want to know what can be done. Perhaps some sort of retaliation is in order.

Of course, this is not a forest fire that can be snuffed out with air drops and perimeter lines. This is a powerful, geologic event over which we have no control; perhaps it will stop in another week or perhaps, like Kilauea, it will erupt for decades. While we know that some volcanic events in geologic history persisted for thousands or even millions of years, we expect our modern natural disasters to be brief and relatively harmless. We choose to forget that the Toba Supervolcano nearly obliterated the human species 74,000 years ago and that Yellowstone is a time bomb that, some day, will destroy much of the North America.

While recent history is replete with earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, most have occurred in remote, under-developed regions of the globe, not directly impacting the economically powerful countries of the West. We have felt immune to such tragedies, assuming that our role is to rescue the hapless Third World victims. The Iceland volcano reminds us that we are all at risk on this evolving planet and that natural history continues to unfold.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Neal Smith NWR

Located east of Des Moines, Iowa, the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge protects 8600 acres of remnant and restored tallgrass prairie. Once the primary natural habitat across Iowa (covering 85% of the State), the rich, tallgrass prairie was maintained by high winds, wildfires, periodic drought and the movement of massive bison herds; today, almost all of this ecosystem has given way to crop production.

Home to the Prairie Learning Center, the refuge also hosts elk and bison herds and, as restoration progresses, should become home to prairie species such as upland sandpipers, prairie chickens and short-eared owls. Though still a work in progress, visitors can already experience the sights and sounds of prairie habitat and have a good chance to see common species such as northern harriers, Swainson's hawks, meadowlarks, ring-necked pheasants, killdeer, eastern kingbirds, barn swallows, field sparrows, bobolinks, eastern phoebes, brown-headed cowbirds and red-winged blackbirds; white-tailed deer are also common on the refuge.

The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is south of Highway 163, about 20 miles ESE of Des Moines. The auto tour road is open daily, from dawn to dusk, while the Visitor Center is open Monday to Saturday, 9-4 and Sunday from 12-5.

Oasis in the Corn

Hidden in the cornfields of north-central Iowa is a winding, shallow valley, its floor a chain of lakes, ponds and wetlands. While not readily visible from the surrounding landscape, this watery oasis is surely eye-catching for migrant waterfowl and, since 1937, Union Slough has been protected as a National Wildlife Refuge.

The preserve is best reached by taking Exit 119 from I-90 (at Blue Earth, MN) and heading south on US 169 for almost 35 miles; turn left (east) on A-42 and proceed another 5 miles to the refuge office. An access road is closed throughout the breeding season but the various habitats of Union Slough can be viewed from other county roads in the area (a map is available at the office).

A wide variety of waterfowl, grebes, shorebirds and American white pelicans stop here during migrations and many other species inhabit the valley. Nesting birds of note include trumpeter swans, double-crested cormorants, American and least bitterns, black-crowned night herons, hooded mergansers, Cooper's hawks, gray partridges, ring-necked pheasants, king and Virginia rails, common snipe, Wilson's phalaropes, long-eared owls, willow flycatchers, sedge wrens and savannah sparrows. A large muskrat colony occupies a marsh near the north end of the Slough.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Farmsteads of Iowa

Climbing west from the scenic valley of the Upper Mississippi River, I entered the western half of North America's Glacial Plain, which stretches from central Ohio to the eastern Dakotas and from Canada to southern Illinois. Once covered by a rich, tallgrass prairie, this province has given way to the vast American Corn Belt, broken only by wooded stream channels and pockets of human habitation.

After skimming along the southern border of Minnesota, I turned south through the heart of Iowa and soon became familiar with the typical Iowa farmstead. While each farm is likely thousands of acres in area, the farm buildings are clustered around the family residence. Old, beautiful farm houses sit amidst cattle barns, silos, pigsties and grain bins. Often within twenty feet of the house, these structures block views in all directions and one can only imagine the air quality in those homes on hot, summer afternoons; that apple pie on the window sill is but a hop, skip and a jump from a barn full of methane spewing cows.

As one who relishes open space, it is a mystery to me why these farm families crowd their homes with the structures that protect their grain, supplies and animals. They are surely fond of those possessions, which reflect the hard work of their daily lives, but, when one owns thousands of acres, would they not cherish a bit of space around their residence, even if only for a garden? Perhaps they want to maximize their corn production and reserve every possible fraction of an acre for that purpose. All of this is, of course, purely a personal observation and, admittedly, none of my business; one wonders, though, whether it is a visual depiction of the focused, provincial views of those who choose this way of life.

Necedah NWR

Located about 60 miles ENE of La Crosse, Wisconsin, the landscape of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge is the remnant of a vast, post-glacial swampland. Plowed flat by the Pleistocene ice sheets and coated with sandy deposits, this area is characterized by thin, nutrient-poor soil and abundant surface water. Efforts to drain the land for agriculture met with limited success and the old canals are now used to manage water levels within the preserve; in fact, the name of the refuge is a Native American term meaning "Land of Yellow Water," reflecting coloration from its high mineral content.

Established in 1939, this 44,000 acre refuge harbors a mosaic of sedge meadows, lakes, wetlands, bogs, grasslands and scattered parcels of forest; the latter are dominated by aspen, jack pine and Hill's oak, giving the visitor a taste of the great Northwoods. To many, Necedah is best known for its role in re-establishing an eastern flock of whooping cranes, a project that began in 2001. The refuge has also been instrumental in returning the trumpeter swan to Wisconsin and is home to other rare species such as the Karner blue butterfly and Blanding's turtle. Nesting birds of note include sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, bald eagles, ospreys, northern goshawks, common loons, least bitterns, soras, black terns, northern saw-whet owls, sedge wrens, bobolinks, golden-winged warblers and swamp sparrows.

Necedah National Wildlife Refuge is also a hunting ground for the southern-most pack of North American gray wolves and offers prime habitat for badgers, porcupines and white-tailed deer. Access to this vast preserve is via a network of sand-gravel roadways; the primary entry road, which leads to the refuge office, cuts north from State Highway 21, a few miles west of the town of Necedah.

Friday, April 16, 2010

River Road

After a night in Dubuque, I weaved northward through the Appalachia-like terrain of extreme northeastern Iowa and descended back to the Mississippi at Marquette. This town in one of many on the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge, which stretches for 260 river-miles, from "the nose" of Iowa to southeastern Minnesota (and, of course, along the corresponding borders of Illinois and Wisconsin). From Marquette, I drove north on Route 76 and then switched to X52, which passes through Harper's Ferry and continues up to Lansing, Iowa.

Both X52 and Route 26, which leads from Lansing into Minnesota and ends near La Crosse, Wisconsin, are marked as "scenic roads" in my atlas. Having taken many road trips and having found that such designations can be subjective, I was just hoping for some decent river views along the way. As it turns out, this combined route is, in my opinion, one of the most scenic drives in the United States. Views of the broad Mississippi, bounded by majestic bluffs and broken by chains of sand spits and wooded islands, were, to say the least, breathtaking. Pull-offs, more numerous and well-designed in Minnesota, provided photo opportunities and the chance to observe the bald eagles, white pelicans and numerous waterfowl that are also drawn to this spectacular landscape.

As usual, my many photos only hint of the valley's grandeur, carved by a torrent of glacial meltwater and now adorned by a rim of beautiful, productive wetlands. Throughout the length of the Upper Mississippi Refuge, 165 bald eagle nests and 15 heron-egret colonies have been located; 119 species of fish, 306 species of birds and 51 species of mammals reside within or migrate through this vital preserve. While many humans come here to hunt and fish, many more come for the inspiration that this spectacular valley offers in abundance.

Port Louisa NWR

Stretching along the Mississippi River, in southeast Iowa, the Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge protects a swath of swamp forest and floodplain wetlands, vital habitats that have long been threatened by logging, river containment and agriculture. Home to a wide variety of aquatic plants and animals, the refuge is also an important staging area for migrant waterfowl, including ducks, geese, American white pelicans, cormorants and shorebirds.

Anyone who has visited riparian wildlife preserves during early-mid spring knows that flooding may restrict access; such was the case this week, when large areas of the 6600 acre refuge were underwater. Nevertheless, my limited tours of the Big Woods and Louisa tracts turned up and excellent variety of wildlife; highlights at the swamp forest were red-headed and pileated woodpeckers, chorus frogs, double-crested cormorants and a huge number of aquatic turtles, basking in the warm, April sun. At the Louisa tract, a pair of adult bald eagles sat side by side on a not-so-stout tree branch, as love-struck as a couple of mourning doves. Yellow-rumped warblers and warbling vireos foraged near the headquarters building, where an overlook provides a broad view of the braided wetlands; a large flock of white pelicans had gathered in one arm of these shallows while pairs of Canada geese claimed nest sites along the edge of the marsh.

The access road to the Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge (marked by a sign) cuts east from Highway 61, about 2 miles north of Wapello (about a mile north of the Iowa River bridge); visitors may explore the preserve from dawn to dusk.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Up River

Facing an off week with no pressing responsibilities, I plan to take my annual trek to places unknown. No, I will not be canoeing in the Amazon backwaters or hiking through the Kalahari; rather, I will follow the Mississippi into the Upper Midwest, visiting a number of wildlife refuges along the way.

While I have a general sense of the terrain, vegetation and wildlife that I will encounter, the Mississippi Valley north of Davenport will be new to me and, as all naturalists know, unexpected sightings are always a possibility. Since I have not arranged a particular schedule(other than a deadline for returning to Columbia), I will be free to travel off the beaten path and head for interesting sites on the map.

These 3-4 day road trips have been part of my life for several decades and were initially inspired by Edwin Way Teale's books on seasonal travel. One soon learns, as he revealed, that there is an endless source of fascination close to home and that expensive journeys to National Parks or International Preserves are not necessary to satisfy our natural curiosity. So I'll head up river this week and file a few reports when I return.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Quickening

By mid April, the tide of spring accelerates across the Heartland. A higher sun, longer days and increased precipitation feed an explosion of life, led by a greening of the landscape and the rebirth of insects. Dogwoods and redbuds paint the woodlands, fruit trees bloom and leaves unfurl across the canopy.

As the risk of cold weather fades to the north, reptiles and amphibians emerge from their winter retreats and the birds of summer arrive from the south. Young cottontails explore our lawns, nests appear in our shade trees and squadrons of chimney swifts strafe our evening skies. A chorus of birdsong, building since late February, fills the morning air, dominated by the homesick tune of white-throated sparrows, soon to leave for Canada.

We humans are also caught in this wave of spring. Stirred from our winter malaise, we open the windows, molt to our work clothes and rejoin the natural world. Children of the tropics, we bid farewell to indoor life and prepare for our season in the sun.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Nature of Americans

We Americans live in the most affluent and powerful country on Earth and, as a result, enjoy unparalleled freedom and opportunity; yet, our education and health care systems are inferior to many other countries, reflecting the priorities of our society. While we are optimistic, productive and generous, we are also self-absorbed, eager to exert our influence and sensitive about our image across the globe.

Long a melting pot for human cultures, various ethnic groups live in relative harmony throughout the United States; nevertheless, there is an undercurrent of racism here, invading our political and cultural systems and crippling the full expression of human potential. While America has the best National Park system on Earth and sponsors conservation programs across the globe, we are the king of consumerism and waste more natural and man-made resources than many other countries consume. We are also a religious country, a reflection of both our optimism and the scientific naivety of our populace; yet, one need only visit the websites of our major media corporations to find that Americans are enamored with celebrity, entertained by suffering and obsessed with the sexual behavior of human society.

The exceptional freedom in America unveils the natural traits of humans as a whole. While the trappings of industry and technology give us an unnatural life style, our natural behaviors are less regulated and, despite our complex society, Americans reflect the human condition, with all of its beauty and ugliness.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Before the Wave

Early spring can be a pleasant time of year. Periods of mild weather are expanding, balmy evenings become routine, color returns to the landscape and the fragrance of moist soil pervades our neighborhoods. But something is missing; though toads are trilling and garter snakes begin to venture from their dens, the suburban wildlife has changed little since the dead of winter.

While tree swallows, eastern phoebes and migrant waterfowl returned to our wetlands in March, the residential bird life is still comprised of winter and permanent residents; birdsong has been swelling since February but the songsters remain unchanged. We still await the tide of summer residents and migrant songbirds, an annual highlight for birders and naturalists alike.

By mid April, the wave should reach mid Missouri, led by chimney swifts, northern orioles, red-breasted grosbeaks, brown thrashers, gray catbirds and house wrens. Late April will bring flycatchers, indigo buntings, ruby-throated hummingbirds, chipping sparrows and migrant warblers; this wave will push into May, with more warblers, common nighthawks, tanagers and thrushes gracing the scene. We can then settle in for the summer, surrounded by our fair-weather neighbors and the beauty that they bring.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sex & the Seasons

The most primitive life forms on our planet, such as bacteria and yeast, reproduce by simple cell division or by budding. More complex, multicellular organisms have developed specialized organs which release male and female gametes; these cells, each containing a single copy of the parent's genome, combine through the process of fertilization to produce a new individual. This process, known as sexual reproduction, has been occurring for more than a billion years and has played a crucial role in the evolution of life on Earth.

Most marine and freshwater animals release their gametes (sperm and eggs) directly into the water, where fertilization occurs and the developing embryos are at the mercy of the elements (including natural predators). Most terrestrial plants, on the other hand, retain the female gamete on the parent plant (within the flower or cone) while the male gamete (pollen) is spread by wind, rain or wildlife (insects, birds, bats). Higher life forms, including reptiles, birds and mammals, transfer the male gamete (sperm) via mating and the embryo develops within the female's uterus or within eggs protected by shells.

In most life forms, sexual reproduction is timed to offer the best chance of survival for the developing offspring (and/or for the mother that will nurse it). Spring, providing milder conditions and plentiful food, is thus a common season for births and hatchings and, depending upon the gestation period, fertilization is timed accordingly. Humans, governed by a complex neuro-chemical system and capable of adaptation, are not as tied to the seasons; while the human sex drive may wax and wane, it is present throughout the year. Many industries have taken advantage of this fact while others, including puritanical religions, have attempted to deny its persistence and have suffered the consequences.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

One Lucky Toad

Here in Columbia, free mulch, produced from collected plant debris, is offered to the public; on Saturdays, from April through September, it is loaded into lines of waiting pickup trucks. I obtained my first load of the season yesterday afternoon and spent two hours spreading it about our shrub lines and flower beds.

Nearing the end of my labors, I used a shovel to remove the last remnants of the mulch and, in one of these pockets, I found an American toad, alive and well. On the rainy night preceding my project, he was likely carousing with comrades at a temporary pool and had snuggled into the mulch as dawn approached. Before I found him, he had survived the invasion of a front loader, a free-fall into the pickup and two hours of my unloading efforts (which included endless pitchfork jabs, shoveling and tramping about the truck bed in heavy work boots).

Needless to say, the toad was lucky to survive and he was released beneath a group of shrubs in our backyard. Of course, we are also lucky; with our free mulch, we received a calm and quiet neighbor who specializes in natural insect control.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The April Inquisitor

Walking to work this morning, I was both startled and thrilled by the distinctive call of a barred owl; his bulky silhouette, backed by the predawn glow, occupied a large, barren oak along our road and he called a few more times before flying off toward our local woodland.

Commonly interpreted as "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?," the call of the barred owl is especially common during the month of April, when their breeding season peaks. Smaller than the great horned owl, these nocturnal hunters favor wooded bottomlands and swamps but often visit nearby residential areas; mice, voles and cottontails are their most common prey.

Unlike the majority of their cousins, barred owls are often heard during the day, especially in early spring. Having survived a long, cold winter, we are pleased to hear their questioning call, another sign that the season of renewal has taken hold.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Short Summer

A few days of summer-like conditions have advanced our sputtering spring. The lawns are green, bulb plants are brightening the fence lines and the brilliant forsythias are in bloom; red maples, magnolias and hawthorns are also in flower and the redbuds are about to pop. Record highs have been set across the Midwest and a persistent south wind has kept overnight lows near 60F; despite its delayed onset, spring has taken a giant leap forward and, last evening, American toads were trilling ahead of schedule.

But our brief fling with summer will soon come to an abrupt end as a potent cold front sweeps in from the west. Clouds have increased through the morning and, during this noon hour, a dark wall stretches across the western horizon. This squall line should reach Columbia by 6PM, accompanied by heavy rain and strong thunderstorms. While the stormy weather is forecast to be short lived, chilly air will stream in behind the front and we'll drop back to more seasonal conditions for the next few days.

This spring rollercoaster will continue through April and, as daytime heating and humidity intensify, the storm fronts will become more potent. Indeed, across the American Heartland, April showers often arrive in the form of tornadic thunderstorms.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Lose some Lawn

Before you are obliged to fire up the lawnmower this spring, consider renting a tiller to expand natural borders. Broader woodlots, shrub zones and flower beds, planted with native species and loosely maintained to permit pockets of native "weeds," such as thistle, honeysuckle and pokeweed, will reduce your work load and bring more wildlife into your yard. In a secluded corner, start a brush pile, a magnet for many insects, birds, reptiles and small mammals.

The suburban lawn is not a natural habitat and, while providing a convenient source of worms and grubs for robins, grackles and starlings, it is of no benefit to most wildlife species; unless you allow dandelions, clover and plantain to thrive on your cherished carpet, even cottontails will show little interest. Worse yet, most homeowners maintain their lawns with a toxic mix of chemicals, from fertilizers to herbicides, hardly a nature-friendly environment.

Unlike the high-maintenance lawn, natural borders bring a wide variety of plant and animal life to your plot of earth, providing beauty, entertainment and a chance to learn more about your local ecosystem. And, for parents, what better place to introduce children to their wild neighbors?