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Showing posts from June, 2010

A Gift from Canada

After weeks of hot, humid weather, a Canadian cold front pushed through Missouri on Sunday evening and has left cooler and much drier air in its wake. Gone are the hazy skies and billowing clouds, replaced by high, wispy cirrus strands against a bright blue background. There's nothing like a taste of early autumn after an intense and prolonged heat wave.

The front that brought this Canadian gift has now flattened out and pushed southward, stretching from northern Texas to the Carolinas. While those of us to its north are enjoying a welcome respite from tropical conditions, the Gulf Coast States remain mired in an atmospheric soup of heat and moisture. Adding fuel to the fire, Tropical Storm (soon to become Hurricane) Alex is sweeping in heavy bands of precipitation, reinforcing the thick, humid air. Storms will continue to erupt along the stationary front, as this moist, southerly flow is forced to rise above the cooler, more dense air to its north.

This scenario is forecast to pers…

The Sound of Heat

Two days ago, while sitting on our back deck, I heard the first tentative sounds of summer heat. As the evening light waned, I had set down my book and was watching a swarm of dragonflies, darting above the trees. It was then that I heard the familiar buzz of cicadas, rising from the woodlot behind our home.

Likely ahead of schedule due to our exceptionally hot weather, annual cicadas generally call from July through early September. Unlike their periodic cousins, which emerge in massive numbers every 13 or 17 years (depending on the species), these "Dog Day Cicadas" crawl from the soil through the summer, usually peaking in August. It is then that their rising buzz, most prominent in the evenings, is synonymous with heat, reminding Midwesterners of our carefree, childhood summers.

Once they emerge, the adult cicadas are focused solely on producing their next generation. The noisy males attract females, mating occurs and the females lay their eggs on the tender, newly formed v…

Gulf Coast Mysticism

Faced with an ongoing ecological disaster and the onset of hurricane season, the Gulf Coast governors have declared that this will be a Day of Prayer in their States. All Conservative Republicans, they have little concern for separation of Church and State; after all, they know their constituents and hope to be re-elected.

They may also remember that, in response to a severe drought, the Governor of Georgia successfully conducted a prayer service at the State Capitol a few years ago. And it apparently worked; within a year, widespread flooding had eliminated the drought. Perhaps California could conduct annual services to ward off the threat of earthquakes or Oklahoma could ask God to shift Tornado Alley to the east. New England might end Nor'easters with more attention to prayer and Colorado could ensure plenty of snow for its ski resorts.

Let's hope the Day of Prayer works. God could easily place his thumb over the spewing oil well and blow the hurricanes off to the south (whe…

Humans, Aging & History

Children and young adults live in the present and focus on the future, setting goals and imagining the life events that lie ahead. For them, the study of history is merely an academic requirement, a boring topic with no relevance to their personal lives.

As we age, humans gradually shift our focus from the future to the past, dwelling on the events of our own life and on how our experiences and accomplishments fit into the more general history of mankind. We begin to judge ourselves in relation to our peers, our ancestors and the broader achievements of human civilization. This expanding interest in history is partly, if not primarily, a reflection of the realization that we will soon be relegated to its pages, no longer a player on the stage of life.

In like manner, our interest in natural history tends to grow as we age. While children might be enamored with dinosaurs and Ice Age mammals, they lack the perspective of older humans. They have yet to ponder man's place in the s…

The Nature of Memory

We humans are biological organisms, the products of DNA and experience, often modified by injury or disease. All of our experience, from fetal life to the moment of our death, is recorded in our brain as memory, much of which will never be consciously retrieved but all of which influences our personality and behavior. Our ability to learn is totally dependent upon memory, reflecting our capacity to recall the significance of data that arrives through our senses.

Memories are reinforced when retrieved, producing high speed circuits that facilitate our ability to think and communicate effectively. Less utilized memory is less precise and, as crime witness studies have shown, even recent memory can be inaccurate. On the other hand, distant memories that are infused with emotional significance are retrieved repeatedly and, over the years, retain their clarity. As we age, these older, reinforced memories remain accessible while our capacity to recall recent events diminishes; of course, phy…

Amateur Acrobats

There are few wild creatures as agile as North American tree squirrels. Though often despised for raiding bird feeders and camping out in attics, these mammals provide plenty of entertainment for wildlife watchers and their antics are especially thrilling in May and June, when independent juveniles arrive on the scene.

Lanky and energetic, these young squirrels have not yet mastered their climbing and jumping skills and are often too confident for their own good. Like overzealous puppies, their brains race ahead of their limbs and tumbles are frequent; fortunately, few of the mishaps result in injury. Over the past several weeks, I have seen these daredevils fall from power lines, bounce off a chicken coop, slide from the edge of our roof and plunge into shrubbery after misjudging a leap. Yesterday, one fellow became trapped atop a "squirrel-proof" feeder, not sure how to escape; eventually, he dove for the nearest tree and managed to grab a wispy branch.

Almost all mammals le…

Oak Lawns

Here in Columbia, many vacant lots and untended lawns are covered with small oak trees this summer, a reflection of last autumn's mast and the heavy precipitation of spring. As I reported in the fall, acorns coated lawns, sidewalks and roadways across our region, too numerous for the squirrels, jays and small mammals to consume. Now, after sinking into the soft, moist soil, they have sprouted to produce miniature forests, a prime example of nature's capacity to sustain her ecosystems.

In natural, temperate areas, there is an ongoing battle between woodlands and grasslands. The latter expand during periods of drought, or when trees are ravaged by disease, insects or wildfire, while the forests expand when moisture is abundant. Squirrels and other scavengers aid the expansion of woodlands by burying their seed-laden fruit but, as this year demonstrates, the intermittent mast seasons also play a significant role.

Humans have long taken a toll on both ecosystems, plowing up prai…

The Endangered Father

It is reasonable to assume that early humans, like their primate ancestors, were polygamous and that their offspring, once sexually mature, left the clan for good. As human civilization developed, there has been a steady progression toward the family unit, headed by a father and a mother, the members of which retain lifelong relationships. Most sociologists would likely agree that this cultural shift has helped to stabilize human society, even as natural tendencies and the complex nature of modern life have threatened to tear it apart.

The role of fathers, however, has been diminished in recent decades as the incidence of fatherless families has risen. Three sociological factors are primarily responsible for this trend: the unfortunate acceptance of paternal irresponsibility in some ethnic groups, the high rate of divorce (which usually transfers parenting duties to the mother) and the increasing use of artificial insemination by unmarried, middle aged, upscale women. Despite the fact …

An Island of Birds

Hiking along the South Platte on this bright, June morning, my attention was drawn to a large clump of dead and dying cottonwoods, rising above a clearing on the river's floodplain. This island of trees was alive with birds and, over the next twenty minutes or so, I saw nearly every songbird that summers in the South Platte Valley.

Western kingbirds, mourning doves, belted kingfishers, broad-tailed hummingbirds, grackles, brown-headed cowbirds and various swallows stopped to perch on the dead limbs. A western wood pewee was flycatching from one of the snags while northern orioles, yellow warblers, chickadees and house finches scoured the living branches. Northern flickers were nesting in one of the dead trunks and their abandoned cavities were now rented by house wrens and tree swallows. Finally, a gray catbird called from dense thickets that enveloped the base of the island.

Of course, all of these songbirds are common throughout the Valley in June but the isolation of this clump, …

A Morning at Mt. Falcon

Mt. Falcon Park, in Jefferson County, is one of the best sites close to Denver to study the flora and fauna of the Montane Zone. Cloaking the foothills, from 6000 to 9000 feet, this belt is characterized by open ponderosa pine woodlands and meadows in sunny areas and dense forests of Douglas fir on shaded, north-facing slopes. Also called the Transition Zone, it stretches from the lower and drier foothill shrublands to the higher and wetter Subalpine Forest.

Presented with another mild, sunny morning along the Front Range, I decided to head up to Mt. Falcon Park, which sprawls atop a rolling, foothill plateau; bounded by Bear Creek Canyon to the north and Turkey Creek Canyon to its south, elevations atop the plateau average about 7800 feet. When I arrived, the weather, like that on the Piedmont, was sunny and mild but strong, westerly winds threatened my chance to see many birds. Having learned from past experience, I hiked to the leeward side of the Park to escape the wind and found, …

Pinon Pines

Pinon pines do well in the dry, sunny climate of the Front Range and we have ten or so on our Littleton farm. Though some natural stands can be found as far north as Ft. Collins, these small, drought tolerant pines are best found on foothill shrublands south of the Palmer Divide, on lower slopes of the San Luis Valley and across the lower foothills and mesa walls of the Colorado Plateau. Favoring sun-exposed areas between elevations of 5000 and 8000 feet, pinon pines form open woodlands with a variety of western junipers; drought tolerant shrubs, such as mountain mahogany, greasewood, bitterbrush and serviceberry, also characterize this life zone, which receives 10-20 inches of annual precipitation (most in the form of snow melt).

Easily recognized by their small, rounded shape (usually under 30 feet in height) and short needles in bundles of two, pinon pines bear female and male cones on the same tree. A deep tap root enables these trees to thrive in their semiarid environment and pot…

The Benefits of Neglect

Our Littleton, Colorado, farm, one of the few remaining in this part of Metro Denver, is an oasis for local wildlife. In the course of a year, we host fox, an occasional coyote, meadow voles, fox squirrels, owls, hawks and a wide variety of songbirds. But it is in one corner of the property that the diversity of flora and fauna is especially rich.

Set aside as an area for our brush pile and compost bin, it has been relatively undisturbed since we purchased the farm in 1990 (though, for a number of years, it was the site of my son's fort). Now covered by a mix of saplings, chokecherries, thistle and wild herbs, this neglected patch of nature is always a good spot for wildlife watching. Garter snakes, house wrens, lesser goldfinches, flycatchers and an interesting mix of insects (especially dragonflies, butterflies and beetles) are among the highlights during the warmer months. A forest of poison hemlock has gradually spread through part of this miniature refuge; a member of the pars…

Man and the Horse

A neighbor is grazing two of his horses on our Colorado farm and I was glad to see them when I arrived. Our arrangement is mutually beneficial; he gets free food for the horses and we get both natural pasture control and the serenity that their presence provides. There are dog people and there are cat people but almost everyone likes horses.

Though the horse evolved in North America, spreading into Eurasia via the Bering Land Bridge, the last of the New World natives were dying off when humans first arrived, some 15-20,000 years ago. Horses were domesticated in Asia at least 6,000 years ago and, needless to say, have played a major role in the course of human civilization; early travel, cultivation, ranching and warfare all relied on the speed and strength of these marvelous creatures. Spanish explorers reintroduced the horse to the Americas and, centuries later, we continue to reap the rewards of their gift.

Though modern technology has eliminated much of their previous utility, …

Window on the Amazon

Out my window, the greenery is lush. Wild vines snake through the dripping vegetation and colorful flowers rise within pools of standing water. Hummingbirds and dragonflies zip among the trees, noisy songbirds flash through the thickets and squadrons of swifts cut through the sultry air. In the darkness of noon, lightening flashes, thunder rumbles and a curtain of torrential rain moves in from the southwest.

It could be the Amazon but, of course, this is mid Missouri and the water-logged scene is my own backyard. After three days of hot, humid weather and heavy rain, it certainly feels like the tropics. Though slightly cooler this morning (an outflow gift from thunderstorms to our north), the hazy sunshine should give way to more rain by this afternoon and periods of severe weather are forecast over the next 24 hours.

As one who craves dry, cool air, this Amazon scenario is interesting but not very appealing. Fortunately, I will be heading west to higher, drier and cooler terrain …

Morning Soup

After yesterday's torrential rain and a southerly breeze overnight, it was warm and muggy as I left for work. Birdsong was subdued in the predawn haze but toads trilled from a neighborhood pond; unfortunately, one reveller did not make it to the party, now smashed on the roadway and covered with flies.

Little moved in the morning steam bath. A few cottontails lounged in dewy clover and a group of mourning doves sipped from a roadside gutter, barely noticing as I trudged past, knifing my way through the thick, humid air. Only the chimney swifts, feasting on clouds of insects, seemed oblivious to the morning soup.

My half-mile walk seemed much longer than usual and it took some time to dry out in my air conditioned office. The summer solstice may still be nine days away but, when it's a humid 75 degrees F at 6 AM, the season of heat has indeed arrived.

Showing off the Kids

Like a scene from a city park, parents escorted their youngsters through our yard last evening. Some dutifully followed their parents, a few wandered off to explore their surroundings and others sat patiently, waiting for mom and dad to bring them treats. These visitors were, of course, the new songbird families of our neighborhood.

In some cases, the offspring closely resembled their parents. A pair of juvenile blue jays, lanky and less obnoxious than their providers, were already cloaked in the attractive plumage of adults. A pair of young mourning doves, smaller replicas of mom and dad, were just as mellow as their parents, sitting obediantly on a limb while dinner was collected. A lone cardinal youngster, constantly wandering off to pick through the grass, appeared to have no relation to his parents; nevertheless, the beautiful parents repeatedly showed up to feed their grayish child, proud of him despite his rather drab appearance. Finally, a striking pair of brown thrashers…

Watersheds & Divides

The surface of Earth's land masses are a mosaic of watersheds, each representing the area drained by a given river and its many tributaries. Our planet's largest rivers, such as the Nile, the Amazon and the Mississippi, have massive watersheds but each is composed of smaller watersheds, drained by the feeder streams. The Mississippi watershed, for instance, encompasses those of the Red, the Arkansas, the Ohio, the Missouri, the Illinois and the Minnesota Rivers, to name but a few. In turn, the watersheds of these tributaries have numerous component watersheds; the Missouri watershed, for example, includes those of the Osage, Kansas, Sioux and Yellowstone Rivers, among many others. Indeed, even the smallest streams and creeks have watersheds; our home in Columbia lies within the Flat Branch watershed, which feeds Hinkson Creek, which is a tributary of Perche Creek, which enters the Missouri southwest of town.

Divides are the lines of high ground that separate watersheds. While t…

Carter Caves

Mention Kentucky caves and most people will think of Mammoth Cave, the largest known network of caves on the planet. But, like its neighbors, Tennessee and Missouri, this State has a wealth of soluble bedrock (limestone, dolomite) and is rich in karst topography (including caves, springs, sinkholes and natural bridges). Carter County, covering a portion of the Appalachian Plateau in northeast Kentucky, harbors over 200 caves, twenty of which are protected within Carter Caves State Resort Park.

Located in the Tygart Creek Valley, just north of I-64 (exit 161), the Park was established in 1946 and offers three cave tours; among these is a 1.25 hour tour of Cascade Cave, the County's largest, which houses a 30 foot underground waterfall. Qualified spelunkers may register to explore some of the other caves and topside explorers can hike more than six miles of nature trails, which pass natural bridges, recessed caves and spectacular bluffs; the surface highlight is Smokey Bridge, west o…

Early June

Call it late spring or early summer, the first half of June has its unique sights and sounds. Approaching the longest days of the year, heat is building but has yet to take a toll on the rich greenery of the Midwest; indeed, much to the delight of lawn companies, grass is growing at a fevered pace. Since the jet stream has not yet settled across Canada, waves of milder air fend off the oppressive heat of mid summer and thunderstorm season peaks in the Heartland.

Mornings still provide a varied chorus of birdsong, punctuated by the lively chatter of house wrens and the ringing "wheeps" of great crested flycatchers. Down at our local wetland preserve, yellow-billed cuckoos have returned from their winter in South America, just in time to feast on the first crop of caterpillars, and armies of toadlets are leaving the seasonal ponds to begin their lives on terra firma. Amidst the wet prairie, pockets of summer wildflowers, including Indian blanket, purple coneflowers and black-ey…

Yuccas

Yuccas have been blooming in Columbia over the past week; most are Adam's Needles, natives of the Coastal Plain from New Jersey to Alabama. Like all yuccas, they are characterized by a rosette of tough, evergreen, pointed leaves and a fast growing flower stalk that yields large, bell-shaped blossoms; most species produce white or cream-colored flowers though some are fringed with purple, green or reddish hues. Some yuccas, like Adam's Needle and the "bear grass" yucca of the Great Plains, do not form basal stems while others, like the Joshua Tree of the Southwest, have prominent, branching trunks.

Contrary to popular perception, yuccas are not cacti; rather, they are members of the agave family and are closely related to lilies. All are native to the Americas and at least 60 species are found in dry or sandy habitats of the U.S. and Mexico; some species, including Adam's Needle and the Spanish Bayonet, are widely planted as ornamentals and, if placed in well-drai…

A Loss of Trust

The stability of human society rests on a foundation of trust. History has taught us that this trust is fragile and recent events have reinforced that lesson. The environmental tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico and the ongoing global financial crisis demonstrate that the power brokers of society, fueled by greed, have little interest in the welfare of the common man.

Conservative Republicans, while keen to regulate our personal lives, have long been opposed to government regulation of industry and commerce, arguing that such laws stifle entrepreneurship and economic growth. They claim that market forces will weed out the corrupt and the incompetent, ensuring a vibrant economy that will boost profits and create jobs. In light of recent events, that argument seems especially hollow.

Our trust in powerful corporations and in the government that is expected to regulate their activity is wearing thin. Close ties between the captains of industry, their lobbyists and government officials unde…

Daylilies

It appears to be a good year for daylilies in Missouri, with numerous flower buds developing on the prominent scapes (stems). Though the many cultivars flower from March through September across the U.S., the most common daylily species peak in June at our latitude.

Native to Eurasia, daylilies are hardy perennials, named for the fact that each flower blooms for just a day before withering; nevertheless, with numerous flowers on each scape and multiple stems in each clump, these showy, low-maintenance plants are prized components of most suburban landscapes. Not a true lily, the daylily flower is nonfragrant though, among more than 60,000 worldwide cultivars, there are a few exceptions. All parts of the daylily are edible and, in some areas of the eastern Asia, these plants are cultivated for that reason.

In North America, the naturalized daylily, having arisen from escaped hybrids, does not produce fertile seed; rather, it spreads by its tuberous root system and may be difficult to con…

Parents & Health Care

Amidst the ongoing debate about health care reform and rising health care costs, most of the discussion is focused on physicians, insurance companies and hospital administrators. Yet, when compared with parents, these individuals have little influence on the health of our society as a whole.

Parents have the opportunity (and the responsibility) to instill good health habits in their children; unfortunately, many fail to do so. Obese parents beget obese children. Parents who smoke, drink excessively or forgo the use of seat belts encourage the same behavior in their children. On the other hand, parents who provide wholesome, well-balanced meals, engage in regular physical activity and enforce boundaries when it comes to risky behavior, promote the development of healthy lifestyles in their children.

Parents also mold behavior when it comes to the utilization of health care products and services. When they rush their children to the physician for every minor illness or injury, their offsp…

A Month for the Young

June is surely the favorite month for most of America's youth; from primary schools to universities, classes have ended and these young, adventurous souls are looking forward to a long summer, free from the many demands of education. Even during my high school and college years, when I spent by summers as a lifeguard at area pools, I recall the exhilaration of those first days of June. Now that I am tied to a nonseasonal lifestyle and have become less tolerant of summer heat, the month has lost much of its charm.

Humans are, of course, not the only species that have a special fondness for this first calendar month of summer; the young of many wild creatures are making their first venture into the exciting world of nature. The first round of songbird fledglings have left the nest, following their parents throughout the woodlands and demanding constant attention. Young cottontails, now independent, scamper across the fields and brushlands, oblivious to the many dangers that will ensu…