Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Red Sky in Morning

Looking from my office window at dawn, the western sky has a reddish glow. The billowing clouds of an approaching cold front have caught the first rays of the sun and warn of a change in the weather. After the first significant respite of relatively cool, dry air, humidity has returned to the Heartland and the advancing front will bring showers and thunderstorms over the next two days before Canadian air reinvades from the northwest.

This cold front, while still creeping across the Northern Plains, represents the hope of the Eastern Seaboard. Indeed, it is this front, attached to a potent low at it northern end, that will hopefully steer Hurricane Earl away from the Coast. Now chugging WNW from the Caribbean, this major storm will not make a turn to the northeast until it interacts with this front. If the progress of the cold front slows down or stalls out, Earl, currently a category 4 hurricane, could produce major damage from the Outer Banks to Cape Cod.

As the sailor's poem advises, this red sky in morning is a warning for us in the Midwest. But, for those along the East Coast, it is sign of hope that can't get there fast enough.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sugar Creek Conservation Area

A few miles south of Kirksville, Missouri, Sugar Creek has carved a network of ridges and valleys from the surrounding Glaciated Plain. The latter, which covers most of the Upper Midwest, was plowed flat by the Pleistocene Ice sheets, then gave rise to a vast, tallgrass prairie and is now a landscape of cropfields, ranchlands and pockets of human habitation; natural woodlands are limited primarily to stream channels, lake basins and other topographic depressions.

Hiking in the Sugar Creek Conservation Area this morning, we experienced the feel of forested uplands, as if a pocket of Appalachia had risen amidst the farmlands of northern Missouri. In fact, we were walking through a wooded gorge, excavated by Sugar Creek and its tributaries; the ridgetops, though forested, were even with the surrounding plains. Such heavily dissected terrain is difficult to access for logging purposes and, though evidence of past harvesting is evident, a State Forest now cloaks most of the preserve. Accessed by several trail loops, the refuge is a popular destination for horseback riding.

Recent fall-like weather encouraged our visit but, alas, summer has returned. Though the creeks were nearly dry, the warm, humid weather brought out plenty of annoying insects; more disturbing were the spider webs that regularly stretched across the trail, slowing our progress, if we saw them, or clinging to our faces and clothes, when we did not. But the skies were clear, late summer wildflowers adorned the clearings and a host of woodland birds provided a welcoming chorus. As occurs on all excursions through nature, one must accept the good with the bad; she makes no special arrangements for human visitors.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Natural Mistake

We have a large number of New Mexico locusts on our farm in Littleton, Colorado. These small trees are adorned with fragrant, purple flowers in late spring but, unfortunately, are also festooned with numerous thorns along their branches. Convinced that one of the locusts would look great on our front lawn in Columbia, Missouri, we transplanted a young tree two years ago.

I knew that locusts, like most legumes, spread by suckering but, in the semiarid climate of the Front Range, this has not been a problem, just a matter of pruning out unwanted trees every year or so. However, in the wet, humid climate of Missouri, the locust has already outgrown its Colorado relatives. The numerous flowers have been rewarding but the tree was crowding a nearby maple and its sucker plants dotted much of the yard. Convinced that we had made a mistake, my wife and I removed the parent tree this morning and I hauled its remnants to the city mulch pile; time will tell if the sucker trees keep appearing.

While ornamental, non-native plants adorn suburban yards throughout the country, there is no guarantee that they will thrive away from their natural homeland. On the other hand, as occurred with our locust, there is the risk that they will quickly dominate the scene, crowding out native vegetation. Just another reminder that we should not mess with Mother Nature.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Morning Chill

For the first time since May, there is a chill in the air this morning. The longer nights are beginning to take a toll and a potent cold front has brought dry, cool, Canadian air to the Heartland. After an especially hot and muggy summer, it is a welcome change indeed.

On my predawn walk to work, this taste of autumn had obvious effects. Birdsong is picking up once again and the suburban wildlife is more active and conspicuous. Humans are also responding to the reprieve; more joggers and walkers are pounding the pavement and sweatshirts made their first appearance of the season. My own pace was noticeably quicker and, for the first time in months, I arrived at work without that damp feel of a workout.

No doubt, the heat will return but one can sense that our oppressive, Midwestern summer has lost its grip. Ahead are the glorious days of fall with their many gifts for the naturalist. The days may be shorter but they are certainly more inviting; I may even take up yard work once again.

Monday, August 23, 2010

An Evening at Eagle Bluffs

Since my wife was hosting her book club friends last evening, I had two choices: either stick around to serve the wine and cheese or find someplace to go. I elected to head for the Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain, and, in the words of Robert Frost, it made all the difference.

Bright sunshine and a flooded landscape greeted me as I entered this fabulous wetland preserve. As is typical for late summer, great blue herons and egrets were everywhere, stalking the pools and flooded fields. The reasons were clearly evident when I got out of the car; massive schools of fish thrashed about in the shrinking ponds and legions of frogs dove for cover as I walked the shorelines. Joining these abundant waders were a large number of green-backed herons and a handful of black-crowned night herons. Canada geese and mallards gathered along the banks, killdeer noisily patrolled the mudflats and squadrons of blue-winged teal wheeled about the refuge. Other common residents included red-winged blackbirds, tree and barn swallows, yellow warblers, American goldfinches and song sparrows.

As the sun set and a full moon rose, more egrets arrived to roost at the refuge, white-tailed deer splashed across the soggy fields and a great horned owl cruised overhead before settling in a large cottonwood. The night shift was about to take charge at Eagle Bluffs and I headed for home.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Nature of Good & Evil

The behavior of most animals is governed purely by instinct and their actions cannot be judged as good or evil. We humans, on the other hand, have the intellectual ability to plan and control our actions and are thus fully capable of demonstrating good or evil intentions. Religious persons, convinced that our goodness is instilled by God and that Satan is the source of all evil, take a simplistic view of this matter; some of us hope to achieve a deeper understanding of human behavior.

It seems to me that the ability to project goodness and kindness is directly linked to our capacity for empathy. We recognize the signs of pain, helplessness or loneliness in others and are able to understand the physical, mental and emotional turmoil that such conditions impose. Empathy is both innate and learned, shaped by the degree of nurturing that we receive during our early, dependent years. If appropriately equipped with this sensitivity, we are inclined to act, offering assistance or emotional support to those in need.

While empathy promotes goodness, selfishness, often combined with a limited capacity for empathy, is at the heart of evil behavior. Those who exhibit cruelty are generally self-centered individuals, most concerned with their own welfare; their excessive self-indulgence promotes self-righteousness and a willingness to ignore the views, feelings and rights of others. In extreme cases, where a psychiatric condition or personality disorder destroys the capacity for empathy, evil behavior may progress to verbal or physical attacks.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Pakistan's Catastrophic Flooding

For the past 50 million years, the Indian subcontinent, which includes the territory of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, has been colliding with the Eurasian Plate; this collision has crumpled up the Himalayas, the youngest and highest mountain range on our planet. Contiguous with the mountains of Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan, this topographic wall curves across the northern edge of the subcontinent, trapping the lowlands between the mountains and the sea. Snowmelt and rainfall in the mountain ranges is drained by three major river systems: the Indus of Pakistan and the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers of India and Bangladesh.

In June, as heat builds over the lower terrain, air rises from the land and low pressure forms; this creates an onshore flow of moist air, known as the seasonal monsoon, which usually lasts into October. During most years, intermittent heavy rains inundate the coastal areas as warm, humid air from the Indian Ocean is swept northward across the subcontinent. Occasionally, tropical storms and typhoons exacerbate the rainfall and abundant moisture may be pushed farther to the north where the mountains force the air to rise, triggering periods of torrential rain.

This year, extremely heavy precipitation in the mountains of Pakistan and the western Himalayas has produced catastrophic flooding along the Indus River system, which runs the length of Pakistan, from the Kashmir region to the Arabian Sea. While much of the southeastern border of the country lies within the Great Indian Desert, the Indus Valley has become a heavily populated swath of irrigated croplands. As we have seen, the extensive flooding has displaced millions of people, inundated most of the cropland and, to date, taken more than 1500 lives. Recovery from this devastation, which may continue until November, will take many years; your support, via International Relief Organizations, is strongly encouraged.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Root of Intolerance

The recent political firestorm and public turmoil related to building a mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero is just the latest manifestation of religion-based discrimination. But, while religious and political leaders are encouraging tolerance, it is the nature of religion, itself, that ignites and fuels this division in human society.

Religions evolved as a consequence of our natural fear and were molded by our tribal instincts. Ingrained in youth and spread by the zealotry and, in many cases, the violence of its missionaries, religion thrives on intolerance. Since its very existence depends upon the acceptance of specific beliefs and rituals, all non-believers are identified as threats to its survival. All religions have produced terrorists and, one might argue, their is a subtle terrorism at the heart of many religions; fear and guilt sustain them.

While religious leaders might openly call for tolerance, the message to their devoted followers is quite the opposite. Theirs is the one true religion and all others are false or frankly demonic. Of course, they save their most vicious attacks for those who most strongly oppose the blight of religious indoctrination and discrimination: atheists.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Latham Wetlands

At 8:30 this morning, I was sitting in my pickup on a graveled road in Weld County, Colorado. To the west, Long's Peak rose into a flat shelf of clouds and, to its north, dappled sunlight ignited the snowfields of the Mummy Range. What was I doing in this remote location at such an hour? One might imagine that dementia has set in, now that I've turned sixty.

The answer to that question was out the side window of my pickup, where a fascinating variety of water birds had gathered to rest and feed on a broad, shallow pool. A large flock of Franklin's gulls, noisy and skittish, dominated the scene, joined by roving bands of American avocets, great egrets, swirling Wilson's phalaropes, a trio of white-faced ibis, a squadron of mallards and an assorted mix of shorebirds. Western kingbirds hunted from the wire fence, American kestrels patrolled the area from powerlines and a Swainson's hawk circled overhead, spooking the nervous gulls. Further down the road, great blue herons, snowy egrets, spotted sandpipers, killdeer and a few more ibis fed along a stream while graceful barn swallows strafed the boggy grassland. By mid morning, a flock of white pelicans circled into the clearing sky, catching a cool, northwest breeze that hinted of the coming fall.

This idyllic site, one of my favorite birding spots in Colorado, is on County Road 48, just south of Latham Reservoir and about six miles southeast of Greeley. The reservoir itself attracts western grebes, white pelicans and a host of migrant waterfowl but is too distant from the roadways to provide close observation. However, the marshy grasslands, seasonal pools and feeder streams to its south offer a true birding spectacle in late August and September; in addition to the birds mentioned above, long-billed curlews, cattle egrets and marbled godwits are also regular, late summer visitors.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Orthopteran Season

Working around the farm this week, I am constantly reminded that August is the season of Orthopterans. Whether I'm wandering through the pastures, checking the fence lines, sickling the weeds or trimming the shrubs, grasshoppers are present in abundance, springing away at my slightest movement. And, as the sun sets behind the Rockies, the crickets strike up their evening chorus; while most are kind enough to remain outdoors, a few manage to get into the house, chirping from the kitchen or, worse yet, from a bedroom closet.

Unlike 85% of insects, Orthopterans, known to most of us as grasshoppers, crickets and katydids, do not undergo a complete, three-stage metamorphosis. Rather, their nymphs, small replicas of the adult form, hatch from the eggs and grow to adult size; there is no true larval or pupal stage. More than 1200 Orthopteran species inhabit North America and late summer is the time when they are most abundant, most active and most conspicuous.

The night music of these fiddlers is both an essential ingredient of our summer experience and a welcome sign that cool, autumn air will soon sweep across the Heartland. Indeed, it is the looming threat of this seasonal chill that intensifies their mating chant; they must install the next generation before a hard freeze puts an end to their brief summer fling.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Unexpected Company

Arriving at our Littleton, Colorado, farm, I was greeted by the sight of a young mule deer, browsing on fallen pears in our front yard. Over the next hour, as I surveyed the property and attempted to rescue plants that were withering in the summer heat, my visitor looked up from time to time but was otherwise oblivious to my presence.

While Littleton boasts a scenic and diverse greenbelt along the South Platte River, most of the Valley has succumbed to suburban sprawl. When we purchased our farm, in 1990, the area was still semirural, a mix of small farms, horse stables, cattle ranches and streamside woodlands. Since then, open space has steadily declined and our property is one of the few refuges for wild creatures that stray from the greenbelt.

The deer, which I have since learned was camping out on our farm for the past week, put up with my presence for a couple of days and has now moved on. Though I would welcome her return, I suspect she needs her space. In that respect, we're very much alike.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Crossing the Missouri Watershed

The vast watershed of the Missouri River extends from the Continental Divide of Montana, Wyoming and Colorado to the mid Mississippi Valley; like a giant funnel, it narrows from west to east and is restricted to the State of Missouri on the final leg of its journey. On my frequent travels between our homes in Columbia and Littleton, I cross a large segment of this watershed; indeed, on my route across the Great Plains of North America, almost every stream, creek, culvert or rivulet that I encounter is flowing toward the Missouri River. An exception occurs in eastern Colorado where, for about 10 miles on either side of Limon, I-70 dips into the watershed of the Arkansas; east of Limon, the highway descends from the High Plains escarpment while, north of town, it climbs back to the Missouri watershed at the crest of the Palmer Divide.

While the Upper Mississippi Valley has endured heavy rains and flooding over the past few weeks, the Missouri watershed seems to have recovered from a wet June and is back on its seasonal course. On my trip to Colorado, yesterday, I found that the Missouri River floodplain, just west of Columbia, is no longer in flood stage and that large flocks of great egrets have gathered to hunt in the remaining pools. Farther west, the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, emerald green in June, have faded to a drier, olive tone. The corn stalks of Missouri and eastern Kansas are beginning to wither while the irrigated fields of the High Plains retain their deep green color, in sharp contrast to the browning grass that lines the highway; scraggly clumps of prairie sunflower also adorn the High Plains in August, hardy cousins of the cultivated sunflowers that now produce brilliant carpets of gold.

The seasonal pools and farm ponds of the Great Plains are beginning to contract in the summer heat, offering mudflats and moist grasslands for shorebirds that now stream south to their winter beaches. Flocks of Swainson's hawks, preparing for their upcoming journey to Argentina, soar above the drying landscape and, in eastern Colorado, pronghorn, gathering ahead of the autumn snows, share the yellowing grasslands with herds of cattle. In the higher, western reaches of the Missouri, winter is never far away.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Worst Weather in History

We hear the reports every season. The worst flooding that has ever occurred in Iowa. The most intense heat wave ever to envelop Russia. The most long-lasting drought in the history of Texas. Of course, all of these statements reflect data from human records which, at most, document weather conditions over the past few hundred years, a mere instant in the course of Earth's natural history.

Throughout the evolution of our planet, spanning 4.6 billion years, its surface has been constantly changing, molded by the forces of continental drift, rising and falling sea levels, uplift, rifting and the erosive power of water, wind and ice. Many land areas have, during various periods, been covered by swamps, glaciers, deserts, shallow seas, plains and mountain ranges. Massive flooding, prolonged drought, glaciation, changing ocean currents, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and asteroid impacts have all played a role, sculpting the land, altering the climate and directly impacting the evolution of life.

Unfortunately, we humans tend to rely on recorded history when we build our towns and cities in deserts, along rivers, on volcanic slopes, atop faults or on barrier islands. We rely on levees, canals, modern engineering, good luck and divine intervention to protect us from nature's fury. Alas, we learn that our records are incomplete, our technology is inadequate, our luck is fickle, our gods are impotent and our planet is still evolving.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sixty Earth-Years

As of today, I have spent sixty years on this magnificent planet. While I don't feel any different than I did at forty, each decade makes us more aware of our own mortality.

Throughout the natural world, age is a relative measure of life. Many insects live but a few days and at least 120 generations of cottontail rabbits have come and gone since the day of my birth. On the other hand, a bristlecone pine that germinated in 1950 is still but a toddler and a sixty year old saguaro has just recently begun to branch.

As a physician, I have seen many children and young adults die over the years and am well award of the fickle nature of human life. At sixty, I cannot ignore the fact that I have lived well over half my years but realize that I could carry on for another forty years or die within forty days. There is no good reason to dwell on one's age; it's best to just celebrate the many joys of living and take on new adventures.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ladybird Beetles

Ladybird beetles, represented by many species across the globe, are a favorite of children and gardeners alike; their small size and colorful markings appeal to the children while gardeners appreciate their voracious appetite for a host of destructive pests. The brightly-colored carapace of these pea-sized beetles, usually orange, red or yellow with black spots, is thought to warn potential predators that they will excrete a noxious liquid if caught. Though often referred to as "ladybugs," these cute carnivores are true beetles and do not belong to the bug family.

Female ladybirds deposit up to 200 eggs in the spring, choosing plants that are infested with aphids or lice; upon hatching, the larvae feast on these insects as well as on their eggs. Joined by adult ladybirds, which also feed on the larvae and eggs of other destructive insects, the ladybird larvae and their parents play an important role in the protection of native and cultivated plants. Indeed, in many agricultural areas, ladybird beetles are raised for the purpose of biological insect control, an attractive alternative to the use of toxic pesticides.

With the arrival of chilly, autumn nights, ladybird beetles begin to congregate in protected areas, spending the winter in barns, sheds, woodpiles or beneath a coat of leaf litter. Come spring, they emerge to reproduce and to begin another season of plant patrol. Their services are much appreciated.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Cycle of Obesity

With rare exceptions, obesity is not a genetic trait; on the other hand, it is usually familial. During childhood, we are molded by the lifestyle of our parents, learning to approach life as they do. Parents who overindulge, possess poor dietary habits and shun physical activity instill the same behaviors in their children. While some older children, adopting the reactionary tendencies of teenagers, may rescue themselves from this lifestyle, most follow the lead of their parents and soon develop obesity.

Once burdened with excessive weight, these children find it difficult to engage in many of the activities that their peers enjoy. Embarrassed by their self-imposed handicap, they withdrawal to sedentary hobbies which are often combined with snacking. This pattern spirals into adulthood, by which time the medical consequences of obesity begin to appear: hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and degenerative arthritis, to name a few. Recurrent illness and progressive deconditioning further limit activity and transient attempts to lose weight prove to be futile.

In my opinion, childhood obesity, when not associated with an underlying genetic or metabolic disorder, is a form of child abuse, just as damaging to the body and mind as physical and verbal abuse. Obese children face a life of exclusion, low self esteem, discrimination, poor health and, in many cases, depression. Those who manage to cope with these problems and accept their obesity as a normal human condition will, unfortunately, accept, if not encourage, the same traits in their children and the cycle continues.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Aurora Borealis

This week, an intense solar storm produced an aurora borealis that extended well south of the Arctic Circle. Commonly known as the northern lights, the aurora is produced by the interaction of solar wind with the Earth's magnetic field. This wind, a perpetual stream of protons and electrons, is produced at the surface of the sun but its many sources (most closely associated with sunspots) are not spaced evenly across the globe; since the sun revolves every 28 days, the intensity of the solar wind varies through that period. Solar storms, known as flares, acutely increase the intensity and speed of the solar wind, which takes about 2 days to reach the Earth; the sighting of a solar flare thus indicates that the aurora will be especially intense and widespread two days later.

Giving the appearance of shimmering curtains or swirling veils of light, the aurora borealis is most often green in color but may be pink, yellow, orange, blue or, rarely, bright red; the altitude of its formation (generally 60-70 miles above the surface of the Earth) and the molecular composition of the atmosphere determine the color of each display. Though often called polar lights, the aurora borealis and its southern counterpart, the aurora australis, form in bands just north of the Arctic Circle and just south of the Antarctic Circle, respectively; during intense solar flares, these bands expand and the light displays are observed well into the Temperate Zones.

Aside from the occasional solar storms, the background solar wind waxes and wanes over an 11 year cycle, with aurora events most common and long-lasting during periods of increased sunspot activity. Throughout the cycle, the aurora is best viewed late at night and tends to be most intense near the spring and autumn equinoxes. This week's display brought a taste of the Arctic to many humans who have never entered its realm.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Under the Dome

By mid summer, a ridge of high pressure develops over the south-central United States. Within this dome, the air sinks, compresses and heats up and the sinking air stifles both wind development and cloud formation. As a result, excessive heat develops across the region; this year, the dome has persisted through much of July and has yet to abate in early August, leading to record heat on land and sea (water temperatures of the northern Gulf of Mexico have reached 90 degrees F).

Along the edge of the dome, winds flow clockwise, pulling in Gulf moisture across South Texas and Mexico; a seasonal low over the deserts of southern California and Arizona also pulls in moisture from the Sea of Cortez and the combined effects of these systems create the Southwest Monsoon, producing heavy rains and thunderstorms across Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. On the north side of the dome, Pacific fronts and their component storms are swept across the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest, bringing copious precipitation to that area. To the east, any moisture pulled in from the Atlantic cannot penetrate the atmospheric ridge and storms are shunted to the southeast.

While swifts and cicadas seem oblivious to the conditions, severe heat poses a significant stress for most plants and animals, including humans. Though man evolved in the tropics and is better equipped to handle heat than cold, heat waves kill far more humans in modern, urban areas than do periods of cold and snow. With heat indices pushing 120F across the Gulf Coast and Southern Plains, those of us under the dome look to the northwest for relief; only a dip in the jet stream, now ensconced along the Canadian border, will nudge this oppressive ridge to the east.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Art of Stillness

As one who could never sit still for long periods of time, I under-stand the restless feeling that some experience when they attempt to observe wildlife. I could never enjoy fishing or card games or TV marathons and have always preferred short stories to novels. Even as an avid birder, I find it more enjoyable to combine this activity with hiking, though, admittedly, my pace is often more like a saunter.

But successful wildlife watching does require a certain degree of stillness. Those who race along nature trails, chatting with their companions, will scare away wild creatures long before close observation is possible. Indeed, birders are often loners or, if they do enjoy company, they know to choose fellow birders who possess the patience and quiet manner that the hobby requires. While many of us could never sit through a tennis match, we can stake out a forest clearing or creekside bluff for hours at a time.

Timing is also important when it comes to wildlife observation. Wild creatures tend to be most active (and thus most visible) during the early morning and evening hours; this is especially true during the summer months, when most species avoid the afternoon heat. However, even during these productive hours, the art of stillness is an essential talent to possess and its practice can be especially difficult on frigid winter mornings or buggy summer evenings.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

August & February

August and February, which follow the persistent heat of July and the deep freeze of January, are not beloved months; on the surface, they appear to offer more of the same. But, unlike their predecessors, these months produce clear signs of a transition to the glorious seasons of autumn and spring. August may bring stifling heat and February may harbor severe winter storms but, toward the end of each month, the solar cycle is having significant effects.

In late February, the lengthening days coax snow geese from their coastal marshlands and send them northward across the Great Plains of North America. In our own suburban yards, snowdrops and crocuses poke through the warming soil while, out in the wetlands, spring peepers and chorus frogs stir from their winter retreats. For naturalists in the Midwest, all of these events are welcome signs of the coming spring.

August, often depicted as a hot and dusty month, brings the first evidence of the mild and colorful fall. Migrant shorebirds stop to rest and feed along our lakes and reservoirs and, late in the month, a host of water birds (gulls, terns, white pelicans, waders) congregate at favored staging sites, preparing for their seasonal journey. Asters and goldenrod brighten the grasslands and the brilliant flame of sumac heralds the season of crisp air and painted foliage. As the days continue to shorten, flocks of common nighthawks circle southward in the evening sky and a chorus of fiddlers (katydids and crickets) ushers in the cooler nights. Like February, August brings early signs of relief and the hope for better days ahead.