Showing posts from September, 2010

Omen in the Sky

Though we are still in September and the memory of oppressive summer heat is still fresh in our minds, an omen of winter gleamed in the southern sky early this morning, just below the bright half moon. It was Orion, the most famous constellation of winter; thought to represent a hunter by early human cultures, the large rectangle of Orion is bisected by a belt of stars, from which a sword hangs. Near the center of that sword is a fuzzy cluster of stars and gas (easily seen with binoculars); this is the Orion Nebula, a star nursery. Some 1500 light years away, the light that we see left the nebula when man was first colonizing Hawaii.

Orion will dominate our winter nights, shimmering in the clear, dark, frigid air. It is appropriate that this hunter, like our hawks and owls, surveys the winter landscape; after all, winter is the season of survival, when predators have the advantage and prey must dwell in the shadows.

Orion's appearance on this mild, autumn morning was less ominou…

L.A.'s Heat Wave

Known for its mild, sunny climate, Southern California has been in the grip of a heat wave over the past week. Coming on the heels of a cool summer, this heat wave culminated in an all-time record high of 113 degrees F yesterday afternoon; of course, this record is based on modern human experience and may have been eclipsed thousands of times in the past.

Southern California's mild climate is due, in part, to a northerly current along the west coast of North America, which brings cool ocean water from the northern Pacific. This current is an extension of the Japanese Current which, like the Gulf Stream of the Atlantic, transfers warm water to the north and east, moderating weather conditions across southeastern Alaska and British Columbia.

This past week, a ridge of high pressure over the Great Basin and Southwest has blocked any onshore flow of cool, marine air; in addition, this dome has squelched cloud formation, allowing the region to bake in the early autumn sun. Finally, an ea…

Golden Days

The last weeks of summer and the first weeks of fall are, in my opinion, the best days of the year. Some may prefer the fragrant months of spring or the tropical heat of summer; a minority might choose the snowscapes of winter. But I, like many others, find that late September and October are most appealing.

These days are golden, both literally and figuratively. Goldenrod and late-blooming sunflowers brighten the fields, crops are yellowing and a golden hue highlights the woods and grasslands. Accentuated by clear, sunny skies and dry, cool air, gold is the universal color of autumn; while more intense reds, oranges and purples may dominate the scene in some regions, gold reigns from the Pacific to the Atlantic and from the Arctic tundra to the dunes of the Gulf.

Autumn is truly golden for the naturalist. Offering ideal conditions for outdoor exploration, its mild, sunny days and crisp, invigorating nights draw us from our air-conditioned homes, encouraging both exercise and adventure.…

Ptarmigan on the Rocks

During our recent travels through Iceland, we saw a fair number of rock ptarmigan. These hardy members of the grouse family are circumpolar in their distribution, inhabiting Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of North America and Eurasia.

Favoring tundra and open, rock-strewn meadows, rock ptarmigan are well prepared for their harsh environment. Chunky and well insulated with dense plumage, they are camouflaged by a mottled coat in summer, molting to pure white (except for a black tail and eye stripe) in winter. Since they have few natural predators (primarily gyrfalcons and arctic fox in Iceland), they are rather tame, walking away as hikers approach. Nevertheless, as we witnessed ourselves, they are capable of swift, powerful flight over short distances.

Males and females form separate flocks through the colder months, pairing off in late spring to produce six to ten chicks; upon hatching, the young mature quickly and are independent of their parents within three months. Ptarmigan feed on …

Songbird Exodus

By late September, the tide of migrant shorebirds is beginning to wane and the first migrant waterfowl, including cinnamon and blue-winged teal, appear on the wetlands. The ducks and grebes will increase in number and variety through late October, to be joined by noisy flocks of geese in November.

The fall songbird migration, on the other had, is peaking in late September as insectivores and nectar-feeding birds escape the threatening chill of autumn. Warblers, orioles, flycatchers, hummingbirds, house wrens and other summer residents are making their way to southern climes, never to experience the cold and snow of a Midwest winter. Primarily travelling at night, they stop in our woodlands to rest and refuel during the day; less vocal and colorful than they were in the spring, they are far less conspicuous among the late summer foliage. Indeed, to the casual naturalist, these September migrants often go unnoticed.

On the heels of these fair weather residents, hardy Canadian visitors, su…

The Last Moon of Summer

This morning, just before dawn, the full Harvest Moon beamed from the western sky. Within a few hours, the moon had set behind a bank of clouds, not to reappear before autumn rushes in. Indeed, this was the last moon of summer and the clouds were the leading edge of a potent cold front that will bring the first wave of prolonged, chilly weather to the American Heartland.

Ahead of the front, strong, southerly winds pushed warm, humid air into mid Missouri, fueling the storms that should arrive overnight. Diminishing toward morning, the rain will yield to cool, Canadian air as it drops from the Northern Plains. By early next week, our afternoon highs will be lower than our recent morning lows and autumn will be fully entrenched.

The next full moon, the Hunter's Moon of October, will likely rise above frosted fields and duck-filled wetlands. The hot, humid days of summer will, by then, be a fading memory, their oppression denied, their balmy evenings extolled. The glorious fall w…

The Nature of Vacations

We humans need vacations. Whether it is a long trip abroad or just a weekend escape, we need a respite from work, a break from the routine, a chance to rest the mind and recharge the soul. Thanks to the complexities of modern travel, not all vacations prove to be as relaxing as we might hope but, in the end, most are worth the effort.

Nevertheless, vacations come with a price. Time away from our daily obligations allows them to accumulate in our absence. We return from our excursion to face an avalanche of bills, phone messages and emails. Some choose to stay in touch during their travels to put a dent in this billowing mass of correspondence; but, alas, this sacrifice yields only an illusion of progress.

In the end, it's best to respect the importance of down time, however brief it may be. Our physical and mental health depends on both the opportunity and the willingness to escape the stress of daily life. Adventure and tranquility beckon; mundane obligations can (and do) wa…

Crossing Glacial Terrain

After nine days of exploring the glaciated landscape of Iceland, with its broad, glacial valleys, deep fjords, winding moraines, glacial lakes and residual ice sheets, we departed for the U.S. yesterday afternoon. En route, we skimmed the southern tip of Greenland (which, unfortunately, was obscured by clouds) but, an hour later, crossed the coast of Labrador, a Canadian Province studded with glacial lakes of all size and shape; some fill long depressions that were scoured from the surface, many have resulted from the damming of streams by glacial debris and many others, perhaps most, are kettle lakes, the result of ice chucks that break from the underside of retreating glaciers. The highly dissected coastline of the province is also a consequence of the melting glaciers, as sea level rose and higher segments of terrain became islands or peninsulas.

Further along, we crossed the broad mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway, created by intense flow from the Great Lakes as the retreating ice o…

The Nature of Reykjavik

Despite its reputation for raw, rainy weather, Reykjavik basked in warm sunshine as we entered the capitol city this morning; stretching between arms of the sea and offering views of nearby mountains, the city enjoys a spectacular setting. Brightly colored homes, quaint shops, narrow streets, attractive parks and a pleasing mix of restaurants and cafes characterize this urban oasis, the hub of Iceland's political and cultural activity and the home of most of her citizens.

Relatively clean and safe from a global perspective, Reykjavik has its share of urban problems, as its graffiti seems to suggest. And, despite the friendliness of vendors and restaurant owners, its citizens seem to share the survival mentality that is so often evident in residents of large, northern cities. Perhaps their behavior reflects the stoic, reserved nature of those who face the hardships of a demanding climate but politeness and patience seem to be in short supply.

We humans, after all, are part of the nat…

Iceland's Geothermal Corridors

Iceland formed (and continues to form) from volcanism along the mid Atlantic Ridge and first emerged from the sea about 16 million years ago. The forces that led to the creation of this volcanic island remain active today and are concentrated along a swath from southwestern to northeastern Iceland; a secondary branch of the underlying oceanic ridge extends from the middle of this corridor to the central portion of Iceland's southern coast.

Along these geothermal corridors, tectonic forces are pushing the North American and Eurasian plates apart (northwestern Iceland lies on the North American Plate while the southeastern half of the country lies on the Eurasian Plate); in concert, the intervening crust thins and magma wells near the surface, transferring heat to the ground water and producing the classic geothermal features of hot springs, geysers and mudpots. At times, the magma breaks through to the surface, leading to vast flows of basalt while, under other conditions, pressure …

Iceland's Waterfalls

According to the Iceland Tourist Board, their beautiful country has over 10.000 waterfalls; from my experience this week, their claim is a gross understatement. While Iceland's largest waterfalls, several of which are mentioned in my recent blogs, receive most of the attention, almost every cliff or mountain side harbors at least a few scenic cascades. This natural feature is, of course, a reflection of the country's geology and climate; numerous cliffs, gorges and fjords, a thin layer of soil (where it exists at all), vast areas of treeless terrain, multiple glaciers and copious, year-round precipitation all combine to yield the ubiquitous falls.

Today, we visited Dynjandi Falls near the end of a scenic fjord in northwest Iceland. Over 325 feet high and 60 feet wide, this magnificent cascade gives the appearance of a massive lace curtain, lying against a sheer rock cliff; below Dynjandi, a series of five other waterfalls, any of which would justify the establishment of a State…

Sheep & Swans

In one of our guidebooks, the author reports that there are 750,000 sheep in Iceland; after spending almost a week in this fabulous country and having toured a good portion of it, I find that his estimate is far too low. Sheep are everywhere in Iceland; while some are confined to pens and pastures, the great majority seem to run wild, though road grates, waterways and limited fencing must keep them under some degree of control. Nevertheless, these sheep have clearly adapted to a broad range of habitats, finding sustenance in lava fields, on tidal flats, on high, rocky hillsides and along nearly every road in the country. Having the appearance of the typical cartoon oval mass of wool with a small head and short, spindly legs....they are, indeed, entertaining to watch and exude a serenity that serves to balance the stark beauty of this harsh landscape. They are, without a doubt, the most abundant and conspicuous mammal in Iceland.

And, contrary to my initial expectations, the…

The Jokulsa a Fjollum River

Heading along the north edge of the Vatnajukoll Glacier, which covers most of southeast Iceland, the Jokulsa a Fjollum River flows northward to enter the North Atlantic via a broad delta on Oxafjorour Bay. Covering 206 km, it is the second longest river in Iceland but is easily the largest with respect to its vast watershed and annual flow.

This flow was especially great at the end of the Pleistocene as Iceland's glaciers were beginning to melt. During that time, about 10,000 years ago, the River cut a deep canyon in the volcanic plains of northeast Iceland; now protected within Vatnajokull National Park, the Jokulsargljufur Canyon is the largest and most spectacular chasm on the island and harbors a series of magnificent waterfalls. The second of these, Dettifoss, is among the largest falls in all of Europe; though not as easily accessible as Gullfoss and Godafoss, Iceland's other famous waterfalls, the sight (and sound) of this powerful falls and the grandeur of the canyon in…

A Day in the Fog

They say that the southeast coast of Iceland is beautiful; we'll have to take their word for it. After visiting the southern edge of the Vatnajokull Glacier and hiking to a spectacular, secluded waterfall at Skaftafell National Park, we set out across the flat, lava plains of southeast Iceland. By the time we reached the coast, dense fog and steady rain had arrived, shrouding the scenery in all directions.

We did manage to see the famous lake of icebergs; the latter, which break from the southeast edge of Vatnajokull, drift across a long, glacial lake before moving out to sea; in the hazy twilight of our pea-soup weather, their milky-blue silhouettes were barely visible. From our vantage point, on a flanking moraine, their melting hulks had taken on bizarre shapes and harbored pockets of till, scraped from the mountain walls and valley floor.

This unique site was followed by hours of mind-numbing travel, curving along fjords or crossing ridges that were evident only on the map. Of c…

Beyond the Golden Circle

Most people who visit Iceland spend much of their time in Reykjavik and many sign up for guided tours in order to see the natural wonders for which the island is famous. Three of the most popular tourist hotspots, known collectively as the Golden Circle, are Pingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss. The former harbors spectacular scenery and geologic features that bear witness to the tectonic forces that created (and continue to mold) Iceland; Geysir offers a roadside collection of hot springs and geysers while Gullfoss, one of the largest and most scenic waterfalls on the island, funnels waters from the Langjokull Glacier and other highlands to its north. Unfortunately, all three of these sites also attract hordes of tourists, arriving in a never-ending parade of buses during the warmer months of the year.

After visiting these natural wonders ourselves, we escaped to the southern coast and headed east on Route 1, the 900 mile highway that circles through Iceland. En route, we obs…

A Mossy Moonscape

On our first day in Iceland, still struggling to adjust to the time change, we took a drive through the southwest, Reykjanes peninsula and entered a landscape both beautiful and bleak. A stark terrain of eroded basalt, covered with moss and broken by swaths of tussock grass dominated this coastal region. Low hills and higher ridges provided some relief and a restless sea lashed the southern edge of the peninsula; black-backed gulls, eiders and northern gannets were spotted near the shoreline and flocks of golden plovers moved across the sparse, rocky grasslands.

Whenever the sun broke through the dense, gray overcast, certain views were reminiscent of our rugged, Southwest deserts; but then plumes of steam, so common in this geothermal landscape, would change the impression entirely. So too did the roaming bands of Icelandic sheep, direct descendants from those introduced by the Vikings, almost 1200 years ago; numbering more than 750,000 (at least two for every human Icelander), these …

En Route

Those of us who like to fly and are intrigued by geography often find that the trip to and from our destination can be as interesting as the vacation itself. En route to Iceland today, we flew from St. Louis to JFK airport in New York. After circling over the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, we angled to the northeast, crossing the quilted farmlands of Illinois, central Indiana and northern Ohio.

Just past Cleveland, the flat terrain gave way to the heavily dissected topography of the Appalachian Plateau and, further east, its distinct, Eastern Front curved from northeast to southwest through western Pennsylvania. The waves of the plateau was now replaced by the alternating ridges and valleys of central Pennsylvania, the streams of which fed the two major forks of the Susquehanna River, which snaked southward toward the Chesapeake Bay. After crossing the Delaware Valley, the ribbon of the Hudson and the edge of the Jersey shore appeared in the distance and we were soon drifting ove…

Land of Fire & Ice

Tomorrow, my wife and I will leave for Iceland, the Land of Fire & Ice. According to their Tourist Board, Iceland is about the size of Ohio and we can expect the September temperature to average about 50 degrees F. We will share the island with about 318,000 citizens, more than half of which live in or near Reykjavik. Over 11% of the country is covered by glaciers and more than 100 fjords indent the coastline; some 800 hot springs, 15 active volcanoes, numerous geysers and 10,000 waterfalls should keep us entertained, not to mention the fabulous concentrations of sea birds and marine mammals!

Having risen from the sea about 16 million years ago, this volcanic island was not settled by humans until the Vikings arrived in 874 AD; however, many anthropologists believe that humans may have crossed this area as early as 20,000 years ago, hunting their way along the edge of the Pleistocene Ice Sheets (and, perhaps, reaching North America). Other than these early wanderers, Iceland wa…

Storage Days

By September, the plants and animals of the Northern Hemi-sphere are shifting from a growth and reproduction mode to a season of storage and survival. While late bloomers, such as asters and goldenrod, are still flowering, most deciduous plants are beginning to withdraw the sap of life from their foliage, redirecting fluid and nutrients to their roots and stems. As chlorophyll disappears from their leaves, the colors of autumn spread across the woodlands and, eventually, the dying leaves are shed, soon to be recycled on the forest floor.

Meanwhile, the hoarders of the animal kingdom, including squirrels, jays, woodpeckers, chipmunks, pikas and field mice, are gathering seeds, nuts and hay, hiding or storing these food items for use during the lean, harsh months of winter. Out in wetlands, beaver and muskrats are driven by the same survival instinct, repairing their dens and harvesting the plants that will provide food when the ponds and lakes freeze over. Hibernating mammals, such as g…

New Zealand's Quake

Mention earthquake zones and most of us would think of Japan, Sumatra, Chile or Southern California; others might include western China, Pakistan and Iran, where the Indian and Arabian Plates are crunching into Eurasia. Few would include New Zealand but, as we learned yesterday, this is also earthquake country.

Deposited along the edge of future Antarctica throughout the Paleozoic Era, the sedimentary rocks of New Zealand rifted from the other Southern Continents about 85 million years ago, some 30 million years before Australia began its long isolation.
Lying along the boundary of the Australian and Pacific Plates, New Zealand straddles both of them; the North Island and the northwest section of the South Island lie on the Australian Plate while the remainder of the South Island lies on the Pacific Plate. Pressure and friction between the plates has lifted the "Southern Alps" of the South Island and subduction of the Pacific Plate beneath the Australian Plate produced the vol…

Jim & Earl

As of this morning, Hurricane Earl is spinning off the North Carolina coast. Downgraded to a category 2 storm, it is expected to weaken further and move off to the NNE, sparing the major urban corridor but likely raking the Cape Cod region with tropical force winds; fortunately, no direct landfall along the U.S. coast appears likely.

But all is not lost. After a hurricane drought of two and a half years, Jim Cantore, the god of weather enthusiasts, finally had the chance to stand in the wind and rain this morning, reporting from the Outer Banks as the peripheral bands of Hurricane Earl whipped across Pamlico Sound, creating a storm surge along the eastern edge of those barrier islands. Backlit by streetlights, Jim braced himself against the onslaught, his microphone fading in and out amidst the torrent. Consumed by saturated air and sheets of rain, he was the picture of heroism to some, a symbol of human folly to others.

The spectacle of a hurricane, fraught with danger and potential de…

Nighthawk Season

Having wintered in South America, common nighthawks do not return to the American Heartland until early May. Unlike some insectivores, such as tree swallows, they do not tempt fate by arriving before the threat of frost has passed. Their appearance is thus a welcome sign for winter-weary humans, a reassurance that gardens can be planted and that the balmy days of spring are fully entrenched.

After nesting on the ground in open woodlands or on the flat rooftops of urban buildings, they spend the summer cruising the evening and early morning skies, feasting on a wealth of flying insects. Stirred by the waning daylight and cool nights of late August and September, they begin to circle southward, often riding a northerly wind. Such flocks increase in size throughout September and, by early October, they disappear from the evening sky, safely ahead of the autumn chill.

The sight of migrating nighthawks is thus welcome during both legs of their annual journey. In May, we celebrate their …