Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Great Basin

Defined by its hydrology, the Great Basin is a large area of the American West within which the rivers and streams drain from an irregular ring of topographic divides toward the interior of the basin, never to reach the sea. The west edge of the Great Basin runs along the crest of the southern Cascades, the Sierra Nevada Range, the Tehachapi Range and the San Bernardino Mountains while the east edge follows the crest of the Wasatch Plateau and the westernmost Uintas. Along its northern boundary, an irregular, low divide separates the watersheds of the basin rivers (dominated by the Bear and Humboldt Rivers) from that of the Snake River. The southern edge of the Great Basin is even more complex, separating basin river watersheds from that of the Colorado River, extending southward into northwest Mexico.

Since the Great Basin is surrounded by topographic divides, winds are downsloping from all directions, warming and drying the air; as a result, the Basin floor, with elevations ranging from 6500 feet to below sea level (in Death Valley), is a mosaic of deserts, covered by sage grasslands, salt flats and, in parts of the Mojave, joshua trees. The largest lakes within the Great Basin are the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake, both in Utah, Pyramid Lake, in northwest Nevada, and Lake Tahoe and the Salton Sea in California.

Within the Great Basin, Earth's crust is being stretched in an east-west direction, caught between the uplifts of the Sierra Nevada, Rocky Mountains and Colorado Plateau. This has created a maze of linear faults, aligned north to south, along which fault-block mountains have risen to produce waves of ranges, separated by broad, flat valleys; while this aptly named Basin and Range Province includes all of the Great Basin, it also extends southeastward into the Sonoran Desert.

Friday, December 30, 2011

An Extreme Weather Year

By all accounts, 2011 has been a year of extreme weather across the U.S. Severe flooding in New England, a catastrophic drought across the Southern Plains, the worst tornado outbreak in recorded history, massive haboobs in the West and destructive wildfires across Texas have all dominated the headlines.

While years like this spawn doomsday discussions about the viability of our ecosystems, the threat to agriculture and the future welfare of mankind, they have no true predictive value. Though a backdrop of global warming cannot be ignored, these outbreaks of severe weather are more directly related to stagnant weather patterns, atmospheric derangements that often produce adjacent extremes of heat and cold, deluge and drought etc. A warmer climate may add fuel to the fire but the events themselves are sporadic; the last comparable episode of tornadic activity was in 1974 (almost 40 years ago) and the disastrous hurricane season of 2005 has since been followed by rather tepid years for tropical storms in the Atlantic Basin.

Periods of extreme weather always grab our attention and, since we are still rebounding from a glacial epoch, they are likely to be more intense when they do occur. But our relatively brief history of recorded weather gives us the impression that these outbreaks are both more extreme and less common than they actually have been from the broader perspective of Earth's history. Rather, we are now here to observe, document and be threatened by natural events that molded this planet long before our species evolved (or had the capability to record them).

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Pileated Woodpeckers

Most birders can easily remember their first sighting of a pileated woodpecker, especially due to their large size and distinctive markings; for me, this occurred along a country road near Wilmington, North Carolina. Though these woodpeckers are fairly common throughout much of their range, they prefer mature forests and are not often seen by the casual suburban birdwatcher.

Pileated woodpeckers inhabit forested areas of the eastern U.S., southern Canada, the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest; other than the rare and possibly extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker of southeastern swamp forests, pileateds are the largest woodpeckers in North America. Adult pairs are monogamous and may remain together for a decade or more. Each spring, the pair excavates a new, oval-shaped tree cavity in which to raise their brood of 3-5 young; both parents incubate the eggs and, once fledged, the offspring will remain with their parents until autumn. The male often uses the nest cavity through the following winter and, once abandoned, it provides shelter for owls, songbirds and a variety of small mammals.

Crow sized, pileated woodpeckers are easily recognized by their bright red crest, white facial markings and white wing patches; their loud, hysterical call or slow, resonant drumming often call attention to their presence. Feasting on beetles, larvae and carpenter ants, they strip sections of bark from dying trees or scour stumps and fallen logs for their prey; in winter, pileated woodpeckers also feed on nuts and berries.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Moon over Venus

Last evening, a crescent moon gleamed in the southwest sky, its southern point tipped toward the horizon. Below the moon was Venus, its position suggesting a bright ornament hanging from and tilting its larger companion. This, of course, was an illusion, a product of my vantage point and the distance of those heavenly bodies from Earth. In fact, Venus has a diameter of 7521 miles, more than three times that of the moon; however, at its closest approach, Venus is 25 million miles from Earth, more than 1000 times the distance from Earth to the moon.

Such astronomical illusions have confused humans since our earliest days, leading us to see relationships among the stars and planets that don't actually exist. Indeed, many of the named constellations consist of stars that are farther from one another than each is from the Earth; their grouping in the night sky is merely a consequence of our own location in space. For astrologists or other pseudo-scientists to make predictions based upon the relative positions of certain planets and constellations is thus pure folly.

Of course, man's history of misinterpreting nature extends well beyond the night sky. Before the scientific era, assumptions were made that, today, seem to be remarkably naive, if not comical. Then again, even our modern understanding of nature's complexity, from atoms to ecosystems, continues to evolve and, centuries from now, our perspective will have changed dramatically. Science is, after all, a process and a healthy degree of skepticism is essential to its advance.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Coffins: The Final Insult

The chemicals of life initially formed in a supernova explosion, fusing hydrogen and helium atoms to produce the "heavier" elements; these, in turn, combined to form molecules, the building blocks of all substances on Earth. The origin of life coincided with the appearance of DNA, which governs the assembly and function of all organisms, from bacteria to humans. Human DNA is the product of 3.6 billion years of DNA evolution, altered by random mutations, the incorporation of DNA from viral agents and countless recombinations of chromosomal DNA through sexual reproduction, all acted upon by natural selection.

Human DNA does not represent the endpoint of evolution but, rather, the current tip of one branch on the complex tree of life. Furthermore, our ability to live and reproduce on this planet is dependent upon the products of other life forms, most notably the oxygen released by photosynthesis and the nutrients provided by the various plants and animals that we consume. Knowing all of this, it is clear that we humans are part of nature, as connected to and as dependent upon other life forms as are all species on Earth.

Yet, our large brains, spawning imagination and creativity, have convinced may humans that we are a chosen species, distinct from and superior to the other life forms that share this planet. This belief, tied directly to the concept of spirituality, is invoked to justify our abuse of nature and our futile efforts to control her forces. Our final insult is the use of coffins, those cozy, hermetically sealed chambers for the dead, designed to protect our remnants from nature's recyclers. Though we are products of nature, born of her complexity, many selfishly decline to return the chemicals of life when their time on Earth has run its course.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Birding in Context

Though I have been a birder for more than 35 years, I have never been one to chase after rare birds or to plan my vacations to add species to my life list. Nor am I crazy about group birding or bird related sporting events such as a "Big Year."

As a naturalist, I enjoy watching birds within the context of their natural habitat, observing their interaction with plants and other animals and coming to understand how they contribute to the function of that ecosystem. Whether the setting is a barrier island, a mountain forest, a rolling prairie or a suburban neighborhood, birds play important roles, as foragers, hunters and potential prey. Furthermore, since many species are migratory, their unique contribution is often seasonal, either as temporary residents or as transient visitors.

Like other creatures, birds are far more interesting than items on a checklist and we cannot truly appreciate their importance without recognizing their vital role in maintaining the health of natural ecosystems. To know a bird only by its appearance is to accept a superficial understanding of nature's complex web of life.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Humans, Faith & the Universe

Christmas is a meaningful observance for members of one religion on one planet in our vast Universe. Since the Universe harbors trillions of suns, it is safe to assume that there are at least millions of planets similar to Earth, many thousands of which are inhabited by humanoid populations similar to our own. With that probability in mind, one wonders whether the simplistic beliefs associated with Christmas are universal or purely a fabrication of human thought, creativity and culture.

Most human societies support religious freedom as long as those groups or intstitutions do not impose their beliefs on others or invoke those beliefs to abolish or restrict the rights of others. Unfortunately, the indoctrination of innocent children with religious faith, often reinforced by guilt and fear, is a common practice in human society and seems to acknowledge the fact that mature, experienced and educated adults may not be as receptive to such beliefs.

Religous faith is clearly distinct from morality and, in many cases, has been used to justify immoral behavior. Furthermore, despite the strong convictions of the faithful, there is no reason to believe that religious dogma has any relevance beyond the realm of human civilization. The application of simplistic human beliefs to our vast and complex Universe is, at least intellectually, problematic.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Common Good

The Christmas Holiday Season, more than any other time of year, highlights the horrendous disparity between the American socioeconomic classes. While the wealthy shower one another with extravagant gifts and engage in excessive consumption, the poor can barely make ends meet, often forced to choose between holiday gifts and the staples of survival.

In my judgment, the wide gulf between rich and poor in this country reflects the distorted priorities of our economic system. The pay structure of corporate executives is based on profit margins, not on job creation or the social value of their goods and services. At our universities, where the cost of tuition is becoming formidable, football coaches are paid more than ten times the salaries of the best professors. And, throughout our society as a whole, we reward entertainers, athletes and other celebrities far out of proportion to their value to society.

The stories of Christmas, from Bethlehem to Scrooge to It's a Wonderful Life, focus on the simple values of fairness, decency and the common good. Philanthropy and charity, while honorable, are not the answer to the tribulations of the less fortunate. Rather, an effort to reset our priorities and to ensure that all citizens both contribute to and benefit from the vast resources of this country will be essential to our future prosperity. If we fail to do so, other, less desirable forces will surely emerge.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Desert Raccoon

Natives of Central and South America, coatimundis have spread into the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts of the southwestern U.S. Formally known as white-nosed coatimundis, these members of the raccoon family, unlike their more widespread and familiar relatives, are diurnal and gregarious, often moving about in noisy bands composed of females and their young.

Adult males, twice as large as the females, weigh up to 25 pounds and tend to be more solitary. Mating occurs in the early spring and 4-6 young are born after a gestation of almost 3 months. Females often use rock crevices for nursery dens but she and her offspring later use crude arboreal platforms for sleeping and resting. Wandering about for much of the day, these omnivores locate food and prey with their long, tapered snout; insects, lizards, eggs, nuts and fruit comprise most of their diet. Coatimundis are agile climbers, equipped with sharp claws to grasp limbs and a long tail for balance.

Favoring wooded canyons of the Desert Southwest, white-nosed coatis and their brown-nosed South American cousins are threatened primarily by habitat loss. Natural predators include mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats and golden eagles in the U.S. and jaguars, ocelots and boas in Central and South America. Known to live up to 15 years in captivity, coatis have a natural life span of 6-8 years.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ice Age Relics

Mention Ice Age relics and most of us think of frozen mammoth carcasses, unearthed Neandertal bones or that living relic, the musk ox. More sophisticated students of natural history might also picture various forms of glacial terrain, erratic boulders or relic groves of hemlock, surviving the warm Holocene in shaded valleys of the Temperate Zone.

In fact, most modern plants and animals lived during the Pleistocene, having "moved" to warmer latitudes or to deeper waters when glaciers advanced and sea levels fell. Of course, the colder and wetter climate of the Pleistocene also spawned the evolution of new species, such as polar bears and Arctic fox, as their ancestors adapted to changing conditions.

We humans are also children of the Pleistocene, having appeared about 130,000 years ago, late in the course of that 2 million year Epoch. Like other creatures, we adapted to its shifting climate but, due to our large brains, we did not require new physical traits to survive; rather, we used fire, clothing and shelter for protection from the cold and took advantage of Pleistocene land bridges or ice shelves to colonize the globe. Like the musk ox and the polar bear, we are living relics of the Ice Age.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Kofa NWR

If you enjoy an escape to the Desert Southwest during the winter months but hope to avoid the congestion of large cities and National Parks, consider a visit to Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, northeast of Yuma, Arizona. This extensive preserve (over 665,000 acres) was set aside in 1939 to protect habitat for desert bighorn sheep; more than 80% of the refuge is designated wilderness and it thus harbors some of the most pristine Sonoran Desert landscape in the U.S.

Stretching between the Kofa Mountains on the north to the Castle Dome Mountains in the south, this refuge is accessed by a network of graveled roads, most of which require four-wheel drive vehicles. However, the road to Palm Canyon, leading east from US 95 between Quartzite and Yuma, can be traversed by the family car and is perhaps the best means to explore this ecosystem; a short trail at its terminus leads to a stand of California fan palms and conditioned hikers can proceed on to higher terrain.

In addition to the fan palms, the only palms native to Arizona, Kofa NWR is known for its tremendous diversity of Sonoran Desert plants, including the Kofa mountain barberry. Of course, the refuge is also home to a spectacular variety of desert wildlife; joining the reclusive desert bighorn sheep are mountain lions, coyotes, mule deer, kangaroo rats, five species of rattlesnake, a diverse collection of lizards and the usual mix of Sonoran desert birds. Named for the abandoned King of Arizona gold mine, this wilderness also harbors remnants of past mining and ranching activity; since it was used for military training during WWII, it may contain unexploded ordinance and visitors are cautioned not to handle such materials.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Southwest Storm

Yesterday morning, a deep atmospheric trough covered the western U.S., its leading edge stretching from southern New Mexico to Upper Michigan. As cold air poured southward within this dip in the jet stream, a powerful storm developed along its southern rim, sweeping moisture up from the Gulf of Mexico.

By later in the day, the storm had moved into the northern Texas Panhandle and its central pressure was falling. Strong, counterclockwise winds raked the Southern Plains and, northwest of the cold front, blizzard conditions developed across northeast New Mexico, southeastern Colorado and southwestern Kansas. Ahead of the front, Gulf moisture was streaming through the Midwest, igniting thunderstorms in northeast Texas and heavy rain across eastern Oklahoma, eastern Kansas and most of Missouri.

This morning, the storm has weakened and its center swirls over western Oklahoma. High pressure, dropping southward within the trough, has shut down the snowfall and has shoved most of the rain to the south and east; here in central Missouri, a light drizzle persists, driven by a raw east wind behind the front. While this system is abating, another storm, forecast to push through the Heartland later this week, may produce a White Christmas for those of us in the Midwest and Northeast.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Selling the Church

Tuning into 60 Minutes last evening, I encountered the usual mix of TV commercials for cell phone services, stock brokerages, automobiles and erectile dysfunction medications. But a new ad appeared amidst those expected enticements and was clearly aimed at the upscale, sophisticated viewers of that respected, long-running program. This polished and obviously expensive ad (given its placement on 60 Minutes) was directed at fallen-away Catholics; with images of the Vatican and scenes of aid work across the globe, it was a clear effort to restore the tarnished image of a once powerful and influential institution.

Reeling from the ongoing child abuse scandal and faced with an increasingly educated and skeptical populace, the Catholic Church is attempting to invoke a sense of nostalgia with this advertisement campaign. Whether a Fifth Avenue approach will be effective remains to be seen; after all, it is directed at past members who are unlikely to respond to this glossy package, having learned from personal experience that Church activities are devoted primarily to indoctrinating youth and ensuring future funds for the Church's coffers. As the ad so clearly demonstrates, the Catholic Church is (and has been) Big Business.

The new advertisement is, in fact, a capitulation on the Church's part, an admission that Catholic dogma, ritual and traditions are losing ground in the modern world. Support for the Church, like that for State Lottery programs, is increasingly dependent upon an impoverished and poorly educated segment of the population. It is unfortunate that those hard-earned tithings are now being used to fund this expensive propaganda.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Sherbet Sunrise

Yesterday morning, as I left Denver under clear, cold skies, I was treated to a spectacular sunrise on the High Plains. The mellow but brilliant colors reminded me of the rainbow sherbet that I often enjoyed as a child (and still do on occasion). Low, flat clouds had taken on a raspberry glow while a swath of lemon yellow stretched across the horizon, fading to lime green at the fringes. As sunrise approached, the pale yellow evolved to a deep orange off to the southeast, marking the site where the sun would soon appear.

Humans have always been inspired by the sunrise and, for early man, it surely brought hope after the long, frigid winter nights. Even today, the sun's return is especially welcome after the extended periods of darkness that typify the season. More than signifying the recovery of light and heat (what little is provided by a low winter sun), the colorful display offers reassurance that nature's cycle will persevere.

Some may feel that I am overstating the significance of a sunrise to such intelligent creatures as human beings. But I suspect that we all carry collective memories from our distant ancestors, perhaps imprinted in our genetic code, that trigger deep-seated emotions in response to certain natural events. Early in our history, this revelation was vital to combat despair and, even today, it lingers in our soul for the same purpose.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Owens Valley

The Owens River of southeast California rises along the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, at the southeast edge of Yosemite National Park. After flowing eastward through the Long Valley Caldera, the river angles to the south-southeast and begins its journey through the magnificent landscape of the Owens Valley.

The Owens Valley is a geologic graben, a block of crust that dropped between the parallel faults of the Sierra batholith to its west and the White-Inyo fault block mountains to its east; as the mountains rose on either side, this block slipped downward. The floor of the valley has an elevation of 4000 to 3500 feet (north to south) while its steep walls rise toward some of the highest summits in the Lower 48; the latter include Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada (14,498 feet) and White Mountain Peak (14,252 feet) in the White Mountains. The latter range also includes Boundary Peak (13,167 feet), the highest point in Nevada, while the Inyo Mountains, known for their exposure of Cambrian sediments, top out below 12,000 feet.

Representing the southwest edge of the Basin and Range Province, the Owens Valley lies in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada and receives very little moisture from the east due to the high wall of the White and Inyo Mountains. The waters of the Owens River have thus long been diverted for crop production across the Valley and, since 1913, much of its flow has been directed into the Los Angeles Aqueduct, leaving Owens Lake, the natural terminus of the river, mostly dry. Back in the Pleistocene, when mountain glaciers fed the Owens River, its lake basin spilled to the east (around the southern end of the Inyo Range), merging with lakes from other Great Basin rivers to produce an inland sea across Death Valley and adjacent lowlands.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Art of Parenting

Ask responsible parents and you will find that they all agree on one point: Parenting is both the most rewarding and the most challenging endeavor that a human can undertake. More than a duty to provide food, clothing, shelter and education, it involves the commitment to guide a child (or children) through the varied, tumultuous stages of growth and maturation.

The art of parenting is the ability to offer advice without preaching, to instill confidence without stoking arrogance, to set boundaries without smothering creativity, to encourage social responsibility without stifling personal independence and to foster achievement without setting unreasonable goals. An engaged parent recognizes the innate abilities and natural talents in his or her child and makes the effort to provide the resources (financial, educational and social) that will facilitate their development. Above all else, good parenting involves the capacity to listen, the fortitude to discuss difficult issues and the willingness to step aside when the time is right.

Unfortunately, too many parents equate parenthood with procreation and have little to offer once the biologic duties are complete. The ills of modern human society reflect poor parenting, whether it be a dysfunctional approach to discipline, a zealous commitment to intolerance, an inability to provide emotional support or an indifference to the hopes, dreams and fears of their children. Parenthood must be desired, planned, welcomed and accepted with all of its joys and challenges; if not, both the child and society will pay the price.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

River Refuge

Following a period of exceptionally cold weather along the Colorado Front Range, most of our lakes and ponds have frozen over, sending waterfowl to the South Platte River for vital nourishment. This annual phenomenon, earlier than usual this winter, concentrates the varied species of waterfowl as well as their natural predators. For birders and naturalists, this seasonal river refuge offers an opportunity to see a wide variety of species on a relatively short hike.

Yesterday morning, under clearing skies and amidst the warming air of a gentle chinook, I took a walk along the river through South Platte Park, in Littleton. As expected, ducks were abundant, including mallards, gadwalls, green-winged teal, buffleheads, common goldeneyes, common mergansers and a few ruddy ducks; hooded mergansers were unusually common, including one flock of a dozen birds. Belted kingfishers, great blue herons, ring-billed gulls, Canada geese, killdeer, black-billed magpies and the usual mix of winter songbirds were also drawn to the open water. A young coyote bolted from the riverside brush as I approached but other predators, including red fox, bald eagles and peregrine falcons were not encountered on my morning stroll.

The South Platte River is certainly not unique in its winter role as a waterfowl refuge. Most rivers throughout colder regions of our planet. providing open water amidst a frozen landscape, offer such seasonal spectacles. Indeed, birding along some of our larger rivers (the Upper Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio) is often very productive in winter as large, mixed flocks of waterfowl, gulls and bald eagles gather on and along their icy channels.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Front Range Geese

Lying at the western edge of the Central Flyway, the Front Range of Colorado has always been an important rest stop for migrating Canada geese. Before human habitation, the wetland corridors of the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers attracted these migrants on their journeys between Canadian breeding grounds and wintering areas to our south.

Irrigated croplands and man-made reservoirs were the first developments to alter this pattern, encouraging some of the migrants to settle in for the winter; after all, contrary to popular perception, winters are relatively mild along the Front Range, the product of abundant sunshine, dry air and frequent chinooks. As the human population of the urban corridor exploded over the past several decades, many more lakes, reservoirs, parks and golf courses have made the region even more appealing to Canada geese and some never bothered to return to their homeland. Today, it is estimated that 150,000 Canada geese are permanent residents of the Colorado Front Range and their numbers triple during the colder months when winter migrants arrive.

Human development of the Front Range corridor has clearly impacted the "natural range" of Canada geese and efforts to reverse that pattern are not likely to be successful. Facing few predators (coyotes, fox, human hunters) their attraction to this man-altered environment is sure to make them honorary natives of Colorado. While many humans despise their messy lifestyle, most of us enjoy watching their majestic flights and admire their hearty independence. Perhaps, a century from now, they will be known as Colorado geese, some of which might migrate to Canada for the summer months.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Wichita Mountains

Rising from the flat terrain of southern Oklahoma, northwest of Lawton, ridges of igneous and metamorphic rock trend northwest to southeast. Thirty miles long, these rock formations originated in a rift zone that developed from the late Precambrian Era into the Cambrian Period, some 550-600 million years ago. Though the rifting process was aborted, plutons of granite, intrusions of gabbro and deposits of rhyolite were encased within and atop the surrounding crust and, over the next 20 million years, were covered by layers of younger Paleozoic sediments.

During the Pennsylvanian Period, about 325 million years ago, the continents began to merge into Pangea. The collision of North America and Africa crumpled up the Southern Appalachians and the docking of South America extended that collision zone toward the west, lifting the Ouachita and Wichita Mountains. Erosion coincided with this uplift and continues today; having carried away the overlying and encasing sediments, wind and water have left behind outcrops of the ancient rock that formed within the Cambrian rift. Of course, the ridges of the Wichita Mountains, like all ranges on this planet, will eventually wear down to a level plain, their aprons of debris carried off to the sea or dispersed by the wind.

Wichita Mountains NWR protects a portion of this scenic landscape, providing habitat for bison, elk and the more common wildlife of southern Oklahoma. Several of the peaks rise above 2400 feet, offering a cool retreat during the summer months and attracting a wide variety of birds to their oak woodlands. From I-44, about 8 miles north of Lawton, head west on Route 49; the refuge will be approximately 12 miles ahead.

Monday, December 12, 2011

December on the Plains

As I left Columbia this morning, a silver dollar moon beamed in the western sky, illuminating the predawn landscape. By the time I reached western Missouri, the pink rays of sunrise were reflecting from a deck of high, puffy clouds and several flocks of snow geese wavered southward above the rolling farmlands.

Once I entered Kansas a thick layer of clouds covered the sky but rusty grasses of the Flint Hills added color to an otherwise drab landscape. Numerous red-tailed hawks perched along the highway, restless Canada geese moved among the crop fields and a lone Cooper's hawk streaked across the roadway, headed for a valley woodland. The first snow banks appeared west of Hays and snow cover waxed and waned for the rest of my trip, peaking near Colby, Kansas, and along the base of the Front Range. On the High Plains, flocks of meadowlarks, horned larks and longspurs drifted across the fields, ring-necked pheasants foraged along the highway and northern harriers flapped low above the crop stubble, hunting for rodents. Finally, north of Limon, a few herds of pronghorn, the only wild mammals encountered on my journey, roamed the grasslands of the Palmer Divide.

As I approached Denver, the Front Range was backlit by a brilliant sunset and a northeast wind was producing both upslope haze across the city and lowering clouds across the wall of peaks. A significant snowfall is not forecast for the Metro Area but one never knows along this corridor of fickle and ever-changing weather. It is, after all, December.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Nomad in our Soul

Last evening, a flock of cedar waxwings moved across the slate blue sky, heading toward the orange glow of sunset. We birders are fond of waxwings, admiring their agreeable nature, their cooperative behavior, their attractive plumage and, in particular, the carefree independence of their nomadic lifestyle.

We humans, after all, were nomads for more than 90% of our history. Having evolved some 130,000 years ago, during a warm interglacial period of the Pleistocene, we roamed about sub-Saharan Africa for 50,000 years, trapped by a vast desert to our north and deep seas to our east, west and south. Then, as the Wisconsin Glaciers expanded, sea levels fell and the Sahara retreated, permitting our migration out of Africa that began about 80,000 years ago. By 60,000 YA we had reached Australia and by 50,000 YA humans were in Japan; our ancestors arrived in Europe 40,000 YA, in Siberia about 30,000 YA and had crossed into the Americas by 20,000 YA. Throughout all of this time, members of our species moved about in small clans, hunting and gathering to ensure their survival; permanent human settlements would not grace the globe until 10,000 years ago.

Some humans seem to have lost the genetic connection with our nomadic ancestors, preferring to spend their lives in familiar territory, leaving only for an annual vacation to equally well-known locations. However, many of us, fond of travel and adventure, sense the nomad in our soul and heed its call whenever possible.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Unexpected

In the course of our daily lives, unexpected events tend to be of the negative variety, producing hardship and disruption; accidents, injuries, acute illness, plumbing problems and other crises come to mind. Indeed, there are some periods in our lives when we seem to lurch from one crisis to another.

However, for those of us who enjoy the exploration of natural areas, unexpected events are usually rewarding and, in fact, motivate our desire to engage in such activity. Unexpected encounters with various species of wildlife or theretofore unseen plants instill memories that draw us back to the woods, fields and wetlands. It is the anticipation of such experiences that encourage naturalists to visit new areas, whether they are just across town or on the other side of the globe.

Over time, the unexpected may occur less frequently but the potential for its resurgence continues to feed our thirst for adventure. After all, the opportunity to experience nature's hidden and transient gifts is reserved for those who immerse themselves in her varied ecosystems.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Holla Bend NWR

In 1954, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straightened a section of the Arkansas River in an effort to reduce flooding in west-central Arkansas. This detour left an abandoned river bed that dips to the south and, since 1957, Holla Bend NWR has occupied the floodplain ecosystem that lies between the Arkansas and its old channel. Characterized by crop fields, wetlands, shallow lakes and bottomland woods, the refuge is known for its large number and variety of wintering waterfowl; in recent years, this has included trumpeter swans, brought from Iowa in an effort to re-establish a Midwest migratory population.

Attracted by the waterfowl, bald eagles also congregate at Holla Bend during the colder months, as do a number of golden eagles. Permanent residents include greater roadrunners, armadillos, coyotes and a large herd of white-tailed deer while a variety of herons, egrets, rails, shorebirds and summer songbirds inhabit the refuge during the warmer months. Least terns breed at Holla Bend and both American white pelicans and black terns visit on their spring and fall migrations.

Holla Bend NWR is in west-central Arkansas, about 6 miles downstream from Dardanelle. Like most of our National Wildlife Refuges, it is open every day of the year, from dawn to dusk, and is accessed by a network of trails and graveled roads. The waterfowl population, which includes Canada and snow geese and a wide variety of wintering ducks, peaks from December through early February.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Swans over Columbia

At exactly 8:30 this morning, I glanced out a window at the University of Missouri Hospital, just in time to see a flock of swans. Moving east to west over the football stadium, they were too distant and my observation was too brief to make a species identification. Needless to say, the sighting was an unexpected shock to my system and they moved out of view before I could even get an accurate count; my guess is that a dozen swans comprised the flock.

Whether they were tundra or trumpeter swans is impossible for me to say but this was, by far, the largest congregation of swans that I have ever seen in central Missouri. Tundra swans, which breed across the Arctic, generally winter on estuaries along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts though some head south along the Rocky Mountain corridor to wetlands in New Mexico and Texas. Trumpeter swans breed on lakes throughout parts of the Northern Rockies and have been reintroduced across the Upper Midwest over the past few decades; most of these birds stay put or migrate short distances in winter through some banded in the Midwest have been found to migrate as far west as southeast Colorado and as far south as Arkansas.

For the above reasons, I suspect that this morning's flock was comprised of trumpeter swans but I plan to check local rare bird alerts in the coming days to see if others had a better view; if time permits, I'll also pay a visit to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain, which is a magnet for waterfall that pass through our region. Whether I obtain more information or not, the swans provided a brief but inspiring sight that I will remember and cherish for many years to come.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Lessons from the Silk Road

Established more than 2000 years ago, the Silk Road is the popular name for a network of trading routes that connected China with the Mediterranean region. These terrestrial roads and sea lanes facilitated an interchange of ideas, products, materials and food items, fueling the rise of early human civilizations and promoting the growth of large urban centers across Eurasia.

Yet, this vanguard of our modern global economy had negative effects as well. The routes were conduits for the spread of disease, the transport of slaves and the invasion of armies. In addition to the valuable goods, caravans and sailing ships brought political and religious zealots, spreading their message with a mix of promise and intimidation.

While modern technology has increased the speed and scope of global trade, the interaction of human cultures continues to produce benefits and risks. The natural tendencies of mankind, focused on personal welfare and survival, assures an imbalance of resources, an abuse of the poor and the dominance of rich and powerful nations. Epidemics spread more rapidly, armies invade with more devastating force, environmental pollution rings the globe and mysticism is even more effective at staunching the advance of science and fomenting the threat of unbridled population growth. In reality, little has changed since the days of the Silk Road.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Humans & Cold Weather

Most humans, it is safe to say, are not fond of cold weather; we are, after all, tropical creatures, designed to function in a warm climate. While we enjoy an occasional snowstorm, relish the scent of wood smoke and look forward to the winter Holidays, the first taste of polar air triggers a longing for spring that often persists through the season.

Though we cannot shake our subconcious, genetic recoil to cold weather, some of our negative attitude is learned. Children, while naturally oblivious to threats that surround them and seemingly undaunted by the cold and snow, often learn to despise winter by observing and listening to the reaction of their parents. Then there is that human phase, from the teens through young adulthood, when attention to appearance outweighs the importance of appropriate winter clothing, instilling memories of cold exposure that persist through life.

For all of these reasons, many if not most humans come to loathe winter weather and prefer to remain indoors for most of the season. But those of us who recognize the genetic and psychological basis for this attitude and choose to venture out in appropriate winter clothing come to appreciate the natural beauty and tranquility that the season affords.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Winter Sinks In

The dip in the jet stream that brought frigid temperatures, snow and Santa Ana winds to the West over the past few days has broadened out and the atmospheric trough now covers the western two-thirds of the country; this morning, its leading edge extends from south-central Texas to western New York and wintery conditions stretch from this front all the way back to the Pacific Coast.

A reinforcing cold front has also dropped southward through the Rockies, bringing single-digit and below-zero (F) temperatures to the northern parts of that region while low pressure over the Desert Southwest is spinning snow into southern Colorado, New Mexico and West Texas. Light snow is also expected along the southeast edge of the trough, including northeast Texas, northern Arkansas and southeast Missouri. Here in central Missouri, we dodged the precipitation but the temperature at dawn is 27 degrees F and highs are expected to remain in the thirties for the next several days.

Unlike many winter storms that rush in with high winds, heavy snow and ground blizzards, this widespread surge of cold air, not tied to a powerful zone of low pressure, has pushed south and eastward with little fanfare. Nevertheless, it is the first major outbreak of the season and, as it spreads eastward, only South Florida will escape winter's advance.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Darker Days, Brighter Nights

In the American Midwest, winter days are darker and, of course, shorter; sunrise begins later and sunset occurs much too soon. While sunny days come along, most are cloudy and the low sun angle provides little heat. It is, indeed, a gray and daunting season.

On the other hand, winter nights are often ablaze with stars. The dry, frigid air, free of summer haze, provides an unfiltered view of the heavens, a dazzling display of light arriving from the distant past. Though our own sun has retreated to the south, thousands glow overhead, lending perspective to our lives here on Earth.

The depth of our winter darkness is less than three weeks away but solar warming will take much longer to recover. Until then, we can gaze at distant suns, knowing that they are bringing summer heat to countless populations across our vast Universe.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Short-tailed Weasels

Short-tailed weasels, also known as ermine or stoats, are circumboreal in their distribution; in North America, they are found across Alaska and Canada, extending southward to the Northern Sierra, through the higher Rockies to New Mexico, across the Upper Great Lakes region and into New England. These small mustelids favor taiga, stunted timberline forest and open, brushy woodlands along streams; there they hunt for voles, mice, pikas, chipmunks, rabbits and small birds.

Solitary for much of the year, short-tailed weasels mate in summer and, after a period of delayed implantation, an average of 6-8 kits are born the following spring; able to fend for themselves within 2 months, the young disperse by late summer. Adult short-tailed weasels are generally 10-12 inches long and sport a brownish coat with white underparts during the spring and summer months; come fall, they molt to a white pelt to blend with their snowy surroundings though the tip of their tail remains black in all seasons. Like many predators, these energetic and aggressive hunters are primarily nocturnal but may be encountered early or late in the day.

The population of short-tailed weasels tends to wax and wane with that of their major prey species; most live less than two years but some survive for six years or more. Owls, gyrfalcons, coyotes and fox are their primary natural predators and humans have trapped them for their white winter pelts over the centuries. Introduced in New Zealand during the 1800s, these mustelids have since been decimating native bird populations, reminding us that human manipulation of natural ecosystems is frought with danger.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Evolution & Climate Change

Most life forms, including the first unicellular organisms, evolved in tropical ecosystems. Even today, the Tropics harbor the great majority of species on Earth and provide an environment in which new species are most likely to evolve.

Over the eons, adaptation to a temperate or cold climate fostered more diversity as plants and animals dispersed across the planet, continents drifted toward colder latitudes and Earth's climate gyrated between periods of glaciation and global warming. Physical traits such as feathers, fur and fat insulation favored survival in the cold while some species developed behavioral adaptations such as migration, estivation or hibernation to survive in regions with a dramatic change in seasonal conditions.

We humans also evolved in the Tropics but, thanks to our large brains, were able to adapt quickly to colder climates without "waiting" for natural selection to control our expansion; the capacity to utilize fire, produce clothing and construct shelters fueled our dispersal across the globe. Nevertheless, climate change and its associated natural forces continue to challenge our welfare and how we adapt to global warming will determine the future course of human history.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ripples in the Sky

Last evening, after two days of clear, cold weather, a shelf of high clouds stretched across the western horizon, lit by the colorful rays of the setting sun. Along the leading edge of this sheet of ice crystals was a series of ripples, giving the appearance of pink beach sand, molded by incoming waves.

This spectacle was produced by low pressure over the Great Plains, injecting moisture into the upper layers of the atmosphere and creating turbulence as the rising, warmer air encountered the frigid air at an altitude of 40,000 feet. Later in the evening, this thin veil of cirrus clouds moved across central Missouri and produced a halo around the bright crescent moon.

Such high cloud formations usually signal an advancing front and, in this case, a deep trough is forming across the western U.S.; this dip in the jet stream will bring heavy snow and frigid temperatures across the Rocky Mountain corridor and spawn Santa Ana winds in Southern California. Ahead of the front, milder air is pushing up from the Gulf Coast and we'll enjoy a brief respite before winter reclaims the Heartland.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Nature of Teen Rebellion

The rebellious nature of teens and young adults is common throughout human society. Reflecting a surge of hormones and an inborn drive for independence, this trait has surely been important throughout the evolution of our species, triggering the dispersal of clans and preventing the negative effects of inbreeding.

While teen rebellion is a source of strife and stress for many families, it can be mitigated and, in the end, may have many positive effects. Parents with rigid belief systems and an unwillingness to discuss other points of view are more likely to endure significant conflict with their teen-aged children. Though these young adults need guidance and clear boundaries, the rationale for such rules of behavior must be explained and the thoughts and ideas of the teen deserve attention and consideration. Of course, in the end, final decisions must fall to the responsible adult.

On the other hand, society benefits from the energy and fresh input of its youth. Many social rebellions, including the current Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements, are ignited and led by young adults. Having a longer time horizon and more to lose, they are the social group most likely to demand change when rights and opportunities are restricted. While teen rebellion often stems from selfish immaturity, young adults also serve as the conscience of human society.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Basement Crickets

Our unfinished basement and its attached crawl space harbor a modest population of cave crickets, especially during the colder months. Easily recognized by their large hind legs, long antennae, light-brown color and hunched-back appearance, these insects and their cousins are found on all Continents except Antarctica; they are also known as camel crickets and are closely related to the sand-treaders that inhabit desert dunes across the globe.

Natural residents of caves, these crickets feed on a wide variety of organic matter, especially decaying plant and animal tissue. Harmless to humans and other creatures, cave crickets favor dark, moist areas and are thus attracted to basements, crawl spaces and laundry rooms where they are easily caught and relocated if so desired.

Adult females lay up to 200 eggs in each brood, many of which are consumed by beetles and birds; as with other Orthopterans, those that survive hatch into miniature replicas of the adults and grow through a series of molts. In natural areas, adult cave crickets fall prey to a variety of hunters including birds, mice, snakes and toads; while our resident population is seemingly safe from those predators, a Carolina wren has learned to slip through the edge of a dog door flap and frequently comes in to feast on our basement crickets.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Late Autumn Floodplain

On this cold, gray morning, I headed down to the floodplain of the Missouri River, southwest of Columbia. While most of the Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area was closed for waterfowl hunting, there was plenty left to explore and, as always, much to see.

A variety of ducks, oblivious to the distant shotgun blasts, fed and rested on the open ponds; mallards and northern shovelors dominated the flocks, joined by smaller numbers of pied-billed grebes, gadwall, hooded mergansers, wood ducks, coot and green-winged teal. Geese were absent but a trio of sandhill cranes rose from a harvested cropfield, circled overhead and then moved on to the south. Red-tailed hawks and northern harriers were common, as usual, and a lone rough-legged hawk hovered above a meadow, searching for voles or cottontails. The riparian woodlands and adjacent marsh harbored a mix of songbirds, including red-bellied woodpeckers, American goldfinches and swamp sparrows while mourning doves, eastern bluebirds and American kestrels balanced on powerlines, enduring a steady north wind. Finally, massive flocks of starlings and red-winged blackbirds wheeled about the refuge, feasting in the corn stubble or gathering in groves of drowned cottonwoods.

Though signs of beaver activity was evident along the wooded shorelines, mammal sightings were limited to a skittish herd of white-tailed deer and a lone coyote, nosing his way across a field. Nothing terribly remarkable on this raw November morning, just an escape to the stark beauty of a late autumn floodplain.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

An Era of Disrespect

While the quest for power and a disregard for human rights have been evident throughout human history, we seem to have entered an era of disrepect that is especially disturbing. Politicians prefer to ridicule their opponents, corporate executives have little regard for their employees, the wealthy have no empathy for those struggling to survive and religious leaders foment intolerance and hostility within their ranks.

As usual, selfishness feeds this disrespect for those from different cultural, ethnic, political, religious or socioeconomic groups. The drive to protect one's own welfare overshadows any commitment to the rights of others and the importance of personal achievement outweighs the willingness to compromise or to acknowledge the contribution that others have to offer.

Unfortunately, modern technology, which should serve to bring us together, has fostered this tendency toward disrespect and ridicule. The more extreme and outrageous one's point of view, the more attention he or she receives via the ever-expanding social networks. After all, dysfunction and confrontation are more entertaining than is the calm discourse that will be essential to restoring civility in human society.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Escape to the Country

When cold, gray, damp weather invades the Heartland, I often grab a few CDs and head for the countryside. There, the peaceful landscape, placid livestock and, of course, the rural wildlife never fail to lift my spirits.

Faced with such conditions today, I took a drive through the farmlands east of Columbia and, as usual, encountered a wide variety of grassland birds. Red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures soared overhead, American kestrels and eastern bluebirds perched on the powerlines, wild turkeys foraged near wood margins and massive flocks of starlings performed their aerial ballets. Cardinals, blue jays, juncos, meadowlarks and mockingbirds flashed their colors along the country roads while Canada geese and wintering ducks moved between fields and wetlands. Though I hoped to see a flock or two, snow geese did not grace the scene today and resident mammals, often active in such gloomy weather, remained out of sight.

While the wildlife viewing was less than spectacular, the rural scenery and fresh air were certainly worth the journey. Some prefer reading or watching movies when cold, dreary weather sets in but naturalists, like myself, are seldom content to spend the day indoors. Besides, a regular dose of nature, whether shrouded in mist or emblazoned in sunshine, is good for the soul.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Backyard Bluebirds

Yesterday afternoon, my wife announced that two bluebirds were in our backyard. Though she enjoys hiking, gardening and the study of astrophysics, she has never been an avid birder and, since I had never observed bluebirds in our modest sized Columbia yard over the past 14 years, I was more than skeptical. Nevertheless, once I managed to take a look, I saw that she was right.

Eastern bluebirds favor fields and farmlands with scattered trees and are often seen on fences or powerlines in open country. Such habitat is at least two miles from our suburban home and, though we receive an excellent variety of avian visitors, bluebirds had not been on that list. The two males that turned up yesterday were apparently surveying the area for berry shrubs and found one to their liking in the wild border at the back of our property.

Feasting primarily on insects during the warmer months, bluebirds switch to a berry diet in winter, when they often roam the countryside in sizable flocks. Yesterday's backyard sighting was both a reminder that birds often defy our expectations and an admonition that I should be less dubious of my wife's reports.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Detour to the Divide

Leaving our Littleton, Colorado, farm early yesterday morning, low clouds obscured the finale of the annual Leonid meteor shower. The clouds and chilly air were courtesy of a northeast, upslope wind behind a cold front that had pushed across the Front Range overnight.

The prospect of driving across the Plains beneath this low ceiling prompted a detour to the south and I followed US 85 and then I-25 to Colorado Springs. Crossing the Palmer Divide at Monument Hill, just north of the Air Force Academy, I left the clouds behind and descended through the Fountain Creek Valley under sunny skies. Once in the city, I turned east on US 24 and drove across the south flank of the Palmer Divide all the way to Limon, watching the cloud bank lap against the crest of the ridge like an angry sea.

An erosional remnant, the Palmer Divide consists of Tertiary deposits overlying a Cretaceous base. Stretching nearly 70 miles from west to east, it connects the foothills with the High Plains escarpment and separates the watersheds of the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers. Elevations along the crest of the Divide range from 7500 feet at its junction with the foothills to 6500 feet where it merges from the High Plains, northeast of Limon. This geophysical barrier plays a significant role in the regional weather, catching upslope precipitation from the north or south, igniting thunderstorms and granting either Denver or Colorado Springs downsloping winds that warm the air and clear the skies.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Two-Basin River

As soon as the Rocky Mountains crumpled skyward, 70 million years ago (MYA), erosional debris began to fill the valleys and basins between the ranges. This process continued throughout most of the Tertiary Period and, by the Miocene (20 MYA), the terrain across this mountain corridor was relatively flat. A second uplift of the region, from the late Miocene into the Pliocene, followed by the wet climate of the Pleistocene, spawned river systems which uncovered the ranges and scoured out the intervening valleys and basins.

One of these streams was the Wind River of central Wyoming which rose along the east flank of the Wind River range, flowed to the southeast and then turned northward, eventually entering the Yellowstone River in southeast Montana. En route, this river crossed two buried ridges, the Owl Creek Mountains of central Wyoming and the Pryor Mountains along the Wyoming-Montana line; with its course set in the overlying Tertiary sediments, the Wind River carved spectacular canyons through these walls of rock, now known, respectively, as Wind River Canyon and Bighorn Canyon. Since the strata of these east-west ridges were tilted during uplift and faulting, the river exposed rock layers stretching from the Precambrian to the Mesozoic; in Wind River Canyon, the oldest layer, Precambrian granite dating back almost 3 billion years, towers along the canyon's southern mouth while Triassic redbeds, deposited 225 MYA, adorn the canyon at its north entrance.

Today, the original Wind River crosses two major topographic basins (the Wind River and Bighorn Basins), separated by the Owl Creek Mountains; north of Wind River Canyon, the river is now known as the Bighorn River. The Wind River Basin is bordered by the Wind River Range on its west, the Owl Creek Mountains on its north, the southern end of the Bighorn Range on its east and a low divide along its southern edge, separating the Wind River watershed from that of the Sweetwater River. After leaving Boysen Reservoir and flowing northward through Wind River Canyon in the Owl Creek Mountains, the Wind River enters Bighorn Basin and becomes the Bighorn River; the Bighorn Basin is bordered by the Absaroka Range on its west (composed of Eocene volcanic rocks), the Owl Creek Mountains on its south and the Bighorn Range on its east. At the north end of the basin the Bighorn River cuts through the Pryor Mountains to form Bighorn Canyon (described above) and then enters the Yellowstone River, a major tributary of the Missouri.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Up on the Farm

Our Littleton, Colorado, farm has taken on the clean, dry look of the winter season. Nevertheless, since it sits at 5400 feet in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains, I have been enjoying the mild, sunny weather that dominates the Front Range urban corridor for much of the year.

As always, I have spent much of the week working outdoors, mulching, repairing fences and, this time, cutting down and stacking tree branches that were brought down by the October snowstorm. Most of the leaves have fallen and signs of the approaching winter are everywhere, led by the numerous flocks of Canada geese that pass overhead throughout the day; they are now joined by small squadrons of buffleheads, common goldeneyes and other wintering ducks. Townsend's solitaires are down from the mountains, feasting in the junipers with bushtits, robins, house finches and the occasional flock of cedar waxwings. Ring-billed gulls, present all year, are now abundant, gathering at our larger reservoirs as the sun sets behind the Front Range.

Our resident fox and mule deer have kept their distance but a Harlan's hawk, a regular winter visitor on the farm, has made his appearance. Of course, our most conspicuous residents, including fox squirrels, northern flickers and black-billed magpies, have not gone unnoticed. As expected, it's been a pleasant and invigorating week up on the farm.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The God Paradox

When human atrocities come to light, as occurred at Penn State last week, there are immediate calls to pray for the victims; of course, this public piety is led by those who feel personal guilt for their own inaction. Close behind are broadcasters and politicians, sensitive to the faith of their viewers and constituents; after all, one must not offend those who finance your career.

At the same time, justifiably angry citizens call for the heads of the perpetrator and all who covered up the atrocities. Yet, while vilifying the responsible parties, these enraged individuals join the call to prayer, invoking help from a God who seemingly declined to intercede in the first place.

Therein lies the paradox of God in Western culture. Revered as a loving and all powerful deity who takes a personal interest in our human tribulations, he/she gets a pass when it comes to a lack of preemptive action. One wonders why an empathetic God did not defend the innocent victims by striking down their conniving abuser. Religious persons counter with their "free will" argument; I suggest that a cultural delusion explains this paradox.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Rare Bird Season

Since both the number and the variety of birds increase during the warmer months, one might think that rare bird sightings are also most common at that time of year. While this is often true in the Desert Southwest, where Mexican species wander into the relatively cool forests of southern Arizona, rare birds are most often spotted from late autumn to early spring throughout most of North America.

Rare loons and waterfowl such as scoters, Harlequin ducks, Barrow's goldeneyes, oldsquaws and smew often get caught up in migrant flocks of more common species as they move about in search of open water; this is also true for a variety of rare and uncommon gulls. Irruptive bird species, whose numbers vary widely from year to year, move down from the north or out from mountain corridors in concert with the availability of food and the severity of the winter weather. Among these latter birds are snowy and great gray owls, snow buntings, redpolls, crossbills, northern shrikes, Bohemian waxwings, evening grosbeaks and rosy finches. Then there are the inexplicable sightings of summer birds that failed or refused to migrate.

Many of these rare birds turn up on the Audubon Christmas Count each year but may also appear at your local reservoir or in your own backyard. Indeed, one of the joys of birding (and a major motivation for many patrons of that hobby) is the potential opportunity to find rare species amidst the usual cast of characters. While that chance may occur anywhere and anytime, your prospects increase over the next few months.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Nature of Writers

We writers are compelled to commit words to page; many are storytellers, some are journalists and others are academic scholars. All have a certain facility with the language, including an ear for grammar and nuance.

Preferring to express ourselves in print, writers tend to be introspective, if not reclusive, and are seldom fond of public oration. On the other hand, we are generally good listeners and avid observers of the human condition, traits that provide a wealth of material. Nevertheless, like other creative artists, writers often harbor manic-depressive tendencies, leading to periods of intense productivity interspersed with episodes of brooding inertia.

Above all else, writers must write. While our work may be entertaining, educational or inspiring for others, its production is a vital though challenging process for the author. The prospect of getting published, while emotionally satisfying and, sometimes, financially rewarding, is not the primary motivation for most writers; rather, the drive to indulge our passion is reason enough.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A New Canary Island

The Canary Islands are a volcanic island chain off the northwest coast of Africa. Current geologic evidence suggests that this Spanish archipelago developed (and continues to form) above a mantle plume, commonly known as a hotspot. Erupting through Jurassic oceanic crust that formed as the Atlantic Ocean opened, 150 million years ago (MYA), the base of the oldest islands began to take shape during the Cretaceous Period, some 80 MYA, and finally emerged from the sea during the Miocene Period, about 20 MYA. Mt. Teide, 12,200 feet, rises on the island of Tenerife; the highest peak in Spanish territory, it is also the third tallest volcano on the planet.

The Canary archipelago stretches for 500 km, aligned ENE to WSW; the oldest islands, just 100 km off the African coast lie at the northeast end of the chain while the youngest island, El Hierro, just 1.2 million years old, is at the southwest end of the island group. This past summer, earthquake activity began to increase on El Hierro as a new island grew just 7 km off its southern shore; now less than 70 meters from the surface, the newest Canary island spews seawater and volcanic debris into the air and threatens communities on El Hierro with the potential of an explosive eruption.

Like the Hawaiian Ridge, which has developed as the Pacific Plate moves to the WNW across a mantle plume, the Canaries are high points on a volcanic ridge that has formed as the Atlantic province of the African Plate is moving ENE above a similar hotspot. As a new Hawaiian island forms off the southeast coast of the Big Island, a new Canary Island appears at the southwest end of its parent archipelago.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Eastern Screech Owls

Though common throughout the eastern U.S. and Mexico, eastern screech owls are seldom encountered by the casual naturalist. However, like other nocturnal wildlife, they become more active and conspicuous during the colder months and may be seen early or late in the day; since they often inhabit residential areas, November through March is a good time to watch and listen for these small raptors.

Yellow-eyed and less than 10 inches from tail to ear tufts, eastern screech owls may be reddish brown or gray in color; the former are more common along the east coast while the latter dominate in western parts of their range. They roost and nest in abandoned woodpecker cavities or in man-made boxes (intended for flickers, wood ducks or for the screech owls themselves); there the female will lay 3-6 eggs in the spring, foregoing the use of nest materials.

Eastern screech owls are perhaps best known for their eerie call, a tremulous, descending whinny; they also deliver a monotone trill. Feasting primarily on large insects during the warmer months, these nocturnal hunters switch to a diet of mice and songbirds from late autumn to early spring. Newborn screech owls may fall prey to raccoons, snakes, crows and jays while adults are more often killed by great horned or barred owls.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Expecting Snows

This is the week each year when the first wave of snow geese generally passes through central Missouri. The autumn migration of these vocal travellers brings them across our State from mid November to mid December and they return from Gulf Coast wetlands between mid February and mid March.

Conditions for their journey have been ideal over the past two days, with clear skies overhead and a cold, north wind raking the Heartland. Like other waterfowl, snow geese take advantage of tail winds and I have been watching and listening for their passage to no avail. But, based on my experience over the past 14 years, they'll show up soon and I'll pay tribute from below, mesmerized by their wavering flocks.

As I have confessed in previous blogs, migrant snow geese stir my soul. More than any other species, they evoke wanderlust as they move across the sky, proclaiming freedom with their high-pitched calls. One of these days, when the responsibilies of my career have ended, I'll follow them to their coastal haunts and to their Arctic homeland, a nod to their years of inspiration and a gift to my soul.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Unpleasant Topics

This blog, inspired by the writings of Hal Borland, Edwin Way Teale and others (as listed in Recommended Books), tends to focus on the natural landscape of our planet, the natural history of our Universe and the seasonal events of nature's year. But, as a naturalist, I accept the fact that humans are part of nature; while collectively powerful, we are no more or less important than any other species. Nevertheless, our intelligence has spawned industry and technology that, if not properly managed, will threaten the welfare of all species, including ourselves.

In truth, we cannot fully understand nature unless we make an effort to understand human nature, including the physical, emotional and mental traits that govern our lives. In doing so, it is imperative that we acknowledge the dark side of our nature, accept our limitations, understand our impact on other species and learn to improve our lives without compromising the health of natural ecosystems.

This effort to understand ourselves requires that we study the roots of human culture, the origin of our beliefs and the varied manifestations of our shared genome. This commitment also necessitates the willingness to face unpleasant topics, including abortion, infidelity, child abuse, mysticism, zealotry and death, among others. Events of the past week have directed this blog away from the fabulous diversity of our natural world and toward some of the disturbing traits that define our species. Yet, while we stop to dwell on the problems of humanity, the plates continue to shift, the seasons march along and our wild neighbors carry on their struggle to survive.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

When Idols Fall

As Joe Paterno's storied career fades in the shadow of a child abuse probe, we realize that he is just the latest in a long line of idolized individuals who proved to be human after all. Viewed as gods due to their special skills, powerful positions or charismatic personalities, these idols often succumb to personal scandal during their lives or to revelations in their posthumous biographies.

Indeed, it is frequently a flaw in their character that allowed them to achieve fame in the first place. A dominating personality, common to many of our heroes, often comes with a self-centered view of the world, allowing these individuals to focus on their special talents while ignoring those who support them; spousal abuse, infidelity, lack of empathy and self-righteous behavior often blemish their achievements.

We humans do ourselves and our idols a disservice by engaging in celebrity worship. Promoting the conviction that they can do no wrong in our eyes, we set our heroes up for failure, however trivial or serious that might be. It is best that we admire their talents and dedication without saddling them with expectations that defy their humanity; each is, after all, one of us.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Clash of Seasons

For the past two days, a dome of September warmth has covered the eastern U.S. while a trough of December chill dropped across the West; the border of these disparate air masses stretches from Texas to the Great Lakes. Energized by the jet stream and fed by a strong inflow of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, the clash zone has produced a spring-like swath of tornadic thunderstorms, heavy rain and, up north, wet snow.

Here in central Missouri, showers, drizzle and fog dominated the weather yesterday while periods of heavy rain and a few rumbles of thunder passed through overnight. Impeded by high pressure to the east, the front has remained stationary and is forecast to bring more precipitation before cooler and drier air filters in from the west.

While autumn has the reputation as our dry season, outbreaks of spring-like weather are not uncommon and often produce a second tornado season across the Southern Plains and lower Mississippi Valley. Until the jet stream settles to our south, this gyration of seasons will continue and winter must await its final, victorious march across the Heartland.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Winter Thrush

While some members of the thrush family, including bluebirds, robins and solitaires, winter in parts of the U.S., most of the spotted thrushes head south of the border for the colder months. An exception is the hermit thrush.

Known for its beautiful song, the hermit thrush breeds in coniferous forests from southern Alaska to New England and southward through the Sierra Nevada, Rocky Mountains and Appalachians. Come autumn, this thrush heads for mixed woodlands and thickets across much of the lower 48 and Central America. There it is more reclusive, scouring the undergrowth for buds, berries and hibernating insects.

Significantly smaller than a robin, the hermit thrush sports an olive-brown back, rusty tail, white eye ring, spotted breast and white abdomen; its tail-flicking habit also aids identification. Usually found alone, this bird is quiet during the colder months but may begin to sing before leaving for its breeding territory in mid spring. Since it seldom visits suburban areas, you will need to leave your windowside perch and head for a woodland trail to see this winter thrush.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Human Society & Pedophilia

The current revelations at Penn State and the ongoing scandal in the Catholic Church highlight both the insidious and widespread threat of pedophilia and society's failure to adequately address this scourge. While sexual attraction to children, apparently far more common in men than in women, is likely a result of both genetic predispostion and psychological disturbance, it cannot be condoned or ignored by those in a position to protect the innocent.

The Catholic Church, enamored with celibacy, creates an attractive environment for pedophiles, as do other church groups, scouting troops and the varied youth organizations in modern society. While these groups may provide activities, education and counseling that are important to large numbers of children, they are not always structured to ensure that abuse cannot occur. Furthermore, when abuse is discovered, efforts to protect the organization often prevent full disclosure and appropriate intervention.

Parents are the frontline of prevention and should discuss the topic of pedophilia with their children, encouraging them to report any activity that makes them uncomfortable; they must also police, if not totally restrict, travel, overnight programs and home visits with counselors, coaches or youth group leaders. Of course, the organizations themselves must ensure that the potential for abuse is eliminated and society must impose strict regulations governing the activity, structure and oversight of youth groups. Finally, society must enforce the legal protection of children by continuing an aggressive assault on child pornography and child prostitution and by insuring that those adults who do not promptly report incidents of pedophilia are fully prosecuted.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Zealotry & Ignorance

Zealots are so fanatically devoted to their political, religious or philisophical beliefs that they fail to acknowledge or respect other points of view. Self-righteous, they see the world in black and white and loathe the concept of compromise.

Zealotry feeds on ignorance and zealots know that large segments of the population are poorly educated, either by choice or due to the failure of society. They thus target their message to this receptive audience, promising personal benefits to the faithful and warning of threats from non-believers and the established government.

Though we often relegate the title to extremists in human society, zealots are readily apparent in the current Republican primary field, as many of the candidates appeal to an undercurrent of racism, evangelism and militarism among their legions. Cooperation and compromise have become anti-American and any hint of thoughtful engagement is dismissed as the tool of liberal intellectuals.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Preventing Disease

Modern medicine has succeeded in treating most human diseases but, with the exception of vaccines, it has played a limited role in the prevention of disease. While early screening for hypertension, hyperlipidemia and some cancers has certainly reduced morbidity and mortality, public health measures to eliminate the contamination of food, air and water have been far more important to the health of the general population.

Beyond the actions taken by governments to reduce pollution and to educate the public regarding health care risks, the prevention of disease relies on the commitment of individuals to choose a healthy lifestyle. The decisions to not smoke, to consume a well-balanced diet, to engage in regular aerobic activity, to drink alcohol in moderation and to avoid risky behaviors are far more likely to prevent disease than anything the medical profession has to offer.

Preventing disease by adopting a healthy lifestyle also prevents the need for medications and therapies that, themselves, are likely to induce other health problems. While some medical conditions are unavoidable and can be eradicated or ameliorated with modern therapies, the state of our general health is primarily under our own control.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

November Rain

Like the showers of early spring, November rain arrives with cold air and gusty winds. Combined with the gathering darkness of late autumn, this chilly, wet weather is, in my opinion, the least inviting weather of the year.

Primed by a southerly flow that swept mild, humid air into Missouri over the past few days, the cold front arrived last night, the leading edge of a broad atmospheric trough that brought snow to the Mountain West and High Plains. With the primary low to our north, we'll be spared the frozen precipitation but I would prefer a dusting of snow to the chilly rain; the former is invigorating, the latter downright ugly.

Then again, these showers will prepare the landscape for migrant geese and ducks that stream through the Heartland over the following weeks. Wet fields, sloughs and shallow lakes are especially appealing to these travellers, providing nutritious reststops on their journey to the sun. From their perspective, this cold November rain is a vital gift of the season.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Arkansas River

The Arkansas River, 1470 miles long, rises along the Continental Divide in Central Colorado. After flowing southward through one of the most spectacular mountain valleys in North America, flanked by the Sawatch and Mosquito Ranges, the river angles to the east to slice a rugged canyon through the foothills. There it enters Pueblo Reservoir and then begins its long journey across the Southern Plains.

While the Arkansas is the southern counterpart of the Missouri River, it flows through drier terrain and remains rather small for much of its course. However, once in eastern Kansas, eastern Oklahoma and Arkansas, the river enters the moisture plume from the Gulf of Mexico and picks up flow from large tributaries such as the Cimarron, Verdigris, Neosha and Canadian Rivers. Flowing across Arkansas from northwest to southeast, the full-fledged river finally enters the Mississippi a short distance north of the Louisiana border.

Connecting Colorado, where I have spent much of my life, and Arkansas, where I experienced some of my early development as a naturalist, I have long felt a special attachment to this River. In the early 1980s, while working at the University of Arkansas Medical Center, in Little Rock, I spent many days along the Arkansas' scenic valley, exploring wetlands, sandbars, mudflats and riverside forest. It was there that I saw many birds for the first time (including bald eagles, yellow-crowned night herons, black and least terns and painted buntings), stoking my enthusiasm for the great outdoors.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

From Islands to Canyon

Late in the Permian, some 230 million years ago (MYA), the western coast of North America curved through what is now western Idaho. Offshore, a volcanic island arc was forming; this volcanism lasted through the Triassic and was followed by a period of sediment accumulation during the Jurassic, when this Wallowa Terrane merged with the western edge of the Continental crust.

Covered by a thick layer of Miocene basalt as the Columbia Plateau formed (15-17 MYA), the Wallowa Terrane would soon lie between the Blue Mountains of Oregon and the Salmon Mountain Uplift of Idaho. Following the rise of the Tetons (about 9 MYA) and in concert with volcanic upheaval from southeast Idaho to northwest Wyoming, the ancestral Snake River began to form, flowing from the east side of the Tetons to the broad, volcanic plain of southern Idaho. There it fed Lake Idaho, which covered the western half of the Snake River Plain during the late Miocene and early Pliocene, draining to the south.

As further volcanism and uplift altered its hydrology, Lake Idaho spilled to the northwest and the Snake River soon occupied that channel, slowly eroding Hells Canyon through the Wallowa Terrane. Reinforced by the glacial meltwaters and copious precipitation of the Pleistocene, the Snake River has sculpted the deepest chasm in North America (8000 feet in some areas), which was widened by the massive Bonneville Flood, 14,500 years ago. Today, the spectacular cliffs of Hells Canyon expose the geology of the Wallowa Terrane, from the Miocene basalt at its rim to the Permian volcanic rock at its base.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Murder on the Highway

They were half a mile ahead when I first saw them, dressed in black and standing on the highway. Even from a distance, I could tell that they were a pompous bunch, quarrelsome and aggressive. Driving closer I could see the battered corpse, its blood splattered across the road surface, a gruesome scene amidst the fading colors of late October but somehow appropriate on this Halloween weekend.

That murder of crows would likely feast on the carcass throughout the morning before wandering off to harass raptors and annoy humans with their raucous calls. This is, after all, the beginning of their season, when there is plenty of waste grain, winter kill and highway victims to sustain them through the cold, dark months. Celebrating their good fortune, crows gather in large, noisy flocks to wander the countryside before settling down at a favored roost site.

Despised by many humans, these corvids play an important role in nature's cycle, scavenging for leftovers, removing the dead and controlling the population of insects, mice and invasive bird species. Their garrulous flocks are a classic feature of the Midwest winter and their hardiness during this season of death certainly garners my respect and admiration.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

In Praise of Old Barns

Crossing the till plains of the American Midwest, once a spectacular tallgrass prairie and now the productive Cornbelt, is not the most interesting journey on our planet. Fortunately, parcels of forest, scenic stream valleys, a large concentration of raptors and seasonal flocks of waterfowl make the drive more enjoyable. And then there are the old barns.

With all due respect to the architects of our magnificent, ornate cathedrals, old wooden barns are, in my opinion, the most inspiring of man-made structures. While the religious believe that spired churches connect man with his God, old barns surely tie us to the Earth. Farmers have long depended on these wooden buildings to protect their livestock, their harvest and their equipment; at the same time, these scenic structures have provided both food and shelter for a wide range of native creatures, from field mice to red fox to barn owls.

Cathedrals, maintained by devoted parishioners and historical societies, retain their glory through the centuries. Old barns, on the other hand, often reflect their age, a response to the death, infirmity or financial problems of their owner; nevertheless, well constructed barns remain intact for many decades before slowly crumbling under the relentless assault of natural forces. Even then they retain their dignity, providing shelter for wildlife and rustic beauty for human travelers and photographers. Though some of their lumber is recycled for interior decoration, most of these iconic structures gradually fade into the natural landscape, their components recycled by nature's saprophytes.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Summer Wind

Ahead of an approaching cold front, strong southerly winds are raking Missouri today, pushing afternoon highs into the 80s (F). Despite the colorful leaves and browning grasslands, summer has returned to the Heartland.

Our recent drought has left the woodlands tinder dry; seasonal lakes have given way to parched basins and the creeks are but chains of stagnant pools. After a less than stellar autumn display, this gusty, warm wind is accelerating the leaf fall, making it look like November but feel more like August.

Of course, this summer heat will soon be doused by Canadian air. The cold front, advancing across the Great Plains, is due this evening and is forecast to bring showers and much cooler temperatures in its wake; over the coming days, our afternoon highs will be 30 degrees cooler than they are today. Then we'll remember that winter is closing in and that snow geese will soon call from the cold night sky.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Turkey & Earthquakes

Yesterday's tragic earthquake in eastern Turkey is just the latest in a series of tectonic events that have impacted that region over the past 50 million years. Lying at the confluence of four tectonic plates, the Eurasian, African, Arabian and Anatolian, Turkey is one of the most geologically active regions on our planet.

Most of the country sits on the Anatolian Plate, a small continental plate that is surrounded by the other three larger plates. Fifty million years ago (MYA), as the Tethys Sea began to close, the African Plate drifted northward, colliding with southern Europe and forcing up the Alps and associated ranges. Then, about 30 MYA, the Red Sea began to open, shoving the Arabian Plate toward the northeast; its collision with the Eurasian Plate, which, like that between Africa and Eurasia, continues today, has crumpled up the Zagros Mountains of Iran. In eastern Turkey, the Arabian Plate is scraping along and pressing against the Anatolian Plate, forcing the latter to rotate counterclockwise, toward the west; in concert, across northern Turkey, the Anatolian Plate scrapes past the southern edge of the Eurasian Plate. Finally, along its southern rim, the Anatolian Plate interacts with the African Plate via a complex chain of transform faults, compression points and subduction zones.

As these Plates continue to rearrange themselves, pressure builds along the intervening fault lines and, though plate movement is in the order of only 3-10 mm per year, friction eventually fails and an earthquake results. Unfortunately, this pattern will continue and, like Los Angeles and Tokyo, Istanbul awaits a geologic catastrophe.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sunday Morn at Eagle Bluffs

On this glorious October morning, I headed for Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, my favorite haunt in central Missouri. There, on the floodplain of the Missouri River, I was greeted by flocks of horned larks along the entry road, by a lone bald eagle atop a dying shade tree and by the sound of distant shotgun blasts, a reminder that the culling season is underway.

Water birds were relatively sparse on the ponds of the refuge; while coot and pied-billed grebes were common, ducks were limited to scattered, small flocks of mallards, gadwall and blue-winged teal; a pair of ruddy ducks caught my eye and noisy killdeer rushed along the shorelines. Raptors were the highlight of this morning's visit, represented by numerous red-tailed hawks, the lone bald eagle, a few northern harriers and a red-shouldered hawk that rose from the marsh with a snake in his talons. Clouds of red-winged backyards drifted across the floodplain, a few great blue herons stalked the shallows, a quartet of barn swallows rested on a drowned sapling and small groups of yellowlegs foraged on the mudflats.

Many, if not most, Americans attend church on Sunday mornings for their weekly dose of inspiration and humility. I prefer nature, with its bounty of life and its spectacles of death.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Tardy Snowbirds

Since filling the feeder and hanging up the suet block last week, the usual cast of characters have made their appearance. Chickadees, small yet courageous and ever-optimistic, were the first to arrive, followed closely by tufted titmice, their reliable feeding companions. Industrious white-breasted nuthatches soon stopped by, storing most of their larder in bark crevices for later consumption. Downy and red-bellied woodpeckers led the assault on the suet block while mourning doves, cardinals and white-throated sparrows have scoured the ground beneath the feeder, taking advantage of seed scattered by house finches, blue jays and house sparrows.

But one common visitor has not yet arrived in central Missouri (or at least not on our modest parcel of earth). Dark-eyed juncos, commonly known as snowbirds, usually appear by mid October, just as the last of the summer residents are departing for the south. Most abundant along country roads where they feast on the seeds of grasses, wildflowers and so-called weeds, juncos are also common in suburban areas where they forage beneath shrubs and feeders.

Perhaps the conditions in their Canadian homeland are too mild to send them southward but, unlike waterfowl and raptors, their travels are dictated by the solar cycle, not by the weather. Maybe they're already in town but have not yet visited our property; then again, migrant songbirds tend to zero in on the same wintering area each year. One thing is certain: the hardy and attractive juncos will soon join our backyard residents, take advantage of our handouts and brighten my winter.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Swallowtail Butterflies

Despite the recent chilly nights, a few tiger swallowtails were still flittering about our yard on this mild, sunny, autumn afternoon. Members of the genus Papilionidae, swallowtails are represented by forty species in North America and more than 550 across the globe; though their common name reflects a deeply forked tail, not all species harbor that anatomic trait. Birdwing butterflies, the largest members of the genus (and the largest butterflies on Earth), are found in Australia.

After mating, the male swallowtail secretes a sticky substance that plugs the genital tract of the female, ensuring that his genes do not receive competition from another suitor. The female lays her eggs on a host plant (often very specific) and these hatch into caterpillars within a few days. The larvae have several defenses against predation; in their earliest stage, they resemble bird droppings (not terribly appetizing) which molt several times to become large colorful caterpillars with a variety of bright bands and spots (suggesting toxicity). Some species do feed on toxic plants and the ingestion of those larvae can cause sickness or death in some predators; over numerous generations, susceptible predators have "learned" to leave them alone. Finally, swallowtail caterpillars have a gland behind their head, known as the osmeterium, which emits a potent, noxious chemical; while this seems to be effective against other insects and spiders, larger predators (snakes, toads, birds, mammals) are apparently undeterred by its scent.

Among the common North American species are the tiger, black and zebra swallowtails. Tiger swallowtail caterpillars feed on a variety of deciduous trees, black swallowtail larvae (often called parsley worms) feed on members of the carrot family (including parsley, fennel and dill) and zebra swallowtail caterpillars feed almost exclusively on the leaves of pawpaws. Temperate zone swallowtails overwinter as pupae and the beautiful adults spend the warmer months mating and sipping on nectar; depending upon latitude, they produce 2-3 broods each year before cold weather puts an end to their one and only season in the sun.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Nature of Patagonia

Ecologically diverse, sparsely populated and rich in spectacular landscape, Patagonia covers 800,000 square kilometers across southern South America; this includes all of Argentina south of the Rio Colorado and Chile south of Puerto Montt. A product of Andean volcanism, glacial and stream erosion and cold ocean currents, Patagonia hosts a magnificent diversity of flora and fauna.

As the Atlantic began to open, 160 million years ago, the oceanic Farallon Plate began to subduct beneath the North and South American Plates that were forced toward the west; the Nazca Plate, a remanant of the Farallon, continues to subduct today. Volcanism above this subduction zone has produced the Andes Mountains along the west edge of South America and Patagonia is a composite of volcanic bedrock, lava flows, ash deposits and Tertiary sediments, since molded by glacial and stream erosion. The Chilean segment, which extends to Cape Horn, is a landscape of rugged peaks, ice fields, islands, fjords and sea channels while the Argentine segment includes the eastern flank of the Andean Chain, a vast central plateau of high desert, gravel plains, ephemeral lakes and grassland steppes and the varied coastline of the South Atlantic. The cold Chilean and Malvinas currents, rich in plankton, bathe both coasts of Patagonia, attracting a spectacular diversity of sea birds and marine mammals; the latter include Magellanic, rockhopper and king penguins, albatrosses, southern elephant seals, southern fur seals and southern right whales.

Among the terrestrial wildlife of Patagonia are guanacos, rheas, flamingos, Andean condors, Patagonian fox, pumas, a wide variety of rodents and endemic deer such as huemuls and pudus. Adapting to the harsh environment, these animals inhabit a magnificent yet unsettled landscape; as the Nazca Plate continues to subduct, the Andes rise higher, producing intermittent earthquakes, lava flows and ash plumes. Indeed, the petrified forests of the Patagonian plateau attest to the region's turbulent natural history. To learn more about this spectacular ecosystem and to lend support to its protection, visit The Patagonian Foundation's website, listed in the right column of this blog.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Afraid to Live

Catching CNN over lunch, I learned that the American Academy of Pediatrics is now recommending that parents stop using "crib bumpers;" the news report went on to reveal that the deaths of 27 infants have been directly associated with these pads over the past 20 years! While the death of any infant is an unspeakable tragedy, one wonders where crib bumpers rank on the list of risks that these innocent children face.

In the course of any given day, one is bombarded by recommendations from a wide range of experts, warning us to avoid certain foods, activities and products that might harm us in some way. While their points are usually well intended, it is a wonder that any of us open the refrigerator or leave the house. After all, we might choke on food, injure ourselves while hiking or skid on a wet highway.

Unfortunately, the list of risky behaviors and devices is becoming so long that major health risks are trivialized and lost amidst the deluge of warnings. Worse yet, a contagious societal paranoia dilutes the sense of adventure that makes life worthwhile. Too often, we are afraid to live.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Crossing Paths

It is cool, damp and gray in Columbia today, the first winterish day of the season. As tends to occur each year, the arrival of this raw weather sent me out to fill the bird feeder for the first time since late March. It's not so much that our avian neighbors need my handouts as the fact that I need their company during the dark and dreary days ahead.

No sooner had I opened the feeder than I heard the season's first ringing tune of a white-throated sparrow, just back from his summer in Canada and content to hang out in Missouri for the winter months. In sharp contrast, a house wren flushed from a nearby shrubline and landed on an overhanging branch to clean his bill; unlike the white-throat, this insectivore has summered in the Heartland and will soon leave for southern climes where his prey does not succumb to winter's chill.

The two birds have crossed paths here in our Midwest suburban yard which, in a way, is serving as a link between the vast Northwoods and the Gulf Coastal Plain. More than most creatures, birds highlight the interrelationship of widely spaced ecosystems and, as they make their seasonal journeys, their arrivals and departures both mark our natural calendar and link us to distant landscapes.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Evolving Nature of Death

For early man, death was often brutal but generally quick. The frail and injured were culled by predators, infections rapidly progressed to sepsis and an acute insult, such as a heart attack or stroke, was a death sentence. With the rise and advance of medical science, we have gained the ability to prevent many diseases, treat most illnesses and offer a vast array of life extending devices; as a result, human life expectancy has greatly increased but the course of dying has been significantly prolonged.

In recent decades, a general enlightenment has spread throughout human cultures and the concepts of refusing resuscitation, foregoing aggressive care and opting for hospice services have taken hold. Nevertheless, large numbers of brain damaged patients, victims of congenital defects, trauma, stroke or dementia, lie in hospital beds for years or decades, subject to indignities that we hope never to experience. Currently, offering them a quick exit from that existence is not acceptable to most humans, a reflection of religious conviction and social pressure.

While governments, insurance agencies and medical facilities should never force a patient's family to proceed with humane euthenasia, it should be an option when the hope for meaningful recovery has passed. I have no doubt that human society will evolve toward the acceptance of that approach; we already provide this humane intervention for our beloved pets and, once human culture is free of the guilt imposed by religious mysticism, we will extend that empathetic service to our fellow man.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Thailand's Flooding

Extensive flooding across Thailand is the product of both geography and an especially active monsoon season. The latter, which generally stretches from May to October, has been characterized by a large number of tropical storms this year, dropping copious moisture throughout the region; indeed, meteorologists report that rainfall across much of Southeast Asia has been the heaviest in more than fifty years.

Most of the severe flooding has occured throughout the western half of Thailand, the majority of which is drained by the Chao Phraya River System. Rising in mountains across the northern and western borders of Thailand, the tributaries of the Chao Phraya flow inward, toward the Central Plains, where most of the country's agricultural land is found; from there, the merging streams feed the primary river channel, which flows south to the Gulf of Thailand, crossing Greater Bangkok enroute.

While nothing can be done about geography and seasonal monsoons, human suffering from the current flooding is, in part, due to the destruction of wetlands and the development of floodplains. As occurs across the globe, we humans, relying on the narrow perspective of our brief lifespans and on the short-term records of human society, ignore geophysical evidence of past flooding and minimize the importance of natural flood control. Relying on dams, canals and levees, we suffer the consequences.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Canada invades the Heartland

Behind the latest cold front, cool, dry, Canadian air is dropping into the Heartland, pushed along by northwest winds between high pressure over the Rockies and a potent low over northern Michigan. Soon to be reinforced by a second front, this heavenly flow will provide classic autumn weather for the coming weekend.

After flirting with the Midwest this past week, summer has been shoved to the Coastal Plain and, as pleasant as this Canadian weather might be, it represents a significant shift in the seasonal war between summer and winter. Overseen by the full Hunter's Moon, this northern invasion is but the vanguard of winter's onslaught; more skirmishes will follow as Indian Summer makes its glorious appearance but, as we all know, the cold, dark season will prevail.

For now, we'll enjoy the colorful splendor of an autumn weekend, free of summer haze and not yet tainted by winter's frigid breath. Let's hope the Canadian invasion is gradual this year, giving us time to adjust to the seasonal change. Of course, nature will do what she wants.