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Showing posts from April, 2011

The Virgin River Staircase

The North and East Forks of the Virgin River rise on the south face of the Markagunt Plateau, in southwest Utah, amidst colorful outcrops of the Claron Formation. From these early Tertiary sediments, the tributaries begin to flow back in time, entering Zion National Park through Cretaceous Dakota Sandstone before carving magnificent canyons of Jurassic Navajo Sandstone; the North Fork has produced the more famous Zion Canyon while the East Fork sculpted Parunaweep Canyon.

The Forks join west of Zion, where the Virgin River begins a journey across Triassic redbeds, interrupted by Quaternary basalt flows along the Hurricane Fault. Beyond St. George, the river dips into the northwest corner of Arizona, where it has carved the spectacular Virgin River Gorge through Permian limestone and older, metamorphosed Paleozoic strata. West of the Grand Wash Fault, which marks the west edge of the Colorado Plateau, the canyon widens and the river enters the stark landscape of the Mojave Desert. A…

Tornadoes, Geography & Natural History

The United States, especially that portion east of the Rocky Mountains, is the tornado capitol of the world, as this month has clearly demonstrated. Having served up three times the average number of tornadoes for April and closing in on the all time monthly record of 543, set in May of 2003, the severe weather outbreaks of April, 2011, have produced almost 500 twisters. Yesterday's swath of deadly storms, which stretched from Mississippi to Georgia, was second only to the super-outbreak of April, 1974, and killed at least 170 while leaving a path of destruction almost 300 miles long; more tornadoes are forecast to plague the mid-Atlantic region today.

Lying between a steady source of cool air from Canada and the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the central and southeastern U.S. is often caught in a clash zone as Pacific storms push across the Rockies and intensify over the Great Plains. This scenario, produced by geography and our regional climate, has been in place for at le…

A Royal Diversion

There's nothing like a royal wedding to divert attention from the many problems facing mankind. As wars rage on, economies crumble, ecosytems deteriorate and countless children go hungry, celebrities from across the globe have descended on London to take part in an outrageously expensive celebration.

We humans, after all, are raised to believe in fairy tales. Myths of all kind cloud our innocent minds and, as adults, we escape to their comfort when the stress of life is overwhelming. Too often, we condone and even foster those myths, willing to bestow special privileges on a small class of human gods.

Many defend these cultural traditions but some of us deplore the practice of granting wealth and power as a birthright while untold millions face an impoverished life at the edge of survival. Hopefully, humans will soon evolve beyond the social customs of the Dark Ages and the resources of our civilization will be directed toward those who deserve our assistance.

Flint Hills NWR

Mention the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas and most of us picture broad, grass-covered ridges with narrow, wooded valleys, grazed by cattle and patrolled by raptors. So, as I headed for the Flint Hills National Wildlife Refuge, southeast of Emporia, I expected tallgrass prairie, bison herds, coyotes and upland songbirds.

In fact, like most preserves in the National Wildlife Refuge System, Flint Hills was established to protect habitat for migrating waterfowl. Stretching along the Neosho River floodplain, this attractive refuge offers a mix of wetland habitats which attract a wide variety of wildlife. In addition to the waterfowl, one can expect to see herons, egrets, gulls, shorebirds, wild turkeys, bald eagles, white-tailed deer and a host of reptiles and amphibians; of course, the numerous insects attract a diverse population of resident and migrant songbirds.

Accessed by short trails and an extensive network of gravel roads, the Flint Hills refuge covers the Neosho River floodpla…

Tornado Central

Last Friday, during my road trip to Oklahoma, a swath of severe, tornadic thunderstorms developed across the southeastern corner of that State. While I was well to the north and west of the storms, their cloudtops loomed to the southeast and I was treated to a few hours of weather coverage by the meteorologists of Oklahoma City.

Since their metropolitan area is second only to Clearwater, Florida, in its susceptibility to tornadoes, these meteorologists are exceptionally knowledgeable about the dynamics of these storms and provide coverage that is both educational and entertaining. Combining information from onsight storm chasers (mapped by GPS on one station) and the latest storm imaging technology, these enthusiatic forecasters keep the citizens of Oklahoma well informed; based on the scientific detail of their discussions, it is also clear that they are speaking to an engaged populace that respects, understands and heeds their advice.

Most televised weather reports focus on the se…

Salt Plains NWR

Driving across the semi-arid, sun-drenched plains of northwest Oklahoma, one would not expect to find many water birds. But, some 25 miles northwest of Enid, one suddenly finds clouds of gulls in the sky, flocks of cattle egrets in the fields, various waders in roadside sloughs and squadrons of white pelicans or sandhill cranes soaring overhead. Here, on the largest expanse of salt flats in central North America, is a watery oasis that provides a welcome rest stop for avian migrants.

Drained by the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River and its meandering tributaries, this sparsely vegetated plain and its seasonal shallows attract migrant cranes and shorebirds and offers choice nesting habitat for American avocets, black-neck stilts and least terns. Wooded marshlands along the northeast edge of the plain teem with migrant and nesting waterfowl, herons, egrets, rails, riparian songbirds and raptors such as barred owls, red-shouldered hawks and Mississippi kites. Open waters of the Great S…

An OK Road Trip

For my annual spring road trip, I decided to head to northern Oklahoma this year. Yesterday afternoon and evening, I wound southwestward through the karst landscape of Missouri under cloudy skies; only the new green leaves and pockets of white dogwood brightened the journey, which was halted in Springfied due to torrential rain and intense thunderstorms.

By this morning, a foggy haze remained but the skies were clearing as I entered northeast Oklahoma. A massive flock of cormorants had departed Grand Lake and were on their way to summer homes across the Great Plains. Cutting away from I-44, I headed west on U.S. 60 and, just past Bartlesville, climbed into the Osage Hills, a southward extension of the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas; as expected, scissor-tailed flycatchers, the State Bird of Oklahoma were abundant on the ranchlands that blanket this ridge and valley landscape.

Dropping from the Osage Hills, I crossed the sandy bed of the Arkansas River at Ponca City (the River is dam…

Illusion in the Gulf

One year after the Deep Water Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, all appears to be well. The blue waters and white beaches are no longer tainted with black swaths of oil, sea birds are not encased in crude and most of the Gulf fisheries have reopened for business. BP and the Federal Government have pulled most of their cleanup crews, fines have been levied and reimbursement funds are trickling through the Gulf Coast economy. Most important to U.S. oil companies, offshore drilling continues in the wake of our country's greatest environmental disaster.

As often occurs after such events, political and industrial response is directly proportional to the degree of media coverage that is generated by the disaster. Once the gushing oil well was plugged, almost three months after the explosion, intense media coverage waned and the commitment of BP faded with the camera lights. The Federal Government, hobbled by debt and a weak economy, lost interest in the Gulf and failed to pros…

Naturalist Philosophy

We naturalists may have our individual areas of expertise but our primary interest is in the diversity of life, the interdependence of plants and animals and the relationship of life forms to their physical environment. And while we enjoy visiting National Parks and Wildlife Refuges, we know that there is a lifetime of nature study within our own communities.

This interest in natural ecosystems spawns a commitment to conservation, primarily through the protection of native habitat; beyond the establishment of nature preserves, we know that unbridled development, environmental pollution and excessive consumption are the primary threats to these ecosystems and that damage to one will, in time, affect all others.

But the overriding tenet of naturalist philosophy is that man is an integral part of nature, not a chosen species, created to oversee, manipulate and plunder our wild neighbors and home planet. This delusion arises from our superior brain power, the one and only trait in which…

Ocean Sunsets

Sunset, whether unfolding behind a range of mountains, amidst the painted skies of the Great Plains or beyond the jagged silhouette of a modern city, is always a beautiful and stirring event. Ocean sunsets, however, seem to produce more emotional impact, as our glowing, orange star drops below the edge of the Earth.

Often witnessed by crowds of humans, whether on beaches, on a ship or on shoreline balconies, ocean sunsets are usually a collective experience, igniting a sense of wonder but dredging up a deep-seated fear, buried in the soul of man. Long before we came to understand the motion of heavenly bodies and the astronomical cause for sunsets, the gathering darkness, frought with a host of natural dangers, was surely a source of concern; whether the sun would return, bringing its life-sustaining heat and light, was not taken for granted.

Even today, as the sun drops behind the sharp line of the sea, this fear, however weak, wells up from our genetic past. While we might not ac…

Why Fish Jump

On our regular visits to Longboat Key, I routinely spend a few evenings sitting along the edge of Sarasota Bay. There, in the hour before sunset, squadrons of pelicans, gulls, terns and wading birds drift above the calm waters of the bay, returning to their nightly roosts. Other than the occasional squawk from a night heron, natural sound is limited to the numerous and regular splashes of jumping fish, scattered across the inlet.

Why do these fish jump? This question has surely been posed since the dawn of man. While science has offered several explanations for such behaviour, ranging from attempts to evade predators to zealous attacks on surface insects, it seems to me that, in most cases, a less functional trigger is involved. I suspect that, in most instances, fish jump from the water for the same reason that humans dive into it: it's a pleasurable experience.

While the natural imperative of genetics-driven life is to survive and reproduce, all creatures are equipped with …

Manipulating God & Men

Led by the Bishop of San Angelo, there will be a day of prayer across West Texas to combat that region's severe and persistent drought. Convinced that their God monitors and controls every aspect of their lives, from supernova explosions to weather patterns to high school football scores, this plan suggests that he/she is also a whimsical being, condoning hardship and suffering until appeased by prayer and sacrifice.

Of course, should their efforts prove to be successful, the event will be a splendid marketing tool for a Church that continues to struggle with past scandals and an ongoing loss of parishioners. What better way to stem this tide than to deliver heavy rains to a parched landscape, a scenario right out of the Bible.

Whether the call to prayer is intended to manipulate God or potential believers, either target should be offended by the implications. In the first case, God is framed as sadistic and petty while, in the latter, humans are judged to be ignorant and gulli…

Fish Crows

Endemic to the Coastal Plain of the eastern U.S., from Texas to New England, fish crows are smaller than their inland cousins and commonly forage on beaches, willing to consume anything edible that washes ashore. Nevertheless, they, like other crows, are omnivorous and feast on a wide variety of natural foods, including eggs, fruit, insects, waste grain and carrion.

Aside from their preferred habitat, fish crows are best identified by their distinctive call, a two note "unh-unh," with the first note higher pitched than the second. In addition, unlike their garrulous cousins, these crows are usually seen alone or in pairs; mated couples place their nest high in a tree that borders the coast, a large stream or a wetland and the male feeds his partner while she incubates the eggs.

Expanding their range in recent decades, fish crows are now found far from the shore but still favor moist bottomlands that characterize major river floodplains. Wherever we might encounter these b…

April on the Beach

An April walk on Longboat Key's beaches offers many clues that change is in the air. Laughing gulls, now adorned in their black summer hoods, have abandoned their large, noisy flocks and rest in pairs on the sand or cuddle on channel markers. So too have royal terns selected their breeding partners and hunt in pairs above the gulf swells or placid bay waters.

Lanky willets, having wintered in small groups, now gather in large flocks, preparing to depart for the Northern Plains; a minority will remain in Florida throughout the year. Sanderlings, having spent the winter racing ahead of waves in harmonious flocks, are now testy, chasing one another across the beach; other migrants, including black-bellied plovers, ruddy turnstones, red knots and short-billed dowitchers are molting to their breeding plumage and will soon abandon their winter home. In contrast, flocks of least terns have arrived from wintering grounds in Central America and will now disperse to isolated beaches of …

Ted Sperling Park

On our regular trips to Longboat Key, Florida, we have visited a large number of State Parks and nature preserves along that region of the Gulf Coast. But, having done so for 8 years now, we just recently discovered Ted Sperling Park, at the south end of Lido Key.

Though relatively small, this Park offers a pleasant mix of barrier island ecosystems, including Sarasota Bay, a major inlet, tidewater lagoons and coastal woodlands; the latter are dominated by introduced Australian pines but also include sea grapes, Florida cedars, native palms, mangroves and a variety of sand tolerant shrubs, grasses and wildflowers. Birders will find an excellent mix of coastal species; herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills, ibis, anhingas and wood storks feed in the backwater shallows while pelicans, cormorants, terns, gulls, ospreys and red-breasted mergansers fish on the open waters of the bay.

Those of us from northern, deciduous latitudes are often disappointed by the relative lack of terrestrial bir…

Songbird Tsunami

While a few summer residents, such as tree swallows and eastern phoebes, arrive in March, the great majority return between mid April and early May; the first wave is often represented by brown thrashers, indigo buntings, house wrens, chimney swifts, chipping sparrows and ruby-crowned kinglets.

This songbird tsunami builds in late April as ruby-throated hummingbirds, gray catbirds, northern orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, tanagers, vireos and migrant warblers appear in our trees and shrubs. By early May, common nighthawks, late warblers and a variety of flycatchers reach the Midwest, safely behind any freeze that might threaten their insect diet.

As this annual influx of spring migrants and summer residents winds down, the early nesters, including robins and morning doves, are already raising their first brood of the season and our suburbs are alive with a colorful and noisy array of birdlife. Feasting on spring's bounty of nectar and insects, this avian population explodes …

The Scent of Green

Here in the American Midwest, it is usually mid April when we get our first whiff of freshly cut grass. Often spawned by the efforts of a fastidious neighbor, trying to annihilate the first crop of dandelions, the familiar smell wafts about in the warm, afternoon breeze, confirming the fact that winter has faded to the north.

More than a sign of the season, the odor of cut grass, like that of wood smoke, is sure to trigger memories of our youth; visions of Little League baseball, backyard cookouts and suburban parks all come to mind. Of course, it also conjures up the exasperation of those seemingly endless teenage chores and the hot, muggy air of a Midwestern summer.

While a manicured lawn is both the pride of American homeowners and an affront to nature's sensibilities, the fragrance of grass clippings is welcomed by gardeners and naturalists alike. It is, after all, the scent of green.

Unplanned Parenthood

It appears that the Republicans in Congress are willing to shut down the Government to prevent public funding of Planned Parenthood. Apparently, these politically astute, God-fearing, church-going, flag-waving politicians favor unplanned parenthood. One wonders how many of them have adopted unwanted children.

Contrary to the self-righteous claims of pro-lifers, no woman wants to have an abortion; indeed, too many women who do not have the emotional constitution or financial means to support children try to become pregnant. The focus must shift to preventing pregnancy; educational programs and the widespread availability of contraceptives (including the morning after pill), while long opposed by conservative religious groups, are the keys to eliminating abortion. Adoption, hailed as the honorable alternative to abortion, is frought with emotional turmoil for all involved.

Conservative Republicans are quick to demonstrate their piety and to defend religious freedom; unfortunately, t…

Annual Guess from CSU

Almost two months in advance of the 2011 hurricane season, the soothsayers from Colorado State University have released their annual guess regarding the number and severity of Atlantic storms. Their current prediction is close to the average data for Atlantic hurricanes but, as usual, their forecast will be updated over time.

While it is both interesting and educational to learn how hurricane incidence and intensity is dependent upon ocean temperatures, wind patterns and climate change, such folly from CSU degrades the legitimate science of oceanic meteorology. In my limited experience, their forecast accuracy approaches that of the Farmers' Almanac and they might as well switch their attention to NCAA bracketology. Perhaps other universities will begin to offer their own hurricane predictions and a lottery could be established; profits might be directed to mental health facilities that must deal with anxiety induced by such forecasts.

Despite the fact that their "educated…

Canadian Ground Crew

They arrived last October, riding the cold north wind, content to spend their winter vacation in the chilly, gray confines of the American Heartland. For the past six months, they have scoured the ground beneath our wood borders, thickets, shrub rows and feeders, feasting on a wide variety of seeds.

Natives of the vast Canadian forests, dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows are among our most common winter visitors. Oblivious to the cold and snow, they survive on nature's prolific seed crop and, by doing so, keep our weed population in check. Of course, they also indulge in human handouts, devouring seed that is spread about by their squabbling cousins.

As the days lengthen and balmy conditions return to the Midwest, these Canadians long for the cool climate of their native country. Juncos begin to disappear early in April and, throughout the month, the homesick tune of the white-throated sparrow increases in intensity. By May, when the threat of snow and ice has final…

Advantage: Underdogs

As became evident in the NCAA Tournament this year, the most talented teams and individuals do not always win. Indeed, one might argue that favored teams are at a distinct disadvantage.

We humans are emotional creatures and our teens and young adults are especially sensitive to the expectations of peers, friends, family and the public at large. Pressured by the fear of disappointing them, the athletes strive to succeed and, should they falter along the way, their self confidence quickly erodes. Underdogs, on the other hand, are not burdened by the internal or external pressure to meet lofty expectations; they are free to focus on winning rather than playing not to lose.

In the modern era, when victory is tied so closely to financial rewards and colletive self-esteem, fans and institutions exacerbate the pressure that comes with a high ranking and, as we have seen, upsets often result. Parents and coaches who understand the relationship between confidence and success learn to fost…

High Wind Warning

Much of the Heartland, from Dallas to Chicago, is under a high wind warning today as the latest spring storm pulls out of the Rockies. These south winds, developing ahead of the cold front, will prime the region with Gulf moisture, setting the stage for severe thunderstorms this evening and overnight.

While the warning advises of potential damage to trees, structures and high profile vehicles, the winds are also an omen of a dramatic change in our weather. Since they reflect a significant pressure gradient in the atmosphere, these strong winds warn us that the storm's low pressure is deep, that the clash zone will ignite potent storms and that the fall in temperature behind the front will be substantial.

Since the storm's center is now over South Dakota, today's winds will be warm and southerly. As this potent system moves on to the east and the cold front sweeps through the Heartland, the winds will shift from the northwest, ushering in chilly air and wrap-around showe…

Full-blown Spring

Twelve days after the spring equinox, we are enjoying the first convincing weekend of spring. A benevolent jet stream curves far to our north and warm air is flowing into Missouri. Greenery has climbed into the younger trees, dandelions glow along the roadsides and a host of fruit trees are in bloom.

Down at our local nature preserve, aquatic turtles have emerged to bask in the afternoon sun, leopard frogs are calling from their marshy haunts and clumps of wild iris have pushed through the boggy stream banks. Eastern phoebes, tree swallows and eastern bluebirds were feasting on clouds of insects, garter snakes slithered through the trailside grass and a trio of vultures tilted in the steady, southwest breeze. Wood ducks, coot and mallards plied the seasonal lake, flickers called from the woodlands and a lone woodchuck, fresh from his long hibernation, gorged on the bounty of a full-blown spring.

A higher sun and longer days are fueling this rush toward summer and winter has lost it…

Otter Slough Conservation Area

Established to protect wetland habitat on the Mississippi River floodplain, Otter Slough Conservation Area covers almost 4900 acres in southeast Missouri. In early April, waterfowl migration remains in full force and a wide variety of ducks stop to rest and feed on the shallow lakes and flooded fields; Otter Lake, at the north end of the preserve, is a cypress-tupelo swamp that is especially attractive to wood ducks, hooded mergansers, double-crested cormorants and migrant ospreys.

As the month progresses, the waterfowl diminish and waves of migrant shorebirds arrive at the preserve, attracted to the seasonal pools, sloughs, wet fields and adjacent rice paddies; joining the usual species are less common visitors such as American avocets and black-necked stilts. Bitterns and rails are attracted to marshy areas and a wide variety of wetland songbirds nest in the cattails and riparian woods. Toward the end of April, Otter Slough is an excellent site to observe migrant warblers, flycat…