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Showing posts from October, 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 …

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 th…

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.

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 …

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 …

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, wildf…

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…

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 s…

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…

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…

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 acceptab…

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 c…

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 ti…

An Angry Sky

Last evening, the cold front that had stalled across the Plains for the past week finally pushed into central Missouri. Ahead of this front, a massive black fin stretched across the western sky, its clean, rounded edge pointed to the south. Branched lightening flashed across this ominous cloud, which was backlit by the setting sun; needless to say, it was a striking and spooky scenario.

I witnessed this spectacle as I travelled to the grocery store and noticed that other drivers were peering at the sky as well. Though our region is used to severe thunderstorms, this event was bringing people from their homes, their cameras trained on the other-worldly sky. Fortunately, for Columbia, the storm passed to our south and we only received showers that developed in its wake.

Such natural spectacles help us understand how early human societies, devoid of scientific knowledge, imagined that angry gods were responsible for these fear-inducing storms. Though we can now explain the natural p…

Distant Mountains

A distant range of mountains, rising above flat terrain, is, for me, the most stirring landscape on our planet. While, as a naturalist, I realize that the majestic peaks may have once been a featureless seabed or plain, since crumpled skyward and sculpted by natural forces, they command admiration and respect during my brief lifespan.

To the traveler, the distant range may represent a destination or a milepost. It may promise adventure or warn of difficult passage. Depending on one's perspective, the towering mountains may offer an opportunity for exploration or trigger a sense of danger. Consulting maps, one may choose to head for the highest summits or plan a detour to avoid their treacherous slopes.

I suppose our reaction to distant mountains says a good deal about our approach to life. When obstacles loom in our path we can choose to face them directly or attempt to evade their difficult terrain. Those who refuse to veer from the course may either carelessly crash into t…

Stepping Out

As an outdoors person with an indoor career, I make an effort to get outside at some time during the day. While my walks to and from work are vital to my mental and physical health, they are too purposeful to meet my need for a daily dose of nature.

Of course, my mid-day ventures are only so productive when it comes to wildlife; a group of sparrows in the parking lot, a flock of starlings on a college lawn or a couple vultures soaring overhead may be the limit of my encounter. Natural sounds might consist solely of the crunch beneath my feet, whether from fallen leaves or slushy snow, perhaps pierced by the calls of an arrogant jay. And the smells, sometimes mixed with the aroma of cafeteria food, may arise from fresh-cut grass, putrid mulch or a hedgerow of fragrant lilacs.

Not exactly a chance to immerse myself in wilderness, these brief journeys are, nevertheless, food for my soul. Just the warm sunshine, damp air or frigid wind is a welcome change from the stale, temperature-c…

American Badgers

Other than those that cluster near Madison, Wisconsin, badgers are seldom encountered by the casual naturalist. Though they inhabit most of central and western North America, from southern Canada to northern Mexico, American badgers are primarily nocturnal and are solitary for most of the year. These mustelids, cousins of weasels, otters and wolverines, favor open grasslands and desert scrub; they are thus most common in semiarid prairie regions but may inhabit foothill meadows, glades and oak savannas.

Built low to the ground, badgers are powerful diggers, using their large foreclaws to excavate dens and to reach their prey; the latter consist primarily of ground squirrels, prairie dogs, gophers and other small mammals but may also include lizards, snakes, burrowing owls and large insects. Mating occurs in late summer or early autumn and, following a period of delayed implantation, a litter of 2-5 kits are born in early spring.

Young badgers may be taken by golden eagles, fox or c…

From Drought to Deluge

After enduring a prolonged, severe drought, central Texas is under a flood watch as heavy rains have swept across the region for the past two days and are likely to continue for at least the next 24 hours. A stationary front bisects the country, from north to south, as the jet stream has taken a broad dip across the western U.S.; meanwhile, the eastern half of the country basks in summer-like weather under a ridge of high pressure.

This high pressure, centered over the northeast, is sweeping moisture from the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico up against the cold front and areas just east of the front, from Texas to Nebraska, are receiving the copious cargo. While rain is welcome in the drought areas, this heavy precipitation is unfortunately arriving during the fall harvest, a time when dry weather is vital. In addition, the heavy rain is falling at a rate that cannot be absorbed by the hard, sun-baked earth, producing rapid run-off and subsequent flooding along stream channels.

Both the…

Return of the Hunter

For the past week, Orion the Hunter and his faithful dog Sirius have returned to the southern sky during the predawn hours. Their appearance heralds the culling season, when a deepening chill engulfs the landscape and predators gain the advantage. By mid winter, Orion and his companion will dominate the long, frigid nights and our survival skills will be tested.

For now, Orion shines from the mild morning darkness, lying in wait above the colorful fields and woodlands. We still have at least six weeks of glorious weather before winter takes control; the painted forest has yet to peak, waterfowl are just beginning to fill our wetlands and a new generation of wildlife has yet to experience the frost of autumn.

But the tide has turned and summer is slowly retreating to the south. The days are noticeably shorter, the evening chill comes earlier and hunters sense that their season is at hand. Nature's cycle is nearly complete.

The American Theocracy

As the presidential candidates battle for position over the coming year, they will be free to express their views on a wide range of issues; their opinions on medical care, bank regulation, environmental laws, unions, gay rights and a host of other topics will be considered by the public and, for the most part, respected. But when it comes to their religious faith, there is only one choice that is acceptable to most Americans and the candidates aim to please.

Despite the fact that, throughout human history, Christian factions have attempted to derail science and have been associated with a wide range of atrocities, from the Inquisition to child abuse, professing one's Christian faith is essential to attaining the highest office in America. Though Kennedy broke the Catholic barrier in 1960 and Obama erased the color line in 2008, Romney's Mormon roots are clearly compromising his position within the Republican field. Meanwhile, all candidates are falling over one another to …

The Albertine Rift

The East African Rift is the southern end of a rift system that extends from the Jordan Valley of the Middle East to the coast of Mozambique. Active for the past 40 million years, the rift will eventually split the Continent, opening a sea between the primary land mass, to the west, and a smaller segment to the east. In east-central Africa, a 750 mile-long western branch of this rift system, known as the Albertine Rift, harbors a chain of lakes: from north to south, these are Lakes Albert, Edward, Kivu and Tanganyika.

The Albertine Rift is bordered by six mountain ranges along its corridor; the most famous are the Virunga Volcanoes, northeast of Lake Kivu, and the Rwenzori Mountains, NNE of Lake Edward. The Virungas, home to critically endangered mountain gorillas, lie on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); capped by Mt. Karisimbi, 14,790 feet, the Virungas formed within the rift and are slowly moving to the east. The Rwenzori Mountains, along the borde…

The Elusive Ringtail

The ringtail, named for its bushy, banded tail, is a small, nocturnal omnivore of the western U.S. and northern Mexico. Extremely agile, these cousins of the raccoon favor semi-arid areas with rock outcrops and open woodlands; there they hunt small mammals, birds and lizards and seasonally feast on nuts and berries. Since they are active primarily at night, ringtails are seldom encountered by hikers and campers.

Though often called ringtail cats, due to their size and behavior, they are not felines; once domesticated by miners to control rodents, they are also known as miner cats. Ringtails are solitary for most of the year but pair off in late winter or early spring to mate; the litter of kits (usually 2-4) are born in late spring and stay with their mother through summer. Dens are usually placed in small caves or rock crevices but ringtails are superb climbers and often rest in trees.

Natural predators of ringtails include hawks, owls, coyotes, fox and bobcats. Those fortunate …

October Woods

October is, in my opinion, the best month for hiking through forests of the American Heartland. Then again, in my opinion, it's the best month for just about anything.

The cool air, warm sun, colorful vegetation and relatively dry trails offer ideal hiking conditions. While most of our summer birds have departed for the south, winter residents, such as juncos, yellow-rumped warblers and white-throated sparrows, drift down from Canada, joining the cardinals, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers and other permanant residents. The raucous jabber of blue jays now dominates the birdsong but the yank of the white-breasted nuthatch is perhaps most typical of the autumn woodland.

The seasonal chill also increases the activity of our resident mammals, making them more conspicuous among the colorful trees. The fragrance of fallen walnuts, at times mingled with that nostalgic scent of woodsmoke, drifts through the forest and the sound of acorns, dropping through the canopy, envel…

The Social Nature of Man

We humans are social creatures. Many, if not most, of us belong to groups or organizations related to our hobbies, business, profession, school, religion, political affiliation or some other aspect of our life. Much of this socialization is for enjoyment while our participation in other groups may stem from a sense of obligation or commitment.

Whatever the personal reasons for socializing, there seems to be an inherent tendency in humans to associate with one another; perhaps this stems from the earliest days of human history, when cooperative behavior was essential to the survival of our species. While practical reasons for group participation and networking persist today, the need to belong to cliques, clubs or organizations is also likely of psychological importance for many humans.

Then there are those, myself included, who enjoy solitude and prefer to interact with others as individuals or, at most, in small groups. Some might define this trait as antisocial and perhaps there…

Thoughts on Lake Superior

True to its name, Lake Superior is a landscape of superlatives. Bounded by 3000 miles of shoreline, it is the largest freshwater lake (by surface area) on the planet; indeed, Lake Superior is roughly the size of Maine. While its volume is less than that of Lake Baikal, in Siberia, it holds more water than all of our other Great Lakes combined.

We humans, with our anthropomorphic tendencies, often view Lake Superior as a magnificent yet powerful beast, prone to punishing gales; in reality, it is a complex aquatic ecosystem, enclosed within a glacial basin of ancient rock. While the lake has significant effects on the climate of the lands that surround it, Superior's harsh weather is primarily a reflection of its latitude and longitude; were it in the southern U.S., its reputation would be entirely different. In addition, the character of Lake Superior varies with location, a reflection of prevailing winds, feeder streams and its underwater topography, and its shoreline encompas…