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.