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Showing posts from April, 2012

Divisions of Hunting

To my knowledge, all States have a Division of Wildlife or a Department of Natural Resources, charged with protecting that State's native fauna and flora as well as cooperating with federal programs to manage wetlands for migrant waterfowl. Beyond their role in protecting open space, these State agencies also participate in the restoration of natural habitat and the reintroduction of once native species. In the course of doing so, they provide vital habitat for a wide range of plants and animals and extend the opportunity for many citizens to study and observe their wild neighbors.

Nevertheless, these Divisions and Departments are, to a large extent, funded by revenue from hunting licenses and their publications, while paying homage to a diversity of wildlife, tend to focus on hunting and fishing opportunities on the lands that they manage. Of course, one can be both a conservationist and a hunter and, unfortunately, hunting has become essential to the control of species such a…

Caught on the Track

For the past 24 hours, a stationary front has stretched from the Southern Plains to the Great Lakes, separating cool, drier air to its northwest from warm, humid air to its southeast. Bisecting Missouri from southwest to northeast, it passes across the Columbia area, bringing intermittent heavy rain and thunderstorms as pulses of atmospheric instability have moved along the front.

Since the front is not connected to a potent storm system, tornadoes are unlikely but intense lightening, hail and periods of torrential rain have occurred and are expected to persist through the day. Of course, when these thunderstorms train along a stationary front, flooding often develops beneath their path and our creeks will soon be bank-full if the storm track does not bow northward or shift to the south and east.

On the positive side, the copious precipitation will nourish the verdant tide of spring, triggering an explosion of insects for the warbler wave and our returning summer residents. With ho…

The Illinois Basin

Like the Michigan and Permian Basins, the Illinois Basin is a structural bowl of Precambrian basement rock within which younger layers of sedimentary rock have accumulated. This bowl, which covers the southern 75% of Illinois, the southwestern 40% of Indiana, western Kentucky and a small portion of northwest Tennessee, is surrounded by structural "arches," uplifts of the deep, ancient Precambrian rock; these include the Kankakee Arch to the northeast, the Cincinnati Arch to the southeast, the Wisconsin Arch to the north, the Mississippi River Arch to the northwest, the Ozark Uplift to the west and the Pascola Arch to the southwest.

Three miles deep at its center, this broad basin of Precambrian rock, 1.3 billion years old, accumulated layers of sediment throughout much of the Paleozoic Era (from 600 to 270 million years ago); the great majority of these deposits occured within shallow seas, which invaded and retreated from the basin at least 50 times during that period, whi…

Sage Grouse Saga

Greater sage grouse, the largest grouse in North America, inhabit sage grasslands of the Intermountain West, from Colorado to the Columbia Plateau and from southern Alberta to southern Utah. Closely tied to their habitat, these grouse feed solely on the sage plant in the winter while supplementing that diet with a variety of forbs, insects and grasses during the warmer months. Unlike many game birds, they do not possess a muscular crop and cannot digest hard seeds.

Come spring, sage grouse gather in clearings (known as leks) at dawn and dusk, where the dominant males attract mates with ritualized strutting, tail fanning and a variety of noises from their air sacs; most of the females mate with only one or two of the performers. Nests are placed on the ground and females are solely responsible for both incubation and protection of the young; six to twelve eggs are generally produced. Able to forage soon after birth, the young are vulnerable to a wide range of predators, including s…

The Nature of Dissent

Dissent is the fortitude to challenge established doctrine, whether formulated by governments, religious organizations, industry or other social groups. While the leaders of those organizations often view dissent as a threat to their power, it is essential to the development and maintenance of fair and effective policies.

Reasoned and rationale dissent insures that laws are established and imposed without discriminating among social groups, whether based on gender, income, race, culture, religion or other human traits. Though often dismissed as rebellious or unpatriotic, dissent is vital to any democratic system and governments or organizations that attempt to suppress or limit its expression will eventually suffer the consequences.

The steady advance of human knowledge has always been guided by dissent, a willingness to question assumptions that, in the end, proved to be inaccurate. Nevertheless, at each stage of human civilization, social pressure offered resistance to such chang…

Back from Argentina

Swainson's hawks are back from their winter in Argentina. Working on our Littleton, Colorado, farm today, I observed several of these large buteos cavorting overhead, soaring, hovering and stooping, as if to display their pleasure in having completed a long migration. Indeed, making a roundtrip journey of more than 4000 miles each year, Swainson's hawks travel further between breeding and wintering grounds than any other American raptor (with the possible exception of Arctic breeding peregrine falcons).

Monogamous, these hawks are highly territorial during the breeding season and their high-pitched calls are commonly heard from the time of their arrival in spring until their chicks are fledged. Nests are generally constructed in large, solitary trees in open country and may be used repeatedly over the years. The female incubates the eggs and the male brings food during that time; once the chicks hatch, both parents hunt for food, which generally consists of small mammals, …

Warfare, Stress & Atrocities

Yet another story of U.S. military misbehavior in Afghanistan has surfaced today, at least the fourth revelation in the past year. Deplored by the Department of Defense, the Military Leadership and other Administration officials, the behavior was decried as an embarrassment to the United States and dismissed as not representative of the vast majority of American soldiers.

Of course, these reactions are expected and serve to assure the American public that such events are rare and that they undermine the goals of our vital mission. While many are shocked to learn of inhumane behavior by our troops, it is likely that these reports merely scratch the surface when it comes to the atrocities witnessed and/or performed by participants in human warfare. Enduring extreme stress, including the possibility of imminent death, it is understandable that soldiers lose touch with the personal boundaries that may have governed their civilian lives. To deny that humans are capable of such acts in …

Long-Billed Curlews

While crossing the stormy Plains yesterday afternoon, I encountered a small flock of long-billed curlews, attempting to fly into the teeth of an icy north wind. After wintering along the western Gulf Coast, in South Texas, in Southern California or in Mexico, this largest American shorebird returns to grasslands of the High Plains, Great Basin and Columbia Plateau for the warmer months.

Once on their breeding grounds, couples engage in courtship rituals, including dances, looping flights and preliminary nest site scooping by the male. The female eventually selects one of his open ground sites, engages in additional scooping and collects a variety of plant materials to place in the floor of the depression. Four eggs are deposited and incubated by both parents; like many game birds, the young are able to move about and feed soon after hatching and are attended by both parents for a week or so. Thereafter, the female parent departs to join other wayward mothers and juveniles in large…

Crossing the Storm

After stewing in the warm sector of our latest Pacific storm for 36 hours, enduring periods of heavy rain, intense thunderstorms and interludes of steamy sunshine, we left Columbia this morning, bound for our Littleton, Colorado farm. Having checked the Weather Channel before our departure, we noted that the storm system's upper level low was still centered over western Kansas and that its dry line, responsible for the wealth of tornadoes over the previous 24 hours, was about to reach Kansas City.

Fortunately, the severe weather was down in northeast Oklahoma and we left the balmy air of Missouri as we crossed through a modest band of rain showers and entered cooler, drier air in eastern Kansas. Sunny conditions persisted into central Kansas but once we reached the Smoky Hills Wind Farm, its massive turbines spinning in a strong south wind, a band of clouds appeared across the western horizon. We soon realized that the clouds represented the eastern wall of the storm's low …

Nostalgic Birding

When I pull out my old Birds of North America, by Robbins et al., words such as Lonoke, Keo and Scott appear in the margins, indicating first sightings of various birds. These are towns east of Little Rock where my birding jaunts increased significantly in the early 1980s. On my visit to eastern Arkansas this past week I was thus anxious to revisit these areas, recognizing their importance in my life and hoping to relive some of those birding memories.

As one might expect after 30 years, the landscape had changed, though not nearly as much as one might find in large urban areas of the country. Development had taken its toll on some of the fields and wetlands that I had once explored while access to others had been withdrawn. Just west of Lonoke, a large group of man-made catfish ponds had once been the local hotspot for waterfowl viewing and it was there that I first saw many species; while the ponds and ducks remain, "private property" and "no trespassing" sig…

A Stormy Morning at Eagle Bluffs

Veteran birders know that high winds and heavy rain are the least favorable weather conditions for productive birding since most birds will take cover until conditions improve. Then again, if you plan to observe aquatic species from the comfort of your car, rainy weather can have its advantages. Waterfowl and waders could care less about the presence of rain and some birds, such as rails, are best seen on dark, cloudy, rainy days.

With such positive thoughts in mind, I headed down to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area this morning, a superb wetland refuge on the floodplain of the Missouri River. To my surprise, I was greeted on the entry road by a scissor-tailed flycatcher, the first I had ever encountered in central Missouri. As expected in mid April, the waterfowl were abundant, dominated by northern shovelers, blue-winged teal and American coot; some wintering species were also present, including lesser scaup, ring-necked ducks and a few canvasbacks. Other aquatic birds included a…

Bald Knob NWR

Many nature buffs are familiar with National Wildlife Refuges such as Horicon, Squaw Creek and Aransas. But there are many others that evade the attention of the general public, some of which are close to home and readily accessible. One such refuge is Bald Knob NWR, just east of Searcy, Arkansas (and south of Bald Knob), at the western edge of the Coastal Plain. Established less than 20 years ago to protect wetlands along the Little Red River, this refuge blends with the the Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake WMA, to its east; spring flooding along the White and Little Red Rivers often precludes entry to southern and eastern sections of the combined preserves.

Characterized by agricultural fields, man-made ponds, sloughs and bottomland timber, the Bald Knob NWR is accessed by a network of graveled roads and earthen trails, most of which run atop levees. On my visit this morning I encountered mixed flocks of ducks and coot, migrant shorebirds, numerous killdeer and a flock of at least 100 …

White River NWR

The bad news? White River NWR is currently flooded and almost totally inaccessible to humans without boats. The good news? White River NWR is currently flooded and is almost totally inaccessible to humans. How refreshing to discover that we have at least one portion of a major river that has not been channelized, dammed or corralled by levees for the benefit of human recreation. And, of course, letting rivers flood is essential to protecting what little remains of bottomland forests along the Mississippi Valley and elsewhere on our planet.

Established in 1935 to protect wintering habitat for waterfowl as well as this remaining tract of swamp forest, White River NWR hosts up to 350,000 ducks and geese each winter and is home to a wide range of wildlife, including American alligators, black bears, bald eagles and, possibly, ivory-billed woodpeckers. Though my observations were limited to fringe areas today, graveled roads and five trails provide access to the heart of the refuge w…

From Ozarks to Coastal Plain

Leaving Columbia this morning, I headed south on U.S. 63 and crossed the Missouri River at Jefferson City. After jogging east to cross the Osage River, this highway turns south once again, climbing into the Ozarks between the valleys of the Osage and Gasconade Rivers; dipping to cross the latter north of Rolla, it finally reaches the hydrologic divide of the Missouri Ozarks at Cabool, passing from the watershed of the Big Piney River (a secondary tributary of the Missouri) to the watershed of the White River of northern and eastern Arkansas.

At Batesville, Arkansas, I stopped to photograph the White River as it emerges from the Ozarks; though not as well known as our major Midwestern Rivers, the White is a large and powerful stream, taking in copious flow from both northern Arkansas and much of southern Missouri. Indeed, all through eastern Arkansas, signs near the White River warn drivers not to cross flooded roads and, this year, the river has spilled across its floodplain just ea…

White River of Arkansas

Just over 720 miles long, the White River heads on the north slope of the Boston Mountains in northwest Arkansas. Flowing north and gathering tributaries, it passes through Beaver Lake and then loops across extreme southwest Missouri, primarily within Table Rock Lake and Bull Shoals Reservoir.

Dipping back into Arkansas, the White River receives the flow of the Buffalo River, which drains the eastern portion of the Boston Mountains, and then joins the North Fork of the White, which carries runoff from much of south-central Missouri before passing through Norfolk Lake. At Batesville, Arkansas, the White River leaves the Ozark Uplift and enters the broad, flat Coastal Plain of North America, coursing east to merge with waters of the Black River and then winding SSE all the way to its junction with the Mississippi (just north of the latter's junction with the Arkansas River). En route, it takes in flow from the Little Red River, coming from central Arkansas, and numerous meanderin…

Easter Awakening

By the spring of my 28th year, I was bored with the rituals of the Catholic Mass and had come to renounce the vindictive God of Western religions. So, on that Easter morning, I elected to forego a church service and paid a visit to our local arboretum. There, undistracted by public piety, I found solitude, natural beauty and quiet inspiration.

On that mild, sunny morning, I walked slowly through the forest, stopping on occasion to listen to the birds or to view the spring wildflowers. Approaching a secluded pond, I caught sight of a mother wood duck and her brood, gliding silently across the calm water. It was that encounter, thirty four years ago yet still clear in my memory, that set the stage for the naturalist philosopy that I have since adopted. Ever since that Easter morning at the arboretum, nature has been my church.

Beyond relishing the peace and inspiration offered by the natural world, I have come to despise the divisive force of organized religion, which, by its very …

Bombay Hook NWR

One of the most renowned birding locations along the Eastern Seabord, Bombay Hook NWR stretches along the northwest shore of Delaware Bay, about 10 miles northeast of Dover. Established in 1937 to protect wetlands for migrant and wintering waterfowl, this 16,200 acre refuge offers spectacular wildlife viewing throughout the year.

From mid April through early June, large, mixed flocks of shorebirds descend on Bombay Hook as they make their way toward Arctic breeding grounds. Attracted by the vast tidal marshes and mudflats of the refuge, they are also drawn by the nutritious eggs of horseshoe crabs which fill the shallows in May. Joining the shorebirds are a wide variety of waders, gulls, terns, raptors and migrant songbirds. Among the many species that nest at Bombay Hook are bald eagles, ospreys, clapper and Virginia rails, least and American bitterns, black-necked stilts, barn owls, sedge and marsh wrens, blue grosbeaks, fish crows, seaside sparrows and salt marsh sharp-tailed s…

Mountain Bluebirds

By April, mountain bluebirds are returning to Colorado, having wintered on the Southern High Plains or in the Desert Southwest. The sky blue males are the first to arrive, searching for nest cavities which they use to attract a mate; those settling in the foothills, canyons and mountain valleys must compete with western bluebirds and violet-green swallows for those treasured sites.

Once the grayish females arrive, mountain bluebirds pair off and begin their nesting activities; while the males provide token assistance, the female takes charge of the nest construction, most often tucked within a tree cavity but sometimes in a rock crevice or a gap in an old cabin. Favoring open woodlands, mountain bluebirds may be found from the ponderosa parklands of the Colorado foothills to the krummholz at the alpine timberline; those that nest at lower elevations sometimes raise a second brood later in the summer.

Mountain bluebirds breed and summer in the mountain ranges of western North America…

April Encore

April, last seen in central Missouri back in early March, has returned to the Heartland. Cool and showery weather, more typical for this time of year, has displaced the summer-like warmth that dominated the last few weeks. As I walked into a chilly east wind and misty air this morning, it was 47 degrees F; today's high should stay in the fifties and tonight's low is expected to dip into the thirties.

The culprit for this dose of reality is a potent upper level low, the same system that produced the Texas tornadoes and Front Range snow earlier this week. Now parked over the central Mississippi Valley, it is pulling down cool air from the Great Lakes region while also drawing moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. As a result, thunderstorms will rumple across the Deep South while the rest of the eastern U.S. will experience the seasonal invasion of chilly April showers.

After the exceptional heat of March, many in the Midwest and East likely anticipated an unbro…

Urban Tornadoes

Most Americans over age 50 associate tornadoes with open country, posing a risk to cropfields, barns and small, rural communities. We long assumed that these spectacular storms could only develop over flat terrain and that the varied topography of cities would tear them apart.

However, in recent decades, as occurred yesterday in Dallas, we have witnessed an increasing impact of tornadoes on large, urban centers. Some surely see God's hand in this apparent turn of events, punishment for the decadence and sinful behavior of the urban elite; perhaps the storms are directed toward Planned Parenthood Centers or non-Christian communities.

In reality, this increased incidence of urban tornadoes reflects the same process that threatens the Florida panther and corrals prairie dogs into tiny plots across Metro Denver. Suburban sprawl and commercial development are eliminating vast tracts of open space, urban areas are merging with one another and natural habitat is rapidly disappearing. …

The Western Ibis

Cousin to the glossy ibis of the Southeastern U.S., the white-faced ibis winters along the Gulf Coast (from Louisiana to Texas), in valley wetlands of central and southern California and in Mexico. While some are permanent residents in these areas, most migrate through the central and western U.S. to breed on freshwater wetlands of the Northern Plains and Intermountain West.

Since wetland conditions tend to vary across the dry country of the Western U.S., these nomadic migrants are opportunistic, choosing their colonial nest sites based on the conditions that they find; for this reason, their numbers in any given area varies widely from year to year. Preferring broad, shallow wetlands with islands of vegetation, white-faced ibis nest in marsh grasses or in low trees along the shore. Both parents incubate the 3-4 eggs and participate in feeding regurgitated insects, worms, amphibians and small fish to the nestlings; the young are fledged within a month and are self sufficient by Aug…

Lake Missoula & the Channeled Scablands

Near the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age, about 13,000 years ago, a lobe of the Cordilleran Glacier that covered the Rocky Mountains blocked the flow of the Clark Fork River, in northwestern Montana. Behind this dam of ice, a massive lake developed; 200 miles long and 2000 feet deep, Glacial Lake Missoula contained 500 cubic miles of glacial meltwater.

Eventually, the ice dam failed and a torrent of water rushed across the Idaho Panhandle, eastern Washington and the Columbia River Valley. In fact, as the glacier advanced and retreated over 2500 years, the lake repeatedly formed and drained, eroding the Channeled Scablands of the Columbia Plateau. Characterized by broad, braided canyons, dry falls, rippled rock formations, massive gravel bars and countless erratic boulders, this unique topography attests to the power of the recurrent floods; indeed, the Columbia River Gorge was primarily carved by these torrents.

While similar glacial lake floods occured elsewhere across the Northern…

Fooled by March

This may be April Fools Day but March did the fooling this year. April first is so thirty days ago!

Thanks to our exceptionally warm weather in late winter and early spring, April begins as many of its annual flowers have already come and gone. Here in central Missouri, it looks like May and feels like June. Were it not for the lack of summer birds, still waiting for their solar cue to come north, we'd have no April events to anticipate.

Whether or not winter will attempt a token return to the Heartland remains uncertain but our average last freeze is rapidly approaching. It appears that old man winter concentrated on the Eastern Hemisphere this year and that we might experience one of the longest frost-free periods on record, beginning back in February and, perhaps, lasting until October. Then again, the jet stream could shift and we might endure the coolest summer in recorded history; such possibilities fuel our interest in nature's fickle behavior and discourage compla…