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Showing posts from May, 2012

A Natural Break

Most evenings, if daylight permits, I head out back for thirty minutes of natural solitude. While mowers may hum in the distance or trucks may rumble on a nearby road, I try to focus on the sights, sounds and fragrance through which I stroll. I also try to ignore problems that may have occupied my day or that await my attention tomorrow.

This natural form of stress reduction has become a vital part of my life and, though I make no attempt to search for any particular plants or animals, I generally encounter something unexpected or see it in a different light. More than anything else, these breaks from human responsibilities make me appreciate the calm patience that typifies the lives of wild creatures and, on most evenings, I seem to absorb some of that serenity.

I could be getting some bills paid or subjecting myself to the endless parade of reality shows on cable TV but those thirty minutes are a cherished part of my day. While these outdoor rambles often provide fodder for futu…

Italy, Earthquakes & Human Nature

After enduring two tragic earthquakes within a span of nine days, residents of northeastern Italy are both distraught and mystified. As emphasized in news reports, that region had not experienced a significant earthquake for hundreds of years. Yet, this industrial valley stretches between the Apennines and the Alps, mountain ranges that owe their very existence to the collision of the African and Eurasian Plates.

This tectonic collision, though too gradual to witness during our brief life span, has been going on for at least 40 million years, producing the varied landscape of southern Europe. A quiescent period of seismic activity in any given area, even lasting hundreds or thousands of years, is to be expected as pressure along the collision zone shifts from one region to another. While we may understand the geologic cause for the earthquakes, our inability to accurately predict the timing of such events has become all too clear over the past few decades; nevertheless, scientists…

The Arctic Fox

Mention Arctic land mammals and the image of large, well-insulated creatures comes to mind: polar bears, musk ox, caribou and the extinct woolly mammoth, to name a few. But the small Arctic fox, the most northern-living canine on our planet, has managed to thrive on the harsh, treeless tundra of the Arctic biome. Equipped with a compact body habitus, thick, dense fur, furred paws and changing coloration to blend with its environment, this hardy fox also has an exquisite sense of hearing for prey location, adapts well to an omniverous diet and produces large litters to sustain its population.

After breeding in late winter or early spring, the monogamous pair uses a large den network in which to raise its litter of 6 to 15 or more kits; the newborn fox will remain with their mother through the summer and, as with some other wild canines, a few yearlings often stay behind to assist with feeding and protecting their younger siblings. The diet of the Arctic fox is dominated by lemmings …

Faith & Suffering

It seems very likely that religious beliefs first arose in early human clans (some 130,000 years ago) when gods were invoked to counter fear and suffering. After all, our distant ancestors were traumatized by natural catastrophes, brutal weather, predators, mysterious diseases, fatal injuries, famine and tribal warfare on a regular, if not daily, basis.

At some point during our evolution, certainly by three to four thousand years ago, suffering had become more than the impetus for religious ritual; it had become ingrained in the rites themselves. We humans had come to imagine that our gods are appeased by suffering; as a result, human sacrifice, self-inflicted pain and self denial became an essential part of religious ceremony. Even today, despite our advanced scientific knowledge, such attitudes persist, represented by a wide range of beliefs and rituals, from giving up desserts during Lent to volunteering as a suicide bomber. Orders of monks and nuns retreat to lives of fasting …

An Early July

On this Memorial Day weekend, July has made an early appearance in the Heartland. With afternoon highs in the 90s (F) and overnight lows in the 70s, it feels like mid summer; were it not for the plentiful moisture still in the soil, the vegetation would be wilting in the intense heat, but, in this case, the verdant face of May persists.

This early heat wave is courtesy of a high pressure ridge over the southeastern U.S.; beneath this dome, air is sinking and heating up, retarding cloud formation, while, along its outer edge, thunderstorms will ignite across the Upper Midwest. One crop of storms, off the coast of South Carolina, has developed into Tropical Storm Beryl, which will move WSW along the rim of the dome over the next 24 hours, bringing heavy, much-needed rain to southern Georgia and northern Florida.

The high pressure ridge should stay in place through the holiday weekend and will then drift to the east, allowing cooler and drier air to filter in from the northwest. Until…

Midwest Mountain Lions

Having once inhabited most of the United States, mountains lions were extirpated from eastern and central portions of our country by the early 20th Century; an exception was the Florida panther, which managed to survive in the dense vegetation of the Everglades and adjacent cypress swamps. Throughout most of the 1900s, the easternmost populations of cougars (other than the Florida panther) were in West Texas and in the Black Hills of western South Dakota.

However, over the past decade, sightings of mountains lions have increased signficantly across the American Midwest. Almost all of the confirmed cases have been males, presumably banished from their home range by other dominant males; indeed, cougars are territorial and field studies have revealed that the home range of adult males is in the neighborhood of 100-300 square miles. While 5 mountain lions inhabited the Pine Ridge Escarpment of western Nebraska in 2004, 30 were documented by 2011, including females and cubs. Sightings…

The Treetop Vocalist

Over the past month, loud vreeeps have echoed through our neighborhood on my morning walks to work. Their source is always difficult to locate but these clear, ascending calls seem to arise from the treetops, where the vocalists remain hidden amidst the dense foliage of late spring.

In fact, they are the distinctive calls of great crested flycatchers, colorful insectivores that prefer to hunt in the upper canopy of open, deciduous woodlands; suburbs of the central and eastern U.S. thus appeal to these summer residents. Nesting in tree cavities, great crested flycatchers utilize a wide variety of nesting materials, including human trash and discarded snakeskins; it is only during the collection of these items that they are likely to be seen on the ground and, even then, they fly from site to site, not hopping or walking like most songbirds. The great majority of their time is spent in the trees, snaring insects from leaves and stems or catching them in mid air.

By late summer, great…

Sediments, Fossils & Time

Amateur naturalists are often confused by the distribution of fossils across our globe, wondering why certain fossils (of dinosaurs, for example) are plentiful in some areas but absent in others. In general, the fossils of plants and animals result from their remains having been trapped within sediment (lake deposits, ocean floor sediment, river mud, volcanic debris, etc.) that, over millions of years, hardened into sandstone, mudstone, limestone or some other sedimentary rock. Of course, most animals and plants die under circumstances in which their remains are consumed, undergo decay or are scattered by predators and natural forces before such fossilization can occur.

The type of fossils present in any region of our planet depends upon the age of the exposed sedimentary rocks in that area; rocks that formed from sediments that accumulated during any given geologic era will harbor fossils of life from that era. The exposure of these sedimentary rocks is a product of regional uplif…

River Relief

Those of us who frequently travel across the Great Plains or the Glaciated Plain of the Upper Midwest are usually glad to encounter river valleys, which break the monotony of the flat terrain. In these areas, the primary channel and its tributaries have carved a mosaic of hills, ridges and valleys from the plain, necessitating dips and curves in the route of our journey.

Beyond the topographic relief, these river valleys harbor rich, moist soil, supporting a wide variety of vegetation, offering a sharp contrast from the cropfields, grasslands and sparse woodlands of the adjacent plains. Visually appealing to human travelers, these corridors also attract regional wildlife that utilize them to nest, roost, feed or to escape the harsh conditions on the plain. Indeed, naturalists know that wildlife viewing is significantly more productive along these ribbons of life than it is on the flat terrain that surrounds them; even open-country species tend to congregate near river valleys, a vi…

Vulture Heaven at Eagle Bluffs

As a consequence of the lowest water levels that I have ever encountered at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, dead carp lined the central channel, providing a feast for numerous turkey vultures. Usually seen soaring above the countryside, these large scavengers had gathered on the mudflats and levees to partake in the bounty of rotting fish.

Of course, the low water was also beneficial to great blue herons, great egrets and green-backed herons, concentrating their prey in the shallow pools. Other highlights included a large number of wood ducks, the attentive females ushering their broods across the calm waters, and an unusual abundance of migrant shorebirds for late May. Cormorants and diving ducks were noticeably absent but small groups of coot, blue-winged teal and mallards plied the shallows or huddled on the shorelines. Throughout the evening, a steady background chorus was provided by bullfrogs, green frogs, cricket frogs, killdeer and indigo buntings as white-tailed deer emer…

The Perspective of Geese

During our travels along the spectacular coast of Lake Superior this week, we encountered a pair of Canada geese, ushering their brood across the unusually calm waters of the lake. West of the roadway was a pristine wetland, stretching out from the mouth of a rushing river; we naturally assumed that the pair had nested within that scenic marsh. Such encounters often make human envious of wildlife, recognizing both their freedom and their capacity to live in beautiful natural landscapes, unencumbered by the responsibilities of the human lifestyle.

On the following day, I saw another pair of geese with their young offspring, resting along a muddy pond in the industrial port of Superior, Wisconsin. Close to a wealth of pristine habitat, far more appealing to the human eye, they had chosen to nest along this unattractive pool, bordered by a litter-strewn lawn. Perhaps, once the goslings fledge, they will move on to a more pristine location but, for now, they appeared to be perfectly c…

Superior's Northwest Coast

Just north of downtown Duluth, Interstate 35 ends and becomes Minnesota Route 61 that hugs the northwest coast of Lake Superior, all the way to the Canadian border. Providing spectacular and ever-changing views of the lake, this road also yields access to a chain of State Parks, most of which surround rivers that rise in the hill country to the west and rumble down to Lake Superior.

A few of these Parks deserve special mention. Gooseberry River State Park, a few miles north of Two Harbors, is accessed by an excellent network of trails that lead past a series of beautiful waterfalls, lead out to cliff-top views of the lake and river valley or take the visitor down to the rocky shore. Temperance River State Park, just north of Taconic Harbor, provides spectacular evidence of the erosive force of moving water; this turbulent stream has cut a deep, rugged gorge through the Precambrian volcanic bedrock, producing waterfalls, whirlpools and polished rock formations. Just shy of the Cana…

Western Lake Superior

Facing an off-week and yearning to get back to the North Country after our memorable journey across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, last September, my wife and I decided to head for western Lake Superior. We left Columbia yesterday afternoon, driving north across the Glaciated Plain of northern Missouri and eastern Iowa, stopping for the night in Iowa City. This morning, we resumed our journey, dropping into the Mississippi Valley at Marquette, Iowa, and then paralleling the broad river and its wooded islands along the Wisconsin (eastern) shore. Scenic bluffs rise along both sides of the Mississippi Valley in this "Driftless Area" of the Upper Midwest, which was spared the erosive force of Pleistocene Glaciers.

Protected within the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge, access to the Mississippi and its varied riparian habitats is rather limited (except for boaters). However, Goose Island County Park, just south of La Crosse, Wisconsin, provided an excellent opport…

Miracle Drugs

Ever since early man discovered natural herbs and resins that seemed to ease his common maladies, we humans have been hooked on drugs. In the modern world, these heavily marketed agents are used to counteract the effects of our sedentary lifestyle or to rescue us from poor choices when it comes to our diet and recreational activities.

Of course, some pharmaceutical products have had a major impact on the health and longevity of the human species: vaccines, antibiotics and chemotherapeutic agents for some cancers (especially childhood leukemias) come immediately to mind. But many of our prescription drugs would not be necessary if we engaged in a healthy lifestyle and they often impose new health problems related to their side effects. Statins, the classic miracle drugs of the past decade or so, have been touted as the ultimate answer to preventing cardiovascular disease and are heavily advertised on American television; yet, within the past few months, evidence has surfaced that as…

The Eurasian Mountain Arc

Looking at a map of Earth, one sees a complex of mountain ranges from Southeast Asia to Spain. Almost all of these ranges are relatively young, having crumpled skyward throughout the Tertiary Period; in fact, all are still rising today, a fact made evident by frequent earthquakes across this swath of landscape.

About 55 million years ago (MYA), soon after the Rocky Mountains formed in North America, the Indian Subcontinent began to collide with southern Asia, forcing up the Himalayas and its associated ranges, from southern China to Afghanistan. By 40 MYA, the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden began to open, splitting the Arabian Plate from Africa and pushing it northward into southwestern Asia; this compressed the crust of that region, lifting the ranges of Iran, eastern Turkey and the Middle East. About the same time, as the Tethys Sea was closing, Africa drifted northward to collide with southern Europe; this has crumpled up the Alps and its associated ranges, from western Turkey and Gre…

The Mackenzie River

Rising at the west end of Great Slave Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories, the Mackenzie River flows northwestward for almost 1100 miles to the Beaufort Sea. Un-dammed and winding through Subarctic and Arctic wilderness, its wide, braided channel is just the final conduit of a massive watershed that covers 20% of Canada, extending from northeast British Columbia, northern Alberta, northwest Saskatchewan and the western Yukon to the massive Mackenzie River Delta, the 12th largest on our planet. If one includes its most distant tributaries, this river system exceeds 2600 miles in length (the longest in Canada) and drains a watershed of almost 700,000 square miles.

To the southwest, the Peace and Athabaska Rivers rise on the east side of the Continental Divide in the northern Canadian Rockies; these large streams merge to form a large inland delta along Lake Athabaska, which drains to Great Slave Lake via the Slave River. Leaving Great Slave Lake, the Mackenzie River picks up m…

From Tropical Heat to Upslope Chill

After wilting in central Missouri over the last two days, enveloped in tropical heat and humidity, I arrived along the Colorado Front Range late this afternoon under low clouds and scattered showers; the temperature was 45 degrees F. These two weather extremes were produced by the same Pacific storm system; ahead of the front, muggy air was pumped into the Midwest from the Gulf of Mexico while, behind it, a plume of moisture was swept westward through the cool air. Since this flow is counterclockwise around the storm's central low, the moisture arrived from the northeast, the classic upslope direction for Metro Denver. Cooling and condensing as it rose across the western landscape, the plume dumped its cargo of moisture across northeastern Colorado.

Over the past 24 hours, Metro Denver received a half inch of rain in most areas while higher elevations to the west and south collected .75 inch or more, a welcome respite from the recent drought. Checking the foothills as I arrive…

Southern Soup

Hot, humid air has been flowing into Missouri for the past two days and will continue for at least another 24 hours. This muggy, southern soup is courtesy of both a broad high pressure ridge over the eastern half of the U.S. and a slowly approaching Pacific front that should ignite thunderstorms by tomorrow afternoon.

Riding this river of subtropical air, the first wave of common nighthawks appeared in our skies yesterday evening. Among the last migrants of spring, they are more cautious than swallows and swifts, waiting until plenty of insects are reliably available for their late-day feasts. They'll be with us until late summer and, perhaps, as late as early October, departing for the tropics before autumn's chill annihilates their prey.

Meanwhile, here in the Midwest, this summer-like heat in early May is not welcomed by those of us who prefer cool weather. Fortunately, a milder and drier air mass is expected to move in by early next week, bringing spring conditions bac…

Unnatural Programs

What little television I used to watch was primarily devoted to science and nature, with a bit of news and sports on the side. Unfortunately, what remains of that genre is now filled with human melodrama and a mix of reality shows focused on dysfunctional people. If you hope to get a forecast from the Weather Channel, expect to wade through a chorus of zany meteorologists, lifestyle advice experts, tornado chasers, and an ever-expanding collection of programs on characters such as turbine cowboys, bombastic ice pilots and, starting this week, macho iron workers.

The Discovery and History Channels are no better, offering a steady diet of shows on gator hunters, daredevil loggers, bleary-eyed truckers, death-defying crabbers and, just this year, full-metal jousters. Even the storied Nature program on PBS has shifted toward a more humanistic view of the natural world, seemingly in response to the public's drift from true science to emotionally satisfying entertainment. Fortunatel…

Wildlife of Afghanistan

Based on television images beamed to the world over the past few decades, Afghanistan appears to be a desolate region of rock and sand, a landscape of drought and human carnage. Yet, Afghanistan hosts a spectacular diversity of wildlife and many of its species have been threatened by the recurrent and protracted wars that have ravaged this country.

Among these threatened species are the reclusive snow leopard, markhors (large wild goats), Marco Polo sheep, urials (another wild sheep) and Asiatic black bears. Other native mammals include ibex, gray wolves, leopard cats, caracals, Pallas's cat, stone martens, lynx, Eurasian otters and Kashmir cave bats. At least 500 species of birds have been observed in Afghanistan, 200 of which breed in the country. Raptors include lammergeiers (large vultures), amur falcons, Eurasian eagle-owls and nine species of eagles, including Pallas's fish eagle. Other birds of note include grey herons, Dalmatian pelicans, black storks, greater and…

Natural Afghanistan

For the past decade, Afghanistan has evoked images of war, political corruption and civil strife. It seems appropriate to shift gears and focus on the natural landscape of that isolated but starkly beautiful region of our planet.

Consulting a map, one finds that the country of Afghanistan is pear-shaped, aligned northeast to southwest; the narrower part, complete with a thin stem of territory that pokes eastward to China, is to the northeast while its broader portion is to the southwest, abutting Iran, western Pakistan and southern Turkmenistan. The high spine of the Hindu Kush, the westernmost extension of the Himalayas, bisects the northeastern half of the country, curving from its northeastern frontier to the heart of Afghanistan; some peaks in easternmost Afghanistan soar above 25,000 feet while elevations gradually decrease toward the west. On either side of this natural divide, numerous streams have carved a maze of ridges, canyons and valleys from the Hindu Kush massif, givi…

Painted Buntings

I will never forget my first encounter with a painted bunting. George, my good friend and fellow birder, was visiting us in Wilmington, North Carolina, in June, 1977. As we headed down to Cape Fear for a morning of birding, George spotted a male painted bunting in roadside shrubbery and nearly rolled his aging Valiant in an effort to stop. Since then, I saw these colorful birds on a regular basis during my years in Arkansas and have more recently encountered them in the glade country of southwest Missouri; indeed, painted buntings favor woodland clearings with scattered shrubs and thickets.

Painted buntings occur in two separate breeding populations; one summers along the Coastal Plain from the Carolinas to northern Florida while the second inhabits the south-central U.S., from southeast Kansas and southwest Missouri through Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. The male, easily the most striking bird in the U.S., is identified by his blue head, red abdomen and patches of green…