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Showing posts from September, 2012

America's Crisis Solved!

Forget the dysfunctional Congress and America's exploding wealth gap.  Pay no attention to our ongoing wars in the Middle East, our sluggish economy and our widespread unemployment.  Ignore the presidential race with its sparring rhetoric, mega slush funds and voter fraud campaigns.  Don't fret about oil spills, global warming, environmental pollution or habitat loss.

Compared to our recent, most pressing problem, these political, financial, international and environmental threats to America were backpage issues, problems to be addressed in the future.  Now, thanks to pressure from the media and an impassioned American public, the NFL has settled its dispute with the referees.  No more blown calls!  No more angry fans!  No more stress for the billionaire owners and their millionaire players!

Yes, the NFL crisis was the major subject of conversation for many Americans over the past few months and it received plenty of airtime from our dominant news organizations.  Social injust…

High Plains Fox

About half the size of a red fox, the swift fox of the High Plains is named for its ability to run down jackrabbits.  Primarily nocturnal, this smallest canid in North America spends much of the day in its den, emerging at dusk to hunt for mice, jackrabbits, prairie dogs, ground squirrels, birds and insects; an omnivore, it also consumes fruit and seeds.  The swift fox usually digs its den in sandy soil near rock outcrops, among the cottonwood groves of stream valleys or along fence lines.

Swift fox pairs are thought to remain monogamous throughout their life span (generally 4-6 years in the wild), and mate in late winter; kits (usually 4-5) are born from March to May, depending on the latitude.  Both parents care for the young through the summer months but the family begins to disperse in autumn.  Often active on mild winter days, swift fox may fall prey to golden eagles, coyotes or automobiles.

Extirpated from large parts of its range by predator culling in the early 1900s, this han…

Mole Seasons

Like mushrooms, moles tend to surface during the spring and fall, when the soil is cool and moist.  Driven into their deeper tunnels during the heat of summer and the frigid months of winter, they follow their prey (earthworms, grubs, insects) into the upper layers of the soil when milder conditions prevail.  It is then, of course, that they endure the wrath of lawn masters, who attack them with a variety of chemicals and traps.

Rather solitary for much of their lives, moles mate in late winter and a litter of 2-6 young are born in a deep nest chamber by mid spring; each will be on its own within a month, equipped to dig tunnels at a phenomenal rate (up to 18 feet per hour for adult moles).  While their deeper channels are extensive and permanent, those close to the surface (that draw our attention and ire) provide access to temporary foraging areas.  Though we might mine these areas with a variety of poisons and contraptions, they can easily move off to greener pastures and any succe…

King of the Mulch Pile

Last evening, as I prepared to leave our Littleton, Colorado, farm, I went outside to complete a few chores.  The sun had already dropped behind the Front Range but there was still enough daylight to get the work done.

Fifteen minutes later, I was distracted by a group of blue jays, shrieking from large shade trees at the back of our property.  Having seen a sharp-shinned hawk on the farm earlier in the day, I assumed that it was paying another visit; if not, they were surely reacting to one of the red fox that regularly hunt on our pastures.  When their raucous scolding did not abate, I walked back to see what was causing their alarm; to my surprise, an adult great horned owl had decided to perch on a large pile of wood chips near the end of our driveway.  Oblivious to their cries, he waddled across the mulch pile, trying out various sites before settling down to peruse the surrounding "lawn" and shrubs; clearly, he has used that mound as a hunting perch on other evenings.

The Mellow Month

Across natural ecosystems of the Northern Hemisphere's Temperate Zone, September tends to be a mellow month.  For most species, the challenges of breeding, nest building and child rearing have passed, the oppressive summer heat has abated and the stress of winter has yet to arrive.

We humans share this tranquility, energized by the cooler weather but not yet facing the traditional duties of autumn.  We are free to turn off the air conditioner and open the windows without concern for sweltering heat or a high utility bill.  Children are back in school and the frenzy of the holiday season is, for most of us, still months away.

Those of us who pay attention to nature recognize the quiet, unhurried behavior of our wild neighbors and this reinforces our own sense of well being.  While the songbird migration is underway, it goes relatively unnoticed, occurring primarily at night and devoid of the raucous congregations that October and November will bring.  Indeed, September is a welcome…

South Park Road Trip

Southwest of Denver, U.S. 285 climbs through the Front Range foothills and then drops into the North Fork Valley at Crow Hill.  Resuming its climb to Kenosha Pass, the highway continues westward along the river, snaking between the high wall of the Platte River Mountains to the south and the Mt. Evans massif to the north.

At Kenosha Pass (elevation 10,000 feet), a scenic reststop offers a broad view of South Park, one of Colorado's large intermountain valleys.  The north wall of the valley is formed by the Continental Divide as it curves to the west while the Mosquito Range, a southern extension of the Ten Mile Range rises along the Park's western edge; on clear days, the massive Sawatch Range, part of the Continental Divide, can be seen behind the Mosquito Range.  The east side of South Park is formed by the Puma Hills, backed by the Tarryall Mountains and the southern rim, not readily seen from Kenosha Pass, is closed off by Thirty-nine Mile Mountain, part of a Tertiary volc…

The Mesabi Range

The largest of four Iron Ranges that stretch across northeastern Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Mesabi Range is 110 miles long, angling WSW to ENE between Grand Rapids and Babbitt, Minnesota.  Up to 3 miles wide, this chain of low hills was heavily mined for its rich load of iron ore throughout the first half of the 20th Century, peaking during the military buildup of WWII.  Today, most of its high grade hematite has been recovered but a new boom to mine taconite, a lower grade ore, is underway; while hematite is 70% iron, only 30% of taconite is composed of hematite and magnetite, requiring enrichment via pulverization, the use of binding agents and the final production of taconite pellets (65% of each pellet is pure iron).

While iron is widespread across the globe, composing 5% of Earth's crust and coloring the red-rock country of the American West and central Australia, mineable deposits of iron ore are relatively rare, having formed within ancient Precambri…

The Cost of Religion

Ingrained in childhood, religious beliefs are a source of faith and hope and, in some persons, a stimulus for charity.  On the other hand, they also instill fear, guilt and an intolerance of those who do not share the beliefs; the latter, of course, has been a common trigger for civil strife and war throughout human history.

Beyond its impact on the spiritual mindset of believers, the power of religious faith, rooted in the fear of death, has exerted significant influence throughout human society, primarily via its effects on politics and education.  Long an archenemy of science, religion impedes social progress by demonizing the fundamental tenets of biology and by opposing technologies such as birth control that are vital to the welfare of our planet.  Finally, religious organizations, often functioning with impunity, free of taxation and government oversight, amass a great deal of wealth with which to ensure their continued influence; financed by devoted followers, religious leader…

Animals at the Zoo

We took our grandson to the Cincinnati Zoo today, my first excursion to any zoo since our own kids were young.  The Cincinnati Zoo, long ranked among the best in the U.S., was one of the first to begin naturalizing their exhibits and significant improvements have occurred since my last visit.  Nevertheless, most of the caged wildlife seemed sluggish and bored and my mixed feelings about zoos were reinforced; the educational value of these institutions is undeniable but that benefit is balanced by the unfortunate incarceration of wild creatures.

Indeed, it is impossible to learn much about the natural behavior of animals once they are removed from their native habitat, however successful we might be in replicating its physical characteristics.  The educational value of zoos is primarily through introducing visitors (especially children) to the diversity of wildlife on planet Earth and, hopefully, instilling a commitment to protecting their native ecosystems.  Unless those goals are ach…

The Songbird Months

The number and variety of songbirds peak during two periods across the Temperate Zone of eastern North America.  From mid April to mid May and from mid September to mid October, we enjoy the largest mix of permanent residents, summer songbirds, seasonal migrants and, at the colder extremes of those intervals, winter songbird residents.

Typical permanent residents include cardinals, blue jays, tufted titmice, chickadees, robins, eastern bluebirds, cedar waxwings, Carolina wrens, white-breasted nuthatches, American goldfinches, eastern meadowlarks, song sparrows and a variety of woodpeckers.  Among our common summer residents are house wrens, blue-gray gnatcatchers, ruby-throated hummingbirds, various swallows, chimney swifts, common nighthawks, indigo buntings, northern orioles, gray catbirds, brown thrashers, scarlet and summer tanagers and a host of summer warblers, sparrows and flycatchers.  Pure migrants are primarily limited to northern warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets and certain …

Voyeurs of Tragedy

Every year, on the days surrounding September 11, American television programming revisits the horror of 2001 with documentaries, docudramas and replayed coverage of the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington DC.  This annual obsession with reliving that tragic event, as if we need to be reminded of the details, is touted as a public service, an acknowledgement that terrorism still stalks the globe and a means to honor those who died in the carnage.

Yet, like all television programming, it is served up with the primary purpose of attracting viewers and, as media executives know, humans are perversely attracted to the specter of tragic events.  Just as crowds gather to watch a jumper on a ledge or tune in to learn every detail about a mass shooting, they long to hear desperate phone calls from the Twin Towers and, for the hundredth time, to watch airliners slam into the World Trade Center.

Do we honor the dead with this programming or do we merely satisfy the sadist…

Afterlife Adventures

As my family has been instructed, I will be cremated upon my death and my ashes will be scattered in the Mt. Evans Wilderness Area, west of Denver.  After that, who knows where I'll end up?

Perhaps a harsh winter will leave my remains entombed beneath a snow bank for several years, eventually providing nourishment for a young bristlecone pine.  Absorbed by that long-lived tree, I may be part of its gnarled trunk for a thousand years or more, eventually re-entering the soil when the pine dies and crumbles.  Now nourishing the grass of a mountain meadow, I could be consumed by a snowshoe hare and thence by a lynx or a golden eagle.  Upon that predator's death, I would return to the wilderness, perhaps later flushed into the watershed of the South Platte via its North Fork, Bear Creek or Clear Creek.  If not trapped in one of many reservoirs en route, I'll make my way down the Missouri, entering the Mississippi at St. Louis and then float down to the Gulf of Mexico.  If caugh…

A Birding Trifecta

As an avid birder, I have been fortunate to live in a number of fabulous birding areas over the years and, as I near retirement, we own property in three of the best.  Our home in central Missouri sits at the crossroads of bird migration in the U.S., hosting huge flocks of waterfowl in spring and fall, joined by American white pelicans, double-crested cormorants and many other water birds.  In addition, most birds that are seasonal residents in or regular migrants through the Temperate latitudes of eastern North America can be observed in this region.

Our Littleton, Colorado, farm sits near the foothills of the Front Range, offering access to five life zones within an hour's drive.  While birds unique to western foothills, mountain forests, alpine tundra and canyons are the obvious highlights, especially for visiting birdwatchers, the regional birding opportunities extend across the Piedmont and High Plains as well, including the seasonal presence of species such as mountain plove…

Season of the Hunter

On these chilly, dark, early mornings of September, Orion reappears in the southern sky.  Though this well-known constellation is a visual illusion, a product of our unique perspective from planet Earth, early man saw a hunter in that group of stars.

Of course, their interpretation was surely influenced by the season of its presence, stretching from the first chill of late summer through the long, cold, trying nights of winter, when Orion shines through the dry, clear, frigid air.  They likely welcomed this hunter as a sign that massive flocks of waterfowl and migrant herds of herbivores would soon arrive from the north, providing sustenance through the lean months of winter.  In this respect, Orion was both a promise of bounty and a warning of the coming hardship and, since they relied on hunting for their own survival, he was a cherished companion.

Today, equipped with the modern convenience of supermarkets, we may be less enamored with the hunter's appearance, knowing that the …

The Edge of Autumn

Sitting in my office this afternoon, I am looking out at a wall of dark clouds, pushing in from the west.  Studded with thunderstorms, this front is the edge of autumn, promising a night of rain followed by the first glorious day of fall-like weather.  Our overnight low is expected to dip near 50 degrees F and tomorrow's sunshine will only produce an afternoon high in the mid seventies; both of those extremes will be twenty degrees cooler than what we have averaged over the past few months.

Nearly upon us, the dark clouds look menacing but their trigger, a cool, dry Canadian air mass, is dropping south behind them.  Assuming we avoid damaging winds and destructive hail, the heavy rains along the front will be more than welcome and the autumn air that plunges in their wake will provide the first convincing evidence of seasonal change.

No doubt, summer will battle back in the coming weeks but this sudden strike by old man winter is a  powerful blow from the north, a welcome invasion…

Costa Rica's Earthquake

Yesterday's earthquake off the west coast of Costa Rica occurred along a subduction zone where the Cocos Plate is dipping beneath the Caribbean Plate.  A remnant of the Farallon Plate, like the Juan de Fuca Plate off the Pacific Northwest and the Nazca Plate off South America, the Cocos Plate lies along the west coast of southern Mexico and Central America.  At its western edge, this Plate is both forming and diverging from the Pacific Plate along the East Pacific Rise, a mid oceanic ridge; shoved eastward, it is forced to subduct beneath the more buoyant Caribbean Plate.  As it dips toward the mantle, the leading edge of the Cocos Plate melts, producing a chain of volcanoes east of the subduction trench (along the west coast of Mexico and Central America).

Subduction zone earthquakes generally result from a sudden slippage of the overriding plate; in this case, the western edge of the Caribbean plate was pulled down by friction with the dipping Cocos Plate and suddenly rebounded …

Shuttle vs. Trees

In order to transport the Space Shuttle Endeavour to its new home in Los Angeles, some 400 trees will be destroyed along its final glide path.  While a promise has been made to replace them with twice as many young trees, the loss of the large, older shade trees has outraged many citizens.

Regardless of one's view on this matter, the decision illuminates man's tendency to place a higher priority on technology and development than on conservation.  The Endeavour, a powerful symbol of human achievement, will be paraded past an adoring public; in preparation, nature's handiwork will be sacrificed.  Of course, the financial benefits of the shuttle shrine will be reaped for generations to come and, as we all know, economics trumps nature in human society.

A more subtle revelation of this decision is our preoccupation with the past, often at our own expense.  We excel at commemoration but are less adept at planning for the future.  In our rush to glorify the past and to make our…

First Migrant Songbird

Yesterday evening, a female magnolia warbler was flitting about the lower branches of our black maple.  It was the first migrant songbird that I have observed this season, to be followed by many more from now until mid October.  Staying ahead of the autumn chill, which will suppress if not kill off her insect prey, she is headed for a balmy winter in Central America.  After enduring the excessive heat this summer, I do not envy her journey.

Named for the fact that they were first scientifically observed and classified in a grove of southern magnolias, during their migration, magnolia warblers actually nest in open coniferous forests across central and eastern Canada, the Great Lakes Region, New England and along the Appalachian Chain, as far south as Virginia.  Come late summer, they head for wintering grounds in Central America and the West Indies.  Attractively colored with a mix of gray, white, black, yellow and olive plumage, magnolia warbers are common migrants throughout the eas…

Morning Stress

As we awaken from the deep chasm of sleep, interrupted though it might have been by a series of dreams, the natural stress hormones of our body begin to peak, preparing us to face the challenges of life.  For early man, this biochemical reaction may have been especially vital, susceptible as he was to predators, storms and the other threats of nature.  Stoking his awareness and capacity for flight, cortisol and other hormones assured a rapid transition from the inertia of sleep.

While this natural process may be less crucial today, its effects remain and, at times, may have negative consequences.  Dragged from the carefree world of sleep into the reality of our modern life, we are suddenly flooded with problems that we managed to ignore throughout the night.  Recent turmoil, current demands, chronic worries and looming threats all come streaming into conciousness, raising our level of stress to what is often its highest point in the course of a day.  Indeed, medical studies have often…

September Spring

Isaac's rains have spawned a September spring across central Missouri as dry, brown lawns and drooping vegetation have been reinvigorated by the abundant moisture.  Greenery is returning to the parched landscape, birds seem energized by the cool, damp weather and the winter-like death grip of our intense summer heat has, for now, been broken.

Indeed, deprived of moisture and wilted by the unrelenting sun, the vegetation of our State, while not completely decimated, had entered a state of estivation, dropping leaves and fruit to retain water in more vital tissues of the stems and roots.  Creeks and ponds, normally teeming with life during the verdant days of summer, had given way to dry, rocky beds and cracked mudflats, depriving many insects, tadpoles and fish of crucial spawning and maturation habitat and, in turn, upsetting the food chain for primary and secondary consumers. How the dry, stressed vegetation affected populations of resident herbivores and their predators remains …

Swamp Cooler

After a long, brutal summer, enveloped in hot, dry air, we in Missouri are now bathed by the remnants of Hurricane Isaac.  The familiar humidity of the American Midwest has returned, exceeded now by the swampy feel of the Tropics.  Moisture collects on windows and drips from plants and, even between showers, a fine mist hangs in the air.

Now near the center of Isaac's broad circulation, the wind is calm and low clouds hang above Columbia, trapping thick, balmy air near the surface.  Though the copious moisture is subtropical in origin, it has broken the intense heat that persisted through most of the summer.  Humid air is less dense than its dry, desert counterpart and cannot achieve the high temperatures that baked Missouri for the past few months.  In addition, the process of condensation consumes heat, falling rain cools the air and the blanket of dense cloud cover reflects the solar radiation.

Our current swampy air is thus cooler than the dry air mass that is poised to return…