Monday, December 30, 2013

A Naturalist's Predictions for 2014

As a naturalist and as an observer of my fellow humans, I hereby make the following bold predictions for 2014:

1.  Despite widespread lip service, there will be no significant progress toward addressing the threat of global warming.
2.  While they pronounce their commitment to clean, renewable sources of energy, the oil and coal companies will do whatever they can to prevent a significant shift away from fossil fuel use.
3.  Pollution will increase in our rivers, oceans and atmosphere.
4.  Creationists will oppose the teaching of evolution, geology, natural history, physics, astronomy, geometry, calculus and other misguided theories in our public schools.
5.  Tropical rainforests will shrink while desertification will expand; suburban sprawl and agriculture will eat up more natural habitat.  More golf courses will appear in the Desert Southwest.
6.  Sectarian violence will plague the Middle East and racism will persist in the U.S.
7.  Gun rights advocates will agree to compromise; they will suggest placing restrictions on gun sales to children under age 10 (unless accompanied by a parent).
8.  Pope Francis' compassion for women, gays and atheists will not lead to women priests, Catholic gay marriage or the dismantling of religious mysticism.
9.  The average waistline will expand.  Blame will be placed on food vendors, not on parents.
10.  Americans will be entertained by a new cable lineup: humiliation, dysfunction and melodrama will be the primary themes of the reality programming.  All advertising will be devoted to erectile dysfunction drugs and testosterone supplements.
11.  Humans will stare at their cell phones, tablets and GPS units for most of the year.
12.  The income gap will continue to expand in America and across the globe.  Revolution will be closer.
13.  Many more species will become extinct; we won't notice until our own species is threatened (at least a few decades down the line).

Happy New Year to all!  

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Snowy Owl at Long Branch

As the latest Arctic front pushed through Missouri, a friend and I headed north from Columbia this morning, crossing the frigid, bleak landscape of the Glaciated Plain.  We were on our way to Long Branch State Park, just northwest of Macon, where a snowy owl has taken up winter residence.

Not finding the owl along the rocky slope of the dam wall, where reports indicated it had been seen, we continued northward along the west side of the reservoir, stopping to explore a jetty that extends into the lake.  As we endured the cold wind to observe a variety of winter sparrows and juncos, we caught sight of the snowy owl, perched on the metal roof of a fishing deck and oblivious to the brutal weather.  Eventually disturbed by our approach, it flew off and landed on the frozen lake where a couple of crows stopped by to express their displeasure.

Before we headed back to the comfort of my pickup, the juvenile owl took off once again, heading for a rocky shore to our south.  Only a small patch of the reservoir remained open this morning, harboring a mix of Canada geese, ring-billed gulls and various ducks; one wonders how this young visitor will fare in the coming months and whether it will move further south to find sufficient prey.  To have observed the snowy owl at an area that had the look and feel of its Arctic homeland was especially rewarding and gave us even more respect for the hardiness of this beautiful northern raptor.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Eastern Snowy Owl Invasion

Snowy owls breed in the Arctic, where they feed primarily on lemmings.  Since the lemming population tends to crash every four years or so, snowy owls generally appear across the northern half of the U.S. in those winters.  During these irruptions, the owls feed on a variety of small mammals, waterfowl and sea birds.

This winter, a spectacular invasion of snowy owls is occurring in eastern North America; while concentrated in southeastern Canada, New England and the Great Lakes region, the beautiful raptors have been spotted southward, from Missouri and Arkansas to North Carolina and, of all places, Bermuda.  Most of the birds are heavily marked with black feather edging, indicating that they are young birds, having fledged this past summer.  This observation suggests that the invasion is primarily due to an overpopulation of snowy owls in the eastern Arctic rather than to a crash in the lemming population.

While the specific cause for this invasion is not yet certain, it has garnered a great deal of attention among birders throughout the eastern U.S.  Whether global warming is beginning to have some affect on both breeding success and irruptive behavior is an intriguing consideration.  Indeed, the ongoing disruption of the Arctic ecosystem will have a significant impact on more southern ecosystems as well; the opportunity to see more snowy owls does not balance the many negative effects that will come our way.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Gyms and your Health

Private gyms, community recreation centers and college athletic facilities are good places to get in shape.  Their assortment of exercise equipment, availability of fitness trainers and offer of socialized exercise benefit a wide variety of citizens, from children to the elderly.

On the other hand, one need not be a germaphobe to realize that these indoor facilities, like day care centers, corporate offices, airliners and mass transit vehicles, increase your exposure to a variety of seasonal viruses.  Despite modern gym etiquette, which encourages hand washing and the use of antibacterial wipes on the equipment, most viruses spread via respiratory droplets, which often occurs before the individual is symptomatic.

While exercise should never be discouraged and gym use is highly preferable to watching sporting events from your couch, one might consider the advantage of outdoor activities (walking, hiking, biking, tennis, skiing, etc.) which combine aerobic exercise with fresh air; socialization might be included by joining clubs in which like-minded individuals participate in group exercise.  In my opinion, the availability of high-tech equipment is an overrated advantage of recreation centers; simple exercises, combined with aerobic activity, are more than adequate to keep yourself in excellent condition.  Besides, such an approach is free, can be performed outdoors and may be combined with other interests such as birding, backpacking and nature study.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

December Thaw

Five days after the winter solstice and following two weeks of frigid weather, a December thaw has developed in central Missouri.  A southerly wind, courtesy of high pressure over the Southern Plains, is sweeping warm air into the Heartland, melting our glaze of ice and pushing afternoon highs near fifty degrees F.

In concert, the jet stream has moved northward, temporarily blocking further reinforcements of Canadian air.  For a few days, we'll enjoy this winter respite, completing chores that were put on hold while Arctic air gripped the region.  Outdoor recreation has also regained favor and a host of walkers, bikers, joggers and hikers have taken to the trails and roadways.

Indeed, pampered humans now rejoin the wildlife that, by necessity, remained active during the recent Arctic invasion.  In our eyes, they seem to relish the mild conditions as much as we do; in fact, while their physiologic stress is surely reduced, these wild creatures are governed by instinct and have no ability to ponder the change in weather.  In that respect they are less stressed than many humans who cannot fully enjoy this December thaw without worrying about the winter storms to come.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Conflicted Holiday

Christmas is surely the most conflicted holiday in Western human culture.  Though based on religious faith, it has become heavily commercialized and is now vital to the health of our economies.  More private and public institutions are closed on Christmas than on any other holiday yet it falls on an arbitrary date, having no direct relationship to the astronomical calendar and not coinciding with a documented historical event.

Religious persons focus on the story of Christmas but give in to the commercialism that now smothers their holy day while nonbelievers, caught up in the wave of celebration and gift giving, reluctantly accept the religious aspects of the season; in particular, religious Christmas music is condoned if not enjoyed by these secular-minded citizens.  Of course, many tepid believers even find their way to church services on this religious-cultural holiday.

And, when it comes to the secular Christmas mythology that we instill in our children, many experience the conflict of cultural tradition and personal guilt, knowing that the innocents will soon outgrow the delusion but wondering if distrust is forever imbedded in their souls.  Indeed, this is the only facet of the holiday in which the religious and secular stories of Christmas seem to merge.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Glazed Christmas

Though occasional flurries arrived with our recent winter storm, central Missouri primarily received a glazed landscape for the Christmas Holiday.  Freezing rain left a thin coating of ice on the trees, shrubs and grass, producing a beautiful winter scene; fortunately, the glaze is too thin to cause major tree damage and our electrical power has remained intact.

Since the overnight low dipped near zero and this afternoon's high is expected to remain in the twenties (F), little melting will occur before Christmas morning.  Indeed, while periods of bright sunshine highlight the beauty of the glaze, the sun's angle is too low to produce much heat.  By tomorrow, however, a wind shift will push warmer air into Missouri and the wintery spectacle will rapidly disappear.

Ice storms are beautiful but devastating events, damaging vegetation, taking down power lines and setting the stage for numerous accidents.  Like many other spectacles brought to us by Mother Nature, they are both awe inspiring and, if not given their due respect, dangerous; but she is neither responsive to our admiration nor affected by the pain that her handiwork might produce.  We are but actors on her stage, enjoying the scenery but always at the mercy of her fickle direction.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Holiday Depression

For some of us, the Holidays are "the most wonderful time of the year."  For others, despite the best efforts of retailers, advertisers and media gurus, the Holidays can be a source of depression.

The Holidays are especially difficult for those who are alone, having no family members or close friends with whom to share the acclaimed joy of the Season.  Others do not have the financial resources to provide holiday gifts and meals for their family; the inability to meet those expectations is a blow to their self esteem.  Even those of us with close friends, family and financial security can be left with a sense of inadequacy; after weeks or months of preparation, our personal holiday experience cannot match the images displayed on television specials, in Hollywood movies or on the myriad of commercials that shower every form of media.  Indeed, after much anticipation, the actual Holiday seems to zip by and, in the midst of our disappointment, our attention is directed to the next one on the calendar.

Of course, much of this holiday depression is preventable.  Inviting neighbors or friends whom we know to be alone to join our holiday celebration can brighten the season for them and for our own family.  Donating time, gifts or money to community assistance programs can also be rewarding.  When it comes to our personal holiday letdown, we might take those commercials and specials with a grain of salt and choose to focus on the relationships that we already enjoy.  After all, not everyone lives in a picture postcard neighborhood with snow covered pines, horse-drawn sleighs and angelic carolers; most of us are more likely to identify with Clark Griswold and his clan.  Happy Holidays to all!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Too Much Health Care

Having practiced medicine for 36 years, I know that too many individuals receive too much health care.  Encouraged by drug companies to rush to their doctor or pharmacy for every symptom, however minor, patients end up on medications that they don't need and that might produce side effects.

Individuals with worrisome symptoms, especially when acute, severe or persistent, should certainly seek medical attention.  However, minor aches and pains, typical cold symptoms or mild gastrointestinal problems do not warrant a doctor visit or the use of prescription medications.  While evidence-based screening tests are certainly advised, regular physical exams and "shotgun" lab screens in healthy, asymptomatic individuals are generally not indicated and may turn up minor abnormalities that lead to expensive and invasive studies, the unnecessary prescription of medications and healthcare-induced complications.

Healthy adults are advised to eat a well-balanced diet, get regular aerobic exercise, avoid tobacco use or exposure, limit alcohol consumption and minimize the use of supplements and medications (unless specifically recommended by a healthcare professional).  Unfortunately, parents often train their children to use medications or visit doctors for every minor symptom or injury and too many physicians, attempting to placate such individuals, offer unnecessary prescriptions.  Our bodies are designed to heal themselves when minor illnesses or injuries occur; too often, excessive healthcare gets in the way.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Wedge of a Winter Storm

As a winter storm approaches, the low pressure and its associated cold front lift warm, moist air that is pulled in from the south.  Injected into the upper atmosphere, this moisture forms ice crystals which begin to fall. Along and near the front, where the lower atmosphere is warm, these crystals melt before they reach the ground, producing rain.

Further behind the front, where cold air is knifing in beneath warm, mid-level layers of the atmosphere, surface features such as tree limbs, power lines, cars, decks and bridges reach freezing temperatures and, as the rain hits them, it forms a glaze of ice, referred to as freezing rain; when the layer of ice exceeds 1/4 inch, damage to trees and power lines begins to develop.  Still further behind the front, where the layer of cold air is thicker, the rain refreezes before hitting the ground, producing sleet.  Finally, where the column of air in the lower atmosphere is entirely below the freezing point, the precipitation falls as snow.

On this winter solstice, the latest winter storm is centered over Arkansas this morning and will gradually move to the northeast.  Heavy rain and thunderstorms are expected along the advancing cold front, with bands of freezing rain, sleet and snow (in order) arriving behind that liquid precipitation.  Here in central Missouri, we are currently in the freezing rain band; while a glaze of ice coats the trees, wires and cars, the ground remains relatively warm due to our recent mild weather and, for now, road travel is unimpaired.  On the other hand, the freezing rain will transition to snow overnight and 2-3 inches are expected to coat the landscape by tomorrow morning.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Compassion & Intolerance

During his brief reign as pontiff, Pope Francis has been widely praised for his humility, his compassion and his condemnation of social injustice.  Committed to rising above the ongoing scandals and controversies that have plagued his Church, he has promised to consider changes that will eliminate corruption, end abuse and make Catholicism more inclusive.

One wonders, however, if his words of compassion will lead to significant reforms, especially for those long persecuted by the Church.  After all, religions are governed by dogma, not by a commitment to human rights.  They have always been more divisive than inclusive, fostering discrimination, intolerance and conflict throughout human history.  Threatened by science, which challenges their simplistic beliefs, religions have long attempted to derail its progress.

There is a limit to the understanding and compassion offered by religious leaders.  While they might respect those who do not share their faith, they are obliged to defend its basic tenets and, in doing so, must convince the faithful that theirs is the one true religion.  To have compassion for women, gays, atheists and non-Christians does not erase the intolerance that is both inscribed in Church doctrine and ingrained in its parishioners.  Pope Francis has spoken of the tyranny of capitalism; he might also consider the tyranny of religion.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Georgia's Geophysical Provinces

Driving north through Georgia, one crosses three major geophysical regions.  The Coastal Plain of southeastern North America cuts across the southern half of the State; this flat topography is underlain with Cretaceous and Tertiary sediments and, along rivers and near the Atlantic shore, with Quaternary sands and gravels.

The Fall Line, which runs from Columbus to Macon to Augusta represents the boundary between the Coastal Plain and the Piedmont; along this line, streams, flowing southward or southeastward, fall from the hard bedrock of the Piedmont to the softer sediments of the Coastal Plain.  The Piedmont, comprised of numerous fused terranes, is underlaid with igneous and metamorphic rocks; erosion of these ancient rocks has produced the famous red clay of central Georgia, rich in aluminum silicate and colored by iron oxide.

The Appalachian Highlands cross the northwest corner of Georgia and extend along its northern border.  In northwest Georgia, Interstate 75 crosses the Ridge and Valley Province of the Appalachians, the central corridor of that chain; east of that province is the Blue Ridge of the Appalachians, composed of ancient Precambrian rock and harboring the loftiest summits in the State (including Brasstown Bald, 4784 feet, the highest point in Georgia).

Monday, December 16, 2013

Low Tide Bonanza

It was low tide on Sarasota Bay early this morning, producing broad mudflats and vast shallows near our condo.  Large mixed flocks of waders scoured those feeding grounds, including great blue, tricolored and little blue herons, great, snowy and reddish egrets, roseate spoonbills and wood storks.  Flotillas of American white pelicans fed in unison, belted kingfishers chattered above the shallows and green herons, black-crowned and yellow-crowned night herons hunted beneath the mangrove borders.

Double-crested cormorants and red-breasted mergansers, which usually dive for their meals, merely stuck their heads beneath the surface to grab their prey.  Larger fish had been forced into the boat channel, improving the success of dolphins, ospreys, bald eagles and brown pelicans that hunt those deeper waters.  Attracted by this feeding frenzy, laughing gulls arrived to steal what they could while royal and least terns dove to catch their own fingerlings.  Finally, shorebirds and raccoons perused the mudflats, feasting on a host of mollusks, crustaceans and other marine invertebrates.

Low tide provides a feeding bonanza for a wide variety of species and a viewing bonanza for those of us who enjoy watching the spectacle.  Over an hour or two, one can stroll along the shore, observing most of the water birds that inhabit the region.  And, if you miss the show, it will play out again in about twelve hours!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Limpkins at Celery Fields

After 35 years of birding, I finally encountered a limpkin within ten minutes of entering the Celery Fields Wetland Area, in Sarasota County; by the time we left the preserve, I had seen more than twenty.  The reason for my success was also evident; the shells of large aquatic snails, among this wader's favorite prey, lined the canals and lakeshores.

Once a vast sawgrass marshland, the Celery Fields were drained for agriculture; in more recent decades, this lowland became Sarasota County's primarily floodwater control site.  While its ponds, canals and wetlands continue to serve the latter purpose, Celery Fields has become renowned for its diverse avian population; in response, some of the wetlands have been restored to their natural state, access trails and boardwalks have been constructed and the 400 acre preserve will soon be home to the Audubon Society of Sarasota County.  Birding at Celery Fields, which is located just east of I-75 and south of Fruitville Road, is especially rewarding during the winter months, when permanent residents are joined by migrants from the north.

On our visit this morning, we encountered almost every heron and egret that can be found in the Sunshine State.  Other sightings included sandhill cranes, bald eagles, roseate spoonbills, wood storks, ospreys, common moorhens, white and glossy ibis, anhingas, brown pelicans, mottled ducks, hooded mergansers, least terns, marsh and sedge wrens, boat-tailed grackles and savannah sparrows.  And, of course, the limpkins.

Black Scoters off Longboat Key

For the second consecutive winter, I have observed a flock of black scoters off Greer Beach, on the northwest coast of Longboat Key, Florida.  These ducks breed along inland lakes of Alaska, northwest Canada and the northern Canadian Maritimes; there they nest in clumps of tundra grass, raising 6 to 10 young.

Migrations occur primarily along the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts of North America though a fair number are encountered on the Great Lakes and on large reservoirs of the central U.S.  Most winter in coastal marine waters, from the Aleutians to the California Baja and from Newfoundland to the Carolinas; while some also winter along the northern Gulf Coast, I have not seen other reports of their presence off the beaches of South Florida.

Yesterday's flock numbered twelve scoters, including two adult males, easily recognized by the orange knobs on their upper bill.  The birds remained in a tight flock while feeding and flying; indeed, even their dives occurred in unison.  Black scoters feed primarily on small fish, aquatic invertebrates and, to a lesser degree, on aquatic grasses.  Hopefully, these fascinating birds will become regular winter residents along Longboat Key.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Geminids over South Florida

Since the annual Geminid Meteor Shower was forecast to peak overnight, I got up early this morning to watch the display before dawn.  Produced by debris from 3200 Phaethon, a "rock comet" discovered in 1983, the Geminids are observed in mid December (generally from the 12th to the 16th), when Earth passes through the dust trail of that asteroid; the latter orbits the sun every 1.4 years.

Due to the path of Earth's orbit through 3200 Phaethon's debris field, the meteors appear to radiate from the Gemini Constellation; this morning, Jupiter gleamed close to that pair of stars, providing a bright centerpiece for the annual show.  During my hour of observation, which was intermittently impaired by thin clouds, I saw at least a dozen meteors, half of which produced long, flare-like tracks.

Enjoying the show next to Sarasota Bay, the early morning serenity was broken at times by the squawk of night herons and the splash of jumping fish.  Yet, observing this December shower in South Florida certainly had its advantages; while the dry, clear air of the High Plains might have offered more spectacular viewing, the mild temperature of the Sunshine State (63 degrees F at 5:30 AM) made the display more comfortable to watch.  As the first rays of dawn lit the thin overcast, the show came to an end, leaving me to ponder our unique place but inconsequential role in this vast Universe.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Sail Fishing

Yesterday afternoon, as northeast winds raked Sarasota Bay, I watched as several species of birds used the same fishing technique.  Ospreys, belted kingfishers and royal terns all took advantage of the steady wind in their effort to snare prey.

After riding the wind southward, each would turn to face it head-on, hovering with the aid of its lifting force and working their way northward.  If their dives were successful, they veered off to enjoy their meal in a sheltered location; when their attempts were aborted or futile, they would continue moving upwind until a fish was snared or until they chose to ride southward once again.

While most animal behavior (excluding that of humans and other intelligent species) is instinctual, the observed sail fishing is most likely learned through experience.  Indeed, the birds also benefitted from the sun position (behind them while fishing) which clearly improved their ability to spot their prey.  Had the wind been from the south, forcing them to look into the sun's glare and surface reflection, they would surely have not used it in this way.  Then again, my limited observations hardly qualify as a scientific study.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Joan M. Durante Park

Acquired by the town of Longboat Key in the 1980s, this 32 acre park once harbored a small community.  The cabins have since been removed, native vegetation was preserved and the mangrove ecosystem has been restored.  Visitors can now wander along a network of shell fragment trails and boardwalks to explore both the mangroves and a coastal hammock forest of red cedar, cabbage palm, saw palmetto and seagrape.  Along the way, bridges cross tidal creeks (vital nurseries for marine fish) and decks provide sweeping views of Sarasota Bay.

Among the wide variety of wildlife that inhabit Joan M. Durante Park are ospreys, wading birds, belted kingfishers, anhingas, gray kingbirds, red-bellied woodpeckers, palm warblers (winter), mangrove crabs and fiddler crabs.  From the bayside decks, one can observe brown and American white pelicans, double-crested cormorants, various herons and egrets, wintering red-breasted mergansers and loons and a host of gulls and terns; the visitor can also scan the shallows for starfish, sea urchins, horseshoe crabs and other marine life.

On this cloudy, breezy morning, ospreys were especially noisy and abundant, calling from the top of trees or fishing over the windswept bay.  Little blue herons and white ibis hunted along the tidal creeks, cormorants and brown pelicans cruised above the choppy bay, royal terns dove for their breakfast and a lone box turtle dozed at the edge of a trail.  As usual, we enjoyed a pleasant stroll through a beautiful and fascinating ecosystem.  

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The White Pelicans of Sarasota Bay

From our condo, on the west edge of Sarasota Bay, two white lines shimmer near the bay's central channel, giving the appearance of bright white sand spits.  On closer inspection, one finds that these are flocks of American white pelicans, joined by smaller numbers of double-crested cormorants, brown pelicans and various gulls and terns.  The birds choose to roost on these isolated islands since they afford protection from terrestrial predators.

American white pelicans begin to appear on the bay in November, arriving from breeding lakes across the Northern Plains of the U.S. and Canada; indeed, these majestic birds winter throughout Florida and along the Gulf Coast from South Florida to Mexico.  Those that breed on lakes of the Intermountain West generally winter in Southern California and the Baja region.  Once limited to areas west of the Mississippi, the Northern Plains flocks have been extending their migration routes eastward in recent decades and may now be encountered almost anywhere west of the Appalachians; a small number may even turn up along the Atlantic Seaboard.

Spending much of their day on the island roost sites, the white pelicans depart in small groups to feed on fish, often working together to herd their prey into the shallows.  While they do not dive for their meal in the manner of brown pelicans, they are not averse to hanging out with their cousins, attempting to steal fish that are brought to the surface.  The American white pelicans will grace Sarasota Bay throughout the colder months; some will head northward as early as February and, by late March, most will be gone.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

From Winter to Summer

Yesterday morning, we left Columbia and drove southeast across frozen, snowy terrain.  The snow depth peaked in southern Illinois, where a large flock of snow geese circled above Rend Lake, apparently searching for open forage.  By the time we reached southern Kentucky, the snow had disappeared but we soon encountered split trees and broken branches in north-central Tennessee, evidence of the recent ice storm.  After climbing through chilly fog west of Chattanooga, we descended into the Tennessee River Valley, where relatively mild air offered a spring-like respite from our wintery travel.

This morning, we resumed our journey, negotiating Atlanta's traffic in a steady, pre-dawn drizzle; beyond the city, we headed south under gray skies, driving through a landscape of pine woods, pecan groves and, south of Macon, what may be our country's largest concentration of billboards.  Nearing the Florida line, the intermittent drizzle gave way to bands of heavy rain, broken by swaths of steamy sunshine; the temperature had risen into the low 70s (F).  South of Gainesville, the skies cleared and, as we crossed Sarasota Bay, it was a summer-like 80 degrees (60 degrees warmer than our departure temperature in Columbia).

Of course, the landscape changed in concert, from barren trees and snow-covered fields in the Midwest to the ever-verdant pastures and live oak/cabbage palm woodlands of Florida.  This afternoon, we saw cattle egrets mingling with the livestock, sandhill cranes feeding on the prairies, ospreys fishing along the rivers and bays, brown pelicans cruising above the Gulf of Mexico and a mix of shorebirds racing along the beach.  A nineteen hour drive had taken us from the deadly chill of a winter morning to the carefree warmth of a summer afternoon.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Brief Migration

Though our trip has been planned for some time, we will be leaving what may be the coldest air mass of this winter season to visit our condo on Longboat Key, off Sarasota, Florida.  Leaving tomorrow, it will be a two day journey, taking us southeastward to Georgia and then southward into the Sunshine State.

Like many migrant species, we will escape conditions for which our bodies are not designed to reach a life zone where survival would be possible even without the adaptations that our complex brains have enabled.  Unlike the other migrants, however, our relocation will be brief; indeed, we will return to northern latitudes before the winter solstice.

Nevertheless, a week in the warm Florida sun will feel good after the bone-chilling cold of the past few days.  After all, whatever climate one may prefer, our collective human memory, imbedded in our genes, reminds us that we are tropical creatures.  For the next ten days, we'll heed that inner call to visit our natural home.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Frigid Floodplain

Heading down to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area for the afternoon duck-hunting hiatus, I encountered a frozen, clean-edged landscape.  Puffy clouds dappled most of the pale blue sky and short bursts of sunshine had no effect on the frigid air.  The mid-day temperature hovered near 22 degrees F and a steady north wind made it feel more like ten.

While most of the ponds and marshes were frozen over, the central channel, fed by flow from the Missouri River, attracted mixed flocks of mallards, coot, gadwall and shovelers.  Other flocks wheeled above the refuge, seemingly taking advantage of the hunting break to stretch their wings.  Stoic great blue herons stood in the icy shallows, ring-billed gulls gathered on the frozen ponds, red-tailed hawks soared above the grasslands and a lone merlin perched on a dead cottonwood limb.  Other species active on this raw, winter day included eastern meadowlarks, horned larks, song sparrows and a few fox sparrows.  Unfortunately, no trumpeter swans or snow geese graced the refuge yesterday afternoon.

Completing my tour within an hour, I left the Missouri floodplain to the wildlife and the duck hunters, returning to the safety and comfort of our Columbia home.  As night envelops the refuge, the temperature is forecast to dip near zero; nevertheless, nocturnal predators and the prolific rodents on which they feed will emerge from their roosts and dens, oblivious to the brutal weather.  After all, their very survival depends on that hardiness.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Modern Slavery

Many developed countries look back on their history of slavery with a sense of shame. Yet, modern versions of that practice continue, most encouraged by the power brokers of our global economy.

Agricultural companies take advantage of immigrant workers who are willing to accept low wages, poor housing and no benefits.  Clothing retailers shop the planet for the lowest manufacturing costs, often overlooking the conditions in which their famous brands are produced.  Many industrial giants outsource both their service and assembly units, taking advantage of lower wages and avoiding taxes that are essential to the welfare of education in their own country.

Victims of these practices, many citizens of wealthy countries must settle for low paying jobs and whatever public assistance might be available; some work full time (or combine part-time positions) without exceeding the poverty income level.  Meanwhile, corporate executives enjoy outrageous salaries, benefits and bonuses, rewarded for maximizing profits by taking advantage of impoverished human populations.  Modern slavery is alive and well.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Into Arctic Air

Heading back to Missouri today, I departed Cincinnati in a mild, humid air mass; the thermometer on our VW Beetle read 52 degrees F.  From there to western Indiana, I traveled under a low gray overcast, knifing through pockets of fog and drizzle.  The skies began to clear in Illinois and I approached St. Louis at sunset; Venus and a crescent moon gleamed in the southwestern sky and the temperature was 65 degrees F.  However, a bank of clouds across the western horizon warned of an approaching cold front.

By the time I reached Warrenton, Missouri, 30 miles west of St. Louis, the temperature had fallen to 50 and, twenty miles farther, a light mist coated the windshield and a strong west wind had developed.  Eighty miles west of St. Louis, the temperature had dropped into the upper 30s and, as I pulled into our driveway in Columbia, the car thermometer read 34 degrees F.

While I had clearly entered the dome of Arctic air that is dropping through the center of the U.S., I had barely penetrated its outer rim; 500 miles to our northwest, in the heart of the dome, lows of 20-40 degrees below zero have been reported.  Here in Missouri, we are expected to remain below freezing for the next week, with highs in the 20s and lows in the teens or single digits; most of the ice and snow associated with the Arctic front is currently forecast to stay south and east of Columbia.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Rivers & Woodlands

Driving from Missouri to Ohio today, I crossed the rural landscape of North America's Corn Belt.  As one also observes on the Great Plains, the woodlands of this physiographic region cluster along the major creeks and rivers.  However, the reason for this landscape feature differs between the two areas.

On the semiarid Plains, groves of cottonwoods and willows rise along the drainages since they provide the necessary soil moisture for tree growth; most trees (with the exception of some desert species) require at least 20 inches of annual precipitation.  By contrast, the Corn Belt of the Midwest receives an average of 35 inches of precipitation each year and, prior to the arrival of European settlers, tallgrass prairie and more extensive forests covered the region.  Clearing the land for agriculture, the settlers drained swamplands, plowed the prairie and cut away woodlands that were easy to reach and which cloaked ground suitable for crops.  In essence, these practices left forest along the stream valley walls and immediately along the river or creek itself; if the floodplain was broad enough for crops, those riparian woodlands and swamp forests were also cut.

Today, corn fields stretch across the Glaciated Plain of the Midwest, broken only by highways, towns, cities and forested stream valleys.  For the traveler, those scenic valleys offer welcome topographic relief amidst the flat agricultural terrain.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Undead of Winter

As we enter the dark, quiet, cold season of the year, we often hear reference to the dead of winter; to be honest, I occasionally use that phrase myself.  After all, the gray skies, frigid air, barren woods, frozen ground and dry, pale grasslands suggest that northern latitudes have entered a state of dormancy; were it not for the birds and mammals that move across the bleak landscape, that illusion might prevail.

Contrary to outward appearances, however, nature's cycle is very much alive during the short, cold days and long, starry nights of winter.  Deciduous plants, many now devoid of leaves, redirect their stored energy to expand their root systems, drawing in more nutrients from the deeper layers of soil.  Beneath the leaf litter, earthworms, beetles, pillbugs and a wide variety of insect larvae recycle the decaying vegetation, often making an appearance on mild winter days.  A host of shrews, mice, moles and birds feed on this army of recyclers while serving as prey for raptors, fox, opossums and other mammals.  Though amphibians and reptiles have retreated to dens or mud-walled chambers, aquatic insect larvae are active beneath the pond ice, feasting on dead vegetation or on one another and providing sustenance for the sluggish, cold-numbed fish.

Indeed, were it not for the life of winter, the explosive growth of spring could not unfold.  Those who take the time to search for the varied life forms of winter will better appreciate the fact that, despite the ice, snow and frigid air, nature's cycle has not shut down.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanks for Visiting

On this national day of Thanksgiving, it is appropriate that I express my gratitude to those who take the time to read and consider the varied posts of Nature's Blog.  While most visitors arrive via a search engine and seldom return, I know that many others share my passion for the natural diversity of our planet and I am honored by your continued interest.

Since Nature's Blog often strays from mainline nature topics to explore human culture, mysticism and our impact on natural ecosystems, it does not always appeal to the casual nature buff and may, at times, offend those who do not share my philosophy.  While I respect the beliefs of others (if not imposed on the rest of society and of no threat to the welfare of our natural environment) I express my own ideas with the hope that readers might at least consider a naturalist's point of view.  In the end, my primary goals are to encourage intellectual honesty and to inspire readers to devote themselves to protecting our natural heritage.

I am thus grateful to those who regularly peruse this blog and I am pleased to know that an increasing segment  of human society shares my enthusiasm for the magnificent diversity and complexity of nature; we are, after all, an integral part of her realm.  Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Bald Eagles at Swan Lake

Driving north to find snow geese, which had eluded me this autumn, I headed to Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, in north-central Missouri, this morning.  While most of the refuge is closed to the public through much of the fall and winter, significant observations are often made from its periphery and access to its northwest corner is maintained throughout the year.  My journey was immediately rewarded by several flocks of snow geese that meandered above the north edge of the refuge but it would be bald eagles that provided the highlight of this visit.

Entering the refuge along the west side of Swan Lake, I observed 60 bald eagles roosting in trees along the lake's north shore; another 20 circled overhead and additional groups could be seen in the distance, soaring above the refuge.  I counted at least 100 bald eagles within ten minutes of entering the preserve, the largest concentration that I have observed in my 35 years of birding.

In fact, Missouri hosts one of the largest populations of wintering bald eagles in the lower 48 States; according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, more that 2600 wintered in the State last year.  Though a significant number now breed in Missouri, the annual population peaks from mid December to early March as lakes freeze across Canada and these fish-loving raptors move to warmer climes.  In Missouri, bald eagles are best observed along the Missouri and Mississippi River Valleys but are also common at Swan Lake NWR, on Mark Twain Lake in northeast Missouri and on the "Great Lakes" of southwest Missouri; to date (per the MDNR), the largest number observed at any given location is 400 at Squaw Creek NWR, on the Missouri River floodplain, north of St. Joseph.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Economic Fairness

Within the past 24 hours, Pope Francis has denounced the tyranny of capitalism and the New York Times reported that a conservative activist wants to raise the minimum wage in California, arguing that it will actually save money by reducing expenditures for welfare programs.  While I rarely agree with the Catholic Church or with Conservative Republicans, both address a crisis that is festering in America.

While the stock market continues to set new highs and upscale retailers enjoy record profits, nearly half of our population is struggling to make ends meet.  Unemployment remains unacceptably high, the middle class is evaporating and an increasing number of families are relying on some form of public assistance.  Yet, our dysfunctional Congress is incapable of addressing the income disparity that threatens our democracy and corporate leaders argue that raising the minimum wage will reduce profits and force them to slash jobs; of course, a decision to shift some income from executives to workers would have no effect on their bottom line.

Meanwhile, the bonus checks of Wall Street tycoons exceed the annual income of most American families and the obscene social divide continues to expand.  Banking on our entrenched political and economic institutions to protect their extravagant lifestyle, the wealthy ignore their dependence on working class citizens.  Contrary to that blissful perception, America is not immune to social revolution.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Travels with Boreas

Winter Storm Boreas, so named by the Weather Channel, is the product of atmospheric low pressure interacting with a deep trough of Arctic air.  Late last week, as the Arctic front was plunging southward across the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains, a center of low pressure had developed over the Desert Southwest.  Since, in the Northern Hemisphere, winds move counterclockwise around a low, this storm swept Pacific moisture northward; forced to rise above the dense Arctic air, the humid flow dropped heavy snow across the Colorado Plateau and southern Rockies.

Over the weekend, as it moved eastward below the Arctic cold front, Boreas drew in moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, producing bands of snow, sleet, freezing rain and thunderstorms across the Southern Plains; as of this evening, the storm is centered off the northern Gulf Coast, poised to move up the Atlantic Seaboard.  At present, the Arctic front has stalled along the Appalachian Chain; as Boreas moves NNE, it will pull in Atlantic moisture, drenching areas east of the front with heavy rain and dumping snow or icy precipitation across the Appalachians and interior New England.

A battle between high pressure off the Atlantic Coast and high pressure behind the cold front will determine where the freeze line sets up in the Northeast.  As of now, the major urban corridor (from Washington to Boston) is expected to be in the warmer rain zone; should the front shift eastward, however, Boreas might produce windblown snow or freezing rain across that Metroplex, creating havoc for Thanksgiving Holiday travelers.  By late in the week, the storm is forecast to move into the Canadian Maritimes, completing its broad sweep along the edge of our Continent.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Magpie Mafia

On my last day in Colorado, as Arctic air enveloped the Front Range and snow began to coat our Littleton farm, a flock of black-billed magpies arrived to scour the trees, shrubs and pastures for anything edible.  Members of the crow family, these large, flashy omnivores are noisy and aggressive; while individuals may be vulnerable to hawks and other predators, magpie flocks are carefree and defiant.

Spotting our backyard feeder, several members of the gang alighted beneath it to search the ground for fallen seed.  They were soon joined by fifteen other magpies, nudging each other to get at the handouts.  Though a certain hierarchy was evident, they seemed to tolerate one another's company; after all, such flocks form as both a means of self defense and to increase their success at finding food.  For once, the fox squirrels deferred to avian visitors, circling at a distance to await their opportunity.

Like most birds, magpies are less gregarious during the warmer months and many move into higher terrain to raise their families.  Come fall, they gather in family-based clans, roaming the piedmont and foothills to feast on a wide variety of natural and human-produced foods.  Though despised by some farmers and gardeners, these flamboyant birds consume many destructive insects and rodents; they are both vital members of western ecosystems and conspicuous symbols of their open landscapes.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Fifty Years of Doubt

On the morning of Friday, November 22, 1963, I was living in a black and white world.  Any questions that arose were answered by my parents or the nuns at my grade school and, at the wise old age of 13, I believed them.  I knew that America was always right and that Communism was the work of Satan.  I knew that Catholicism was the only true religion and that those who adhered to other beliefs would not be allowed in heaven; Jews, in particular, were unworthy of salvation.  I knew that man was God's chosen species, created in his image and given dominion over all lesser creatures on planet Earth.  Most of all, I knew that I was fortunate to live in a white, middle-class suburb of the wholesome Midwest, far from urban crime and the influence of liberals on either coast.  All of that innocent bliss would begin to unravel by early afternoon.

That evening, at a prayer service for President Kennedy, I wondered for the first time why God would allow such tragedies to occur, especially to our first Catholic President who, we knew, was a devoted husband and father.  Subtle doubts began to arise, fed by disagreements over the Vietnam War, Civil Rights and the nature of religion itself.  During my college years at a public university, exposed to the views of students from other States and countries, my commitment to intellectual honesty took hold and the black and white world of my youth was abandoned for the colorful, if less comfortable world of personal independence.

Fifty years later, I recognize that doubt plays a crucial role in our development as mature, thoughtful human beings.  Indeed, all human progress depends on our willingness to question the status quo, to develop our own ideas and to subject them to the rigors of scientific investigation.  For me, the tragedy of the Kennedy assassination, still fresh in my mind, set that entire process in motion.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Winter Slides South

After a mild autumn across most of the U.S., a dome of Arctic air is sliding south across the Mountain West and Great Plains.  Devoid of potent storm dynamics, the front is primarily bringing a dramatic drop in temperatures and producing rather light precipitation, in the form of snow, sleet or freezing rain.

Here in Metro Denver, the Arctic air mass arrived overnight and our morning low sits at 15 degrees F; light, powdery snow is falling and three inches now coat our Littleton farm (more is expected through the day).  Further south, in the Four Corners region, low pressure will inject Pacific moisture into this frigid, polar air, producing heavy snow accumulations across the Colorado Plateau and San Juan Mountains.

Since the jet stream has dipped far to the south, the dome of dense Arctic air is free to drift downhill and with thus spread southeastward over the next few days.  In concert, a southerly flow will redevelop along the Front Range and a rapid rebound to seasonal conditions is anticipated; unfortunately, I will depart for Missouri tomorrow, following winter's slide across the Great Plains.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

November on Sharptail Ridge

Southwest of Denver, a low ridge divides the watersheds of the South Platte River and Plum Creek, which merge in Chatfield Reservoir.  Known as Sharptail Ridge since its grasslands protect habitat for threatened sharp-tailed grouse, this open space preserve (and State Wildlife Area) is also home to mule deer, a wide variety of raptors, grassland and shrubland songbirds and wintering herds of elk.  Its broad grasslands are studded with yuccas and rabbitbrush while a variety of drought tolerant shrubs cluster along drainages and on higher, shaded slopes; small groves of cottonwoods and willows are spaced along the valley creek, which runs through private land.

Since the autumn hunting season has now ended on Sharptail Ridge, I decided to visit for a morning hike.  A chinook wind and a gray overcast chilled the relatively mild November air and much of the autumn color had faded from the refuge.  Though I observed a golden eagle, a couple of red-tailed hawks and several small herds of mule deer, wildlife was relatively sparse, consisting primarily of sparrows, crows and magpies.  Nevertheless, the hike to the crest of the ridge and back provided plenty of exercise, pleasant scenery, fresh air and, on this chilly, weekday morning, a welcome dose of solitude.

Past visits to Sharptail Ridge have offered "prettier" landscape and more wildlife diversity but we cannot truly appreciate our wild lands unless we pay a visit during each season.  I plan to return during the snowy months of winter or early spring and hope to encounter elk, among other winter residents; since moose have recently been wandering into Douglas County, I might even spot one of those large herbivores in the valley willows.  After all, it is the anticipation of new and unexpected discoveries that draws us into the great outdoors.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Our Seasonal Solitaires

By mid November, the high-pitched, squeaky calls of Townsend's solitaires are echoing across our Littleton, Colorado, farm.  Summer residents of the upper foothills and mountain forests, many descend to lower elevations during the colder months and their fondness for juniper berries brings a few to our property.

Resembling streamlined, gray robins with white eye rings, solitaires typically call from the top of trees; were it not for those distinctive calls, they might otherwise go unnoticed, picking their way among the junipers to feast on their fruit.  They will generally remain in the lower foothills and on the piedmont through March before returning to their breeding grounds at elevations of 7500 to 11,000 feet.

This behavior, known as vertical migration, is common among birds that inhabit mountainous landscapes.  Among the other mountain residents that turn up on our farm (elevation 5400 feet) in winter are gray-headed juncos, mountain chickadees and Cassin's finches; less common visitors include red crossbills, pine grosbeaks and Steller's jays.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Kudos to the Weather Channel

In a number of past blog posts I have chastised the Weather Channel and their superstar meteorologists for making longterm hurricane forecasts, for encouraging the sport of storm chasing and for reporting from ground zero during severe weather, standing in the wind and rain and sending the wrong message to viewers.  On the other hand, the Channel has long provided valuable warnings when severe weather threatens and yesterday's tornado outbreak across the Midwest highlighted that service.  Well before the storms materialized, their meteorologists explained the weather dynamics that posed a risk and correctly forecast the location and timing of the severe storms.

As one who has long been fascinated by weather systems while also practicing an inexact science (i.e. Medicine), I have sympathized with the efforts of meteorologists to make forecasts with a degree of accuracy that will influence public behavior and save lives.  Like them, I know that skeptical clients are often not receptive to advanced warnings until they are directly impacted by tragedy.

Technology and research have greatly improved short-term weather forecasts in recent years and I applaud the Weather Channel for the education and warnings that they provide.  If they would only drop their increasing number of melodramatic reality shows, I might tune in more often.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Little Rocky Mountains

West of Fort Peck Lake, in northeastern Montana, a cluster of domes and buttes rise above the Great Plains.  Almost 200 miles east of the Rocky Mountain chain, this isolated uplift is known as the Little Rocky Mountains.  While their namesake range was formed by compression within the North American craton, the Little Rockies developed as a dome of cooling magma pushed up through an overlying layer cake of Precambrian, Paleozoic and Mesozoic sediments.

This uplift occurred about 60 million years ago, in the early Tertiary Period. Erosion has since removed the Paleozoic and Mesozoic sediments from the center of the dome and has carved their uplifted edges into a maze of ridges and valleys.  As one might expect, the sedimentary rocks ring the dome, decreasing in age from central areas toward the periphery; the primary exposures are of Cambrian sandstone and shale, Ordovician dolomite, Mississippian limestone (Madison limestone), Jurassic limestone and Cretaceous sandstones and shales.

Antoine Butte, 5740 feet, is the highest point in the Little Rocky Mountains, rising 2500 feet above the surrounding plains.  The numerous streams that have sculpted the uplift drain northward to the Milk River or southward to the Missouri.  Pine forest cloaks most of the Little Rockies, which produce a sky island amidst the drier grasslands, attracting a wide range of western wildlife; among the latter are mountain lions, bighorn sheep, mule deer, Clark's nutcrackers, Lewis' woodpeckers, pinyon jays, gray-crowned rosy finches and western tanagers.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Waterfowl Count

Though I am not a groupie when it comes to hiking and birding, I do enjoy participating in the occasional bird count and, this morning, took part in the Autumn Waterfowl Count at South Platte Park, in Littleton, Colorado.  Organized by staff at the Carson Nature Center, the 30+ participants were divided into seven groups, each assigned to a region of the Park.

Our group surveyed South Platte Reservoir, a relatively new and unnatural addition to the valley; bordered by stone levees and a graveled road, it was constructed to increase water supply for Metro Denver's expanding southern suburbs.  Today, it hosted small flocks of common goldeneyes, buffleheads, mallards, coot and Canada geese; a lone western grebe was observed, a bit late in the season for that species.  Other groups, assigned to naturalized areas of the South Platte Valley, observed a greater diversity of species but there were no rare finds during this event; however, a spectacle was provided by a large flock of common mergansers (numbering 250 or more) on one of the larger lakes.

In my experience, bird counts rarely yield new sightings for a veteran birder but they do offer a morning of comradery among individuals who share a common interest and an appreciation for our natural environment.  Stories of past birding exploits surface and one learns of significant recent sightings in the area.  Participation in these counts is also a means to contribute to the collection of data that is used to monitor the health of wild populations and to document the impact of climate and human activity on natural ecosystems; such information is regularly used to demonstrate the value of open space preserves and to fuel support for their protection.  Finally, organized bird counts are an excellent resource for beginning birders, who learn from experienced participants and may see their "life list" double in a few hours of birding.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Upper Plum Creek Valleys

West Plum Creek rises in the Rampart Range, west of Raspberry Butte, and snakes northward through a scenic valley bordered by foothills, to its west, and a series of buttes and ridges.  While suburbs and "estates" are slowly invading the valley, most of it retains a rural character, quilted with horse farms, cattle ranches and rustic farmsteads.  At Sedalia, West Plum Creek joins East Plum Creek and the combined stream continues north past industrial areas before merging with the South Platte River in Chatfield Reservoir.

The East Fork of Plum Creek also rises in the Rampart Range, southwest of Raspberry Butte, but receives significant flow from tributaries that rise along the Palmer Divide; the latter extends eastward from the town of Palmer Lake, dividing the watersheds of the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers.  The upper valley of East Plum Creek is an extension of the rural countryside that characterizes the West Plum Creek Valley; once below Raspberry Butte, however, it flows along Interstate 25, passing through Larkspur and Castle Rock before joining the West Branch at Sedalia.

While most of the Upper Plum Creek Valleys are private lands, they provide one of the only tracts of open landscape between the expanding cities of Denver and Colorado Springs.  Bikers are attracted to these pastoral valleys and naturalists will find an interesting variety of wildlife, viewed from pulloffs along Route 105, Tomah Road or Spruce Mountain Road; golden eagles, prairie falcons, scrub jays, black-billed magpies, mule deer, coyotes, wintering elk and, recently, an occasional moose may be encountered.  More adventurous visitors can hike the trails at Spruce Mountain and Dawson Butte Open Space Preserves, which offer broad views of the Front Range, Metro Denver and the mesa-studded landscape of Douglas County (see The Castle Rock Mesas).

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Poverty & Natural Disasters

The scenes and news from the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan are heartbreaking.  Though uncountable individuals and organizations across the globe have donated funds and resources for rescue and recovery, there is a sense of impotence when such mass disasters occur.

While rescue efforts proceed despite impaired communication and transportation, surely all too slow for those imperiled by the devastation, it is equally important to examine why we cannot better prepare for such events.  Though natural catastrophes have culled human populations throughout the history of our species, we now have the means to minimize their effects; unfortunately, a combination of cultural and political factors impair the implementation of policies that could have limited this and other disasters.  First and foremost, there are large segments of human society where poverty and overpopulation set the stage for mass calamity; lack of support for birth control and a scandalous imbalance of resource allocation are factors that can and should be reversed.  Secondly, inadequate funds are directed to programs for evacuation, safe refuge and emergency resource storage (especially food and water) greatly increasing  casualties prior to the arrival of aid from other regions and countries.  Finally, there has been little or no effort to limit human habitation of areas that are highly prone to natural disasters.

The prevention of mass suffering and death (to the extent that it is possible) will be expensive and will involve a dramatic change in the attitude of those in a position to initiate such programs.  Yet, when we consider the human and economic costs of these events, directing resources toward mitigating their effects is both a moral imperative and a wise financial investment.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Reunion Pond

Yesterday morning, glorious November weather coaxed me down to South Platte Park, in Littleton, Colorado.  There I encountered almost every species of duck that commonly winters along the Front Range; 90% of them were on a single, marsh-lined pond, seemingly reconnecting after their summer break before dispersing throughout the refuge.  Of course, this diverse congregation was more likely related to food availability and to their instinctual knowledge that safety is enhanced in a crowd.

The gathering included Canada geese, mallards, gadwall, northern pintails, American wigeon, northern shovelers, green-winged teal, wood ducks, lesser scaup, buffleheads, ring-necked ducks, American coot and hooded mergansers; common goldeneyes and common mergansers were observed on an adjacent lake.  It reminded me of a zoo exhibit where a variety of species are confined together to conserve space.

Ironically, waterfowl numbers were rather sparse in other areas of the Park and the annual influx of Canada geese, which usually occurs during the first week of November, has not yet materialized.  Once again, I may be witnessing the impact of global warming on the autumn waterfowl migration; as long as  open water and food are found up north, there is no need for ducks and geese to expend energy by flying to southern latitudes.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

From Sandhills to Mountains

Leaving Lacreek NWR yesterday, I drove south into the Nebraska sandhills and then turned west on US 20.  The scenic sandhills eventually give way to more open terrain and then, west of Hay Springs, the highway knifes through the Pine Ridge Escarpment.  By the time I reached Chadron, I could see the full extent of that Escarpment (the northern edge of the High Plains), curving along the rim of the White River watershed.

Climbing through the western segment of this ridge, I was treated to a winter wonderland where the upsloping Arctic air had coated the pines with a thin icy glaze; atop the ridge, light snow covered the High Plains, disappearing by the time I entered Wyoming.  At Lusk, I turned south on Highway 85, crossing a varied landscape of buttes, mesas, rocky headlands, escarpments and badlands, all carved from Tertiary sediments by Rawhide Creek and other tributaries of the North Platte River.  Reaching Lingle, I turned west on US 26 and drove through the North Platte Valley, paralleling a segment of the Oregon Trail and passing through Ft. Laramie, a vital center for traders, travelers and settlers during the westward expansion of our country.  After crossing the North Platte in Guernsey, at the southern end of the Hartville Uplift, I continued westward toward the Laramie Mountains, Wyoming's portion of the Front Range.

Somewhat reluctantly, I joined the hordes on Interstate 25, which undulates southward toward Metro Denver, dipping to cross the Laramie River and other tributaries of the North Platte.  As I climbed toward the Gangplank divide, which separates the watersheds of the North and South Platte Rivers, upslope fog and drizzle developed; in effect, the land was rising to meet the gray overcast that shrouded the High Plains.  South of the divide, however, that upslope dissipated, the skies cleared and the high peaks of the Colorado Front Range shimmered in the late autumn sun.  By early evening, despite pockets of heavy traffic, I had reached our Littleton farm.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Lacreek NWR

What a difference a day makes, for weather and birding alike!  As expected, the Arctic front dipped across the Great Plains overnight and, this morning, a low, gray overcast stretched above the sandhills of western Nebraska and South Dakota as I set out for Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge; scattered flurries moved across the region and a brisk northeast wind, combined with an ambient temperature of 23 degrees F, produced a wind chill of eleven.  Yet, as I approached the refuge, trumpeter swans appeared on several of the sandhill lakes and, as I entered the Lake Creek basin, massive flocks of sandhill cranes moved above the preserve, their distinctive calls echoing through the valley.  The weather may have taken a turn for the worse but my birding luck had improved considerably.

Established in 1935 to protect wetland habitat for nesting and migrating waterfowl, Lacreek NWR lies in southwestern South Dakota, southeast of Martin; access roads enter the preserve from Route 73 on its western edge and from Route 18 to its north.  The refuge has played a vital role in the reintroduction of trumpeter swans to the Great Plains region and now hosts 20-40 breeding pair during the spring and summer months; 200 or more winter on or near the refuge.  A wide variety of migrant waterfowl visit Lacreek during the spring and fall migrations and its open grasslands are home to sharp-tailed grouse, ring-necked pheasants and a host of prairie songbirds; burrowing owls reside here during the warmer months, using abandoned prairie dog dens, and the refuge hosts one of the largest breeding colonies of American white pelicans in South Dakota.

In addition to the trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes, my visit today turned up sizable flocks of Canada geese and mallards, a mix of other ducks (including hooded mergansers and buffleheads), rough-legged and red-tailed hawks and several mule deer.  A return visit in spring or late summer should be even more productive.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Blue Skies, No Snows

Heading back to Colorado, I decided to shift my route northward with the hope of encountering large flocks of snow geese and with a plan to visit Lacreek NWR, in southwestern South Dakota.  I thus veered north on I-29 at Kansas City, eventually dropping onto the broad Missouri River floodplain near Mound City.  The flat landscape of cropfields, levee bound streams and riparian woodlands stretched beneath a clear, blue sky; unfortuately, despite passing the Squaw Creek and DeSoto NWRs, two major staging areas for migrant snow geese, no flocks were encountered.  In fact, on my entire trip from Columbia, Missouri, to south-central South Dakota, I only saw a few small flocks of Canada geese, generally ubiquitous across the American Midwest.

Bird sightings were certainly sparse throughout the day, limited primarily to starling ballets, numerous red-tailed hawks and a large number of ring-necked pheasants along Highway 18, in South Dakota.  Nevertheless, the latter route crossed landscape that became especially scenic near and west of Winner, where the northern edge of the sandhills blends with a series of smooth-edged ridges.  Augmenting this scenery were a spectacular sunset of pink and purple clouds and the brilliant glow of Venus in the southwestern sky.

Tomorrow I'll visit Lacreek NWR before completing my journey to our Littleton, Colorado, farm.  Here's hoping that an Arctic front, poised to drop across the Great Plains and Midwest, will usher in the waterfowl!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Rushing toward Death

We humans tend to be impatient creatures but some individuals are always in a hurry.  Ever conscious of the time and date, they strive to be productive each and every minute of their lives.  They are intolerant of lines and avoid mass transit due to its frequent stops and unpredictable schedule.  Planning ahead, they are keenly aware of upcoming events, purchasing holiday and birthday gifts months in advance and creating agendas for their infrequent vacations.

For them, speed and efficiency are essential; travel must utilize the most direct route to their destination and outdoor activities, such as hiking, are primarily a means of getting some exercise.  Proud of their multitasking skills, they loathe idleness and despise anyone who appears to be engaging in unproductive relaxation.

While these individuals claim to get the most out of life, one doubts that they truly savor the journey. Their bucket list is not a means to enrich their lives but, rather, is just another set of goals to reach before they die.  In the end, their many achievements will provide a wealth of material for their biographer or obituary but they will have spent their life rushing toward death.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Autism, ADHD & Human Diversity

Over the past decade, human society has become increasingly aware of autism and its spectrum.  As is frequently reported on television and radio commercials, this diagnosis is now applied to 1 in 81 children, a dramatic increase since the turn of the Century. Understandably, these reports have triggered concerns among prospective parents, suggesting that environmental toxins might be affecting our genes. Just this week, researchers have offered evidence that older fathers increase the incidence of autism and have unveiled a means to diagnose the condition during the first year of life, using computerized analysis of eye-contact.

Yet, many specialists suspect that the observed increase in autism is due to increasing awareness of the disorder among parents and pediatricians and due to a broadened definition of its spectrum; indeed, the reported incidence is much higher in States that have aggressive autism screening programs than in those that have limited resources devoted to the diagnosis and management of autism.  In this respect, it seems to mirror the attention that ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) has received in recent decades; an increasing number of children, teens and college students have been diagnosed with that disorder and are taking medications to control their symptoms.

While I am not a pediatrician and do not pretend to be an expert on genetic or developmental disorders, I often wonder if modern medicine is unnecessarily labeling the outliers of normal human diversity.  There is no question that severe cases of autism, which limit communication and personal independence warrant aggressive evaluation and treatment but mild cases, as with most cases of ADHD, might best be approached with simple adjustments at home and in the classroom.  To apply diagnostic labels to children who demonstrate minor variance from "normal" may, it seems to me, do more harm than good.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Long-tailed Weasels

The most widespread mustelid in the Western Hemisphere, long-tailed weasels inhabit open woodlands and forest clearings from southern Canada to northern South America.  While fairly common throughout the U.S. (with the exception of open deserts in the Southwest), these aggressive hunters are primarily nocturnal and are not often encountered.  On the other hand, they are active throughout the year and are best observed at dawn or dusk, especially during the colder months.

Molting in both the spring and the fall, those that live in northern latitudes turn white or creamy yellow during the colder months while more southern residents retain a cinnamon-brown dorsal coat throughout the year; in all areas, the tip of their tail remains black.  Long-tailed weasels are solitary for most of the year, marking their territories with musk from anal glands.  They mate in mid summer but implantation of the fertilized eggs is delayed; 4-8 kits are generally born in mid spring and remain with their mother until late summer.  Female offspring are able to mate during that first summer while males are not sexually mature until the following year.

Using abandoned dens, long-tailed weasels live within rock piles, beneath stumps or under mounds of brush.  They feed primarily on mice, voles, shrews and other small mammals but also attack larger prey such as chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, reptiles and small birds; eggs are also consumed on occasion. Their natural predators include hawks, owls, coyotes and rattlesnakes; kits are vulnerable to a wider range of enemies, including fox, smaller snakes, ravens and magpies.  Indeed, despite their aggressive nature, most long-tailed weasels die within their first year and few live more than 3-4 years in the wild.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Birding in the Mist

A low, gray overcast produced a steady drizzle across central Missouri this afternoon.  Nevertheless, it was the most convenient time for my weekly visit to the Missouri River floodplain and, while heavy rain and high winds may keep wildlife in their shelters, a dark, misty day will often encourage their activity and make them more conspicuous.

Unfortunately, most of the Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area is now accessible only to duck hunters but a number of fields, ponds, sloughs, lakes and riparian woodlands are still open to birders and naturalists.  The flocks of blue-winged teal have now departed for the south, replaced by increasing numbers of mallards, northern shovelers, coot and gadwalls.  Wood ducks, double-crested cormorants and a small flock of American white pelicans were also observed and I spotted a pair of sandhill cranes feeding near a shallow channel.  As usual, great blue herons, killdeer and belted kingfishers were found along the waterways and the riverside woods were alive with a variety of woodpeckers and forest songbirds.  Eastern bluebirds, horned larks, red-winged blackbirds, eastern meadowlarks and northern harriers were all common on the open grasslands and crop fields.

Too often, novice birders are discouraged from heading out unless the weather is mild and sunny.  In fact, with the exceptions noted above, their birding success will generally have no relationship to how "nice" the conditions might be.  While humans, pampered by our heated homes and vehicles, are reluctant to endure harsh or ugly weather, our wild neighbors have no choice and must remain active to survive.  Of course, they are not subject to the influence of local radar or weather forecasts.

Trillions of Earths

As reported by news agencies yesterday, a study of data from the Kepler Space Observatory suggests that there may be 40 billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way Galaxy that orbit their suns within a zone that could support life.  Conducted by a graduate student at the University of California in Berkeley, this multi-year analysis is the latest estimate based on reams of data from the Observatory, which was launched by NASA in 2009.

While this data may seem shocking to many, there are at least 300 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, which is one of an estimated 200 billion galaxies in the Universe; some of the larger galaxies contain more than a trillion stars.  Based on those numbers, there are surely trillions of Earth-like planets in the Universe; if only one in a billion supports intelligent life there are, at minimum, thousands of civilizations out there, most of which are far more advanced than our own (after all, our home star is only 5 billion years old while the Big Bang occurred 13.7 billion years ago).

One would think that such data might give pause to those who espouse rigid, traditional religious beliefs.  Are we a chosen species or are we but one of thousands of intelligent civilizations that inhabit our massive, ever-expanding Universe?  At the very least, this scientific data should encourage us to approach that question with an open mind (and with more humility).

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Gift of Conservation

Those of us devoted to conservation will receive little personal benefit from our efforts.  While we may have the chance to visit wilderness areas or nature preserves that we helped to protect, the rewards of our commitment will be reaped primarily by future generations.

Supporting measures that foster clean air and water, participating in recycling programs, avoiding the use of herbicides and pesticides, reducing our carbon footprint, planting trees, funding the work of conservation organizations and limiting our personal consumption of natural resources, while slowly improving the plight of natural ecosystems, will not always produce results during our lifetime.  The campaign to combat global warming offers an excellent example, especially in light of the political will and international cooperation that will be necessary to achieve that goal; even if the numerous obstacles were eliminated today, it would take several decades to stem the tide that our industrial revolution set in motion.

Indeed, conservation initiatives, whether undertaken by individuals or organizations, are selfless gifts to future generations, driven by concern for the welfare of our planet.  Unfortunately, profit-driven corporations and cash-strapped governments have trouble focusing on the future consequences of their policies (or inaction) and much of our effort must be devoted to combating the power brokers of human society.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Nature of Schizophrenia

A string of violent tragedies have plagued the U.S. over the past few years.  In many cases, the perpetrator has been a young man who, prior to the event, had demonstrated unusual behavior or disordered thought processes, such as social isolation, paranoia, or hallucinations.

Indeed, the backgrounds of many assailants suggest the diagnosis of schizophrenia, a mental disorder that affects almost 1% of the adult population and which most often presents during the late teens or twenties; the incidence of schizophrenia is about 3 per 10,000 individuals but its chronicity leads to a relatively high prevalence in human society.  Though the specific etiology of schizophrenia has not been determined, it is thought that a group of defective genes result in both biochemical and structural changes in the brain, leading to the symptoms mentioned above; men and women are equally affected though the disease tends to develop earlier and is often more severe in males.  While these genetic defects are usually inherited (the identical twin of a patient with schizophrenia has a 50% chance of developing the disorder), they may also result from spontaneous gene mutations and might act in concert with environmental factors (e.g. malnutrition, viruses, toxin exposure) to produce the mental illness.  Current therapy involves the use of drugs that ameliorate the biochemical defects in the brain but the potential for gene-based therapy is on the horizon.

A crucial factor in the early diagnosis and management of schizophrenia is the willingness of family and friends to seek medical help for the individual when behavioral or psychological changes are first noticed.  Of course, since the disease presents in the late teens or early adulthood, subtle signs may be difficult to distinguish from the emotional lability so common in this age group; any evidence of paranoia, hallucinations or delusional thoughts, however, should prompt immediate referral to a mental health professional.  If individuals with schizophrenia are diagnosed at an early stage and receive proper psychiatric treatment, they rarely indulge in violent behavior; unfortunately, for a variety of financial, political and cultural reasons, a significant percentage of patients never receive adequate therapy.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Fear of the Dark

We humans, children of the Tropics, have an innate revulsion to the waning daylight of autumn, having learned early in our history that the sun is vital to our survival.  In addition, ill equipped to function in the dark, we found ourselves at the mercy of predators which had a distinct advantage during the cover of night.

Though we have since learned to heat and light our shelters, have managed to kill off most of our natural predators and can now refrigerate foods that we import from distant lands, a fear of the dark still resides in our collective human soul.  Of course, the intensity of that fear varies among individuals; like other human fears, our fear of the dark has both a deep-seated genetic basis (common to us all and ingrained to favor survival) and a superficial, conscious component, instilled by those who influenced our thoughts and behavior during childhood.

Now, as we head into the shorter and colder days of the year, both our natural and our irrational fear of darkness will have some impact on our mood.  While diminished to some degree by modern technology, we sense the dangers of the season and, though we now understand the science of the solar calendar, we retain a subconscious fear that the retreating sun will not return.

Friday, November 1, 2013

November: Nature's Cinderella

Mention autumn and most Americans think of pleasant September, beautiful October and their ugly sister, November.  After all, November has a reputation for cold weather, gray skies and the first snow of the season.  Yet, in recent years, the fabulous weather of October has extended well into November and, as our climate warms, that trend should continue.

Even more inviting for naturalists and birdwatchers are the natural spectacles that unfold in November.  Huge flocks of migrant waterfowl, followed by bald eagles and peregrine falcons, descend on our lakes and reservoirs.  Accompanied by various loons, grebes, gulls and rare vagrants, these wanderers offer, in my opinion, the most inspiring events of the year.  And, in our fields and woodlands, the crisp, late autumn weather invigorates the native wildlife, now especially conspicuous amidst the barren trees and open landscape; hawks, owls, deer, coyotes, fox and a variety of small mammals are often best observed during this transition from autumn to winter.

Though she arrives in the wake of glorious October, November is more than welcomed by naturalists and hunters alike.  In our minds, this month is not a homely step-sister to be shunned and ridiculed; rather, she is the Cinderella of nature's year.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Nature of Ghosts

On this Halloween, its seems appropriate to consider the nature of ghosts.  During our childhood, as will be evident this evening, ghosts are thought to be scary beings that, while unseen, make themselves evident via eery noises or unexplained phenomena.

As we mature, many humans retain their belief in ghosts.  Most believe that they represent the spirits of the dead who, for one reason or another, could not depart this world.  Others believe they are messengers, returning to ensure loved ones that they remain alive and well.  In either case, ghosts are thought to be spiritual remnants of those who once walked the Earth, confirming the religious or mystical beliefs of those who accept their presence.

Of course, despite widespread anecdotal reports, which feed a lucrative business for psychics and other mediums, there is no scientific evidence that ghosts truly exist, though, theoretically, visual manifestations of past life could reflect aberrations in space-time that we don't yet understand.  Many of us believe that ghosts are illusions, products of the complex human brain which are evoked by intense emotion, vivid imagination or fervent religious belief.  Signs of spiritual communication from the dead are especially common after the death of a loved one, when grief alters our interpretation of otherwise random and meaningless events.  Convinced that we are witnessing signals from the deceased, our grief is diminished by the assurance that their spirit lives on and that, someday, we will meet them again.  Indeed, our fear of death is a potent force.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Spring in October

The southerly flow ahead of an approaching cold front has brought the feel of spring to the October landscape of central Missouri.  Were it not for the colorful leaves, browning lawns, Halloween decorations and subdued birdsong, one would think that it is May.

High pressure to our east, in combination with the storm's central low, is sweeping warm air and Gulf of Mexico moisture into the Heartland; our afternoon high is expected to reach 70 degrees F and the unstable atmosphere will ignite bands of thunderstorms, some of which may be severe.  Indeed, large hail fell in northwest Missouri this morning and, over the next 24 hours, we may receive 2 to 3 inches of rain.  Further south, where the air temperature and humidity are higher, tornados are expected across eastern Oklahoma, southeast Kansas, southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas.

On the positive side, this latest storm, which is bringing heavy snow to the higher elevations of the Wasatch and Rocky Mountains, is not expected to produce blizzards on the Northern Plains; in addition, along its southern margin, it will sweep plenty of moisture across drought-plagued Texas.  Here in Missouri, where the rain is also welcomed, this bout of spring should ensure one more round of mowing before winter sets in.

Monday, October 28, 2013

October in the Country

Faced with a free afternoon, I am inclined to escape to the country; if I happen to be in Missouri, I head for the rolling farmlands and wooded valleys south and east of Columbia.  While such an excursion can be interesting at any time of the year, autumn is my favorite season for wandering through the countryside (as it is for most outdoor activities).

Of course, man's imprint on the landscape is everywhere, from rustic farms to gaudy homesteads to out-of-place mansions.  But nature never fails to impress and, in October, colorful woodlands and clean edged, yellowing meadows glow in the crisp autumn air.  Kestrels, mourning doves and eastern bluebirds lounge on the powerlines, red-tailed hawks circle overhead, flocks of red-winged blackbirds pick through the corn stubble and placid livestock, no longer annoyed by summer's insects, graze on the drying grasslands.  Dipping through the woods, one encounters the usual mix of winter songbirds, an occasional troop of wild turkeys and, early or late in the day, the startled figure of a red fox, coyote or white-tailed deer.

Today's visit, beneath a clear blue sky, offered most of those rewards.  Yet, a bank of clouds to the northwest warned that the next cold front was preparing to drop through the Heartland.  Such storm fronts will arrive with increasing frequency in the coming weeks and, before long, winter will grip the region.  But, riding those northern winds, flocks of snow geese will call from the frigid skies, trumpeter swans will visit from breeding areas to our north and short-eared owls will appear on these farmlands, content to spend a few months in the bleak winter landscape of the American Midwest.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Formation of the Philippines

The Philippine archipelagos represent one of the most complex geologic regions of our planet.  Composed of numerous microplates and terranes that became trapped between or split from the Eurasian Plate, to their west, the Philippine Sea Plate, to their east, and the Australian Plate to their south, the Philippine Mobile Belt stretches south from Taiwan to the northern edge of the Australian Plate.  It is bounded on the east by the East Luzon and Philippine Trenches and, on the west, by the Manila, Negros and Cotabato Trenches.

The microplates and terranes, many of which are composed of metamorphic Paleozoic and early Mesozoic bedrock, have been subjected to fusion, compression, transverse faulting and subduction volcanism throughout the Cenozoic Era; all of these geological processes continue today.  The Philippine Fault runs down the center of the Mobile Belt, triggering uplift and earthquakes while stream erosion and volcanic debris have produced nutrient rich plains between the numerous mountain ridges.

Lying in the Tropical Zone, the Philippines are also lashed by tropical storms and typhoons which mold their coastlines and channels, further altering the geography of the component archipelagos.  Indeed, there are few regions of our globe where plate tectonics and violent weather produce such a regular chain of "natural disasters."

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Narcotic Addiction & Abuse

The excessive prescription of narcotics has led to an epidemic of abuse and addiction in America, leading the FDA to, belatedly, place limitations on the amount of hydrocodone that a patient can receive between office visits and to require written (rather than phoned-in) prescriptions to obtain them.

Having practiced Internal Medicine for 36 years, primarily as a hospitalist, I have long observed the overuse of these addictive medications and place the blame squarely on physicians.  While these medications are designed primarily for acute pain relief following infection, injury or surgery, patients are too often sent home with a month's supply of the narcotic, sometimes with a refill or two; in the majority of cases, the patient could have been managed with a few days of the narcotic, transitioned to ibuprofen, naproxen or acetaminophen in combination with physical therapy.  The extended availability of narcotics leads to their overuse and, within a relatively short period of time, to dependence.

While patients with certain malignancies, neuropathies and other painful conditions might need long term narcotic therapy, most patients who use narcotics on a chronic basis are addicted to those medications; since, over time, they develop tolerance, the dose must be gradually increased.  In the end, the excessive amount of these drugs in medicine cabinets across the country, in combination with black market sources, has led to their abuse by teens and young adults; combined with alcohol, sedatives and other illicit drugs, narcotics have become a leading cause of overdose-related deaths in otherwise healthy individuals.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Gray-Cheeked Thrush

Earlier this week, as I watched a mixed flock of chickadees, titmice and nuthatches attack our backyard feeder, a spotted thrush dropped into our large magnolia.  A bit late for migrants, I initially thought it was a hermit thrush, a species that winters in Missouri.  Yet, it had no eye rings, no rust coloration on its tail or back and did not flick its tail; I eventually concluded that it was a gray-cheeked thrush.

Summer residents of the New England mountains, the Canadian Maritimes and northern woodlands of Canada and Alaska, these long-distance migrants winter in the tropical forests of northern South America; en route, they pass through the eastern half of the U.S. but are not common in most areas.  Indeed, this was my first sighting of a gray-cheeked thrush in Columbia.

Since they feed on insects and berries, the thrush was not interested in the sunflower seed handouts but was clearly attracted to our yard by the activity of our common avian residents.  Such is the case with many uncommon visitors throughout the colder months and this is a major reason why veteran birders put out feeders.  While our wild neighbors could survive without our charity, the feeders attract most of  our local species and thereby get the attention of rare species that pass through the region.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Prairie & Sinkholes

Following the first overnight freeze of the season, I opted for a hike at Rockbridge Memorial State Park (south of Columbia) yesterday afternoon.  There I took the Grassland Trail that winds across tallgrass prairie and passes a number of sinkholes in the limestone bedrock.  Woodlands cluster at the sinkholes, offering prime roost and hunting sites for hawks and owls that inhabit the park.

On my visit, the late October sun offered little warmth to moderate the chilly, northwest breeze.  Fortunately, the cool conditions invigorated the birdlife as I strolled through the preserve; eastern bluebirds, American crows and American goldfinches dominated the grassland while a host of woodpeckers, blue jays, nuthatches, chickadees and titmice noisily rummaged through the sinkhole woodlands.  In thickets along the woodland borders, I observed several groups of white-throated sparrows, the first winter residents that I have seen this season.  American kestrels perched on the powerlines while a pair of red-tailed hawks circled above the prairie, stoking the ire of the resident crows.

The sinkholes, some of which hold water, are the product of collapsed caves; indeed, an extensive network of caves and underground streams lies beneath the Park, coursing through a thick slab of Mississippian limestone.  At the surface, the sinkholes drain water from the surrounding prairie, giving rise to ponds, marshes, thickets and woodlands; dry sinkholes also offer protected retreats for a variety of hunters, including snakes, long-tailed weasels, raccoons, fox and coyotes.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Life of Memories

We humans are, in effect, the product of our genes and our memories; genes determine our physical structure and biochemical function while memories record all experiences in our lives, from the later stage of fetal life to the moment of our death.

These memories are essential to the learning process and give context to all events in our lives.  Our ability to communicate, to reason, to create and to effectively and safely interact with our environment are all dependent upon knowledge that we acquire through experience and store as memories.  While the great majority of memories are rather mundane and are relegated to the background of our consciousness, others are associated with emotionally charged events; the latter, whether positive or negative, surface and are reinforced on a regular basis and have a significant impact on the development of our self image and personality.  Indeed, we both learn from and are molded by memories of past events.

As we age, our long-term memory generally remains intact while, depending upon our genes and our state of health, our short-term memory begins to fail.  As a consequence, our memory chain grows at a slower rate and we find it harder to learn new skills.  Neurologic studies indicate that an effort to remain mentally active (via reading, games, educational programs and other intellectual endeavors) may slow our short-term memory loss; of course, dementia and other neurologic disorders might intervene, negating that benefit.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Sluggish Fall at Eagle Bluffs

On my visit to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area this morning, it was clear that the summer residents, including great egrets and green herons, had departed for the south.  While flocks of double-crested cormorants and American white pelicans still graced the refuge, the number and variety of waterfowl were well below average for late October; small scattered flocks of mallards, blue-winged teal, American coot and pied-billed grebes were the only representatives.

Unlike songbirds, which migrate in response to the sunlight cycle, the migration of waterfowl varies from year to year, depending upon the availability of food and open water; indeed, as our climate continues to warm, some species may limit their southward migration while others may stop migrating altogether.  Though waterfowl migrations usually peak in November here in central Missouri, the schedule seems to be shifting; in years past, the ponds, sloughs and lakes of Eagle Bluffs, located on the Missouri River floodplain, would teem with ducks by this time of year.

Of course, some variation occurs from year to year due to changing weather patterns which are distinct from climate change.  Nevertheless, a pattern seems to be developing and the combination of warmer winters and agricultural handouts might keep some species from ever reaching the Gulf Coastal Plain.  For now, those of us who visit Eagle Bluffs in late October must be satisfied with watching the great blue herons, raptors, killdeer and other permanent residents of this fabulous riverine refuge.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Autumn of Life

Now in the autumn of my life, I recognize that our lives parallel the natural seasons.  Having survived the vigor of spring and the intense heat of summer, a certain mellowness sets in.  Yet, knowing that the cold silence of winter lies ahead, we make the most of our later years, taking advantage of freedoms that have eluded us since mid spring.

Like the vegetation, we have lost the superficial beauty and shiny veneer of our younger days but rich colors, long hidden by the verdant tide of growth and maturation, begin to show through.  At the same time, harvesting the rewards of our working years, we, like all life forms, must prepare for the coming darkness, a threat that, for most of life's calendar, we managed to ignore.

Endowed with a large, complex brain, we recognize these parallels; however, unlike our wild neighbors, we must consciously face the prospect of death.  Indeed, our intellect, if freely exercised, unveils our intimate relationship to all other species; we may be its current stewards but we cannot escape the cycle of life that fuels the ecosystems of Planet Earth.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Clifty Creek Natural Area

Clifty and Little Clifty Creeks rise on the west wall of the Gasconade River Valley in south-central Missouri.  Flowing eastward, the creeks merge in the Clifty Creek Natural Area of the northern Ozarks where the streams have carved a natural bridge in the Ordovician dolomite.  Owned by the L-A-D Foundation and leased to the Missouri Department of Conservation, the area lies north of Missouri Route W and east of Route 28, about 6 miles northeast of Dixon.

On this glorious October weekend, my wife and I headed south to explore the preserve, which is accessed by a 2.5 mile trail loop.  From the parking lot, a short entry trail leads to the loop which can be hiked in either direction; the southern section of the loop undulates along the south wall of the Clifty Creek gorge while the northern section winds atop a ridge that separates the Clifty and Little Clifty Creek watersheds.  Those seeking a the shortest route to the natural bridge should turn east (right) on the loop; the 40-foot bridge spans the mouth of Little Clifty Creek where it merges with Clifty Creek, about 1 mile from the parking lot.

While we encountered deer, wild turkeys, eastern bluebirds and a pileated woodpecker along Route W, the oak-hickory-pine forest of the 230 acre Natural Area (and its adjacent Conservation Area) was rather silent today.  Nevertheless, the scenic creeks, spectacular cliffs and forest vistas, adorned with autumn color, were well worth the visit and the undulating trail provided plenty of exercise in the cool, clear October air.