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.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Tea Party Agenda

Having closed the U.S. government with the expressed purpose of dismantling the Affordable Care Act, Tea Party Republicans lost that battle but it seems that this was just their opening salvo against the President and the Federal Government.  If given the opportunity, they will curtail support for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, close the Department of Education, abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and repeal the Civil Rights Act.

In effect, they want to be left alone in their white, Christian communities, free of Federal regulation and intervention.  Under such circumstances, they can outlaw abortion, teach creationism, block immigration, expand gun rights, enact exclusive voting laws and reinstate discrimination against women, blacks and gays (among other groups).  Reviving the simple life of the 1950s, they will bask in the glory of their Cold War mentality.

The Tea Party Agenda seeks freedom through intolerance and exclusion.  Demonstrating little concern for the rights and welfare of other segments of American society, they push their demands by declaring war on the progress that we have made over the past half Century.  Should they gain traction, minority rights, scientific education, conservation programs, international relationships and the U.S. economy will all suffer the consequences.  As a naturalist, a physician, a father and a grandfather, I hope that their influence will soon fade from the political landscape.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Hiking through a Sea Bed

Yesterday, my wife and I visited Three Creeks Conservation Area, south of Columbia, where three streams converge, carving scenic gorges through the limestone bedrock of central Missouri.  Our two mile hike ran along and descended into the valley of Turkey Creek, following rocky trails, passing through limestone cliffs and negotiating the dry, boulder-strewn bed of the creek, where giant slump blocks have fallen from upper walls of the gorge.

All of the rocks that we stumbled across, climbed over or gazed at from below are Mississippian limestone, deposited in shallow seas some 330 million years ago.  As it accumulated beneath the seas, fern forests spread across much of the land, the first winged insects made their appearance and giant amphibians stalked extensive wetlands; reptiles, dinosaurs, birds and mammals had yet to inhabit the planet.  Compressed and compacted by younger sediments which have since eroded away, the soluble limestone is now riddled with caves, underground streams and sinkholes, channeling surface water to springs that emerge along the valley walls.

Too often, we humans hike through natural landscapes without giving thought to their natural history.  Many assume that they are products of God's creation, reflecting form and beauty that have been in place since day one.  Those who understand that modern landscapes are merely the present manifestation of 4.6 billion years of evolution have a deeper appreciation for what they observe and are more likely to commit themselves to their protection.  Hiking through an ancient sea bed, now adorned with a rich oak-hickory forest, offers plenty of inspiration.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Giant Oarfish

The 18-foot specimen that washed up in Southern California this week was, by past accounts, of modest size for an adult giant oarfish; these deepwater residents of Temperate and Tropical oceans have been known to reach 50 feet in length, the longest bony fish on our planet.  Since they feed on krill, squid and small fish at depths of 100 to 3000 feet, giant oarfish are rarely encountered as active, living creatures and most of what we know about them has been gleaned from dead or dying specimens that wash onto beaches.

Most of the giant oarfish is comprised of a long, ribbon-like tail; a feathery dorsal fin runs atop the fish, from its head to the tip of its tail, and the portion atop its head lengthens to form a distinctive crest.  Vital organs of the oarfish are located near its head and the pair of long, oar-like pelvic fins are just behind its short pectoral fins.  Oarfish belong to the Order Lampridiformes, which split from other fish lines during the Cretaceous Period, some 100 million years ago, when Tyrannosaurus rex ruled the land.

The occasional appearance of these giant fish on our shores reminds us that we know very little about the ecology of deep ocean life zones and have only begun to study and document their strange and diverse fauna.  Since the function and welfare of Earth's many ecosystems are interdependent, we ignore the deep marine wilderness at our own peril.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Cuyahoga River

The Cuyahoga River of northeastern Ohio rises as East and West Branches in the northeast corner of Geauga County, flows southwestward to Cuyahoga Falls and then angles NNW, emptying into Lake Erie at Cleveland.  One hundred miles in length, the Cuyahoga (which means "crooked" in the Iroquois language) drains a watershed of 812 square miles, including parts of six Ohio counties.

Famous for catching fire in June, 1969, when oily debris was apparently ignited by sparks from a freight train, the Cuyahoga has since been recovering from its era of industrial pollution.  Thanks to conservation organizations such as Friends of the Crooked River, small dams along the river are being removed, wetlands have been restored and studies are underway to scientifically investigate, monitor and restore the riverine ecosystem.  Designated an American Heritage River in 1998, the Cuyahoga is a post-glacial river, the course of which was determined by the last Pleistocene Glacier as it retreated from Ohio some 12,000 years ago.  The Upper Cuyahoga (above Lake Rockwell, northeast of Kent) flows through natural and agricultural habitat while most of the River's course between Cuyahoga Falls and Cleveland flows through Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Having played a major role in spawning the Clean Water Act and other conservation initiatives, the Cuyahoga River has since become a symbol of what can be accomplished by groups dedicated to the welfare of rivers and other natural ecosystems.  Your financial support for and active participation in these conservation organizations is strongly encouraged (see the list in the right column of this Blog).

Monday, October 14, 2013

Wild Turkeys in Ohio

On our recent trips to Ohio, I observed a fair number of wild turkeys, most often feeding in fields at the edge of woodlands.  Their history in the Buckeye State is an excellent study in the relationship between humans and many native species of wildlife.

Abundant in Ohio before the arrival of European settlers, wild turkeys were extirpated from the State by 1904, the combined effect of deforestation and overhunting.  Reintroduction began in 1956, transferring flocks primarily from Kentucky, Missouri and West Virginia.  That program, in concert with hunting restrictions, has been highly successful and, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, almost 200,000 wild turkeys now inhabit the State; found in all counties of Ohio, the population is primarily concentrated in the forested landscape of the Appalachian Plateau.

Turkey hunting was resumed in Ohio in 1966 and is now comprised of a State-wide spring season and a fall season that is currently limited to seven counties; the ODNR reports an annual harvest of about 20,000 turkeys while an unknown number are taken by coyotes, fox, bobcats, great-horned owls and hawks.  While habitat destruction surely played some role in the extirpation of turkeys from the State (as suburban sprawl may pose some threat today), the success of the reintroduction program suggests that overhunting was the primary cause of their decline.  Today, close monitoring of turkey populations and annual adjustments to hunting regulations should maintain a healthy concentration in the varied habitats of Ohio; of course, natural predator control complicates that balance and human hunting is now the primary means of keeping turkey populations in check.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Human Kindness

During periods of human conflict, whether between individuals, within governments or across the international landscape, man has looked for the answer to peaceful coexistence.  Various songs, poems and sermons have suggested that love is that answer but such a complex human emotion can rarely be applied to more than a handful of individuals beyond our immediate families.

Religious persons place emphasis on the healing power of faith, convinced that a uniformity of belief would mend our differences while political junkies invoke a variety of remedies, from rigid capitalism to universal socialism, relying on philanthropy or governmental mandates to appease the masses.

It seems to me that kindness is the key to resolving human conflict.  We do not have the capacity to love one another on a societal scale and cannot be coerced by religious or political philosophy to accept belief systems that, in fact, have their disparate roots in limited segments of human civilization.  Kindness, on the other hand, is a trait that we can all appreciate and project, regardless of our religious, political or cultural background; its expression reinforces our faith in humanity and, by fostering tolerance, serves to diminish the divisive nature of those social constructs.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

October Fog at Eagle Bluffs

Arriving at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area just after dawn, I was greeted by a dense fog that enveloped the Missouri River floodplain.  On my first loop through the preserve, I could barely make out the stately silhouettes of great blue herons and great egrets that rose amidst the shallows and, while I could hear their legions, the massive flocks of red-winged blackbirds were but dark shadows in the pea soup fog.

By 9 AM the fog was burning off and I watched skittish flocks of blue-winged teal as they moved among the wetlands.  More sedate flocks of American coot lined the marshy shores, a group of long-billed dowitchers probed the shallows and scattered flocks of pied-billed grebes dove for their breakfast in the deeper pools.  A dozen cormorants passed overhead, northern harriers strafed the meadows, belted kingfishers patrolled the channels and a lone osprey perched atop a dead snag, feasting on his morning catch.  Now visible in the bright sunshine, I spotted a couple of snowy egrets among their larger cousins and noticed a few green herons and black-crowned night herons along the shorelines.

The massive flocks of red-wings were even more impressive on the sunlit floodplain and squadrons of turkey vultures began to venture from their roosts to test the mid morning thermals.  In the full light of an October morning, there was no doubt that autumn had arrived in the Missouri River Valley; soon, the ponds and marshes of Eagle Bluffs, magnets to migrating waterfowl, will be covered with vocal congregations of ducks, swans and geese.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Death on the Journey

Walking through downtown Columbia this morning, I came across a dead Nashville warbler, lying on the sidewalk at the base of a building.  After spending its summer in woodlands of the Great Lakes region, this migrant was on his way to Mexico for the winter.  Unfortunately, illness or a traumatic impact ended that journey.

We humans often envy the freedom of birds, especially their ability to escape to warm, sunny climes for the winter months.  Of course, that freedom is not without risks, as this morning's discovery so clearly demonstrates; predators, physical obstacles, severe weather, polluted water, illness and starvation all take a toll.  While these factors tend to weed out the weak, sick and old from the migrant population, all of the seasonal travelers are potential victims.

Human travelers understand that certain risks accompany any journey.  Though our chance of injury or death is far less than that of avian migrants, we accept some risk in the pursuit of the rewards that travel affords, whether they be business opportunities, educational events, reunions or relaxing vacations.  The warbler's journey was purely instinctual but ours, including the journey of life itself, is undertaken with risks and rewards in mind.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Autumn Chill invades the Heartland

On the back side of a potent storm system that brought heavy snow to the Central Rockies and tornadic thunderstorms to the Northern Plains, chilly air, low gray clouds and intermittent showers invaded the Heartland yesterday.  After a morning low near 40 degrees F, the afternoon high topped out in the low fifties, some fifteen degrees below average.

At Little Dixie Lake Conservation Area, east of Columbia, the autumn chill invigorated the birdlife.  Blue jays, northern flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers dominated the chorus, joined by black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice and white-breasted nuthatches.  While migrant waterfowl have yet to arrive, noisy flocks of Canada geese moved about the lake and a lone bald eagle circled overhead.  Turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks sailed along on the northwest wind and wild turkeys stalked the woodlands, feasting on a large crop of acorns.

More like November than early October, the damp chill put an end to our extended summer weather and served notice that winter lurks just to our north.  Plenty of warm, sunny days lie ahead but the tide has turned and the flocks of autumn will soon fill our lakes and wetlands.  As if to confirm that fact, the scent of wood smoke drifted through our neighborhood last evening, a fragrance that, in my mind, evokes the images of snowy days and clear, cold winter nights.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Fish Pond for Vultures

The seasonal lake at our local nature preserve has retreated to a shallow pool and dead fish now break its surface, decaying in the autumn sun.  Their stench has attracted a large flock of turkey vultures, picking their way among the corpses or lounging on the mudflats, oblivious to the rancid fumes.

Indeed, the dry, sunny weather of autumn provides many of these feasts each year, a welcome addition to the vultures' regular diet of roadkill and leftovers.  We might be appalled by the appearance and habits of these large scavengers but they provide a valuable service, cleaning up the dead and recycling their carcasses.

Ironically, heavy rains moved into central Missouri yesterday.  While these autumn rains might temporarily swell the lake waters, the runoff will arrive too late for the fish.  Whatever remains after the vulture feast will be claimed by worms, beetles and other scavengers or will nourish the aquatic plants that appear next spring.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Basin & Range Atmosphere

Yesterday, the rolling farmlands of Ohio's Glaciated Plain were bathed in sunshine.  As we approached the Indiana line, however, a range of vapor stretched across the western horizon, its upper peaks gleaming in the bright morning sun.

Cutting through this wall, a torrent of rain drenched the car but we soon emerged into calm sunshine on its western edge.  There we saw other ranges to our north, south and west, all trending southwest to northeast and separated by pale blue skies.  This atmosphere of banded storms, rising ahead of a strong cold front, was reminiscent of the Basin and Range Province of the American West, where fault block ranges poke above the high desert.

While the Basin & Range topography was produced by tectonic forces from below (a process that continues today), yesterday's Midwestern scene resulted from turbulence above Earth's surface.  Ahead of the cold front, southwesterly winds pushed warm, humid air toward the Great Lakes and low pressure along the front provided lift, igniting bands of thunderstorms.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Autumn on a Kettle Lake

Sitting above the north shore of Sandy Lake, in northeast Ohio, there was a mix of summer and autumn yesterday afternoon.  The calm lake waters rippled with schools of minnows, a pair of ring-billed gulls circled overhead and the stately form of a great blue heron rose above a distant shoreline.  Summer-like warmth, carried on a southwest breeze, fueled thunderstorms that rumbled across the area.

Hinting of the seasonal change, splotches of autumn color adorned the lakeside woodlands while, just below my perch, eastern chipmunks scurried about, collecting acorns for their winter dens.  Across the lake, turkey vultures tilted in the southwest breeze and a lone red-tailed hawk surveyed the scene from a barren limb.

As a cold front moves in over the next few days, the summer-like conditions will yield to the cool, dry air more typical of October.  Migrant ospreys and waterfowl will visit the lake in the coming weeks and, in another month or so, bald eagles will settle in as ice begins to coat the shallows.  Created by a chunk of glacial ice that left a depression in the landscape, this kettle lake will then enjoy the gray, chilly weather that characterized its late Pleistocene birth.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

In Memory of Helen

Like many (if not most) men, I was not overly close to my mother-in-law.  Nevertheless, she had a profound impact on my life, well beyond our family relationship.

When I first met Helen, in 1973, I was impressed by her devotion to and support for the work of conservation organizations; an avid birder and gardener, she was actively involved in regional programs and, sensing my own interest, began to send along gift subscriptions to the publications of national conservation organizations.  In 1974, she arranged for our visit to Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, on Sanibel Island, Florida, (my first exposure to the rich diversity of exotic, subtropical birdlife) and, in the same year, introduced me to the writings of Edwin Way Teale (beginning with his classic North with the Spring).  Later in life, I came to appreciate the prominent role that all of these events played in my development as a naturalist.

Helen died this week at the age of 96.  I thank her for her mentorship and inspiration and will honor her memory through my own devotion to the conservation ethic that she fostered in myself and others.  

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Milestones of Life

The recent hiatus in my blog was due to two significant events in my life: the marriage of my oldest daughter and the death of my mother-in-law.  While the former was joyous and the latter sad, both entailed a celebration of life, of dreams for the future and of memories from the past.

Such major events mark our lives, placing all other events and relationships in context.  They give us comfort, reinforce our bonds and remind us of both the beauty and the fragility of life itself.  Of course, they also illustrate our interdependence, placing emphasis on the importance of friends and relatives in our lives.

Though other creatures are not equipped to acknowledge these milestones, they share the same course of existence on this planet, from birth, to procreation to death.  Most of the biochemical processes that govern our thoughts, our emotions and our physiology are identical to those found in "lower species."  We are all products of an evolutionary stream that, on Earth, began 3.6 billion years ago; our participation may be brief but the rewards of life are countless.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Flocks of Franklins

Driving back to Missouri, yesterday, I saw several large flocks of Franklin's gulls feeding above the fields of central Kansas.  These small gulls nest in colonies on wetlands of the Northern Plains where they feed on a wide variety of plant and animal life, including seeds, insects, worms and mice.  Like grebes, they build their nests on floating mats of vegetation which must be continually reinforced until the chicks have fledged.

During migrations across the Great Plains, they are generally encountered in large flocks, cavorting above fields and pastures to feast on clouds of flying insects, often following plows and harvesters that stir up their prey.  En route, they also stage along the shores of lakes and reservoirs, joining migrant shorebirds, American white pelicans, white-faced ibis and a host of other gulls and terns.

By mid October they have usually moved south of the U.S., heading for wintering areas along the west coast of South America.  Come April, their flocks reappear on the Southern Plains where they stop to rest and fuel on their way to breeding grounds in central Canada and the north-central U.S.