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.