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.