Thursday, January 30, 2014

Childhood Obesity

A recent study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine and making its rounds through the national news media, concludes that obesity often has its roots in early childhood.  Like many other studies that appear in the medical literature, it draws a conclusion that has long been obvious to anyone who observes human society and behavior.

While our general body habitus has a genetic basis and genes play some role in our tendency to gain weight, there is little question that parents set the stage for obesity in the great majority of cases; one need only visit local restaurants and shopping malls to observe obese children in the company of their obese parents.  Parents determine the diet and activity level of their young dependents and obese parents are more likely to instill both poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle.  When children are raised in such an environment, school programs designed to encourage a healthy diet and exercise are much less likely to be effective.  Indeed, we observe similar parental effects when it comes to tobacco use and other unhealthy lifestyle choices.

In my opinion, over-feeding children is a form of child abuse, destined to have long-lasting effects on both the physical and mental health of those innocent youngsters and fueling a cycle of obesity that may continue for generations.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Winter of our Disbelief

For the last few years, if not the last few decades, we have enjoyed relatively mild winters in the U.S., especially when compared to those of the 19th and early 20th Centuries.  Then came this season of superlatives, slamming the central and eastern U.S. with Arctic air and, this week, bringing ice and snow to the Gulf Coast and Southeastern States.

A seemingly endless series of Clippers, accompanied by strong winds and frigid air, have enveloped the region for most of the winter, threatening lives, triggering accidents, canceling flights, crumbling our infrastructure and disrupting a wide range of human activities.  Even those of us who generally welcome the winter season have been looking forward to the "mild interludes," when afternoon highs climb into the upper twenties and thirties (F).

As discussed in previous posts, the extreme winter has been brought to us by a stagnant jet stream pattern that has funneled Arctic air through the Heartland and Northeastern States.  While this atmospheric trough has widened in recent days, dropping through the Intermountain West as well, the basic pattern has yet to change and significant relief is unlikely in the near future.  Unfortunately, this frigid weather has thrown a cold blanket on the issue of global warming and any meaningful discussion of that important threat will surely be derailed until late spring (at the earliest).  Though the stagnant jet stream is unrelated to climate change, it's difficult to spread the faith of global warming when windchills near 50 below plague the Upper Midwest.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Nature of Success

While virtually all humans hope to be successful, our definition of success varies widely.  Most of us focus on achieving a mix of personal goals, generally placing emphasis on a rewarding career, happiness in our personal relationships and a sense of having made a contribution to human society.

Of course, some focus on titles, hoping to become renowned within their community, their profession or across the globe.  Celebrity is important for some while wealth and personal comfort defines success for others.  Many humans relate success to having influenced or bettered the lives of others while some are more concerned with meeting their personal needs and expectations.  For the devout, success is defined solely by earning their rewards in the afterlife.

Regardless of how we define success, it must come from within.  Though others might set goals for us or express opinions on the choices that we have made or should make, personal satisfaction will only be achieved if we are governed by our own passions.  In the course of doing so, we accept the advice of those we respect and learn to ignore the reactions of those who strive to derail our plans.  If, at the end of our life, we are both happy and satisfied with our accomplishments, we have been successful, whether or not we have acquired titles, accumulated wealth and achieved fame.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Defense & Mental Illness

The United States has a massive Defense budget, greater than most of our allies combined.  We have military bases and fleets across the globe; their reported utility is to defend both our own country and our allies from threats launched in other countries.  Whether their purpose is also to intimidate others to adopt our policies is open to debate.

At the same time, our country has come under attack from within.  Every week or so, another killing occurs in one of our companies, schools or malls, often unleashed by a young male with a history that suggests schizophrenia.  Unfortunately, even when their illness has been identified and reported before the tragedy, our mental health system is ill equipped to handle the number of those afflicted.  Just last evening,  the 60 Minutes program on CBS called attention to this issue, revealing that emergency rooms have become the destination of last resort for families seeking medical intervention for their paranoid, homicidal or suicidal relative.

Perhaps we could divert a small percentage of our bloated Defense budget toward addressing this worsening crisis.  After all, providing adequate professional services and facilities for the mentally ill is vital to defending the freedom and welfare of all citizens.  This, it seems to me, is a more appropriate use of our tax dollars than trying to instill American democracy in countries that do not share our culture.  Besides, we are bound to have more influence on other nations through our commitment to social justice and economic freedom than through threats of military force.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Naturalists & Vacations

We naturalists enjoy immersing ourselves in a wide variety of natural ecosystems.  Many of us prefer to explore those areas in solitude or perhaps with a spouse, friend or family member who shares our interest in nature.

When it comes to vacations, we do not generally head for the holiday hotspots across the globe, preferring National Wildlife Refuges, Federal Lands, Wilderness Areas and other sparsely populated regions.  While we might enjoy the local culture, including restaurants and various forms of entertainment, our passion is to experience new landscapes and their fascinating diversity of geology, flora and fauna.

As one might expect, we are not usually drawn to sites with a high density of human activity with the possible exception of certain cities that offer outstanding cultural amenities (museums, theater, etc.).  As for myself, I cannot imagine a worse fate that being stuck on a massive cruise ship for a week or more.  The prospect of eating, reading, exercising and sightseeing with throngs of fellow humans is not my idea of a relaxing or interesting experience.  While many enjoy the endless buffets, social activities, people watching and celebrity shows, a cruise would be a nightmare vacation for me (even if there were no mechanical problems, epidemics or tropical storms).

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Super Bowl Mysticism

In the past few days, the results of two surveys have been reported by national news programs.  The first revealed that 50% of American adults believe that God will play some role in the outcome of the Super Bowl; the second indicated that a third of American adults plan to pray for their favored team.

It is one thing to have faith in a deity whose presence cannot be proven.  It is another to believe that this deity is keenly aware of our personal thoughts and actions, responding to our requests and intervening in our daily lives.  But it is quite a stretch for adult humans to believe that a deity, whom they credit with creating this magnificent Universe, would, amidst widespread suffering from war, illness and poverty, be persuaded to favor one group of millionaires and billionaires over the other.

Sadly, it is this belief in a personal God, focused on and receptive to our physical and emotional needs, that pits religious groups against one another.  The outcome of the Super Bowl will have no effect on the welfare of humanity but the religious mysticism revealed by those surveys will be a continued source of social division, intolerance and civil strife across the globe.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Our Nomadic Ancestors

Having evolved in Africa, some 130,000 years ago, our ancestors remained on that Continent for the first 50,000 years of human history.  About 80,000 years ago, they began to disperse across southern Asia and northward into the Middle East.  By the end of the Pleistocene, 10,000 years ago, our species had colonized all Continents except Antarctica.

During those 120,000 years (92% of our history to date), humans were primarily nomadic, establishing small seasonal settlements but remaining on the move much of the time.  Caves or simple structures were used for shelter and tools were limited to stones, wooden clubs, hollow reeds, sea shells and other natural materials; over time, our ancestors learned to shape spear heads and cutting blades from flint and other moldable rocks.  Hunting and gathering were the means of obtaining sustenance and the clans moved on when resources were depleted or when their prey migrated to other regions.  About 12,000 years ago, humans domesticated the dog, likely for the protection and hunting assistance that they offered.

A major shift in human culture occurred about 10,000 years ago.  Triggered by the rise of cultivation and the domestication of livestock, permanent towns and cities began to develop and the nomadic lifestyle was abandoned by most clans and tribes.  Once horses and camels were domesticated,  6-7 thousand years ago, trade routes opened between the settlements; in concert, the Bronze Age began as humans learned to work with copper, bronze and gold.  The development of writing, governments, laws and community programs reinforced the demise of nomadic life and set the stage for the rise of major Empires.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Winter Wetland

The Garth Wetlands, in the Bear Creek Valley of north Columbia, are, like other wetlands across the Temperate Zone of North America, a riot of color, sound and fragrance during the warmer months of the year.  Come winter, however, the scene has changed dramatically.

Yesterday afternoon, the ponds were frozen over and the vegetation was a mass of brown thickets, limbs and reeds; only the cold blue sky and faded green cedars added color to the landscape.  Noise was limited to the rustle of dead oak leaves in the chilly breeze, the twitter of songbirds in the barren woods, the tapping of woodpeckers and the scratching of sparrows, juncos and towhees in the dry leaf litter; only the occasional call of a flicker, crow or blue jay pierced the relative silence.  Other than the cardinals and jays, the winter birds were various shades of brown and gray, offering little contrast with the drab foliage, and fragrance was non-existent in that frozen marsh.

Then again, a walk through the winter wetland has its own rewards.  The warm, humid air of late spring and summer, alive with buzzing insects, has been replaced by the dry, invigorating chill of the season.  The frenzied chorus of frogs and breeding birds has given way to a calm silence and, best of all, the fair weather crowds of April through October have retreated to their cozy homes.  For a naturalist, the quiet solitude of winter is reason enough to venture into nature's realm.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Hominin Evolution

While nature writers, including myself, have long used the term hominid to refer to humans and our post-ape ancestors, the more proper term is now hominin; the term hominid now encompasses all primates from ancestral great apes to modern humans.

The human lineage split from gorillas about 9 million years ago (MYA) and from chimpanzees about 7 MYA.  Though the fossils of a few transitional hominids have been discovered in Africa, dating from 5-7 MYA, the first hominins are, for now, officially accepted to be Ardipithecus (4.4 MYA, discovered in Ethiopia) and a diverse group of Australopithecines (4.5 to 2.5 MYA), found in eastern and southern Africa.  Branching from the Australopithecines were the genus Paranthropus (2.7 to 2.0 MYA), known as the robust Australopithecus, and the genus Homo, 2.5 MYA (as Homo habilis) to the present.  Homo erectus appeared about 2 MYA and was the first hominin to spread to Eurasia (by 1.8 MYA).  Neanderthals and Denisovans arose in Africa about 350,000 years ago, migrating to Europe/western Asia and to eastern Asia, respectively.

Homo sapiens, modern humans, evolved by 130,000 years ago and began to migrate from Africa about 80,000 years ago.  Our species reached Southeast Asia by 70,000 years ago, crossed to Australia 60,000 years ago and extirpated the Neanderthals and Denisovans from Eurasia, after interbreeding with them (see Human Hybridism), by 30,000 years ago.  Humans crossed the Bering land bridge and perhaps the North Atlantic ice shelf to reach the Americas by 20,000 years ago.  Whether we are the last hominin or will evolve into other species will be determined by future anthropologists.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Barren Ground Songbird

Horned larks, the only true larks in North America, are summer residents across the Arctic tundra of Alaska and Canada and permanent residents across most of the contiguous U.S.  Favoring barren grasslands, they inhabit flat beaches, Arctic and alpine tundra, short-grass prairies, fallow fields, floodplains, sage parklands of the Intermountain West and mowed grasslands along highways and airport runways.

These hardy songbirds are among the most common residents in open country, tolerating both intense heat and frigid winds.  Easily identified by their distinctive facial markings and their black tail with white edging, they are usually seen in large flocks, often feeding with longspurs, lark buntings and grassland sparrows.  Horned larks begin to nest in late winter and may raise three broods by early autumn; nests of fine grass are placed on the ground in a shallow depression.  Adults feed primarily on seeds but may consume insects during the warmer months and usually feed insects to their young.

Horned larks are best observed along country roads, especially dirt-gravel roads that cross fields with sparse vegetation.  While we generally associate these birds with open grasslands and windswept beaches, they are also among the more common species found on the alpine tundra of western mountain ranges.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Winter Sunrise at Eagle Bluffs

Today dawned clear and cold as I entered Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River floodplain.  Despite the morning chill, recent mild weather had opened many of the refuge ponds and channels and the river itself was free of ice floes.

Canada geese and mallards accounted for most of the waterfowl, joined by small numbers of gadwalls and northern shovelers.  The hunched figures of great blue herons were widespread, standing in fields, in the shallows or directly on the ice itself to catch the warming rays of the sun.  Belted kingfishers hovered above the open waters, red-tailed hawks perched in the barren cottonwoods and clouds of red-winged blackbirds moved among the crop stubble.  A few white-tailed deer browsed near the edge of woodlands and a mix of winter sparrows (mostly song, tree and white-throated species) foraged in the thickets.  To my surprise, no bald eagles or northern harriers were encountered this morning.

Now beginning what is, on average, the coldest week of the year, we are also taking notice of the lengthening daylight; indeed, by mid week, we will be a month past the winter solstice and exiting the darkest two month period in the Northern Hemisphere.  While the January thaw at Eagle Bluffs may be temporary, we are clearly on the downhill side of winter, heading for spring.  Within a few weeks, migrating snow geese will grace the preserve, the vanguard of spring in the American Heartland.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

California's Drought

The severe, ongoing drought in California is due to a persistent high pressure ridge over the eastern Pacific Ocean.  Beneath that atmospheric dome, air sinks and dries out and cloud formation is suppressed.  Of more significance, this dome shunts Pacific storm systems to the north, bringing copious moisture to the Pacific Northwest and southern Alaska while leaving California sunny, warm and dry.

Halfway through winter, the rainy season in California, the State has been devoid of precipitation.  The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is near historic lows while Santa Ana winds rake the canyons of Southern California, fueling wildfires during what should be the wet season.  Of course, the severe drought also threatens the water supply for that populous, agricultural State.

Drought is usually caused by a stagnant weather pattern which often produces opposite weather extremes in adjacent regions.  In this case, the high pressure ridge, resulting from a northward curve of the jet stream, lies west of a persistent atmospheric trough over the central and eastern U.S.; that dip in the jet has funneled a series of Alberta Clippers through the Midwest, bringing waves of frigid air and snow.  In most winters, the jet stream directs Pacific storms eastward across the U.S., drawing in moisture from the Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic as they progress; this year, a marked undulation in the jet has robbed California of that precipitation and the deflecting ridge is expected to remain in place for another week or so, if not longer.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Rough-legs on the High Plains

Winter is not the ideal season for crossing the High Plains of North America; strong winds, blizzards and dust storms may pose a challenge for travelers but monotony is the primary threat.  The flat, nearly treeless terrain becomes a brown sheet of dry grasslands and crop fields and encounters with wildlife are generally few and far between.

Yesterday morning, however, I was entertained by a large number of rough-legged hawks as I traveled along Interstate 70; at least 25-30 were encountered between Denver and Wakeeney, Kansas, perched on fenceposts or hovering above the plains, hunting for rodents.  East of Wakeeney, trees become more abundant and the topography is more varied; there, in the mid-grass and tallgrass biomes, red-tailed hawks are the dominant raptors throughout the year.

Rough-legged hawks, named for their feathered legs and feet, are circumpolar in distribution and breed on the Arctic tundra and adjacent taiga.  Before winter sets in, they head to more southerly climes and are found throughout most of the U.S. except for the Southeastern States.  Since they favor open country that mimics their homeland, they are best found on the High Plains and across the basins of the Intermountain West.  Bulky in appearance, they are easily identified by a prominent black tail band and dark wrist patches on the underside of their wings; their plumage is otherwise highly variable.  While many hawks and falcons hover when they hunt (especially on the windy plains), rough-legged hawks are especially inclined to use that technique.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Humans & White-tailed Deer

Earlier this week, I watched an episode of Nature on PBS, dedicated to the interactions of humans and white-tailed deer and focused primarily on a town in Upstate New York.  While the show provided a good deal of information on deer anatomy and behavior, it could not avoid the Disneyesque approach that has begun to characterize most scientific programming.  Indeed, the title of the segment was "The Private Lives of Deer" (or something similar).

Appropriate emphasis was placed on the exploding white-tail population, a phenomenon directly related to human-induced deforestation and the sprawl of suburban developments; only glancing reference was made to the lack of natural predators and there was no discussion regarding man's decimation of those carnivores.  Most of the episode was focused on human response to and interaction with the local deer herd, having citizens use video cameras to record their observations.  Amazingly, while complaints from suburbanites about the damage that deer inflict on their flower beds and shrubbery is widespread in America, the residents of this community were relatively sanguine about their impact.  One might accept this as a refreshing human response to the instinctive behavior of wildlife or an editorial effort to deliver a positive story.

As a naturalist, I was most disappointed that little if any discussion was directed toward the ecologic impact of deer overpopulation.  While segments of the program were devoted to the rescue of an abandoned fawn and the "spiritual image" of an albino deer, the serious problem of deer-auto collisions was mentioned only in passing and there was no discussion about the negative impacts of white-tail overpopulation on other species or on the health of the deer themselves.  Finally, there was no mention of efforts to confront this problem (i.e. expanded hunting seasons, contraception measures, predator reintroduction, etc.).  In the end, it was an upbeat show that seemed to pay little attention to a worsening environmental problem.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Hunters in the Night

Last night, I was awakened by the call of a great horned owl on our Littleton farm.  Long enamored with those raptors, I stepped out back to see if I might locate the source of the hoots.

It was a clear, cold night along the Colorado Front Range.  A full moon lit the snowy winter landscape and Orion, the Hunter, gleamed from the southwest sky, its bright companion Sirius shining to its southeast.  The owl stopped calling when I appeared in the yard but I might have observed its shadowy figure in a large, barren tree near the barn.  While the spring equinox is more than two months away, this is breeding season for great horned owls and its hoots were surely part of that ritual.

Standing in darkness on frozen ground, lit only by the moon and stars, I found myself caught between celestial and terrestrial hunters, both signs of the season; a creature of the tropics and ill equipped to function in the dark, I was clearly out of my element.  The winter night belongs to the hunters and I was both captivated and inspired by their presence.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Nature of Morality II

Morality, in essence, is respect for the dignity of our fellow humans and the other life forms that share this planet.  It is this trait that endows our capacity for kindness, tolerance, fairness and empathy.  Like any other human trait, its degree of expression varies among individuals and there are some who, inflicted with a personality disorder, have no moral compass.

While religious persons believe that morality stems from faith and are inclined to associate atheism with immorality, morality and religion have no direct relationship.  In fact, though religious organizations engage in moral activities, their dogma often fosters divisiveness, intolerance, discrimination and self-righteousness.  Morality, I believe, is imbedded in the genome of human beings; indeed, as social creatures, we would not have survived without it's influence.  Religions, on the other hand, are products of human imagination, created to soothe our fear and pain.

Unlike religion, morality is not threatened by science and it governs our approach to scientific investigation and application.  In turn, scientific knowledge facilitates the expression of our morality, clarifying the nature of human beings and our place in the Universe; the more we understand one another, the more likely we are to be kind, fair, tolerant and empathetic.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Adopted White-Front

Ever since I returned to Colorado, flocks of Canada geese have been grazing near the entrance to our driveway and, over the past few days, they have worked their way onto the farm.  Finding plenty of forage on our "lawn" and pastures, they are reciprocating by leaving behind plenty of natural fertilizer.

Yesterday, when I returned from Barr Lake, one flock was up near the house and among its members was a juvenile greater white-fronted goose.  Its orange bill, legs and feet indicated that it was from the Greenland population and its lack of a white forehead and black ventral barring revealed that it was a first winter bird.  Significantly smaller than its Canadian companions, it followed them across the property and, when the matriarch signaled it was time to leave, the white-front fell in line.

Perhaps the juvenile white-front was orphaned by waterfowl hunters or became lost during the autumn migration; maybe this "home alone" goose was snoozing when his family moved on to the south.  Whatever the reason for his presence in the Canadian flock, they seem to have given him a warm reception.  One wonders how many humans would be so kind; after all, he doesn't look like those who took him in.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sunrise Spectacle at Barr Lake

This morning, I arrived at Barr Lake State Park, NNE of Denver, just after sunrise.  A winter storm, pushing in from the west, obscured the higher peaks of the Front Range but it was mild and sunny at this Piedmont refuge.

Out on the frozen lake, massive flocks of Canada geese, joined by a small number of snow geese, were becoming restless and, soon after my arrival, noisy flocks began to leave for their feeding grounds.  The largest departures, involving thousands of geese, were triggered by bald eagles that strafed the flocks; these deafening clouds of geese, backed by the majestic Rockies, offered one of the more breathtaking natural spectacles that I have been privileged to witness.

My numerous past visits to Barr Lake State Park have generally occurred in spring or late summer, when hordes of migrants join the diverse population of permanent and summer residents; indeed, the Park is known as the birding capitol of Colorado, logging more species than any other site.  Today's visit, while lacking a great deal of species diversity, was certainly one of the more memorable; among the other sightings today were rough-legged and red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, northern harriers, American kestrels, black-billed magpies, mule deer and a variety of winter songbirds.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Winter Walk in Spring Air

As is often the case along the Colorado Front Range, a southwest wind has brought a sunny, mild interlude in the midst of winter.  Determined to enjoy this spring-like weather, I headed to Chatfield State Park for a walk through the fields and riverside woodlands.  Though many of the ponds remain frozen, ice fishermen were decked out in light-weight clothing, some in shorts and T-shirts.

Hiking through the snow-covered landscape, it looked like winter but felt like spring.  On the other hand, the fragrance of spring was missing and the winter silence persisted, broken only by the brash chatter of magpies, the soft twittering of chickadees and the distant calls of geese.  The trails were covered in alternating sections of soft snow and smooth ice, providing incentive to wander slowly and take in the beautiful scenery.  On the South Platte, where I encountered mixed flocks of buffleheads, goldeneyes and mergansers, sheets of ice were cracking and mounds of snow were plunging from the banks.

While relatively mild weather is forecast for the coming week, periods of spring and winter will alternate through mid May.  Our heaviest snows lie ahead, when the upslope storms of March and April push copious moisture toward the Front Range.  For now, we'll enjoy a combination of balmy air and a snowy landscape, the best of both seasons.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Arctic Blast & Global Warming

The recent invasion of Arctic air across the central and eastern U.S. was the latest event to embolden those who, for whatever reason, are committed to debunking the evidence of global warming.  However, temporary weather patterns are generally unrelated to climate though climate change might fuel an increased incidence of such events..

Indeed, this Arctic blast resulted from a deep dip in the jet stream (known as an atmospheric trough), which allowed polar air to spill southward.  As often occurs with extreme gyrations in the jet, other areas, including northern Europe and Asia, have been warmer than usual, reflecting a northward shift of the jet stream (known as an atmospheric ridge).  The western U.S., not affected by the recent Arctic fronts, has also been warmer and drier than usual, exacerbating drought in the mountains of California.

The climate of any given region is determined by latitude, elevation, the proximity to large bodies of water or mountain ranges and the local effects of ocean currents, among other factors; all of these combine to produce average seasonal temperatures and precipitation for that region.  While temporary weather patterns may obscure those averages, changes in climate are gradual, developing in response to alterations in solar radiation, the composition of the atmosphere and ocean currents; the latter currents generally change in response to plate tectonics and continental drift.  Despite the recent Arctic air invasion, there is a wealth of scientific evidence that Earth's climate is warming and that human activity is playing a significant role.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Long-tailed Ducks in Colorado

Long-tailed ducks, formerly known as oldsquaws, nest along rivers, lakes and ponds of the Arctic tundra.  Most winter offshore along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America or on the Great Lakes; however, a small number turn up on inland lakes and reservoirs during the colder months.

According to the Colorado Birding Society, about 15 long-tailed ducks have been observed along the Front Range this winter, from the northern Colorado border to Pueblo Reservoir; I had the good fortune to watch three of them on South Platte Reservoir, in southwest Metro Denver, this morning.. Those hoping to observe these attractive visitors must be patient since they often spend more time underwater than on the surface; using their wings for propulsion, long-tailed ducks can dive to 200 feet (more than any other species of waterfowl) and may remain underwater for two minutes (per my observation this morning).  During those dives, the ducks feed on bottom vegetation, aquatic invertebrates and small fish.

Molting three times between autumn and spring, long-tailed ducks have variable plumage in the course of a year; males, which sport the long tail for which the species is named, are more white in winter and darker in summer.  These sea ducks are also known for their varied cackles and yodeling that peak in winter, when mating displays occur; indeed, by the time they return to the Arctic, breeding pairs have been established.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Winter Morning at Red Rocks

Red Rocks Park, in the foothills west of Denver, is famous for its rock-walled amphitheater, scenic sandstone formations and outdoor concerts.  Naturalists know that it is also a good place to explore the shrub zone ecosystem of the lower foothills and is an excellent site for birding throughout the year.  Since rosy finches often winter at the Park and were recently sighted there, I decided to pay a visit with the hope of encountering those attractive birds.

On this sunny, mild morning, the most conspicuous birds at Red Rocks Park were the ravens, magpies, rock pigeons and scrub jays.  Most numerous were the dark-eyed juncos, represented by all four subspecies that can be found along the Front Range.  Other sightings included Townsend's solitaires, house finches, canyon wrens, black-capped and mountain chickadees, northern flickers, downy woodpeckers and rufous-sided towhees.  Alas, no rosy finches were observed, even at the feeders behind the Trading Post;  I'll try a late day visit within the next week and hope for better luck.

Of course, veteran birders know that their quarry is often unpredictable; this seems to be especially true when one ventures out to find a specific species.  It is better to visit natural ecosystems with general expectations in mind and enjoy whatever turns up.  Indeed, on some excursions, several rare species may be sighted while common, widespread birds seem to have vanished.  In the end, it is the joy of the hunt that sends birders into the countryside; discoveries, expected or not, are welcome but not guaranteed.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

National Winter Waterfowl Count

Every year, in mid winter, the National Wildlife Service enlists State Wildlife Divisions and refuge personnel to assess the status of North America's various waterfowl species.  By this time of year, migrations have ended and the populations in wintering areas have stabilized.

This morning, I took part in the winter waterfowl count at South Platte Park, in Littleton, Colorado.  Our group was assigned to a network of ponds and lakes that stretch along the west side of the river, just north of C-470.  Having just returned from Missouri, I was surprised to find that most of the larger lakes were at least 50% open; smaller ponds, of course, were almost totally frozen.  Over a couple of hours, we spotted a decent variety of waterfowl, led by nearly 1000 Canada geese; northern shovelers were the most numerous duck, followed by gadwalls, mallards, common goldeneyes, common and hooded mergansers, buffleheads, ring-necked ducks, American wigeons and American coot.  Other sightings included a bald eagle, a rough-legged hawk, a belted kingfisher, a few pied-billed grebes, black-billed magpies and numerous ring-billed gulls.  To my knowledge, no rare species were observed by any of the groups.

As I have mentioned in the past, participating in such annual counts is both an enjoyable experience and a significant contribution to the field of wildlife conservation.  Data from the counts are compiled by regional and national organizations to assess the health of wildlife populations and to make decisions regarding the adequacy of natural habitat, the impact of human development and the level of hunting pressure that any given species can safely endure.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Faith, Science and Education

Last week, an Op-Ed in the New York Times reported on a Pew Center study regarding the acceptance of evolution among various political and religious groups in America.  About 2/3 of Democrats and Independents accept the fact that species have evolved (including humans, of course) while only 43% of Republicans agreed.  Among religious groups, evolution is accepted by 78% of white Protestants, 60% of white Catholics, 44% of African American Christians and only 27% of Evangelical Christians.

I suspect that the dramatic discrepancy among these groups is related to the educational experience of those surveyed.  It seems to me that an individual's religious fervor and his/her level of education generally have an inverse relationship; the more one understands about the nature of our Universe, including the nature of his/her fellow man, the less likely he/she is to accept the rigid dogma of an organized religion. While many highly educated individuals profess religious faith, they are (in my experience) less strict in their interpretation of its laws and more reticent to impose their beliefs on the rest of society.

Despite a wealth of scientific evidence supporting evolution, a sizable percentage of American adults (40% overall) reject its principles.  This worrisome statistic highlights both the powerful influence of organized religion in our society and the lack of political will to ensure that scientific education is protected from that influence.  Hopefully, social evolution will alter those dynamics.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Crawling Westward

Heading back to Colorado, I left Columbia this morning in blowing snow and frigid air; the edge of our latest Arctic front was pushing through central Missouri and temperatures were expected to keep dropping for the next 24 hours.  Due to the steady snowfall, gusty wind and cold air, Interstate 70 was snow-packed from Columbia to Kansas City; a journey that normally takes just under two hours took more than three.  Since I was driving slowly in my four-wheel drive pickup, I was not concerned about the road conditions or the weather; however, the 18-wheelers and SUVs that raced by in the fast lane were a bit unsettling.  Apparently, they had not noticed the cars and trucks that adorned the median and shoulders of the highway (in various states of disrepair).

The snow had ceased by the time I reached Kansas City but patches of snow and ice covered portions of the Interstate all the way to Salina.  In addition, brief ground blizzards developed as the strong north winds raked the snow-covered fields; this phenomenon was enhanced in the Flint Hills, west of  Topeka, where gaps in the road-cuts funneled the wind, sending jets of snow across the highway.  Fortunately, sunshine bathed the frozen landscape west of Salina and the road surface gradually cleared; nevertheless, my journey was well behind schedule and I opted for a night in Colby, Kansas, rather that testing my luck on the High Plains in the dark.

As harrowing as modern travel across the Great Plains can be, generally related to blizzards or supercell thunderstorms, it pales in comparison to the challenges that were faced by early settlers in their conestogas.  Today's journey, like many in the past, served to highlight the courage and tenacity of those explorers as well as the resourcefulness of Native Americans who have thrived on these vast grasslands for 20,000 years.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

GPS Dependence

The development of global positioning satellite (GPS) technology has been a major advance for the military and for a wide range of industries, especially those related to transportation.  Now available in cell phones, in vehicles and in other mobile devices, GPS has, in my opinion, produced negative consequences as well.

Many humans are becoming dependent on this technology, using it to navigate unfamiliar terrain, including portions of their own home town that they seldom visit.  In doing so, they gradually lose touch with the external clues to their location, paying little attention to the topography through which they move.  This is especially unfortunate when they travel to new areas of the country or regions of the globe; focused on the GPS screen, they follow a network of roads and miss the unique natural and cultural features of the landscape.

Of most concern, GPS systems, like many forms of modern technology, gradually diminish our ability to function without their assistance.  Not long ago, humans paid close attention to their natural environment, including the sun position, drainage patterns and vegetative cover to sense their location within a landscape and, if necessary, to find their way home.  Today, devoid of printed maps and relying on GPS, many individuals become helpless when that signal is lost.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Toking into the New Year

As 2014 dawned, sales of recreational marijuana began in Colorado.  Many residents and visitors celebrated this cultural "enlightenment" while others were appalled by the voter-approved legislation.  My sentiments lie squarely in the middle.

Though I have long believed that the criminalization of drug use is a mistake and have favored the availability of marijuana for approved medical purposes, I am concerned that the commercialization of this drug will encourage its use among those who might otherwise have passed on the opportunity.  While it may be true that the side effects of marijuana are less severe that those of alcohol (when either is used to excess), the risk of abuse remains significant and the incidence of DUI arrests will surely rise.  After all, while many of us enjoy beer or wine for its taste, consuming a glass or two with some of our meals, marijuana will be used primarily for its mental and emotional effects (except, of course, when placed in brownies).

Time will tell how this social experiment will unfold.  As one who knows from experience that humans are too inclined to rely on medications, drugs and supplements for their various symptoms and ailments,  I am concerned that marijuana will just become the latest crutch, complete with side effects and the risk of abuse.  Unfortunately, as with government sponsored gambling (i.e. lotteries), the financial benefits of this law will likely negate an objective assessment of its impact on society.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Eagle Bluffs in Snow

After an overnight snowfall of about 4 inches, I arrived at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, southwest of Columbia, at eight-fifteen this morning under bright sunshine and enveloped in frigid air; it was 11 degrees F.  A herd of white-tailed deer raced across a snow-covered meadow and a lone coyote loped across the road ahead of my pickup.

Almost all of the ponds and channels were frozen on that floodplain refuge and even the Missouri River was nearly covered by a puzzle of ice floes.  A few mallards and gadwalls were the sole waterfowl representatives, a single kingfisher moved among the limited sites of open water and a lone red-tailed hawk was the only raptor that I encountered.  On the other hand, winter sparrows were abundant in the roadside thickets and a mix of winter avian residents moved among the riparian woodlands.

Despite the limited variety of wildlife, my visit was rewarded by beautiful scenery and near solitude; indeed, only one other vehicle entered the refuge during my one-hour tour.  Since I was the first to arrive, my pickup plowed the only human trail along the snow-covered levee roads though numerous wildlife footprints broke the even surface of the bright, powdery snow.  Of course, true to its name, snow-covered bluffs shimmered along both sides of the Missouri River floodplain, providing a scenic backdrop to the winter landscape of the refuge.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A New Year's Storm

On this first day of the year, another winter storm is developing across the Heartland as low pressure forms along a deep atmospheric trough.  The latter, produced by a dip in the jet stream, drops south along the Front Range to the Texas Panhandle and then angles northeastward across the Midwest and into New England.

North of the front, a band of light snow stretches from western Oklahoma to Massachusetts, covering eastern Kansas, northern Missouri, the Great Lakes Region and southern New England.  This band will shift southeastward over the next 24 hours and snow will intensify as the low pressure centers pull in moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.  In addition, lake-effect snows may be heavy along the southern shores of the Great Lakes as Arctic air plunges across their open waters.

The Great Plains and Midwest will receive frigid air but limited snowfall (except in the lake-effect snow zones).  However, as the low pressure centers move off the Northeast coast, blizzard conditions are expected to develop in eastern New England.  For those of us who enjoy winter weather, the new year is off to a good start; all others can take heart that the spring equinox is just eleven weeks away!