Sunday, June 29, 2014

Thoughts on God

We humans are obsessed with the concept of God.  Driven by fear, hope and intellectual curiosity, we devote much of our lives to exploring, appeasing and expressing our thoughts and emotions related to this great mystery.

Most of us must first resolve the beliefs ingrained during our childhood, judging them in light of our personal experience and education.  Many retain those beliefs, though not always in a strict, literal sense; after all, these tenets of faith are closely tied to our thoughts on spirituality and our fear of death.  Even those who define themselves as atheists or agnostics often harbor some hope that there is a life force or spiritual plane that science has yet to discover.

I am inclined to view God as a concept that, in the human mind, embodies our hopes and fears and serves to explain all that we do not understand.  As our knowledge expands through education and personal experience, our image of God changes in concert; the personal, engaged, vindictive God of our childhood fades with intellectual enlightenment.  While organized religions strive to reinforce the ancient beliefs that justify their existence, using fear and guilt as their primary tools, humans are evolving toward a science-based view of our place in the Universe.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Breeding Bird Census

Today, I took part in a breeding bird census at South Platte Park, in Littleton, Colorado.  On this warm, sunny morning, my group surveyed a stretch of riparian woodlands east of the river.

Throughout our three hour period of observation, birds were both numerous and vocal.  Among the more abundant species were house wrens, American robins, yellow warblers, tree and cliff swallows, mourning doves and common grackles; cedar waxwings, western wood pewees, gray catbirds. northern flickers, downy woodpeckers, house finches, song sparrows, red-winged blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds were also well represented.  Less numerous were red-tailed hawks, collared doves, northern orioles, barn swallows, American goldfinches, Say's phoebes, blue jays, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches and yellow-breasted chats; mallards, belted kingfishers, a great blue heron and a juvenile black-crowned night heron were also observed on the river.

Combined with data from other groups and from counts on other early summer days, refuge biologists will develop a breeding bird census for South Platte Park.  In turn, this information will be compared with data from previous years, revealing trends that might result from changes in the regional climate or ecology.  Taking part in such counts is thus both an enjoyable and a rewarding experience.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Preventing Suicide

Suicide generally occurs is individuals who are suffering from depression or who, for other reasons, feel a sense of hopelessness or low self esteem.  While clinical depression is often triggered by a biochemical disorder of the brain, which may be genetic in origin, it may also be induced by life events such as bullying, the experience of war, the loss of a loved one, chronic illness, economic distress or persecution by other segments of society.

In recent decades, suicide has become increasingly prevalent among soldiers, young homosexuals and the victims of bullying; in many if not most cases, other humans (or segments of society) have been directly responsible for their deaths.  In the case of soldiers, our government has asked them to serve in highly stressful environments where they engage in combat while witnessing the deaths of comrades and innocent civilians; those who survive the atrocity of battle are often left with PTSD, including guilt and depression.  Victims of bullying, whether imposed by friends, co-workers, family members or anonymous online perpetrators, are left with a shattered self esteem.  Young gays, dealing with inborn factors that have determined their sexuality, face hostility, abuse and discrimination from many segments of society, often including members of their own family.

We, as a society, can choose to mitigate the occurrence of suicide among these groups of individuals by enacting policies that minimize conflict, offer support, eliminate discrimination and protect their rights.  Unfortunately, ignorance, intolerance, militarism and religious zealotry stand in the way of progress and the scourge of suicide continues to pervade our society.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Joy of Mass Transit

Mass transit has long been the butt of jokes and an easy target for criticism.  After all, most of us have endured the misery of being trapped in a bus or subway car with noisy, obnoxious or hostile passengers.  Then there's the history of inefficiency, unreliable service and the need to change vehicles in order to reach our destination.

Fortunately, modern transit systems are beginning to alleviate some of those concerns.  Today, I took advantage of Denver's light rail system to visit the downtown area; as we zipped along between a series of stations, I took note of the morning gridlock on I-25, caused primarily by single occupant vehicles.  Soon to extend to the International Airport and to northern neighborhoods of the Metro Area, Denver's network of trains has provided convenience to citizens and visitors while spawning residential and commercial development near its many stations across southern and western portions of the city.

One's attitude about mass transit is generally related to his/her dependence on the system and/or to their personal commitment to conservation.  As we face the threat of global warming, the quality, efficiency and cost effectiveness of urban transit systems will become increasingly important.  When these systems work well, riders are rewarded by both the experience and by the knowledge that their patronage is good for the environment (see No More Roads).

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Miner's Cat

Slender omnivores of the Desert Southwest, Mexico and Central America, ringtails are members of the raccoon family.  Though fairly common on rocky hillsides and in wooded canyons, these bushy-tailed hunters are nocturnal and are seldom encountered.

Feasting on a wide range of small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, ringtails also consume berries, seeds and carrion; since they controlled rodents within and near mines, these agile climbers became known as the miner's cat.  Ringtails are generally solitary creatures though prolonged pairings have been documented; mating occurs in mid spring and three or four kits are born two months later.  Dens are placed in caves, tree cavities, hollow logs, beneath rock ledges or in abandoned cabins; cared for by both parents, the young emerge from the den within two months and are fully independent by autumn.

In Colorado, ringtails are most common across southern and western portions of the State.  However, they have expanded their range northward through the Front Range foothills and now inhabit the canyons west of Metro Denver.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Fountain Creek Valley

Fountain Creek rises on the Palmer Divide, north of Colorado Springs, and flows southward  to join the Arkansas River at Pueblo, Colorado.  En route, it receives numerous western tributaries from the Rampart Range and the Pike's Peak massif and eastern tributaries from the Black Forest region and the High Plains.  Paralleling Interstate 25, Fountain Creek flows west of that highway north of Colorado Springs and east of the Interstate south of that city.

While most of the Fountain Creek Valley is now a patchwork of industrial parks, urban development, suburban sprawl and military bases (including the Air Force Academy), there are a number of regional parks that protect its natural heritage; I visited two of those parks today.  Fountain Creek Regional Park lies west of U.S. 85, less than a mile south of Colorado 16 (at the southern end of Colorado Springs).  Its interpretive center introduces visitors to the natural history of the Valley and a fine network of trails provides access to the riparian corridor, winding past marsh-lined ponds, groves of cottonwoods, colorful meadows and the creek itself.  As one might expect, a wide variety of riparian birds, aquatic mammals, amphibians and reptiles inhabit the preserve.

At the northern (upper) end of the Fountain Creek Watershed is Black Forest Regional Park; this forest, named for the dark appearance of its ponderosa pines when viewed from a distance, endured a massive wildfire in June, 2013.  The preserve, off Shoup Road east of Colorado 83, offers the amenities of a suburban park but also harbors a network of trails that wind through the pine forest, which is slowly recovering from the fire.  Wildflowers, meadow grass and understory shrubs provide color amidst the devastation and some groves of ponderosa pine survived the inferno.  Indeed, on my visit today, I saw an excellent diversity of montane forest birds, including western bluebirds, pygmy nuthatches, Townsend's solitaires, Steller's jays and a host of woodpeckers.  It was also heartening to find that many homes and a new school have been built since the catastrophe, a testament to both the fortitude of the residents and the appeal of living on that high, scenic ridge.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Wildflowers along the South Platte

June is a good month for wildflower viewing along the Front Range urban corridor since late spring blooms mingle with those that persist through the summer.  This morning, on my walk at South Platte Park, the sky-blue blossoms of common chicory and showy clumps of white prickly poppies were most conspicuous.

Other common wildflowers included yellow mats of common purslane, stalks of white hoary alyssum, yellow goat's beard, the white flower clusters of poison hemlock, the tiny white flowers of bractless cryptantha, the purple heads of bull thistle, the pink globes of showy milkweed, ragged stands of yellow mustard and the ubiquitous white flowers of common bindweed.  The yellow flowers of prickly pear cacti, prickly lettuce and common mullein were beginning to appear and stands of purple-pink crown vetch spread beneath the riverside trees.

Of course, there was plenty of wildlife to see as well.  Six-lined racerunners darted across my path, double-crested cormorants fished on the lakes, a female common merganser ushered her brood along a marshy shore and, most stirring of all, a large flock of American pelicans soared overhead, their broad wings catching the mid morning sun.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Focus on Children

Most of the problems that confront American society have their roots in childhood.  Poor lifestyle choices and their subsequent health issues, joblessness, financial insecurity and social dependence tend to develop in those who are denied the educational and cultural resources enjoyed by those of higher economic status.  As a consequence, gang membership, crime, teen pregnancy and imprisonment often follow.

While some individuals succeed despite this deprivation and others redirect their lives after incarceration or rehabilitation, intervention is far more effective and less expensive when it occurs early in life.  In my opinion, we should be directing a far larger proportion of our tax dollars to early childhood education, child nutrition services, community athletic programs and assistance to unwed mothers; of course, we should also commit more resources to preventing unwanted pregnancies.

Ideally, such programs would mix children of different races, ethnicities and social backgrounds, thereby instilling a natural acceptance of and comfort with diversity.  Unfortunately, the seeds of racism, discrimination and intolerance are also planted in childhood and we would be wise to dispel such ignorance before it bears its ugly fruit.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Cheerful Exterminators

Since purchasing our Littleton, Colorado, farm in 1990, we have decided not to use herbicides or pesticides on the property.  While insects always pose some threat to plants, native vegetation is generally well adapted to their presence and native insectivores play a vital role in limiting their impact.

Among the latter are common bushtits, small, sociable songbirds that inhabit open pine woodlands, suburbs and urban parks throughout the Western U.S.  Long common along the Front Range of the Southern Rockies, from Colorado Springs to New Mexico, these cheerful insectivores have moved northward into Metro Denver over the past decade.  Today, a flock of a dozen or more bushtits roamed through our farm, gleaning insects and spiders from twigs and leaves, often hanging upside-down to snatch their prey.  While they have nested on our property in recent years, I have not encountered their distinctive hanging nests this spring.

The presence of these twittering flocks is certainly preferable to the use of toxic pesticides.  We may lose some fruit, shrubs and trees as a consequence but a commitment to conservation begins at home.  Besides, why not let our wild neighbors do the work!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Mulberry Festival

The annual mulberry festival is underway on our Littleton, Colorado, farm.  The fruit of the white mulberry trees and our lone weeping mulberry are now ripe and the supply appears to be well above average.

Robins, house finches and fox squirrels will be the primary celebrants, joined by smaller numbers of raccoons, northern orioles (Bullock's race), cedar waxwings, blue jays and an assortment of casual visitors.  From the looks of the crop, the festivities will last a couple of weeks or more.

Mulberries thrive in the sunny, mild, dry climate of the Front Range.  Best of all, they need no artificial irrigation, managing just fine on the twenty inches of annual precipitation (rain and snow combined) that we receive; since they flower rather late in the spring, mulberries are also relatively unaffected by the hard freezes that are common here in March and April.  On our farm, the mulberry trees are second only to chokecherries in the abundance of fruit that they provide for wildlife; of course, we humans can indulge as well.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Diplomacy of Sports

Worldwide sporting events, such as the World Cup and the Olympics, seem to bring out the best in humanity.  The athletes, while cherishing the opportunity to represent their country, truly respect their fellow competitors, sharing the passion for their given sport and fully aware of the dedication and hard work that culminated in their participation.  In like manner, fans, while cheering on their "home athletes," admire the skills of all contestants and generally demonstrate good sportsmanship; indeed, they welcome the chance to witness competition between the best athletes on our planet.

Of course, politics, nationalism, commercialism and a certain degree of corruption play out in the background.  While these less inspiring traits of human society are evident to anyone who pays attention to the awarding, planning and hosting of these major events, most of us eventually focus on the competition itself, even overlooking the "medal counts" that are repeatedly mentioned in coverage of the Olympics.

As conflict expands throughout the Middle East and Eastern Europe, it is refreshing to switch from the cable news channels to coverage of the World Cup; there, nationalities are recognized but the focus is on athletic excellence and on our shared enthusiasm for sports.  Perhaps international diplomacy could be turned over to these athletes; that would be a true cause for celebration!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Blast Furnace on the Plains

As I traveled back to Colorado today, strong southerly winds raked the Great Plains, sweeping hot air into the Heartland and fueling tornadic thunderstorms across the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest.  Plumes of dust streamed across the Interstate and the high winds played havoc with highway signs and traffic cones; the gusty winds rocked high-profile vehicles and encouraged many travelers to stop and reinforce the ties on their cargo, enduring blasts of 90 degree (F) heat in the process.

While the wind was a blessing for livestock, sweeping away the biting insects, the heat forced many of the cattle to gather in the shade of trees and billboards or, better yet, to wade into the shallows of ranch ponds.  Hawks took advantage of the wind to hover above the grasslands while some smaller birds proved to be victims of the higher gusts; attempting to fly south across the highway, their progress was stalled by the wind and, in a few cases, they were struck by oncoming traffic.

By the time I entered Colorado, the winds had shifted from the southwest and their intensity had diminished; as I approached Metro Denver, the early evening temperature had fallen into the low 80s. Fortunately, the altitude and thin air of the Front Range cities favor radiative cooling and the overnight low should sink into the mid fifties (ideal for natural air conditioning).

Friday, June 13, 2014

Groundhog Days, Again!

A decade ago, we experienced a steady invasion of groundhogs at our Columbia, Missouri, home.  Most chose to den beneath our deck and one died there, forcing us to remove boards to extricate its decomposing carcass.  Having purchased a cage trap, I managed to relocate the others to State and County open space areas, south of town.

After closing off the borders of the deck and repairing access points along our fence, we have been groundhog free for at least five years.....until this week.  Looking out our dining room window a few days ago, I was dismayed to see an adult groundhog, lounging on the hot-tub lid; when spooked, he disappeared into a burrow beneath the back steps.  Needless to say, the cage trap is once again loaded with veggies and we're hoping for quick success.

We all live with wildlife in our neighborhoods, however urban our location might be.  And while many of us enjoy watching those animals at nature preserves, their destructive presence in our yards or homes prompts a less than positive view of their natural behavior.  In a way, we are taken back to the earliest days of human history when we had to confront wild creatures on a daily basis and when we fully understood that they are worthy adversaries.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Art of Coexistence

From the moment of our birth, we find ourselves assigned to artificial units of humanity; these are based on nationality, ethnicity, race, creed, and other factors.  As young children, we do not recognize these divisions until older humans (friends, family and other authority figures) call them to our attention and begin to instill various beliefs, prejudices and convictions in our innocent brains.

Reinforced throughout our years of maturation, these perceived divisions of humanity foster distrust, intolerance, discrimination and, in many cases, irrational fear and hatred.  Such ignorance provokes conflict, as we continue to observe in many regions across the globe.  Of course, as is becoming evident in the U.S., it also infects political systems, promoting disrespect and derailing compromise.  Intense religious and political beliefs fuel self-righteousness, blinding zealots to the needs of society as a whole.

Peaceful coexistence can only occur under circumstances in which both individual rights and social justice are respected and protected.  When particular groups attempt to undermine democracy, whether through force or an unwillingness to compromise, free societies cannot be sustained.  

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Commercialized Nature

On our recent visit to Lookout Mountain, in Tennessee, my wife and I decided to visit Ruby Falls and Rock City, two heavily advertised tourist sites on the mountain.  Having made numerous vacation trips between Ohio and Florida as children, we have long been familiar with their ads, which appear on barns and billboards throughout the Southeast (of course, our parents did their best to ignore those signs, hoping to shorten the travel time as much as possible).

As it turned out, Rock City, which sits on the east edge of the ridge in northernmost Georgia, does possess many spectacular rock formations and offers a fabulous view across the Ridge and Valley Province to the east.  On the other hand, it is, in fact, a rather expensive botanical garden, complete with soothing background music, snack bars, gift shops and children-oriented exhibits.  Ruby Falls, a spectacular cascade within the limestone core of Lookout Mountain, is accessed by a guided, half-mile walk through a lighted cave; the guide was well informed and personable but most of the discussion centered on the shapes of the various stalagmites, stalactites and flow-stones and how they resembled certain foods, animals or body parts.  The falls itself was presented in "dramatic" fashion, including operatic music and a multi-colored light show.

While both of these famous and popular sites surely appeal to the average tourist, naturalists like myself tend to be disappointed by the commercialization of natural wonders and the efforts made to make them more interesting and enjoyable for those who have no particular interest in ecology, geology and natural history.  Unfortunately, deep-seated curiosity got the best of us this time.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

An Outlier of Appalachia

Driving southwest on I-65 from Louisville, Kentucky, one soon climbs from the Devonian sediments of  Greater Louisville into the early Mississippian limestones that underlie most of central and western Kentucky; this rather steep ascent, known as the Muldraugh's Hill Escarpment, yields an elevation gain of 600 feet.  Leveling out near Elizabethtown, the highway continues southwestward to Bowling Green; along this segment, one notices hills to the west that, composed of upper Mississippian limestones, comprise the Dripping Springs Escarpment.  Mammoth Cave, perhaps the most extensive network of caves and underground streams on the planet, courses through this limestone.

This layer of upper Mississippian limestone curves northwestward at Bowling Green and continues into southern Illinois and southwestern Indiana, bisected by the Ohio River.  Interior to this broad shield of limestone is a less extensive cap of Pennsylvanian sandstone, bordered by its Pottsville Escarpment.  Streams throughout this unglaciated Tristate plateau (known as the Shawnee Hills, especially in Illinois) have sculpted the Carboniferous (Mississippian and Pennsylvanian) sediments into a maze of ridges and valleys, typical of the Appalachian Plateau to the east.  Indeed, the component rock formations of the two plateaus are identical, suggesting that they were once connected.

Today, the Glaciated Plain of eastern Indiana and western Ohio, the Lexington Peneplain of northern Kentucky and the Highland Rim of central Kentucky stretch between the Shawnee Hills Province and the Appalachian Plateau.  These intervening regions consist of older, horizontal marine sediments, exposed by glacial and stream erosion; the exposed rocks of Greater Cincinnati and the Lexington Peneplain are of Ordovician age, rimmed by Silurian deposits in eastern Indiana and western Ohio, Devonian sediments in central Ohio and Greater Louisville and lower Mississippian limestones in central Kentucky.  In the distant past, the upper Mississippian limestones and Pennsylvanian sandstone of the two plateaus likely covered these older geologic deposits (i.e., the Appalachian and Shawnee Hills Plateaus were contiguous).

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Distant Lightning

On our last evening in Florida, I went outside after sunset to enjoy the cool breeze off Sarasota Bay and to listen to the squawking of night herons that emerge from mangroves to hunt along the seawall.  A red blaze still shimmered across the western horizon while, to the southeast, a line of thunderstorms rose above the gathering darkness, their thunderheads catching the last rays of the sun.

Flashes of lightning illuminated the borders of each storm; some strikes were cloud to ground but most were cloud to cloud, providing a fabulous light display.  Due to their distance from Longboat Key (at least 60 miles per the internet radar), their thunder was inaudible (at least to the human ear); as a child, I was taught that lightning without thunder is "heat lightning," a phenomenon distinct from the lightning of thunderstorms.  Of course, like many other myths instilled in my innocent brain, that bit of information proved to be inaccurate.

I watched those thunderstorms for a half hour or more, their forms gradually disappearing between lightning strikes and the entire show slowly retreating to the south; eventually, I could only see an occasional flash along the horizon or, more often, its reflection in the higher cloud tops.  By then, the storms were closing in on Miami and a clear, star-filled sky stretched above Sarasota Bay.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Goose Duck

Black-bellied whistling-ducks are permanent residents of South America, Central America, Mexico and southern Arizona and have long been summer residents in eastern Texas, Louisiana and southeastern Arkansas; in recent years they have become permanent residents of central Florida and have been expanding their range throughout the State and into other Southeastern States.

These tall, colorful ducks usually nest in tree cavities but may lay their eggs (up to 16) directly on the ground; in either case, little nest preparation is undertaken and females may lay eggs in one another's nests.  Unlike most other ducks, these whistling-ducks often perch in trees or on fences and, like geese, are monogamous; also like geese, males and females have the same plumage and share parenting duties.  Once established in an area, black-bellied whistling-ducks tend to be rather tame and, like Canada geese, seem to have a fondness for golf courses, where they may gather in large flocks.

Primarily herbivorous, these lanky ducks feed on a wide variety of foliage and seeds but may also consume insects and other small invertebrates; natural predators include snakes, raccoons, fox, coyotes, hawks and owls.  While many bird species are threatened by habitat loss due to development and agriculture, it is refreshing to learn that such an attractive duck has adapted well to man's assault on natural ecosystems.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Paynes Prairie Basin

Just south of Gainesville, Florida, Interstate 75 crosses a broad valley covered by a shrubby grassland.  This is the western portion of the Paynes Prairie Basin, a karst landscape underlain with Ocala Limestone (Eocene in age).  Like other topographic basins, streams flow in from surrounding uplands but there is no surface stream that drains the basin; rather, water disappears into the Floridan Aquifer via a number of sinks across the valley floor, the largest of which is the Alachua Sink, near the north edge of the basin; the basin (actually a sub-basin within a more extensive, closed watershed) is 8 miles west to east and up to 4 miles north to south.

Throughout the natural history of the Paynes Prairie Basin, most recently in the 1870's, periods of excessive rain have produced massive inflow from the Newnan Lake watershed (via Prairie Creek), clogging the sinks with debris and filling much of the basin with a lake.  Today, man-made levees and channels cross the basin, which is covered by a mosaic of scrub prairie, flatwoods, freshwater wetlands, bald cypress and tupelo swamps, oak-pine hammocks and sandhills.  Wild horses roam the preserve as do a small number of introduced American bison; other residents and visitors of note include Florida black bears, bobcats, sandhill and whooping cranes, bald eagles, limpkins, black-bellied whistling-ducks, Florida pine snakes, gopher tortoises and American alligators.

Designated a State Nature Preserve in 1971, Paynes Prairie Basin and some adjacent uplands have since become a Florida State Park.  Access to this fascinating refuge is best achieved from the Visitor Center area (north of Micanopy) or from the Gainsville-Hawthorne Trail (a rail-to-trail project), which courses along the north rim of the basin.  A nominal day-use fee is charged and the Park is open from 8am to sunset.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

War & Injustice

The recent prisoner swap involving Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and members of the Taliban has unleashed a firestorm of criticism in the American media and among many members of our infallible Congress.  Though he has not yet returned to the U.S., this serviceman has already been tried and convicted of desertion and is blamed for the deaths of soldiers killed in the effort to find him.

President Obama and his Administration, trying to both end the conflict in Afghanistan and to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, saw the opportunity to bring back a prisoner of war while exporting five Taliban members who have been detained for thirteen years and for whom there was no prospect of American justice.  Of course, the same politicians who stymied efforts to try and convict Guantanamo prisoners in Federal Court now object to their release, especially for a lowly sergeant who, they are convinced, willfully deserted his post.  Whether PTSD may have played a role in this story has not yet been clarified though media pundits have confidently declared that the sergeant is in good condition, based on a thirty second video.

Regardless of the injustice that some may find in this high profile prisoner swap, it pales in comparison to the injustices that have occurred throughout the Iran-Afghanistan conflict.  Thousands of innocent civilians have been killed by drone attacks, "shock and awe" bombs, wayward missiles, artillery shells, suicide bombers and IEDs.  War, however just in the minds of those who declare it, is never just for those caught in its theater of atrocity.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Red Bug Slough Preserve

Red Bug Slough Preserve is a 72 acre refuge in the southern suburbs of Sarasota, Florida.  Stretching along a drainage channel, it is characterized by open water, wooded marsh, a basin swamp and a mixed forest of pine, live oak and cabbage palm.  Home to an excellent diversity of wading birds and other wetland species, the preserve also harbors river otters and alligators.  Access is provided from a parking area on S. Beneva Road (between Proctor Rd. and Route 72); a jeep trail follows the primary water channel and side trails loop through the adjacent woodlands.

On our visit, we failed to observe any alligators or otters but did see an excellent diversity of birdlife, including swallow-tailed kites, wood ducks, anhingas, little blue herons and great egrets, among others.  Wild iris and a host of other wildflowers adorned the slough while the dense woodlands offered welcome shade from the intense Florida sun.

Like many city nature preserves, Red Bug Slough is hemmed in by suburban development and has direct trail access to those neighborhoods; as one might expect, litter is a problem and dog walking (several off-leash on our visit; see The Futility of Leash Laws) is a popular activity within the refuge.  Those who established and work to protect this nature preserve must deal with these challenges and thus deserve special thanks from those of us who enjoy the fruit of their efforts.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


As mentioned in yesterday's post, willets are among the few shorebirds to summer on the beaches of Florida; indeed, they are found along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts throughout the year, from southern New England to Mexico.  Willets that winter along the Pacific Coast breed inland, using wetland areas from the Great Basin to the Northern Plains.

These lanky sandpipers probe wet sand and mudflats for small mollusks, worms and other marine invertebrates; feeding day and night, they may be seen alone or in small flocks.  If disturbed, they often fly off with loud shrieks and it is then that their prominent black and white wing stripes are easily visualized.  Nests are placed in shallow depressions on the ground, generally hid in salt marshes or grassy sand dunes; both parents incubate the eggs but chick rearing is primarily left to the male.

While beginning birders (and many veterans) find it difficult to identify the varied sandpiper species that visit or inhabit coastal beaches, willets provide a welcome exception, standing out among their shorter cousins.  Nothing like a confident addition to the life list!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Longboat's Quiet Season

Longboat Key, off Sarasota, Florida, is primarily a residential community.  During the warmer months, many home and condo owners head for northern latitudes while most renters, known as "snowbirds" appear from December to March.  As a result, the island's human population is significantly reduced during the summer months.

Like their human neighbors, birds are also less numerous and diverse during the summer.  Most shorebirds have moved on to breeding grounds across the Arctic and Northern Plains; indeed, on our beach walk this morning, shorebird species were limited to willets, sanderlings and a lone black-bellied plover. While brown pelicans, herons, egrets and many seabirds are permanent residents on Longboat Key, their numbers also decrease in summer, when some disperse to more northern regions of the Continent; one notable exception is the magnificent frigatebird, which is more common along South Florida shores during the warmer months.  Of course, winter residents such as northern gannets, black scoters, loons, American white pelicans and red-breasted mergansers are on their breeding grounds up north and will not arrive until autumn.

While the human and bird populations have entered their quiet season, weather patterns are far less tranquil during the summer months.  The Atlantic Hurricane Season begins on June 1 and will not end until mid November; in addition, the dry season across South Florida (December to May) has given way to humid air and late day thunderstorms.  Clearly, quiet season is a relative term.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Politics & Science

Conservative politicians profess their support for economic growth, entrepreneurship and innovation.  Over the past few decades, most of that activity has occurred in the fields of medicine and technology.

Yet, these same politicians place roadblocks in the course of scientific progress.  Long opposed to teaching evolution in public schools (unless balanced by the theory of creationism), they have now focused on ridiculing the scientific evidence of global warming; indeed, the Wyoming legislature recently voted to eliminate any teaching of human-induced climate change from public school curricula.  Finally, Conservative Republicans have weighed in against healthy lunch programs in public schools, just as progress against childhood obesity has been documented.

Of course, much of this opposition to scientific progress is an effort to protect industries and appeal to voters in their home districts.  Wyoming's dependence on oil, gas and coal production fuels their war on  environmental education.  Representatives from evangelical regions must outwardly profess their religious faith and oppose support for stem cell research and the teaching of evolution.  Science, which strives to uncover truths and to use that knowledge to benefit humans and natural ecosystems, threatens their constituency and, in turn, their own re-election.  When it comes down to truth or re-election, the latter wins every time.