Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Nature's Year

As we approach the end of another human calendar year, we realize that it has no direct relationship to the solar cycle, which defines nature's year.  Our modern calendar, the product of cultural and religious influence, is just another sign that we humans have split from the natural order of our home planet.  Indeed, early humans were more in touch with the seasons and, as a result, astronomical events such as the winter solstice played a significant role in their lives.

The astronomical year, defined by the time it takes Earth to complete one revolution around the sun, might, by human decree, begin on any calendar day.  Yet, if we divorce ourselves from cultural and religious traditions, we must acknowledge that the winter solstice (of either the Northern or Southern Hemisphere) should mark the beginning of our year.  After all, almost all life on our planet is dependent on solar radiation and nature's year is defined by the waxing and waning of that heat and light.

Weather cycles, vegetative patterns and animal behavior have evolved in response to the solar cycle.  While modern technology and global trade have left us relatively unaffected by the seasonal fluctuation of solar radiation, we cannot deny its vital role in the development and maintenance of natural ecosystems.  And, since our own welfare is tied to the health of those ecosystems, we must accept the fact that it is nature's year, not the human calendar, that truly governs our lives.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Snowless Autumn

One of the joys of living in Missouri is its location within a major North American flyway.  Each spring and fall, large flocks of waterfowl pass through the State, on their way between northern breeding grounds and wintering sites within Missouri or to our south.  Among those travelers are snow geese, a species that never fails to stir my soul.

Moving south in autumn, snow geese congregate at staging areas across the Heartland and tend to travel in massive flocks; in spring, they return to their Arctic breeding range in smaller, more widely scattered groups.  As a result, these vocal migrants are more often encountered in spring (generally from late February through mid March) than they are during the fall (usually mid November through mid December).

As we approach the winter solstice, I have yet to enjoy the sight and sound of migrating snow geese this autumn.  Though I have looked for them on and above the farmlands of central Missouri, listened for them in the night and traveled to regional wildlife preserves in an effort to find them, this is the first autumn since we moved to Columbia (in 1997) that my vigil has failed.  The snows have likely traveled east and west of central Missouri this fall; perhaps some passed through during my time in Colorado.  Whatever the reason for my lack of success, a snowless autumn was certainly a disappointment; then again, late February is but two months away!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Spring in December

Partial sunshine and mild air pushed into central Missouri today.  Down at the Forum Nature Area, it looked like winter but felt more like spring and the avian residents seemed to enjoy the conditions as much as I did.

As I wandered through the preserve, a background chorus was provided by robins, chickadees and roaming flocks of cedar waxwings, broken now and then by the harsh calls of crows, blue jays and red-tailed hawks.  At songbird corner (my personal label), northern cardinals, dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows twittered among the thickets; the latter species, perhaps sensing the approach of spring, were delivering their homesick tune.  Out on the seasonal lake, a pair of great blue herons waded through the calm shallows, stopping now and then to spear a fingerling.

Of course, the mild interlude also brought out joggers, headphone-walkers and trail bikers, all zooming past on their way to a pre-ordained finish line.  Our spring in December is courtesy of the potent storm system that is bringing high winds, heavy rains and mountain snows to California; as it pushes east and  drags in warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico, the storm will ignite thunderstorms across the Southern Plains and Mississippi Valley before moving on to the Eastern States.  In its wake, winter will drop back through the Heartland.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Humans & Vegetables

Childrens' distaste for vegetables is both well known and a common theme in advertising and entertainment.  Yet, we must acknowledge that children tend to speak the truth, unencumbered by social pressure and adult taboos.

As an adult who freely admits a limited attraction to vegetables (raw carrots, celery and fresh salads are favored) I am inclined to defend the youth of our species.  While I suspect that most humans like the natural taste of meats, fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts, fruits and grains, most of us must season our vegetables, fry them in butter, caramelize them with sugar or smother them with sauce before we enjoy their flavor; even salads are made palatable by topping them with dressing, cheese and croutons.  By contrast, most of us enjoy fruits and nuts right from the tree (or shrub) and require only a bit of cooking before we eagerly consume meat, fish and eggs.

While early human ancestors may have munched on leaves and other plants to supplement their diet, one suspects that vegetables, given their taste, may have eventually gained favor in areas where other nutritious foods were in short supply.  Perhaps this is all my self-serving imagination, an attempt to justify my child-like approach to vegetables.  Then again, when certain companies market veggie drinks to make their consumption more tolerable, there must be something to my theory.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Boreal Owls

Boreal owls are small raptors that inhabit mixed conifer-aspen forests across Alaska, Canada and northern Eurasia; their range also extends southward through northern Minnesota, the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains.  Though widespread and fairly common, boreal owls are rarely encountered, primarily due to their small size and strict nocturnal lifestyle.

When observed, they are generally perched in a conifer, where they spend the daylight hours; identification is made by their small size (females are larger than males), tuftless head, yellow eyes, speckled crown, white facial disc and brown and white plumage.  Feeding primarily on mice and songbirds, boreal owls may fall victim to larger owls, fishers or pine martens.  Tree cavities are used for nesting and the clutch size varies widely, averaging 5-6 young; the female incubates the eggs while the male guards the site and brings food.

Though widespread in the subalpine forests of Colorado, boreal owls are (in my experience) most commonly observed and reported near Cameron Pass, west of Fort Collins.  Of course, this may reflect the large population of birders along the Front Range urban corridor and the accessibility of that relatively low pass (10,300 feet).

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

December Gray

A milky-gray dome stretched above central Missouri today, diffusing the sunlight and dulling whatever color is left in the mid December landscape.  Sunrise and sunset were also devoid of color, merely announced by a gradual brightening and darkening of the frosted-glass dome.

With a cold front sagging to our south, a stationary front to our west and the nearest low on the Eastern Seaboard, there was no lift or surface wind to disturb the calm, winter air mass.  While one might say it was a cloudy day, individual clouds could not be identified and no layering of the overcast was evident; neither pockets of blue nor bright horizons held promise of a coming change.

It was, indeed, a classic winter sky in the American Midwest, too cold for rain and too dry for snow.  Beneath the opaque sky, our wild neighbors went about their business, oblivious of the filtered sunlight, and many humans, focused on their holiday shopping, were happy enough to have clear, dry roads.  Some of us would prefer a good winter snowstorm to ring in the season while others despise the December gray, counting the days until the first crocuses poke above the cold, wet soil.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Birding the Wastewater Wetlands

Columbia, Missouri, has a state-of-the-art, eco-friendly wastewater treatment facility, consisting of a chain of wetlands in the lower Perche Creek Valley, southwest of town.  Surrounded by a raised levee and graveled roadway, it is an excellent area for birding; since our local wildlife refuge has been closed for duck hunting, I opted for the wastewater area, where the value of other life forms is clearly acknowledged.

Yesterday afternoon, green-winged teal were abundant on the open pools, joined by smaller flocks of gadwall and mallards. An adult and two immature bald eagles soared above the valley and a pair of noisy red-tails called from the forested hills.  Riparian woodlands north of the facility were filled with thousands of American robins while sycamore groves to the south were alive with woodpeckers and a host of winter songbirds.  Eastern bluebirds and American goldfinches perched on the wire fencing, dark-eyed juncos foraged along the roadway and song sparrows flitted among the marsh reeds.

Of course, I was hoping that the high-pitched calls of snow geese might pierce the gray overcast but those vocal migrants remain elusive this season.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed my stroll around the wastewater marshes, where solitude is almost guaranteed and where silence is broken only by the calls of avian residents, the distant rumbling of freight trains and occasional chatty bikers on the Katy or MKT Trails.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

America's Lucrative Pheasant

Native to Asia, ring-necked pheasants were introduced to North America in 1881; initially bred in captivity and released on private hunting reserves, this hardy game bird has become established in grassland habitats across the northern half of the U.S. and southern Canada.

Most abundant on the Great Plains and selected as the State Bird of South Dakota, ring-necked pheasants are polygamous and prolific.  Dominant males establish harems during the breeding season and females lay multiple clutches until chicks are successfully hatched.  Known to have a negative impact on greater prairie chicken populations (a native species), male pheasants chase male chickens from their territory and female pheasants may parasitize the nests.  Though hundreds of thousands of male ring-necked pheasants are harvested by hunters each year, such artificial population control is, to some degree, countered by the polygamous breeding habits of these popular game birds; of course, many others are killed by severe weather, vehicles or farm machinery.

More than a century after Americans introduced ringed-necks to our continent, we have, in effect, created a massive hunting preserve from the Pacific to the Atlantic.  In some Great Plains States, pheasant hunting is vital to the economy, bringing in funds from hunting licenses and the patronage of regional stores, hotels and restaurants.  While the pheasants have imbedded themselves in natural ecosystems across the country, providing sustenance for hawks, owls, coyotes, fox and a host of egg consumers, they are unwitting participants in man's manipulation of nature for his own benefit, a practice that has nothing to do with conservation.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Suet Platoon

As the dark, cold days of December envelop Missouri, I add suet to our backyard handouts.  While the chunks of high calorie food do not increase the diversity of common winter residents and visitors, the extra activity does augment the chance of attracting rare or uncommon species that might be in the neighborhood.

As is usually the case with new feeders, chickadees are the first residents to inspect the suet, followed by white-breasted nuthatches, titmice, Carolina wrens and downy woodpeckers.  Eventually, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers, northern flickers, red-breasted nuthatches and brown creepers join the suet platoon; indeed, any winter insectivore (including yellow-rumpled warblers) may partake at times.

Industrious (or frugal) birders often produce their own suet blocks, using a wide variety of ingredients.  Most of us, lacking such competence or enthusiasm, would rather shell out a couple bucks for the packaged suet sold at most markets and feed stores.  Fortunately, our Missouri squirrels (both gray and fox) do not have a taste for suet (unlike our Colorado fox squirrels) and keeping this winter treat available is a weekly chore at most.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Flooding in a Parched Landscape

Over the past week, an atmospheric trough developed off the California coast, sweeping Pacific moisture across that parched landscape.  Within a few days, many regions of the State received more precipitation than they had in all of 2013.

Falling on slopes ravaged by wildfires, the steady rains triggered floods and mudslides while, in some urban areas, storm drains could not handle the deluge, stranding motorists and producing sinkholes.  Welcome snows fell across the Sierra Nevada and Transverse Ranges but rapid runoff limited the storm system's benefit at lower elevations.

A significant dent in California's severe, multi-year drought will require recurrent Pacific storm fronts throughout the winter months.  The current atmospheric trough (produced by a dip in the jet stream) is already moving on and meteorologists remain uncertain whether an El Nino pattern will take hold; that oceanic and atmospheric phenomenon would favor the development of recurrent storms in the coming months as the waters of the eastern Pacific begin to warm.  By contrast, a La Nina pattern is characterized by high pressure off the California coast, driving warm surface water and moist air to the west and shunting storm systems northward into Canada and Alaska.  Californians are certainly hoping for a boy this winter!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

White-Crowned Sparrows

Summer residents of Alaska, northern Canada and the alpine tundra of North America's western mountains, white-crowned sparrows winter across most of the Lower 48 (the Northern Plains, New England and South Florida excluded).  There they are usually found in sizable flocks, feasting on a variety of seeds in abandoned farm fields or in shrub lines along pastures; they might also visit feeders, especially in rural towns or semi-rural suburbs.

In Colorado, white-crowned sparrows are among the more common alpine summer residents and are best found near the stunted spruce and bristlecone pines at timberline.  While they migrate through the Front Range urban corridor in spring and fall, they are especially abundant in May as they return from the Southern Plains.  Here in central Missouri, white crowns are locally common winter residents on the farmlands that surround Columbia and, in my experience, are most often observed at suburban feeders in March or early April.

On their northern or alpine breeding grounds, these slender but hardy sparrows place their nest in low shrubs or directly on the ground; 3-5 young are raised and the family feasts on both insects and seeds throughout the summer months.  The male parent is highly territorial during this period and his distinctive song is delivered day and night.  By early autumn, the family members disperse; juvenile white-crowns retain their buff-colored head stripes until the following spring and are thus easily identified in winter flocks.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Cheap Oil & Climate Change

Now that oil prices have dropped to their lowest point in years, Conservative pundits are predicting the demise of clean, renewable sources of energy.  Investors have also punished the stocks of solar, wind and fuel cell companies, concluding that their glory days are over.  Neither group seems terribly concerned about the issues of pollution and climate change.

Of course, in this fickle world, where a terrorist attack or military conflict is just a news day away, the price of oil could rebound at any time, rescuing the profits of oil companies and the budget of several fragile oil-producing countries.  As we accept the gift of low gas and heating oil prices for the holidays, business panels debate whether Americans will return to gas-guzzling vehicles and lose interest in electric cars.

Once again, corporate policies focus on the short-term prospect for profits and the global factors that might impact that goal; the opportunity to address global warming has taken a back seat to dealing with a worldwide glut of oil.  In the end, of course, it doesn't matter if we destroy our planet by burning cheap or expensive fossil fuel.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Fishers of the Forest

Fishers are large members of the mustelid (weasel) family; second in size only to the river otter, male fishers may weight up to 13 pounds.  Solitary for most of the year, fishers prefer dense, old-growth forest where they hunt on the ground and in the trees; snowshoe hares and porcupines are their most common prey species but these omnivores also consume other small mammals, wild turkeys, grouse, fish (rarely, despite their name), fruit, nuts, mushrooms and carrion.  Though they seem to have few natural predators, records of attacks by lynx, coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions have been documented.

Fishers reach sexual maturity within one year and generally have a lifespan of 5 years or less in the wild; captive animals may live ten years or more.  Females give birth to an average of 3-4 kits in spring, most often using a tree cavity as a den; mating occurs soon thereafter but implantation of the fertilized eggs is delayed until the following spring.  Young fishers become independent by autumn and the litter mates disperse to establish their own territories; like their parents, they may be active day or night.

Native to North America, fishers inhabit the boreal forests of Canada and mature forests in New England, the Upper Great Lakes Region and the Northern Rockies (primarily in Canada, Idaho and Montana); isolated populations have also been found in the northern Sierra Nevada.  Over-trapping significantly reduced their population by the early 1900s but their numbers have since rebounded and stabilized.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Environmentalism & Religion

Several days ago, the PBS News Hour reported that the Communist Party of China is beginning to soften its stance on the expression of religion, apparently convinced that faith will boost support for environmentalism.  While their shift toward individual human rights is refreshing, I fail to see the connection between mysticism and a commitment to conservation.

Though Buddhism and other Eastern Religions are more in tune with a nature-based spirituality than the more human-based dogma of Western Religions, all forms of mysticism diminish the authority of science, which is vital to our understanding and effective protection of natural ecosystems.  This is especially true when religious faith depicts man as a chosen species, endowed with spiritual traits that are not shared by other forms of life.  Once we deny our interdependence with the plants and other animals that inhabit this planet, the less committed we are to their welfare and protection.

While there are certainly many ardent conservationists who are also religious, relying on mysticism to promote environmentalism is, in my opinion, misguided.  We debase intellectual honesty and a science based search for truth at our own peril.