Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Black Quarterbacks

Back in my high school and early college days (we're talking the 1960s), there was an open discussion in the American media and among members of my parents' generation whether black football players were capable of being effective quarterbacks.  After all, professional quarterbacks prior to that time had all been white and many pundits expressed the opinion that, while blacks are excellent running backs and receivers, they lack the skills to perform well as quarterbacks.  Of course, the not-so-subtle implication of their argument was that black athletes were not smart enough to run an offense.

History has clearly debunked those overtly racist opinions and, looking back on that era, most of us are offended and embarrassed by the widespread ignorance that pervaded our country.  Indeed, over the past fifty years, many of the most successful quarterbacks in professional and college football have been African Americans.

Unfortunately, such simple-minded beliefs, often ingrained in childhood and fostered by like-minded friends and family, persist in human society, surfacing as racism, religious zealotry, anti-science rhetoric and political extremism.  Worse than those who buy into such ignorance are educated persons who condone or passively sanction their misguided views.

Monday, December 28, 2015

A Sleet Storm

Driving back from the Kansas City Airport this morning, I encountered a sleet storm along Interstate 70, having developed on the backside of this week's massive winter storm.  Stretching for more than 50 miles along the highway and driven by a strong north wind, the swath of heavy sleet decreased visibility and produced a slippery surface on the roadway.

Unlike hail, which forms in the cold upper layers of thunderstorms and eventually falls to earth when gravity overcomes the force of the updraft, sleet forms as rain or partially melted snowflakes fall through a cold layer of air near the ground, refreezing into small ice pellets that coat lawns, fields and roads.  Freezing rain, generally more common and destructive than sleet, refers to liquid rain drops that freeze when they contact cold objects or surfaces (tree limbs, fence posts, cars, roads, etc.).

Needless to say, driving was treacherous in the midst of the sleet storm.  Unfortunately, the greatest danger arose from drivers that did not heed the conditions, racing by in the passing lane; as usual, SUV owners and truck drivers were the primary offenders and many of them paid the price, their cars, jeeps and sixteen-wheelers soon littering the median and grassy margins of the highway.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Stormy December Night

It's a stormy evening in central Missouri.  As I sit here watching the coverage of tornadoes east of Dallas, Texas, torrential rain is pelting our roof and thunderstorms are rumbling through the area.  It may be late December but it feels and sounds more like April.

The agents of this stormy weather are an upper level low pushing into west-central Texas, a cold front draped from eastern Texas to southern Illinois and surface lows along that front.  Warm humid air is flowing northwestward from the Gulf of Mexico, providing plenty of moisture and unstable atmospheric conditions across the Southern Plains and mid Mississippi Valley.  Expecting two inches of rain overnight, we are under a flash flood watch in Missouri but should escape the severe weather that is producing damage east of Dallas; a tornado watch covers eastern Texas, southeastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas.

On the backside of the upper level low, a blizzard is developing across northwest Texas, southwest Oklahoma and eastern New Mexico.  At least that segment of the storm is consistent with the season.

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Birder's Glory Days

An avid birder for almost forty years, I have come to realize that the first few years of that adventure were most exciting.  Back then, even some of our common, permanent residents were new to me, as they are to beginning birders today.

Every time that I ventured out with my binoculars and field guide, I would see one or more new species, fueling the realization that nature hosts a splendid diversity of avian species (even in our home neighborhoods).  In my case, I was fortunate to live in three regions of the country during my formative years as a birder: coastal North Carolina, West Virginia and Arkansas.  The diversity of my early exposure was thus multiplied by the changing environment in which I lived and was further expanded by several trips to Colorado.

Today, while I continue to enjoy birdwatching, the activity generally occurs in concert with hiking and other forms of outdoor exploration.  Unless I travel to a new part of the country (or region of the globe), new additions to my "life list" are few and far between.  My glory days of birding are now but a fond memory, rekindled at times in the eyes of an enthusiastic novice.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

December Tornadoes

Over the past week, an atmospheric ridge developed across the eastern U.S., allowing warm, humid air to flow northward from the Gulf of Mexico.  Yesterday, a potent storm system, centered over Iowa, swept its cold front into this unstable air mass, igniting severe thunderstorms, unleashing torrential rain and spawning tornadoes.

While tornadoes are not rare in the Gulf Coast States during the winter months, yesterday's outbreak, which included 24 twisters, was unusual for December.  As of this morning, at least seven deaths have been attributed to the storms, which pummeled communities from Arkansas into Mississippi and Tennessee and northward to the Ohio Valley.

As the cold front continues to push eastward this morning, the risk of severe weather persists through eastern Alabama, northern Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.  This week's atmospheric imbalance in the U.S., characterized by a strong jet stream that divided cold, dry air in the West from warm, humid air in the East, was bound to break down and, when it did, tragic consequences ensued.

Addendum:  As of December 25, the storm system death toll has reached 14.  In addition, meteorologists suspect that a significant percentage of the twister sightings were related to the same long-lasting tornado, that may have been on the ground over a distance of 145 miles (from Clarksdale, Mississippi, into west-central Tennessee).

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Curiosity, Truth and Human Evolution

We humans are curious creatures.  Indeed, if we were not, our species might have become extinct long ago.

It was curiosity that drew early humans out of Africa, enticing them north through the Sahara Desert and eastward along (and possibly across) the Red Sea.  Curiosity about the plants and animals in their environment eventually led to cultivation and domestication, a development that fostered permanent settlements, linked by trade routes.

Over time, we learned to utilize metals, design machines, explore the seas and study the night sky.  Curious about the structure and function of living organisms, we discovered the nature of life itself, setting us on a course toward modern medicine and biotechnology.  Of course, each step in our enlightenment challenged ingrained beliefs and assumptions, a tension that persists today.  In the end, our curiosity about the Universe will prevail, mysticism will fade and our search for truth will guide the future evolution of our species.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Green-winged Teal

One of our more attractive "winter ducks," green-winged teal are also the smallest surface-feeding duck in North America.  After breeding on marsh-line ponds and estuaries across Alaska, Canada, the northernmost U.S. and the Intermountain West, these dabblers winter throughout most of the U.S. but may turn up as far south as Central America or the Caribbean.

Preferring shallow waters with emergent vegetation, green-winged teal often gather in sizable flocks during the colder months; though they consume a mixed diet (including aquatic invertebrates) on their breeding grounds, their winter diet consists primarily of seeds.  Racing above winter wetlands in tight squadrons, they can usually be identified at a distance, especially since their cinnamon and blue-winged cousins depart for warmer climes by mid autumn.

The colorful markings of the male and the small size of these teal make them a favorite among birders.  Like buffleheads, another small winter duck, we admire their hardiness and appreciate their "willingness" to share (and brighten) our harsh winter environment.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Winter Count in Spring Weather

Just four days after a major snowstorm pummeled the Colorado Front Range, I participated in a winter waterfowl count at South Platte Park this morning.  Unlike much of the past week, bright sunshine bathed the valley and a downsloping, southwest breeze bumped the temperature into the forties (F) before the count ended.

My group was assigned a section of the South Platte River; since most of the lakes and ponds are now partially or completely frozen, we hoped for large numbers of ducks on the free-flowing river.  Unfortunately, though Canada geese were abundant, the number and variety of ducks was below par; buffleheads, common goldeneyes and hooded mergansers were best represented, joined by smaller numbers of mallards and gadwalls.  Other sightings were limited to a Harlan's hawk and two belted kingfishers, in addition to common riparian songbirds.

Other areas of the Park proved to be more fruitful and our segment of the refuge was certainly disappointing.  On the other hand, it was an enjoyable walk through snowy terrain and the weather was downright inviting.  To be perfectly honest, I'll take a fair count under pleasant conditions over a productive count in frigid weather any day of the week!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Intellectual Honesty

Intellectual honesty is the commitment to pursue truth despite social pressures in our life.  From the time that we are old enough to communicate, we are deluged with the beliefs, ideas, prejudices and convictions of our parents, friends, teachers, pastors, mentors and political leaders, among others.

Endowed with a large, complex brain, we humans are inclined to evaluate and question this input in the context of our own experience; the latter includes both our personal observations and our education.  Ingrained with beliefs and traditions as children, we must eventually overcome the fear and guilt associated with rejecting familial and cultural pressures and begin to think for ourselves.  Interacting with individuals from other communities, countries and cultures serves to fuel this transition from provincial attitudes to a more universal concept of mankind.

Most importantly, our quest for truth necessitates a shift from blind faith and "common sense" to evidence-based information.  Biases introduced by religious beliefs, political rhetoric and cultural traditions must be reassessed in the light of scientific data.  We are then faced with a choice: to embrace intellectual honesty or to become a social diplomat, balancing truth and mysticism.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

December at South Platte Reservoir

South Platte Reservoir, completed in 2007, sits north of Chatfield State Park and along the southwest edge of South Platte Park in Littleton, Colorado.  Though relatively small in size, the reservoir is easily viewed from a levee along its southern border and is known to attract an excellent variety of diving ducks, including rare visitors such as long-tailed ducks; within the past week, greater scaup and white-winged scoters have been observed on the reservoir.

On this cold morning, snow showers moved along the Front Range and the low December sun was beginning to burn holes in the gray overcast.  American coot were numerous along the rocky shores of the reservoir and a large flock of Canada geese cruised on its open waters.  Pairs and small groups of buffleheads, common goldeneyes and ring-necked ducks dove for their breakfast, joined by a few common mergansers, redheads and lesser scaup.  Unfortunately, no rare species were observed during my visit.

On the other hand, an adult bald eagle soared above the reservoir and an immature bald eagle perched in a grove of the trees east of the lake (along Eaglewatch Lake in South Platte Park).  Other flocks of Canada geese noisily moved about the valley, American kestrels hunted along the Park's entry road and the beauty of the Front Range foothills was magnified by clear, cold air and the snowy landscape.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Front Range Snowstorm

It's not easy to predict the intensity of Front Range snowstorms.  Many factors come into play, including the temperature and humidity of the air, the potency of the storm, the track of the central zone of low pressure (which determines the direction of the upslope flow) and the speed of the system as it crosses our region.

Contrary to public perception and the simplistic comments of TV weather forecasters, storm systems move in from the west but "snowstorms" do not.  The latter must redevelop in concert with the factors mentioned above.  While some moisture may move in from the southwest or northwest, the majority of the precipitation is "wrung out" by the Continental Divide; snow that falls along the east flank of the Front Range (and along the Front Range urban corridor) depends on upslope flow from the Great Plains.  Since Denver sits in the South Platte Valley and is nearly surrounded by higher terrain, intense snowstorms in the city depend on the generation of an upslope flow from the northeast (up through the South Platte Valley).  Subtle changes in the direction of the storm track (and thus of the upslope plume) can dramatically affect the snowfall in Metro Denver.

Last night, when I went to bed, a few flakes were in the air; according to the Weather Channel and local forecasters, we were expected to receive 2 to 5 inches of snow overnight.  This morning I awoke to find 10 inches of powdery snow coating our Littleton farm; as I write this post, more than six hours later, it's still snowing!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Greeted by Winter Ducks

Arriving in Littleton, Colorado, on this mild, sunny afternoon, I opted for a walk in South Platte Park.  There I was pleased to find a large number and wide variety of winter ducks, forced south by frozen lakes and wetlands to our north.

Most of the ponds and lakes at South Platte Park were open but ice claimed the shallows.  American coot, common goldeneyes and buffleheads were the most common winter visitors, though green-winged teal, ring-necked ducks and lesser scaup were also present.  Northern shovelers, permanent residents in the State, are primarily winter residents at South Platte Park and were perhaps the most abundant species at the refuge; mallards, American wigeon, gadwalls, common and hooded mergansers and pied-billed grebes were also observed.  Canada geese, reinforced by migrants from the north, have reached their seasonal abundance in Metro Denver, grazing on almost every patch of open grassland (including the entrance to our farm).

After experiencing such a sluggish waterfowl migration in the Midwest this autumn, today's sightings were especially rewarding.  Since I plan to participate in a waterfowl count at South Platte Park this coming Saturday, I anticipate even more sightings during my brief December visit.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Driving through the Storm

As I left for Colorado this morning, the latest Pacific storm was spinning over the Great Plains; in Columbia, warm air and rain showers were flowing up from the south.  As I approached Kansas City, the rain intensified and numerous cars had skidded off the highway; bands of torrential rain continued until I reached Topeka, Kansas, where the temperature had dropped into the forties (F), almost twenty degrees cooler than it was in Columbia.

Light rain fell from Topeka to Salina but evidence of recent heavy rains lined the Interstate; broad shallow lakes and meandering waterways covered the valley floors while miniature badlands had been sculpted from some of the hillsides.  West of Salina, the rain ceased and the cloud deck lifted; in concert, a strong north wind buffeted my pickup and spun the turbines of the Smokey Hills Wind Farm.  The winds died down near Russell but picked up again at Hays, sweeping "backside" snow (including "thunder snow") in from the north.

While the storm conditions garnered most of my attention, I did encounter some interesting wildlife behavior on my journey.  Large flocks of wild turkeys gathered on the soggy fields of western Missouri and eastern Kansas, presumably attracted by seeds and invertebrates that were flushed from the waterlogged soil.  Farther west, across the flooded fields of central Kansas, a large number of hawks appeared (primarily red-tails and rough-legs), likely hunting small mammals as they escaped their flooded burrows.

Tiny Bundles of Inspiration

On cold, dark winter days (few and far between so far this season), I often look for golden-crowned kinglets. Most of the time, my search is unsuccessful.

These tiny, plump insectivores breed across Canada and southward through mountain ranges of North America.  Favoring coniferous forest, their nest is placed high in a fir or spruce tree and the energetic couple raises two broods before autumn sets in.  Highly territorial when on their breeding grounds, golden-crowned kinglets roam about in flocks during the winter months, descending to lower elevations and latitudes; they are also less selective about habitat during the colder months, turning up in deciduous, coniferous or mixed woodlands.

Other than their "cute" appearance and brightly colored crowns, I am drawn to these winter visitors by their relentless energy and by their hardiness in the face of extreme weather conditions.  Like other winter insectivores, they survive the season by feeding on hibernating insects, insect eggs or those that remain active beneath the leaf litter.  They are tiny bundles of inspiration in the eyes and hearts of many birders (myself included), snug in our layered clothing, heated vehicles or insulated homes and feasting on high-calorie snacks from the neighborhood grocery.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Nature Gifts for Children

In this digital era, when many children are reluctant to stray too far from their video screens, nature related gifts may entice them into the great outdoors.  Telescopes, binoculars, bird feeders (ignore my post on 12-2-15), field guides and snowshoes are just a few examples.

While it may be a challenge to compete with computer games and streaming movies, an enthused parent or grandparent can provide the mentorship to get children interested in rocks, plants, local wildlife or the night sky.  In many cases, that introduction will unleash their natural curiosity and allow their innate connection to nature to surface.  Unfortunately, that connection has been suppressed by a number of factors in our modern world (see: Children & Nature, a Lost Connection); hopefully, the right nature gift will ignite a deep-seated attraction to our natural environment.

Those of us who enjoy the many wonders of nature recall persons and incidents from our childhood that were instrumental in triggering that enthusiasm.  It is now imperative that we "pass it forward."  After all, the future welfare of Earth's ecosystems will depend on the commitment of today's children.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Trump's Quest

As he campaigns to be King of America, Donald Trump, like ISIS, utilizes fear, hatred and ridicule to establish his influence and power.  While he claims to "love" individuals of all races and cultures, his devoted legions are primarily white, poorly-educated isolationists who distrust blacks, Latinos, Muslims, foreign immigrants and, of course, politicians.

Short on specifics, Trump plans to wall-off Mexicans, ban Muslims, curtail global trade and arm Americans.  Those who question his "policies" are denounced as stupid or naive and his bombastic comments are designed to stoke fear, anger and hatred in the American populace.

It seems that Mr. Trump does not truly want to be President of the United States, a powerful position but one that requires diplomacy, compromise, cooperation and overwhelming responsibility.  He'd rather continue to campaign, espousing self-righteous rhetoric, expanding his celebrity and amassing  even greater wealth through speaking fees.  To imagine that Americans would actually elect him to represent our country is more than disturbing.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Pacific Northwest Deluge

Several storm systems have been riding the Pineapple Express over the past few days, dropping copious rain and high elevation snow across the Pacific Northwest.  The last storm is the series should arrive tomorrow, aggravating the mudslides and flooding that have plagued the region.

On the bright side, the moisture flow will shift south as the jet stream begins to dip across the Western U.S. and is expected to drop at least two feet of snow on the Sierra Nevada, welcome news for drought-stressed California.  The developing atmospheric trough will also allow the Pacific Northwest to dry out and bring plenty of snow to the mountains (and ski areas) of Utah and Colorado.

Of course, potent storm systems have negative consequences as well.  As warm, humid air is swept northward ahead of the trough, producing record highs from the Gulf Coast to the Upper Midwest, the atmosphere will be primed for severe thunderstorms.  These storms, some of which may spawn tornadoes, will ignite along the cold front and are expected to boil up from Texas to the Great Lakes over the coming weekend.  Behind the front, winter will return to the Heartland.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Stopping by Truman Reservoir

Driving through western Missouri today, I decided to visit the dam area of Truman Reservoir, just north of Warsaw.  Completed in 1979, the dam was built at the confluence of the Osage and South Grand Rivers, creating the largest (or second largest, depending on your source) body of water in Missouri.  Below the dam, the Osage River flows eastward into the Lake of the Ozarks and eventually enters the Missouri River just east of Jefferson City.

On past winter visits to Truman Reservoir (all at least 10 years ago), I found that most of the lake was frozen and that open water near the dam attracted a fascinating mix of loons, diving ducks and bald eagles.  Today's visit, on a mild, sunny afternoon, felt more like early October than early December; the temperature was in the low 60s F and not a cube of ice was found, even along an inlet where mallards and Canada geese lounged near the shore and where a pair of great blue herons stalked the shallows.

After repeatedly scanning the deeper waters, I found only a small group of red-breasted mergansers.  A flock of gulls (too distant to identify) crowded a beach, turkey vultures swooped along the dam and two bald eagles soared above the reservoir.  A far cry from the spectacle of past visits, today's stop was pleasant but hardly memorable; I'll have to return after winter settles in (if it ever does in this El Nino year).

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Dearth of Wintering Waterfowl

Since Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area remains closed for duck hunting, a friend and I visited a few other hotspots south and west of Columbia.  On this cool, cloudy morning, our first stop was at the city's wastewater wetlands in the Perche Creek Valley.  While two adult bald eagles surveyed the area from a large barren tree, the ponds were nearly devoid of waterfowl; a small group of mallards, a few Canada geese and a pair of gadwalls were the only visitors.

Heading for our next stop, we encountered several red-shouldered hawks and a fair number of red-tails along the country roads.  At Philips Lake, south of Columbia, a pied-billed grebe, a lone male ruddy duck and a small flock of hooded mergansers dove from the calm surface.  Finally, a visit to the Missouri River south of Easley turned up red-headed woodpeckers along Bonne Femme Creek but sightings were otherwise limited to common songbirds (especially cardinals, blue jays, juncos, eastern bluebirds and northern mockingbirds).

The relative dearth of wintering waterfowl seems to be persisting in the lower Missouri Valley.  Though shotgun blasts echoed from Eagle Bluffs, no scattering flocks were observed and one wonders if there are enough ducks to warrant the hunt. During this El Nino winter, it may not get cold enough to send the waterfowl south; we birders may need to be content with raptor-watching, always productive during the winter months.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Private Solutions for Social Problems

The accomplishments of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and this week's announcement that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife will donate almost all of their Facebook stock to a nonprofit organization that will address a variety of social issues highlight a shift from government-financed research and intervention to privately-funded solutions.

Indeed, governments across the globe have demonstrated an inability (or unwillingness) to solve many social problems, including poverty, homelessness, hunger, birth control, preventable disease, social justice, gun violence and global warming, among many others.  Hesitant to support politicians who promise action but cannot follow through, many citizens are using their personal wealth, company profits, community fundraising or internet crowd-sourcing to develop and implement effective interventions.

Of course, government inaction on human rights will continue to spawn a more direct response from the populace, including demonstrations, boycotts and, unfortunately, violent reactions.  Private entrepreneurship and generosity may soften the effects of government inaction but it cannot replace the government's important role in protecting human rights and the welfare of our environment, a role that many Conservative Republicans would prefer to abolish.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Giving Up on Feeders

I know there are "squirrel proof" and "raccoon resistant" feeders out there; in fact, I've tried quite a few over the years without much success.  I truly don't mind if those critters snack on the birdseed but, in most cases, they also destroy the feeders.

So I've decided to offer the handouts in a natural setting, a small section of our backyard along the edge of a wood border.  Nearly surrounded by shrubs and thickets, this plot will be sprinkled with a mix of seeds every few days; since I only provide handouts during the colder months, I'm not concerned that the seeds will spoil (some, of course, will likely yield sunflowers next summer).  Close enough to observe from our picture window or deck, this feeding area is far enough from the house to avoid window collisions; in addition, the surrounding vegetation offers cover from predators (primarily domestic cats and accipiters).

So far, my naturalized feeding has been a success, attracting an excellent mix of permanent and winter residents.  Ground feeders (sparrows, juncos, doves, blue jays, cardinals) are especially common while chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and finches, snare seeds from the shrubs or grab them off the leaf litter to consume on an overhanging branch.  In addition, the activity of these seed-eaters, attracts flickers, woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, Carolina wrens and yellow-rumped warblers into the yard (squirrels and raccoons are welcome too!).  Then there are the advantages for feeders to buy, hang, clean, repair or recycle.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Snows in the Morning Sky

Returning from my campus walk this morning, I thought I heard the distant call of snow geese (despite my headphones).  Sure enough, a large flock wavered overhead in the cold, blue December sky.

Farther west, a much larger flock, linear in configuration and at least a mile long, passed in front of the half moon.  Over the next ten minutes, six more flocks arrived from the northwest, taking advantage of strong winds behind this week's storm system.

The snows were all heading southeast, following the Missouri River toward the Mississippi.  After breeding on the Arctic tundra, they gradually move southward as lakes and wetlands begin to freeze.  While they once wintered exclusively in Gulf Coastal marshes of Louisiana and East Texas, many are now stopping along the broad floodplain of the Lower Mississippi where they feast on waste grain across the vast crop fields.  Come February, they'll move northward through the Heartland, traveling in smaller flocks and lingering at favored rest stops for days or even weeks at a time.

Monday, November 30, 2015

No Drone Zones

Advancing drone technology has led to the increasing use of these unmanned craft by the military, security agencies, agriculture, engineering firms and other industries.  Of course, they have also become very popular among want-to-be pilots.

This explosive growth of aerial drones has led to a variety of concerns, including infringement on privacy rights, augmentation of noise pollution and threats to public safety.  For those of us who relish the sanctuary of nature preserves, the prospect of drones zooming overhead is a development we prefer to avoid.

Hopefully, before the domain of drones begins to encroach on sensitive natural habitats, the Department of the Interior will forbid their use in Wilderness Areas, National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges and other fragile ecosystems.  After all, ATVs, snowmobiles and dirt bikes already disturb the tranquility and threaten the welfare of many State and National preserves.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Volcanic Rocks

Volcanic rocks are those that form from compacted volcanic ash (tephra) or from cooled volcanic lava.  Tuff, a light weight, porous rock, forms from layers of tephra that are subjected to heat and compression over millions of years.

Lava rocks are grouped into those that form from mafic magma (rich in iron and magnesium) or from felsic magma (rich in silica).  Basalt, which has a silica content near 50%, is the primary mafic magma rock while andesite, dacite and rhyolite have a silica composition of 60%, 65% and 70%, respectively.  The higher the silica content, the more viscous the lava; basalt generally forms extensive surface flows or shield volcanoes above volcanic hotspots or mid oceanic ridges while the felsic magmas, most common along subduction zones, produce more explosive stratovolcanoes.  Pumice is a porous, spongiform rock that forms during stratovolcano eruptions when the felsic magma contains a large amount of water and gas.

Unlike granite, which cools slowly within the Earth's crust and is thus rich in crystals, the extruded felsic magmas cool rapidly and possess smaller and fewer crystals; the higher the silica content of the magma, the more finely grained the volcanic rock and the less its crystalline structure.  Obsidian (rhyolite devoid of crystals) is essentially volcanic glass.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Thanksgiving Crowd

On this Thanksgiving Day, it looked very much like late November in central Missouri.  A gray overcast, broken by pockets of blue, stretched above the dull, pre-winter landscape; while most of the trees are barren, the oaks still retain their dead, brown leaves.  Despite the late autumn landscape, it felt more like September to those of us who ventured outside; strong southerly winds had developed ahead of an approaching cold front, pushing the afternoon high into the upper sixties (F).  Heavy rains are expected later this evening and cold air will dive south behind the front.

Just before 3 PM, a large flock of cedar waxwings descended on our property, feasting on honeysuckle and holly berries.  They were soon joined by an even larger crowd of American robins and the activity of these berry lovers attracted a wide variety of permanent and winter songbirds; among these residents were black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, northern cardinals, blue jays, white-breasted nuthatches, white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos.  At the peak of the activity, there must have been a thousand birds in our modest-sized yard.

We Americans stop to express our thanks for the love and support of family and friends on this national holiday; some of us are also inclined to thank Mother Nature, grateful for her magnificent landscapes and diverse ecosystems.  Today's crowd of avian visitors reinforced that sentiment.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Ineffective Sunshine

As I walked around a suburban lake in Greater Cincinnati this morning, bright sunshine bathed the valley.  Unfortunately, what little warmth is offered by the November sun was wicked away by a strong, cold east wind.

Mallards, domestic ducks and their hybrid offspring dabbled in the shallows where thin ice had developed along the shoreline.  Joining them was a stoic great blue heron and a noisy flock of Canada geese.  Out on the open waters, a large squadron of ring-billed gulls soared and swooped above the lake or rested on its shimmering surface.

Less than a month from the winter solstice, the sun angle is too low to provide much heat, its radiation passing through a broad swath of the Earth's atmosphere.  For the next few months, warm days will only develop when southerly winds bring up mild air from the Gulf Coast or Desert Southwest.  Of course, these southerly winds are generally short lived, developing ahead of Pacific storm systems or Canadian Clippers; in their wake, snowstorms and/or cold, dry air sweep into the Midwest.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Dark Side of Nationalism

It was heartening to watch as the French people came together after the attacks in Paris and it was equally inspiring to learn that other countries offered their support.  Throughout the U.S., flags were flown at half staff and the French flag was widely displayed.

But now we see the ugly side of nationalism as Conservative Republic Presidential Candidates vie for the title of Isolationist in Chief.  Many want to halt the inflow of Syrian refugees while others are willing to accept "Christians" only.  Stoking fear in their constituents, they argue that our current vetting process is not effective and that "all it takes is one terrorist" to wreak havoc in the U.S.

Don't these politicians remember the Oklahoma City bombing and the Charleston church shootings, both carried out by white Americans?  Our lenient gun policies, supported by these same politicians, put us at far greater risk of violence than we might incur from International terrorists.  But fear is an effective political tool and the Paris attacks may prove to be a great source of American votes.  Perhaps we could extend Trump's proposed "beautiful wall" around the entire country; we don't need seascapes anyway.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Blue over Brown

Traveling to Ohio today, I crossed the drab November landscape of the Glaciated Plain, lit by bright sunshine and covered by a blue dome of cloudless sky.  Turkey vultures tilted in the north wind, red-tailed hawks perched in the barren trees and a few flocks of ring-billed gulls and Canada geese lounged on the fields or farm ponds.  An occasional coyote nosed through the corn stubble but mammals were otherwise limited to herds of livestock (and varied species of roadkill).

Though I repeatedly scanned the clear, blue sky, migrant snow geese were not encountered; nor were migrant ducks observed on the ponds and flooded fields.  Rustic barns, old silos and the clean-edged farm fields made for pleasant scenery but there was little to excite a naturalist on that seven-hour drive.

But Mother Nature is not in the business of entertaining travelers.  Racing along at 70 mph, we miss most of her complex handiwork and rely on random encounters to enjoy her spectacles.  Today she offered a two tone panorama of earth and sky.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A River of Rain

A potent winter storm, centered over south-central Kansas this afternoon, is pulling a swath of Gulf moisture northward through the Heartland.  Stretching from Houston to Chicago, the broad atmospheric river of heavy rain and thunderstorms has produced flooding throughout the region; along the leading edge of the swath, where warm, southeast winds intersect the cold front, a few tornadoes have developed.  Yesterday, as the storm's dry-line pushed across the Great Plains, 23 tornadoes were unleashed across Texas, Oklahoma and western Kansas.

Today, on the backside of the central low, blizzard conditions stretch from south-central Nebraska through western Kansas and southeast Colorado.  Up to a foot of snow has fallen and wind gusts to 70 mph have been reported.

The storm system is racing eastward and the swath of heavy rain and thunderstorms should reach the Mississippi Valley by early evening.  Here in central Missouri, the precipitation will taper off overnight as cooler and drier air moves in from the west.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Starling Tsunami

Anyone who regularly crosses open farmlands or the Great Plains of North America has surely witnessed spectacular starling ballets.  These aerial displays are, after all, one of the few reasons to appreciate the abundant European immigrants.

Today, on the plains east of Russell, Kansas, I observed what might be called a "starling tsunami" when a massive flock of starlings moved across the crop stubble, rising and falling in a rhythmic, wave-like motion.  Though I can't say with certainty, there must have been more than 5000 birds in that undulating black cloud.

Other sightings on the Great Plains included an unusually large number of prairie falcons in Eastern Colorado, 100 or more wild turkeys along the Republican River east of Flagler, Colorado, a large flock of Franklin's gulls west of Salina, Kansas, and a rough-legged hawk in the Flint Hills.  But those starlings, perhaps the most maligned birds in North America, provided the highlight of my journey.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Rise of Inhumanity

Yesterday's tragic attacks in Paris underscore the rise of inhumanity across the globe.  Spawned by religious zealotry, sectarian hatred, racism, oppression and cultural self-righteousness, terrorism threatens our common rights of life and liberty.

While focused disruption of terror networks and oppressive dictatorships is essential to combating this scourge, large scale warfare will only feed the hatred and distrust that underlies the violence.  It is simplistic to think that we can destroy extremist philosophy through military action alone.  Rather, we as a species must address the factors that divide us, including long entrenched hatred and beliefs, and provide remedies through education, economic opportunity and political inclusion.

Until we respect one another as fellow human beings, endowed with personal rights and freedoms, violent attacks will, in the minds of those who commit them, seem justified.  Unfortunately, religious zealotry and nationalism have long defined our species and modern technology (including weaponry, electronic communication and global travel) facilitates the activity of terror networks.  But it is the rise of inhumanity within our civilization, whether directed at immigrants, refugees, other races or other cultures, that provides recruits and fuels the violence.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Millipede Migration

Yesterday afternoon, while hiking at South Platte Park, I encountered hundreds of small millipedes crossing the paved bikeway.  Worm-shaped and close to an inch long, some had been accidentally crushed by passing walkers and cyclists.

This mass exodus was taking place one day after a six-inch snowfall blanketed the region; as the snow melted in the bright Colorado sun, saturated soil may have triggered their movement.  On the other hand, millipede migration is known to occur in autumn as these abundant invertebrates seek new food sources (decaying plant and animal matter) and search for wintering sites.

Primarily nocturnal, most terrestrial invertebrates are seldom encountered during the warmer months unless one is an active gardener.  While most insects overwinter as eggs or pupae, pillbugs and millipedes are among those invertebrates that may live for many years; when threatened by cold weather, most seek shelter beneath leaf litter or in loose soil but some escape to basements and garages, a choice not generally appreciated by homeowners.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Ferruginous Hawks

Driving through the Plum Creek Valley (south of Denver) this afternoon, I encountered several ferruginous hawks.  These large buteos, though named for their reddish shoulders, back and feathered legs, are perhaps best identified by their size, their long, pointed wings and by the light coloration of their chest, abdomen and under-wings.

Often hunting from the air, soaring or hovering above potential prey, ferruginous hawks also use perches (poles, trees, rock outcrops) and may stalk prey directly on the ground, staking out the burrows of prairie dogs and ground squirrels.  Their bulky nests are generally placed in solitary trees or on rock ledges in open country; 2-4 eggs are usually produced.

Ferruginous hawks are permanent residents in Colorado and throughout most of the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin, favoring semiarid plains, sage grasslands and open woodlands of pinon pine.  Rabbits, ground squirrels and prairie dogs are their primary prey but they consume a wide variety of small mammals and sometimes kill snakes and game birds.  North of Colorado, ferruginous hawks are primarily summer residents while wintering individuals may be found across the Desert Southwest and southern High Plains.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

From Subtropics to Snow

A week after leaving the balmy, subtropical weather on Longboat Key, Florida, I am back at our Littleton, Colorado, farm, anticipating a snowstorm tonight.  Of course, as often occurs in this region, there are no clues this morning; bright sunshine, crystal clear air and mild temperatures envelop the Front Range urban corridor.

But yesterday, as I drove westward across the Great Plains, southerly winds were sweeping Gulf of Mexico moisture to the north, priming the region for severe storms in the coming days.  This morning, a potent cold front stretches across the Great Basin and Northern Rockies, poised to drop through the Heartland; later today, as the cold front approaches, clouds will build along the Front Range and, overnight, an upslope flow behind the front will drop up to four inches of snow (per the current forecast) on Metro Denver.

Out on the High Plains, blizzard warnings have been posted; 60 mph winds are expected to combine with the modest snowfall to produce white-out conditions.  Further east, across the Central and Southern Plains and Mississippi Valley, the powerful system will likely ignite severe thunderstorms, some of which may spawn tornadoes.  As winter delivers its first major punch, the Heartland will bear most of its impact.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Perfect Families

Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 60s know what they look like; the Cleavers, the Nelsons and the Stones were perfect families, challenged only by the occasional misguided antics of their teenaged children.  There was no divorce, physical or substance abuse, depression or intolerance.  These were the families we planned to assemble for ourselves.

Then, in 1971, All in the Family broke the mold, exposing both superficial and deep-seated defects that exist in human families.  Racism, homophobia, religious zealotry, alcoholism, infidelity and abuse were faced head-on, as were many other issues that disrupt our social fabric.  Since then, movies and television shows have increasingly focused on problems that challenge the modern family, often smoldering beneath the surface and undetected by extended family, friends and neighbors.

Indeed, having intimate knowledge of issues within our own family, we too often assume that others enjoy perfect relationships, sailing through life without financial concerns or personal troubles.  This, of course, is a mirage, a bubble often burst by divorce or some other tragedy.  Rather than resenting others for their seemingly perfect families or criticizing them for their failed relationships, it is best that we acknowledge the limitations of our perspective.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Keystone on Ice

Finally, the Obama Administration has decided to nix the Keystone Pipeline, at least until their reign is over.  My only question: "What took so long?"

As I detailed in Pipeline to Oblivion, last year, the project risked environmental disaster and would have reinforced our dependence on fossil fuels.  To lead an International effort to combat global warming while proceeding with the Keystone Pipeline would have been the height of hypocrisy.

Of course, the Republican Presidential Candidates will use this decision to ridicule the current Administration, promising to renew the project once their nominee takes back the White House.  Anyone who is concerned about global warming and supports a transition to clean, renewable energy should help to assure that climate change deniers do not govern this country.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Selective Scientist

Dr. Ben Carson, one of many Republicans running for President, is a neurosurgeon.  During his medical training, he learned the principles of biochemistry, physiology, pathology and medical technology, among other scientific disciplines.  We also know that he is an avid user of Twitter and that he strongly supports the military, replete with its sophisticated instruments of war; both of these industries are based on technical knowledge gained through advances in physics and electronics.

Yet, this avowed scientist, in accordance with his extreme religious beliefs, does not accept scientific evidence related to evolution and the origin of our Universe.  Even more disturbing, he believes that such evidence, which contradicts simplistic Bible stories, reflects satanic influence.

There is little doubt that presidential candidates embellish their religious faith in order to gain favor with segments of the American public.  But Dr. Carson represents a worrisome trend in the Republican Party, a willingness to back science that supports their goals and to trash science (e.g. climatology) that threatens those who fund their political programs and candidates.  While I have previously expressed my opposition to the candidacy of Donald Trump, the prospect of having Dr. Carson in the Oval Office is far more alarming; the war on science education, conducted by religious zealots, must not be headquartered in the White House.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

All Quiet in Duckland

After two weeks in Florida we're back in Missouri and, when I'm in Missouri, Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area is where I like to be.  After all, this is early November, long the peak of the fall waterfowl migration; in addition, as a cold front descends on our State, cool, overcast, showery weather has enveloped the region, ideal for waterfowl watching.

It was thus with optimism that I approached the Missouri River floodplain this morning, expecting to see a wide variety of ducks, hopefully joined by migrant sandhill cranes, American white pelicans and even some early geese.  Unfortunately, though the refuge was inviting with its late autumn colors, the lakes, pools and sloughs were relatively devoid of waterfowl; except for hundreds (if not thousands) of American coot, which foraged in the marshy shallows, I saw only a few small flocks of mallards and gadwalls.  A lone northern pintail joined these ducks and distant flocks of blue-winged teal wheeled above the floodplain.  As usual, bald eagles, great blue herons, red-tailed hawks and northern harriers were observed but no cranes or pelicans were present.

A delayed autumn waterfowl migration is becoming an annual phenomenon, perhaps related to global warming.  While songbirds migrate in response to the light cycle, waterfowl move southward when food becomes scarce or when ponds and wetlands begin to freeze; neither has yet to occur this year.  Within a few decades, we birders may have to travel north to observe migrant geese, ducks and cranes.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge

The Hiwassee River rises in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northeast Georgia, flows northward into North Carolina and then angles WNW, eventually merging with the Tennessee River northeast of Chattanooga; the Ocoee River of Georgia and Tennessee is a major tributary of the Hiwassee.

At its junction with the Tennessee River, the Hiwassee harbors the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, 6000 acres of water and land that attracts the largest population of wintering, migrant sandhill cranes in the southeastern U.S.; whooping cranes may also be observed on the refuge.  Migrant sandhill cranes of eastern North America breed near James Bay and the Great Lakes, using the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwestern Indiana as a staging area before flying to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge; while some move on to Florida (joining permanent residents there), 14,000 or more cranes winter at or near the Hiwassee Refuge.  The cranes start to arrive in late October and begin to depart in February; peak numbers generally occur in January.  While the refuge is closed to visitors from mid November through February, an observation deck along the southern edge of the preserve (off Highway 60) is open to visitors year-round.

This morning, on our journey back to Missouri, we stopped by the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge.  Unfortunately, foggy conditions limited visibility and, worse yet, not a single crane was observed or heard.  Clearly, the cranes are a bit tardy this year and we'll try again on a mid-winter trip through the area.  Nature offers no guarantees!

Monday, November 2, 2015

A Massive Flock of Frigatebirds

Looking out across Sarasota Bay this morning, I saw a large flock of dark birds soaring above the main channel.  Though I initially mistook them for turkey vultures, some of the birds began to dive and I grabbed my binoculars for a closer look.  As it turned out, they were magnificent frigatebirds in a congregation far larger than I have ever encountered in the past.

After nesting in colonies on oceanic islands, primarily south of the U.S., magnificent frigatebirds move northward along the coasts of Florida during the warmer months.  There they are usually seen alone, in pairs or in small groups, often harassing gulls, terns, pelicans and ospreys to steal their catch.  These agile fliers also glean small fish, shrimp, baby sea turtles and a host of marine invertebrates from the surface of the water and are known to grab seabird nestlings from mangroves or beaches.

Should they come across a large concentration of prey (often signaled by the feeding activity of dolphins, gannets or pelicans) they may congregate in large flocks to join the feast.  I suspect this morning's sighting was such an event, drawing in hundreds of frigatebirds from the Gulf of Mexico and adjacent areas of the Bay.

Lizards for Breakfast

Florida's anoles, the pet store lizards that many of us owned as children, are abundant at our condo complex on Longboat Key.  They climb on the screens, scale the palms and lounge on the railings at the pool.  But their life in paradise is not without its dangers.

Yesterday morning, I watched as a great egret made his way along the bay side of our building, moving at a snail's pace and swaying his long neck and head, mimicking the movement of the foliage.  Every few steps, he stopped to survey the shrubs, patiently stalking his victims.  With lightning fast jabs, he would snare the hapless anoles, rarely missing his target; I watched as four of the lizards were swallowed whole, still squirming before disappearing down the long slide to the egret's stomach.

As ospreys fished on the bay and squadrons of brown pelicans passed overhead, the elegant hunter continued his calm, steady pursuit of the agile lizards.  For many, it would be their last morning in the bright Florida sun.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Visitor from the Plains

Two days ago, while driving southward through Longboat Key, Florida, I observed a male scissor-tailed flycatcher, sitting on a power line.  Though I have seen this bird many times across the Great Plains, this was the first time I encountered one in the Sunshine State.

Indeed, scissor-tailed flycatchers are common summer residents of the Southern Plains, from Kansas and western Missouri to Texas and northern Mexico.  While the great majority winter in Mexico and Central America, a relatively small population travels to South Florida and the Bahamas for the colder months.  This latter group is known to wander widely during their autumn migration, turning up almost anywhere in the Southeastern U.S.

Frankly, this elegant flycatcher, sporting a long, forked tail, seems to be more at home in Florida among the other colorful species of subtropical wetlands.  Yet, he is better known across the hot, semiarid terrain of the Southern Plains, where trees are sparse and water usually arrives in widely spaced torrents.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Shorebird Diversity in Florida

Birders who visit Florida's beaches during the autumn months enjoy a changing mix of shorebirds.  By mid summer, permanent residents are joined by the first "autumn" migrants, arriving from their breeding grounds across the Arctic tundra and Northern Plains; various species continue to arrive through early November and shorebird diversity peaks during the winter months.

When we arrived on Longboat Key last week, permanent residents, including willets, piping plovers and ruddy turnstones, mingled with sanderlings, short-billed dowitchers and black-bellied plovers, down from the north.  Early this week, flocks of red knots began to appear and, yesterday, a few dunlins foraged on the beach.  Other species, such as long-billed dowitchers, semipalmated plovers and western sandpipers are surely in the area but have yet to cross my path; still others, including spotted  and least sandpipers, whimbrels, marbled godwits, yellowlegs and American avocets prefer tidal mudflats and wetlands and are not generally observed on the beach.

The mixed shorebird flocks will begin to thin out in April as the earliest spring migrants depart for the north.  By late May, only permanent residents and non-breeding juveniles (which may remain on their wintering grounds until sexually mature) are found on the beaches of the Sunshine State.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Trash in the Mangroves

My wife and I bought two small kayaks with which to explore Sarasota Bay; this afternoon, we cruised around two mangrove islands that sit offshore of our condo.  En route, we encountered the usual mix of bay birds, dominated by ospreys, brown pelicans, least terns, laughing gulls, double-crested cormorants and white ibis; we also observed more upside-down jellyfish and were amazed by the large number of striped mullet that jumped near our kayaks.

Unfortunately, we also encountered a fair amount of trash, collecting in the roots of the red mangrove trees on the bay side of the islands.  Plastic bottles, beer cans and styrofoam cups were most abundant but we also found a water-logged football and a relatively new life vest.  We probably spent a half hour or more filling our kayaks with the human generated flotsam.

No doubt, most fishermen and boaters respect natural ecosystems and make every effort to keep trash out of the bay.  On the other hand, there seems to be a sizable minority that are either careless or oblivious of the pollution that they generate.  Those of us who care about the health of aquatic ecosystems are certainly dismayed by their lack of concern and resent the damage inflicted by their discarded cups, cans and bottles.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Bull Sharks

Watching two manatees in our condo complex boat channel this morning, my wife and I were startled by a large fish that partly surfaced near the sea wall, its prominent dorsal fin slicing through the calm water.  I initially mistook it for a dolphin but it never surfaced to breathe and disappeared with no further sightings.

While its identity remains uncertain, I suspect it might have been a bull shark, a species that favors shallow coastal waters, bays and brackish river mouths.  Found across the globe, these sharks are able to live in both saltwater and freshwater habitats and have been found far upstream from the ocean (near the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in North America, for example).  Adults average 7-9 feet in length and generally weigh 300-400 pounds; however, much larger specimens have been encountered.  Breeding occurs in brackish waters, in late summer or fall, and females (which are larger than males) give birth to 4-12 free swimming young after a gestation period of almost a year.

Named for both their stocky build and aggressive behavior, bull sharks feed on a wide variety of aquatic animals, including fish, crabs, rays, sea turtles, small sharks, wading birds and aquatic mammals; they, in turn, may be victims of humans, larger sharks or saltwater crocodiles.  Since they favor shallow waters (and since they are especially aggressive), bull sharks likely account for more human shark bites than any other species.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Upside-Down Jellyfish

For the first time since purchasing our Longboat Key condo, I have observed upside-down jellyfish along the seawall of Sarasota Bay.  Long residents of Bermuda, the Caribbean and the Florida Keys, these unusual jellies began appearing in the Bay over the past decade, perhaps due to warming sea temperatures though nutrient availability (related to human activity) may play a role.

Unlike most jellyfish, that feed and breed in the open ocean waters, upside-down jellyfish, also known as mangrove jellyfish, attach themselves to the bottom in shallow waters.  Their flattened bell has a central depression that serves as a suction cup to prevent detachment when waves or currents rake the shallows.  Four branched arms, festooned with short, thick tentacles reach up into the water, filtering plankton on which the jellyfish feeds.  Upside-down jellies also have a symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic algae that color their tentacles and provide an additional source of food (carbohydrates) for their host; it is this relationship that explains the behavior of these jellyfish, ensuring adequate sun exposure for the algae.

The upside-down jellies tend to congregate at human-distrubed sites but there is some concern that their blooms may adversely impact coral reefs, seagrass communities and other benthic ecosystems.  They, in turn, are fed on by a variety of marine creatures, including sunfish and leatherback sea turtles.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Humans and the Sea

Walking on the beach at sunset last evening, waves gently lapping the shore, it occurred to me that the calming effect of the sea is buried deep in our collective DNA.  No doubt, the first humans to reach the ocean experienced the same sense of tranquility, a connection that may stem from the evolution of life itself.  After all, our genes are the offspring of ancient marine life, nourished and protected by the sea.

Like the sanderlings that scurried before us last evening, we remain dependent on the oceans, not only for the food that they provide but for atmospheric effects so vital to terrestrial ecosystems.  Though we may fear the sea, unable to survive in her realm without the benefit of ships and specialized equipment, we admire her beauty and respect her power.

Indeed, the sea's power is manifest as I write this blog.  Hurricane Patricia, having reached an intensity heretofore unrecorded in the Western Hemisphere, is pummeling Mexico and dropping torrential rain across southeast Texas and Louisiana; the sea may test our will but she gave us life.  Even those of us who prefer mountain landscapes yearn to come home at times; there we connect with our origin and unburden our soul.

Friday, October 23, 2015


Having traveled through the Peach State this week, it seems appropriate to consider the nature of that fruit.  Native to China, peaches were later introduced to Persia and were cultivated in the Mediterranean region during the Roman Empire.  Spanish explorers brought peaches to the Americas in the 1500s and the fruit was later taken back to northern Europe on English and French ships.

Since an annual period of cold weather is required for flowering, peach trees are best cultivated in the Temperate Zone.  Members of the rose family and the genus Prunus (which also includes other "drupes" such as plums, cherries, apricots and almonds), peaches and nectarines are variants of the same species; the fuzzy skin of peaches is a dominant genetic trait while the smooth skin of nectarines is a recessive trait.  Both peaches and nectarines may be of the clingstone or freestone variety, depending on whether the pulp clings to the seed husk or not; a large number of cultivars exist for both fruits, characterized by differences in size, color and taste.

Since peach trees flower in early spring (generally in March in the Temperate Zone of the U.S.), their blossoms often succumb to frost or a hard freeze in more northern portions or higher elevation regions of their cultivation range.  Indeed, the peach tree on our Littleton, Colorado, farm has only managed to produce fruit a few times in the past 25 years!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Crossing the Florida Peninsula

Following a lunch on the bank of the Indian River, near Melbourne, we drove west across the Florida peninsula, headed for our condo on Longboat Key.  Our route took us through the prairie lands south of Orlando, broken by flatwoods of pine, cabbage palm and live oak and by scattered lakes, creeks and wetlands.

Cattle egrets were abundant, feeding among the livestock or hunting insects in fallow fields.  Turkey and black vultures were also common, soaring above the prairies and feasting on roadside carrion.  I saw a couple dozen sandhill cranes, generally in pairs or small flocks, and a squadron of glossy ibis passed overhead.  Other sightings included great blue herons, great egrets, white ibis, American kestrels and a few crested caracaras.

As we crossed Sarasota Bay, ospreys, brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants dominated the scene; a lone magnificent frigatebird was also observed.  In the coming days, many more species will be encountered on this fabulous barrier island; hopefully, a few unexpected visitors will be spotted among the usual cast of characters.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Down the Coastal Plain

After  a night in northwestern South Carolina, we drove southeastward through the State, crossing the Fall Line near Columbia; the later is the outer margin of the Southeastern Piedmont, where rivers leave the hard crystalline bedrock of the Piedmont and fall into the softer sediments of the Coastal Plain.  This geographic and geologic line can be traced from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Washington, DC, Richmond, Virginia, Raleigh, North Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina, Macon, Georgia and Montgomery, Alabama.

Heading south on Interstate 95, the highway was closed in by a pine-hardwood forest throughout most of South Carolina.  In southeastern Georgia and northeast Florida, numerous meandering rivers crossed beneath the Interstate, flanked by large tidal marshes.  We stopped for lunch in Savannah, Georgia, dining along the Savannah River before walking through the historic city and its beautiful "squares."  History buffs are clearly drawn to Savannah, as are architectural photographers and couples with small, fuzzy dogs (at least two or three per couple).

Further south, we enjoyed a walk along Jacksonville Beach, watching wind surfers and board surfers alike.  Gannets dove far offshore, brown pelicans skimmed the waves and large flocks of Wilson's plovers foraged on the beach, joined by small groups of willets; out on the city pier, dozens of ruddy turnstones scavenged the planks, oblivious of human fishermen that lined the railings.  Tomorrow we'll cross Florida to reach Longboat Key, choosing a route that maximizes our exposure to natural habitats (and their resident wildlife).

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Into the Blue Ridge

East of Chattanooga, Tennessee, US 64 leaves the Ridge and Valley Province and knifes into the Blue Ridge Mountains (the easternmost province of the Southern Appalachians).  After snaking past Lake Ocoee, the highway climbs along the Ocoee River where whitewater events took place during the 1996 Olympic Games.  Beyond the river, we turned south to intersect US 76 and drove eastward on that highway, traversing the scenic Blue Ridge landscape of northern Georgia; en route, we passed Brasstown Bald (4784 feet) to our south, the highest summit in the State.

North of Clayton, Georgia, we entered Black Rock Mountain State Park; winding up to the Visitor Center, which sits on the south side of the mountain at an elevation of 3446 feet, we enjoyed a spectacular view of the Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains, backed (to the south) by the rolling Piedmont.  Hiking a portion of the Tennessee Rock Trail, we then enjoyed equally impressive views of the North Carolina Blue Ridge to the north and reached the summit of Black Rock Mountain (3640 feet).  Of special interest, the Eastern Continental Divide crosses this State Park, the highest in Georgia.

Further south, at Tallulah Falls, Georgia, we visited Tallulah Gorge State Park, where the river has carved a spectacular chasm through the ancient granite.  A fine network of trails, stairways and a suspension bridge, provide access to the beautiful gorge, which harbors five waterfalls; unfortunately, the serenity of the gorge is diminished by traffic on US 441 that curves past its south rim.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Planned Detour

Over the next few days, we will drive down to our condo on Longboat Key, off Sarasota, Florida.  Having used the standard Interstate routes on numerous occasions, we plan a detour in southern Tennessee and northern Georgia, followed by a southerly route through eastern Georgia, South Carolina and eastern Florida.

In the north Georgia mountains, we intend to visit at least one of many State Parks, where several hours of hiking will temporarily disrupt our travel; since the remainder of the journey will cross a good deal of new terrain, more stops and detours are almost sure to follow.  After all, this longer route will probably be a one-time experience and the opportunity to explore certain sites may never come again.

On our journey through life, detours enrich the experience.  While some are planned, many are unexpected; though the latter may be aggravating, prolonging our journey and delaying our goal, they expose us to new people, interesting places and unique perspectives.  Life without detours is far less rewarding.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Give Me Reality

In this modern era, in which we communicate and conduct business in cyberspace, travel on GPS screens and visit exotic locations in the palm of our hand, we are advised that virtual reality (VR) will be the next great advance in human culture.

While I can foresee that VR might play an important role in the training of police, soldiers, pilots or surgeons and while the experience of using it might be akin to the thrill of amusement rides (minus the long lines and muscle shirts), I fail to see its benefit to human society as a whole.

We seem to be moving away from the joy of real life experiences, whether they be interpersonal relationships or interactions with the natural world.  Content with impersonal texts and on-screen entertainment, we seem to be losing our need for the very experiences that make us human.  As one who still prefers to engage with all forms of life, give me reality!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

North through the Ozarks

After a night in Joplin, I drove east on Interstate 44, entering the Missouri Ozarks; turning north at Lebanon, I crossed the rugged plateau and returned to Columbia.

The Missouri portion of the Ozarks is a plateau of Ordovician dolomite, lifted during the Pennsylvanian Period and dissected by a vast network of streams to produce a maze of ridges and valleys.  Known for numerous caves and springs, the Ozarks also offer broad ridgetop views, scenic cascades and clear, cool streams.  A host of State Parks and nature preserves are spaced across the plateau, providing access for hikers, naturalists, equestrians and fishermen.

This morning, autumn colors painted the woodlands, enhanced by a bright October sun.  Unfortunately, a billboard blight, common throughout Missouri, marred the natural beauty in some areas.  One would think that a State with such a fabulous diversity of natural ecosystems and an attractive network of parks and preserves would join the national movement to remove these gaudy ads from our roadsides; it's difficult to enjoy the scenery when the massive faces of realtors and insurance agents are grinning from the forest.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Arbuckle Mountains

About 15 miles north of Ardmore, Oklahoma, Interstate 35 leaves the rolling horse country of southern Oklahoma and climbs across a broad ridge, now topped by a wind farm.  Known as the Arbuckle Mountains, this ancient uplift is the erosional remnant of a tall mountain range that rose during the late Pennsylvanian and early Permian Periods, some 290 million years ago.

The core of the uplift, which is approximately 35 miles long and oriented ESE to WNW, is composed of Precambrian granite and gneiss, 1.4 billion years old.  Flanking this core are volcanic and sedimentary strata, deposited from the Cambrian to the Pennsylvanian Periods.  Permian sediments lap against the north edge of the Arbuckles while Cretaceous deposits abut the southern base of the ridge.

The highest elevations in the Arbuckle Mountains approach 1400 feet above sea level and are found near the western end of the range.  The Washita River, a tributary of Red River, slices through the ridge SSE of Davis, Oklahoma, producing limestone cliffs that tower 350 feet above the valley floor.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Exploring the Llano Estacado

Leaving Amarillo this morning, I drove southeastward on US 287, crossing the flat terrain of the Llano Estacado.  Quilted with irrigated cropfields and ranchlands, this vast plateau of Tertiary sediments also harbors a large number of shallow lakes and wetlands; on this sunny October morning, most of them were filled with waterfowl.  American coot and blue-winged teal were the dominant species, accompanied by flocks of white-faced ibis, American avocets and lesser yellowlegs; these same lakes also attract wintering sandhill cranes (especially in southern and western regions of the plateau).

At Claude, Texas, I turned south on Route 207.  Within fifteen miles or so, the road begins to descend through Palo Duro Canyon, sculpted by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River.  Private property lines the highway and, unfortunately, few pulloffs are available; nevertheless, I managed to take plenty of photos and did some birding during my visit.  Highlights of the latter included loggerhead shrikes, scissor-tailed flycatchers and a large flock of scaled quail.  Those wanting to hike in the canyon are advised to visit Palo Duro Canyon State Park, east of Canyon, Texas (south of Amarillo).

After leaving the canyon, I continued south on 207 to Silverton, passing Mackenzie Reservoir, in Tule Creek Canyon, along the way.  East of that town, I angled ENE on Route 256, soon descending through the Caprock Escarpment of the Llano Estacado; a picnic area atop the escarpment offers spectacular views of the cliffs and of the rolling plains to the east.  About twenty miles east of the escarpment, Highway 256 crosses the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River once again, now hemmed in by more greenery than was present in the canyon and backed by the distant edge of the Llano Estacado.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

In Nostalgic Terrain

Having lived a good portion of my life in Metro Denver, the landscape of northern and central Colorado has become very familiar over the years.  However, the terrain of southern Colorado and New Mexico still ignites nostalgia in my soul since it was there that I first experienced the Mountain West, way back in my twenties.

Today, those feelings were rekindled as I crossed the Huerfano River Valley, south of Pueblo.  To my NNW was Greenhorn Mountain, at the southern end of the Wet Mountains, while, to my SSW were the majestic pyramids of the Spanish Peaks, massive plutons that rose in the Tertiary Period.  To the west of those peaks I could see the high wall of the Culebra Range (a segment of the Sangre de Cristo Range) and, to my immediate west, Blanca Peak (a "fourteener") poked above mountains in the foreground; stopping to take photos, I was greeted by a golden eagle that soared above the valley and a flock of mountains bluebirds that had descended from higher terrain.  Further south, as I approached Trinidad, the squared top of Fisher Peak anchored the Raton Mesa, a basalt coated ridge that runs eastward to the Oklahoma Panhandle.  After crossing Raton Pass (elevation about 8500 feet), I drove eastward along the base of the Raton Mesa, encountering many other volcanic formations across northeastern New Mexico; among these were Capulin Mountain, a large cinder cone protected as a National Monument, and Sierra Grande (8720 feet high), an extinct shield volcano.  I passed the final volcanic landform (Rabbit Ears Mountain) at Clayton before heading southeastward across the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle.

Though I had not crossed this terrain in many years, little seemed to have changed (except the growth of both Trinidad and Raton).  Those interested in the geology of this region might want to check out The Raton Basin.

Friday, October 9, 2015

From Denver to Dallas

Over the next two days, I will be traveling from Denver to Dallas.  Though plans can and do change due to unforeseen complications or opportunities, I currently expect to take the following route.

From Metro Denver, I will climb southward through the Plum Creek Valley (a tributary of the South Platte), cross the Palmer Divide and then descend through the Fountain Creek Valley (adjacent to the Rampart Range and the Pike's Peak massif) to its junction with the Arkansas River, in Pueblo.  Another gradual climb along Interstate 25 (passing the Wet Mountains, Spanish Peaks and Culebra Range) will lead to Raton Pass, where I will enter New Mexico and the watershed of the Canadian River.  At Raton, I intend to turn eastward, crossing the Tertiary volcanic landscape of northeast New Mexico, and will then angle southeastward to Dalhart, Dumas and Amarillo; just south of the Canadian River (north of Amarillo), the highway ascends the north escarpment of the Llano Estacado, a vast High Plains plateau of West Texas and eastern New Mexico.  After dropping through the Caprock Escarpment of that plateau, I plan to parallel the Red River to Wichita Falls before angling southeastward to Dallas.

Though I have crossed most of this landscape a number of times, one never knows what sightings might occur along the way; such is the nature of road trips.  Details of my adventure will be offered in coming posts.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Too Nice to Leave

Our Littleton farm sits on the west wall of the South Platte Valley, less than a mile from the scenic floodplain and several miles from rugged canyons of the Front Range foothills; within an hour's drive, we can explore mountain forests and alpine tundra.  Despite these magnificent nearby ecosystems, it was just too nice to leave the farm today.

Sunny skies, warm temperatures (low 70s F) and a gentle breeze kept me on the property where autumn colors now adorn the landscape.  While the farm maintains itself at this time of year, I managed to find a few chores to address and otherwise potted around our three acre refuge.  I wasn't alone; the calls of magpies, flickers, blue jays and collared doves echoed across the farm, chickadees and bushtits twittered in the hedgerows, cottontails scampered across the drying pastures, our lone spotted towhee scratched in the leaf litter and flocks of robins fed in the junipers, not yet having to compete with wintering solitaires and roaming flocks of waxwings.  Even fellow humans likely peered down from above as a parade of commercial airliners drifted NNE toward DIA.

My decision to hang out on the farm was also influenced by my shortened visit.  While I usually stay for weeks or even months, I have plans to visit friends in Dallas on my return journey to Missouri and will thus be leaving this weekend.  More on that side trip in the coming days.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Human Imagination

Endowed with a large brain, we humans have long been governed by our imagination, for better and for worse.  Early man, exploring his environment, imagined powerful beings that ruled the forces of nature; such mysticism, ingrained in our species, has surfaced as religious faith in modern society.

On the other hand, imagination also propelled humans across the globe and fed the major cultural revolutions: domestication and cultivation, industrialization and the advance of science and technology; in effect, it has taken us from the Stone Age to the Space Age.  Of course, it has also spawned artistic expression (art, music, dance, film and literature) and athletic competition throughout human history.

Indeed, our imagination is a double-edged sword, fueling both science and mysticism, incompatible elements of human culture.  Whether we put our faith in the scientific method or allow mysticism to derail its influence will determine the future of our species and the health of our planet.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Hazy Sunshine in the Valley

Cool air and hazy sunshine enveloped the South Platte Valley this morning.  Both were products of an upslope flow, triggered by a center of low pressure as it creeped eastward along the Colorado-New Mexico border; counterclockwise winds around the low swept Gulf moisture toward the Front Range, forcing the air to rise and cooling it to its dew point.

Down at South Platte Park, in Littleton, I took my usual hike around Eaglewatch Lake, including a short walk along the river.  Waterfowl species were limited, not yet hinting of the large congregations that will descend on the Park later in the month.  Double-crested cormorants were most common, lounging on a log at the south end of the lake or fishing in the calm, blue waters.  Ducks were represented by mallards, wood ducks and hooded mergansers; a few pied-billed grebes dove from the surface and a lone horned grebe hunted at the north end of the lake.  While a few ring-billed gulls settled on the water, no Canada geese were encountered during my hike, a rare experience during any season and one that will be impossible within a few weeks (their Front Range population triples during the colder months of the year).

The upslope flow intensified throughout the day, culminating in bands of thunderstorms by late afternoon.  Given the dry conditions on our Littleton farm, the rain was more than welcome.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Ferrets Reintroduced in Denver

Returning to Colorado today, I learned that my arrival coincided with the introduction of 30 black-footed ferrets at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, in northeast Denver.  Renowned as the most endangered mammal in North America, black-footed ferrets were thought to have become extinct by the 1970s (due to habitat loss, disease and the removal of prairie dog colonies) until a colony of ferrets was discovered in Meeteetse, Wyoming, in 1981 (thanks to the scavenging activity of a farm dog).

Since 1986, a captive breeding program, coordinated by the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center near Carr, Colorado, has been conducted at the Center and at a number of zoos across the country.  Beginning in 1991, ferrets were reintroduced to the Shirley Basin of Wyoming, followed by sites in Montana and South Dakota; later, colonies were reintroduced in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Saskatchewan and Mexico.  To date, more than 1000 black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced to their former range; breeding success has been documented within some of the colonies but close monitoring continues.

Once a production center for munitions, chemical weapons and insecticides, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal was selected as a Superfund Cleanup Site and has since become an urban National Wildlife Refuge, hemmed in by Metro Denver and the Denver International Airport.  Plenty of shortgrass prairie and large colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs make the refuge an ideal location for the ferrets; the latter are solitary, nocturnal hunters, known to feed almost exclusively on prairie dogs (supplemented on occasion by mice and ground squirrels).  Members of the weasel family, black-footed ferrets are the only ferret native to North America.

Data for this post was obtained from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Sunday, October 4, 2015

October Songbirds

Early October is a great time to observe backyard songbirds in the American Heartland.  Autumn migrants such as warblers, vireos and flycatchers are still passing through on their journey to the south and most summer residents (gray catbirds, brown thrashers, ruby-throated hummingbirds, indigo buntings, Baltimore orioles, house wrens and chimney swifts, among others) have yet to depart for their wintering grounds.

Of course, permanent residents, including blue jays, northern cardinals, flickers, downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers, mourning doves, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, Carolina wrens, house finches, American goldfinches and black-capped chickadees add to the variety and will soon be joined by winter residents and visitors (dark-eyed juncos, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows, fox sparrows, red-breasted nuthatches, brown creepers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers, to name a few).  Finally, cedar waxwings, those colorful and polite nomads, are especially prone to visit during this glorious month.

Best of all, the cool, sunny weather of October invigorates these songbirds, making them more active and conspicuous.  So too does it enhance the experience of birders, drawn outside to enjoy the pleasant weather and rewarded with a wonderful diversity of avian life.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

East Coast Flooding

Heavy rain and flooding are occurring along the East Coast of the U.S., primarily from South Carolina to the Mid-Atlantic States; this deluge, expected to persist for the next two days, is triggered by three atmospheric factors.

First of all, the leading edge of an atmospheric trough lies along the East Coast; cool, dry air behind this stationary front knifes beneath the warm, moist air ahead of the trough, producing lift.  Secondly, a dome of high pressure sits over the North Atlantic, east of Nova Scotia; clockwise winds swirl around this high, sweeping Atlantic moisture toward the East Coast.  Finally, as Hurricane Joaquin moves NNE, paralleling the coast, its counterclockwise winds will augment the onshore flow.

These three factors are expected to produce copious rainfall throughout the Carolinas, perhaps totaling more than eighteen inches in some areas; significant but lesser amounts of rain are forecast for the Mid-Atlantic region to southern New England.  Heavy rains in the mountains (most likely to occur in northern South Carolina) may be especially destructive, unleashing mudslides and valley floods.  In addition to the torrential rain, wind driven waves are expected to cause beach erosion and coastal flooding throughout the region.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Pelican Pool at Eagle Bluffs

On this bright, crisp morning, I headed down to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River floodplain.  Near the entrance, a barred owl sat on a powerline, a potential omen that birding would be productive at the refuge.

Alas, an armada of tractors and trucks was harvesting the corn crop and initial sightings were limited to turkey vultures, great blue herons, killdeer, eastern bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds and a lone bald eagle.  Further south however, away from the human activity, birds were more numerous, including flocks of American coot and blue-winged teal; a few pied billed grebes and double-crested cormorants were also observed and great egrets fed with the more numerous great blue herons.

Scattered flocks of American white pelicans also graced southern portions of the refuge, lounging on sandbars or moving between the lakes and pools.  Just before I left, the pelicans began to congregate on a single, elongated pool, apparently drawn by fishing activity of the first group to arrive.  Within ten minutes or so, several hundred pelicans were crowding the pool, ducking their bills to scoop up prey and driving competitors (egrets and herons) from the shallows.  The intense activity died down as rapidly as it developed and the pelicans dispersed across the refuge; soon they'll be joining their brown cousins on saltwater bays along the Gulf Coast, from Florida to Texas.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Catbirds in the Pokeweed

We have a large "crop" of pokeweed on our Missouri property this year and, over the past few days, gray catbirds have emerged from their woodland retreats to feed on the purple-black berries.  Usually seen alone or in pairs, at least a dozen catbirds were feasting in the stand today, joined by a large flock of cedar waxwings; indeed, though I have been a birder for almost forty years, this was the largest congregation of gray catbirds that I have ever encountered.

Perhaps the catbirds have already established a flock in preparation for their migration; then again, two or three families may have been attracted to the same patch of pokeweed.  In either case, the berries will soon be consumed and they'll move on, eventually heading to the Gulf Coast for the winter.

Nature watching often provides new and unexpected experiences, even for veteran naturalists.  While we may be intimately familiar with certain plants and animals in our environment, we occasionally encounter them in new settings or under new circumstances.  Today's assembly of gray catbirds was a fascinating discovery, even after decades of birding.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Papal Hoopla

During our recent travels, I would check in with the Celebrity News Network (that is what the initials stand for, isn't it?) to catch up on world news.  Almost without exception, the reports were focused on Pope Francis and his visit to Cuba and the United States.

There is little doubt, from what I have learned, that the Pope is a kind, humble and generous man; his comments on tolerance and his devotion to the poor and disenfranchised add to his positive image.  Of course, as a naturalist, I am also pleased that he has expressed concern about global warming and its disproportionate effects on impoverished populations.

On the other hand, his Church, and organized religion in general, have been responsible for a great deal of human suffering throughout recorded history.  Even Pope Francis, admired by most Catholics and many non-Catholics alike, will not likely alter Church dogma when it comes to gay marriage, women's rights, contraception and other important social issues; neither has he adequately addressed the scourge of sexual abuse among his legions.  To win my support, he would have to admit that organized religion is a divisive force in human society and that our focus should be on kindness, cooperation and generosity, not on rituals, ancient scripture and entrenched dogma.  Unfortunately, I don't expect that to happen.

Monday, September 28, 2015

From Huron to Door County

U.S. 2, from St. Ignace to Rapid River, Michigan, is a beautiful highway.  Paralleling the north shore of Lake Michigan, it offers spectacular views of the lake (often from convenient pull-offs and roadside parks) and passes through scenic woodlands and wetlands.  The towns are clean and inviting and Manistique, about halfway along the journey, entices visitors with a paved path and boardwalk that stretches along the marshy lakeshore.

Turning south along the northwest edge of Lake Michigan, the highway is not as scenic.  Larger cities and private lakeshore properties limit views of the water and only a few county parks provide access to the beaches.  At Green Bay, Wisconsin, we curved eastward to Door County, a long peninsula that juts between the bay and the open waters of Lake Michigan; it is also a component of the Silurian Rim that we have followed from the Bruce Peninsula of Ontario.

Door County is a landscape of rustic farms, orchards and woodlands, many harboring billboard ads for wineries, antique shops, fruit markets and lakeside inns.  The towns offer a mix of upscale shops, restaurants, lodges, galleries and, as one might expect, marinas.  Since our stay was short, we had little opportunity to explore the varied State and County Parks of Door County; however, we did visit (and highly recommend) Cave Point County Park, south of Jacksonport, where waves sculpt the dolomite cliffs, and Whitefish Dunes State Park, just to its south, where trails lead through a scenic and fragile ecosystem.  Later in the day, we had lunch along the river in Milwaukee, which (of course) sits atop the Silurian dolomite that rims the Michigan Basin.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Cup and Saucer Trail

Reported to be one of the most popular hiking trails in Ontario, the Cup and Saucer Trail climbs onto the Niagara Escarpment on Manitoulin Island, about 14 miles SSW of Little Current; the trail head is off Bidwell Road, just east of Route 540.  The entire trail network is 12 km in length while the hike describe below is approximately 5.5 km roundtrip; visitors should be aware that two sections of the trail are especially steep and rugged.

The primary trail, marked with white blazes, climbs onto the ridge of Silurian dolomite to offer spectacular views east and north of the escarpment cliffs; a vast northwoods spreads out below the ridge, broken by Lake Manitou and several smaller lakes.  Near the East Overlook, a side trail (blazed with blue) leads westward to the other side of the ridge; there, one enjoys broad views of the North Channel and its component bays, backed (to the north) by the La Cloche Range.  The latter chain of white rock hills is composed of Precambrian quartzite, some 3.5 billion years old (among the oldest rocks on our planet); the hills represent the eroded base of a massive mountain range that once crossed this portion of Ontario.

Leaving Manitoulin Island, we headed west to Sault Ste. Marie and crossed into the U.S.; there we watched two large ships pass through the Soo Locks.  We then drove south to St. Ignace, Michigan, where our motel room offers a fabulous view across Lake Huron to Mackinac Island.  Tomorrow we'll  resume our journey along the Silurian Rim, exploring the north shore of Lake Michigan.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Across the Blue Desert to Manitoulin

Early this afternoon, my wife and I left Tobermory, Ontario, headed for Manitoulin Island via ferry.  Sitting on the upper deck of the large ship, we watched as the islands of Fathom Five National Park receded in the distance.

Crossing the broad channel between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, I was reminded of American desert landscapes, where flat, seemingly lifeless terrain is broken by islands of life (mountains in our western deserts, forested islands on the Great Lakes).  While life teems beneath the waves, there is little to observe from above; unlike coastal ocean waters, where whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions and a wide variety of seabirds may be encountered, only the occasional gull, loon or cormorant was seen on the blue expanse of the channel.

Ninety minutes after leaving Tobermory, our peaceful journey ended and we docked on Manitoulin Island, the largest island of a freshwater lake on Earth.  Heading toward Little Current, we took a short side trip to Bridal Veil Falls on the Kagawong River, which empties into Mudge Bay of the North Channel; the cascade, protected within a nature preserve, was definitely worth a visit.  After a night in in Little Current, we plan to hike the Cup and Saucer Trail (some 14 miles SSW of town) before moving on to Sault Ste. Marie.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Flowerpot Island & Dyer's Bay

Yesterday, we joined a horde of other tourists and boarded a boat for Flowerpot Island, a few miles off the coast of Tobermory, Ontario.  En route, the pilot took us over the remnants of two sunken ships (there are 22 within the boundaries of Fathom Five National Park) and past several of the islands that lie across the channel between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.  Dropped off on Flowerpot Island for two hours, we joined a parade along the popular coastal trail that provides access to the Large and Small Flowerpot formations (dolomite stacks that eroded from the adjacent cliffs), a large recessed cave and the lighthouse overlook; we returned to the dock via a rocky path that climbs across higher terrain (and is thus avoided by most visitors).

Today, seeking a less crowded venue, we headed south of the National Parks and hiked along segments of the Bruce Trail atop the dolomite cliffs that line Dyer's Bay (a coastal portion of Georgian Bay).  There we enjoyed spectacular vistas, two secluded rock formations (Michigander's Arch and the Devil's Monument) and a walk along the rocky shore; we also appreciated the solitude, far from the tourist crowds in the Parks.

Such is the nature of ecotourism.  Popular sites, designated Parks and equipped with manicured trails and comfort facilities, are often congested with tourists; though they often harbor some of the most spectacular landscape on the planet, it is difficult to enjoy their ecosystems amidst throngs of fellow humans.  For those who care to do a bit of investigation, comparable landscapes, accessible to the public, can be explored in relative solitude; such locations include most (though not all) wilderness areas, national wildlife refuges, conservation areas and federal lands.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Bruce Peninsula National Park

Bruce Peninsula National Park stretches across the northern portion of the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, Canada.  The Park encompasses a wide variety of ecosystems, from sandy shores and dunes along Lake Huron to magnificent dolomite cliffs along Georgian Bay.  More than 20 species of fern colonize the Park which also harbors ancient cedars and 43 species of orchid.  Among the animal residents are black bears, martens, porcupines and eastern massasauga rattlesnakes.

On our first hike of the day, we parked along Cyprus Lake and climbed to the bayside cliffs where erosion has produced Boulder Beach, the Grotto and Indian Head Cove, some of the most popular natural features in the Park.  Our second hike took us along Dorcas Bay on the Lake Huron (west) side of the Peninsula, where inland dunes and wetlands harbor a wide variety of rare and threatened plants.

Once again, wildlife was rather sparse on our hikes, represented primarily by common forest songbirds and red squirrels (also known as chickarees); Canada geese, ring-billed gulls, red-breasted mergansers and double-crested cormorants were observed on the lakes and bays.  A special sighting was that of a green snake; sunning himself on a trail, he escaped to the adjacent foliage as we approached.

Monday, September 21, 2015

North into Autumn

After spending the night in Port Huron, Michigan, we crossed into Canada and zigzagged northward across the Bruce Peninsula.  Crossing a landscape of scenic farmlands, wetlands and wind farms, we visited sandy beaches along Lake Huron and limestone cliffs along the coves and sounds of Georgian Bay.

Wildlife was rather sparse on our journey, dominated by Canada geese on the farmlands, ring-billed gulls at the marinas and flocks of red-breasted mergansers on the bays and inlets.  During a brief stop at Bruce Peninsula National Park, we climbed an observation tower that offers a spectacular panorama, especially of the islands within the Fathom Five National Marine Park, north and west of Tobermory (more on that Park later in the week).

Throughout this pleasantly cool, sunny day, we watched as autumn colors intensified on our northward journey.  Leaving summer in eastern Michigan, we entered a new season in Ontario, one that will surely energize our hikes and travels in the days to come.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Off to the Silurian Rim

This afternoon, my wife and I will leave Cincinnati and head northward across the Glacial Plain of western Ohio.  In northern Ohio, we'll cross the Silurian Rim of the Michigan Basin, buried deep beneath glacial till.

Our eventual destination is the Bruce Peninsula of Ontario, Canada, where Silurian dolomite outcrops between the waters of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.  There we'll stay in a Bed and Breakfast near the northern tip of the peninsula and spend a week exploring the trails and rocky shores of the Bruce Peninsula National Park and adjacent areas.

We then plan to follow the Silurian Rim across the northern coast of Lakes Huron and Michigan and down through the Door County peninsula of Wisconsin.  More on our adventures and discoveries in the coming days.