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.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Algal Bloom on the Ohio

In Cincinnati for a wedding this weekend, I learned that the largest algal bloom in recorded history has developed on the Ohio River.  Five hundred miles long, from Wheeling, West Virginia, to Louisville, Kentucky, a layer of blue-green algae on the river's surface is threatening wildlife and humans alike; toxins from the algae can induce a variety of ailments from mild rashes to liver damage.  Fortunately, modern water treatment systems are capable of removing both the algae and the toxins, so the water supply of the larger cities is unaffected.

Algae blooms generally develop when water is nutrient-rich, excessively warm and relatively stagnant. In this case, nutrients are supplied by agricultural run-off and wastewater effluent; summer heating and relatively low rainfall throughout the Ohio River watershed has provided the warm, sluggish water.  According to local hydrologists, the river flow is currently less that 0.25 mph (normal rates for this time of year range from 0.5 to 1.0 mph).

Depending on regional weather conditions, the massive algal bloom is expected to dissipate within a few weeks as the weather cools; of course, heavy rains in the Ohio Valley would also serve to disperse the algae.  Until then, residents of towns and cities along the Ohio are advised to stay out of the river; unfortunately, wildlife species do not receive such a warning.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Music People

Almost all humans enjoy music of some kind.  After all, it is the universal language of our species.

Some of us, however, might be described as "music people."  We appreciate a variety of genres and prefer to have background music for most of our activities, including reading and studying; indeed, I have I-tunes playing as I write this post.  Granted the convenience of modern technology, we are able to enjoy music without the interruption of commercials or chatty DJs (and without changing the record or CD every half hour).

For most of us, music is relaxing, inspiring and, for those of a certain age, nostalgic.  Some prefer songs with lyrics, words that speak to our joys and sorrows.  Others lean toward instrumentals, stirred by the melody and its rhythm, whether classical, jazz, rock or some other genre.  While many think of music as just a form of entertainment, a diversion from the trials and responsibilities of life, music people accept it as a vital part of life; indeed, it is one of humanity's few gifts to the planet, partial compensation for the damage that we inflict.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

An Attractive Killer

A large Cooper's hawk (likely a female) has been hanging around our neighborhood for the past few days.  Strafing the trees to snare victims, the accipiter's presence has caught the attention of a blue jay posse, determined to evict her from their territory.

Larger and heavier cousins of the sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper's hawks are also identified by the rounded end of their long, banded tail.  They favor large to medium sized avian prey, zeroing in on flickers, jays, starlings, pigeons and doves; Coopers may also grab a squirrel on occasion.  Victims are killed by suffocation, squeezed in the hawk's powerful talons.

Permanent residents throughout most of the U.S., Cooper's hawks, like many raptors, are perhaps best observed during the colder months, when deciduous trees have dropped their leaves.  Of course, the barren trees also aid their hunting, making prey more visible and accessible.  Though once primarily a resident of forests, these attractive raptors have become increasingly common in suburban areas and wooded farmlands, likely attracted by songbirds at feeders and pigeons in barnyards.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Illness & Control

Once we are old enough (and mature enough) to be independent of our parents, we strive to have control in our life, a factor vital to our happiness and self-esteem.  We make personal decisions regarding our career, friendships, lifestyle and geographic location.  Should love strike, some personal control must yield to compromise but partners soon learn that granting each other a reasonable degree of freedom is essential to sustaining the relationship.

Unfortunately, our need for control may be challenged by external factors such as accidents, social upheaval and natural disasters.  At some point in our lives, almost all of us face serious medical illnesses and those that are life-threatening are especially prone to upend our sense of control.  While management plans often have a calming effect, the knowledge that unseen pathology is smoldering beneath the surface, likely to erupt at some point, threatens our self-confidence.  Treatment schedules and dietary restrictions disrupt our lifestyle and the effects of the disease, or of the medications used to treat it, alter our sense of well being.

By staying informed, adhering to a therapeutic regimen and developing contingency plans, we retain some degree of control.  Nevertheless, medicine is an inexact science and illnesses do not always unfold as expected.  More than the symptoms themselves, the loss of control in our life is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of disease, however mild or severe it might be.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

September Chill

The first significant chill of the season enveloped Columbia this morning; the overnight low was in the upper forties (F).  At Forum Nature Area, in the Hinkson Creek Valley, patchy fog covered the floodplain and steam rose from the seasonal lake.

Goldenrod, sunflowers, thistle and purple ironweed provided color amidst the fading greenery, which shimmered with dew in the bright September sun.  Invigorated by the morning chill, flocks of restless Canada geese circled above the refuge while barred owls called from the creekside woodlands.  Out on the misty lake, great blue and green herons stalked the shallows and noisy killdeer raced along the mudflats.

Humans seemed to enjoy this respite from muggy summer heat as much as the wildlife and a steady parade of visitors, most with their canine companions, moved along the graveled trail.  While more heat will surely invade the region, this morning's chill signals that summer is losing its grip on the Heartland. The glorious days of autumn lie ahead.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Killing a Toad

This morning, as I backed out of our driveway, I accidentally smashed a toad.  Not aware of the incident until I returned, some thirty minutes later, I was dismayed by the carnage.  It took a shovel and a hose to remove the carcass and its smeared contents from the cement.

Most humans are upset by the killing of wildlife unless it involves licensed hunting to control populations or to put food on the table.  Trophy hunting is deplored by the great majority of humans, a fact that became especially evident when a renowned lion was recently killed in Africa.  Even more upsetting is the poaching of wildlife to provide "therapeutic" benefits for misguided cultures across the globe.

Unfortunately, the accidental killing of wildlife along our roadways has become a rather common experience.  Though most of us slow down near wildlife crossings and make every safe effort to swerve past turtles, squirrels and other critters on the road, dead animals line our travel corridors.  Many shrug it off as a modern fact of life but some of us mourn their loss, especially when we were the agent of their demise.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

National Geographic & the Fox Empire

Most Americans who are middle aged or older (myself included) were first exposed to exotic cultures, endangered species and distant pristine ecosystems on the colorful pages of National Geographic Magazine.  More than an assembly of beautiful and inspiring photographs, the magazine has placed emphasis on the science of nature and on the importance of protecting our environment and conserving its diversity.  So too have National Geographic films taken us across the globe and into space, increasing our awareness of the complex natural history of our Universe.

I was thus dismayed (and frankly disappointed) to learn that National Geographic has accepted a financial lifeline from the Fox Media Corporation, the empire of Rupert Murdoch.  As we know, that network's flagship news channel is the mouthpiece of Evangelical Christians, Right-wing Republicans, Wall Street tycoons, fossil fuel proponents and climate change deniers.  While both organizations insist that the partnership is purely financial and that Fox executives will not influence the content of National Geographic programming, one wonders why an esteemed, nature-based society would team up with a corporation known for its anti-science rhetoric.

No doubt, competition is brutal when it comes to viewership and fund-raising.  Let's hope this arrangement does not taint the image or the fabulous work of the National Geographic Society.  In my opinion, it's better to downsize or to bow out gracefully than to survive by lending credence to an organization that has long ridiculed your message.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Religious Celebrity

Here in America, celebrity is obtained through various channels.  Many do so as entertainers, some as athletes and others as politicians.  Popes and bishops have long received celebrity status and, these days, public martyrs are joining the list.

Over the past week, a county clerk in Kentucky, though married multiple times herself, has become a public saint by denying marriage rights to gay partners.  Despite the recent ruling by the Supreme Court, sanctioning such rights throughout the country, this devout Christian clerk has proclaimed that, in light of her deep faith, she cannot respect that decision.  Rather than resign, she went to jail for contempt of court and has since been released.

Sensing a political opportunity, two Republican presidential candidates appeared on the scene, honored to be seen with this latest religious celebrity.  Never mind the fact that her faith-based decision denied rights to another group of Americans.  After all, religion is all about intolerance and discrimination.  Freedom of religion is their cause; to hell with freedom from religion!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Prey Survival Strategies

Having devoted yesterday's post to the nature of predators, I am inclined to give prey species their due. In their effort to survive and reproduce, the hunted (many of which are also hunters) have, through the relentless force of natural selection, adopted a wide range of traits and behaviors.  While speed, agility, strength and night vision are among the more common survival traits, they are not always sufficient.

Many prey species utilize some degree of camouflage to evade predators; their coats, feathers, skin or anatomic features blend with their natural environment, serving to hide them from hunters; some animals change color with the seasons while others, such as chameleons, can alter their color to match their surroundings.  Since some poisonous insects and amphibians have developed bright, colorful markings to warn potential predators of their toxicity, other nonpoisonous species have adopted similar markings to deflect the interest of predators.  Many prey animals congregate in large schools, flocks or herds to confuse predators and to increase the chance of survival for any given individual; others inhabit islands or nearly inaccessible terrain to avoid predation.

Finally, since the young are a common target of predators, parental (usually maternal) and community protection of eggs, larvae or newborn animals is a vital strategy in many species; some larger mammals, such as elephants and musk oxen, are especially effective in this regard.  If only all humans were as devoted to the welfare of their offspring!

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Nature of Predators

As the ecosystems of the Northern Hemisphere experience a shift from the warmer months to the colder months, predators gain an advantage.  Of course, predatory species have some traits that offer an advantage throughout the year.  Among the more obvious are anatomic features that aid in grasping prey such as long tongues, powerful jaws, sharp teeth, lethal venom and deadly pincers or claws.

Keen senses are certainly among the most important characteristics of predators.  Highly developed eyesight is shared by hunters such as mantids, dragonflies, spiders, lizards, raptors, seabirds, flycatchers and felines.  Sharks, snakes, bears and canines are renowned for their sense of "smell" while excellent hearing (including the use of echolocation) aids predation by owls, bats, fox and dolphins.

Finally, though predators are not always as large or as powerful as their prey, they are generally more intelligent.  This trait is vital when it comes to cooperative hunting, stalking and the use of tools to catch prey.  Wolves, wild dogs, lions, dolphins, whales, sea lions, corvids (jays, crows, ravens) and primates (including humans) are certainly included in this category.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Jumping Spiders

I often encounter jumping spiders on our back deck and enjoy watching them.  Identified by their small size, fuzzy appearance and prominent frontal eyes (they have 3 smaller pair as well), these "cute" arachnids stalk a variety of insects, some much larger than themselves.

Unlike many of their cousins, jumping spiders do not construct webs to snare prey; however, they may venture onto the webs of other spiders to snatch insects caught in the silk.  More often, these small predators hunt from a perch; from there they pounce on their prey or stalk victims before striking.  Venom is used to immobilize larger prey but generally causes only mild, local irritation in humans.  A hydraulic-like vascular system allows these spiders to jump up to 50 times their body length; when doing so, they usually release a "life-line" of silk to permit a quick retreat should they miss their quarry.  Silk is also used by females to encapsulate their eggs (which are attached to vegetation, rocks or human structures) and by both sexes to mark their den site.

More than 5000 species of jumping spider are found across the globe; while most live in tropical regions, about 300 species inhabit North America and some species are found high in mountainous ecosystems.  Though most species are diurnal carnivores, some feed on nectar as well.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Whale on the Sidewalk

Walking through campus this morning, I came across a dead cicada, lying on its back in the middle of the sidewalk.  For some reason, it reminded me of a dead whale, having settled on the floor of the sea.

Completing my usual loop, I passed the same location and my initial image was reinforced.  A colony of ants was swarming the dead cicada, just as hagfish congregate on the carcasses of dead cetaceans.  In both cases, the nutritious tissues are soon devoured or, in the case of ants, carted back to the colony's den for social consumption.  Slower degradation of bone and chitin will be left to bacteria, natural erosion and the work of more sluggish invertebrates.

While this incident (and my reaction to it) may seem rather trite, nature is replete with scenarios that mimic one another.  After all, the web of life in all ecosystems requires the participation of predators, primary consumers, producers, scavengers and recyclers.  If we care to look, we can observe each process in that cycle, whether we are strolling through our neighborhood or exploring the ocean floor.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Armadillos in Central Missouri

In my post The Armadillo Army, in 2012, I reported that nine-banded armadillos, native to Central America, had spread into southern Missouri and southern Kansas and were expanding northward across the Coastal Plain toward the mid Atlantic region.  While isolated sightings in mid Missouri have been reported since 2010, the armadillo population has increased significantly in recent years.

Over the past month, I have seen two dead armadillos along Interstate 70 (east and west of Columbia) and four others on roads within the city.  Mid summer is breeding season for nine-banded armadillos and this fact, combined with their nocturnal wanderings, may explain the recent spike in roadkills.

Not equipped to survive long periods of cold weather, armadillos along the I-70 corridor are surely pushing the northern limit of their range; indeed, we have had severe winter weather in recent years.  On the other hand, their continued northward expansion may be yet more evidence of our warming climate.  Perhaps another century of warming will take them into southern Canada!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Migration Season at Eagle Bluffs

Though summer heat still envelops Central Missouri, there are signs of a seasonal shift at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area.  On my visit to the floodplain yesterday, summer songbirds were still evident in the woodlands and the greenery, though fading, was not yet tinged by the hues of autumn.  Across the northern half of the preserve, little change was evident and wildlife was rather sparse; turkey vultures soared above the grasslands, a few great blue herons stalked the shallows and a lone bald eagle perched atop a wood duck box.

However, near the southern tip of the refuge, meandering pools and channels, flanked by mudflats, had attracted large flocks of great egrets and migrant shorebirds, soon to depart for southern climes; green herons fished along the shorelines and a small group of double-crested cormorants lounged on a sandbar.  Joining these migrants and summer residents were numerous killdeer, a large number of great blue herons, Canada geese, a few wood duck families, small flocks of mallards and a pair of belted kingfishers.

This seasonal shift will intensify in the coming weeks as flocks of blue-winged teal arrive on the floodplain, joined by an increasing number of cormorants and American white pelicans.  Coot, duck and grebe migrations will build through October and, as autumn chill deepens in November, the spectacle of migrant snow geese will grace the Missouri Valley.