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.