Showing posts from September, 2016

Migration Uptick at Eagle Bluffs

On this cool, sunny morning, the teal hunters had left Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area and so had the blue-winged teal.  On the other hand, a large flock of American white pelicans (175 by my count) had stopped by to rest and feed in the Missouri Valley, joined by the first flocks of American coot, a dozen or so cormorants and a fair number of pied-billed grebes.  Great egrets, seemingly spooked away by the hunters, have returned in large numbers, soon to head for southern climes.

Having passed the fall equinox and on the doorstep of October, we can expect an increasing number and diversity of migrant waterfowl through November.  Though global warming seems to have slowed the parade in recent years, birders and hunters hope for a good turnout by late autumn, perhaps including rare vagrants that often mingle with the common species.

Also anticipating those travelers are avian predators.  Four immature bald eagles surveyed the refuge this morning and a lone peregrine falcon streaked abov…

Cedar River Flooding

As of this morning, it appears that the Cedar River of eastern Iowa has crested at 22 feet in Cedar Rapids and should begin falling within 24 hours, sparing the city the widespread destruction that occurred in 2008.  If the levees hold through tomorrow, residents of Cedar Rapids can relax a bit, at least for this round of storms.

Following heaving precipitation across the Upper Midwest in August, the region received copious rain over the past week as storms trained from eastern Nebraska to central Wisconsin; the highest rainfall totals, reaching almost a foot, occurred along the Minnesota-Iowa border.  The Cedar River rises in southern Minnesota and flows 338 miles to the SSE through eastern Iowa, entering the Iowa River before the latter enters the Mississippi; Waterloo and Cedar Rapids are the major cities along its course.

Except for flash flooding, which often occurs on small tributaries, major river flooding most often occurs in cities far downstream from the headwaters (below mo…

Mute Swans in the U.S.

During our visit to Indiana Dunes National Seashore (on Lake Michigan), we stayed in a hotel along a small lake.  Opening the curtain one morning, we were surprised to find six mute swans (four adults and two gray-brown juveniles) lounging on its grassy shore; by later in the day, the swans were gone.

Native to Eurasia, mute swans were introduced to the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s, utilized to adorn parks, zoos, private estates and golf courses.  Since that time, many have escaped captivity and feral flocks are found across northern latitudes of the country.  The largest congregations of mute swans inhabit the Northeast Coast (from southern New England to the Chesapeake Bay), the Great Lakes region and the Pacific Northwest.  They tolerate both fresh and saltwater habitats and feed primarily on aquatic vegetation; most do not migrate if open water is available.

Unfortunately, these large swans are very aggressive, often chasing native waterfowl from their nesting and feedin…

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Arriving in northern Indiana (see yesterday's post), we exited onto State Route 49 from I-94 and stopped at the Visitor Center for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, just north of the Interstate.  The Center provides maps of the preserve and introduces visitors to its natural history, component habitats and native wildlife.

During our visit, we hiked across wooded dunes that offered spectacular views of Lake Michigan, walked along the scenic beach and toured the marshes, bogs and fens that lie between the sandy ridges.  A diverse understory of ferns, shrubs and wildflowers covers the dunes but a fabulous variety of mushrooms, bracket fungi and other fungal forms was a special highlight.  Avian residents included the usual mix of eastern forest birds, joined by great egrets, great blue herons, Canada geese, wood ducks, pied-billed grebes, belted kingfishers and eastern phoebes on the wetlands; along the shore, sightings were limited to ring-billed gulls, herring gulls and a few …

Northeast to the Dunes

Facing a three-day weekend with no plans and encouraged by a decent weather forecast, my wife and I opted for a trip to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the boyhood home of Edwin Way Teale, one of America's most famous naturalists (see Four Books).  Leaving Columbia (Missouri) just before dawn, we drove northeastward across the Glaciated Plain of Missouri and Illinois, crossing the Mississippi, Illinois, Kankakee and Des Plaines Rivers en route to Indiana's portion of Lake Michigan's coast.

Created by glacial erosion during the Pleistocene and molded by wind and waves since the ice sheets retreated, the dune fields along the southern shore of Lake Michigan have gradually moved northward as the Great Lakes diminished in size (when drainage opened through the St. Lawrence Seaway).  The shore's mosaic of beaches, wooded dunes, wetlands and oak savannas was threatened by industrial development in the early 20th Century, prompting the establishment of Indiana Dunes State P…

A Grosbeak to the Rescue

Since summer heat has re-enveloped central Missouri, activity at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area was below par this morning.  While red-winged blackbirds were abundant (as always) most other species were less common (or less conspicuous) than usual; exceptions included eastern phoebes, red-bellied woodpeckers, belted kingfishers and Carolina wrens.

Just before I left the refuge, however, I encountered a female rose-breasted grosbeak, the first I have seen at Eagle Bluffs.  Feeding in a grove of trees with phoebes, downy woodpeckers and cardinals, she was easily identified by her prominent white "eyebrows", her heavy, conical bill and her streaked breast.  Omnivorous, rose-breasted grosbeaks consume insects, berries, buds and seeds.

These attractive birds breed across the Midwest, Northeast, southern Canada and down through the Appalachians; Columbia (Missouri) lies along the southern edge of their summer range and they are uncommon in our region.  By late summer, they begin t…

September Heat

Just when the mild, glorious days of autumn seemed to be settling in across the Heartland, intense summer heat has returned to Missouri, courtesy of a high pressure dome across the central and southeastern U.S.  Blocking the progress of Pacific and Canadian cold fronts, this dome of heat is especially oppressive in the lower Mississippi Valley, where humid air is streaming north from the Gulf of Mexico.  As I write this post (at 7PM Central Time), it is still 86 degrees F in Columbia and the dew point hovers in the seventies; tonight's low is expected to be 71 degrees F.

While golds and purples paint the grasslands, flocks of migrant nighthawks fill the evening sky, blue-winged teal dodge their determined hunters and broad-winged hawks circle toward the tropics, the weather has set back the seasonal clock, bringing an unwelcome dose of summer to the beloved month of September.  Snow may dust the western peaks and the annual aspen display should unfold within a week but here in the…

Migrating Broad-winged Hawks

While far less spectacular than their congregations near Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (in Pennsylvania) and other viewing sites in eastern North America, a small flock of broad-winged hawks circled above Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area this morning, headed for Central or South America.  Mingling with a large flock of turkey vultures, these small buteos could have easily been missed.

After summering in deciduous or mixed forest in the eastern U.S. and southern Canada, where they are often solitary and inconspicuous, broad-wings gather in large flocks for their autumn migration, funneling southward along coastlines or isolated ridges where updrafts aid their journey.

When I arrived at Eagle Bluffs this morning, the air was calm and patchy fog covered the Missouri River Valley.  Teal hunters huddled near their decoys and an osprey flapped above the pools where great blue herons and great egrets fished the shallows.  By mid morning a southwest breeze raked the floodplain, forcing air to rise al…

Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument

Lost amidst the political shenanigans of the Presidential campaign was the news that President Obama signed off on the creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod.  The preserve, the first National Marine Sanctuary in the western Atlantic, stretches across more than 4900 square miles at the edge of the Continental Shelf.

Characterized by deep canyons, oceanic mountain ranges and seamounts, the area encompasses vital feeding grounds for whales, a wide diversity of marine fish and a host of sea birds, including wintering flocks of Atlantic puffins.  The highly dissected topography, in which ocean depths range from 200 to more than 4000 meters, produces upwelling of deep sea nutrients, fueling a spectacular web of marine life.

Commercial fishing, mining and oil drilling will be excluded from the Monument though shellfish harvesting will be phased out over the next seven years.  Just the latest addition to our National Park and…

A Comma of Storms

Late this afternoon, a potent upper level low is spinning above western Minnesota, its cold front buldging across southern Canada and the Great Lakes region and then curving to the southwest, crossing the Upper Mississippi Valley, passing through Missouri and ending in West Texas.

Counterclockwise winds spin around the low, dragging down cool air from Canada to its west; in concert, ahead of the front, warm, moist air is pulled up from the Gulf of Mexico.  Along and just behind the cold front showers and thunderstorms (some tornadic) are dropping a swath of rain, showing up as a giant comma on the national radar.  The precipitation has been especially heavy here in Missouri as the storms "train" northeastward along the front.

Severe weather is most likely to occur along the southern tip of the comma (in central and west Texas) or east of the low pressure in northeast Minnesota.  As the system drifts east, skies will gradually clear and autumn-like air will invade the Heartla…

Caspian Terns at Eagle Bluffs

Early this morning, while birding at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River floodplain, I saw what appeared to be two large gulls, backlit by the rising sun.  On closer inspection (and with the sun at my back), I realized that they were Caspian terns, identified by their large size, stocky frame, black cap, modestly forked tail and thick, red-orange bill.

Found across the globe, Caspian terns nest in colonies, favoring coastal beaches or those along islands in large lakes and rivers; in North America, their breeding grounds include both coasts, southern Alaska, Canada, the Pacific Northwest, California, the Intermountain West and the Great Lakes.  Up to five eggs (usually two or three) are laid in a nest scraped from the sand and coated with dry vegetation.  Their young are slow to mature and often remain with their parents through the first winter, begging for fish that the adults snare from the surface.

By late summer, Caspian terns that breed in the north begin to mov…

Patriotism & Human Rights

The current "scandal" of athletes not standing for the National Anthem is especially poignant in the United States where symbolism and tradition have long garnered strong emotions.  The flag and the anthem are closely tied to our identity as "leader of the free world" and those who tarnish or disrespect them are, in the eyes of many Americans, engaging in treasonous behavior.

Unfortunately, the freedoms represented by those symbols are not evenly distributed and the abuse of minority groups, by police and others, has long been a component of American society.  Convinced that little change will occur without major shifts in the public's perspective, a group of athletes have used their high visibility to force the white majority out of their comfort zone.  Not standing for the National Anthem, as the flag of freedom waves nearby, seemed to be a good first-step and, to date, has received plenty of attention.

Derided as unpatriotic, the demonstrators have been ridi…

Decoys at the Refuge

Arriving at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area early this morning, activity on the pools was subdued except for scattered groups of great egrets, great blue herons and double-crested cormorants.  The reason was clear when I spotted a flock of decoys near a marshy shore and saw duck-wing pinwheels along the channel.  Pickups and flatboats in the parking lots also provided evidence that teal hunters were hiding in the marsh grass.

Before long, a series of shotgun blasts echoed through the valley as tight flocks of blue-winged teal bolted from the wetlands and raced above the Missouri River floodplain.  Ignoring this activity, a pair of bald eagles surveyed the refuge from a large, dead tree, a northern harrier skimmed the crop stubble and a lone osprey circled above the larger pools, hunting for fish.  High water and flooded fields (likely produced to attract more teal) negated shorebird sightings and I turned my attention to the woodlands along Perche Creek where blue jays, Carolina wrens …

An Online Visit to Uruguay

For a variety of reasons, many of us must explore our planet through the eyes and ears of fellow naturalists, tuning into National Geographic and other nature programming or subscribing to nature blogs and journals.  Even if one has the opportunity to travel to a distant Continent, he/she may not get the chance to visit its remote preserves and ecosystems.

Fortunately, I was recently introduced to Despues de la Tormenta (After the Storm), a blog from Uruguay.  The author visits nature preserves across Uruguay and bordering countries, discussing their role in protecting endangered species and illustrating the region with magnificent photos of the landscape and wildlife.  I highly recommend this website and will be checking it myself on a regular basis.

One of the many joys of writing Nature's Blog is hearing from individuals across the globe who share my devotion to conserving natural ecosystems.  Their contribution is vital to the welfare of our planet and I am honored to draw att…

The Relay of Life

Watching the Olympics this summer, I was taken back to my years of competitive swimming that stretched from mid grade school through high school.  Since I had one of the better splits for the 50 meter freestyle, I often anchored the freestyle and medley relays.

Any swimmer or track athlete knows that the anchor man (or woman) is expected to bring home the victory, whether they are granted a lead or face a deficit as they leave the block.  Unfortunately, most anchors are fast and almost all come to know both the "thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."  Usually praised for the victory or blamed for the loss, the anchor assumes responsibility for the team's performance, regardless of his or her individual time.

In a way, we are all treated as anchor men (or women) in life.  Except for those who have an intimate knowledge of our life, most acquaintances judge us to be successful or unsuccessful of our own accord.  They are not familiar with those who supported us along …

A Seething Mass of Invertebrates

In the wake of our tropical heat and heavy rains, our compost bin was a seething mass of invertebrates when I dropped off the veggie and fruit scraps last evening.  Pill bugs (rollie pollies) of various species dominated the scene, joined by beetles, harvestmen (daddy longlegs), fruit flies, worms and an assortment of larvae.  Of course, the predators (primarily spiders) were there as well.

The nightmarish scene, backed by a pungent mass of rotting vegetation was not for the faint-of-heart but was rewarding for one (i.e. myself) who built the bin two and a half years ago.  Since its completion, we have thrown tons of yard and kitchen waste into that simple contraption and have yet to remove any compost.  The efficiency of the scavengers and recyclers is certainly amazing, joined of course by microscopic bacteria and fungi.

Indeed, a compost bin offers a contained view of nature's less appreciated creatures at work.  Their vital activity is multiplied a billion-fold across our neig…

Sultry Night, Stormy Morning

Though we are within two weeks of the autumn equinox, last night was hot and humid in Columbia, perhaps the warmest night of the entire summer.  At 9PM last evening, it was still 89 degrees F and the dew point was in the upper seventies; our overnight low in central Missouri was 76 degrees F.

Early this morning, lightning appeared along the western horizon as a potent cold front approached from the northwest.  Behind that front, the temperature was in the upper forties to low fifties while sultry air, fed by a southwest breeze, enveloped the south-central States; at sunrise, it was 83 degrees F in St. Louis.

Knifing into the soupy air, the cold front is igniting a band of thunderstorms from southeast Kansas to northwest Ohio.  Since these storms, some dropping torrential rain, are training ahead of the front, flash flooding may develop in some areas.  While such a clash of cold, dry air and warm, moist air is more common in spring, autumn is not without its drama.  Seasonal change is …

Teal Time

Despite the warm, humid air and bright September sun, the vanguard of autumn arrived at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area this morning.  Several flocks of blue-winged teal had settled on the pools, stopping by to rest and feed on their way to wintering grounds from the Gulf Coast to northern South America..

These small, attractive ducks, vigilant and skittish, are the first migrant waterfowl to arrive in the fall (generally by mid September) and among the last to appear in spring (peaking during April); most breed along ponds and in wetlands across the Northern Plains.  Their appearance in September is a welcome sign that the glorious days of autumn will soon envelop the Heartland.

Wheeling above the floodplain in tight, rapidly moving flocks, their energy also signals that the doldrums of late summer will soon be broken by waves of migrant ducks and geese, their calls ringing across this fabulous refuge; for many of us, that is the most invigorating period of nature's year.  Teal ti…

Reintroducing Elk in the Eastern U.S.

Before European settlers invaded North America, elk inhabited most of the Continent.  By the onset of the 20th Century, these majestic mammals had been extirpated from all areas east of the Rocky Mountain corridor; overhunting and habitat destruction were primarily responsible for their loss.

Today, elk (or wapiti) are most abundant in Colorado (where the population exceeds 200,000) but large herds can be found in all of the Western States.  Beginning in the early 1900s. some elk were relocated to north-central Pennsylvania and the northeastern section of Michigan's Lower Peninsula; an out-of-control elk population in the Yellowstone region (augmented by the extirpation of wolves) provided the source for these early reintroductions.  In recent decades, elk have been reintroduced to the Buffalo National River Valley of northern Arkansas (1980s) and to the Appalachian Plateau of eastern Kentucky (1997-2002); the latter program has been especially "successful," leading to a…

Calm before the Avian Storm

A couple of visits to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area this past week revealed a rather calm scene on the Missouri River floodplain.  While large numbers of great blue herons and great egrets stalked the pools and small numbers of American white pelicans and double-crested cormorants stopped by to rest and feed on their unhurried journey to the south, avian activity was generally suppressed.

Mute flocks of red-winged blackbirds shifted about the fields, woodpeckers tapped from the riparian groves and killdeer, joined by a mix of migrant shorebirds, patrolled the limited mudflats.  Songbirds were all but quiescent, a few bald eagles lounged in dead trees and an occasional cloud of swallows swirled above the floodplain, feasting on insects.

These late summer doldrums will begin to abate by mid September as the first waves of blue-winged teal arrive at the refuge.  Those small, attractive ducks will be followed by an increasing number and variety of waterfowl, a spectacular avian migration…

Human-Induced Earthquakes

This morning, a magnitude 5.6 earthquake struck north-central Oklahoma, tying the strongest quake ever recorded in that State.  Since it was relatively shallow, its tremors were detected in all six bordering States.

While the cause of this earthquake remains uncertain, it is most likely related to the use of injection wells to dispose of fracking wastewater (see A Seismic Shift in Oklahoma).  Once rare in the Sooner State, more than 900 quakes were detected there in 2015.

Subject to natural forces since the dawn of our species, we have begun to suffer the consequences of our own activity.  Beyond the pollution of air and water, we have altered our planet's climate and are now triggering earthquakes that result in significant, costly damage and, eventually, the death of fellow humans.  In effect, we are both destroying natural ecosystems and shortening the reign of mankind.

Hermine Hugs the Coast

After raking the west coast of the Florida Peninsula with high winds, torrential rain and storm surge, Tropical Storm Hermine intensified to a hurricane as she came ashore just east of St. Marks.  Flooding was reported from Sarasota northward and the storm surge reached record levels (6 feet) at Cedar Key.

Moving northeastward, Hermine lost strength over land but dropped flooding rains across northern Florida and southern Georgia; the storm's high winds brought down a large number of trees and cut power to over 200,000 homes in Florida alone.  Centered over Savannah, Georgia, early this afternoon, Hermine is expected to move up the Southeast Coast over the next few days, unleashing intense rain and damaging winds; strong rip currents and severe beach erosion are anticipated.

Unfortunately, a "blocking high" over the western Atlantic will keep Hermine near the coast and slow her progress.  This will augment the storm's effects in coastal regions of the Carolinas and V…

Torrent on the Plains

Returning to Missouri yesterday, we enjoyed mild, sunny weather from Denver through western Kansas.  Then, as we descended toward Hays from Wakeeney, a massive band of storm clouds stretched across the northeastern horizon.

Intermittent rain developed near Russell, Kansas, and ominous, turbulent clouds raked the plateau north of Ellsworth, whirling the turbines of the massive Smoky Hills wind farm with a gusty, northeast wind.  As we dropped from that high terrain and approached Salina, torrential rain pummeled the highway and rapidly flooded the adjacent fields.  Traffic slowed to a crawl (except for the occasional driver who tempted fate) and the blinding rain continued for almost 30 miles, letting up near Solomon.

The culprit for this torrent was a cold front, dipping down from the Northern Plains.  As it knifed beneath, warm, humid air flowing up from the south, a violent clash ensued, lifting the southerly flow and squeezing out its copious moisture.  While the storm slowed our t…