Sunday, February 26, 2017

Beautiful Freeloaders

Winter returned to the Colorado Front Range the day before I did; as a result, the resident birds on our farm have been especially active and conspicuous, including the usual mix of chickadees, nuthatches, juncos, magpies, doves, woodpeckers and house finches.  Joining them is a small flock of lesser goldfinches that, contrary to past experience, have stayed for the winter (see More Tardy Migrants).

Before I left town, I made sure that the thistle (niger or nyjer) feeder was full; ignored by squirrels and most of our avian residents, this seed is favored by most finches and was utilized daily by our beautiful freeloaders.  I was thus pleased to find that they were still on the farm when I returned from Missouri and it is now clear that they will stay through the winter.  Having discovered comfortable lodging in a large juniper on the south (sunny) side of our house and taking advantage of the handouts, the lesser goldfinches had little reason to migrate.

On the other hand, these attractive songbirds would have surely survived without my assistance; there are plenty of weed seeds to provide nourishment and our mild winter weather, perhaps related to our warming global climate, made their stay more tolerable.  Whatever their reason for staying on the farm, I appreciate their company.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Into a North Wind

As I headed back to Colorado today, a strong north wind raked the Great Plains and rattled my aging pickup truck.  Wind driven rain impaired travel east of Topeka while horizontal flurries caused temporary whiteouts between Topeka and Russell.

Despite these challenging conditions, I encountered two flocks of sandhill cranes, fighting their way into the teeth of the frigid northerly winds; the first, west of Wilson, Kansas, numbered 35 or so while a larger flock (about 70) crossed the Interstate near Ogallah.  Of course, they were likely on their way to their major "spring" staging area on the Platte River, in south-central Nebraska (see Cranes on the Platte River).

While migrating cranes and waterfowl often take advantage of tail winds to minimize energy consumption and hasten their travels, spring flocks have procreation "in mind" and, I suspect, are less patient than they might be in the fall.  One must admire their fortitude and today's determined flocks were an inspiring sight indeed; if nothing else, they forced me to realize that my own travel woes were minimal by comparison.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Cumberland River

Forming just north of Harlan, Kentucky, from three headwater forks that rise in the Appalachian Plateau of that State, the Cumberland River begins its tortuous, 690-mile journey to the Ohio River.  After snaking westward and passing through the Pine Mountain ridge at Pine Mountain State Resort Park (Kentucky's oldest), the river angles to the NNW, where its spectacular falls (known for its seasonal moonbows) is protected within Cumberland Falls State Resort Park.

Winding westward once again, the river receives flow from its Big South Fork (which is surrounded by a National Recreation Area) and soon enters Lake Cumberland (home to another Kentucky State Park) before turning south just west of Dale Hollow Lake and entering Tennessee.  Curving to the southwest, it leaves the Appalachian Plateau (known locally as the Cumberland Plateau) at Carthage and flows westward into Old Hickory Lake, just south and east of Hendersonville.  The Cumberland River then curves through Metro Nashville before angling to the northwest, entering Cheatham Lake and then passing Clarksville, Tennessee.

Crossing the karst plain of western Kentucky, the Cumberland then enters Lake Barkley, which forms the eastern edge of Kentucky's Land Between the Lakes, before joining the Ohio River a couple miles east of the mouth of the Tennessee River.  Few Eastern U.S. rivers connect so many well-known parks and recreation areas as they sculpt our landscape; of course, the dams that created some of these human playgrounds have significantly altered the river's ecology.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Three Days in Music City

Every year or so, my wife and I like to visit a city that we have not yet explored.  While we have traveled through Nashville, Tennessee, on many occasions, we never stopped to look around.  Over the last few days, we remedied that oversight.

Stretching along the Cumberland River Valley, west of the Appalachian Plateau, Nashville is renowned as the center of the country music industry.  Strolling along Broadway (and in other sections of town), one can enjoy free, live music in a large number of bars, cafes and restaurants.  Though I have never been a big fan of country music, I enjoyed the performances and marveled at the fact that many of the popular songs manage to mingle such disparate themes of human nature: faith, love, heartache, intoxication and infidelity, to name just a few.  Of course, we also visited the Country Music Hall of Fame; there we were surprised to find Jimi Hendrix on the Walk of Fame and to learn that Bob Dylan's decision to record in Nashville (during the late 1960s) ignited the music industry that the city fosters today.

Beyond the entertainment provided in Music City, we visited Vanderbilt University, stopped by Centennial Park to see its replica of the Parthenon and wandered through the Cheekwood Botanical Gardens, southwest of town.  Sprawling across 55 acres of rolling terrain, the Gardens were adorned with early blooms of magnolias, daffodils, forsythia and annual plantings, at least three weeks ahead of schedule due to the unusually warm winter weather.  Serenaded by male cardinals and Carolina wrens, we hiked the two-mile network of trails, encountering stands of bamboo, a Japanese Garden, collections of crape myrtle and dogwood trees, a cluster of endangered "stinking cedar" and a hardwood forest, festooned with works of sculpture. I highly recommend a visit to Music City!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Three Hours in the Woods

Granted beautiful weather and a free afternoon, I headed over to the Columbia Audubon Nature Sanctuary, on the west side of town, yesterday.  Lying adjacent to and connected with the Bonnie View Nature Sanctuary, this refuge is characterized by rolling terrain, carpeted with forested ravines and wooded meadows; it is an excellent area for birding.

Accessed by a fine network of wide, grassy trails, the preserve lies along a tributary of Hinkson Creek which, itself, is a branch of the Perche Creek watershed.  During my three hour visit, which included many stops on the rustic trailside benches, I encountered 24 avian species, including 930 snow geese that passed overhead in five flocks.  Among the other highlights were a pileated woodpecker, a sharp-shinned hawk, red-headed woodpeckers, a yellow-bellied sapsucker and a lone, male purple finch.  The most abundant species proved to be black-capped chickadees, dark-eyed juncos, white-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice and Carolina wrens.

Though it was a warm, sunny afternoon, almost all of the human activity was confined to the paved path that runs along the outer edge of the refuges; since dogs and bikes are not permitted on the earthen trails, they remained relatively empty and I only encountered a few other hikers during my lengthy stay.  What can be better for a naturalist: pleasant weather, beautiful natural habitat, a well designed trail network and solitude!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Glacial Lake Iroquois

When the last Pleistocene Glacier (the Wisconsin) plowed southward, it scoured out the Great Lakes from a network of ancient river valleys.  As the Ice Sheet melted back to the north, beginning about 15,000 years ago, massive amounts of meltwater collected in those lake basins, spreading onto the surrounding Lake Plains.  Since drainage through the St. Lawrence Seaway was blocked by ice, the glacial lakes had a much larger surface area than they do today; Glacial Lake Algonquin was the predecessor of Lake Huron while Glacial Lake Warren would become Lake Erie.

Glacial Lake Iroquois was the predecessor of Lake Ontario; it was three times as large as Lake Ontario and its surface was 100 feet higher, essentially equal to the elevation of Lake Erie today.  As Lake Iroquois continued to enlarge (receiving meltwater directly from the glacier and from the other Glacial Lakes), its waters spilled eastward to the north and south of the Adirondacks; the north spillway gave rise to the Hudson Valley while the southern spillway became the Mohawk River Valley.  This major flooding event began about 13,300 years ago.

Once the ice retreated beyond the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Great Lakes drained through that channel and eventually dropped to their current levels; of course, the Niagara River and its Falls developed during that period and connections to the Hudson and Mohawk River watersheds were abandoned.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Mystery at Eagle Bluffs

Arriving just before dawn at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, my friend and I were greeted by a flock of greater white-fronted geese, traveling northward through the Missouri River Valley.  Within the refuge itself, mallards dominated the scene, occupying every lake, pond and slough of the floodplain.  Though joined by an excellent variety of waterfowl, including gadwalls, northern shovelers, northern pintails, green-winged teal and hooded mergansers, mallards easily outnumbered the combined population of the other ducks.

Sightings also included six bald eagles (two on their nests), a large number of Canada geese, four red-tailed hawks, a dozen American white pelicans and, to my delight, about 250 snow geese.  As usual, red-winged blackbirds were abundant, joined by sizable flocks of common grackles and European starlings.  A dozen Wilson's snipe foraged with killdeer on the mudflats and the woodlands were alive with various woodpeckers and songbirds.

Of note, not a single great blue heron was encountered during our tour of the refuge.  Usually common (if not abundant) at Eagle Bluffs, the stoic waders had abandoned this portion of the Missouri River floodplain.  Despite the gorgeous weather and widespread shallows in which to feed, the herons were inexplicably absent.  While I have long become used to the fickle nature of birding, today's experience will likely remain one of the most notable mysteries of my forty-year career.

Friday, February 17, 2017

When Truth is Personalized

Buoyed by his own pompous personality, by the subdued reaction of Party loyalists and by the zeal of his uneducated worshipers, President Trump defines truth as that which places himself in a positive light.  Everything else is "false news."

Threatened by both journalism and science, this narcissist has become our Mythologist in Chief, focused on the perception of his legions rather than on facts.  Like all zealots, Trump has personalized truth, ignoring the ideas and criticism of others when they clash with his beliefs or tarnish his public image.  He is only interested in facts that embellish his bloated self-esteem.

Of course, if he were merely a TV personality, this corruption of truth might be entertaining.  But he is now at the reins of American power, attacking freedom of speech, human rights and the legitimacy of science.  Since there are few statesmen within the Republican Party to derail this assault on truth, We the People must demand aggressive opposition and, hopefully, Trump's eventual Impeachment.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Return to Goose Alley

For a birder or naturalist, there may be no better month to visit Missouri than February.  Though its fickle weather can pose a challenge, late winter is a great time to observe migrant geese (snows and greater white-fronts), American white pelicans and a good diversity of wintering waterfowl.  Of course, bald eagles and peregrine falcons are often present as well, feasting on injured or winter-stressed birds.

Anyone who has read this blog over the years knows that I am especially inspired by snow geese.  After wintering in Gulf Coast marshes or on croplands of the lower Mississippi Valley, these vocal travelers funnel northward, on their way to Arctic breeding grounds.  Massive flocks may be encountered across a broad flyway that extends from central Kansas to western Illinois; Missouri lies within the heart of that flyway and hosts the majority of the migrants.

Here in central Missouri, Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain, is one of the better areas to observe snow geese, which often mingle with greater white-fronted geese, Canada geese, tundra swans and a host of ducks.  Recent reports indicate that up to 900 snow geese have been encountered there this week and I plan a visit within a few days to enjoy the spectacle myself.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

eBirding the Interstate

On my regular trips between Colorado and Missouri, I rely on wildlife viewing to limit my boredom as I drive across the overly-familiar landscape.  Since I joined eBird last March, I thought it might be interesting to compile a list of sightings along Interstate 70, covering its 423 mile stretch across Kansas.

As one might expect, the most abundant birds observed yesterday included two introduced species: European starlings and rock pigeons.  But I also saw Lapland longspurs, rough-legged hawks and 82 red-tailed hawks (all but 10 of which were seen between Hays and Kansas City).  Perhaps most surprising on that six hour drive across Kansas was that I only saw 20 species, including a rather small number of American crows on the vast farmlands; of course, traveling at 70 mph, some birds (including most of the ducks) could not be identified by species.

The highlight (as often occurs in February) was provided by migrant snow geese; a relatively small flock crossed the Interstate at Russell and a much larger flock moved northward east of Lawrence.  I plan to repeat the count on future journeys across the Sunflower State and anticipate significant changes through the seasons.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Carcass in the Grass

This morning, winter had returned to the Colorado Front Range.  Down at South Platte Park, a low, gray overcast shrouded the refuge, broken only by the smudge of the rising sun, and light flurries swept through the valley.

Hiking along the river, I spotted a feathered carcass in the tall, dry grass.  It was the remains of a Canada goose, an abundant resident or visitor in most regions of our country.  Indeed, I cannot visit that riverine preserve without encountering twenty or more of those large birds and can hardly look out the windows of our Littleton farmhouse without seeing a noisy flock moving across the sky.  But, while these wild geese were once a rare and stirring sight in many areas of the U.S., they are now derided as a nuisance, "soiling" our parks, walkways and golf courses.

This morning's victim was likely killed overnight, perhaps ambushed by a fox or coyote. Most of the meat had been consumed, his remains, except for the feathers and fresh blood, now reminiscent of a turkey carcass after the Thanksgiving feast.  He will no longer honk across the evening sky or spoil our manicured human habitats.  His carcass will be scattered by mice, skunks and other creatures, soon to blend with the soil of the refuge.  Speaking for many others, I appreciate his donation and promise to do the same when the time comes.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Surge of Hormones

On this cool, sunny morning along the Colorado Front Range, spring was in the air.  While the afternoon temperature will be at least 20 degrees cooler than yesterday, the birds and mammals on our Littleton farm were responding to the lengthening daylight and their breeding seasons will soon begin.

Both Eurasian and mourning doves delivered their seasonal tunes, a northern flicker offered his first hysterical calls of the season and a pair of blue jays had switched to their softer, more musical voice.  Male house finches have taken on their brighter red plumage of spring while eastern cottontails chased one another across the pastures, soon to produce their first litter of the year; by late summer, the females born in February will have litters of their own.

Joined by the first faint greenery of spring, these revelers do not know that the heaviest snows of the season likely lie ahead.  They are merely responding to a surge of hormones, nature's annual gift to their species.  Unlike humans, subject as we are to cerebral override, they will always heed the call.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Dramatic Change in Weather

As the New England snowstorm developed today, many TV meteorologists couldn't stop talking about how dramatically the conditions had changed in 24 hours.  Indeed, on the day before the storm, dozens of Northeast cities had set record highs for the date (in the 50s and 60s F).

Of course, despite the hysterics of the TV weathermen (who know better), such a dramatic change of weather is typical with potent winter storms.  As the system approaches from the west, strong southerly winds ahead of the front sweep warm air well to the north.  Then, as the cold front knifes in from the northwest, winds shift from the north and Arctic air blasts across the region.  Meanwhile, the storm's central zone of low pressure, surrounded by strong, counterclockwise winds, sweeps the warm, moist air above the dense, frigid air, producing snow, sleet or freezing rain (depending on the depth of the invading cold air).  Farther south, the clash of air masses results in severe thunderstorms.

Too often focused on entertainment as much as on public education, TV meteorologists would better serve their viewers by explaining the nature of the storm dynamics.  After all, there is a scientific explanation for that dramatic change in weather and, when we downplay science, we open the door to mysticism.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Typical February Weather

This week's weather highlights might suggest that our planet is undergoing catastrophic change: more heavy rain and snow in the Pacific Northwest, excessive warmth along the Colorado Front Range, tornadoes along the Gulf Coast and a major snowstorm (just now developing) in New England.

In actuality, though some of these events have been especially severe, their occurrence is not unusual in the month of February.  Were it not for the excessive precipitation in January, the current rain and snow in Northern California, Oregon and Washington would not be considered unusual for this time of year.  Here in Colorado, February is often characterized by periods of warm, sunny weather, to be followed by the upslope snowstorms of March, April and early May.  While yesterday's tornado near New Orleans was especially severe (a record for that area), tornadic thunderstorms are relatively common along the Gulf Coast in February.  Finally, as a winter storm descends on New England, promising more than a foot of snow and blizzard conditions in some areas, we must remember that most severe "Nor'easters" develop in this month.

While global warming cannot be directly blamed for any of these events, it may intensify storms when they occur and alter weather patterns such that droughts or floods become more common in some regions.  But, for now, we must accept the fact that this week's weather is fairly typical for February, a sign that the jet stream is becoming restless as the sun rises higher in the southern sky.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Effective Opposition

When an Administration comes to power and threatens both human rights and the health of our environment, it triggers a strong reaction in those of us who are committed to those issues.  Solutions are sought and a wide range of actions are taken, some of which can be counterproductive.

While peaceful demonstrations are worthwhile, keeping the issues in the public's collective mind, they often have little effect on the President and his Administration.  More effective are our personal and financial support for legal and environmental organizations (e.g. the ACLU, the Sierra Club) that have the power to intervene, either slowing or derailing the progress of the Government.  Equally important is active support for the opposition Party and for journalists and news organizations that both expose and challenge the policies of the Administration.  Finally, supporting the input of business and community leaders, who may have some positive influence on both the Executive and Legislative Branches of Government, is essential; the role of engagement with those in power must not be dismissed or ridiculed.

However we choose to participate in the opposition, we must take action.  Waiting for the next election is not an option.  The attacks on human rights and on the environment degrade our society and threaten the welfare of our planet.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Greater Scaup at South Platte Park

On this spring-like morning in early February, I headed to South Platte Park, in Littleton.  Though I enjoyed the bright sunshine and crystal-clear air, a strong south wind produced a bit of a chill and kept the waterfowl in sheltered coves.

An exception was a flock of greater scaup, bobbing in waves along the retreating ice.  These circumpolar ducks breed across Arctic latitudes of North America and Eurasia and generally winter on coastal bays of those Continents.  While they may turn up on large, inland, freshwater lakes during migrations, they are not often encountered away from saltwater during the winter months.

Larger cousins of the more common lesser scaup, greater scaup have been declining in population over the past few decades.  Since they feed on aquatic mollusks and crustaceans during the winter months, it is thought that chemical pollution in coastal bays and estuaries may be taking a toll on these handsome diving ducks.  To observe a flock along the Colorado Front Range this morning was thus a special treat.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Mauritius: A Hybrid Island

Like many volcanic islands across the globe, Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar, was thought to have formed above a hotspot.  In such cases, a mantle plume pushes upward into the oceanic crust, igniting volcanism and the formation of land that gradually emerges from the sea.  If the oceanic plate is moving above the hotspot, a chain of islands is formed (see The Hawaiian Ridge).

The volcanism that produced Mauritius has occurred on and off for about 9 million years.  Recently, however, as reported in the New York Times this week, a geologist has discovered the presence of continental crust beneath the volcanic rock.  In essence, it appears that a hotspot formed adjacent to or beneath the continental fragment or that oceanic crust has been subducting beneath that fragment to produce the volcanism; the latter seems less likely.

The continental fragment itself apparently broke away from Gondwana as it split up to form the Southern Continents (Africa, South America, Antarctica, India and Australia) some 200 million years ago.  The Madagascar-Seychelles platform, north of Mauritius, is also a continental fragment of Gondwana; such fragments move about the globe as oceans open and close and these exotic terranes may eventually fuse to the edge of the major Continents.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Chinooks in the Night

After several days of cold, cloudy weather, a warm front pushed across Colorado overnight.  Indeed, at about 12:30 am, the windows rattled on our Littleton farmhouse as a brief period of strong winds raked the Front Range.

This morning, it is 46 degrees F in Littleton, a couple degrees warmer than it is in Phoenix, Arizona.  Such is the effect of downsloping, Chinook winds.  With high pressure west of the Continental Divide and low pressure to our east, air flows down the eastern flanks of the mountains, compressing, warming and drying out as it descends.  Our afternoon high is forecast to be 60 degrees F but, starting at 46 and soon to be bathed by the intense Colorado sun, I expect the afternoon temperature to be a bit higher.

As the next winter storm moves from the Pacific Northwest to the Great Lakes and Northeast, we will be relatively unaffected along the Front Range urban corridor.  Afternoon highs should be above "normal" all week and not a wisp of snow is expected.  Then again, March and April, two of our snowiest months, lie ahead and snow in May is never out of the question.  But, for now, we'll enjoy a prelude to spring.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Genetics, Evolution & Mysticism

When Charles Darwin developed his theory of natural selection, the role of chromosomes would not be discovered for another fifty years, the structure of DNA would not be determined for another century (Watson and Crick released their findings in 1953) and the human genome would not be mapped for more than 150 years (2003).

Indeed, Darwin's projections were based solely on his powers of observation and deduction.  Noting the diversity of species within a genus and the variation of individuals within species, Darwin concluded that these findings were due to inherited factors, the persistence of which was determined by their relative importance in ensuring the survival of that species.  Many years later, we would discover the role of genes, sexual recombination and genetic mutations in this process.

While Darwin faced his skeptics and dissenters, modern science has since confirmed the validity of his theory.  Nevertheless, the power of religious mysticism, fueled by fear and threatened by objective data, continues to influence human society.  After all, the science of evolutionary biology indicates that all plants and animals, humans included, are species on the ever-expanding web of life; having evolved from ancestral species they will all either become extinct or evolve into future species (assuming the environment is not destroyed beforehand).  The simplistic story of creation, conceived by man, is no longer viable.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Darwin & Domestication

In The Origin of Species (the shortened title of his book from the second edition onward), Charles Darwin devotes his first chapter to the diversity observed in domesticated plants and animals.  One might wonder why such a well-traveled naturalist would initially focus on these common, well-known species.

Since his book was written in the 1850s, well before scientists, let alone the general public, had much knowledge of inheritance, Darwin apparently chose this approach to insure that his points were more easily understood, based on the personal experience of his audience.  In essence, he uses the chapter to illustrate the diversity of domesticated species and the diversity of individuals within any given species.  Placing emphasis on the selective breeding process, engineered by humans, he sets the stage for his theory of natural selection to follow.

Clearly conscious of the potential reaction from other scientists, religious leaders and the public at large, Darwin eases his readers into the concept of evolution, a process that negates the role of a Creator.  In the mid 19th Century, that was a courageous undertaking indeed.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Straight from Darwin

Born in Shrewsbury, England, in 1809, Charles Darwin initially planned careers in medicine and theology before joining the crew of the HMS Beagle in 1831.  Over the next five years, he explored natural ecosystems across the globe, including those of the Cape Verde Islands, much of coastal South America, the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand, eastern and southern Australia, several islands in the Indian Ocean, the Cape of Good Hope and the Azores.  Heavily influenced by Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, Darwin began work on his own treatise outlining his theory of natural selection and published the "abstract" as On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859.  Since the release of that seminal work, he has rightly been hailed as the father of evolutionary biology and has been widely criticized by religious zealots across the globe.

As one who was raised in a religious family but also received an excellent education in the sciences (including a B.S. in Biology), I have been heavily influenced by Darwin's theories throughout my life.  Indeed, his work, as well as the early writings of men like Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Alfred Wallace, set the stage for modern advancements in genetics, biology and natural history; at the same time, the role of mysticism in human civilization, while still potent, has gradually diminished.

Though long familiar with Darwin's theory of natural selection, I have never read The Origin of Species.  That deficiency will be corrected over the next week or so as I absorb Darwin's argument in his own words.  I look forward to the intellectual adventure and will dutifully report any highlights in this blog.