Friday, December 29, 2017

The Politics of Ignorance

As his first year as President draws to a close, Donald Trump is once again ridiculing the science of climate change and peppering his tweets with a series of lies.  While embellishing his own achievements and belittling his predecessors, Trump relies on the ignorance of his base to sustain what little approval he receives.

Fomenting distrust of the Judicial Branch, blaming immigrants for crime and terrorism, linking job loss to globalization, questioning the loyalty of his own Cabinet members and obliterating a host of environmental regulations, Trump feeds a steady stream of propaganda to his uneducated legions.  As a result, he has squandered the reputation of this nation and diminished our influence across the globe.

Whether the President and his campaign officials colluded with Russia or not, his disdain for American democracy, his attacks on our free press, his distrust of science and his willingness to threaten the welfare of our environment are reason enough to warrant impeachment.  We cannot condone his lies, his bullying and his ignorance.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Honoring Brutality

This morning, my wife and I visited the De Soto National Memorial Park, northwest of Bradenton, Florida, at the mouth of the Manatee River.  It is one of several sites along the Gulf Coast where the Spanish Conquistador, Hernando de Soto, was thought to have come ashore as he and his party explored Florida and the Southeast in the mid 1500s.

While our visit was prompted by river views and the Park's trail network, trail signage and the Memorial's Interpretive Center reminded us of the negative aspects of Spanish exploration in the New World.  Though one might focus on the courage and tenacity of the Conquistadors, we must also acknowledge the brutality that occurred as they plundered Native American civilizations and forcefully instilled their Catholic faith.

Earlier this year, following the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, many American cities began to remove the statues of Confederate war heroes, concluding that their historic and artistic value did not outweigh the cause for which those men fought.  It seems to me that the actions of Spanish Conquistadors were at least as atrocious and that they do not deserve public memorials to honor their conquests.  Museums, which (hopefully) offer a complete picture of their historical "adventures," are better suited to define their role in history.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Leffis Key Preserve

At the extreme southeast end of Anna Marie Island, Leffis Key juts eastward into Sarasota Bay.  Centered on a reclaimed spoil pile that rises 26 feet above the bay, the Leffis Key Preserve protects and continues to restore natural habitats of this small island and is accessed by a fine network of sandy trails and boardwalks.

The boardwalks wind through coastal mangroves and over tidal creeks, leading out to decks at the edge of the bay.  From these view points, the visitor can observe a wide variety of gulls, terns, pelicans, cormorants, waders and bay ducks.  The most unique feature of the preserve is the spoil pile itself, now covered with upland trees and shrubs; trails lead to the summit, which offers broad views of Leffis Key, Sarasota Bay and adjacent landscapes.  Local birders know that it is one of the better regional sites to observe resident and migrant songbirds.

Among the songbirds observed today were common ground doves, blue-gray gnatcatchers, northern cardinals, northern mockingbirds and palm, yellow-rumped and black and white warblers.  Sightings on and along the bay included red-breasted mergansers, brown and American white pelicans, ospreys, little blue herons and snowy egrets, among other species.  Visitors are advised that dogs are not permitted in the refuge.  

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Perico Preserve

Perico Island guards the north end of Sarasota Bay, east of Anna Marie Island; it is separated from the mainland by Perico Bayou.  Perico Preserve, stretching across 176 acres of the island, has been established to reclaim natural habitat that was destroyed by agricultural, residential and industrial development.  Mangroves, tidal creeks, saltwater bayous, freshwater ponds, coastal scrublands and upland woods of slash pine, live oak and cabbage palm characterize the preserve.

While restoration of this Manatee County refuge is still underway, Perico Preserve is open to the public and is accessed by 1.5 miles of sandy trails; scenic wooden bridges ford the tidal streams and take visitors out to the edge of Perico Bayou.  Birders will find a large diversity of coastal species and, this morning, we observed 22 of them; highlights included American white pelicans, wood storks, little blue herons, roseate spoonbills and common gallinules.

The entrance to Perico Preserve is on the north side of Route 64 (Manatee Avenue), a short distance east of the drawbridge.  Dogs (other than those used for assistance) are not permitted in this recovering sanctuary.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Celebrating the Birth

On this Christian Holy Day, celebrating the birth of Jesus, I thought it appropriate to celebrate the birth of life itself.  While religious scripture suggests that Jesus was born 2000 years ago, scientific data reveals that life first evolved 3.6 billion years ago, some 10 billion years after the birth of the Universe.

Today, devout Christians, many convinced that the Earth is but 4000 years old, will flock to their churches and engage in rituals that date back to the birth of their faith.  That faith, central to their lives, fosters the belief that they are chosen among men, a mindset that has fueled intolerance, discrimination and hatred throughout the centuries.  Like all religions and despite its humble beginnings, Christianity has long been a divisive force in human society and, by extension, a threat to the welfare of our planet.

As for myself, I will visit the sea on this Christmas morning, the cradle of all life on Earth.  It took more than 3 billion years for life to escape her realm but her health remains vital to all plants and animals (humans included) that inhabit this planet.  Indeed, our welfare is tied to the health of all natural ecosystems; part of nature, we must dedicate ourselves to protecting her and resist the mysticism that arose with the dawn of our species. 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Terra Ceia Preserve State Park

The Terra Ceia Preserve State Park is a 2000 acre refuge along the south shore of Tampa Bay, in Manatee County.  A mosaic of mangrove swamps, freshwater wetlands, open meadows and upland woods of slash pine, cabbage palm and live oak, the preserve was established to restore natural habitat in an area once used for agriculture; though it is a State Park, there are no "amenities" at this point and parking is very limited.

The refuge is accessed by a network of graveled roads and sandy foot trails.  This morning, my wife and I encountered 21 bird species as we hiked through the preserve; turkey vultures, great egrets, American robins and palm warblers were most numerous while highlights included anhingas, wood storks, ospreys and noisy common gallinules.  Alligators inhabit the refuge but were not observed this morning.

Well off the beaten path, this Park is reached from Route 19, just south of I-275.  Drive east on Terra Ceia Road and proceed about 0.5 mile to Hightower Road.  Turn left, passing under I-275 and then continue westward to the parking area and gated entrance.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Crinum Lily in Bloom

Walking through the Joan Durante Park on Longboat Key this morning, my wife and I came across a crinum lily in bloom.  Also know as giant spider lilies or swamp lilies, these large plants are native to the subtropics of Southeast Asia but have since become naturalized in tropical and subtropical regions across the globe.

Up to six feet tall and represented by almost 200 species worldwide, crinum lilies are perennial, evergreen bulb plants that favor swamps or riparian woodlands; they propagate by suckering (producing large clumps) or by seed.  The natural species have 2-6 fragrant white flowers which curve and merge to yield a globular flower head; in tropical and subtropical habitats, flowering occurs throughout the year.

Though we have explored the Joan Durante Park on many occasions (and in all seasons) over the years, this was our first encounter with a crinum lily in bloom; it would have been hard to miss the large flower cluster or its pleasant fragrance.  Just another reminder that timing plays a major role when we experience natural ecosystems.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Mystery Flycatcher

Yesterday, while walking along the boat canal at our condo complex, I spotted a flycatcher at the top of a small tree.  It lacked eye-rings, had white wing bars, had a white chest with dusky sides and had a faint yellow wash on its abdomen.  My initial impression was that the bird was a willow flycatcher which, by December, should be in Central or South America; in fact, this flycatcher is not even a regular migrant in South Florida, tending to move southward through Mexico.

Indeed, the only flycatchers that winter on Longboat Key are eastern phoebes, great crested flycatchers, western kingbirds and scissor-tailed flycatchers.  My report to eBird was thus appropriately questioned and I promised to search for the bird again and, if possible, obtain a photo of the mystery flycatcher.  Alas, today's efforts were in vain though I did observe the bird from a distance; I will continue my quest over the next week.

Such are the joys, challenges and frustrations of birding.  Expected species are often not found while rare visitors turn up out of the blue.  The ranges in the field guides can be misleading and migrant birds may be found far from their usual routes.  "Hunting" for these wayward travelers fuels the enthusiasm of veteran birders.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Low Tide on Longboat Key

By mid morning, the subtropical sun had baked away a dense, overnight fog and a low tide produced extensive shallows along the edge of Sarasota Bay.  American white pelicans floated through the thinning mist while a wide variety of waders (herons and egrets) stalked the expanding mudflats.

Fish, dominated by mullets, were now confined to the deeper waters, attracting a bottle-nosed dolphin that cruised up and down our boat channel.  Brown pelicans, royal terns and ospreys also took advantage of the concentrated prey, diving to snare a mid-morning meal; they were joined by double-crested cormorants and red-breasted mergansers that dove for fish from the surface.

Over on the beach, nervous flocks of sanderlings raced ahead of the incoming waves, laughing gulls lounged in the morning sun and sandwich terns dropped like rocks into the restless Gulf, always emerging with a small fish.  Though I scanned the horizon for northern gannets, they did not appear on this warm, December morning but I expect to see them before our visit ends.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Highway Birding: Day Two

When we left Chattanooga this morning (see yesterday's post), it was still dark and a steady rain was falling.  The first light of dawn brightened the clouds as we drove through Dalton, Georgia, but the rain continued until we reached Atlanta.  Other than a few crows, I had not observed any birds to that point on this soggy morning.

South of Atlanta, the clouds began to break up and massive flocks of vultures (both turkey and black) soared overhead.  Farther south, in southern Georgia, I encountered flocks of tree swallows on the power lines and saw a few anhingas and great egrets in roadside wetlands.  Soon after we crossed into Florida, a peregrine falcon swooped over the highway but vultures, crows and rock pigeons continued to dominate the sightings.

Approaching Tampa, the avian diversity increased significantly, including white ibis, wood storks, cattle egrets, laughing gulls, cormorants and ospreys.  Indeed, of the 32 species that I encountered between Columbia, Missouri, and Longboat Key, more than a third were observed in the vicinity of Tampa Bay.  While I certainly anticipated that the final count would be much higher, the periods of rain took a toll and birding at 70 mph offered its own challenges.  Nevertheless, birding on the road made the journey more interesting.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Birding on the Road

As we left Columbia, Missouri, this morning, on our way to Longboat Key, Florida, I decided to count the number of bird species that I observed along the highways; after all, one needs something to make a long drive through familiar terrain more interesting.  Cloudy weather, with intermittent fog and drizzle, didn't help nor did a massive traffic jam in Nashville, Tennessee; the latter assured that the remaining portion of today's journey (ending in Chattanooga) would occur in darkness.

As one might expect, open-country species accounted for most of the observations; these included Canada geese, American crows, mourning doves, red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, ring-billed gulls and turkey vultures, among others.  Two bald eagles were observed (in eastern Missouri and western Illinois) and two flocks of American white pelicans were unexpectedly encountered; these tardy migrants were on Rend Lake, in southern Illinois, and on Lake Barkley, in northwestern Kentucky.

After a night in Chattanooga, we should complete our trip to Longboat Key by tomorrow evening (weather and traffic permitting).  Hopefully, bird sightings will increase as we travel through more southern latitudes and I will include the total species count (for the entire journey) on my next post.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

A Ladybird in December

On this mild, sunny afternoon in central Missouri, I was reading on our back deck when a ladybird beetle landed on my arm.  This beloved beetle, typically associated with warm summer days, usually overwinters in large congregations, choosing protected sites in barns, sheds, loose bark or brush piles.  However, during periods of warm winter weather, they may become active and I was pleased to encounter one today.

Appreciated for both their cute, colorful body and their taste for harmful insects, ladybirds (often called ladybugs) are always a welcome sight but today's visitor brought an unsettling message as well.  These days, it's hard to discover dandelions or ladybirds in December without acknowledging that our climate is warming.

While periods of mild winter weather have been occurring for decades, usually the result of atypical weather patterns and unrelated to climate change, we have now become increasingly aware of global warming and of our role in its development.  It is thus difficult to enjoy the presence of a ladybird beetle, a week before Christmas, without thinking of the ecological effects that our species has wrought. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

Clark's Hill in Missouri

As they travelled westward along the Missouri River, the Lewis & Clark expedition would often climb to promontories to survey the surrounding territory (see Up River with Lewis & Clark and subsequent posts).  One of these overlooks was a ridge near the confluence of the Missouri and Osage Rivers, east of Jefferson City; now known as Clark's Hill, it is protected within the Clark's Hill/Norton State Historic Site.

On this chilly but sunny morning, my wife and I visited the site, taking Route J north from U.S. 50.  A half-mile trail climbs from the parking lot and then leads eastward atop the ridge, undulating toward the overlook.  Broad views of the Missouri River Valley unfold to the north and, as one nears the overlook, the Osage River Valley appears to the south.

Educational plaques are spaced along the trail, offering historical information and pointing out the handiwork of the Woodland Mound Builders, a civilization that colonized the region some 2000 years ago.  Combining nature exploration, spectacular vistas and human history, Clark's Hill proved to be a rewarding destination. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Inspired by a Wren

On this cold, bleak winter morning, there wasn't much to cheer about as I wandered the trails of the Columbia Audubon Sanctuary, in central Missouri.  Low, gray clouds stretched above the brown landscape which was broken only by the white bark of sycamores and green clumps of eastern redcedar.

The usual winter residents were encountered, dominated by chickadees, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches and house finches.  A red-tailed hawk shrieked in the distance, a noisy flock of crows called from a wooded hillside and a lone eastern towhee scratched for his meal beneath the dry leaf litter.

About to head home, my attention was drawn to a patch of thickets, where a tiny bird moved among the tangles; it was a winter wren, down from Canada to spend the colder months in balmy Missouri.  Despite its small size, this hardy and energetic bird survives the winter by scouring dense vegetation and rotting logs for spiders, insects and other invertebrates, supplementing that diet with berries.  On such a raw morning, it was inspiring to watch that diminutive visitor, free to fly off to the Tropics but content to endure a cold, damp winter here in the Heartland.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Trump, Mars & Earth

President Trump, foresighted as he is, has expressed his desire to place men on Mars and hopes to complete that mission before the end of his term (which may come sooner than he expects).  This from a man who ridicules science on a regular basis and has yet to appoint leadership at NASA.

While we may support the space program, most of us would prefer that Trump concentrate on the health of our own planet rather than denying global warming and scuttling environmental regulations that protect our natural ecosystems.  We hope that our great-grandchildren are able to live on Earth, not under domes on Mars.

But Trump prefers declarations that fit within tweets.  He sees no need to consider the funding or scientific aspects of the mission and knows that his adoring legions will admire his bold proposal.  On to Mars!  To hell with Planet Earth!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

At the Museum

On this beautiful Sunday morning, I took my ten year old grandson to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, one of the best natural history museums in the country.  There we explored exhibits on space exploration, gems and minerals, Egyptian mummies, dinosaurs and the evolution of life in addition to viewing the museum's famous dioramas.

Fortunately, my grandson was very interested in the exhibits and we took our time, stretching the visit over several hours.  As often happens, I took notice of the other patrons as well, many of whom raced through the museum, seemingly interested solely in the beauty of the gemstones or the size of the dinosaur skeletons.  While the museum does an excellent job of explaining its exhibits and placing them in the context of Earth's history, I doubt that most visitors get the big picture; I even imagine that a sizable percentage enjoy the museum's collection while retaining a biblical perspective.

How else to explain the popularity of natural history museums within a religious population.  To mix scientific data and mysticism requires that one either gloss over the information presented or create their own narrative.  As creationist museums spring up across the Bible Belt, the role of science-based institutions becomes ever more important, especially when an anti-science President controls the education pursestrings.  See also Juno & the Ark and Greater Cincinnati's New Museum

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Science of Fasting

Searching through Amazon Prime yesterday afternoon, I came across a documentary entitled The Science of Fasting.  Initially released in Europe, in 2011, it presents the findings of scientists from Russia, Germany, France and the United States.

Long thought to "cleanse the body," fasting may offer significant benefits for those with a variety of chronic diseases, including the metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease and cancer.  Directed at the general public, the documentary explains the body's physiologic response to food deprivation and points out that these adaptations have developed in concert with the evolution of our species; indeed, for most of our history, food was not always readily available.  Animal studies have suggested that fasting may re-prime normal cells, improving their function, while placing a significant stress on abnormal cells (e.g. cancerous or inflamed cells); indeed, at the University of Southern California, fasting mice demonstrated better tolerance of chemotherapy that did their cohorts.

Like "Forks over Knives (see A Plant-Based Diet)," this documentary correlates eating habits with our risk of disease; both films offer persuasive evidence but individuals are advised to discuss these dietary measures with their health care provider before stopping medications or significantly altering their diet.  Good nutrition is vital to both the prevention and management of disease and fasting (even for brief periods) may be ill-advised in some cases.  Nevertheless, I recommend viewing both documentaries and considering the points that are made; the fact that most humans in "developed countries" overeat is undeniable.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Southeastern Snow

The potent cold front that rattled windows along the Colorado Front Range five days ago, now stretches across the Southeastern Coast., from Mexico to Virginia.  While most of the Great Plains and Midwest were sparred any significant snow from this system, such has not been the case in the Southeast.

As the cold, dry air clashed with warm, humid air along the Gulf of Mexico, significant snow was produced, including 7 inches in Corpus Christi, Texas, where measurable snow had not fallen in 13 years.  Houston received 3/4 of an inch but many areas of the Southeast, from Mississippi to Virginia, may receive close to a foot of snow; most of the snowfall will be confined to the Piedmont and Southern Appalachians while the Coastal Plain, south of Virginia, is being doused with cold rain.

By tomorrow, remnants of the system will move into the Mid-Atlantic States and New England before heading out to sea.  Here in Colorado, where snow has been limited to date, we're hoping the next storm lingers in our region; who could have imagined that, by December 8, Corpus Christi would receive more snow than Denver?

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Power and Accountability

As the sex abuse scandal continues to unfold across American society, we are again forced to acknowledge the uneven enforcement of laws in this country.  While hundreds (if not thousands) of middle and lower income perpetrators languish in jails and prisons for similar offenses, men in positions of power often escape accountability, at least until the statute of limitations has passed.

Even among the elite, punishment has been uneven.  Though a number of politicians, executives and media celebrities have lost their jobs (and their careers), a Senate candidate from Alabama, accused of similar (if not worse) behavior, is favored to win his contest.  Then we have President Trump, the target of sexual harassment charges from twenty women, who went on to win election (but not the popular vote) and now feels free to disrupt our country's International, immigration and environmental policies with a series of executive orders.

America, the land of the free, has long possessed a legal system tainted by discrimination and subject to the effects of political and financial power.  Until every citizen is equally accountable for their actions, we are no more free than the dictatorships that we despise.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Cold but no Snow

Two nights ago, strong winds awoke me about 3 am; as expected, these were winds behind a potent cold front that had dropped across the Colorado Front Range.  Though it was supposed to bring snow as well, the storm system was centered too far north and dawn brought cold air but clear, sunny skies.

As it turned out, the snow and high winds were most intense across the Northern Plains, where blizzard conditions developed.  Our strong winds, coming from the north, abated by yesterday afternoon as the storm quickly moved off to the east.  Had the central low been farther south, we might have received upsloping northeast winds and the snow that they usually bring.

While the cold air is expected to linger for a couple more days, the intense Colorado sun has pushed afternoon highs into the forties and low fifties (F); on the other hand, overnight lows have dropped into the mid twenties.  Down at South Platte Park this morning, ice had begun to form along some of the shallow ponds but the number and variety of waterfowl remained impressive.  Northern shovelers were most abundant, spooked into a massive aerial flock as an immature bald eagle soared overhead.  Winter has arrived in the Valley!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Super Cold Moon

A brilliant full moon is rising in the east this evening.  By tradition, the December full moon is called the Cold Moon (or the Long Nights Moon) since winter is beginning and the winter solstice occurs in this month.

This year, the Cold Moon is also a Super Moon; the latter term refers to full moons that occur when the moon is closest to the Earth and thus appear larger than usual.  Since the moon's orbit around our planet is oval in shape, its distance from Earth varies through the year; super moons are about 16,000 miles closer than the average distance.  Tonight's Super Moon is the only one to have occurred in 2017 but the next full moon, in January, 2018, will also be a super moon.

Regardless of its monthly title and distance from the Earth, full moons are always beautiful, especially on clear nights.  Perhaps their glory peaks in winter, when moon shadows stretch across snowy landscapes; our chance for such an event may be as soon as tomorrow night since snow is forecast by morning along the Colorado Front Range.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Night Flight

Last evening, I accepted my son's invitation to take a flight over Metro Denver.  Despite the fact that he is in the midst of a neurosurgical residency, he has found the time to get his pilot's license, something I intended to do but never did.

It was a clear, cold evening as we took off from Centennial Airport and climbed westward above the city.  Always enamored with "geography from above," I was delighted by the sea of lights that spread out beneath us and was able to identify all of the major roads and neighborhoods; we passed over our Littleton farm and headed up to the northwest suburbs before circling back to the airport.

As an environmentalist, I couldn't help but acknowledge the massive amount of energy that we use to light our cities and was somewhat reassured by the dark "green belts" that lace Metro Denver; the beauty of human landscapes, however pleasing to the eye, comes with a price.  My thanks to Zach for an exciting experience!