Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A Late Winter Chorus

While walking around Perry Phillips Lake, south of Columbia, this morning, I heard the first chorus frog calls of the season.  Resembling the sound produced by running your thumbnail down the teeth of a comb, the calls are delivered day and night as males gather in temporary pools to attract females.  Eggs are fertilized as they are laid and attach to vegetation in the base of the pools.  After hatching and undergoing metamorphosis, the young frogs spend the warmer months searching prairies and wetlands for insects and spiders, retreating beneath logs, rocks or leaf litter to rest or to escape danger.

Officially classified as boreal chorus frogs throughout most of Missouri (except in the Boot Heel region), these tiny amphibians are the first frogs to breed in the spring, their mating calls often heard by late February.  Potential prey for snakes, herons, fish, mink and raccoons, among other predators, surviving chorus frogs spend the winter encased in mud.

We humans, though pleased to hear their chorus in late winter and early spring, rarely notice these amphibians for most of the year and their vital role in natural ecosystems goes unacknowledged by the general public.  Unfortunately, such is the case for most species that inhabit our planet. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Diamonds in the Sky

On this pleasant, late afternoon in central Missouri, I went out on the back deck to see what avian visitors might stop by and I was treated to a noisy mix of resident and wintering birds.  Turkey vultures were most numerous, lazily circling overhead before settling in their roost a mile up the road.  Other common species included white-throated sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, black-capped chickadees and American robins; less abundant were northern cardinals, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, song sparrows and a lone Cooper's hawk.

The highlight proved to be a large flock of snow geese, passing overhead and flying north.  Too high to hear, their white bodies reflected the setting sun and I was fortunate to spot them as I scanned the sky before going indoors.  Like a shimmering diamond necklace, its chain broken and wavering against a deep blue background, the snows, as always, were an inspiring sight.

Once again, the decision to go outside and look around was rewarded with a natural spectacle, one that many humans never witness in their lives.  Though they are common travelers over central Missouri in late February, the snow geese, blissfully unaware of my gaze and focused on their destination, touched my soul. 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Migrants on the Floodplain

This morning, a friend and I headed down to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River floodplain.  Despite the damp, chilly and cloudy weather, it was a productive visit, especially for waterfowl watching.

Once again, mallards dominated the scene, numbering 6000 or more; they were joined by northern pintails, gadwall, northern shovelers, ring-necked ducks, coot and a pair of redheads.  Bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, a northern harrier and a kestrel patrolled the refuge and a fair variety of songbirds moved through the riparian woodlands and lakeside thickets.

But migrant geese provided the highlight of our visit.  At least 1000 Canada geese graced the preserve and a large flock of snow geese (estimated at 1500) had settled in the southwestern corner of the refuge.  They were joined by a few hundred greater white-fronted geese which also occupied other fields across the floodplain; in total, we estimated that at least 2000 white-fronts were staging at Eagle Bluffs, the largest congregation I have ever encountered.  Few natural spectacles match the sight and sounds of migrating geese, headed for the Arctic.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

An Icy Morning in Columbia

Following heavy rains yesterday, an overnight freeze placed a coat of ice on the vegetation of central Missouri.  Nevertheless, after thawing out our VW Beetle, I headed over to the Columbia Audubon Nature Sanctuary, on the west side of town.

The grassy trails crunched beneath my boots and the wooden bridges were a bit slippery but the resident birds were noisy and active despite the morning chill; red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmice and Carolina wrens were especially conspicuous.  The highlight of my visit was provided by a large flock of greater white-fronted geese that flew over the refuge, headed west toward the Missouri River Valley.

While I can't say the weather was pleasant, the birding was decent, the exercise was beneficial and the cold, fresh air was invigorating.  Like most humans in the Heartland, I'm ready for spring, but we can't let these wintry interludes prevent us from enjoying the great outdoors!

Monday, February 19, 2018

On the Atmospheric Fence

Here in central Missouri, we are temporarily caught between a deep atmospheric trough in the West and an atmospheric ridge in the East.  The former has brought cold, wintry weather to the western half of the country and the latter has produced record highs in Florida and warm weather throughout the Southeast, Midwest and New England.

The clash zone between these disparate air masses is inching eastward and, this morning, brought strong southerly winds to our region; taking advantage of the tail wind, flocks of migrant snow geese and greater white-fronted geese travelled northward through the Missouri River Valley.  By early afternoon, rain began to fall, a sign that the cold air behind the front is beginning to undercut and lift the warm, moist air to its east.  Thunderstorms may develop ahead of the front and heavy rain is expected by tomorrow.

Our spring-like conditions will end by Wednesday as cold, Canadian air plunges into the Heartland, reminding us that winter has not yet conceded defeat.  No doubt, the geese will then settle down for a few days, resting and feeding until southerly winds redevelop; instinctively patient, they "know" that the Arctic will not hospitable for at least a couple more months.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Thoughts and Prayers

Another week and another mass shooting in America.  As usual, Conservative Republicans will offer their thoughts and prayers but nothing else.  They blame the problem on disturbed young men and suggest that mental health services are inadequate.  This from a political group that is cutting health care access and defunding social programs.

When it comes to gun control, they dance around the subject, deferring to the political clout of the N.R.A.  In their defense of the Second Amendment, they bow to the extreme views of those who finance their campaigns, even refusing to impose universal background checks and gun registration.

Awash in firearms, this country must make a choice.  Either we jail or deport all disturbed and angry men or we take a reasonable approach to gun control.  Easy access to assault rifles makes no sense and puts innocent Americans (including school children) at risk.  Change will only come at the ballot box.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Wings of Spring

Anyone who does not believe that spring begins in February should have been at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on this balmy morning in central Missouri.  The pools and channels of the refuge, mostly ice free, were clogged with migrant waterfowl.

Thousands of mallards dominated the scene, joined by Canada geese, northern pintails, northern shovelers and gadwall.  Large flocks of snow geese and greater white-fronted geese moved about the floodplain and five trumpeter swans flew northward above the Missouri River.  Bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, northern harriers and American kestrels patrolled the refuge and flocks of ring-billed gulls cavorted in the gusty south breeze.

Despite all the activity, a mystery arose, one that has occurred in the past; though I explored the refuge for almost two and a half hours, I did not encounter a single great-blue heron, a species that is common at Eagle Bluffs throughout the year (even when ice grips the floodplain).  Where were those hardy waders on this mild February morning?  Perhaps they knew that wintry weather will return tonight!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

American Tree Sparrows

On this mild, breezy afternoon, my wife and I took a walk around Perry Phillips Lake, south of Columbia, Missouri.  Two pair of red-tailed hawks cavorted in the wind but the lake remained frozen and no waterfowl were observed.  However, we did come across a flock of American tree sparrows, foraging in thickets along the south shore.

Residents of Alaska and Northern Canada where they breed in the Arctic Zone, these attractive sparrows are best identified by their rusty cap, white wing bars and light gray underparts with a central breast spot.  Gregarious during the winter months, they visit northern and central latitudes of the Lower 48, favoring open country with wooded streams or wetlands; while they visit backyard feeders on occasion, these sparrows are far more common in rural areas.  And though their name suggests otherwise, they spend most of their time on the ground or in low shrubs and saplings.

By late winter, the males begin to sing, longing to return to their northern homeland before warm, humid air invades the Heartland.  There they will pair up with a female and construct a nest in willow thickets or directly on the tundra.  Feasting on both insects and seeds during the breeding season, they consume grass and wildflower seeds during the winter months.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Under Snowless Skies

Returning to Missouri today, we traveled across the Great Plains under sunny skies and enveloped in mild air.  Snow cover gradually diminished as we drove eastward and a south wind had placed the wind turbines in a steady spin.  Rough-legged hawks and northern harriers patrolled the High Plains of Eastern Colorado and Western Kansas, gradually replaced by American kestrels and red-tailed hawks as we moved toward Missouri.  A small flock of American white pelicans graced a lake near Lawrence, Kansas, while several flocks of wild turkeys scoured fields farther east.

But I was looking for migrant flocks of snow geese that begin their northward journey by mid February; having wintered in the lower Mississippi Valley, in Gulf Coast marshes and on croplands across the Southern Plains, they head toward Arctic breeding grounds before spring unfolds in the Heartland.  Scanning the clear blue skies, I observed only scattered flocks of Canada geese, moving about the farmlands.

Since I'll be in Central Missouri for the next two weeks, I'm confident that the stirring sight and sound of migrating snow geese lies in my near future; then again, nature offers no guarantees.  But I'll do my best to increase my chances; Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, in the Missouri River Valley, and farmlands east of Columbia will be my primary destinations.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Korean Peninsula

In light of the ongoing Olympics, I thought I might take a look at the geography of the Korean Peninsula.  Extending southward from northeastern China and extreme southeastern Russia, the Korean Peninsula separates the Sea of Japan, to its east, from the Yellow Sea, to its west.  More than 65% of the Peninsula is covered by mountainous terrain, primarily across its northern and eastern regions.  Most of the ranges are composed of Precambrian igneous and metamorphic rock though some areas of volcanism exist as well.  Paektusan, just over 9000 feet, is the highest summit on the Peninsula, rising along the border of China and North Korea; it is known for it large caldera (created by a massive eruption in 946 AD) which holds Heaven's Lake.

Three major rivers drain most of the Korean Peninsula: the Nakdong flows southward through its southeastern region, the Han River flows westward through the central portion of the Peninsula (passing through Seoul) and the Taedong River flows southwestward through the northern Peninsula, passing through Pyongyang.  More than 3500 islands and islets rise off the western and southern coasts of the Peninsula, including Jeju, a large volcanic island in the Korean Strait (south of the Peninsula) which was formed by Hallasan (6398 feet), a large shield volcano that is the highest peak in South Korea.

While the Korean Peninsula extends across the same latitudes as Japan, it does not enjoy the warming effects of the Japan Current and its continental climate is considerably colder.  PyeongChang County, which is hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics, is about 78 miles east of Seoul.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Conservatives and Science

Conservatives, including many industrialists, politicians and farmers, are selective in their appreciation of science.  While they rely on scientific progress for the development of jet fighters, satellite technology, modern transportation, biomedicine and high-tech agriculture, they resist scientific evidence when in comes to subjects such as evolution and climate change.  Protecting their faith and their industries, they sow doubt among their legions and ridicule the evidence itself.

Worse yet, as we have seen in Idaho this week, pressure is placed on educational systems to avoid or "tone down" discussion of these "controversial" issues.  In other words, conservative politicians are deciding what can or cannot be taught in our public schools, regardless of the scientific evidence.

Science, long at war with religion, must now battle conservative zealots from both the government and the corporate sector.  Human enlightenment and social progress have long been fueled by scientific discoveries and, if we allow the Right Wing to censor science, we do so at our own peril.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Nature of Patriotism

Yesterday, Our Dear Leader, Donald Trump, indicated that he wants our country to hold an annual Military Parade, similar to those held in France (and in Russia and North Korea); this, he believes, would demonstrate our patriotism, like standing for the National Anthem or applauding Our Dear Leader during his State of the Union Address.

But patriotism is not superficial.  Waving a flag, saluting tanks and clapping for the President are not acts of patriotism.  We are patriotic when we defend our democracy, when we protest unwise or unjust war, when we support human rights and when we demand social justice.

A President who divides us, who threatens freedom of the press and who ridicules the Judiciary is not patriotic.  A President who foments racism and demeans immigrants is not patriotic.  A President who repeatedly lies to American citizens is not patriotic.  Donald Trump is not a patriot.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Grape Hyacinths

Natives of the Mediterranean region, grape hyacinths are bulb plants that are represented by a variety of species.  Having colonized most Temperate regions of the globe, they are among the first flowers to appear in the spring and some species yield clumps of greenery throughout the winter months.

Here in Littleton, Colorado, grape hyacinths have spread along the south side of our house and the appearance of their narrow leaves is among the first signs of spring on the farm.  Favoring sandy soil and full sun, these fragrant wildflowers adapt well to the Front Range climate, spreading by bulb division, seed or both (depending on the species).  Blue, urn-shaped flowers cluster along a central stem, resembling bunches of grapes and attracting hordes of bees.

Hardy and invasive, grape hyacinths may not be welcome in pristine flower beds but, for those of us who favor naturalized landscapes, they are a carefree addition to our drought-tolerant vegetation.  Besides, they often begin to flower by mid February, providing brilliant clumps of blue throughout the months of spring snow. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

Subtle Signs of Spring

Once the weather warms, the greenery appears and the flowers bloom, everyone knows it is spring.  But those who pay close attention to nature notice signs of spring well in advance of the full blown season.

This morning, at South Platte Park, the ponds and lakes were mostly ice covered and the brown vegetation offered no hint of spring.  The winter ducks were all still present and nesting behavior was not yet evident (though I'm sure great horned owls have broods by now).  However, the territorial calls of red-winged blackbirds were beginning to rise from the marsh and a trio of male common goldeneyes were displaying for a female who showed no immediate interest.

Humans, slaves to our large brains, tend to define the seasons using rigid guidelines (i.e., the calendar months, the equinoxes and the solstices).  But nature's year is a continuum, and the cycle of life varies with each species.  Those who adopt this fluid image of the natural world, our own lives included, are more aware of subtle events while acknowledging the complexity of seasonal change.  

Thursday, February 1, 2018

On the Cusp of Spring

This morning, it is cloudy, cold and trying to snow along the Colorado Front Range.  Nevertheless, we have entered the First Month of Spring, when crocuses and hyacinths often make their appearance across central latitudes of North America.

Sap begins to rise in the trees, skunk cabbage pushes through icy wetlands and, by the end of the month, tree frogs call from the chilly waters of transient ponds and sloughs.  Snow geese and American white pelicans migrate northward in February while some owls, including great horned owls, are already caring for their fluffy young.  Red tailed hawks breed as the days lengthen, magpies repair their bulky nests and the homesick tune of white-throated sparrows intensifies across the Heartland.

Many of these February events are observed along the Front Range but we know that the snows are far from over.  In fact, March and April tend to be the snowiest months of the year and snow is not unusual in May.  This year, having experienced a snow drought to date, spring snowstorms will be more than welcome.