Saturday, March 31, 2018

Loons Visit Columbia

Common loons breed on freshwater lakes across Alaska, Canada, the Great Lakes region and northern New England.  During the colder months, they migrate to coastal bays and estuaries or to large inland lakes of the southern U.S.

As they move between their breeding and wintering areas, these large, attractive divers often turn up on reservoirs across the country and are frequently encountered on those here in Missouri.  Since the immediate Columbia area is devoid of large lakes, migrating loons are less common here but a few have stopped to rest and feed on Perry Phillips Lake, south of town.

On our walk around the lake yesterday, my wife and I were fortunate to observe three of the visitors, joining a flock of ruddy ducks, a small squadron of coot and a trio of pied-billed grebes on the choppy lake surface.  Cutting a large but low profile, the loons were easy to identify with their attractive black and white plumage and their dagger-like bills.  They'll probably stay for a few more days (if the fishing is good) before the next leg of their northward journey.

Friday, March 30, 2018

A Noisy Morning at the Audubon Sanctuary

Finally, the sun is shining in Columbia, Missouri.  I took advantage of this sunny interlude to visit the Audubon Sanctuary on the west side of town and was greeted by a noisy avian chorus.

The songs of northern cardinals, Carolina wrens and tufted titmice dominated the chorus, joined by the hysterical calls of northern flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers.  Percussion was provided by the latter birds in addition to downy woodpeckers, a pileated woodpecker and a yellow-bellied sapsucker.  Twenty-three species were observed on my 2-mile walk, including two brown creepers, the first I have encountered this spring.

As I have mentioned in the past, the Columbia Audubon Sanctuary is an excellent site for birding, accessed by wide, well-maintained trails and characterized by an attractive mix of woodlands, forest, creeks and meadows.  The sunshine and the birdsong made this morning's visit especially pleasant.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Greater Yellowlegs at Eagle Bluffs

On yet another cool, cloudy, damp morning in central Missouri, I ventured down to the Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area.  Shrouded by low, gray clouds and enveloped in a chilly mist, this floodplain refuge hosted an increasing number of migrant waterfowl, now dominated by blue-winged teal, northern shovelers and American coot.  Another flock of American white pelicans had stopped to rest and feed on their way to the Northern Plains, bald eagles were incubating their broods and eastern phoebes were hunting along the waterways.

This morning's highlight was a large number of greater yellowlegs.  Foraging in both the shallows of pools and in flooded fields, these large, attractive shorebirds were feasting on small fish and a host of invertebrates.  Having spent the winter along southern coasts of the U.S. and throughout Mexico, they are on their way to central latitudes of Canada and the southern rim of Alaska where they will nest in wooded bogs.

Among the earlier shorebirds to arrive in spring, greater yellowlegs are active feeders, chasing their prey through the shallows or swinging their long bills through the sediment to stir up worms, snails and larvae.  Their smaller cousins, the lesser yellowlegs, are far more abundant at Eagle Bluffs but arrive a bit later in the season, peaking in number by mid-late April.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A Midwest March

Since arriving in Missouri a week ago, the weather has been a mix of chilly air, low clouds, fog and intermittent rain.  A band of thunderstorms passed through the region yesterday morning and a few fleeting moments of sunshine reassured us that pleasant days will eventually return.

This week has reminded me of my childhood in Cincinnati, when March was a period of endurance before the true spring of April and May; it was perhaps my least favorite month, a gauntlet of gray skies and cold rain.  Later, as I began to appreciate the value of this bleak, sloppy weather, my tolerance has improved (somewhat) and, festooned with rain gear and boots, I visit March wetlands to witness the annual tide of migrant waterfowl.

While March is usually the snowiest month along the Colorado Front Range, a subject of ridicule by many who favor the greenery of the Midwest, I'll gladly endure those upslope snowstorms, intermingled as they are with bright sunshine and periods of dry, mild weather.  To each his own, they say, and I'll take a Colorado March, even with its regular dose of spring snow.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

A Wrinkle in Science

Earlier today, I saw Disney's A Wrinkle in Time with my ten year-old grandson.  The story begins by focusing on two physicist parents and their science-oriented children.  When the father disappears into the Universe after discovering a "wrinkle" in the time-space continuum, the children and a friend are induced to search for him.

From this point on, the story takes on a moralistic tone, with emphasis on the struggle between "light and darkness" and on the universal power of love.  In other words, there is a shift from science to human mysticism.

While the film offers valuable lessons for children, especially related to self-esteem and one's relationship with friends and family, it seemed to ridicule the value of science that is devoid of humanistic qualities.  Rather than pointing out our relative insignificance in this vast Universe, the story, with its Disneyesque ending, implies that natural forces can be altered or diminished by human behavior.  Once again, mysticism conquers science, rescuing believers from the cruel, godless Universe. 

Friday, March 23, 2018

Pectoral Sandpipers at Eagle Bluffs

On this cool, cloudy and breezy morning, a friend and I returned to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River floodplain.  Various species of waterfowl remained common though not especially abundant: mallards, northern shovelers, blue-winged and green-winged teal and American coot were most numerous but a quartet of ring-billed ducks and a lone red-breasted merganser were also observed.  A half-dozen American white pelicans lounged on one of the pools, pied-billed grebes dove in the shallows and the usual mix of raptors patrolled the floodplain.  As their breeding season gets underway, northern flickers were very conspicuous this morning, moving about in small flocks.

Fortunately, the spring shorebird migration seems to be gaining momentum.  A few greater yellowlegs and five Wilson's snipes joined killdeer on the mudflats and, thanks to my birding companion, we discovered nine pectoral sandpipers in a flooded field.  These latter shorebirds breed on the Arctic tundra of North America and Siberia, wintering in South America, Australia and New Zealand.  Unlike most sandpipers, pectorals shun beaches and mudflats, favoring moist grasslands where they forage for insects and other invertebrates.

Despite their long trek from South America, pectoral sandpipers are among the first shorebirds to appear in the Heartland each spring.  And, despite the raw weather, they were kind enough to stop by the Missouri River floodplain this morning.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

An Early Kite

On this sunny, cool morning in central Missouri, a friend and I headed down to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River floodplain.  For mid March, waterfowl were not abundant, represented primarily by Canada geese, mallards, northern shovelers, blue-winged teal and American coot; a few wood ducks and a pair of hooded mergansers were also encountered.  Shorebird sightings were limited to seven greater yellowlegs.  About 30 American white pelicans graced the floodplain and raptors were fairly common, including bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, American kestrels,  northern harriers and a lone merlin.

But the highlight of my visit occurred after my friend left and as I was driving out of the refuge.  Just before reaching the exit, I noticed a "white bird" perched in a grove of trees near the river.  Close examination with my binoculars revealed that its head, chest and abdomen were white (or very light gray) and that its back was a darker gray.  About the size of a peregrine falcon, the bird had no facial markings or streaking on it chest and abdomen.  I concluded it was a Mississippi kite, arriving ahead of its usual migration schedule.

Wintering in South America, Mississippi kites breed across the Southeastern U.S., northward through the central Mississippi Valley and on the Southern Plains, from Texas to Kansas; in recent years, they have been nesting here in Columbia, Missouri.  Often nesting in colonies, these graceful aerialists feast primarily on large, flying insects but also consume a variety of small reptiles, amphibians and songbirds.  According to eBird, Mississippi kites are rare in central Missouri on this date but I'm comfortable with my identification.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Flashback Post I

Rather than repeating myself when it comes to seasonal highlights, I have decided to start directing readers to past posts.  This first Flashback Post relates to the annual congregation of sandhill cranes on the Platte River in south-central Nebraska.

See: Cranes on the Platte River

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Fitness: A Gift to our Kids

We all want what's best for our children.  From the time of their birth, we provide the love, food and shelter that they need.  We take them to interesting places, help them with school work and attend their sporting events or performances.

But one of the most important gifts that we can offer is to encourage them to adopt a healthy lifestyle.  Introducing them to healthy foods, discouraging intake of sugary snacks, educating them about the dangers of tobacco, illicit drugs and alcohol, and encouraging various forms of exercise will instill habits that, in the long run, will minimize their risk of preventable disease.

Obesity, a global scourge, is best prevented during childhood.  Primarily familial, it runs in families because children follow the example of their parents when it comes to diet and exercise.  By remaining fit themselves, parents steer their children away from obesity, tobacco use, alcohol abuse and their many complications.   

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Mind over Body

The phrase "mind over body" generally has positive implications.  Individuals hampered by physical disability, injury or disease overcome those conditions to survive and thrive, inspiring those of us who do not face such challenges.

But the phrase might also be used when talented teams or individuals fail to meet expectations; the recent Winter Olympics and the current NCAA Basketball Tournament offer examples.  The stress induced by the pressure to succeed (often triggered by public expectations) impairs physical performance.

Contrary to the belief that the mind and body are separate, a concept most often instilled by religious mysticism, they are intimately connected and the health of one is dependent on the health of the other.  Disorders such as brain injury, dementia and psychological stress alter the function of other organs and tissues and physical disease can have dramatic effects on brain function.  Our thoughts and our emotions, like our muscular activity, are products of complex, interconnected biochemical processes.  See also Advantage: Underdogs 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Nuthatch Thievery

Yesterday afternoon, as I peered outside to check on the progress of our expected rain showers, I saw a red-breasted nuthatch in one of our black locust trees.  Circling a major branch with a seed in his bill, this avian acrobat was searching for a bark crevice in which to store his larder; when food is plentiful (as it is thanks to my feeders), this is typical behavior for a nuthatch.

Having selected his storage spot, the red-breasted nuthatch crammed the seed under the bark, maneuvering it with his bill.  Seemingly proud of his frugality, he stepped back to admire his work when a white-breasted nuthatch swooped in and snared the seed from its natural locker.  Miffed, the red-breast poked at the intruder but did not seriously challenge his larger rival.  Once he flew off, the white-breasted nuthatch casually devoured the prize.

Such competition and opportunism are widespread in nature but we seldom get the chance to witness these encounters.  I must admit, in more than 40 years of birding, this was a first, occurring less than 20 feet from our living room window.  Birding, like all forms of nature study, relies on a mix of effort and luck!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Stephen Hawking's Legacy

Stephen Hawking, the renowned cosmologist and theoretical physicist, died yesterday at the age of 76.  Diagnosed with ALS in 1963, when he was 21, he was advised that he had but two years to live.  So much for predicting the course of human disease.

Determined to receive his Doctorate, Hawking carried on with the support of his first wife, eventually overcoming the loss of both his mobility and his speech.  Nevertheless, his courageous perseverance and remarkable intelligence led to discoveries about the nature of our Universe and its origin (especially black holes), furthering the work of Einstein and others.

Despite his physical limitations, Stephen Hawking relied on modern technology to communicate with colleagues and to educate the general public.  In the course of doing so, he retained a strict devotion to the scientific method, refusing to condone mysticism in any form.  In the end, he exceeded all expectations.   See also: A Tribute to Stephen Hawking

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

An Owl Duet

The great horned owl that has been serenading our Littleton farm for the past two weeks appears to have attracted a partner.  Last night, about 3 AM, a duet of hoots and other vocalizations echoed from the top of a large honeylocust next to the house; two hours later, the owls either stopped calling or flew off.

It is a bit late in the season for great horned owl romance but the prospect of having a nesting pair on the farm is exciting.  There's certainly plenty of prey here (cottontails, mice, voles and even skunks) though the large trees may be too exposed for owl nesting.

I'll certainly watch for any signs of owl domesticity and report developments should they occur.  We have had red fox and coyotes den on the property and a mule deer raised her fawn here one year.  To have an owl family grace the farm would be a welcome first.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Birding 101

Fortunately, after a series of visits to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, near Columbia, Missouri, and South Platte Park, in Littleton, Colorado, my ten year old grandson has maintained an interest in birding.  Harboring a life list of at least 60 species, his enthusiasm persists; of course, the birding excursions also include snacks, wide-ranging discussions and exposure to other wildlife.  Among today's topics was the probability that other intelligent civilizations inhabit our Universe (a point on which we heartily agreed).

This morning, we took a drive through Chatfield State Park, in southwest Metro Denver.  Stopping at several locations along the reservoir and walking past a few small lakes in the South Platte Valley, we saw a fair variety of birds, including an immature bald eagle and a red-tailed hawk.  The highlight proved to be a large flock of redheads on one of the smaller lakes, a new species for his list.

Of course, I saw a few species that I did not mention to my birding companion, not wanting to frustrate him with the subtle differences between grassland sparrows.  When he is present, I concentrate on pointing out birds that are relatively easy to identify.  Hopefully, his enthusiasm will continue to grow and he'll soon graduate to a more complete field guide.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Armchair Birding

Late this afternoon, as I sat in our farmhouse living room watching college basketball, a small raptor landed on a limb of our catalpa, framed within a small window just above the television.  It was a sharp-shinned hawk, a small accipiter with a long, barred tail that is squared off at its terminal edge; as if to assist my identification, the sharpie turned 180 degrees, showing off its finely striped chest and abdomen.

Feasting on songbirds, sharp-shinned hawks are fairly common throughout most of the Lower 48 during the colder months of the year, retreating to mountainous areas or Canadian latitudes to breed.  Their smaller size and squared-off tail distinguish them from Cooper's hawks which are permanent residents across most of the country.

As veteran birders know, such incidental sightings are rather common for those of us attuned to nature.  Sometimes, after scouring nature preserves for half the day, we return home to encounter the most interesting species in our own backyard (or perhaps from a living room armchair).

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Our Protectionist President

This week, President Trump announced that he plans to protect American jobs by imposing tariffs on steel, aluminum and, perhaps, other products; oh, and by the way, he wants to gut NAFTA.  As usual, his answer to a complex problem is simple and he doesn't appear to consider the ramifications of his policies.  After all, this is the man who promises to save the coal industry, to wall off the country to keep us safe and to protect school children by arming the teachers.

Unfortunately, Trump's protectionism is selective.  He is not interested in protecting the environment, our National Monuments or the rights of American citizens (unless, of course, they are native-born, white, heterosexual males).

What we really need is to be protected from this impulsive narcissist.  The Republicans are not willing to comply and, unless Robert Mueller sinks his ship, Trump will be around until we vote him out of office.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Reducing Stress

In this 24/7, hurry-up world, stress affects us all to some degree.  Excessive stress can lead to a variety of medical problems: headaches, anxiety, peptic ulcers, cardiovascular disease and irritable bowel syndrome to name but a few.  Whatever we do to mitigate stress is sure to be beneficial and the following are my personal recommendations.

If you face a number of problems or duties that need to be addressed, take on only one per day.  Avoid cable news, talk radio and social media; obtain your news from calm, reliable sources (I suggest NPR or the New York Times) and check your email no more than twice each day.  Read books, paint, exercise and play or listen to music (easily mingled with household chores).

Finally, get outside as much as possible and walk through natural areas, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells that nature offers.  She is, in my opinion, the best antidote to stress.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Red Flag Warning

A red flag warning has been issued for eastern Colorado, from the Front Range foothills to the Kansas border.  High winds, produced by high pressure west of the Continental Divide and low pressure on the High Plains, will rake the area, increasing the risk of wildfires.  Dry vegetation and low humidity exacerbate that risk.

Relatively snow deficient this winter, the region is counting on upslope snowstorms in March and April to bring moisture to the dry landscape.  This week's storm tracked north of Colorado, bringing some snow to the Western Slope but leaving the Front Range urban corridor and Colorado Plains under sunny skies.  Just yesterday, a grass fire developed in Elbert County, destroying several homes and barns.

As the winter storm moves east and high pressure envelops most of the State, the gusty winds will abate and the red flag warning will expire.  Hopefully, Pacific storms will begin taking a more southerly track, augmenting our chance for rain and/or snow.

See also: The Nature of Wind

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Bicoastal Storms

Storm systems are centered around an area of low atmospheric pressure and the lower the pressure the more potent the storm.  Here in the Northern Hemisphere, winds circle counterclockwise around the central low, sweeping waves and precipitation in that direction.

Currently, a strong "Nor'easter" is centered off the mid-Atlantic Coast.  Having pummeled inland areas with high winds and heavy snow, it is now raking the coast of New England; as the strong winds come ashore, high waves and storm surge cause coastal flooding and beach erosion.  Meanwhile, in the Pacific Northwest, another strong storm has brought high winds and heavy precipitation to Northern California, the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada; since the storm is centered off Oregon, the coastal effects are greatest to its south as the counterclockwise winds lash the shore.

Of course, both storms are gradually moving off to the east, the Nor'easter into the North Atlantic (where it may affect the Canadian Maritimes) and the Pacific storm across the Great Basin, the Rockies and the Northern Plains.  While the Colorado mountains should get some snow, the Front Range urban corridor will likely be spared (though we need the precipitation).

Friday, March 2, 2018

Night of the Owl

Last night, I was awakened by the hoots of a great horned owl; it was just after midnight.  The owl was clearly perched near to our farmhouse but, despite the bright full moon, I could not see it from the bedroom window.

Long fascinated by owls, I always enjoy hearing their calls and listened as his nocturnal lecture continued.  Our farm is home to dozens of cottontails and I assumed he was biding his time until a meal wandered by; unfortunately, hunting did not seem to be a priority and he continued calling for the next three hours.

Though I managed to doze off for periods of time, the hooting led to a fitful sleep and my fondness for owls began to take a hit; he must have finally flew off (or fell asleep himself) and I was granted some peace.  Of course, I hope he returns on a regular basis as long as the visits are reasonably short. 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Above Kansas Rivers

Flying back to Denver this morning, the landscape of Missouri was shrouded by clouds but clear skies over Kansas and Colorado provided a spectacular view of the Great Plains geography.  The first recognizable feature was Perry Lake, northeast of Topeka, fed by the Delaware River; to the south, Clinton Lake, fed by the Wakarusa River, shimmered in the early morning sun.  Both of these rivers are tributaries of the Kansas River which empties into the Missouri at Kansas City.

Approaching Manhattan, the Kansas River came into view and we soon crossed the lower segment of Tuttle Creek Lake on the Big Blue River.  Just northwest of Junction City, we passed over Milford Lake, on the Republican River and the Smoky Hill River sliced through the city, joining the Republican to form the Kansas River.

From that junction into eastern Colorado, we paralleled the Smoky Hill River, passing over Salina, the massive Smoky Hill Wind Farm (north of Ellsworth), Russell and Hays before our path crossed Interstate 70 and followed the river as it flowed through its reservoir south of Ogallah and, farther upstream, snaked through the chalk lands south of WaKeeney and Quinter.  On the High Plains of western Kansas and easternmost Colorado, the faint upper tributaries of the Smoky Hill gathered what little moisture falls on that dry landscape, carrying it toward the Kansas, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.