Thursday, August 30, 2018

Spectacle at Dusk

On this cool, breezy evening in Columbia, Missouri, I went out to the back deck for a bird count.  After spending an hour in the lounge chair, I had seen a fair variety of birds, all common summer residents in our area.

As dusk progressed, I was about to go inside when a flock of common nighthawks appeared in the darkening sky; numbering 32, they were drifting to the SSE.  To my delight, this initial flock was followed by two more, all heading the same direction; the total count for all three flocks was 84.

Though large flocks of migrating nighthawks are not unusual in late August and early September, this evening's spectacle, unexpected and almost missed, was especially inspiring as the silent travelers passed overhead.  They are on their way to South America, always leaving well ahead of the autumn chill; unlike some insectivores (e.g. chimney swifts), which stick around until mid October, nighthawks do not risk any depletion of their prey (flying insects).  Feeding on the wing as they migrate, they will not return to the Heartland until early May.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Flashback Post X

Two days after visiting the Columbia Audubon Sanctuary, where (among other habitats) I crossed a restored prairie, I am experiencing an outbreak of chigger "bites."  Though I stayed on the trails, my preventive efforts were otherwise minimal, having ignored my own advice from June of 2016.

See:  Chigger Season

Monday, August 27, 2018

A Morning of Pewees

Back in central Missouri, I visited the Columbia Audubon Sanctuary this morning.  Though we are in the midst of another heat wave, it was relatively mild and breezy just after dawn but harassment by horse flies hastened my walk through the refuge.

While I encountered a fair variety of species, including pileated woodpeckers and a barred owl, eastern wood pewees dominated the scene, moving about in small groups and calling from every parcel of forest.  The most common and widespread flycatcher in the eastern U.S., these birds generally arrive in May and depart for South America by early October.  Throughout the warmer months, they are most often seen alone, perched near the tip of a dead limb from which they make repeated sorties to snare flying insects; they may also glean prey (insects or spiders) from the foliage.

Upon arriving in spring and just before leaving in the fall, eastern wood species, like many other birds, may congregate in favored locations where food is plentiful.  The cause for their abundance this morning is uncertain but their cheerful calls and "bug-control" services are always welcome.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Threat of Provincialism

President Trump's election was, in large part, the result of his promise to enact policies that focus purely on the welfare of Americans.  Many of those who supported his populist message were looking out for their own welfare, placing it above the welfare of humans in general.

Such provincialism is especially strong in rural areas and small towns, where residents tend to be like-minded and where a distrust of the Federal Government is especially strong.  Though many rely on subsidies (e.g. farm supports) and turn to the Federal Government when natural disasters destroy their homes or threaten their livelihoods, they abhor the liberal politics of urban centers.

Were this provincialism limited to regional politics, it might be amusing.  But the welfare of our species and the health of our environment depend upon cooperation throughout our country and across the globe.  We cannot effectively deal with climate change, pandemics, poverty, environmental pollution and human rights by focusing solely on our local community and personal welfare.  Provincialism is selfish, close-minded and, in the long run, self-destructive. 

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Crossing Mississippi

Mention the State of Mississippi and most Americans likely think of Delta cotton fields or beautiful Gulf beaches bracing for the next tropical storm or hurricane.  But most of the State is covered by forest and woodlands, a fact that I confirmed as we traveled through Mississippi yesterday.

Returning to Missouri, we entered Mississippi west of Mobile, Alabama, and exited the State just south of Memphis, Tennessee.  From the Alabama border to Hattiesburg, we undulated through the De Soto National Forest, crossing the Chickasawhay and Leaf Rivers, tributaries of the Pascagoula which enters the Gulf of Mexico.  Between Hattiesburg and Jackson, the terrain leveled out as we crossed the "pine belt" before reaching the Pearl River, which also flows to the Gulf.

North of Jackson, woodlands still predominate but are broken by small farms and ranches and by wetlands along the Big Black River and the upper tributaries of the Yazoo River (all of which flow westward to the Mississippi).  On both sides of the Coldwater River, the northernmost of those waterways, broad swamplands had attracted hundreds of great egrets, providing the natural highlight of our journey through the State.  

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park

On our way out of Pensacola, Florida, this morning, my wife and I visited Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park, southwest of the city.  The Preserve's 4200 acres stretch east of Perdido Bay, occupying (and expanding) the former site of the Perdido Pitcher Plant Prairie.  Known for its orchids and carnivorous plants, the refuge is accessed via a network of earthen trails and boardwalks.

Short on time and de-energized by the heat, we settled on the Tarkiln Bayou Trail (1.5 miles roundtrip), which leads southwest from the parking lot on State Route 293.  This paved walkway first crosses a woodland of slash pine and saw palmetto and then snakes atop boardwalks where pitcher plants (primarily of the white-topped species) abound in the shallow wetlands.  The trail ends on the east shore of scenic Tarkiln Bayou, which is surrounded by tidal marsh and empties into Perdido Bay.

This State Park is named for tar kilns, locally used in the 1800s to process pine tar that was collected from southern yellow pines (commonly known as slash pines); the tar was used primarily by the shipping industry but also in the production of soap.  While the refuge is home to an excellent diversity of wildlife, we encountered only ospreys, red-headed woodpeckers and eastern towhees on this hot August morning.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

White Beaches of Northwest Florida

The Florida Panhandle is known for its sparkling white beaches, a trait that results from their composition.  The "sugar sand" of this region is composed of fine, ovoid quartz crystals, eroded from the Blue Ridge Mountains and deposited in the Gulf of Mexico by the Apalachicola River.

Spread by currents within the Gulf, the quartz crystals are a primary component of beaches all along the Florida Gulf Coast but are least "contaminated" with shell fragments along the Panhandle.  In beaches along the Florida Peninsula and Keys, variable amounts and color of shell fragments alter the appearance of the sand; in some areas, the shell fragments predominate and the beach is gray, tan or nearly black.

Here on Pensacola Beach, the white sand is dazzling in the bright afternoon sun, squeaking beneath your feet and producing a sharp contrast with the clear, turquoise water of the Gulf.  As one might expect from the above discussion, shells are small, mostly white and far less abundant than on the beaches of Southwest Florida.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Off to the Northern Gulf

Since the red tide was worsening on Longboat Key, we decided to head to the Northern Gulf Coast and settled on Pensacola Beach, an area that neither of us had visited.  The seven hour drive was uneventful, rather devoid of interesting wildlife; an exception was a huge number of cattle egrets on ranchlands to either side of Interstate 10, just west of Interstate 75.  Also of note was the change in character of the rivers, from the clear, tea-colored water of the peninsula (flowing through limestone and sandy soil) to the muddy water of the Panhandle rivers, draining the clay soils of the interior.

Nearing Pensacola, we cut south on Route 281, crossing the broad east arm of Pensacola Bay to Gulf Breeze before continuing out to the narrow barrier island of Pensacola Beach.  As is typical of the Northern Gulf Coast, Pensacola Beach boasts a scenic strip of white sand, backed by modest dunes and hotels.  While it is surely a delightful location for sun worshipers, surfers and boaters, it did not immediately appeal to this naturalist.  We did encounter a fair number of brown pelicans on the bay, but only a handful of sanderlings and laughing gulls were observed on the beach.

We'll be here for a couple of days and I'll surely have more to report before we leave.  Stay tuned!

Monday, August 20, 2018

A Pelican Roost

For the first time since we purchased our condo on Longboat Key, a group of brown pelicans has established a roost on a mangrove island, some 50 yards off our seawall in Sarasota Bay.  Common local residents, these marine birds breed along both coasts of North America, from Southern California and the Mid Atlantic States, southward.

Brown pelicans generally nest and roost in colonies, preferring offshore islands where they are relatively safe from predators; here in South Florida, mangrove islets are most often used.  Once their breeding season has ended, some wander northward as far as British Columbia and New England, returning to more southerly latitudes in the fall; vagrants may even turn up along major river valleys, especially in late summer.

Comical looking but highly skilled as fliers and divers, brown pelicans usually feed by plunging into schools of fish, using their bill pouch to snare their prey.  Often observed at fishing docks, looking for handouts, they are one of the most recognizable marine birds along southern coasts and are more than welcome on our inlet of Sarasota Bay.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Inspecting the Dead

Wanting to get closer to the red tide destruction, my wife and I visited Whitney Beach this morning.  Stretching along the northwest edge of Longboat Key, it is both the most scenic stretch of sand and (in my opinion) the best birding location on this barrier island.  As expected, the beach was littered with dead fish, eels, rays and horseshoe crabs and the variety of birds was far below normal.

Wandering among the dead, we endured the nauseating stench of rotting sea life.  While a couple of yellow-crowned night herons and a dozen shorebirds (black-bellied plovers and ruddy turnstones) scoured the beach, they stayed clear of the victims; brown pelicans and large flocks of laughing gulls passed overhead or lounged far offshore.  Except for a lone hunter with his metal detector, we were the only humans on that popular beach.

Though the algal counts have waxed and waned along Florida's Southwest Coast, the red tide is expected to persist until a tropical storm or cool autumn weather invades the region.  There is trouble in paradise and, this morning, we bore witness to its wrath. 

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Benefits from a Red Tide?

This past week, the Governor of Florida declared a State of Emergency along the Southwest Coast, responding to the natural and economic damage wrought by the toxic algal bloom.  Many marine species have been killed and both the fishing and tourist industries are taking a hit.

But could there be a natural benefit from these algal blooms?  Could they be important in marine ecosystems, thinning out populations, releasing nutrients and "re-setting" the regional web of life?  After all, many other natural phenomena are deemed to be harmful or cruel from the human perspective.

On a selfish note, the red tide has cleared out much of the human population on Longboat Key and we almost have our condo complex to ourselves.  Then again, one cannot help but wonder if this bloom, like those that occur on inland lakes and coastal bays, is aggravated by human activity.  We pump a huge amount of nutritious effluent into our rivers and human-induced global warming will surely enhance algal blooms in the future.  All of these issues are food for thought and it is best that we concentrate on protecting all natural ecosystems from pollution and climate change.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Encountering the Red Tide

Since we had a wedding to attend in South Carolina in mid August, we decided to spend the second half of this month at our condo on Longboat Key, Florida.  Unfortunately, in the weeks leading up to the wedding, we learned that a severe and persistent red tide had developed along the coast of Southwest Florida.  Nevertheless, we decided to investigate for ourselves.

A toxic algal bloom of Karenia brevis, a red tide results in extensive fish kills, littering the beaches with rotting fish; a neurotoxin released by the algae may also kill dolphins and manatees and, this year, the corpse of a whale shark washed ashore.  In addition, particulate debris from the abundant algae wafts in on the sea breeze, causing eye, throat and lung irritation for those humans who do not abandon the region altogether.

We arrived to find that the dead fish odor was indeed strong along the beaches but that the wind-blown irritants were rather mild.  Though we will likely depart earlier than planned, we'll limit our beach walks and focus our activities on the bay side of the island, which seems to be less affected.  Of note, the Mote Aquarium, in Sarasota County, has developed a method to kill the algae by injecting ozone into the water; now used to protect their tanks, they will try this method in canals before experimenting in the open Gulf.  On the other hand, since a bloom of Karenia brevis is a natural phenomenon, one wonders whether such treatment will have unintended consequences.

See also: Red Tide in January

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Crossing the Eastern Divide

Yesterday morning, we left Knoxville, driving eastward through the foggy Tennessee Valley.  After crossing the Holston and French Broad Rivers (which join to form the Tennessee), we climbed into the Blue Ridge Mountains, following the course of the Pigeon River.  Leveling out west of Asheville, we crossed the divide between the Pigeon and the French Broad Rivers, encountering the largest concentration of tent caterpillars that I have ever seen.

At Asheville, we angled southward on Interstate 26 and crossed the Eastern Divide just south of Hendersonville; this Divide, which snakes north to south through Eastern Canada and the Eastern U.S., separates the watersheds of rivers flowing to the Gulf of Mexico from those flowing toward the Atlantic Ocean.  South of the Divide, we soon arrived at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and were treated to a spectacular view of the Southeastern Piedmont.

After undulating across the Piedmont, hemmed in by a pine-broadleaf forest, we crossed the Fall Line at Columbia, leaving the Precambrian bedrock of the Blue Ridge and Piedmont and traveling across the flat, sandy soil of the Coastal Plain.  We'll spend a few days along the South Carolina coast before heading south to Florida.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Road Trip to the Southeast Coast

On our way to a family wedding in South Carolina, my wife and I left Columbia this morning and drove eastward across the Glaciated Plain of Missouri.  After crossing the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers in St. Louis, we angled southeastward across Illinois, eventually fording the Wabash River (a major tributary of the Ohio) before climbing across the Shawnee Hills of southern Indiana (capped with Pennsylvanian sandstone).

After crossing the Ohio River at Louisville, we drove eastward through the Bluegrass Region of northern Kentucky (underlaid with Ordovician Limestone), crossing the Kentucky River near Frankfort and again south of Lexington; the Kentucky flows northward to joint the Ohio.  At Berea, we climbed onto the Appalachian Plateau (a layer cake of Carboniferous sediments) and crossed the Cumberland River (another tributary of the Ohio) in southern Kentucky.  Entering Tennessee, we climbed across the Allegheny Front, the high, western edge of the Appalachian Plateau, and then dropped into the Ridge and Valley Province, crossing the Clinch River (a major tributary of the Tennessee) before reaching Knoxville.

We'll spend the night in Knoxville before continuing our journey to the Coast.  Tomorrow we cross the Eastern Divide.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Perseids from the Sky

On my regular flights between Colorado and Missouri, I am usually focused on the ground, studying the topography and rivers; should it be a night flight, I watch for city lights, observing the sequence of towns and cities that I have come to memorize from my numerous road trips.

But tonight, as I fly from Denver to Columbia, Missouri, I will be watching the sky.  This is the annual peak night for the Perseid Meteor Shower, produced by remnant debris from the Swift-Tuttle Comet.  As the Earth crosses the comet's path around the sun, the dust particles collide with and ignite in our atmosphere, producing numerous meteors.  The Perseids are often abundant and are expected to increase in coming decades as the comet's path more closely aligns with the orbit of our planet.

As I write this blog from Denver International Airport, sunset and our takeoff are still two hours away but the radar shows that precipitation is minimal between here and Columbia, suggesting that high clouds will not obscure my view.  Though the meteors are best observed after midnight, I hope to see many from 30,000 feet, far removed from the "light pollution" on the ground.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

A Sunset Flight

Last evening, my son (a pilot) and I took a flight across the Colorado Piedmont, south of Denver.  Leaving Centennial Airport an hour before sunset, we headed west to Chatfield Reservoir and then turned south, following the base of the foothills.

Crossing over Roxborough State Park, adorned with scenic rock formations, we could see the prominent peaks that rise along the South Platte River Canyon to our west and southwest.  Farther along, we passed the craggy mass of Devil's Head and continued up the Plum Creek Valley to the Palmer Divide.  Angling to the east, we followed the Divide for a short distance, catching a view of Monument and Colorado Springs in the Fountain Creek Valley, off to our south.  After curving across the upper tributaries of Cherry Creek (which eventually joins the South Platte in downtown Denver), we passed above the mesas and buttes that characterize the scenic topography of the Castle Rock region.

As we headed north, near Sedalia, the sun set behind the Front Range and we could see the multiple ridges of foothills and mountains that produce a stair-step landscape, leading to the Mt. Evans massif.  After taking it that spectacular view, we headed back to Centennial with a fresh appreciation for terrain that we have long known only from the ground.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Prairie Sunflowers

While they may bloom from June to September, prairie sunflowers are generally most abundant and conspicuous in August.  Native to the High Plains, clumps of these wildflowers adorn almost every highway and country road in Eastern Colorado; since they favor full sun and sandy soil, prairie sunflowers have spread throughout most of the West and much of the Eastern U.S., wherever such conditions exist.

These common annuals may look a bit scraggly where they dot an abandoned field but can produce stunning swaths of gold in more favorable areas.  Their seeds are consumed by small mammals and a wide variety of grassland birds and have been used by humans as well (either in whole form or churned into a butter).

Prairie sunflowers are certainly among the more widespread wildflowers on the Great Plains and are especially appreciated when the intense summer sun has baked away most of the greenery.  To me, they represent the vanguard of autumn splendor.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Good Year for Fruit

Despite excessive heat and a prolonged drought through the first half of summer, the fruit crop on our Littleton farm has been excellent this year.  Mulberries were abundant in June and our various apple and pear trees are more laden with fruit than I have seen in many years.

Of course, this abundance reflects the fact that we did not have a late freeze this spring.  Though some upslope snow fell in March and April, the temperature remained relatively mild and the blossoms emerged intact.  Since I am often out of town, our farm management might be described as willful neglect, characterized by minimal irrigation and no use of fertilizers or pesticides; as a result, the fruit is abundant but not terribly attractive for human consumption.  While I might snack on an apple or two, almost all of the crop is left for the wildlife.

Indeed, nocturnal squabbles have been evident this past week as raccoons and skunks raid the fallen fruit.  Squirrels, flickers and mice also partake and, in some years, mule deer wander in to feast on the bounty.  What could be better for a naturalist than trees that require no maintenance and attract a host of wild creatures? 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Late Summer Flocking

As the days continue to shorten and summer begins to lose its intensity, attentive birders notice flocking behavior in many species.  For most birds (goldfinches are an exception), their breeding season has ended and their territorial instincts have faded; migrants gather in flocks to prepare for their southward journey while many permanent residents form flocks to evade predators and to improve the efficiency of their foraging.

Last evening, I encountered a flock of 30+ barn swallows, strafing a nearby lake to fuel up for their journey to South America; then, this morning, I watched as a flock of 18 snowy egrets moved southward above the South Platte Valley.  Among other late summer migrants that travel in sizable flocks are blue-winged teal,  Swainson's and broad-winged hawks, shorebirds, common nighthawks, American white pelicans and Franklin's gulls.  Non-migrant flocks of cedar waxwings, doves, robins, starlings and various blackbirds are also increasingly common as summer winds down.

While the influx of winter songbirds will not begin until mid October, these late summer flocks offer some excitement as birders try to recover from the mid summer doldrums.  Better yet, they are a preview of autumn migration spectacles and hint at the cool, crisp days that lie ahead.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Flashback Post IX

While I have often expressed my disdain for organized religion in this blog, I find myself agreeing with Pope Francis this week.  His declaration that the death penalty must be abolished, though based on his faith more than other factors, echoes a post of mine from February of 2014.

See: The Death of Capital Punishment

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Counting Birds in Kansas

Yesterday, I made the 11 hour drive back to Metro Denver from Columbia, Missouri.  Since I had my oldest grandson along for the ride, I suggested we count the number of bird species that we encountered along Interstate 70 in Kansas.  Knowing that the Kansas segment of our trip covers 422 miles, I expected to see 30 species or so; much to my surprise (and frustration), we observed only 14.

Contrary to popular perception, the Kansas section of I-70 actually crosses an interesting variety of landscape and habitat, including the eastern woodlands and river valleys, the Flint Hill grasslands, the Smoky Hills region and the Western High Plains; nevertheless, our bird sightings did not match that diversity.  As one might expect, European starlings, rock pigeons and mourning doves were most abundant and a fair number of red-tailed hawks patrolled the eastern half of the State.  The highlight of our count was provided by four Mississippi kites, one pair near Junction City and the other near Abilene.

While the highway birding was far less than spectacular, in part due to our speed and the mid summer conditions, it did keep my grandson entertained and made that six-hour segment seem shorter.  Perhaps we'll get to try again during the spring or autumn migration; then, the ranch ponds will hold more than cattle.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Abandoned Nests

On my last day in central Missouri, my wife and I took a walk around Perry Phillips Lake, just south of Columbia.  In late spring and early summer, we always stop at the covered fishing deck to watch the nesting activity of barn and cliff swallows; the former place their nests on the cross beams of the structure while the latter adhere their cavities of mud to angular joints of the roof.

Now, in early August, those nests are abandoned.  While barn swallows still strafe the lake and adjacent fields, feasting on insects, the cliff swallows have moved off to the southwest, beginning their long journey to southern South America; by January, during the peak of the Southern Summer, they will head for North America once again, sometimes arriving in the Desert Southwest by late February.  The barn swallows will migrate southward by September, wintering in more northern regions of South America.

The abandoned nests at Phillips Lake are just another sign that summer is winding down, though many days of oppressive heat still lie ahead.  Some of us, while fond of our four-season climate, envy these long-distance travelers, choosing to ignore the many natural and human-induced threats that they face along their journey.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Stopping by Eagle Bluffs

During a brief stay in central Missouri, I took my oldest grandson down to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area.  Though he is a novice birder, his attention span remains short, ensuring that our visit would be relatively brief and efficient.

Unfortunately, we were greeted by dense fog in the Missouri River Valley and our initial leg through the refuge offered only brief glimpses of the wildlife.  But, by the time we turned back at the south end of the floodplain preserve, the sun had taken its toll on the haze and we were rewarded with a good variety of species.  Turkey vultures, great blue herons and great egrets were most abundant (if you don't count the red-winged blackbirds and indigo buntings) but we also saw bald eagles, wood ducks, a double-crested cormorant, belted kingfishers and a mix of shorebirds.  Highlights, new to my grandson, were a pair of American avocets and a small flock of blue-gray gnatcatchers.

While our visit was short and the weather was not ideal, a chance to explore Eagle Bluffs is never declined by this birder and two new species for a budding naturalist were unexpected benefits.  Though I will be returning to Colorado in a few days, I'm already looking forward to my next visit to this fabulous refuge, hopefully to catch the peak of the autumn waterfowl migration.