Friday, November 30, 2018

Migrant Black Scoters

Black scoters have been turning up in both of my primary eBird areas (Arapahoe County, Colorado, and Boone County, Missouri) in recent weeks.  These sea ducks breed along Arctic Coasts and on tundra lakes of Alaska and Northern Canada, wintering along both coasts of North America as well as the Gulf Coast.

While they occasionally turn up on reservoirs and lakes of the interior, they are not as common away from the coasts as their white-winged cousins.  Black scoters are usually encountered in flocks, bobbing in the water of coastal bays and diving for mollusks, crustaceans and other aquatic invertebrates.  When observed on lakes of the interior, they tend to be alone or in small groups; most move on to coastal areas for the winter but some stay on inland lakes if adequate food is available and the waters remain open.

Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to observe this year's visitors to Colorado and Missouri but I have often seen wintering black scoters off Longboat Key, Florida, where we own a condo.  Wherever they are found, one cannot help but admire these hardy migrants from the far North.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Kings of Bradford Farm

Bradford Farm, an agricultural research center operated by the University of Missouri, stretches across open country east of Columbia.  On this cold, cloudy morning, a friend and I drove along its graveled roadways, hoping to see longspurs or uncommon grassland sparrows.  Instead, we encountered a host of raptors, the kings of this farmland refuge.

We were initially greeted by a rough-legged hawk, hovering above the snow-laden fields; this heavy-bodied buteo, down from Northern Canada, is an uncommon but regular winter visitor in central Missouri.  Later on, a pair of northern harriers crossed our path, flying low over the crop stubble in search of rodents and unwary songbirds.  A red-shouldered hawk patiently hunted from the limb of a large tree and two American kestrels observed our approach from above; one of these small falcons was feasting on a field mouse that dangled from his talons.

Oblivious of the frigid weather, these hunters enjoy an advantage during the colder months, their prey forced to forage in barren, icy fields.  Red-tailed hawks and kestrels are generally the most common raptors at Bradford Farm but bald eagles are regular visitors and short-eared owls may be observed here in winter.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Flashback Post XI

After all the negative things that I have said about President Trump, I thought I should contribute to his fear-mongering when it comes to immigrants.  I have thus provided a link to a worrisome post from July of 2007.

See: Armored Immigrants

Monday, November 26, 2018

After the Blizzard

We in Columbia, Missouri, were on the south side of a potent winter storm that raced across the northern Midwest last evening.  Though we only received about three inches of snow, the high winds plastered everything outdoors with snow and ice.  So what to do on the morning after?  Head down to Eagle Bluffs, of course, to see what the storm blew in.

Nearly alone on the floodplain, I drove slowly through the wintry landscape, stopping at favored viewing points along the way; since most of the refuge is still closed for the duck hunters, I completed my route in less than an hour.  A squadron of trumpeter swans arrived from the north, as did wavering v's of snow geese and greater white-fronted geese.  Large flocks of mallards, gadwall and coot dominated the scene, joined by smaller groups of green-winged teal and a few northern shovelers.  While I expected to encounter a large number of raptors on this cold, cloudy morning, a pair of bald eagles and a lone kestrel were the only avian hunters.  Perhaps the highlight of my visit was a large, restless convention of horned larks, fluttering about an ice-crusted field.

Our sudden blast of winter is expected to abate over the next few days and we'll return to more "seasonal" conditions.  The residents of Eagle Bluffs will likely appreciate a milder respite but they are equipped to deal with any challenges that nature throws their way; they need only worry about natural predators and the threats imposed by human society.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Mute Swan Problem

As my wife and I walked around Philips Lake in southeast Columbia this morning, a pair of adult mute swans flew overhead.  Graceful and quiet as they cruised above the lake, they were a beautiful sight to behold; one would not imagine that those swans are a potential menace.

As I discussed in my post from September of 2016, Mute Swans in the U.S., these large birds are native to Eurasia and were first introduced to North America in the late 1800s.  Since that time, they have colonized the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Coasts as well as the Great Lakes Region.  Looking at their range map on eBird, one finds that mute swans now inhabit or visit portions of all of the Lower 48 States.  Unfortunately, they are aggressive birds, known to attack native waterfowl species, and are voracious consumers of aquatic vegetation, threatening the health of both coastal and interior wetlands.

Wildlife managers along the Eastern Seaboard attempted to establish a hunting season to control their population but that effort was blocked by swan-loving citizens.  While efforts to eliminate invasive plants rarely catch the attention of the general public, the killing of swans, long associated with wilderness, royalty and fairytales is another matter; the fact that they may impact the welfare of our native trumpeter and tundra swans seems to carry little weight.  Such are the consequences of careless introduction programs, a human habit that continues today.

Friday, November 23, 2018

November Rain

November rain, like that of March, is generally cold and unpleasant.  And, unlike the pop-up showers and thunderstorms of the warmer months, it is usually a long-lasting affair.  After all, it most often develops along a cold front, where dense, chilly air noses beneath a warmer, humid air mass.

Unlike rain that occurs in March, the November precipitation falls on ground that has not yet frozen, allowing the water to percolate into the soil and diminishing the risk of runoff flooding that so often muddies the landscape in late winter and early spring.

Today's precipitation in Missouri was typical November rain, developing by mid morning and not letting up until late afternoon.  The temperature hovered in the forties (F) for most of the day and a low, gray overcast precluded any sunshine.  It proved to be good weather for watching college basketball but I'll take December snow over November rain any day. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Beaver Moon

November's full moon, currently brightening the night sky, is commonly known as the "Beaver Moon," a designation attributed to the Algonquin Tribe and now imbedded in American folklore.  The name reflects the fact that beaver are especially active at this time of year, repairing their dams and lodges and storing food for the winter months.  The latter usually consists of small deciduous trees and limbs that are placed underwater for sustenance while ice coats the stream or pond.

My wife and I, frequent visitors to Philips Lake in southeast Columbia, have recently noted extensive beaver damage to small trees along the 40-acre lake.  Once a farm pond, the lake is stocked with fish by the Missouri Department of Conservation and the surrounding land was dedicated as the A. Perry Philips Park in 2011.  This is the first year that we have noticed the beaver damage and have been surprised that these large rodents made their way up from the nearby Gans Creek Valley.

If left alone, the beavers will soon have destroyed most of the small trees and shrubs along the lake and one wonders whether Park managers will extirpate the squatters; such is often the dilemma faced by those charged will balancing human recreation and natural ecosystems.  I'm guessing the beaver will be relocated (or worse).

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Wildfires and Global Warming

The tragic wildfires in California are, in large part, related to an ongoing drought but there has been some speculation that they are a consequence of global warming.  While stagnant weather patterns have set the stage for wildfires throughout the history of our planet, their current relationship to climate change is less clear.  On the other hand, one can reasonably speculate that a warmer climate will make dry areas drier and wet areas wetter; after all, latitude, geography and ocean currents will not change (at least in the foreseeable course of human history).

As with hurricanes, the incidence of wildfires may not be directly affected by global warming but their severity will surely be augmented.  Those who live in fire-prone areas (e.g. semiarid forests), like those who live on barrier islands or in coastal lowlands, must accept the fact that the risk of disaster will continue to rise as the climate warms.  Economically, that risk will place a stress on society as a whole; insurance rates cannot be indefinitely raised for everyone in order to cover those in high risk areas.  As a result, private insurance companies will likely refuse to offer "fire insurance" in wildfire prone regions just as they have eliminated flood insurance coverage across most of the country.

In effect, global warming will begin to dictate where human habitation is both sustainable and affordable.  Urbanization, already a trend in human society, will likely accelerate and high risk natural ecosystems will be handed back to Mother Nature; of course, the survivability of wildlife in those ecosystems will be tested as well. 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Snows over the Floodplain

Ah the sight of snow geese in the morning!  Arriving at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area just before dawn, I encountered a large, restless flock in one of the fields; having spent the night at the refuge, they seemed anxious to continue their journey and, within ten minutes of my arrival, they exploded into the air, circling overhead before heading down the Missouri River Valley.

During my ninety minute visit, I was fortunate to see eight more flocks of snow geese, coming in from the north and east and passing above the floodplain refuge as they angled southward.  In all, I estimate that I saw at least 2400 of the hardy and vocal travelers on this cool, cloudy morning in central Missouri.

While I also encountered a good number of raptors (including two bald eagles) and a fair diversity of waterfowl (including ten canvasbacks), I had come to see snow geese and my effort was rewarded beyond expectations.  The stirring spectacle of migrant snow geese is always the highlight of my natural year.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Avian Party Crasher

On this cloudy, cool afternoon in Columbia, Missouri, a mix of songbirds and woodpeckers descended on our backyard, partly drawn by fresh seed in the feeding area.  Such feeding groups are common during the colder months, making their foraging efforts more efficient and reducing the risk of predation (more eyes improve the level of alertness); the latter benefit was especially important today.

As I watched from the comfort of our family room, the visitors scattered into the nearby shrubs and trees when a Cooper's hawk swooped in for a late lunch.  Fortunately for the songbirds, the powerful accipiter missed his target but the avian party was over.

Though we live near the center of Columbia, just west of the University of Missouri, our neighborhood lies between two wooded stream valleys, favored habitat for both Cooper's hawks and barred owls.  We thus get more than our fair share of raptor sightings and the local songbirds are surely aware of that fact.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Companions on the Trail

Veteran naturalists, despite decades in the field, often encounter species or animal behavior that they had not observed in the past.  Indeed, it is this expectation that keeps us interested and attentive, drawing us into natural ecosystems throughout the year.

This morning, while I was birding at the Columbia Audubon Sanctuary, I heard a noise behind me; turning to look, I discovered six young white-tailed deer, standing at attention.  As I continued to make my way across a sunny hillside, the deer followed at a safe distance, stopping to browse when I stopped to scan the landscape with my binoculars.  This pattern continued for a quarter mile or so before they seemed to lose interest and wandered into an adjacent meadow.

I suspect they were recently abandoned by their newly pregnant mothers and banded together for comfort.  No doubt, I was a mere curiosity and, having spent their short lives in a nature sanctuary, free of hunters, they had no reason to fear an aging human.  As for me, it was a humbling and emotional experience to be joined by these gentle creatures; too often despised for causing road accidents or damaging suburban foliage, deer are a "problem" because we humans killed off their natural predators and destroyed most of their natural habitat.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Deep Freeze at Eagle Bluffs

The landscape of Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area was especially beautiful this morning; crystal-clear air, bright sunshine and snow-crusted foliage produced spectacular scenery.  On the other hand, the temperature was in the mid teens (F), causing steam to rise from the open pools and injecting patchy fog from the adjacent Missouri River.

Waterfowl, mostly mallards, congregated on what open water remained and large flocks of ducks wheeled above the frozen landscape.  Ten trumpeter swans lounged on an ice covered pool, oblivious of the winter chill, and a single flock of snow geese passed overhead, on their way to less frigid climes.  Several bald eagles and two red-tailed hawks patrolled the floodplain, where massive flocks of red-winged blackbirds scoured the icy fields.

It was nature at its best, combining scenic beauty, the challenges of winter and the fortitude of wildlife.  Watching the activity from the comfort of my heated pickup, I was forced to acknowledge the relative vulnerability of modern man. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

Eagle Bluffs Lite

From November through January, most of Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area is closed to the public for duck hunting season.  Only the northernmost section of this fabulous refuge is accessible; nevertheless, birders may still encounter a good variety of species.

On this cold, snowy morning, I ventured down to that floodplain preserve and was rewarded with a couple new sightings for the season: fourteen trumpeter swans and at least fifty snow geese.  Raptors were limited to a Cooper's hawk and a red-tailed hawk and a host of other sightings brought the species total to sixteen, rather meager for this well-known birding mecca.  The weather and my limited time frame were significant factors and I'm sure my species list would have doubled if I had another hour to explore the accessible region.

Except for a two-hour window in mid afternoon, birders must wait until February to more fully explore Eagle Bluffs once again.  While I have no personal objection to duck hunting (assuming the meat is consumed), I have long wondered whether hunting and birding could not safely coexist across this large refuge (e.g. by narrowing the hunting zones and/or reducing the hunting hours).

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Birding Urban Parks

While most naturalists and veteran birders head for conservation areas, nature preserves and wildlife refuges to observe and photograph wildlife, urban parks have a great deal to offer.  Providing a natural escape from human "development," these urban oases are generally planted with a wide variety of native wildflowers, shrubs and plants, attracting a diverse assembly of wildlife.

Indeed, in my experience, the more extensive the nature sanctuary the more dispersed the wild creatures and the more difficult they are to find.  Urban parks, on the other hand, tend to concentrate wildlife, offering food and shelter that is not readily available in the surrounding concrete jungle.

This morning, my grandson and I walked through Stephens Lake Park on the east side of Columbia.  Though its hike-bike path is less than two miles long, we observed twenty bird species, including a yellow-bellied sapsucker (a lifer for my grandson).  Urban parks may not offer the solitude and tranquility of wilderness or large nature preserves but the local birds certainly appreciate their offerings!

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Boredom on Country Roads

Most adult humans enjoy both the scenery and the serenity of a country drive, especially during the sunny, colorful months of autumn.  Unfortunately, preteens are not always as enamored with the experience.

Since my oldest grandson (a novice birder) is visiting this weekend, I took him on a drive through the farmlands east and south of Columbia.  While the temperature hovered near freezing, bright sunshine illuminated the landscape and an interesting variety of livestock and wildlife were encountered on our journey; raptors were especially common, including numerous kestrels and four red-shouldered hawks.  And though we failed to observe migrant snow geese, waterfowl occupied most of the lakes and farm ponds.

It was one of those days when I could have driven about for the entire afternoon, allowing the chilly air to waft through my pickup and soaking in the peaceful scenery.  But my companion was bored within an hour, asking what I planned to do next; a brief stop for snacks offered some consolation but we were home soon thereafter.  The joy of nature exploration, like that of most human endeavors, is acquired through repetition and I am pleased to offer that experience to my grandkids, however brief the dose.  Over time, I hope it becomes a vital part of their lives, as it has for me.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Our Soulless President

Whether you lean toward a liberal or conservative philosophy, it would seem impossible not to be disgusted by the behavior of our President.  Self-indulgent, he belittles anyone who does not openly adore him.  Women, immigrants, minorities, the press and political "enemies" are his favorite targets.

Having just lost the House of Representatives to the Democrats, Trump held a news conference to wallow in his victory and to chastise those Republicans who shunned his support and then lost their election.  When faced with tragic shootings across our nation, he bemoans the fact that they distract the press from his personal accomplishments.  Taking note of a parade of desperate refugees, far from our border, he sends in the military with instructions to shoot anyone who throws rocks.  Having learned that Saudi officials killed and dismembered a journalist, he readily accepts their denial of complicity.

Trump the narcissist is incapable of empathy. He cannot "feel the pain" of those who suffer since he, himself, has lived a life of luxury.  Soon after ending yesterday's news conference, he announced the forced resignation of his Attorney General, just the latest effort to shield himself from public scrutiny.  It's time for Democrats and Republicans alike to dislodge this soulless President and to restore dignity and compassion to the most powerful office on Earth.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Back to Snow Geese Country

While a fair number of snow geese migrate south along the Colorado Front Range, heading for wintering areas in New Mexico, their numbers pale in comparison to those that travel through the Missouri and Mississippi Valleys; these migrants head for the lower Mississippi Valley and western Gulf Coast, where they spend the winter on crop fields and in wetlands.

Returning to Missouri for a few weeks, we spent the night in Abilene, Kansas, and resumed our journey this morning, guided by a Cheshire moon and bright Venus in the predawn sky.  Once the sun rose, I began to watch for flocks of snow geese though it's a bit early yet for those hardy migrants; unfortunately, I only saw their large Canadian cousins and a host of raptors as we crossed Eastern Kansas and Western Missouri.

No doubt, I'll observe plenty of snow geese (and greater white-fronted geese as well) before returning to Colorado.  After all, I'll be hanging out in the heart of snow geese country!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Chaos at the Refuge

On this cloudy, cold morning, ducks were abundant at South Platte Park.  Northern shovelers, gadwalls and American wigeon dominated the scene, joined by smaller flocks of mallards, hooded mergansers, buffleheads and American coot; a few northern pintails, redheads, green-winged teal and pied-billed grebes were also observed.

The serenity of these flocks was suddenly disrupted by a pair of bald eagles, one adult and one immature, that circled above the lakes, sending clouds of ducks into the air.  Despite their reaction, most of the waterfowl need not fear the eagles, which tend to focus on old, sick or injured birds that are slow to respond or cannot keep up with their cohorts.

While our National Birds are powerful raptors, especially adept at snaring fish from the surface, they also steal fish from ospreys or gulls and often congregate along salmon runs to feed on dying fish in the shallows.  At other times they may be found far from water, feasting on the carcasses of deer or elk that were killed by predators or succumbed to harsh winter weather.  

Friday, November 2, 2018

A Wounded Hunter

As I walked along the South Platte River on this bright but chilly morning, I spotted a coyote on the opposite bank, nosing his way through the thickets.  It soon became apparent that he had injured one of his back legs and could not bear weight on that limb.

While we are entering the season when predators generally have an advantage (leafless foliage, dry grass and active prey), I wondered if this wounded hunter will make it through the winter.  No doubt, it will be harder for him to chase down rabbits and other agile prey.

Then again, coyotes are intelligent and highly adaptable creatures, adept at surviving in remote wilderness as well as in rural and urban environments.  Known to take advantage of human garbage and dog food, they also feed on carrion, berries and domesticated animals in addition to a host of wild birds and mammals.  My bet is that he'll manage just fine.