Saturday, December 29, 2018

Frugality & Conservation

As we know, not everyone is an environmentalist; just look at the damage that Trump and his legions are unleashing on natural ecosystems.  Yet, many who deny global warming or turn a blind eye to industrial pollution help to combat climate change and habitat destruction in other ways.

Humans who are frugal by nature have less impact on the environment.  By limiting their energy use and personal consumption, they are playing an important role in protecting our planet.  They may not openly support environmental regulations or donate to conservation organizations but they may be doing more to limit human impact than many citizens who are vocal conservationists.  Too often, we humans march or write checks to demonstrate our environmentalism while ignoring the effects of our own consumerism.

Perhaps we should be putting more emphasis on personal behavior than on the policies of close-minded politicians.  On the other hand, we can and should do both.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

A Brief December Spring

A potent winter storm, currently centered over northwest Missouri, is dropping heavy snow across the Northern and Central Plains.  Ahead of its cold front, spring-like weather has invaded central Missouri, courtesy of strong southeasterly winds that have brought mild, humid Gulf of Mexico air into the Heartland.

Heavy rains fell last night, leaving shallow pools across the regional farmlands, and the southerly flow has continued today, pushing afternoon highs into the lower sixties (F).  Our late December spring will be short-lived, however, as the cold front sweeps through the area this evening.  While we are expected to escape the snow, highs will remain in the thirties for much of the week.

Usually, the jet stream settles into a "zonal flow" by winter, preventing wide swings in the temperature range across Temperate Latitudes.  As our climate warms, however, a less stable jet stream appears likely and bouts of spring in winter will surely become more common.  What effects that will have on Temperate ecosystems remains to be seen.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Those Birdless Days

On this sunny, mild day in central Missouri, a friend and I visited three birding hotspots this morning; our total species count was seven.  This afternoon, my wife and I revisited one of those sites, adding another four species to the day's count.

Like medicine and meteorology, birding is an inexact human endeavor and expectations are not always met; the word "usually" is often employed.  The reason for such "birdless days" is not always evident; as veteran birders know, they can occur during any season of the year and under all weather conditions.  Perhaps atmospheric pressure has something to do with it!

On the other hand, one of the joys of birding is not knowing what to expect on any given day.  Patience, while certainly important, is not always rewarded.  Besides, birds and other wild creatures are not in the business of entertaining humans; we can only hope to observe their activity and our schedules do not always mesh.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Bobcat at Dawn

The Columbia Audubon Sanctuary is an excellent destination for wildlife viewing throughout the year.  On winter mornings, visitors are likely to see white-tailed deer, barred and great horned owls, pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers and a large variety of songbirds.  This morning, just before dawn, I encountered a bobcat, which ducked into a wooded gully as I approached.

Recognized by their long legs and bobbed tail, these predators are found in forests, open woodlands, swamps and deserts across North America, from Southern Canada to Mexico; long common in the Ozarks of Missouri, they have been spreading northward and eastward in recent decades.  Bobcats feed primarily on small mammals and game birds and are most active at dawn and dusk; they often maintain several dens within their territory.

Solitary for most of the year, bobcats mate in mid-late winter and kittens are usually born in late April or May.  Weaned within a couple of months, they learn to hunt throughout the summer and then disperse by autumn, establishing their own territories.  Increasingly, those hunting grounds overlap with human communities but, like coyotes, bobcats have learned to adapt to urban environments and are more common and widespread than one might suspect.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Cold Moon at Dusk

Road trips are not always as interesting as we might hope, especially when they cross familiar terrain.  Returning to Missouri today, the journey across the Great Plains was far from exciting, despite the sunny, pleasant weather.

The dry winter landscape, relatively devoid of wildlife (except for numerous rough-legged hawks in Western Kansas) was not exactly scenic; indeed, only the rust-colored grasslands of the Flint Hills qualified for that designation.  However, as I crawled through Kansas City during rush hour, the full December moon rose in the twilight of dusk. 

Known as the Cold Moon, for obvious reasons, it is often especially bright as it gleams through the dry winter air.  More than a beautiful natural nightlight, the moon reminds us of Earth's violent birth and early history, when our lone satellite was ripped away from the molten planet during its collision with a smaller planetoid (some 4.6 billion years ago).  Pummeled and cratered by debris for millions of years, the moon gradually established its orbit but has since been drifting away.  As brilliant as it was today, the moon was much larger and brighter in appearance when dinosaurs roamed the planet and when our first primate ancestors explored Earth's ancient forests.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Winter Birding

Novice birders generally prefer the warmer months, when they can hike about in shorts, a T-shirt and a floppy sun hat, searching for colorful summer residents and visitors.  Of course, some choose a more sedate approach, observing birds from the comfort of their deck.

While veteran birders are not immune to such practices, we are familiar with the benefits of winter birding, when a large variety of seasonal residents arrive from more northern climes.  In addition to this influx, raptors, songbirds and woodpeckers are easier to locate in the barren trees and all species tend to be more active, driven by the need for calories during this challenging season.  We also know that winter is the best time to observe vagrants (that wander in from their usual ranges) or irruptive species, forced southward by a shortage of food across their northern homeland.  Finally, those birders who live near mountains enjoy the arrival of species that practice vertical migration, descending to more hospitable elevations during the winter months.

Winter birding, whether conducted from a picture window or out in a snowy wilderness can be more productive than many birders realize.  We humans may not be designed for winter weather but our avian neighbors and visitors are well equipped to thrive during nature's culling season. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Greenery of Winter

As we approach the winter solstice, much of the Temperate Zone landscape appears to be lifeless.  Brown, dry grasslands, barren deciduous trees and leafless thickets dominate the scene while the refuse of the growing season blows across our fields and lawns.  Fortunately, an exception is provided by the conifers, the evergreen trees and shrubs that adorn our parks, suburbs, farmlands and forests.

Here on our Littleton farm, we have a mix of conifers, including junipers, pinon pines, Austrian pines and a few spruce trees.  Providing greenery during the winter months, they also attract a wide variety of birds that utilize their shelter and feast on their berries and nuts.  Among these residents and visitors are red-breasted nuthatches, bushtits, cedar and Bohemian waxwings, pine siskins and other more common species.  The presence of these conifers also increases our chance to see mountain birds that may descend to lower elevations in winter; these include northern goshawks, Steller's jays, mountain chickadees, red crossbills, Cassin's finches and, in some years, evening grosbeaks.

The use of conifers for Christmas trees, wreaths and garlands, stems from the rituals of ancient man, who considered them signs of perpetual life and used them to fuel winter solstice bonfires to coax back the life-giving sun.  Even today, when we understand the solar cycle, the greenery of conifers offers hope through the dark, frigid months of winter.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Staying in Touch

My wife recently mentioned that we get less than a third of the Holiday cards that we once received and that at least half of them are from family members.  Of course, we also send out far fewer Holiday greetings than we did when we were younger.  Over the years, family responsibilities, career-related duties, relocations and, unfortunately, deaths, whittle away the number of friends with whom we stay in touch.  On the other hand, as we age, we come to appreciate the vital role that those friends played in our lives and we yearn to reconnect.

Partly for that reason, I decided to try the world's largest social media network earlier this year, giving myself six months to assess the benefit; I deleted my account within four months.  What I found was that most of the "friends" that I accumulated on that network would be best described as "past acquaintances" from high school, college and my various work locations over the years.  Most of my past good friends either don't use social media or use it primarily for family communication.  Needless to say, my social experiment was less than rewarding and it has become clear that a more personalized effort is in order.

I must admit that my children's generation is much better at staying in touch with close friends.  While this is partly due to their facility with social media, it also seems to reflect a commitment to remain close, including annual gatherings, reunions at weddings, etc. (to a degree that has not occurred in our generation).  Hopefully, that commitment will persist as they age and they will reap the benefits of close friendships when they may need them most.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Cackling Geese

On my walk along the South Platte this morning, I encountered a large flock of cackling geese, resting on the river.  Prior to 2004, these "small Canada geese" were considered to be subspecies of their larger cousins.  They are now classified as a separate species though they, themselves, are represented by several subspecies.

After nesting on the Arctic tundra of Northwest Canada and Alaska, cackling geese winter in the Pacific Coast States or in the south-central U.S.; their numbers seem to be increasing along the Colorado Front Range, both during migrations and throughout the winter.  When mingling with Canada geese, cackling geese are relatively easy to identify due to their smaller size, stubby bill, shorter neck and, in some subspecies, a white collar at the base of their neck.  They also have a higher-pitched call than Canada geese and, in my experience, tend to be calmer and quieter when resting on lakes or rivers.

Cackling geese are perhaps easiest to identify when flying at a distance.  While their coloration matches that of Canadas, their small size makes them look more like ducks than geese.  Should the flock approach your location, their higher-pitched calls confirm the identification.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

When Idols Dismiss Truth

While perusing the New York Times this morning, I came across a report that Stephen Curry, an NBA Superstar and surely an idol for millions of children and adults across the globe, stated on a podcast that he doubts humans landed on the moon.  Far from an expert on space exploration, Curry should have checked the facts before making a statement that might influence his admirers.

Celebrities have the opportunity to do a great deal of good during their lives, especially by calling attention to the plight of poorly educated and underserved communities; I suspect that Mr. Curry has already donated a significant amount of time and money to such causes.  But to make rash statements that undermine historical and scientific facts is both dangerous and irresponsible.

America is already challenged by a President who dismisses truth and ridicules those who attempt to counter his lies about climate change, the judicial system, our free press and a host of other issues vital to our Democracy.  We certainly don't need others, especially well-known celebrities, to exacerbate attacks on truth; one can only begin to imagine the number of history and science teachers who will be called upon to negate Stephen Curry's offhand remarks. 

Monday, December 10, 2018

December on the Great Plains

Leaving Columbia, Missouri, at dawn, I headed west and soon dipped through a dense ice-fog that filled the Missouri River Valley.  Throughout western Missouri, frost-backed cattle grazed in icy fields while stoic red-tailed hawks patrolled the highway from barren trees and phone poles.

In eastern Kansas, an atmospheric inversion had put a lid on the Kansas River basin, producing hazy air and keeping the effluent of factories and power plants within a few hundred feet of the ground; the inversion broke down west of Junction City and bright sunshine lit my course for the rest of the trip.  Throughout central Kansas, where snowbanks lined the highway, numerous flocks of crows, meadowlarks, longspurs and Canada geese moved about the farmlands; the highlight in this region was a large flock of snow geese that funneled down to a crop field, east of Hays.

Farther west, on the High Plains of western Kansas and eastern Colorado, bright sunshine, dry air and a steady southwest wind warmed the temperature into the low fifties (F).  Raptors were abundant across this flat landscape, including rough-legged hawks, prairie falcons, northern harriers, American kestrels and some red-tails.  As I approached Denver, the Front Range was backlit by a spectacular sunset, producing a silhouette of mountains from the Pike's Peak massif to the Wyoming border and a scenic end to my December journey across the Great Plains.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Short-ear Strike-out

Since short-eared owls have been spotted at Bradford Farm over the past week and since I return to Colorado tomorrow, I thought one last visit was in order.  Unfortunately, most of the observations have occurred near dusk and my early morning effort was, once again, unsuccessful.  On the positive side, there is a decent chance that I will see them out West.

Short-eared owls breed across Canada, Alaska and the northwest quadrant of the Lower 48, favoring open country where they fly close to the ground, hunting for rodents and birds.  Come fall, these raptors head for prairies, wetlands and coastal dune fields across most of the country and may be found in small groups where prey is abundant.  Unlike most owls, short-ears are often active during the day, especially just after dawn or just before dusk.

My interest in finding these predators is partly based on nostalgia.  I discovered my first short-eared owl along the southeast coast of North Carolina, in 1976, when my birding "career" had just begun.  Flapping above the dunes at Wrightsville Beach, that winter visitor was one of a few species that truly ignited my enthusiasm for birding.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Eagle Bluffs' other Birds

Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain, is best known for its water birds (waterfowl, waders, shorebirds, pelicans, etc.) and its raptors (especially, of course, its bald eagles).  As a result, many visitors focus on the fields and wetlands, ignoring the woodlands unless it happens to be the spring warbler season.

On this sunny but cold morning, the pools were frozen, occupied by only a dozen trumpeter swans and a modest number of mallards and gadwalls.  And while the raptors were represented by a lone bald eagle, four red-tailed hawks and a red-shouldered hawk, there was not much activity on the icy fields.  I thus turned my attention to the riparian woodlands that line some pools and the Missouri River; this decision was rewarded with the sighting of about 20 species, including a pileated woodpecker, a fox sparrow and two red-breasted nuthatches (the first I have ever encountered at Eagle Bluffs).

While not as spectacular as the favored quarry, these woodpeckers and woodland songbirds account for a significant percentage of the annual sightings at Eagle Bluffs (currently 246 species on eBird) and each is just as important to the floodplain ecosystem as their more glamorous cousins.  Today, I gave them some justified attention.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

A Midwest Winter

So far, this Midwest winter is true to form.  Cloudy, cold, damp weather has dominated my month in Central Missouri and is forecast to persist until I return to Colorado next weekend.  Caught between Canadian cold fronts and warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, this region is known for its unpleasant winters.

The humid air and a dearth of sunshine make the cold air feel colder and a low, gray overcast makes it look colder than the thermometer might indicate.  The large shade trees, so colorful in October, are now barren and their brown, soggy leaves clog our gutters and downspouts.  Snow, often mixed with rain, provides the natural beauty of this season, at least until its gray, slushy piles line our streets and parking lots.

While we may be unable to avoid the Midwest winter weather, we can escape to the woods and wetlands, where our wild neighbors and seasonal visitors are unfazed by the conditions.  After all, their survival depends on that attitude and, fortunately for us, their cheerfulness and optimism is contagious.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Heaven makes the News

This morning, while watching a news report on the death of President George H.W. Bush, I was appalled when the anchor concluded her remarks with the statement that the former President is now in heaven with Barbara (his late wife) and their daughter, who died at the age of three.

Just as there must be a separation of Church and State in the Government, there must also be a separation of faith and fact in the news media.  While it is certainly acceptable for news organizations to report on the activities of and crimes within religious groups, they should not take sides when it comes to mysticism.  Their job is to investigate information and to report truth, not to express personal beliefs that may have no basis in fact.

Mysticism corrupts human society, injecting intolerance, placing limits on scientific research and raising doubts about science-based data.  While religious faith is a personal right, it should not be preached from the newsroom.