Friday, December 27, 2019

A Winter Egret

Great egrets are fairly common in Missouri during the warmer months.  Most of these birds, the largest egret in North America, do not breed in our region but wander up the Mississippi and Missouri Valleys in late summer.  Since they feed primarily on small fish and aquatic invertebrates, they generally head south before ponds, lakes, wetlands and streams freeze over.

I was thus surprised to encounter a lone great egret at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area this morning; flying across the entry road, the bird appeared to be in good health.  Following several mild December days, with highs in the 60s (F), the weather was more winter-like this morning and the sighting of an egret was certainly unexpected.  Indeed, other sightings were rather limited, including hundreds of mallards, a lone canvasback, six great blue herons, three red-tailed hawks and the usual mix of winter songbirds.

The winter egret symbolized the reason why birding is a popular hobby; we never know what species we may encounter, regardless of the season or weather conditions.  Bored by a host of common residents, we may suddenly come across a rare visitor, making our field trip especially memorable.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Sparrow Challenge at Eagle Bluffs

Though I knew that most of Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area was closed for duck hunting, I decided to make a brief excursion anyway.  On this pleasant December morning, most of the shallows were frozen but the open central channel had attracted a large number of mallards, a few dozen Canada geese and six trumpeter swans.



Other sightings were rather limited but, in a corner of one field, a large number of sparrows flitted about, briefly posing on stems of dried weeds and wildflowers before disappearing into the dense jungle of grass and low shrubs.  Since sparrow identification has always been a challenge for me, even after 45 years of birding, I stopped to survey the activity for awhile.  In the end, I had identified five species (song, savannah, white-throated, swamp and American tree sparrows).

Savannah sparrows can be especially challenging to identify since their plumage is highly variable.  Furthermore, they, like their cousins, tend to prefer dense vegetation in which to hide from predators while scouring the ground for seeds.  In fact, a red-tailed hawk surveyed the scene from a nearby tree but was more likely looking for mice, voles and cottontails.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Just Open Space

On this sunny, cool morning in central Missouri, I visited Bradford Farm, east of Columbia.  An agricultural research center for the University of Missouri, it is also a popular local birding destination.

Due to last week's snowstorm, the graveled roadways were sloppy and most of the crop fields were still covered with a thin veneer of wet snow; both ponds were frozen over. Fortunately, I had driven my pickup back from Colorado and had no problem negotiating the farm roads; also, the less-than-ideal conditions helped to insure that I was the only visitor.  Unfortunately, the birding was not so great and I observed only nine species during my one-hour tour, highlighted by a male northern harrier that hunted low over the crop fields.

Then again, we naturalists relish the opportunity to spend time in open country, whether it be farmland, forest, prairie, tundra or wetland; no doubt, most of us appreciate a bit of solitude as well.  So this morning's visit was well worth my time and effort; just open space, with its sights, sounds and smells, is rewarding enough.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Geese, Hawks and Aliens

On this bright, frosty morning across the Great Plains, my bird sightings between Hays and Topeka were limited to geese, hawks and aliens.  To be completely honest, I also observed a few crows and meadowlarks.

Flocks of Canada geese were common on the crop fields, grasslands and frozen ponds while their cousins (snow, Ross's and greater white-fronted geese) are farther south by this time of year.  The hawks, easily observed in barren trees along the highway, were exclusively red-tails; had I been traveling west from Hays, across the High Plains of western Kansas and eastern Colorado, they would have been primarily rough-legged hawks.

The alien species, not native to North America, were European starlings and rock pigeons.  The starlings wheeled above the wintry landscape, performing their impressive aerial ballets, while most of the pigeons huddled atop barns and billboards, basking in the bright rays but relatively low-level warmth of the late December sun.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Driving toward the Hunter

Driving east on Interstate 70 this evening, the sun set as I crossed from Colorado into Kansas.  Within another hour, beneath a clear sky, I found myself heading toward Orion, the Hunter, as it began to rise above the southeast horizon.  By the time I reached Hays, my overnight destination, this winter constellation was well above the horizon but the Hunter's faithful dog, Sirius (the brightest star from Earth) had not yet cleared the atmospheric ground haze and city lights.

Like almost all constellations in the night sky, Orion, with his belt and sword, is purely a product of our vantage point in the Universe; in fact, his component stars vary greatly in their distance from the Earth.  But the constellation's name is fitting, both for the configuration of its stars and the season during which it graces the night sky.  The Hunter will dominate the southern sky throughout the cold winter months of the Northern Hemisphere, a time when natural predators enjoy a distinct advantage.

The High Plains province of North America is certainly a great place for stargazing and, on this crystal-clear night, I stopped once to enjoy the spectacle.  There are no views more humbling from Planet Earth.

See also: Sirius and Omen in the Sky

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

A Cottontail Crash

When we first bought our Littleton, Colorado, farm, in 1990, there were no cottontails on the property; this was clearly related to the fact that red fox were denning beneath our barn.  Once coyotes killed or scared off the fox and I discouraged the coyotes from hanging around, cottontails reappeared and gradually reached a large (and somewhat destructive) population that peaked within the last couple of years.

Having been out of town for much of this fall, I returned last week to find that cottontails were nearly absent.  No signs of fox or coyote activity (e.g. scat) have been evident though red-tailed hawks and great-horned owls have always been regular visitors and recent sightings of a northern goshawk suggest it may be partly responsible.  The lack of complete carcasses seems to rule out disease and tufts of fur about the farm indicate that most of the cottontails have been victims of predation.

Since our small farm is one of only a few left in the area, it is a refuge for many species of native wildlife but also reflects the swings of population that occur related to changes in food availability, weather and predation.  Our resident cottontail population appears to have crashed.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Fox Squirrels 2, Goshawk 0

Looking out the kitchen window this morning, I was fortunate to observe the failed attack of a northern goshawk on two fox squirrels.  Zooming in at high speed, the raptor just missed his targets as they scurried to the other side of the tree and escaped into higher branches.  Taunting their enemy from above, the squirrels waited until the goshawk flew off before coming down.

Permanent mountain residents, northern goshawks occasionally turn up along the Front Range urban corridor during the colder months and, in recent years, have become more common (I should say less rare) on our Littleton farm.  Much larger than the Cooper's hawks that regularly hunt songbirds on our property, goshawks are also identified by a prominent white brow stripe that flares behind each eye.

Fierce, powerful and persistent in their search for prey, northern goshawks don't usually miss their target.  This morning, the squirrels were lucky (though skilled in their own right); no doubt, another squirrel or cottontail was not so fortunate.

See also: Death by Goshawk

Friday, December 13, 2019

Winds of Change

Those of us who live along the Front Range urban corridor are used to periods of intense, gusty winds, usually associated with approaching or retreating Pacific storm systems.  But these winds, descending from the Continental Divide, are dry; those from the southwest can produce a dramatic warmup while those from the northwest often bring a sudden chill to the region.

This afternoon, those winds are gusting from the northwest, reaching 40 mph in Metro Denver with higher speeds in the foothills.  As is always the case, they are produced by atmospheric pressure gradients across the Rockies.  Today, high pressure sits over the northern Great Basin while zones of low pressure have developed over the High Plains.  Clockwise winds around the high pressure dome are raking the mountains and the Front Range cities, sweeping cold air into the region and setting the stage for our next snowstorm, scheduled to arrive tomorrow evening.

Due to the dynamics of this developing system, the mountains may get up to 2 feet of snow while only a few inches are expected to fall in Metro Denver.  Of course, those dynamics could shift and the longer we are exposed to upsloping northeast winds, the more snow we will likely receive.  Farther east, where Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic moisture come into play, the snowfall will be greater across the Midwest and Northeastern U.S.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Our Search for Truth

While truth is absolute, our search for truth is fallible; we must rely on "state of the art" methods, whether they be scientific or investigative (e.g. those employed by law enforcement and journalists).

The very nature of these methods requires that we accept their fallibility and are willing to alter our conclusions based on new evidence.  Research, including trial and error studies, is the means that we employ to test our theories and, as our knowledge and technical skills advance, we come closer to the truth.

Mysticism, on the other hand, based solely on belief systems, is oblivious of truth.  Indeed, it is the major obstacle in our search for truth.  Facts matter.  Beliefs do not.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

River of Ducks

Since the ponds and lakes in the South Platte Valley are at least partly frozen over, wintering waterfowl are congregating along the river.  As a result, they are easily observed (even without binoculars) from the adjacent hike/bike trail.

On this cool, cloudy day, mallards dominated the scene, joined by smaller numbers of green-winged teal, buffleheads, common goldeneyes, ring-necked ducks, gadwall, American wigeon and hooded mergansers; a couple of pied-billed grebes and a lone coot also fed on the river.  Multiple flocks of Canada geese and a small squadron of cackling geese flew overhead and the usual mix of winter songbirds moved through the cottonwood groves.  A red-tailed hawk was the only raptor to grace the scene and, despite the shallowness of the South Platte, no herons were observed.



This retreat to the South Platte will likely continue until late February or so when the lengthening days and higher sun angle take a toll on the frozen ponds.  By then, the earliest spring migrants will appear along the Front Range, just in time for our spring snowstorms.


Monday, December 9, 2019

Above the Upper Smoky Hill River

On my flight from Missouri to Colorado this morning, clouds obscured the landscape for most of the journey.  When they finally cleared, we were just north of a large reservoir that was oriented west to east; it was the Cedar Bluff Reservoir, southeast of WaKeeney, Kansas.

Created by a dam on the Smoky Hill River, the reservoir was established for irrigation purposes but is also home to Cedar Bluff State Park.  West (upstream) from this lake, the Smoky Hill River and its numerous tributaries have cut shallow canyons through a veneer of Tertiary sediments and into the Cretaceous chalk of western Kansas; the latter was deposited in a broad seaway that extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Northwest some 100 million years ago.

As we entered Colorado, the uppermost tributaries of the Smoky Hill River gave way to tributaries of the Republican River (to the north) and the Arkansas River (to the south).  After passing over a cluster of reservoirs north of Lamar, our route curved NNW toward Denver and the snowy peaks of the Rockies (the Culebra Range, Spanish Peaks, Sangre de Cristo Range, Pike's Peak Massiff, Kenosha and Platte River Mountains, Mt. Evans Massif and the Continental Divide, south to north) gleamed in the bright morning sunshine.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

More Bears than Birds

On this mild, cloudy afternoon in Columbia, Missouri, my wife and I took a walk around Perry Phillips Lake, south of town.  Despite the pleasant weather, I observed only a handful of bird species, all common, permanent residents.  Indeed, I saw more woolly bear caterpillars than birds.

These fuzzy, black and orange banded caterpillars, known to even casual observers of nature, are the larvae of Isabella tiger moths.  Emerging from eggs in summer, they spend the remaining mild-weather weeks feasting on a variety of plants; once winter threatens their survival, they search for a sheltered site beneath logs, rocks or leaf litter to hibernate.  Come spring, these caterpillars spin a cocoon and pupate, emerging as adult moths two weeks later.

Rumored to predict the severity of winter by their fuzziness or by the thickness of their central band, woolly bears are certainly among the last insects active in the fall and are sometimes observed crossing snow banks.  On this December afternoon, they were the dominant species of wildlife along the 1.4 mile trail loop.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Short-Circuit at Eagle Bluffs

On this bright, cool December morning, my grandson and I visited Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain.  Unfortunately, most of the refuge is closed for duck hunting but we enjoyed our brief circuit along the open roadways.

Sightings included a northern harrier, a bald eagle and a large flock of northern shovelers, among more common winter residents.  Crystal-clear air, an invigorating chill and dry roads made our visit especially appealing.

It will be February before the hunters depart but, by then, massive flocks of snow geese, white-fronted geese and American white pelicans will descend on the refuge, heralding the spring waterfowl migration which will last through April.  Hopefully, I'll have the opportunity to return to Eagle Bluffs for that annual spectacle.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A Night on the Ohio

On our journey back from Florida to Missouri, we spent the last night in Paducah, Kentucky, at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers.  In fact, our hotel room offered a sweeping view of the Ohio, where tugboats struggled to control their barge trains.

During our brief stay, we wandered through and dined in the historic section of downtown Paducah, where old buildings are being renovated to house shops, cafes and apartments; of interest, William Clark, of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, first platted this port city in 1827.  The National Quilt Museum, where we found that quilts can be fine art, is also located in Paducah.



Despite the cultural amenities of the city, the broad Ohio River was of primary interest to me.  After all, it was the river of my youth, having grown up and come of age in Cincinnati.  Rivers connect natural ecosystems and human cities; for some, they also connect us with our past.  A night on the Ohio proved to be a nostalgic experience.

For a bit of natural history, see: From Teays to Ohio

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Advantages of Heartache

Most of us have experienced a "broken heart" at least once during our life and know that its pain is long-lasting.  But there are, I believe, some advantages to having endured this universal trauma.

First of all, we learn a lot about ourselves in the course of a failed love affair and are able to use that knowledge when nurturing another relationship.  Secondly, personal pain fuels our capacity for empathy, allowing us to understand and comfort friends and family members when they have a similar experience and need our emotional support.  Finally, heartache and its sequelae have inspired much of the literature, music and artwork throughout human history; had we not endured the pain ourselves, we could not fully appreciate these cultural forms of expression.

This intellectual reasoning may be helpful in the long run but does little to diminish heartache for those in the midst of emotional turmoil.  Some say time will heal a broken heart but most of us discover that the wounds never fully heal and the pain never completely subsides.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Detour to Blue Highways

Leaving Longboat Key on this last day of the Thanksgiving weekend, we found that the northbound Interstate was clogged with vehicles.  After crawling along for an hour or so, we cut away from that ribbon of concrete to take a series of "blue highways," enjoying a more intimate look at the interior of the Florida Peninsula.

Blue Highways is a book by William Least Heat-Moon, who took less-traveled roads to explore the fabric of American life; at the time, those routes were colored blue in road atlases.  By doing so, Mr. Moon experienced landscapes, customs and interesting persons that would otherwise have gone unnoticed and unappreciated. I very much enjoyed reading his accounts and believe that, in a broader context, they offered valuable lessons for life.

Zooming along on our path to success or mired on the safe, congested road of efficiency, we often miss unique and exciting experiences.  Now and then, whether forced to do so by circumstance or invited to do so by opportunity, we are wise to take detours that enrich our lives. 

Friday, November 29, 2019

Kayaking at Low Tide

On this sunny, warm morning in South Florida, my son and I kayaked on Sarasota Bay, where a low tide had created extensive shallows around the mangrove islands.  While the conditions limited our course, they brought a variety of avian residents into view.

Among the waders were great blue herons, great egrets, little blue herons, a tri-colored heron, a green heron and a yellow-crowned night heron.  About seventy American white pelicans fished the shallows, joined by a lesser number of brown pelicans, double-crested cormorants, pied-billed grebes and several belted kingfishers.  Overhead, three ospreys and a lone bald eagle patrolled the bay.



By immersing ourselves in a natural ecosystem, whether on foot or by boat, we gain a better appreciation of the interaction between its various species, plant and animal alike.  Drifting along in a kayak is one of the more enjoyable and least disruptive means of exploration.  

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Red Knots crowd the Beach

Up at Bean Point (the northern tip of Anna Marie Island) yesterday, I encountered a large flock of red knots resting on the beach.  By my count, 210 of those migrants joined lesser numbers of sanderlings, willets and ruddy turnstones.  As is often the case, eBird's algorithm questioned my "unusually high estimate for the date and location."

Red knots are mid-sized sandpipers that breed across the high Arctic, from North America to Eurasia. While some winter on sub-tropical and tropical coasts, most head to South America or Australia where they may congregate in huge flocks.  Threatened by the overfishing of horseshoe crabs on the eggs of which they feed during their long migrations, red knots are uncommon visitors on the Gulf Coast of Florida, usually (in my experience) observed in small flocks of a dozen or so individuals.

Yesterday's flock was the largest I have yet to encounter in Manatee County; a few were drilling the wet stand for marine invertebrates but most stood at attention, crowded together and oblivious of the humans that wandered by.  Decked out in their rather drab winter plumage, their fortitude and endurance still shined through.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

An Assault on Truth

Long before he was President of the United States, Donald Trump was surely a compulsive liar and con man.  And following his election, he has attracted the devotion of Americans who are unconcerned with truth; unfortunately, many of those devotees are Republican members of Congress.

One can understand why Evangelicals are drawn to Trump's rhetoric, ensconced as they are in religious mysticism (the most universal assault on truth); focused on issues that justify their belief system, they resent science and the "liberal press."  So too is it easy to understand the support of industrialists who have benefitted from his tax cuts, climate-change "policy" and relentless assault on environmental regulations.  Most disturbing is the support that Trump has received from seemingly intelligent and well educated politicians, who clearly understand the danger that he poses to our democracy, environment, security and alliances but are more concerned with their own re-election.

It has been said that truth will prevail in the long run.  The question is: how much damage will be done in the meantime?  However the Impeachment process may end, Americans must vote for truth in 2020, removing all of those who have failed to uphold it. 

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Pink Phantom

Standing on our seawall along Sarasota Bay, one is almost guaranteed to see brown pelicans, white ibis and various herons and egrets on any day of the year; during the colder months, these common, permanent residents are joined by American white pelicans, common loons and red-breasted mergansers.  Now and then, we are also treated to the sight of a roseate spoonbill or two.

Once abundant across the Southeastern U.S., roseate spoonbills were extirpated by plumage hunters during the 1800s.  A slow recovery of their population began in the early 1900s but they are still found primarily in South Florida and along the southern Texas Coast.  Even here, off the coast of Sarasota, their presence is erratic and they are most often encountered during the warmer months.

Nesting and roosting in colonies, roseate spoonbills may also congregate at favored feeding sites, especially during low tide.  There they scour the shallows for marine invertebrates, small fish and some plants.  Since returning to Longboat Key almost three weeks ago, I have observed only two of these elusive pink waders.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Vulture Parade in South Florida

Birders flock to South Florida to see species such as roseate spoonbills, anhingas, limpkins, magnificent frigatebirds and many others.  Yesterday, however, turkey vultures provided the avian highlight on Longboat Key.

It was late morning when I looked up to see a flock of vultures passing overhead, moving from SSW to NNE above this barrier island.  The flock continued to drift by for the next five to ten minutes; I suspect it was a mile long and numbered 280 birds by my count.  Turkey vultures are abundant in Florida during the winter months as those that summer across northern latitudes migrate to the Southeast, often traveling in massive flocks; there they join year-round residents ( other turkey and black vultures) to scour the landscape for carrion.

During the late fall and winter months, vultures congregate at favored roost sites and, considering the time of my sighting, I suspect that yesterday's flock was leaving one of those roosts, soon to disperse across South Florida.  In any case, it was the largest flock of vultures that I have yet to encounter.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Regret & Communication

Regret, acknowledged or not, is part of the human experience and, it seems to me, is most often tied to a failure of communication.  Young children communicate freely but teens and adults, subject to fear and intent on protecting their self-esteem, may fail to speak or do so in an offensive manner.

Failure to express love or gratitude and an unwillingness to apologize for our words or actions are perhaps most closely tied to future regret.  How ironic that we humans, set apart from "lower" animals by our linguistic skills, should endure anguish due to their underuse or misuse.

Fortunately, we often have the opportunity to undo our failure to communicate, unless, of course, fear or pride intervene.

See also: The Nature of Regret

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Rising Tide at South Platte Park

Since I am only in town for a few days, I had to get down to South Platte Park, my favored local birding area.  On previous visits this fall, the waterfowl migration was well behind schedule but the tide seems to be rising.

The Canada goose population has clearly begun to increase along the Front Range and, down at South Platte Park, I encountered large flocks of northern shovelers, American wigeon and buffleheads.  Present but under-represented for the date were hooded mergansers, common goldeneyes, gadwalls, ring-necked ducks and American coot.  Despite the mild conditions, permanent avian residents were also rather sparse during my brief visit this morning.


But I remain hopeful that the winter duck count will continue to rise in the coming weeks and that my patience will be rewarded when I return in December.  And, if not, I'll keep stopping by for the exercise, fresh air and potential rare sightings.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Intense Hooting on the Farm

Back at our Littleton farm for a few days, I was awakened last night by the the hooting of a great horned owl.  While we often hear them on the farm, primarily during the colder months, the hoots were especially loud and intense.

Monogamous and territorial, great horned owls hoot as part of their mating ritual and to protect their hunting grounds; once the young are raised and able to hunt for themselves, they are "encouraged" to find their own mate and territory.  Hence the vigorous hooting that is often heard during the autumn months.

Great horned owls generally nest by late winter, even earlier at northern latitudes; this gives their young plenty of time to hone their hunting skills before mom and pop send them on their way.  Facing a harsh winter on their own, they will feed on a wide variety of birds and small mammals; this seemingly cruel edict, common throughout the animal kingdom, prevents both inbreeding and overhunting.  Of course, we humans are an exception, sometimes housing children and grandchildren long beyond an age at which they should be independent.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Flashback Post XVII

Tonight is the peak of the annual Leonid Meteor Shower, an astronomical event that I first described in a post back in November, 2006.  Indeed, it was the fourth post of Nature's Blog, which now exceeds 3700 entries; I never anticipated that this project, therapeutic though it may be, would last 13 years (just over 1/3 of the comet's orbit period).

See: Comet Dust

Saturday, November 16, 2019

A Raw Morning at Lido Beach

Lido Beach, just south of Longboat Key, is one of the best birding and walking beaches in Southwest Florida.  This morning, however, it had the feel of the New England Coast, shrouded by low, gray clouds, enveloped in cool air and raked by a strong north wind.

A few ospreys, brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants braved the choppy Gulf while most of the gulls, terns and shorebirds remained grounded, huddled along the shore.  At least 500 royal terns had settled on the sand, joined by smaller flocks of laughing gulls, sandwich terns, willets, red knots, black-bellied plovers and sanderlings.  Except for a group of windsurfers and their cohorts. the scenic beach was devoid of human sunbathers; only a few other couples joined us as we trudged along the tideline, leaning into the wind.

Within a day or two, Lido Beach will be bathed in warm air and sunshine and the Gulf of Mexico will return to a flat, inviting sheet of turquoise water, attracting far more human visitors.  Sometimes, raw weather has its advantages.

Friday, November 15, 2019

A Hunter on the Bay

While at our Longboat Key condo yesterday, I looked out just in time to see a peregrine falcon fly across Sarasota Bay.  Once endangered by the use of DDT, this large falcon has made a steady comeback and is now an uncommon resident or migrant in most regions of the U.S.; they are, in fact, found across the globe, inhabiting all continents except Antarctica.

Peregrine falcons nest primarily on cliffs across Alaska and Canada and southward along the coast of the Pacific Northwest and through the mountain chains of North America; in recent decades, they have also established nests on skyscrapers and bridges in urban centers of the Midwest and Northeast.  Come fall, they follow migrant flocks of waterfowl and shorebirds on which they feed; most winter along the Southeast and Gulf Coasts or along the Pacific Coast, from Canada to Mexico.

Feasting primarily on birds, from geese to shorebirds and songbirds in size, these powerful raptors may hunt from a high perch or soar overhead, stooping to knock their prey to the ground; at other times, they swoop into flocks of pigeons, waterfowl or shorebirds at high speed, picking off their victim.  While no longer as rare as they once were, it is always a pleasure to encounter these handsome hunters. 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

A Storm Rides the Front

The polar front that brought record lows to much of the country this week stretches from South Texas to  northeast Florida this morning; associated with that front is a center of low pressure, churning off Brownsville and sweeping cold rain off the Gulf into east Texas and the southern Mississippi Valley.

As the polar front drifts back to the north, this storm will ride its outer edge, moving ENE and dropping chilly rain across much of the Southeast.  Here in South Florida, the storm's outer bands will move in from the warm Gulf of Mexico, bringing waves of thunderstorms and mild, humid air for the next few days.

Once the storm moves off the Southeast Coast, it is expected to strengthen over the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream, bringing strong winds and heavy rain to the Carolinas before heading out to sea.  Indeed, its movement up the Eastern Seaboard will be blocked by a second polar front that will drop through the Upper Midwest and New England, producing another round of winter in those regions.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Subtle Signs of Global Warming

As an early Polar Plunge grips most of the U.S., likely fueling the passion of climate change deniers, here in South Florida we have noticed subtle signs of global warming.  These observations, purely our own, fit the scenario of rising and warming seas.

Our first observation is that low tides in our arm of Sarasota Bay are not as shallow as they used to be.  When we first bought our condo, in 2003, low tides produced extensive shallows on the bay, attracting hordes of egrets, herons, spoonbills and wood storks; over the past couple of years, such spectacles have not occurred (at least during our visits).  Today, when visiting the Leffis Key Preserve in Bradenton Beach, many of the low boardwalks were damp and covered with vegetative debris, indicating that high tides are covering these elevated paths; again, this is a phenomenon that we have not encountered in the past.  Finally, the severity of the 2018 red tide, documented in this blog, was likely fueled (in part) by rising water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico; unfortunately, another toxic algal bloom is currently developing off Sarasota County, just to our south.  Cool weather cannot arrive soon enough but may rarely (if ever) envelop South Florida as the climate warms.

Perhaps my observations are tainted by my own convictions and concerns but rising and warming seas have been well documented as polar ice sheets melt and glaciers retreat across the globe.  We would be fortunate indeed if higher low tides, swamped boardwalks and toxic algal blooms turn out to be the only consequences.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Heron's Nest Nature Park

Located in the community of Summerfield, east of Bradenton, Florida, Heron's Nest Nature Park is a scenic preserve that stretches along the course of Wolf Slough.  Characterized by two lakes (Summerfield Lake and Heron's Nest Lake), separated by a lowland forest of pine, oak and palmetto, the refuge is accessed by a 1-mile trail loop.

Heron's Nest Nature Park is an excellent destination for those hoping to observe birds that inhabit or visit the interior of the South Florida Peninsula; as its name suggests, a small island in Heron's Nest Lake attracts a variety of waders and waterfowl that seek safe grounds for roosting and nesting.  This morning, we observed 17 anhingas, 45 black-bellied whistling ducks and a mix of waders, including white and glossy ibis, great and snowy egrets, great blue herons, a green heron and a limpkin.  Other sightings included pileated woodpeckers, sandhill cranes, fish crows and palm warblers.

Lying adjacent to a recreation area and dog park within a suburban community, this Park might be overlooked by avid birders in favor of less developed ecosystems.  But birds know what they need and this small refuge clearly offers the food and security that they seek.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Fifteen Months after the Red Tide

It has been fifteen months since a devastating red tide poisoned the waters around Longboat Key, Florida.  Having returned three days ago, I have observed promising signs of recovery but the ecosystem is not yet back to full health.

The number of brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants fishing on Sarasota Bay have increased dramatically but the populations of ospreys, waders, gulls and terns have not yet returned to pre-tide levels.  We did encounter a pod of dolphins in the Gulf but, at least to date, their numbers seem to be relatively low.

These observations, purely my own, may not hold up to scientific scrutiny but I suspect that effects of the red tide persist; of course, natural ecosystems evolve over long periods of time, too slow for the impatience of humans.  Hopefully, the recovery will gradually continue before another insult, perhaps fueled by global warming and seawater pollution, threatens this subtropical paradise.

See: Encountering the Red Tide and Benefits from a Red Tide?

Friday, November 8, 2019

Lake Manatee State Park

Lake Manatee, a reservoir on the Manatee River east of Bradenton, was created in the 1960s; Lake Manatee State Park stretches along its southern shore.  Those who visit the Park to camp or hike while enjoying views of the Lake may be a bit disappointed; indeed, shoreline views of Lake Manatee are limited to the boat launch and the small swimming area.

The Park's trails primarily loop through scrubby flat woods, characterized by stands of pine, live oak and palmetto, offering only distant views of the lake.  On the other hand, hikers may encounter gopher tortoises, indigo snakes, marsh rabbits and gray fox; plants of interest include garberia and the rare Florida goldenaster.  Birds of note include bald eagles, ospreys and sandhill cranes and American alligators may be observed.

On this hot, sunny morning, we followed the 1.8 mile Gopher Trail Loop in the eastern section of the Park.  Sightings included a lone anhinga, an osprey, black vultures, Cooper's hawks, red-bellied woodpeckers and gray catbirds, among other songbirds.  An early morning or evening hike would have been more enjoyable and more productive for wildlife viewing.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Detour to Congaree National Park

On the way to our condo on Longboat Key, Florida, my wife and I made a detour to the east, crossing the broad swath of the Appalachians between Berea, Kentucky, and Spartanburg, South Carolina.  Our destination was Congaree National Park, southeast of Columbia, South Carolina.

Established in 1976, this Park covers 27,000 acres of the Congaree River's floodplain, protecting the largest remnant of old-growth floodplain forest in the United States.  While most of the park is wilderness, accessible only by canoe or kayak, the northwest corner of the preserve includes a Visitor Center, a 2.4 mile boardwalk loop and several longer earthen trails.  Massive bald cypress trees rise within the sloughs and Cedar Creek Valley while towering oaks and long-leaf pines dominate the upland areas.  Among the wild residents are pileated woodpeckers, barred owls, river otters, five-lined skinks and a large variety of waders and wetland songbirds.

Today, the sloughs and trails were dry, reflecting an ongoing drought in the Congaree watershed.  As a result, wildlife sightings were limited despite the mild, sunny conditions.  On the other hand, we got plenty of exercise and were able to explore an ecosystem that has been nearly (99%) lost to logging, flood control, wildfire suppression and agriculture in America.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

City Lights from Above

As we flew back from Denver to Columbia, Missouri, this evening, the skies were clear and the lights of cities and towns glowed from the darkness below.  A magnificent sight, one could not help but admire the human ingenuity that made such a spectacle possible.

Yet, in this era of global warming, I could not help but wonder how much of that lighting was necessary.  While we attempt to combat climate change with cleaner forms of energy, mass transit and other measures, we will not be successful unless we significantly reduce our energy consumption; more efficient engines, better insulation and low-energy lighting will help but lowering thermostats (in winter) and turning off non-essential lights will also be part of the solution.

The city lights were indeed beautiful from 30,000 feet but darker landscapes will be more inspiring in the long run.  Natural ecosystems do not depend on artificial illumination and it is best that we aspire to limit our dependence as well.  Don't forget, Daylight Savings Time begins tonight!

Thursday, October 31, 2019

New York Bans Foie Gras

Per a report in the New York Times, the New York City Council has voted to ban the sale of foie gras in the city by 2022.  Offered primarily in upscale French restaurants, foie gras is fatty duck or goose liver, produced by force-feeding a high-calorie mixture through a gastric tube for several weeks prior to slaughter.

As one might expect, French chefs and foie gras producers are not happy with the decision; others, myself included, wonder why such cruelty has continued in our "enlightened era" and why the ban will not take effect until 2022.  Our stewardship of the planet should certainly not include such a practice, however tasty (or lucrative) the product might be.

Of course, the great majority of Americans will not notice the unavailability of foie gras.  On the other hand, if they were to directly witness the processes involved in providing their beef, pork, chicken and veal, they might have second thoughts about eating meat altogether.  Animal cruelty and the mass production of meat cannot be divorced.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Belle Isle, Canada

Having discussed Landsat Island in my last post, I would be remiss not to mention the spectacular view of Belle Isle that we enjoyed farther down the Canadian Coast.  Named by the French explorer Jaques Cartier, this elongated island guards the northern entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, known as the Strait of Belle Isle.  Geologically, Belle Isle represents the northern end of the Appalachians.

Oriented NE to SW, Belle Isle lies between the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland; it is approximately 10 miles long and up to 3 miles wide.  While the Strait offers the most direct shipping route between the Great Lakes and Europe, its waters are characterized by treacherous, intersecting currents, strong tides and seasonal ice floes.  Since the mid 1800s, eight lighthouses have been constructed on Belle Isle, the latest in 1901 at its northeast tip; since the lights and foghorns are now operated remotely, the island has been turned over to its wild residents, naturally equipped to endure its harsh climate.

Our flight took us just east of Belle Isle and I snapped this photo from 30,000 feet.  Once again, when it comes to appreciating landscapes, there is nothing better than air travel.


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Landsat Island

Returning from Scotland two weeks ago, I had a window seat on the right side of the aircraft.  Unfortunately, clouds obscured most of Scotland and Ireland as well as most of the North Atlantic.  As we approached Labrador, however, the cloud cover began to dissipate and my first sight of land was of a tiny island in the Labrador Sea.

Made visible by a white rim of waves crashing along its shores, the island was far off the mainland with no other islands in sight.  Based on research since returning home, I found that I had seen Landsat Island, the most eastern parcel of Canadian Territory.  About half the size of a football field, it was first discovered as recently as 1973, when the Landsat I satellite uncovered geographic details theretofore unseen.  Later verified by scientists arriving by boat and helicopter, the island remains uninhabited and its geology has not been assessed (though it is suspected to be a remnant from the rifting of Greenland from North America and Europe, some 30 million years ago).

Since the Labrador Sea is usually locked in ice during the winter months and since cloud cover is often extensive there during the warmer months, the tiny island had gone unnoticed until the era of satellites greatly enhanced our appreciation of Earth's surface features.  I was certainly very fortunate to catch a glimpse of that lonely speck of rock.  

Monday, October 28, 2019

A Warning from California

While global warming is a scientific fact, denied only by those politicians and industrialists who are threatened by its reality, how it will affect various regions of the planet remains uncertain.  There is no doubt that polar ecosystems will be dramatically altered and that sea levels will rise significantly, flooding coastal regions, but other effects are less clear.

Most climatologists seem to believe that the global rise in temperature will make dry areas drier and wet areas wetter.  Warmer ocean waters will augment the power of tropical storms and hurricanes and storms over terrestrial regions will drop more precipitation (in the form of rain or snow).  In other words, both drought and flooding will stress natural ecosystems and human civilization.

This week's wildfires in California, fueled by dry vegetation and intense Santa Ana winds, appears to be another warning that our delayed and inadequate response to human-induced climate change will have tragic consequences.  One begins to wonder where the safe zones will be as our climate continues to warm; flood-prone coasts and river valleys and fire-prone foothills and canyons seem to be most at risk but we will all be affected by the economic consequences.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Climate and Migration

Since returning to our Littleton farm earlier this week, I have noticed that our summer residents, responding to the solar cycle, have left for warmer climes; house wrens, broad-tailed hummingbirds, swallows and blue-gray gnatcatchers no longer grace the property and I have not observed any Swainson's hawks soaring overhead.  On the other hand, our winter residents are slow to move in, currently represented by only a dozen dark-eyed juncos and our lone Townsend's solitaire.

Down at South Platte Park this morning, the winter ducks are beginning to appear but the number of gadwalls, American wigeon, northern shovelers, hooded mergansers, buffleheads and American coot remains relatively low for late October.  Flocks of Canada geese should increase dramatically over the next two weeks but, in recent years, their arrival has been delayed.

Our first significant snowfall may force some mountain songbirds down to the Piedmont but the waterfowl will only come south if they need to (i.e. when lakes and wetlands freeze up north).  As our climate warms, their autumn migration will begin later in the year and, eventually, may shut down altogether. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Winter Slides South

Since returning to Colorado, I have enjoyed a couple of pleasant, autumn days on our Littleton farm but a dose of winter is on its way.  As I write this post, gusty northeast winds have developed along the Front Range and bright sunshine has given way to a dense, gray overcast.

Rain is expected to develop by late afternoon, changing to snow during the overnight hours.  Since the leading edge of this atmospheric trough is moving rapidly to the south, our upslope flow will be rather brief and only a few inches of snow are expected in Metro Denver.  Dipping southward, from the Front Range to the Southern Plains to the Mississippi Valley, this pocket of winter will ignite thunderstorms along its southern and eastern margins, where it will clash with warm, humid air flowing up from the Gulf of Mexico.

As the trough moves off to the east, our winds will shift around from the southwest, bringing afternoon highs near 70 degrees F by the weekend.  Gyrations in the jet stream account for these rapid swings in weather; most common in the spring, they occur in autumn as well before a zonal flow allows winter to settle in across Temperate latitudes of North America.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Back to the Sixties

Faced with an impulsive narcissist in the Oval Office, one who is threatening stability on a global scale, we are in desperate need of the fervor that characterized the 1960s.  Having come of age during that era of mass demonstrations, I doubt that cyber-petitions will be nearly as effective.

As the Impeachment process continues to slog through Congress, perhaps destined to be shot down by Republican Senators, the rest of us must take to the streets to demand that Trump be removed from office.  He is a threat to our Democracy, to human rights, to the welfare of our environment and to the stability of our civilization.

We might laugh at the SNL skits and be amused by his ignorant Tweets but Americans, left, right and center, must join forces to remove this self-absorbed showman from the seat of power.  His presence is an embarrassment to our country and a dishonor to those who fought and died for our freedoms.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Pelicans Grace Eagle Bluffs

This morning, a friend and I visited Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area where large flocks of American white pelicans moved above the floodplain, congregating at a single pool.  We had counted 740 of those magnificent birds when other flocks began to arrive from the north, gliding southward above the Missouri River Valley.  We estimated that a total of 1100 pelicans visited the refuge on this sunny, cool morning, stopping to rest and feed on their journey to the Gulf Coast.

Were it not for the pelicans, our visit to Eagle Bluffs would have been disappointing.  The southern half of the refuge was chained off (reason uncertain) and other bird species were relatively limited in number and variety; only large flocks of red-winged blackbirds rivaled the pelicans.  Several double-crested cormorants dove for breakfast in the central channel, a couple dozen great-blue herons stalked the shallow pools and thirty-five great egrets moved about the refuge.  Shorebirds were limited to a dozen greater yellowlegs and a lone killdeer and raptors were represented only by kestrels and turkey vultures.  Canada geese and mallards were the only waterfowl that we observed, a rare lack of diversity for mid October; as discussed in an earlier post, I suspect that the extensive floodwaters upstream are disrupting the usual schedule of waterfowl migration this autumn.

Perhaps the large number of migrant pelicans will prove to be the vanguard of waterfowl migrations to follow.  Regardless, the sight of these graceful birds, flapping and gliding above the floodplain, was both welcome and inspiring.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Vikings in Scotland

During our tour of Scotland, we were shown a variety of Viking culture artifacts, especially in the Orkney and Hebrides Islands.  Indeed, the Norsemen occupied much of northern and western Scotland from 790 AD through most of the 12th Century.

Those of us who were born and raised in North America learned about Viking exploits across the North Atlantic, including their settlements in Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland.  In fact, these skilled mariners explored coastlines as far south as Northern Africa, as far east as Russia and southward through the major rivers of Europe.  Contrary to their image as savage plunderers, the Vikings set up trade networks throughout their realm and dominated commerce in that region for 400 years.  Not inclined toward mysticism, their "pagan culture" eventually gave way to the expansion of Christianity (which brought far more brutality than the Norsemen ever did).

Visiting the National Museum of Scotland today, we saw a partial set of chessmen, carved from walrus tusks, that were unearthed on the Isle of Lewis more than 700 years after the Vikings left Scotland. What a fitting remnant from a time when those hardy explorers occupied the region and before religion-fueled wars raged across the country.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The View from Calton Hill

Calton Hill rises 100 meters above northeast Edinburgh; graced by an observatory and several monuments, it offers a panorama of the city and adjacent landscapes.  On this cloudy, cool morning, my wife and I joined throngs of other tourists atop this geographic prominence.

To the north, the wide Firth of Forth stretched out toward the North Sea while the River of Leith Valley was evident to the west.  To our south, the higher ridge of Holyrood Park rose toward Arthur's Seat, a scenic backdrop for the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the ruins of its 12th Century Abby; the Palace, the residence of Mary Queen of Scots in the 1560s, is now the Scottish home of British Royalty.  Stretching west from the Palace is the Royal Mile, leading to Edinburgh Castle atop a volcanic stump; most of that road is now lined with cafes, pubs and tourist shops.

Indeed, Scotland's capitol city, like many tourist destinations across the globe, has become a mix of historic structures, parks and tourist-related amenities, the latter including endless lines of sight-seeing buses that wind through its central corridors.  The relative solitude atop Calton Hill was appealing but I already miss the spectacular, open landscapes of the Highlands, where sheep far outnumber the humans.

Monday, October 14, 2019

A Visit to the RBGE

Having evolved since the late 1600s, the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh was formally established in the 1870s and has occupied its current location ever since.  Free to the public (except for access to its Glass Houses (greenhouse exhibits), the gardens stretch across a hilltop in north Edinburgh, offering broad views of the historic city.

Its 70 acres, accessed by a fine network of paved, graveled and grassy paths, are adorned with plants from across the globe and from every major ecosystem on our planet.  Almost equally diverse are the visitors, arriving from many countries to enjoy the history and public amenities of this attractive city. We were fortunate to explore the gardens on a mild, sunny day (seemingly rare in Scotland) and were pleased to learn about the cooperative research that the RBGE conducts with more than 40 other countries across the globe.  In this era of climate change and ongoing habitat destruction, that commitment is especially important.

If I were to offer one suggestion (as I am inclined to do), I would label the plants with their common names, secondarily identifying them with their scientific Genus and species; at this Gardens, scientific labeling was primarily utilized.  Since most visitors have had no formal training in botany, they would likely be more appreciative of the fabulous diversity of plants if their common names were known.  After all, public support for the complex work of conservation organizations is vital and it is best if visitors are not overwhelmed by the scientific terminology.  Just my opinion.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Hebrides

The Hebrides, an archipelago off the west coast of Scotland is comprised of two groups of islands.  The Outer Hebrides are bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to their west and The Minch (Strait) and the Sea of Hebrides to their east; the Inner Hebrides are bounded by The Minch and Sea of Hebrides to their west and a complicated network of sounds, firths, lochs and bays to their east, separating them from the Scottish Mainland.

A few days ago, we caught a ferry from Ullapool, in western Scotland, to Stornoway, on the northern portion of the Outer Hebrides; while it is one land mass, this region is divided into the Isle of Lewis, in the north, and the Isle of Harris to its south.  Much of the former is characterized by extensive peat bogs, still used to heat homes and to infuse Scottish whisky with a smokey flavor; traveling through Lewis, we also encountered spectacular seascapes, visited an early settlement in Arnol, explored a Neolithic stone circle at Callanish and learned that the Gaelic language and culture remain dominant throughout the Outer Hebrides (as they are in many Highland regions of Scotland).  The Isle of Harris is more mountainous than the Isle of Lewis and harbors pristine beaches; its southernmost region is a "moonscape" of rock-studded grasslands.  As in almost all rural areas of Scotland, sheep grazing is extensive and this island is home to the famous Harris tweed.

A second ferry took us from Tarbert, on the Isle of Harris, to the Isle of Skye, the largest island of the Inner Hebrides.  Known for its resort towns, fabulous scenery, rocky beaches and towering sea cliffs, this island is accessible via a bridge from the mainland and is thus a popular destination for residents of Scotland's urban centers.  After two nights in Portree, we have returned to Edinburgh for the remainder of our visit to Scotland; it has certainly been a fascinating journey through this scenic and history-laden country.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Northwest Scotland

The main route that leads NE to SW through northwest Scotland is a one lane road; regular pull-offs allow oncoming cars to pass one another, sometimes at an alarming speed.  The scenery, on the other hand, is spectacular.

Numerous lochs, firths and rivers dissect the landscape, which is composed of rolling hills, low ridges and taller ranges.  All of these uplands are adorned with rocky grasslands, reminiscent of the alpine zone of North America's western mountains.  Of course, unlike the latter alpine ecosystems, which usually bask in brilliant sunshine, these Scottish highlands are subject to the effects of the North Atlantic and rapidly changing cloud formations enhance the beauty of the region.  Sheep are everywhere in this open-range territory, often grazing along the road and oblivious of the vehicles that speed past; indeed, their presence augments the tranquility of this remote landscape.

Arriving in Ullapool last evening, we will spend a day in this port on Loch Broom, a marine inlet of the North Atlantic, before taking a ferry out to the Hebrides.  That excursion will begin tomorrow morning.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Escorted by Gannets.

This morning, after visiting a sea cave on the Orkney Mainland in driving sleet, we caught the ferry back to the Scottish mainland, crossing the turbulent Pentland Firth.  Oblivious of the roiling sea and gusty winds, a small flock of northern gannets escorted the ship, veering off at times to dive for fish.

Scotland is home to 40% of all northern gannets; indeed, the gannet rookery on Bass Island, in the Firth of Forth (near Edinburgh), is the largest on Earth.  On this brutal morning in Northern Scotland, it was inspiring to watch these large, hardy seabirds and I certainly appreciated their company.

Once we reached shore, the sun broke through the clouds and the winds died down.  Our journey across the Northern Coast of Scotland was both scenic and pleasant as we crossed several rivers and firths before angling southwest through Northwest Scotland, perhaps the most spectacular region of the country.  More on that landscape in tomorrow's post.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

The Orkney Mainland

The Orkney Islands are an archipelago of 70 islands and islets off the northeast coast of Scotland; the largest of these is known as The Mainland and it is that island that we explored today.

Famous for its collection of Neolithic "architecture," including stone circles, a burial chamber (Maeshowe) and the remnants of a village  (Skara Brae), all dating back to 3000 BC, as well as Viking engravings (at Maeshowe) from the 12th Century AD, the island's pastoral, rolling landscape is pleasing to the eye.  A large, natural harbor (second only in size to that of Sydney, Australia) stretches across the center of The Mainland while several saltwater bays, freshwater lakes and low ridges disrupt the hayfields and grasslands.  Massive cliffs of granite rise along the western coast, lashed and sculpted by monstrous waves from the North Atlantic.

During our tour of the island, we also encountered large flocks of greylag geese and a large number of swans (primarily whooper swans migrating from Iceland and perhaps some Bewick's swans, arriving from Siberia to winter in Scotland).  Tomorrow we leave the Orkneys to travel across the northern Scottish mainland as we head toward The Hebrides, another archipelago off the western coast of Scotland.


Saturday, October 5, 2019

Northward through Scotland

Yesterday morning, we left Edinburgh, Scotland, in a light drizzle, heading northwest across the rolling hills of the Central Lowlands, quilted with hay fields, cattle ranches and sheep pastures.  Just beyond Callander, we crossed the Highland Boundary Fault and climbed into the scenic Scottish Highlands, eventually dropping toward the North Atlantic through the spectacular Glen Coe Valley.

After enjoying lunch in Fort William, we traveled northeastward through the Great Glen, its floor lined with a series of four lakes (called lochs in Scotland); the last (most northeast) of these is the famous Loch Ness, claimed by some to harbor a prehistoric plesiosaur.  We spent last night in Inverness and then headed northward along the North Sea Coast of northeast Scotland, crossing several large firths and enjoying scenic ocean vistas before reaching the lighthouse just northeast of John O'Groats, the most northern town on the Great Britain mainland.

A ferry carried us across the choppy, wind-driven Pentland Firth, which connects the North Atlantic and North Sea, to the Orkney Islands; there the economy is sustained by agriculture, ranching, fishing, tourism and distilleries.  We are spending the night in Kirkwall and will explore the main island tomorrow; though the weather has been cloudy, cool and breezy, we have been spared any significant precipitation since leaving Edinburgh.  More on our tour of Scotland in coming posts.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Into the Chill of Scotland

Having left 94 degrees F in Washington D.C. last evening, we arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland, this morning, greeted by cool, cloudy weather; the temperature was 34 degrees F and gradually climbed into the upper 40s throughout the day.

Sandwiched between the North Atlantic and the North Sea, Scotland receives less of the warming effects from the Gulf Stream than does Iceland and cool, cloudy, damp weather is common throughout the year.  Indeed, thick clouds covered the ocean as we approached from the west and the first identifiable geographic feature was Solway Firth, well south of Glasgow; the word "firth" applies to large bays and estuaries.  Curving northward, our flight took us near the North Sea Coast of southern Scotland and then into Edinburgh over the Firth of Forth.

Since our tour does not begin until tomorrow, my wife and I spent the day walking about that historic city, including a climb to Edinburgh Castle, its most prominent and well-known landmark.  The chilly weather was invigorating but rain is forecast to begin tonight and, unfortunately, is forecast to hang around for most of the week (thanks to the remnants of Tropical Storm Lorenzo).

Monday, September 30, 2019

Childhood Memories

Having recently discussed earliest memories with friends and family members, there seems to be a general consensus that events occurring prior to age three or four are lost to our conscious memory as we grow older.  More than an interesting consequence of human neurologic development, this phenomenon triggers concern (and sadness) that interactions with our young children or grandchildren may not be remembered as they age.

Of course, those early interactions do live on in their subconscious memory, cementing attachments and fostering interests.  In concert with gene expression, the experiences of early life play a major role in who we become and how we approach relationships, challenges and opportunities.  And if we endure neglect, abuse or trauma as young children, these subconscious events may hinder our emotional growth, surfacing as psychological disorders, substance abuse or abnormal behavior.

Our young children and grandchildren may not recall the details of the love and nurturing that they received but they will sense the effects throughout their lives.  We should never hold back on the emotional support and intellectual stimulation that we provide; it will, after all, be the foundation of their character.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Flooding & Waterfowl Migration

A friend and I visited Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on this pleasant, mid-Missouri morning; we observed a decent variety of birds on that floodplain refuge, including almost a hundred great blue herons, great egrets, a bald eagle and a peregrine falcon.  Noticeably absent were waterfowl, except for a handful of Canada geese, eight pied-billed grebes, a lone mallard and a backlit flock of ducks, too distant to identify.

How to explain a dearth of ducks on the Missouri River floodplain in early autumn?  Based on my recent journey up the Missouri Valley, I suspect that persistent river flooding, from South Dakota to northwest Missouri may be to blame, offering extensive shallows that attract the migrant waterfowl.  Indeed, massive flocks of coot and ducks were feeding in those floodwaters when I passed through.

Though I have no personal knowledge of the tally, I would guess that blue-winged teal hunting was a bust in central Missouri this September; those ducks are usually abundant at Eagle Bluffs by now and not a single one (except, perhaps, in that distant flock) was observed this morning.  Climate change is already delaying the arrival of autumn migrants and I wonder if the extensive Midwest flooding (perhaps also related to global warming) is augmenting that tardiness.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Genes and Talent

Today, I learned from a sister that one of our brothers has taken up painting at the age of 58; that brings the number of painters among our eight siblings to five.  While only one of my brothers actually made a living from his fine art, it does speak to the role that genetics plays in determining human talent and behavior.

My father used to enjoy drawing and both of my genetic children are artists, one a designer and the other a painter; I have no idea how many of their 17 genetic cousins are engaged in some form of artistic endeavor but I suspect quite a few.

I write this post not to brag about the talents of my family but to illustrate how genes govern the course of human development.  While familial exposure may encourage the display of innate talent, I suspect that the numbers reported above would not change if we had all been separated at birth.  Furthermore, genetic-based talent is not merely technical skill; rather, it includes both the impulse to express that talent and the emotional reward derived from that expression.


Sunday, September 22, 2019

Declining Bird Populations

This week, in the New York Times, Carl Zimmer reported on findings published in Science that the total bird population of the U.S. and Canada has fallen 29% since 1970.  While success stories related to bald eagles, ospreys and other raptors have grabbed the headlines, following the discontinuation of DDT use, other, less glorified species have lost significant ground.

According to Zimmer's article, the population of grassland birds (including maligned European starlings) has been impacted the most, likely related to the loss of prairie habitat to agriculture and oil exploration.  Also hard hit have been the warblers, many of which are dependent on extensive, old growth forests.  By contrast, vireos have thrived, perhaps (in my opinion) from the expansion of suburban habitats with open woodlands and a diversity of shrubs.  Not surprisingly, waterfowl populations have remained stable or increased due to habitat protection and restoration led by conservation and duck-hunting organizations.

Similar disturbing studies have been released in Europe, demonstrating that this phenomenon is worldwide and likely related to the expanding human population with all of its secondary effects: natural habitat loss, pollution and global warming, among others.  It is the latest warning that we humans are destroying our home planet; it is only a matter of time before we destroy ourselves.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Our Climate Change Capitol

Since our current Capitol is dominated by climate-change deniers and fossil fuel lobbyists, I think it's time to designate a Climate Change Capitol of the United States.  Cities that are already impacted by global warming seem to be reasonable choices and I would support any of the following.

Charleston, South Carolina, and Miami, Florida are already dealing with the complications of a rising sea level, enduring floods from nothing more than high tide episodes; these cities are also regular targets of increasingly severe hurricanes.  Then there is New Orleans, perhaps the most obvious choice, partly below sea level, walled off from tropical storms and Mississippi River floods by levees and relying on pumps to keep the city dry.  Finally, an ironic choice would be Houston, Texas, the home of Big Oil but the victim of recurrent catastrophic floods over the past decade, all fueled by bathtub temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico.

There are surely many other candidates, including some of our larger "Green Cities" and most towns along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, but, unlike the Democratic Presidential Field, it may be best to start with a limited number of well-qualified localities.  I may nominate other candidates down the line but the sooner we yank climate-change policy from Washington, D.C., the better! 

Friday, September 20, 2019

Late Summer Chinooks

This afternoon, the Colorado Front Range is being raked by gusty, southwest winds.  Produced by high pressure over the Desert Southwest interacting with low pressure over the Northern Plains, these winds, downsloping from the Continental Divide, dry out and heat up, comparable to Santa Ana Winds in Southern California.

A dry-line currently stretches north to south through Colorado, just east of the Front Range urban corridor, and will likely produce thunderstorms once it moves into more humid air on the Great Plains.  Here in Metro Denver, behind the dry-line, the gusty downsloping winds have delivered hot, dry, crystal-clear air and we expect another afternoon in the 80s (F).

During snow season (October to May) these winds are known as chinooks or "snow-eaters," since they rapidly warm the urban corridor and make snow disappear from the landscape; much less welcome during fire season, they can turn a small fire into a raging inferno.  Tomorrow, after a cold front moves in from the northwest, the chinooks will shut down and it will feel more like autumn (at least for a day or two). 

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Summer Hangs On

A great horned owl called from our Littleton farm last evening, the nights are getting longer and the morning chill is now reliably present; on the other hand, afternoon highs continue to reach the 80s (F) and the late summer monsoon never materialized.

Down along the South Platte this morning, the mild air was appreciated but summer birding was still the rule; I encountered only twenty species on my two-mile walk and all were permanent or summer residents.  Blue-winged and cinnamon teal have yet to move down from the north and migrant shorebirds have been spotty at best.  Even migrant warblers, more attuned to the solar cycle than to weather conditions, have been sparse to date.

Of course, the fall equinox is still a few days away but, here along the Colorado Front Range, we generally experience more convincing evidence of autumn by now.  It seems that the summer heat will persist into October, just the latest sign that our climate is changing.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Geologic History of Scotland

In the late Precambrian Era and into the Cambrian Period, the basement rock of Scotland was part of proto-North America, having accreted to that Continent as a series of exotic terranes.  The Iapetus Ocean separated this continental mass from that of England and Western Europe.

Then, about 450 million years ago (MYA), the Iapetus Ocean closed and the two continents collided, triggering the Caledonian Orogeny; much later, about 150 MYA, the Atlantic Ocean opened and Scotland remained with Europe.  Today, ancient rocks that preceded the Caledonian Orogeny underlie most of Scotland but surface primarily across the Western Islands and the Highlands; the latter region is divided into the Northwest Highlands and the Grampian Mountains by the Great Glen Fault.  As these Highlands crumpled upward, volcanism, erosion and displacement of emplaced metamorphic crust produced the complicated geology of that region.  South of the Highlands Boundary Fault, the Central Lowlands represent a Rift Valley, characterized by Paleozoic sediments, volcanic intrusions and more recent glacial deposits.  Finally, the Southern Uplands, bordering England, are comprised of uplifted and eroded Silurian crust from the Iapetus Ocean.

Acting on this underlying mosaic of Precambrian and Paleozoic bedrock, the Pleistocene Glaciers (1.8 million to 10 thousand years ago) plowed down the higher peaks, gouged out canyons and valleys and then left behind layers of till as they receded northward.  In addition, their meltwaters scoured the terrain and rising seas drowned the coastline, separating the western and northern islands from the Scottish mainland. 

Monday, September 16, 2019

Ancestral Humans in Britain

Planning to visit Scotland next month, I have begun to read about the natural history of that region.  As is the case in other Northern lands, climate change throughout the Pleistocene played a major role in its occupation by nomadic tribes.

Current evidence suggests that ancestral humans (Homo antecessor) first reached Britain in the middle of the Pleistocene, about 900,000 years ago.  During glacial periods, when sea levels fell, a land bridge connected southeastern Britain with mainland Europe and migrant hominids moved into and out of the region in response to the climate; during warm, interglacial periods, when glaciers melted and sea levels rose, the land bridge closed.  A second surge of ancestral humans (Homo heidelbergensis) occupied Britain about 500,000 years ago and Neandertals arrived about 250-300 thousand years ago.  The oldest fossils of modern humans (Homo sapiens) date back 40,000 years, well before the most recent "flooding" of the English Channel, some 11,000 years ago.

Historical records of Britain begin in 47 AD, when Romans attempted to expand their Empire across the Channel.  While they gained a foothold in southern Britain, the Romans were rebuffed by northern tribes whom they referred to collectively as Caledonians.  Only the southern portion of Scotland was briefly part of the Roman Empire.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Little Missouri Badlands

Rising in extreme northeast Wyoming, near Devils Tower, the Little Missouri River flows northeastward across southeast Montana and the western Dakotas (paralleling the Yellowstone River for most of its route) before entering the Missouri River within Lake Sakakawea.  Like other rivers of the Missouri Plateau, it cuts through soft (relatively young) Tertiary sediments to produce badlands within the surrounding prairie.

In the North Dakota section of its watershed, Theodore Roosevelt National Park protects several areas of those badlands, commemorating Roosevelt's conservation achievements and enveloping the site of his Elkhorn Ranch, which he established in the 1880s; the Park, itself, was set aside in 1947.  The colorful and ever-changing cliffs, domes, mesas and buttes of the badlands are adorned with stands of juniper, while wetlands, meadows and groves of cottonwood cover the valley floors.  Bison, elk, bighorn sheep and pronghorn, once extirpated by overhunting, have all been reintroduced and both mule and white-tailed deer inhabit the Little Missouri Valley.

Father of the U.S. Forest Service, Theodore Roosevelt created five National Parks, 15 National Monuments and 150 National Forests during his Presidency.  Contrast those achievements with the negative environmental impacts of the Trump Administration!

Friday, September 13, 2019

Harvest Moon

Tonight's full moon is the Harvest Moon, named at a time when moonlight was essential for completing work in the crop fields.  Its name has since been given to the full moon closest to the autumn equinox and it thus may occur in September or early October.

For those of us not involved with agriculture, it is the full moon that heralds the glorious season of autumn, when mild, dry weather prevails and when the nights are crisp and invigorating.  Depending on where we live, we anticipate a reprieve from the heat and humidity of summer and look forward to the painted woodlands, the bugling of elk, the first snowstorm and the waves of migrant waterfowl, among other seasonal spectacles.

Long enamored with this season, I am especially appreciative of its many gifts during the autumn of my years.  Tonight's full moon is more than an astronomical event; it is a reminder to reap the rewards and opportunities of this life before the trials of winter arrive.  

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Wolves in Colorado

The gray wolf was extirpated from Colorado by the 1940s in an ill-advised effort to protect livestock and the game-hunting industry.  Today, following their reintroduction in Idaho and Wyoming, conservationists are proposing a ballot initiative to establish a similar program in Colorado, the only Rocky Mountain State without a viable wolf population.

As one might expect, most hunters and ranchers oppose the initiative and have found an ally in the Colorado Division of Wildlife.  While human efforts to engineer natural ecosystems are often met with unintended consequences, Colorado has a poorly-controlled elk population and a rapidly growing number of reintroduced moose; to support game species without providing natural predation creates an imbalance in the ecosystem.  Furthermore, wolf predation on livestock has been minimal in Idaho and Wyoming and compensation programs are utilized.

While a few wolves have wandered into Colorado from Wyoming, a viable population is not likely to become established here without both protection and reintroduction.  In my opinion, humans damaged the ecosystem when wolves were removed and re-establishing a healthy ecosystem will require their return.  Wolves, unlike human hunters, kill aging, injured and sick elk and deer.  They are naturally wary of humans and keep other predator populations (i.e. coyotes) in check.  From what I observed at Yellowstone, I believe most citizens would welcome a thoughtful and gradual reintroduction plan in Colorado; those who want to learn more and wish to support the effort are advised to contact the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Wolf Watching at Yellowstone

After a long, foggy drive across Beartooth Pass (10,947 feet), I arrived in the Lamar River Valley just after sunrise.  There I found hundreds of other hopeful "wolf watchers," scanning the landscape with their binoculars, spotting scopes and telescopic cameras.  Indeed, this Valley, in the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park, has become the wolf-watching mecca of the Lower 48 ever since these apex predators were reintroduced to the Park ecosystem, in 1995.

Finding an empty pull-off (not easy), I began my own search and fortunately located an adult black wolf, trotting across the valley floor; even more stirring was the chorus of a pack, howling from Specimen Ridge, which rises above the south edge of the Lamar Valley.  Other sightings included a grizzly, rummaging through a meadow at the base of the ridge, a lone coyote, searching for rodents in the riverside wetlands and a couple hundred bison, browsing along the road and on hills above the valley.  Though mule deer and pronghorn were observed, elk remained out of view despite the cool, cloudy weather.

By keeping the elk population in check, Yellowstone's wolf packs have allowed the Park's ecosystem to recover from over-grazing and forest damage.  Of course, they have also restored the "wildness" which the Park was meant to protect.  Today, I was honored to witness their return.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Across the Missouri Plateau

Leaving Bismarck, North Dakota, this morning, I drove west on Interstate 94, crossing the Missouri River and then climbing across the Missouri Plateau via a stairway of low ridges and broad valleys.  Nearing the Montana border, the highway winds through the scenic, heavily-dissected canyon of the Little Missouri River; two regions of that canyon are protected within Theodore Roosevelt National Park and I visited the southern segment for an hour or so, encountering bison and spectacular rock formations (more on the Park in a future post).

West of the Little Missouri Canyon is the Little Missouri National Grassland, beautiful in its "big-sky" grandeur.  At Glendive, Montana, the Interstate crosses the Yellowstone River and then follows it upstream, all the way to Billings; the Yellowstone, which rises in Yellowstone National Park, is the largest tributary of the Upper Missouri, taking in flow from the Powder, Tongue and Bighorn Rivers (east to west), all arriving from Wyoming.

After a night in Laurel, Montana, just west of Billings, I plan an early morning visit to the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park, where I hope to see (or at least hear) wolves.  More on that adventure tomorrow.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Dakota Wetlands

On the second leg of my journey up the Missouri Valley, I encountered dense fog on the bottomlands from Sioux City to Yankton and spectacular views of the Valley farther to the northwest, where Route 44 crosses Lake Francis Case, which now swallows the river; I also enjoyed scenic vistas across the Fort Pierre National Grassland, south of Pierre, South Dakota.  But the highlight of this segment was provided by the abundant wetlands across the Dakotas and the avian migrants that they attract.

Due to the underlying geology and the high water table, numerous lakes, ponds, "potholes," sloughs and marshlands surface within and between the hayfields, croplands and pastures.  At this time of year, most are crowded with ducks, coot, American white pelicans, cormorants, ibis, gulls, yellow-headed blackbirds and shorebirds; among the latter, American avocets were especially abundant.  What might be considered a spectacle in other States is apparently taken for granted here and safe pullouts were, unfortunately, few and far between; nevertheless, the migrants made my day, even when observed at 60 mph (see Addendum).

Of course, the final highlight occurred when I entered North Dakota for the first time (my 49th State).  This experience was especially rewarding since I was on U.S. 83, locally known as the Lawrence Welk Highway; after all, Mr. Welk was my maternal grandmother's second favorite entertainer (close on the heels of Engelbert Humperdinck).  Since I spent a great deal of my childhood at her home (and, later, she at ours), any reference to Lawrence Welk always brings her to mind.  Wish she could have been there today!

Addendum:  To be fair, there are numerous NWRs in the Dakotas where one can safely observe the spectacle of waterfowl migrations.  If I had more time, I would have visited at least a few of them.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Up the Missouri Valley

Since I have several days to return to Colorado, I decided to follow the Missouri River Valley northwestward to Montana and then head south to Denver.  This will take me through some heretofore unexplored country, including western North Dakota, one of only two States that I have yet to visit (the other is Hawaii).

North of Kansas City, Interstate 29 undulates across the hills east of the Missouri and the river remains out of view.  Nearing Mound City, however, the highway drops onto its broad floodplain, crisscrossed with small rivers, creeks and canals.  Once I entered southwestern Iowa, where the river is closer to the highway, a floodscape unfolded, having yet to recover from the spring and early summer deluge.  There, hundreds of American white pelicans gathered on the extensive shallows and clouds of swallows strafed the flooded fields, preparing for their autumn migration.  As one might expect, great blue herons were also abundant along this stretch of highway.

Farther north, as the Interstate veers away from the river, the late-summer landscape was drier and crop fields dominated the floodplain; rejoining the Missouri at Sioux City, I decided to stop for the night.  Tomorrow, I'll follow the Missouri Valley northwestward to Pierre, South Dakota, and then north toward Bismarck, North Dakota.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Pollution begets Pollution

As we humans pump carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, our climate warms, glaciers and ice sheets melt, ocean levels rise and hurricanes become more potent.  Dorian, now pummeling the coast of the Carolinas after producing devastation across the northern Bahamas, offers a prime example.

Since humans are fond of tropical islands, barrier islands and coastal cities, a sizable segment of our population lives in flood-prone areas, subject to the effects of storm surge and torrential rain.  These coastal and island residents are not merely inconvenienced by hurricanes and tropical storms; lives are lost, homes and businesses are destroyed and the land is scoured by the sea, dragging debris and pollutants into the marine ecosystem.

In our efforts to combat global warming, we must address both the pollution that is triggering climate change and the marine pollution that comes from cities, towns, industrial areas and farms.  Watching coverage of Dorian's destruction across the Bahamas, one feels for the victims and those who lost their homes but also worries about the damage done to the island ecology and the surrounding ocean environment.  In light of our warming climate and rising sea levels, one wonders if re-building in storm-prone areas is wise.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Ospreys in Missouri

Once common along all major rivers and large lakes in Missouri, ospreys were extirpated from the State during the widespread use of DDT in the early-mid 20th Century.  Once that pesticide was banned, they have made a gradual comeback but remained primarily seasonal migrants until a reintroduction plan began in the mid 1990s; even today, these "fish hawks" are best observed as they migrate through the Mississippi and Missouri River Valleys, on their way to and from breeding grounds to our north.

Nevertheless, on this mild, late-summer morning, my wife and I encountered a lone osprey at Perry Phillips Lake, in south Columbia.  Perched on a tall post south of the lake, he/she was easily identified by its large size, white head and distinctive black eye-stripe.  Since the reintroduction program has concentrated on large reservoirs across Missouri, I suspect this bird was a product of that effort and is wandering about the region before heading south in October.

Highly adaptable, ospreys inhabit all Continents except Antarctica, favoring coastlines, large rivers and lakes.  In North America, the majority breed along both Coasts, in Florida and throughout the Great Lakes region but many nest across Alaska, Canada, the Northern U.S, the Mississippi Valley and the Rocky Mountain corridor.  Come autumn, most head for Florida, the Gulf Coast, Southern California, Central America or South America.  Hopefully, these majestic raptors will become increasingly common breeding residents here in Missouri.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Flashback Post XVI

In recent days, the Bahama Islands have been in the news as they have endured the wrath of Hurricane Dorian.  A review of their natural history thus seems appropriate, the subject of a post back in September, 2009.

See: Natural History of the Bahamas

Monday, September 2, 2019

Eagle Bluffs after the Flood

For the first time since mid spring, I visited Eagle Bluffs Conservation area and was able to access the entire refuge.  The extensive flooding that had long persisted across the Missouri River floodplain has finally receded.

Dense fog enveloped the refuge when I first arrived but the late August sun quickly broke through the haze, revealing a rich green landscape, adorned with numerous stands of rose mallow.  Despite the inviting scenery, birdlife was relatively sparse, dominated by large flocks of turkey vultures and almost fifty great-blue herons.  While a few red-tailed hawks patrolled the floodplain, bald eagles were not observed and, to my dismay, shorebirds were limited to killdeer and lesser yellowlegs.

While it was far from the best birding excursion of the year, it was rewarding to re-explore the entire refuge, most of which was submerged for the past two months.  The resilience of plant and animal life was inspiring to observe and the flood's limited effects on Eagle-Bluffs roadways and levees was remarkable.  Though my visit to Missouri will be relatively brief, I hope to return to this fabulous refuge in the fall, when hordes of migrant waterfowl descend on the floodplain.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Flashback Post XV

As the forecasts of Hurricane Dorian's path continue to wobble, I am reminded of a post from February, 2010.  My sympathies lie with the beleaguered meteorologists.

See: Physicians & Meteorologists

Friday, August 30, 2019

Dorian Gains Strength

Hurricane Dorian, churning toward the Northern Bahamas and the Atlantic Coast of Florida, has strengthened to a Category 4 storm this evening, with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph.  Though still far from the Florida Peninsula, there are no atmospheric or oceanic features that suggest weakening of the hurricane will occur.

Indeed, a low pressure zone to its southwest has backed away, reducing the risk of significant wind shear and the storm will soon enter warmer waters as it reaches the Bahamas and the Gulf Stream.  The only remaining question is whether the high pressure ridge to its north will shift eastward, allowing the hurricane to curve northward before it makes landfall in Florida.  Even so, a powerful storm moving parallel to the coast will likely produce devastating storm surge, beach erosion and inland flooding.

Mandatory evacuations have already been ordered for low-lying areas of Brevard County, Florida, and many similar proclamations are expected in the days ahead.  Once again, climate change may be playing a role in both the hurricane's intensity and its coastal effects, as ocean temperatures increase and sea levels rise.  Followup posts are anticipated over the coming week.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Magellan's Mixed Legacy

Ferdinand Magellan was certainly a courageous individual and an exceptional navigator, having crossed the Atlantic, maneuvered through a dangerous, unmapped strait and rallied his crew as they spent months on an unknown ocean (the Pacific), dying off from malnutrition and scurvy.  Then again, he took on slaves, ordered the slaughter of many native villagers and left two mutineers on a small, uninhabited island.

And just as his goal was about to be realized, having received a warm welcome from natives in the Philippines, he attacks a king and his tribe who refused to convert to Catholicism; Magellan was killed in that battle and his remains were never recovered.  In more stark terms, Magellan survived nineteen months at sea, often under trying conditions and in uncharted waters, to die on a beach in the Philippines during a battle of his own making.

Of course, Magellan's journey began not long after the Spanish Inquisition, when religious fervor was at a peak.  But here was a man who undertook a treacherous circumnavigation of our planet based on the leading scientific assessments of his day only to succumb to religious mysticism.  On both counts he taught humanity a great deal.

See the previous three posts for details, all taken from Over the Edge of the World, by Laurence Bergreen