Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Uncertainty & Truth

Since the dawn of man, we humans have been learning about ourselves, our planet and our Universe.  Personal experience and the scientific method have greatly increased our knowledge over the Centuries; yet, our search for truth goes on.  Uncertainty reigns.

Indeed, the more we learn the more we realize how much we do not understand; answers lead to more questions, most of which have yet to be asked.  The complexity of our bodies, Earth's ecosystems and the galaxies challenges our rudimentary knowledge.  The beauty of uncertainty is that it drives exploration and investigation.

Those who settle for mysticism, accepting belief as truth, forego the magnificent adventure that motivates science-minded individuals.  We must defend uncertainty; it guides us, however slowly, toward truth.   

Sunday, November 26, 2023

First Flakes of the Season

While the latest cold front produced heavy snow in eastern Kansas and northern Missouri, we received just a dusting of wet snow here in Columbia.  Nevertheless, they were the first flakes of the season, whitening our lawns and roofs.

The heavy band of snow is forecast to extend across the Northern Midwest and into the Great Lakes Region.  Though we remain below freezing in central Missouri, dry, frigid air is moving in from the west, cutting off any additional moisture.  In light of our ongoing drought, this is unfortunate.

On the positive side, the cold front, to be followed by another, may finally encourage snow geese to head southward; most are still content to hang out at refuges to our north.  Bring on the snow and the snow geese; we look forward to both. 

Friday, November 24, 2023

Loneliness and the Holidays

As the annual Holiday Season begins, it is sad to realize that many Americans are suffering from loneliness.  While illness and advanced age are common factors, some loneliness is psychological, triggered by the perception of being unloved or unneeded.

Those homebound by illness or infirmity warrant our attention and support; when family is absent, various social programs are designed to step in and our participation in or financial support for those services is a rewarding experience.  Indeed, for those who feel unneeded, these and other volunteer opportunities (hospitals, food banks, youth sports, community services, etc.) offer both social interaction and personal satisfaction.

The mental and physical effects of loneliness should not be minimized, especially during the Holidays.  It is incumbent on the rest of us to intervene by offering direct support or by encouraging those afflicted with loneliness to participate in the many volunteer programs that are vital to a healthy community. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Sixty Years On

Today is the 60th Anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, an event that had a profound effect on all of us old enough to remember the tragedy.  I was in the eighth grade at the time and my experience is expressed in a poem from 2013: Innocence Lost.

For many of us, it was our first experience with gun violence and, having come soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis, it shook our faith in the security of our Government.  The turbulent years of the Sixties would follow, characterized by anti-war protests, civil rights demonstrations, a chaotic political convention and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

Sixty years on, we face a more existential threat, a Political Party that cannot divorce itself from a Presidential candidate who threatens the very fabric of our Democracy.  Gun violence itself has become a national scourge.  Back in 1963, we were uncertain who to blame for the crisis but, today, the bloated culprit is impossible to ignore.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Migrants over the Missouri

Down along the banks of the Missouri River this morning, I found myself totally removed from signs of human activity.  I had come down to scan the riverscape for bald eagles, waterfowl and other resident wildlife.

As I prepared to leave, I caught sight of a distant flock, heading south through the valley.  As they approached, I saw and heard that they were greater white-fronted geese, the first I have encountered this autumn.  Having bred on the Arctic tundra of Canada and Alaska, they are on their way to the Lower Mississippi Valley and western Gulf Coast where they will spend the winter.

Long before we humans built our roads and highways, rivers guided migrant waterfowl to their destinations, offering nutritious rest stops along the journey.  For all I know, I might have been the only human to observe the geese this morning; they don't need our guidance and would surely fare better without our relentless assault on the landscape.  The least we can do is to protect the rivers and wetlands that they depend on. 

Friday, November 17, 2023

Cool Sunshine

Over the past 17 years of blogging, I'm sure I have mentioned that cold rain is my least favorite weather on many occasions.  And I might also have declared my fondness for cool sunshine.  Nevertheless, I'll do so again.

An autumn cold front has swept away our prolonged Indian Summer in Missouri and ushered in cool, dry, crystal-clear air.  The lower sun brightly illuminates the landscape without producing the heat that we have come to despise.  In concert, the local wildlife is invigorated; juncos and white-throated sparrows, here for the winter, are scouring the shrub lines, a white-breasted nuthatch is noisily performing his acrobatics in our large maple tree and a pair of crows are patrolling the neighborhood, intent on evicting any hawks or owls.

Approaching the self-induced frenzy of the Holiday Season, we humans have no excuse to be indoors.  There is cool, fresh air to inhale, trails to explore and, if we must, plenty of leaves to rake.  Nature, fickle as she is, may not offer these appealing conditions for too long. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Returning to my Youth

For the first time since moving to Columbia, I attended a University of Missouri swim meet this morning; it was part of a three-day Men & Women's Invitational.  Of course, the experience took me back to my own days as a competitive swimmer.

It was refreshing to be enveloped by the humid, chlorine-scented air once again and it was good to see such a large congregation of fit, enthusiastic young adults.  They are certainly larger, stronger and much faster than we were back in the Sixties; they are also adorned with many more tattoos!

I would be remiss not to mention the significant number of black competitors.  During my youth, we heard that blacks cannot be competitive swimmers; something to do with heavy bones.  Today, we know it had nothing to do with anatomy; it was all about a lack of opportunity.

See also:  Thoughts on Competitive Swimming 

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Looking for Short-Eared Owls

On this mild November day in central Missouri, I decided to look for short-eared owls on the farmlands east of Columbia.  Unlike most owls, they are often active during the day (especially at dawn and dusk).

Indeed, these winter residents of Missouri are often seen perched on a fence post, waiting to cruise low above grasslands or crop stubble in search of rodents; they might also be found on floodplains or coastal wetlands.  Of course, those hoping to observe them must head for appropriate habitat, as I did today.

On similar excursions in the past, my success rate is well below 50%.  I am far more likely to encounter hawks, kestrels, geese and other open country species but the effort is always worthwhile.  Today proved to be another failed mission but I have at least four more months to achieve success; avid birders are persistent, if nothing else.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Examining our Life

The course of our life is governed by factors over which we have no control and by choices that we make.  As we grow older, and especially near the end of life, we are inclined to examine that history, wondering what we might (or should) have done differently.

Of course, choice does not arise until we reach the age of independence but childhood experiences certainly influence future decisions.  Our primary choices have to do with our education, our career, our relationships, our beliefs and our lifestyle.  Course corrections in any or all of these areas are common.

Looking back, we may identify "mistakes" that spawn regret but our review must respect the context in which those choices were made, details that often fade with time.  Judging ourself without placing choices in their proper context may lead to dubious conclusions.  Indeed, one might argue that time invalidates a truthful re-examination of our life but we tend to do so anyway.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Limpkin in Columbia

Limpkins are large wading birds, related to rails and cranes; they are the only member of their family in the Americas.  Scouring freshwater marshes for snails and other mollusks, they are common in tropical and subtropical life zones; in the U.S., they were primarily found in Florida but their range has expanded in recent years.

Yesterday, a limpkin was discovered in the Twin Lakes Recreation Area along the MKT trail, here in Columbia, Missouri; of course, the local birding community has been notified via eBird.  Limpkins have become permanent residents along the Gulf and Southeastern Coasts of the U.S. and summer sightings have increased dramatically, as far north as Minnesota and Southern Canada and as far west as the Front Range of Colorado.

Formerly non-migratory, this bird, like many others, seems to be expanding its range northward as our climate warms.  One assumes that those observed in the northernmost climes move southward in winter but data is limited at this point; on the other hand, limpkins have been observed in central latitudes of the eastern U.S. in winter.  Great blue herons are permanent residents across the Snow Belt, why not limpkins?  

Friday, November 10, 2023

Miraculous Obesity Drugs

The 40% of American adults who are obese have been offered an effective yet expensive answer to their problem.  Reported to be as effective as gastric-bypass surgery in producing weight loss, these new, injectable (for now) drugs appear to be miraculous.

Not yet covered by insurance, pending assessment of broader benefits and potential side effects, the drugs are currently available only to the wealthy, many of whom surely use them just to trim their figure a bit. But these drugs result in more than appetite suppression; they interfere with metabolic processes that are vital to glucose metabolism.  What side effects might arise are yet to be determined.

Of the 40% of Americans who are obese, I suspect a small minority have genetic-based metabolic disorders that are responsible for their condition.  Most have obesity that began in childhood or early adulthood (due to familial factors such as poor dietary habits and lack of exercise).  These new therapies might offer a convenient form of effective therapy but a lifestyle change will also be necessary for the benefits to persist; then there are the potential side effects.

See also:  The Cycle of Obesity 

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Bird Data and Climate Change

Yesterday afternoon, a friend and I encountered two ospreys at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain.  When I filed the report on eBird, I was advised by their computer that the count was "unusually high for the date and location." Comments were requested.

Though I was not offended (well, maybe just a bit), I provided the details and will await the judgement of local experts.  After all, bird data is only valuable if it is accurate.  

However, as an avid birder for more than 47 years, I have noted a recent shift in my own observations as our climate warms.  Most notable has been the delayed waterfowl migration in the fall, reflecting the late "freeze-up" across northern latitudes.  To encounter two ospreys in central Missouri in early November hardly seems exceptional; indeed, it was nearly 80 degrees F in Columbia yesterday.  Past data may no longer apply.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Joined by a Hawk

On this beautiful, warm, November morning in Columbia, Missouri, I took a seat on the back deck.  Listening to music, as usual, I was soon joined by a red-shouldered hawk that perched about fifty feet away.  Taking little notice of my presence, he did not seem to be hunting but, like myself, just wanted to bask in the sun for awhile.

Of course, unlike my visitor, my attention was often diverted by internal and external stimuli.  Certain songs would take me back to places or persons in my past and a host of pending tasks surfaced in my mind.  My relaxation was primarily physical, not cerebral.  The hawk, on the other hand, devoid of a large brain, was either hungry or not; no other issues disturbed his serenity.

About twenty minutes later, the raptor flew off.  I was left alone, contemplating the fact that human superiority is a relative concept. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Sawtooth Oaks

Unlike the other deciduous trees in our Columbia, Missouri, yard, our two sawtooth oaks are reluctant to drop their leaves.  In fact, the leaves are just now taking on a yellowish sheen and are as supple as they were in mid summer.

Of the 90+ oaks (trees and shrubs) native to North America, sawtooth oaks are not among them.  These exotic oaks are native to Eastern Asia but have become naturalized in various regions of the Southeastern U.S.; indeed, one of ours appeared on its own.  The long, saw-toothed leaves are distinctive enough but their acorns are especially helpful in identification; the large, round nut, relished by our resident squirrels, has thick, curly scales.

Oaks, common through most of the country, are a subfamily of the Beech Family, which includes beeches, oaks and chestnuts.  Worldwide, there are at least 400 species of oak. 

Monday, November 6, 2023

Fearing a Buffoon

Despite his numerous legal problems, his bumbling speeches at campaign stops, his vocal attacks on American Democracy and his relentless threats against perceived enemies, many Americans fear that Donald Trump will regain the Presidency.

Backed by MAGA extremists who oppose human rights, reject responsible gun control, work to limit voting access and hope to withdraw from the global stage, Trump jets around the country, ranting about his own problems.  A friend of Putin and other dictators, Trump wants the same unconstrained power for himself; vengeance is his primary goal.

Leading a racist cult, Trump disrespects the military, law enforcement officers, immigrants and working class Americans.  He is a rapist, a fraud and a threat to our national security.  I cannot believe that the majority of American citizens will want him back in office; he should be in prison.  It is time to stop worrying about this pathetic man.  Just vote. 

Sunday, November 5, 2023

Window Birding

Despite what the title might imply, this post is not about birding from a picture window (though that can be both enjoyable and productive).  Rather, it relates my excursion to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area during the afternoon "birding window" when the hunters lay down their weapons and birders search for avian residents and visitors that were not killed or scared off by the shooting.

Since my middle grandson came along, my visit easily fit within the official window and I focused on nearby, easy to identify species.  American coot, pied-billed grebes, a belted kingfisher, northern shovelers and a northern harrier, all new to him, were the afternoon highlights.

I will retry the window birding later in the week but the time of day and the regional carnage will likely suppress bird activity throughout the hunting season.  Indeed, I might observe more species from our family room window. 

Friday, November 3, 2023

Unexpected Complications

We humans experience a variety of unexpected problems during our lives.  Some are tragic while most are simply annoying (though sometimes costly).  Last evening, we hit a deer in Indiana.

I felt bad that the deer was killed but was also sorry that our car was damaged and that our planned visit to northern Ohio was cancelled.  On the other hand, we were fortunate not to be injured (or worse) and were able to drive back to Missouri despite the carnage.  Having driven over half a million miles touring this country, it was finally our turn to experience this all-too-common collision.

When faced with such unexpected complications in our lives, we all tend to get angry but that only adds to our stress.  It seems best to accept the "could have been worse" approach, recognizing the implications of the event while focusing on solutions.  Sorting through and addressing the steps to recovery is both appropriate and therapeutic. 

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Creative Freedom

Creativity confers a significant degree of freedom.  Those who discover their creativity at a young age are thus likely to experience a level of freedom in their lives that most others do not.  In some cases, it facilitates an escape from a life of deprivation. 

Such creativity usually relates to the arts: painting, sculpture, music, dance, theater and writing, among others.  Talent in such areas affords both a diversion from the traditional path to career fulfillment and a freedom of expression that others can only imagine.

Of course, a degree of creativity is helpful in any field of endeavor but artistic activity offers additional benefits, especially at the personal level.  Indeed, this is the reason that many well-educated and financially secure individuals become novelists, paint or join theater groups later in life.  I personally recommend such an adventure for everyone....no talent needed.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Nature's Debris

Now that we have enjoyed the colorful foliage of October, we humans watch as leaves, twigs, needles and seedpods collect on our roofs, lawns, walkways and driveways throughout November.  Of course, this natural plant material is referred to as "debris" only because it lands on our unnatural structures and surfaces.

Were it not for this seasonal rain of dead vegetation and seeds, we would not have forests.  Even our suburban landscapes would be healthier if we were not so fastidious about cleaning it up.  Offering nutrients for the parent plant as well as neighboring vegetation, the debris is recycled by fungi and a host of invertebrates.  Of course, the seeds will yield new trees in the spring, often in areas where we may not want them (e.g. flower beds).

How we approach nature's life cycle is generally a reflection of how connected we feel with the natural world.  By the end of the month, many will have bagged up and shipped off most of the material.  Some of us just rearrange it a bit. 

Monday, October 30, 2023

Krider's Hawk

On our visit to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area this afternoon, a friend and I encountered a Krider's hawk, a light race of the common red-tailed hawk.  The whiteness of this raptor varies across its range and today's visitor was almost completely white with dark speckling on the dorsal aspect of its wings and a faint red band across the end of its tail.

Krider's red-tailed hawks breed across the Northern Plains of Canada and the U.S. and winter on the Southern Plains.  Of course, migrant raptors do not adhere to State lines and these birds occasionally turn up in States that border that region.  Indeed, this subspecies is named for a collector who first shot one in Philadelphia.

Since the Krider's red-tails interbreed with darker subspecies east and west of its range, they will likely disappear from the Continent over time.  It was thus a special treat to observe this beautiful raptor today.