Saturday, January 28, 2023

Developing Floodplains

Last month, while hiking atop a ridge on the west side of Columbia, Missouri, my wife and I noticed that a portion of the Perche Creek floodplain had been cleared.  In addition, a diversion canal had been constructed, apparently designed to "handle" high water levels in the creek.  A new access road, which we crossed, was gated and was clearly built for traffic other than farm tractors.  Since that experience, we have learned that the floodplain will indeed be "developed," though we do not know if it will be residential or commercial construction.

In this era of global warming, we have observed catastrophic inland flooding in California, Kentucky, Europe, Pakistan and, most recently, New Zealand.  One wonders what the development company is thinking and how they can secure insurance coverage for their project.

Of course, they are not merely developing the floodplain; they are destroying the floodplain ecosystem.  While removing yet another parcel of natural habitat, home to countless plant and animal species, they are putting humans at risk as well.  Until Federal, State and local officials restrict development in flood-prone areas, tragic consequences will continue to occur, both for nature and for human society.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

The Vanguard of Spring II

Driving east on Interstate 70 this morning, I encountered a large flock of greater white-fronted geese west of Topeka, Kansas.  Flying north over the highway, they were headed for the Arctic tundra, where they will breed.  Of course, multiple rest stops will occur along the way.

Somewhat early, even for migrant geese, the hardy travelers were unfazed by the temperature (27 F), the cloud cover, the snow-covered landscape and a moderate north wind.  Receptive only to instinct, they were focused on their goal and (unconsciously) on the future welfare of their species.

If only humans were so determined and "optimistic."  Unfortunately, our large brains get in the way, infusing fear and doubt when we face difficult situations.

See also:  Vanguard of Spring 

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

A Southern Storm

Having plans to re-cross the Great Plains over the next two days, I was alarmed to learn that the next winter storm had formed over the Four Corners region.  Fortunately, for me, the storm has tracked eastward across the Southern Plains.

As a result, most of the snow is forecast to fall across northern Texas, Oklahoma, southern Kansas, northern Arkansas and southern Missouri before the storm heads northeastward through the Ohio River Valley.  In concert, severe thunderstorms with possible tornados will develop in the "warm sector" of the circulation, primarily affecting areas along the northern Gulf Coast.

Before traveling, it is always wise to check the weather forecast in order to avoid dangerous driving conditions.  This is especially important across the Great Plains, where high winds are common and where safe refuge sites (i.e. towns, cities) are often far apart.  Had the current storm tracked farther to the north, I would have delayed my travel.

Monday, January 23, 2023

The Time of our Life

If asked what was the best time of their life, many humans would hesitate, knowing that they should mention the first years of their marriage, the joy of raising children or the carefree days of retirement when they are free to spend time with the grandkids.  However, I suspect most of us (if being honest) would choose the brief period of independence that generally corresponds with our college and grad school years.

Though we had responsibilities during that time (jobs, education), they were self-imposed and directly associated with our life goals.  Neither did they diminish the sense of freedom that independence brings.  This is not to suggest that those years are all about self-indulgence; life-long relationships are often forged during that period and the freedom is vital to the development of our personal beliefs and philosophy.

Some may feel guilty if they acknowledge that the Time of their Life coincided with independence from their loved ones.  But the influence of others, good or bad, is never completely absent in our lives. 

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Winter on the South Platte

As I have reported in past blog posts, waterfowl gather on the South Platte River when Front Range lakes and ponds freeze over.  This winter is no exception, as I found out on this sunny, cool morning.

Competing primarily with joggers (in running shorts, of course), I ambled along the hike-bike path, still mostly snow-covered from our recent storm.  Canada geese were abundant on the river, joined by smaller flocks of cackling geese and mallards; hooded mergansers and buffleheads were also fairly common.  Small numbers of gadwall, American wigeon, northern shovelers, green-winged teal, common goldeneyes, ring-necked ducks, common mergansers and pied-billed grebes rounded out the wintering waterfowl.  Other sightings included a great blue heron, a red-tailed hawk, magpies, flickers and a host of songbirds.

Of course, the brilliant sunshine, fresh air and snowy landscape also made my visit worthwhile, not to mention a bit of exercise.  This annual assembly of waterfowl is one of many gifts that winter brings along the Colorado Front Range.

Friday, January 20, 2023

A Modest Gathering

On my first chance to survey our Littleton farm since returning, I was not greeted by many of our resident wildlife.  While I have seen her tracks in the snow, the red fox did not make an appearance though several fox squirrels were in attendance.

The birds were not terribly excited to see me either.  A few common winter songbirds twittered from the trees and shrubs and a pair of norther flickers were kind enough to deliver their piercing calls.  A special welcome was provided by our lone Townsend's solitaire that has wintered on the property for many years.  Finally, our most reliable winter visitors, Canada geese, made several flyovers (perhaps in my honor).

Though the party was small, I was glad to be back in Colorado with my old friends.  The farm is especially inviting beneath a thick coat of snow and the cold air is more invigorating than bothersome at this altitude.  My visit will be relatively brief but I hope to see more of our wild residents before I leave; of course, any unusual sightings will be faithfully reported. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Greeted with a Warning

As I approached Denver yesterday afternoon, highway signs flashed a warning that a winter storm would arrive by evening; preparations were recommended.  Knowing that my 2003 Tacoma pickup awaited my return to our Littleton farm, I was unfazed by the warning.

Just the last storm to ravage California, it dropped heavy snow on Northern Arizona and had moved into southwest Colorado as I reached the Front Range urban corridor.  Crossing the Continental Divide, the storm did reach Metro Denver by late in the evening and left 6-8 inches of snow across the city by this morning.

While it has had a modest impact on Front Range communities, the storm will bring heavy snow to the Northern Plains, especially across central Nebraska.  Having brought welcome precipitation to the drought-plagued Four Corners region, it is now recharging the dry watershed of the Upper Missouri River.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

A Slog through the Fog

Traveling back to Colorado after a prolonged absence, I encountered dense, icy fog near Ellis, Kansas.  This atmospheric shroud persisted until I was ten miles west of Colby, more than two hours later.

The air temperature within the fog remained in a narrow range (28-30 degrees F) and visibility was less than 200 feet (my estimate) for much of that stretch.  Fortunately, most drivers slowed down significantly and many of us turned on our emergency flashers to encourage caution.

When the fog abruptly cleared, the landscape appeared exceptionally colorful and brilliant beneath a clear blue sky, not a typical description of the High Plains in the middle of winter.  In concert, clouds of longspurs streamed above the Interstate, apparently as relieved as I was to have escaped the dome of fog.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Reassurance from the NFL

Following the recent cardiac arrest of a player on live television, the NFL has been spreading the message that a team of highly qualified physicians are on the sidelines at each game, equipped with all appropriate emergency gear.  Of course, this news is an acknowledgement that medical care is often needed.

Like the ancient Romans, many modern humans enjoy violent sports.  While speed and agility are also admired, bone-crunching and brain-bruising hits are what rabid fans hope to witness.

They can now settle in with their beer and snacks to watch the upcoming games, reassured that their favorite gladiators will enjoy the services of a world-class team of medical experts.  Unfortunately, while the physicians will surely deliver effective care for acute injuries and medical emergencies, they cannot guarantee that chronic complications will not develop (CTE for example).

Sunday, January 15, 2023

After the Hunting

Now that duck hunting season is over, Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain, is open to birders from dawn to dusk (though the southern half of the refuge remains closed to provide undisturbed habitat for wintering waterfowl.)  On this sunny but chilly morning, some recovery was apparent.

While about 40% of the surface water was frozen, wintering mallards have spread further into the recent hunting zone, joined by small numbers of northern shovelers and gadwall.  A sizable flock of Canada geese was moving about the floodplain, feeding in the corn stubble or resting on open pools.  Raptors were also a bit more active, represented by a several red-tailed hawks and a lone bald eagle.

Yet, overall avian activity has yet to recover from the influx of hunters and their vehicles.  Though they were not targets themselves, many species were likely disturbed by the human swarm and may be slow to return to their previous haunts.  "Wildlife refuge" is often a seasonal designation. 

Friday, January 13, 2023

Purple Finches

Purple finches breed across Canada, throughout the northeastern U.S., southward through the Appalachians and along the Pacific Coast.  In winter, they leave their northernmost haunts and appear across the Midwest, the Mid Atlantic Region and the Southeastern U.S.

Since I have not been feeding birds at our Columbia, Missouri, property in recent years, I do not often encounter these winter visitors.  Today, however, while birding east of town, I came across a pair of purple finches, foraging in a grove of trees and thickets along a country road; there they had joined northern cardinals, white-throated sparrows and American goldfinches to feast on seeds.

No doubt, a couple of feeders in the backyard would draw them to our property but the handouts are more likely to benefit house finches, non-natives that outnumber and threaten the welfare of purple finches in many parts of the U.S. (especially the Northeast).  Worse yet, the feeders might make these winter visitors easy targets for a pair of Cooper's hawks that reside in the neighborhood. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Eagles at Phillips Lake

After returning from Perry Phillips Lake (southeast of Columbia) this morning, I filed my report with eBird.  That report included 13 Canada geese, a turkey vulture, two bald eagles and a dozen songbird species.  Despite the eagles, my sightings will receive little attention from regional birders.

Indeed, thanks to the ban on DDT use, the enforcement of hunting restrictions and the construction of large reservoirs across the country, bald eagles are now rather common in most regions of the U.S.  Though I was 29 before I first encountered our National Bird in the wild, I have since seen hundreds (if not thousands) of these majestic raptors.

Whether they continue to turn up at Perry Phillips Lake is another matter.  Ongoing "development" nearly surrounds the lake at this point; formerly the centerpiece of a large farm, the lake has become suburbanized.  Though we humans responded appropriately to the hazards of DDT use, we seem unconcerned about the relentless destruction of natural habitat, a process that threatens many species of wildlife.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

What Might Have Been

Back in 1993, the band Little Texas released What Might Have Been, a beautiful song about a failed relationship and, of more importance, the folly of "knowing" how life would have changed had the breakup not occurred.  The sentiments expressed in the song can be applied to many aspects of our lives.

Once we reach the age of independence, and sometimes before, we begin to make choices that determine the course of our life.  These decisions relate to friendships, education, job opportunities, romantic relationships, lifestyle and career moves, among many others.  As we age, we tend to look back on those choices and, too often, second guess ourselves, wondering if mistakes were made and if our life could have been better.  Of course, this analysis is made in hindsight and is devoid of context; our imperfect memory, which tends to embellish happiness and suppress pain, fuels the uncertainty.

As the song suggests, we can't know how life might have been and we certainly can't change the past.  But we can learn from our experience and we can always change life's present course (should that be appropriate).

Saturday, January 7, 2023

California Flooding

Over the past two weeks, much of Northern California has received a foot of rain and many feet of snow have fallen in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada.  Coastal and river flooding as well as mudslides in burn scar areas have plagued the region.

Unfortunately, another Pacific storm, centered off British Columbia, is directing its plume of tropical moisture into the same area and two other storms (one over the western Aleutian Chain and the second east of Japan) are lined up to produce the same "atmospheric river" during the next week.  Whether the persistent onslaught of rain and snow will end with those storms remains uncertain.

While they are providing relief from the prolonged Western drought, these potent storms will deliver too much moisture over too short a period of time.  Widespread flooding will likely worsen and is expected to spread into southern portions of the State as well.  Relatively warm water in the Northern Pacific, a product of global warming, is surely responsible for the relentless precipitation.   

Friday, January 6, 2023

The Nature of Honesty

Honesty is a complicated trait.  We might admire someone who is honest as long as their opinion does not reflect negatively on ourself.  The honest truth can be painful.

Yet, we strive to be honest.  Those who are not are considered to be unreliable.  Then again, honesty must be expressed with care.  There is harsh honesty and empathetic honesty.  If asked for our opinion, we tend to temper our honesty depending on the subject and the recipient.  Intellectual honesty is something we should always strive to achieve but interpersonal honesty might lead to unnecessary complications or undesired consequences.

In the end, only we know when we are being honest.  We don't want to lie but we don't want to offend.  Like it or not, we must choose to be honest, depending on the circumstances.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

January: Dread & Hope

Now that the Holidays are over, humans in the Northern Hemisphere are staring at two months of winter.  Since we are tropical creatures, many, if not most of us, are not fond of cold weather and thus dread the long slog toward spring.

Then again, we are now two weeks past the winter solstice and the lengthening daylight is already noticeable.  This celestial phenomenon, while not associated with warmer weather in the near term, is a welcome sign and we humans are always looking for rays of hope.

Those of us who enjoy the great outdoors, even in winter, know that there is much to see and do during this silent season.  Wildlife tends to be more active and conspicuous and the cold air is invigorating for those properly dressed.  Others might choose to read by the fire and wait for spring.  

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

On Natural Landscapes

In yesterday's post, I opined on my preference for a climate of seasons, however erratic and ill-defined they might be. Today, on the second half of our journey back to the Heartland, I was encouraged to relate my preference for varied terrain over the beautiful yet flat expanse of the Coastal Plain.

Crossing mountains, river valleys, dissected plateaus and rolling farmlands, all products of geology, tectonics, climate and erosive forces, I acknowledged my attraction to mixed landscapes where factors such as elevation, soil quality and sun exposure produce a complex array of micro-habitats.  While the varied topography is pleasing to the eye, it also reflects a rich diversity of ecosystems.

Most readers of this blog would likely define me as a birder and a naturalist philosopher.  Though this assessment is clearly true, my primary interest is in natural landscapes, the platform on which all terrestrial ecosystems have evolved.  Understanding their formation and protecting their integrity have long been personal goals.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Leaving Paradise

After almost two weeks in South Florida, we are heading back north.  We escaped the Arctic Blast, enjoyed warm weather (most of the time) and were able to walk on the beach whenever we were so inclined..  With its nearly permanent warmth, exotic foliage, boating opportunities and fascinating wildlife, many call it Paradise.  I will admit, it is a nice place to visit.

But I prefer seasonal change with all its hassles and challenges.  Most naturalists, myself included, appreciate the natural diversity of the Temperate Zone, where the complex interactions of flora and fauna vary throughout the year.  There we become familiar with permanent residents, seasonal residents and numerous migrants and enjoy a wide variety of plants that undergo dramatic change as the seasons unfold.

Tonight we will stay in north Georgia, still in "The South" but far from the Subtropics.  We have left Paradise and are heading for home, a less predictable but more familiar (and I would say more interesting) swath of Planet Earth.  

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Good Riddance 2022!

The human year of 2022 has been tragic in so many ways.  It is a relief that it is ending and we can only hope that 2023 is, at the very least, somewhat better.

The tragic consequences of climate change, including wildfires, inland flooding, severe snowstorms, deadly tornados and, of course, Hurricane Ian, have reminded us that our stewardship of Earth has been inadequate at best.  Then there have been the frequent mass shootings and horrendous crimes that have led the news on a weekly basis.  The steady decline of the stock market has worried many Americans and the dysfunction of our political system offers little hope that life will improve in the U.S.  Finally, the Russian war in Ukraine, the bombastic threats from China and the dangerous shenanigans of North Korea's missile king threaten the stability of human civilization.

Of course, all of these problems are human-induced.  Too many of us consuming too much and seeking too much power, combined with too little effective leadership, are destroying our society and our planet.  Nature offers our most reliable retreat from human carnage and we should seek her calming embrace whenever possible.  Best wishes to all for 2023.