Wednesday, February 21, 2018

An Icy Morning in Columbia

Following heavy rains yesterday, an overnight freeze placed a coat of ice on the vegetation of central Missouri.  Nevertheless, after thawing out our VW Beetle, I headed over to the Columbia Audubon Nature Sanctuary, on the west side of town.

The grassy trails crunched beneath my boots and the wooden bridges were a bit slippery but the resident birds were noisy and active despite the morning chill; red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmice and Carolina wrens were especially conspicuous.  The highlight of my visit was provided by a large flock of greater white-fronted geese that flew over the refuge, headed west toward the Missouri River Valley.

While I can't say the weather was pleasant, the birding was decent, the exercise was beneficial and the cold, fresh air was invigorating.  Like most humans in the Heartland, I'm ready for spring, but we can't let these wintry interludes prevent us from enjoying the great outdoors!

Monday, February 19, 2018

On the Atmospheric Fence

Here in central Missouri, we are temporarily caught between a deep atmospheric trough in the West and an atmospheric ridge in the East.  The former has brought cold, wintry weather to the western half of the country and the latter has produced record highs in Florida and warm weather throughout the Southeast, Midwest and New England.

The clash zone between these disparate air masses is inching eastward and, this morning, brought strong southerly winds to our region; taking advantage of the tail wind, flocks of migrant snow geese and greater white-fronted geese travelled northward through the Missouri River Valley.  By early afternoon, rain began to fall, a sign that the cold air behind the front is beginning to undercut and lift the warm, moist air to its east.  Thunderstorms may develop ahead of the front and heavy rain is expected by tomorrow.

Our spring-like conditions will end by Wednesday as cold, Canadian air plunges into the Heartland, reminding us that winter has not yet conceded defeat.  No doubt, the geese will then settle down for a few days, resting and feeding until southerly winds redevelop; instinctively patient, they "know" that the Arctic will not hospitable for at least a couple more months.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Thoughts and Prayers

Another week and another mass shooting in America.  As usual, Conservative Republicans will offer their thoughts and prayers but nothing else.  They blame the problem on disturbed young men and suggest that mental health services are inadequate.  This from a political group that is cutting health care access and defunding social programs.

When it comes to gun control, they dance around the subject, deferring to the political clout of the N.R.A.  In their defense of the Second Amendment, they bow to the extreme views of those who finance their campaigns, even refusing to impose universal background checks and gun registration.

Awash in firearms, this country must make a choice.  Either we jail or deport all disturbed and angry men or we take a reasonable approach to gun control.  Easy access to assault rifles makes no sense and puts innocent Americans (including school children) at risk.  Change will only come at the ballot box.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Wings of Spring

Anyone who does not believe that spring begins in February should have been at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on this balmy morning in central Missouri.  The pools and channels of the refuge, mostly ice free, were clogged with migrant waterfowl.

Thousands of mallards dominated the scene, joined by Canada geese, northern pintails, northern shovelers and gadwall.  Large flocks of snow geese and greater white-fronted geese moved about the floodplain and five trumpeter swans flew northward above the Missouri River.  Bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, northern harriers and American kestrels patrolled the refuge and flocks of ring-billed gulls cavorted in the gusty south breeze.

Despite all the activity, a mystery arose, one that has occurred in the past; though I explored the refuge for almost two and a half hours, I did not encounter a single great-blue heron, a species that is common at Eagle Bluffs throughout the year (even when ice grips the floodplain).  Where were those hardy waders on this mild February morning?  Perhaps they knew that wintry weather will return tonight!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

American Tree Sparrows

On this mild, breezy afternoon, my wife and I took a walk around Perry Phillips Lake, south of Columbia, Missouri.  Two pair of red-tailed hawks cavorted in the wind but the lake remained frozen and no waterfowl were observed.  However, we did come across a flock of American tree sparrows, foraging in thickets along the south shore.

Residents of Alaska and Northern Canada where they breed in the Arctic Zone, these attractive sparrows are best identified by their rusty cap, white wing bars and light gray underparts with a central breast spot.  Gregarious during the winter months, they visit northern and central latitudes of the Lower 48, favoring open country with wooded streams or wetlands; while they visit backyard feeders on occasion, these sparrows are far more common in rural areas.  And though their name suggests otherwise, they spend most of their time on the ground or in low shrubs and saplings.

By late winter, the males begin to sing, longing to return to their northern homeland before warm, humid air invades the Heartland.  There they will pair up with a female and construct a nest in willow thickets or directly on the tundra.  Feasting on both insects and seeds during the breeding season, they consume grass and wildflower seeds during the winter months.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Under Snowless Skies

Returning to Missouri today, we traveled across the Great Plains under sunny skies and enveloped in mild air.  Snow cover gradually diminished as we drove eastward and a south wind had placed the wind turbines in a steady spin.  Rough-legged hawks and northern harriers patrolled the High Plains of Eastern Colorado and Western Kansas, gradually replaced by American kestrels and red-tailed hawks as we moved toward Missouri.  A small flock of American white pelicans graced a lake near Lawrence, Kansas, while several flocks of wild turkeys scoured fields farther east.

But I was looking for migrant flocks of snow geese that begin their northward journey by mid February; having wintered in the lower Mississippi Valley, in Gulf Coast marshes and on croplands across the Southern Plains, they head toward Arctic breeding grounds before spring unfolds in the Heartland.  Scanning the clear blue skies, I observed only scattered flocks of Canada geese, moving about the farmlands.

Since I'll be in Central Missouri for the next two weeks, I'm confident that the stirring sight and sound of migrating snow geese lies in my near future; then again, nature offers no guarantees.  But I'll do my best to increase my chances; Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, in the Missouri River Valley, and farmlands east of Columbia will be my primary destinations.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Korean Peninsula

In light of the ongoing Olympics, I thought I might take a look at the geography of the Korean Peninsula.  Extending southward from northeastern China and extreme southeastern Russia, the Korean Peninsula separates the Sea of Japan, to its east, from the Yellow Sea, to its west.  More than 65% of the Peninsula is covered by mountainous terrain, primarily across its northern and eastern regions.  Most of the ranges are composed of Precambrian igneous and metamorphic rock though some areas of volcanism exist as well.  Paektusan, just over 9000 feet, is the highest summit on the Peninsula, rising along the border of China and North Korea; it is known for it large caldera (created by a massive eruption in 946 AD) which holds Heaven's Lake.

Three major rivers drain most of the Korean Peninsula: the Nakdong flows southward through its southeastern region, the Han River flows westward through the central portion of the Peninsula (passing through Seoul) and the Taedong River flows southwestward through the northern Peninsula, passing through Pyongyang.  More than 3500 islands and islets rise off the western and southern coasts of the Peninsula, including Jeju, a large volcanic island in the Korean Strait (south of the Peninsula) which was formed by Hallasan (6398 feet), a large shield volcano that is the highest peak in South Korea.

While the Korean Peninsula extends across the same latitudes as Japan, it does not enjoy the warming effects of the Japan Current and its continental climate is considerably colder.  PyeongChang County, which is hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics, is about 78 miles east of Seoul.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Conservatives and Science

Conservatives, including many industrialists, politicians and farmers, are selective in their appreciation of science.  While they rely on scientific progress for the development of jet fighters, satellite technology, modern transportation, biomedicine and high-tech agriculture, they resist scientific evidence when in comes to subjects such as evolution and climate change.  Protecting their faith and their industries, they sow doubt among their legions and ridicule the evidence itself.

Worse yet, as we have seen in Idaho this week, pressure is placed on educational systems to avoid or "tone down" discussion of these "controversial" issues.  In other words, conservative politicians are deciding what can or cannot be taught in our public schools, regardless of the scientific evidence.

Science, long at war with religion, must now battle conservative zealots from both the government and the corporate sector.  Human enlightenment and social progress have long been fueled by scientific discoveries and, if we allow the Right Wing to censor science, we do so at our own peril.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Nature of Patriotism

Yesterday, Our Dear Leader, Donald Trump, indicated that he wants our country to hold an annual Military Parade, similar to those held in France (and in Russia and North Korea); this, he believes, would demonstrate our patriotism, like standing for the National Anthem or applauding Our Dear Leader during his State of the Union Address.

But patriotism is not superficial.  Waving a flag, saluting tanks and clapping for the President are not acts of patriotism.  We are patriotic when we defend our democracy, when we protest unwise or unjust war, when we support human rights and when we demand social justice.

A President who divides us, who threatens freedom of the press and who ridicules the Judiciary is not patriotic.  A President who foments racism and demeans immigrants is not patriotic.  A President who repeatedly lies to American citizens is not patriotic.  Donald Trump is not a patriot.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Grape Hyacinths

Natives of the Mediterranean region, grape hyacinths are bulb plants that are represented by a variety of species.  Having colonized most Temperate regions of the globe, they are among the first flowers to appear in the spring and some species yield clumps of greenery throughout the winter months.

Here in Littleton, Colorado, grape hyacinths have spread along the south side of our house and the appearance of their narrow leaves is among the first signs of spring on the farm.  Favoring sandy soil and full sun, these fragrant wildflowers adapt well to the Front Range climate, spreading by bulb division, seed or both (depending on the species).  Blue, urn-shaped flowers cluster along a central stem, resembling bunches of grapes and attracting hordes of bees.

Hardy and invasive, grape hyacinths may not be welcome in pristine flower beds but, for those of us who favor naturalized landscapes, they are a carefree addition to our drought-tolerant vegetation.  Besides, they often begin to flower by mid February, providing brilliant clumps of blue throughout the months of spring snow. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

Subtle Signs of Spring

Once the weather warms, the greenery appears and the flowers bloom, everyone knows it is spring.  But those who pay close attention to nature notice signs of spring well in advance of the full blown season.

This morning, at South Platte Park, the ponds and lakes were mostly ice covered and the brown vegetation offered no hint of spring.  The winter ducks were all still present and nesting behavior was not yet evident (though I'm sure great horned owls have broods by now).  However, the territorial calls of red-winged blackbirds were beginning to rise from the marsh and a trio of male common goldeneyes were displaying for a female who showed no immediate interest.

Humans, slaves to our large brains, tend to define the seasons using rigid guidelines (i.e., the calendar months, the equinoxes and the solstices).  But nature's year is a continuum, and the cycle of life varies with each species.  Those who adopt this fluid image of the natural world, our own lives included, are more aware of subtle events while acknowledging the complexity of seasonal change.  

Thursday, February 1, 2018

On the Cusp of Spring

This morning, it is cloudy, cold and trying to snow along the Colorado Front Range.  Nevertheless, we have entered the First Month of Spring, when crocuses and hyacinths often make their appearance across central latitudes of North America.

Sap begins to rise in the trees, skunk cabbage pushes through icy wetlands and, by the end of the month, tree frogs call from the chilly waters of transient ponds and sloughs.  Snow geese and American white pelicans migrate northward in February while some owls, including great horned owls, are already caring for their fluffy young.  Red tailed hawks breed as the days lengthen, magpies repair their bulky nests and the homesick tune of white-throated sparrows intensifies across the Heartland.

Many of these February events are observed along the Front Range but we know that the snows are far from over.  In fact, March and April tend to be the snowiest months of the year and snow is not unusual in May.  This year, having experienced a snow drought to date, spring snowstorms will be more than welcome.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Four Valleys in New Mexico

Yesterday morning, I left Roswell (in the Pecos River Valley) and drove west on Highway 380.  Climbing toward the Sacramento Mountains, I left the desert and soon reached grass-covered hills, passing Capitan Peak (10,083 feet) to my north.  The highway then entered steep-wall canyons before offering a spectacular view of Sierra Blanca (11,973 feet), the crest of the Sacramento Range.

At the Indian Divide, I left the Pecos River watershed and dropped into the Tularosa Basin, famous for White Sands National Monument and the massive Carrizozo basalt flow (5000 years old).  Highway 380 crosses the latter and several pull-offs are provided for close observation of this interesting volcanic landscape.  After climbing the Oscura Mountains, the road then drops into the Jornada del Muerto (Day of Death) which I hastened to cross.  A long, slow climb from there took me to the east wall of the Rio Grande Rift, lined with fault-block ranges, laccoliths and volcanic domes.

After descending to the valley floor and crossing the Rio Grande River, I took the opportunity to visit Bosque del Apache NWR, a renowned birding site, 8 miles south of San Antonio, New Mexico.  There I saw large flocks of snow geese, a fabulous diversity of waterfowl, bald eagles and, yes indeed, thousands of sandhill cranes! (See the last few posts).

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Named for its large alkaline lake, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, in the Pecos River Valley, was established in 1937 to protect a vital desert oasis for migratory birds and resident wildlife.  As the Pleistocene gave way to the Holocene, some 10,000 years ago, the climate gradually warmed and flow through the Pecos River has gradually declined.  Fed by artesian springs from the Roswell Aquifer, the lakes, ponds and wetlands of the refuge have been managed by the use of levees and canals to ensure a range of salinity that provides diverse natural habitat.

Renowned for its large variety of dragonflies, Bitter Lake NWR also provides vital breeding habitat for least terns and snowy plovers.  A wide variety of shorebirds stop here to rest and feed during their spring and summer migrations while wintering sandhill cranes, geese (including Ross's geese), ducks, coot, bitterns and wading birds utilize the preserve from mid autumn to early spring.  Among other birds that breed here are greater roadrunners, northern harriers, American avocets, ladder-backed woodpeckers, Chihuahuan ravens, scaled quail, loggerhead shrikes, black phoebes, vermillion flycatchers and rock wrens.  Mammalian residents include six species of bat, kangaroo rats, porcupines, nutria, kit fox, black-footed ferrets, ringtails, bobcats and pronghorn, among others.

The refuge is best reached via Pine Lodge Road near the north edge of Roswell, New Mexico.  Drive east for 7 miles to the entrance and proceed to the Visitor Center (open Monday-Saturday, 8-4) for an overview of the landscape and its wildlife.  An auto tour loop, 6.5 miles long, is open everyday from dawn to dusk. 

Monday, January 29, 2018

Into the Land of Enchantment

South of Raton Pass, Interstate 25 drops onto the broad grasslands of northeastern New Mexico which are broken by volcanic hills, drained by the Canadian River and grazed by cattle and pronghorns.  Off to the west looms the southern portion of the Sangre de Cristo Range, its higher snow-capped peaks mostly hidden by mesas and foothills.  Today, ravens patrolled the highway, joined on occasion by a red-tailed hawk or kestrel.

A few miles beyond Las Vegas, I cut south on Route 84 which hugs the east wall of the Pecos River Valley before dipping to cross the river and then climbing back onto the High Plains; mountain bluebirds adorned this scenic route and a golden eagle scanned the valley from a roadside cliff .  Crossing Interstate 40, the road continues south as Route 219, undulating across rocky mesas and dry washes, covered with junipers and cholla cacti.  After angling southwestward to Vaughn, I drove the final 90 miles to Roswell on US 285, crossing some of the bleakest landscape on our Continent.

To renew my enthusiasm, I headed straight for Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, about 7 miles east of town.  There I made two loops on the auto tour road, encountering thousands of snow and Ross's geese, a fabulous variety of ducks, a few white-faced ibis, two American bitterns, at least six northern harriers and a host of open-country songbirds.  Hanging around until dusk, hoping to match Teale's experience (see yesterday's post), I did observe at least a dozen flocks of sandhill cranes as they returned to the refuge; not exactly a spectacle but inspiring nonetheless.  More on the Refuge itself tomorrow.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

South to Bitter Lake

About 40 years ago, I read Edwin Way Teale's fourth book in his American Seasons collection.  Titled Wandering through Winter, it was researched in the winter of 1961-1962 and published in 1965.  On his journey across the country, accompanied by his wife, Teale stopped at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, just northeast of Roswell, New Mexico, in the Pecos River Valley.  The highlight of that visit proved to be massive flocks of sandhill cranes, returning to the refuge at dusk after feeding in nearby fields.

Teale's description of that spectacle has stayed with me over the years and I have long intended to visit Bitter Lake myself; that intention will finally be realized over the next two days.  Early tomorrow morning, I plan to drive south on Interstate 25, cross Raton Pass at the New Mexico border and proceed to Las Vegas, New Mexico, before cutting off on smaller highways that will offer a more direct route to Roswell.

As always, the anticipation of that road trip, including the new landscapes and interesting wildlife that I will encounter, lends a sense of excitement to the journey.  In the course of our brief lives, we best seek adventure whenever possible!  More on my travels and the refuge in the next few days.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Love & Compatibility II

As a followup to yesterdays post on Marriage, I thought I might express my thoughts on love and compatibility, which play into the theme of marital discord and divorce.  Romantic love, it seems to me, is nature's way of stoking relationships and assuring the procreation of our species.  Strongly tied to sexual attraction, its intensity fades as relationships mature but persists when relationships fail to develop (see The Power of Love Denied).

In the case of ongoing relationships (marriage included), love evolves from the initial intensity of romance to a more subdued "loving partnership."  Love, however, does not ensure compatibility and it is the lack of the latter that most often ends relationships (even as love persists).  Love, if true, does not die but we may conclude that we cannot live together.

This goes back to my thoughts on marriage, which is generally fueled by intense romantic love.  Before we heed nature's call and start to produce children, we best take the time to decide if we are truly compatible.  Otherwise, the pain of divorce must be endured by innocents as well.  See also Love & Compatibility.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Why Marriages Fail

Marriage, an Unnatural Union, is a social contract based on the commitment of two individuals.  Whether it is sanctioned in a church, on a beach or on the Vegas Strip, it is the mutual commitment that counts, not the ritual or the legal papers.  Unfortunately, this commitment is often made between two individuals who barely know one another and, as we all know, a large percentage of marriages fail.

In my opinion, couples should live together for at least two-three years before deciding to marry and certainly before choosing to adopt or conceive children.  Cohabitation uncovers traits in one another that might otherwise go unnoticed and forces us to face issues that are vital to the success of a marriage: compromise, mutual respect and the need for personal space, among others.

Of course, some might argue that we never truly know one another but a few years of living together should shake out most of the skeletons in our closets.  Religious persons will surely oppose this approach but anyone who follows this blog knows how I feel about religions; besides, faith does not protect couples from divorce.  Others might suggest that marriage itself is unnecessary, that the mutual commitment to one another is sufficient; to that point of view, I have no objection.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Scourge of Mange

On this cloudy, cold, breezy morning, I was walking through South Platte Park when a pair of coyotes bolted from the riverside shrubs and loped across a snow-covered meadow.  One, endowed with a thick winter coat, was oblivious of the chilly wind, while the other was nearly hairless, sporting only a few tufts of fur along its back.  The latter animal was suffering from a severe case of sarcoptic mange.

Caused by a highly contagious, parasitic mite that burrows into the skin and causes intense itching, sarcoptic mange is a common disease of wild canines that can also develop in livestock and domestic pets; indeed, human scabies is essentially the same type of infestation.  Since wild canines usually live in packs, they are especially susceptible to sarcoptic mange which is generally fatal; death usually results from hypothermia and/or starvation.  Often shunned by their pack, severely infected coyotes cannot effectively hunt (due to their weakened condition and eventual blindness) and may turn up in residential areas to consume dog food, bird seed or garbage.

When we consider nature's beauty, we do not think of mangey coyotes.  But life in the wild can be cruel and nature is neither sentimental nor empathetic.  This morning's encounter was unsettling but also a reminder that the circle of life is not always pretty to behold.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Reliving History

This afternoon, I watched The Post, a superb film about the Nixon Administration's attempt to suppress publication of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times and the Washington Post in 1971.  Of course, the Supreme Court ended up siding with the press and efforts to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, the source of the Papers, eventually led to the Watergate scandal and Nixon's resignation.

Back in 1971, I was applying to medical school and, given my low draft lottery number, was sure to be drafted if I did not succeed; fortunately, I was accepted to medical school and was spared a tour of duty (or worse) in Vietnam.  As a staunch opponent of the war, I may have ended up in Canada, at least until President Carter pardoned those who escaped to the north.

Now, 47 years later, we have another Nixonian President, suspicious of the Judicial Branch, contemptuous of the press and reckless with his foreign policy.  Hopefully, those who did not live through the late 60s and early 70s will watch this film and understand both the importance of a free press and the power of democracy.  The collective wisdom of the American people, which brought an end to the Vietnam War, must now be directed against an incompetent and dangerous President.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Glorious Snow

After a nearly snowless winter so far, we are finally receiving a good dose of precipitation with this latest Pacific storm.  Starting overnight, the snowfall has reached about 4 inches on our Littleton farm and another 2-3 inches are expected before the system pushes off to the northeast.

The mountain snowpack, well below normal to date, is vital to our water supply and to the health of our regional semi-arid ecosystems; of course, the ski areas have been under-supplied as well and the less snow they receive the more snow they make, pulling water from the mountain streams.  The same scenario develops on the heavily populated Colorado Piedmont; the less rain and snow we receive through the winter and spring, the more precious water is used for irrigation.

The current storm will certainly not correct our deficit but we can hope that the atmospheric pattern has changed and that more beneficial storm systems will follow in the coming months.  Indeed, down here along the urban corridor, our heaviest snowfall tends to occur in March and April when moisture-rich upslope storms develop across the east slope of the Front Range.  For now, we'll enjoy the splendid scenery that this storm has produced, knowing that, beneath the surface snow, our drought persists.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

A Ruddy Morning

Participating in the January waterfowl count at South Platte Park this morning, I was fortunate to be placed in the Reservoir group, offering me another opportunity to observe the yellow-billed loon that has been wintering in Littleton.  While the temperature was mild, a strong south wind produced a choppy surface across the partly-frozen reservoir and an uncomfortable wind-chill on the levee.

A host of diving ducks joined the celebrity loon, including lesser scaup, buffleheads and common goldeneyes.  But the highlight of our count was a large number of ruddy ducks, small, stiff-tailed divers that are primarily winter residents along the Front Range.  After breeding in the prairie pothole country of the northern Great Plains and Western Canada, ruddies head for large rivers, lakes reservoirs and coastal estuaries across the southern U.S. and the Pacific Northwest.  There they are often seen in large rafts, bobbing in the waves and waiting for dawn or dusk when they tend to be most active.

Ruddy ducks dive to feed on both aquatic invertebrates and aquatic plants.  Despite their small size and comical appearance, they are aggressive and territorial during the breeding season and produce rather precocious youngsters that are independent within a couple weeks.  Though abundant in some coastal regions during the winter months, ruddies are always a welcome sight when they join more common waterfowl species on inland lakes and reservoirs.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Heat before the Snow

As Pacific storm systems move west to east across the U.S., a southerly flow develops ahead of the cold front.  In the central and eastern States, this flow draws warm, humid air up from the Gulf of Mexico, fueling rain and/or snow as the storm arrives.

Here along the Colorado Front Range, well west of the Gulf of Mexico, the southerly winds bring warm, dry air up from the Desert Southwest; downsloping winds east of the Continental Divide further heat and dry the air, often producing summer-like warmth in the middle of winter.  Today, we reached a near-record high of 67 degrees F as the front approaches from the Great Basin.

Once the cold front crosses our region, expected to occur by tomorrow afternoon, the winds shift from the north and the temperature plummets.  Depending upon the latitude of the central low, we may receive upsloping northeast winds, pulling in moisture from the Great Plains and leading to significant snow accumulation.  For Metro Denver, such an upslope snowstorm is most likely to develop when the central low moves long the Colorado-New Mexico line; currently, the forecast indicates that the storm will follow that pattern and snow is expected to develop by the early morning hours on Sunday.  Since the storm system is forecast to move rapidly to the northeast, our snow accumulation will likely be modest (though we could use a foot or more).

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Taiga Shrike

This morning, while wandering through South Platte Park, I encountered a northern shrike, hunting from a barren tree in a lakeside meadow.  A native of the taiga across Alaska and Northern Canada, this species spreads south to the northern and western U.S. during the winter months when its smaller cousin (the loggerhead shrike) has moved on to warmer, more southern climes.

Generally solitary in winter, northern shrikes hunt from an exposed perch in a tree or tall shrub, dropping to snare songbirds or small mammals with its hooked beak and talons.  Its habit of storing excess prey by impaling it on thorns or barbed wire has earned it (and other shrikes) the nickname of "butcher birds."

By mid spring, northern shrikes return to their breeding grounds, favoring the open woodlands where boreal forest meets the Arctic tundra.  There they nest in stunted conifers, adding large insects to their diet and that of their growing youngsters; in a landscape of ephemeral pools and perpetual summer daylight, that prey is especially abundant.