Monday, March 19, 2018

Flashback Post I

Rather than repeating myself when it comes to seasonal highlights, I have decided to start directing readers to past posts.  This first Flashback Post relates to the annual congregation of sandhill cranes on the Platte River in south-central Nebraska.

See: Cranes on the Platte River

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Fitness: A Gift to our Kids

We all want what's best for our children.  From the time of their birth, we provide the love, food and shelter that they need.  We take them to interesting places, help them with school work and attend their sporting events or performances.

But one of the most important gifts that we can offer is to encourage them to adopt a healthy lifestyle.  Introducing them to healthy foods, discouraging intake of sugary snacks, educating them about the dangers of tobacco, illicit drugs and alcohol, and encouraging various forms of exercise will instill habits that, in the long run, will minimize their risk of preventable disease.

Obesity, a global scourge, is best prevented during childhood.  Primarily familial, it runs in families because children follow the example of their parents when it comes to diet and exercise.  By remaining fit themselves, parents steer their children away from obesity, tobacco use, alcohol abuse and their many complications.   

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Mind over Body

The phrase "mind over body" generally has positive implications.  Individuals hampered by physical disability, injury or disease overcome those conditions to survive and thrive, inspiring those of us who do not face such challenges.

But the phrase might also be used when talented teams or individuals fail to meet expectations; the recent Winter Olympics and the current NCAA Basketball Tournament offer examples.  The stress induced by the pressure to succeed (often triggered by public expectations) impairs physical performance.

Contrary to the belief that the mind and body are separate, a concept most often instilled by religious mysticism, they are intimately connected and the health of one is dependent on the health of the other.  Disorders such as brain injury, dementia and psychological stress alter the function of other organs and tissues and physical disease can have dramatic effects on brain function.  Our thoughts and our emotions, like our muscular activity, are products of complex, interconnected biochemical processes.  See also Advantage: Underdogs 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Nuthatch Thievery

Yesterday afternoon, as I peered outside to check on the progress of our expected rain showers, I saw a red-breasted nuthatch in one of our black locust trees.  Circling a major branch with a seed in his bill, this avian acrobat was searching for a bark crevice in which to store his larder; when food is plentiful (as it is thanks to my feeders), this is typical behavior for a nuthatch.

Having selected his storage spot, the red-breasted nuthatch crammed the seed under the bark, maneuvering it with his bill.  Seemingly proud of his frugality, he stepped back to admire his work when a white-breasted nuthatch swooped in and snared the seed from its natural locker.  Miffed, the red-breast poked at the intruder but did not seriously challenge his larger rival.  Once he flew off, the white-breasted nuthatch casually devoured the prize.

Such competition and opportunism are widespread in nature but we seldom get the chance to witness these encounters.  I must admit, in more than 40 years of birding, this was a first, occurring less than 20 feet from our living room window.  Birding, like all forms of nature study, relies on a mix of effort and luck!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Stephen Hawking's Legacy

Stephen Hawking, the renowned cosmologist and theoretical physicist, died yesterday at the age of 76.  Diagnosed with ALS in 1963, when he was 21, he was advised that he had but two years to live.  So much for predicting the course of human disease.

Determined to receive his Doctorate, Hawking carried on with the support of his first wife, eventually overcoming the loss of both his mobility and his speech.  Nevertheless, his courageous perseverance and remarkable intelligence led to discoveries about the nature of our Universe and its origin (especially black holes), furthering the work of Einstein and others.

Despite his physical limitations, Stephen Hawking relied on modern technology to communicate with colleagues and to educate the general public.  In the course of doing so, he retained a strict devotion to the scientific method, refusing to condone mysticism in any form.  In the end, he exceeded all expectations.   See also: A Tribute to Stephen Hawking

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

An Owl Duet

The great horned owl that has been serenading our Littleton farm for the past two weeks appears to have attracted a partner.  Last night, about 3 AM, a duet of hoots and other vocalizations echoed from the top of a large honeylocust next to the house; two hours later, the owls either stopped calling or flew off.

It is a bit late in the season for great horned owl romance but the prospect of having a nesting pair on the farm is exciting.  There's certainly plenty of prey here (cottontails, mice, voles and even skunks) though the large trees may be too exposed for owl nesting.

I'll certainly watch for any signs of owl domesticity and report developments should they occur.  We have had red fox and coyotes den on the property and a mule deer raised her fawn here one year.  To have an owl family grace the farm would be a welcome first.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Birding 101

Fortunately, after a series of visits to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, near Columbia, Missouri, and South Platte Park, in Littleton, Colorado, my ten year old grandson has maintained an interest in birding.  Harboring a life list of at least 60 species, his enthusiasm persists; of course, the birding excursions also include snacks, wide-ranging discussions and exposure to other wildlife.  Among today's topics was the probability that other intelligent civilizations inhabit our Universe (a point on which we heartily agreed).

This morning, we took a drive through Chatfield State Park, in southwest Metro Denver.  Stopping at several locations along the reservoir and walking past a few small lakes in the South Platte Valley, we saw a fair variety of birds, including an immature bald eagle and a red-tailed hawk.  The highlight proved to be a large flock of redheads on one of the smaller lakes, a new species for his list.

Of course, I saw a few species that I did not mention to my birding companion, not wanting to frustrate him with the subtle differences between grassland sparrows.  When he is present, I concentrate on pointing out birds that are relatively easy to identify.  Hopefully, his enthusiasm will continue to grow and he'll soon graduate to a more complete field guide.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Armchair Birding

Late this afternoon, as I sat in our farmhouse living room watching college basketball, a small raptor landed on a limb of our catalpa, framed within a small window just above the television.  It was a sharp-shinned hawk, a small accipiter with a long, barred tail that is squared off at its terminal edge; as if to assist my identification, the sharpie turned 180 degrees, showing off its finely striped chest and abdomen.

Feasting on songbirds, sharp-shinned hawks are fairly common throughout most of the Lower 48 during the colder months of the year, retreating to mountainous areas or Canadian latitudes to breed.  Their smaller size and squared-off tail distinguish them from Cooper's hawks which are permanent residents across most of the country.

As veteran birders know, such incidental sightings are rather common for those of us attuned to nature.  Sometimes, after scouring nature preserves for half the day, we return home to encounter the most interesting species in our own backyard (or perhaps from a living room armchair).

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Our Protectionist President

This week, President Trump announced that he plans to protect American jobs by imposing tariffs on steel, aluminum and, perhaps, other products; oh, and by the way, he wants to gut NAFTA.  As usual, his answer to a complex problem is simple and he doesn't appear to consider the ramifications of his policies.  After all, this is the man who promises to save the coal industry, to wall off the country to keep us safe and to protect school children by arming the teachers.

Unfortunately, Trump's protectionism is selective.  He is not interested in protecting the environment, our National Monuments or the rights of American citizens (unless, of course, they are native-born, white, heterosexual males).

What we really need is to be protected from this impulsive narcissist.  The Republicans are not willing to comply and, unless Robert Mueller sinks his ship, Trump will be around until we vote him out of office.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Reducing Stress

In this 24/7, hurry-up world, stress affects us all to some degree.  Excessive stress can lead to a variety of medical problems: headaches, anxiety, peptic ulcers, cardiovascular disease and irritable bowel syndrome to name but a few.  Whatever we do to mitigate stress is sure to be beneficial and the following are my personal recommendations.

If you face a number of problems or duties that need to be addressed, take on only one per day.  Avoid cable news, talk radio and social media; obtain your news from calm, reliable sources (I suggest NPR or the New York Times) and check your email no more than twice each day.  Read books, paint, exercise and play or listen to music (easily mingled with household chores).

Finally, get outside as much as possible and walk through natural areas, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells that nature offers.  She is, in my opinion, the best antidote to stress.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Red Flag Warning

A red flag warning has been issued for eastern Colorado, from the Front Range foothills to the Kansas border.  High winds, produced by high pressure west of the Continental Divide and low pressure on the High Plains, will rake the area, increasing the risk of wildfires.  Dry vegetation and low humidity exacerbate that risk.

Relatively snow deficient this winter, the region is counting on upslope snowstorms in March and April to bring moisture to the dry landscape.  This week's storm tracked north of Colorado, bringing some snow to the Western Slope but leaving the Front Range urban corridor and Colorado Plains under sunny skies.  Just yesterday, a grass fire developed in Elbert County, destroying several homes and barns.

As the winter storm moves east and high pressure envelops most of the State, the gusty winds will abate and the red flag warning will expire.  Hopefully, Pacific storms will begin taking a more southerly track, augmenting our chance for rain and/or snow.

See also: The Nature of Wind

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Bicoastal Storms

Storm systems are centered around an area of low atmospheric pressure and the lower the pressure the more potent the storm.  Here in the Northern Hemisphere, winds circle counterclockwise around the central low, sweeping waves and precipitation in that direction.

Currently, a strong "Nor'easter" is centered off the mid-Atlantic Coast.  Having pummeled inland areas with high winds and heavy snow, it is now raking the coast of New England; as the strong winds come ashore, high waves and storm surge cause coastal flooding and beach erosion.  Meanwhile, in the Pacific Northwest, another strong storm has brought high winds and heavy precipitation to Northern California, the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada; since the storm is centered off Oregon, the coastal effects are greatest to its south as the counterclockwise winds lash the shore.

Of course, both storms are gradually moving off to the east, the Nor'easter into the North Atlantic (where it may affect the Canadian Maritimes) and the Pacific storm across the Great Basin, the Rockies and the Northern Plains.  While the Colorado mountains should get some snow, the Front Range urban corridor will likely be spared (though we need the precipitation).

Friday, March 2, 2018

Night of the Owl

Last night, I was awakened by the hoots of a great horned owl; it was just after midnight.  The owl was clearly perched near to our farmhouse but, despite the bright full moon, I could not see it from the bedroom window.

Long fascinated by owls, I always enjoy hearing their calls and listened as his nocturnal lecture continued.  Our farm is home to dozens of cottontails and I assumed he was biding his time until a meal wandered by; unfortunately, hunting did not seem to be a priority and he continued calling for the next three hours.

Though I managed to doze off for periods of time, the hooting led to a fitful sleep and my fondness for owls began to take a hit; he must have finally flew off (or fell asleep himself) and I was granted some peace.  Of course, I hope he returns on a regular basis as long as the visits are reasonably short. 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Above Kansas Rivers

Flying back to Denver this morning, the landscape of Missouri was shrouded by clouds but clear skies over Kansas and Colorado provided a spectacular view of the Great Plains geography.  The first recognizable feature was Perry Lake, northeast of Topeka, fed by the Delaware River; to the south, Clinton Lake, fed by the Wakarusa River, shimmered in the early morning sun.  Both of these rivers are tributaries of the Kansas River which empties into the Missouri at Kansas City.

Approaching Manhattan, the Kansas River came into view and we soon crossed the lower segment of Tuttle Creek Lake on the Big Blue River.  Just northwest of Junction City, we passed over Milford Lake, on the Republican River and the Smoky Hill River sliced through the city, joining the Republican to form the Kansas River.

From that junction into eastern Colorado, we paralleled the Smoky Hill River, passing over Salina, the massive Smoky Hill Wind Farm (north of Ellsworth), Russell and Hays before our path crossed Interstate 70 and followed the river as it flowed through its reservoir south of Ogallah and, farther upstream, snaked through the chalk lands south of WaKeeney and Quinter.  On the High Plains of western Kansas and easternmost Colorado, the faint upper tributaries of the Smoky Hill gathered what little moisture falls on that dry landscape, carrying it toward the Kansas, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A Late Winter Chorus

While walking around Perry Phillips Lake, south of Columbia, this morning, I heard the first chorus frog calls of the season.  Resembling the sound produced by running your thumbnail down the teeth of a comb, the calls are delivered day and night as males gather in temporary pools to attract females.  Eggs are fertilized as they are laid and attach to vegetation in the base of the pools.  After hatching and undergoing metamorphosis, the young frogs spend the warmer months searching prairies and wetlands for insects and spiders, retreating beneath logs, rocks or leaf litter to rest or to escape danger.

Officially classified as boreal chorus frogs throughout most of Missouri (except in the Boot Heel region), these tiny amphibians are the first frogs to breed in the spring, their mating calls often heard by late February.  Potential prey for snakes, herons, fish, mink and raccoons, among other predators, surviving chorus frogs spend the winter encased in mud.

We humans, though pleased to hear their chorus in late winter and early spring, rarely notice these amphibians for most of the year and their vital role in natural ecosystems goes unacknowledged by the general public.  Unfortunately, such is the case for most species that inhabit our planet. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Diamonds in the Sky

On this pleasant, late afternoon in central Missouri, I went out on the back deck to see what avian visitors might stop by and I was treated to a noisy mix of resident and wintering birds.  Turkey vultures were most numerous, lazily circling overhead before settling in their roost a mile up the road.  Other common species included white-throated sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, black-capped chickadees and American robins; less abundant were northern cardinals, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, song sparrows and a lone Cooper's hawk.

The highlight proved to be a large flock of snow geese, passing overhead and flying north.  Too high to hear, their white bodies reflected the setting sun and I was fortunate to spot them as I scanned the sky before going indoors.  Like a shimmering diamond necklace, its chain broken and wavering against a deep blue background, the snows, as always, were an inspiring sight.

Once again, the decision to go outside and look around was rewarded with a natural spectacle, one that many humans never witness in their lives.  Though they are common travelers over central Missouri in late February, the snow geese, blissfully unaware of my gaze and focused on their destination, touched my soul. 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Migrants on the Floodplain

This morning, a friend and I headed down to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River floodplain.  Despite the damp, chilly and cloudy weather, it was a productive visit, especially for waterfowl watching.

Once again, mallards dominated the scene, numbering 6000 or more; they were joined by northern pintails, gadwall, northern shovelers, ring-necked ducks, coot and a pair of redheads.  Bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, a northern harrier and a kestrel patrolled the refuge and a fair variety of songbirds moved through the riparian woodlands and lakeside thickets.

But migrant geese provided the highlight of our visit.  At least 1000 Canada geese graced the preserve and a large flock of snow geese (estimated at 1500) had settled in the southwestern corner of the refuge.  They were joined by a few hundred greater white-fronted geese which also occupied other fields across the floodplain; in total, we estimated that at least 2000 white-fronts were staging at Eagle Bluffs, the largest congregation I have ever encountered.  Few natural spectacles match the sight and sounds of migrating geese, headed for the Arctic.

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.