Saturday, December 16, 2017

A Ladybird in December

On this mild, sunny afternoon in central Missouri, I was reading on our back deck when a ladybird beetle landed on my arm.  This beloved beetle, typically associated with warm summer days, usually overwinters in large congregations, choosing protected sites in barns, sheds, loose bark or brush piles.  However, during periods of warm winter weather, they may become active and I was pleased to encounter one today.

Appreciated for both their cute, colorful body and their taste for harmful insects, ladybirds (often called ladybugs) are always a welcome sight but today's visitor brought an unsettling message as well.  These days, it's hard to discover dandelions or ladybirds in December without acknowledging that our climate is warming.

While periods of mild winter weather have been occurring for decades, usually the result of atypical weather patterns and unrelated to climate change, we have now become increasingly aware of global warming and of our role in its development.  It is thus difficult to enjoy the presence of a ladybird beetle, a week before Christmas, without thinking of the ecological effects that our species has wrought. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

Clark's Hill in Missouri

As they travelled westward along the Missouri River, the Lewis & Clark expedition would often climb to promontories to survey the surrounding territory (see Up River with Lewis & Clark and subsequent posts).  One of these overlooks was a ridge near the confluence of the Missouri and Osage Rivers, east of Jefferson City; now known as Clark's Hill, it is protected within the Clark's Hill/Norton State Historic Site.

On this chilly but sunny morning, my wife and I visited the site, taking Route J north from U.S. 50.  A half-mile trail climbs from the parking lot and then leads eastward atop the ridge, undulating toward the overlook.  Broad views of the Missouri River Valley unfold to the north and, as one nears the overlook, the Osage River Valley appears to the south.

Educational plaques are spaced along the trail, offering historical information and pointing out the handiwork of the Woodland Mound Builders, a civilization that colonized the region some 2000 years ago.  Combining nature exploration, spectacular vistas and human history, Clark's Hill proved to be a rewarding destination. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Inspired by a Wren

On this cold, bleak winter morning, there wasn't much to cheer about as I wandered the trails of the Columbia Audubon Sanctuary, in central Missouri.  Low, gray clouds stretched above the brown landscape which was broken only by the white bark of sycamores and green clumps of eastern redcedar.

The usual winter residents were encountered, dominated by chickadees, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches and house finches.  A red-tailed hawk shrieked in the distance, a noisy flock of crows called from a wooded hillside and a lone eastern towhee scratched for his meal beneath the dry leaf litter.

About to head home, my attention was drawn to a patch of thickets, where a tiny bird moved among the tangles; it was a winter wren, down from Canada to spend the colder months in balmy Missouri.  Despite its small size, this hardy and energetic bird survives the winter by scouring dense vegetation and rotting logs for spiders, insects and other invertebrates, supplementing that diet with berries.  On such a raw morning, it was inspiring to watch that diminutive visitor, free to fly off to the Tropics but content to endure a cold, damp winter here in the Heartland.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Trump, Mars & Earth

President Trump, foresighted as he is, has expressed his desire to place men on Mars and hopes to complete that mission before the end of his term (which may come sooner than he expects).  This from a man who ridicules science on a regular basis and has yet to appoint leadership at NASA.

While we may support the space program, most of us would prefer that Trump concentrate on the health of our own planet rather than denying global warming and scuttling environmental regulations that protect our natural ecosystems.  We hope that our great-grandchildren are able to live on Earth, not under domes on Mars.

But Trump prefers declarations that fit within tweets.  He sees no need to consider the funding or scientific aspects of the mission and knows that his adoring legions will admire his bold proposal.  On to Mars!  To hell with Planet Earth!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

At the Museum

On this beautiful Sunday morning, I took my ten year old grandson to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, one of the best natural history museums in the country.  There we explored exhibits on space exploration, gems and minerals, Egyptian mummies, dinosaurs and the evolution of life in addition to viewing the museum's famous dioramas.

Fortunately, my grandson was very interested in the exhibits and we took our time, stretching the visit over several hours.  As often happens, I took notice of the other patrons as well, many of whom raced through the museum, seemingly interested solely in the beauty of the gemstones or the size of the dinosaur skeletons.  While the museum does an excellent job of explaining its exhibits and placing them in the context of Earth's history, I doubt that most visitors get the big picture; I even imagine that a sizable percentage enjoy the museum's collection while retaining a biblical perspective.

How else to explain the popularity of natural history museums within a religious population.  To mix scientific data and mysticism requires that one either gloss over the information presented or create their own narrative.  As creationist museums spring up across the Bible Belt, the role of science-based institutions becomes ever more important, especially when an anti-science President controls the education pursestrings.  See also Juno & the Ark and Greater Cincinnati's New Museum

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Science of Fasting

Searching through Amazon Prime yesterday afternoon, I came across a documentary entitled The Science of Fasting.  Initially released in Europe, in 2011, it presents the findings of scientists from Russia, Germany, France and the United States.

Long thought to "cleanse the body," fasting may offer significant benefits for those with a variety of chronic diseases, including the metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease and cancer.  Directed at the general public, the documentary explains the body's physiologic response to food deprivation and points out that these adaptations have developed in concert with the evolution of our species; indeed, for most of our history, food was not always readily available.  Animal studies have suggested that fasting may re-prime normal cells, improving their function, while placing a significant stress on abnormal cells (e.g. cancerous or inflamed cells); indeed, at the University of Southern California, fasting mice demonstrated better tolerance of chemotherapy that did their cohorts.

Like "Knives over Forks (see A Plant-Based Diet)," this documentary correlates eating habits with our risk of disease; both films offer persuasive evidence but individuals are advised to discuss these dietary measures with their health care provider before stopping medications or significantly altering their diet.  Good nutrition is vital to both the prevention and management of disease and fasting (even for brief periods) may be ill-advised in some cases.  Nevertheless, I recommend viewing both documentaries and considering the points that are made; the fact that most humans in "developed countries" overeat is undeniable.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Southeastern Snow

The potent cold front that rattled windows along the Colorado Front Range five days ago, now stretches across the Southeastern Coast., from Mexico to Virginia.  While most of the Great Plains and Midwest were sparred any significant snow from this system, such has not been the case in the Southeast.

As the cold, dry air clashed with warm, humid air along the Gulf of Mexico, significant snow was produced, including 7 inches in Corpus Christi, Texas, where measurable snow had not fallen in 13 years.  Houston received 3/4 of an inch but many areas of the Southeast, from Mississippi to Virginia, may receive close to a foot of snow; most of the snowfall will be confined to the Piedmont and Southern Appalachians while the Coastal Plain, south of Virginia, is being doused with cold rain.

By tomorrow, remnants of the system will move into the Mid-Atlantic States and New England before heading out to sea.  Here in Colorado, where snow has been limited to date, we're hoping the next storm lingers in our region; who could have imagined that, by December 8, Corpus Christi would receive more snow than Denver?

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Power and Accountability

As the sex abuse scandal continues to unfold across American society, we are again forced to acknowledge the uneven enforcement of laws in this country.  While hundreds (if not thousands) of middle and lower income perpetrators languish in jails and prisons for similar offenses, men in positions of power often escape accountability, at least until the statute of limitations has passed.

Even among the elite, punishment has been uneven.  Though a number of politicians, executives and media celebrities have lost their jobs (and their careers), a Senate candidate from Alabama, accused of similar (if not worse) behavior, is favored to win his contest.  Then we have President Trump, the target of sexual harassment charges from twenty women, who went on to win election (but not the popular vote) and now feels free to disrupt our country's International, immigration and environmental policies with a series of executive orders.

America, the land of the free, has long possessed a legal system tainted by discrimination and subject to the effects of political and financial power.  Until every citizen is equally accountable for their actions, we are no more free than the dictatorships that we despise.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Cold but no Snow

Two nights ago, strong winds awoke me about 3 am; as expected, these were winds behind a potent cold front that had dropped across the Colorado Front Range.  Though it was supposed to bring snow as well, the storm system was centered too far north and dawn brought cold air but clear, sunny skies.

As it turned out, the snow and high winds were most intense across the Northern Plains, where blizzard conditions developed.  Our strong winds, coming from the north, abated by yesterday afternoon as the storm quickly moved off to the east.  Had the central low been farther south, we might have received upsloping northeast winds and the snow that they usually bring.

While the cold air is expected to linger for a couple more days, the intense Colorado sun has pushed afternoon highs into the forties and low fifties (F); on the other hand, overnight lows have dropped into the mid twenties.  Down at South Platte Park this morning, ice had begun to form along some of the shallow ponds but the number and variety of waterfowl remained impressive.  Northern shovelers were most abundant, spooked into a massive aerial flock as an immature bald eagle soared overhead.  Winter has arrived in the Valley!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Super Cold Moon

A brilliant full moon is rising in the east this evening.  By tradition, the December full moon is called the Cold Moon (or the Long Nights Moon) since winter is beginning and the winter solstice occurs in this month.

This year, the Cold Moon is also a Super Moon; the latter term refers to full moons that occur when the moon is closest to the Earth and thus appear larger than usual.  Since the moon's orbit around our planet is oval in shape, its distance from Earth varies through the year; super moons are about 16,000 miles closer than the average distance.  Tonight's Super Moon is the only one to have occurred in 2017 but the next full moon, in January, 2018, will also be a super moon.

Regardless of its monthly title and distance from the Earth, full moons are always beautiful, especially on clear nights.  Perhaps their glory peaks in winter, when moon shadows stretch across snowy landscapes; our chance for such an event may be as soon as tomorrow night since snow is forecast by morning along the Colorado Front Range.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Night Flight

Last evening, I accepted my son's invitation to take a flight over Metro Denver.  Despite the fact that he is in the midst of a neurosurgical residency, he has found the time to get his pilot's license, something I intended to do but never did.

It was a clear, cold evening as we took off from Centennial Airport and climbed westward above the city.  Always enamored with "geography from above," I was delighted by the sea of lights that spread out beneath us and was able to identify all of the major roads and neighborhoods; we passed over our Littleton farm and headed up to the northwest suburbs before circling back to the airport.

As an environmentalist, I couldn't help but acknowledge the massive amount of energy that we use to light our cities and was somewhat reassured by the dark "green belts" that lace Metro Denver; the beauty of human landscapes, however pleasing to the eye, comes with a price.  My thanks to Zach for an exciting experience!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Vanishing Lakes

An article in the New York Times this week highlighted the gradual disappearance of the Great Salt Lake.  While one might suspect global warming is the cause, the article points out that the diversion of inflow for irrigation and other human activities is the primary culprit.

No doubt, climate change has long played a role in both the formation and disappearance of lakes.  During the cold, wet climate of the Pleistocene, massive lakes covered most of the Great Basin (see Lake Bonneville and Lake Lahontan) while glaciers scoured out lake basins across the northern half of North America (the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes offer prime examples).  As the climate warmed during the Holocene (now augmented by human activity), the Great Basin lakes shriveled in size, waxing and waning in response to the mountain snowpack and human consumption; how future global warming will affect the snowpack remains uncertain but the pressure of a burgeoning human population will clearly be a problem.

Lakes have long been transient features of Earth's landscape, forming in the wake of floods, landslides, glacial erosion, volcanism and tectonic rifting.  Their disappearance may result from diminished inflow, increased evaporation, catastrophic drainage (e.g. from earthquakes) or the gradual deposition of sediments that fill in their basin; the later is a common problem in man-made lakes and reservoirs where dredging is eventually required.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Eruption of Mount Agung

Mount Agung, 9944 feet, is in western Bali.  One of 78 active volcanoes in Indonesia, its last major eruption occurred in 1963 but another is expected within the next few weeks.  Earthquakes developed on and near the volcano back in September and the release of smoke and ash has been intermittent throughout October and November.

The volcanic islands along the western and southern edge of Indonesia have formed as the Indo-Australian Plate has been subducting beneath a southeastern extension of the Eurasian Plate.  As it is forced downward, toward the Earth's mantle, the leading edge of the subducting plate melts and plumes of magma push up through the crust of the overriding plate.  Initially producing a volcanic island arc, the ongoing subduction and volcanism has culminated in the large islands that we observe today (Sumatra, Java, Bali and others to their east).

Another major eruption of Mount Agung will likely produce widespread devastation but will not come close to the effects of Mount Toba's eruption, on Sumatra.  That supervolcanic eruption, which occurred 74,000 years ago, temporarily cooled the Earth's climate and had a major impact on the human population of our planet; indeed, a significant percentage of early humans had left Africa and colonized the southern rim of Asia by that time (see The Toba Winter).

Friday, November 24, 2017

A Holiday Skunk

Yesterday afternoon, as our family gathered for a Thanksgiving meal, a striped skunk was observed, ambling across our farm.  Festivities were placed on hold as everyone watched the solitary creature, not often seen on a sunny afternoon.

Indeed, striped skunks are primarily nocturnal, though they may be encountered at dawn or dusk.  Omnivorous, they feast on insects, small mammals, eggs, seeds and fruit.  During the colder months, they utilize abandoned dens or dig one for themselves; there they wait out periods of severe weather but often emerge to forage during warm interludes.  Rarely killed by fox or coyotes, skunks may fall prey to great-horned owls, hawks, golden eagles or, of course, automobiles.

Striped skunks breed in late winter or early spring.  During that time, the male may gather a small harem and defends his territory.  Litters generally range from four to eight pups and the newborns are weaned within two months; the family breaks up by late summer and the young disperse to establish territories of their own.  Striped skunks range across most of North America, from southern Canada to northern Mexico.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving Visitors

On this morning's survey of our Littleton farm, I encountered a large flock of bushtits, roaming among the junipers and pinon pines.  These small, energetic birds are often observed in sizable flocks but their presence is erratic.

Twittering as they scour mixed woodlands, they feast on insects and their larvae, providing a valuable service for homeowners and foresters alike.  Despite their small stature, bushtits are hardy creatures and can be observed along the Front Range during all seasons; some years, they nest on our property, constructing a "sock nest" from a variety of natural and man-made materials.

I am always grateful when they visit the farm and can't help but be inspired by their energy and cheerfulness.  Just another gift to acknowledge on this Thanksgiving Day.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Counting Ducks

On this cold, sunny morning, I took part in the first winter waterfowl count of the season at South Platte Park.  Organized by personnel at Carson Nature Center, the counts occur monthly through the colder months, documenting the number and variety of waterfowl that winter at the refuge.

While the highlight of this weekend is a massive flock of common mergansers on Cooley Lake (estimates were over 900 at one point), our group was assigned several of the "Middle Lakes" which are on my routine eBird survey route at South Platte Park.  American wigeon were most abundant, followed by northern shovelers and gadwall.  Other species included Canada geese, mallards, hooded mergansers, buffleheads, common goldeneyes, American coot, ring-billed ducks, green-winged teal, two northern pintail and a lone pied-billed grebe.  Of course, a couple of hours in the field offers the opportunity to observe other species as well and we were fortunate to observe an immature bald eagle as it flapped across the refuge, no doubt looking for a potential meal of duck. 

Replicated throughout the country and across the globe, bird counts are conducted primarily by volunteers and are important in assessing the health and distribution of avian populations.  Such data fuels the protection of natural habitat, documents the effects of human activity and, in the case of waterfowl, helps to establish hunting regulations and restrictions.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Art of Listening

Effective communication is vital to human relationships and the art of listening is its key component.  While we admire those who can express their ideas in efficient or creative ways, communication is a two-way street and an attentive listener is equally important.

Too often, we humans equate communication with debate.  But debate is all about winning an argument and the debater listens just enough to formulate his or her counterattack.  Waiting to pounce on their opponent, the debater only gleans the highlights of the points that are made.

Unfortunately, most humans are more comfortable being the speaker than the listener.  Intimately connected to their own ideas, beliefs and experience, they easily become disinterested (if not bored) with the stories or reasoned arguments of others.  The art of listening is the ability to stay engaged, focusing on what is being said (without prejudgment) and willing to fully consider the views of the speaker.  If we all adopted that art, human communication would be greatly improved and the spectrum of intellectual logjams, such as the one that stymies the U.S. Congress, would be cleared from the paths of personal growth and human progress.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Summer Day in November

An atmospheric ridge over the Western U.S., combined with downsloping, southwesterly winds east of the Front Range, has brought summer-like conditions to Metro Denver in the middle of November; our afternoon high today was 74 degrees F.

Anyone who has not spent much time in this region likely imagines Denver to be a cold and snowy place; after all, it is the gateway to many ski areas.  But, while it may snow here from September through early June, we enjoy a relatively mild, sunny climate.  Warm weather interludes, like today's, occur throughout the colder months and are often followed by brief periods of rain or snow.

Indeed, the weather of the Front Range urban corridor is all about wind direction.  As storm systems approach from the west, we often receive downsloping, southwesterly winds ahead of the cold front; as the air is forced down from the Continental Divide to the Piedmont, it compresses, dries out and heats up, producing the summer-like conditions.  But once the storm moves east of the Divide and onto the High Plains, we usually receive upsloping, northeasterly winds; as the air is forced to rise by the regional topography, it cools down and it's moisture condenses as rain or snow.  In fact, rain and chilly air are forecast to arrive by tomorrow afternoon. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Goose Season

Returning to Colorado a few days ago, I noticed a significant increase in the Canada goose population since I left town in late October.  While the arrival of wintering geese has been late in recent years, the current flocks are right on schedule, apparently chased southward by potent cold fronts and snowstorms up north.

Of course, many suburbanites, park managers and golfers are not thrilled by the influx of our messy Canadian neighbors but some of us enjoy watching their large, noisy flocks as they move above the urban corridor.  Typically arriving in early November, the wintering geese occupy the region until early spring when they begin their journey to breeding grounds across Canada and the Northern Plains (see Front Range Geese).

The arrival of wintering Canada geese is of interest to birders for another reason.  Though they account for the great majority of geese along the Front Range, other species often get caught up in their autumn migration.  Just yesterday, I observed a snow goose in one of the flocks and a variable number of greater white-fronted geese join the Canadas each year.  Cackling geese, nearly identical in appearance but smaller in size and smaller billed, often mingle with the Canada geese; once thought to be a subspecies, they are now recognized as a separate species that breeds farther north and west than their larger cousins.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Males & Sexual Abuse

The recent spate of sexual abuse revelations involving men (politicians, pundits, broadcasters and entertainers, among others) offers clear evidence that we humans are part of the animal kingdom and that our large brains do not always protect us from ingrained animal behavior.

Throughout the animal kingdom, from invertebrates to mammals, the primary role of the male is to impregnate as many females as possible.  This often involves combat with other males (which may prove fatal), coercive behavior toward females and, in some cases, the instinct to kill the offspring of other males.  In almost all species, the male engages in sexual dominance, which may include the gathering of harems, and he plays a minimal role in nurturing and raising the young.

Early humans, like our hominid ancestors, most likely practiced polygamy.  As our civilization advanced, laws were established to protect families, women and children, though the nature of these laws (and their enforcement) varies widely among human cultures.  Unfortunately, the male sexual drive, influenced by parenting, personal experience and psychological factors, often overrides these social constraints (especially when those individuals occupy positions of power) and sexual abuse repeatedly occurs.  While knowledge of our natural history should not serve to condone such behavior, acknowledging male traits and tendencies is the first step in dealing with this issue.  Appropriate law enforcement, counseling and zero tolerance must then follow.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Iran-Iraq Earthquake

A magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck the Iran-Iraq border region yesterday; the initial death toll is over 450 individuals and is almost sure to rise.  The quake occurred in an active tectonic zone where the Arabian Plate is colliding with the Eurasian Plate.

About 40 million years ago, the Red Sea began to open, rifting the Arabian Plate from the African Plate; this rift continues southward as the East African Rift that will eventually split the Continent.  Twenty million years later, during the Miocene Period, the Gulf of Aden began to open as well and the combined forces of these active rifts zones are pushing the Arabian Plate to the NNE; its collision with the Eurasian Plate has been crumpling up the mountain ranges of Iran and Turkey, a process that continues today.

While the tectonic drift of continents is too slow for humans to observe during our brief life spans, the sudden release of pressure along fault lines, resulting in earthquakes, attests to the massive forces involved in this process.  Having sculpted the surface of our planet long before our species evolved, we must now live with the consequences of plate tectonics (See also The Eurasian Mountain Arc).

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Swans at Phillips Lake

On this damp, cloudy and chilly morning, my wife and I decided to take a walk around Perry Phillips Lake, in south Columbia.  After all, from now through the end of January, Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area is occupied by duck hunters and Phillips Lake is one local alternative for those hoping to observe migrant waterfowl.

To our surprise, two swans turned up as we circled the lake, gliding across the calm waters.  Initially assuming they were trumpeter swans that are increasingly common in the Heartland (see Midwest Trumpeters), I zeroed in with my binoculars.  I noticed that they had pinkish bills with black tips, indicating a juvenile status, and could not find a yellow spot at the base of their bills, present in most (but not all) adult tundra swans.  On the other hand, their necks extended straight up from their chests without the curve typical of trumpeter swans.  They also seemed a bit slim for trumpeters, especially when they flew away at the end of our visit, and leg bands were not observed as they passed overhead (most reintroduced trumpeters are banded).  Unfortunately, the visitors remained silent and thus could not be identified by their calls.

Distinguishing juvenile trumpeters from juvenile tundra swans is a bit of a challenge for most birders, especially when a direct, simultaneous comparison cannot be made in the field.  While tundra swans are far more numerous in North America, most migrate to coastal estuaries and relatively few are encountered in the Heartland; then again, a fair number turn up along the Missouri and Mississippi Valleys.  By contrast, trumpeter reintroduction programs have become widespread across the Upper Midwest and this largest species of American waterfowl is increasingly common in the Heartland.  I'm leaning toward the decision that this morning's visitors were juvenile tundra swans but, either way, it was a pleasure to see them.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Irruption of Crossbills

Over the past few weeks, red crossbills have been reported across Metro Denver and here in central Missouri; no doubt, these irruptive migrants have been spotted in many other areas of the U.S. as well.  Residents of Southern Canada, New England, the Great Lakes region and the Western Mountains, red crossbills occasionally appear at lower elevations or in more southern latitudes.

Irruptive species, while usually non-migratory, expand their territory when food (seeds, berries or prey) becomes scarce in their homeland; the scarcity may be do to normal fluctuations in prey populations, severe weather, insect blight, wildfire or, perhaps, climate change.  Red crossbills are among the more common irruptive migrants and have been known to nest outside their usual breeding range if they encounter sites with a large supply of pine cones; indeed, this species may nest during any season of the year.

On the other hand, irruptive species tend to be restless, moving about the landscape in search of food.  Here one day and gone the next, they are often a source of frustration for hopeful birdwatchers, as a friend and I found out yesterday.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Thomas Hill Reservoir

Located about ten miles southwest of Macon, Missouri, Thomas Hill Reservoir was formed by damming the Middle Fork of the Little Chariton River.  The 4950 acre lake and the surrounding Conservation Area are on property owned by the Associated Electric Cooperative, which built the reservoir to providing cooling water for its power plant.

For those who live in the region, Thomas Hill Reservoir is best known for its excellent fishery and birders flock to the lake to observe resident and migrant bald eagles, gulls, terns and waterfowl.  Today, accompanied by a friend and fellow birder, I had the opportunity to view several sections of the reservoir; there we observed two large rafts of lesser scaup, joined by smaller flocks of buffleheads, coot, hooded mergansers, redheads and northern shovelers.  A large number of Bonaparte's gulls wheeled above or settled on the choppy waters and small groups of pied-billed grebes foraged in the shallows.  Other sightings included two bald eagles, a red-shouldered hawk, a northern harrier, great blue herons, ring-billed gulls, double-crested cormorants, killdeer, Wilson's snipe, mallards and a lone northern pintail.

A unique feature of Thomas Hill Reservoir is a warm channel near the power plant that remains open through the winter months.  This unnatural hot-tub concentrates wintering waterfowl and is always a good place to look for rare vagrants that might wander into north-central Missouri.