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Showing posts from July, 2010

Defending Nature

There are now thousands of nature blogs online and most celebrate the beauty and grandeur of nature by offering a mix of photos, essays, poems and links. After all, our primary purpose is to instill our passion in others and, by doing so, to encourage support for conservation efforts across this magnificent planet.

But our message would be incomplete without calling attention to the forces that denigrate or directly oppose the conservation movement. Most obvious are the industries that fail to address their impact on our natural environment; rampant development, pollution and excessive consumption all take toll. In like manner, political powerbrokers, subject to the influence of agricultural and industrial lobbyists, often fail to enact regulations that would serve to protect our environment. Finally, religious organizations, by drawing a distinction between man and nature, foster a simplistic, human-centered view of our Universe which, in effect, tends to minimize our dependence on …

The Peak of Summer

A month past the solstice, the days are noticeably shorter but the summer heat is peaking; indeed, here in the Midwest, average daily highs peak in late July and early August as the relentless sun brings soil and surface water temperatures to their annual maximum. In most years, the shift from spring moisture to autumn dryness has begun, vegetation growth grinds to a halt and insects rule the land.

Retreating from the mid day heat, mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians assume a crepuscular lifestyle, limiting most of their activity to the morning and evening hours. Birdsong has nearly vanished, represented primarily by the predawn chorus of robins, the busy tune of chickadees and the occasional ringing song of a Carolina wren; in its place a buzz of insects greets the dawn, the rising call of cicadas fills the late afternoon and a symphony of fiddlers tune up during the evening hours.

If we can endure a few more weeks in this steamy oven, the longer nights will begin to have an effe…

Dragonfly Heaven

Recent, severe thunderstorms have trimmed a number of our trees, not exactly in the manner that I would have preferred. Nevertheless, we cleared the limbs from our property and I hauled them to our local recycling center, where "yard waste" is converted to mulch. Needless to say, the storms have contributed a great deal of material to that giant brush pile and, combined with the ongoing heat and humidity, that massive heap of rotting plantlife has become an insect factory.

While those prolific creatures were too small to see from the base of the brush pile, their presence was reflected by a huge swarm of dragonflies that patrolled the summit of this man-made ridge. These aerial hunters feast on all varieties of insect life, catching their prey in mid air or snatching victims from the surface of the pile; no need to scout the nearby fields and wetlands when humans have provided such a concentrated source of prey.

Having evolved in the vast swamplands of the Carboniferous Period…

The Energetic Gnatcatcher

Common summer residents across the southern, central and northeastern U.S., blue-gray gnatcatchers are often overlooked for several reasons. These small, slender insectivores usually feed high in the tree canopy, where they flit about in pursuit of their quarry; even when they descend to lower branches or hunt through shrubs and thickets, their extremely active feeding style makes them difficult to observe.

Experienced birders recognize them by their distinctive shape and rapid movements, often catching sight of their twitching tail with its white outer feathers. Should they stop for a second or two, one might also see their white eye ring and blue-gray back; their thin bill and cocked tail (similar to wrens) also aid identification. But, of all the small insectivores, including warblers, kinglets, flycatchers and wrens, these gnatcatchers are perhaps the most energetic feeders.

Arriving in the Midwest by late April, blue-gray gnatcatchers build a cup-shaped nest on a horizontal branch,…

A Verdant July

Though August is only a week away, it looks like May in the American Heartland. After weeks of hot, humid weather and regular, torrential rains, lush greenery still dominates the landscape, an unusual sight for late July. Vines have assaulted the fences and shrubbery and now adorn the sides of our deck. Our lawnmower, often nearly idle by August, is still getting a weekly workout since the grass, usually dry and yellowing by this date, is as thick and vigorous as it was in the spring.

This morning, a trip to our local wetland preserve highlighted the effects of our tropical weather. Summer wildflowers, which carpet the central prairie, were lost in a sea of tall, lush grass and the dense greenery of shrubs and trees narrowed the vista at every turn. Green frogs and bullfrogs croaked from the vast shallows of the seasonal lake which, by late July, is usually flanked by broad mudflats. Only patches of hazy, blue sky and the bright flashes of goldfinches, cardinals and indigo buntings pro…

Wrong Place, Right Time

After enduring a dud of a season in 2009, the hurricane stuntmen from the Weather Channel and other major networks were looking forward to this summer; after all, the annual guess from Colorado State and the slightly more reliable forecast from the National Hurricane Center predicted a busy tropical season. So, when Alex threatened the southern Texas coast last month, hordes of these celebrities descended on the region, taking up positions in Brownsville and on South Padre Island. Alas, almost all of the impact was felt in the highlands of Mexico and across the Rio Grande Valley.

This weekend, with Tropical Storm Bonnie pushing across Florida and heading for the oil slick off Louisiana's Coast, the Weather Channel had its fleet of daredevils spaced along the beaches of the Gulf Coast, ready to document a potential disaster. Their timing was perfect but, unfortunately, their location was off by hundreds of miles; today's true weather disaster occurred in Metro Chicago, where 10-…

Roadside Nature Preserves

This summer, many Americans will drive hundreds of miles to visit our National Parks or National Wildlife Refuges with the hope of seeing a variety of wildlife. While such trips are encouraged and certainly memorable, we often overlook the unofficial nature preserves that line our country roads and byways.

Most avid birders and naturalists know these spots; even locals, many of whom could not tell a sparrow from an oriole, can report where they've seen large gatherings of birds. On Longboat Key, for instance, a barrier island with miles of pristine beaches and mangrove swamps, the best place to find roseate spoonbills, wood storks and anhingas is on a few golf course ponds and waterways that parallel the main roadway. In eastern Colorado, I know of a flooded grassland, grazed by cattle, that often hosts a greater variety of migrant water birds than one encounters at nearby Barr Lake State Park, the State's mecca for birdwatchers. Many birders have their favorite local haunts, p…

Storm Track

Checking the national radar last evening, one saw pockets of thunderstorms stretching from the Southern Rockies to the Mid Atlantic States. Aligned along a stationary front, these disturbances were moving west to east and, over the past several days, have been impacting the same areas. Since the front marks the southern edge of a broad jet stream trough, the storm waves are energized by strong, upper level winds, increasing their intensity; severe thunderstorms, torrential rains and embedded tornadoes have thus accompanied these disturbances.

As the storms move eastward, they are fed by warm, humid air south of the front and, since they "train" across the same path, flooding has been widespread, especially east of the Mississippi Valley. While monsoon rains are common in the Southwest from mid to late summer, the current jet stream pattern is more typical of late spring; by July, the jet has usually retreated to the north, leaving much of the U.S. in the summer doldrums, rely…

George & LeBron

The competitive nature of humans has been vital to our success as a species and the personal ambition of men is evident throughout society, from board rooms to playing fields. Mirroring society as a whole, college and professional sports are replete with individuals who are driven to achieve goals and championships are their ultimate prize.

Over the past few weeks, two titans of American Sports, LeBron James and George Steinbrenner have been in the headlines. Both men have been known for their personal achievements and by their relentless pursuit of championships. Steinbrenner made his mark by a bombastic and tyrannical approach to team ownership, hiring and firing numerous managers and buying the best athletes on the market. LeBron, on the other hand, one of the most talented basketball players in history, is hoping to achieve his dream by abandoning his home town fans and joining other superstars in the glitz of Miami.

While we all have the right to choose our path through life and wh…

A Silurian Scene

A pile of limestone boulders lies along the seawall behind our condominium complex, presumably placed to reinforce the wall and to protect the entrance to our boat canal. Over the years, these rocks have become a reef within the bay, attracting a wide variety of marine life, from silverlings to dolphins. Above the waterline, the boulders are also home to a large colony of marine centipedes; hiding among the crevices during the heat of the day, they scurry about in the early morning and evening hours, potential snacks for herons that also stalk this site.

Centipedes, close relatives of shrimp and crayfish, are primarily carnivorous, feeding on a variety of small animal life. Those that inhabit our rock pile forage at the waterline, feeding on small barnacles and on other creatures that either feed on the algae or are swept in with the flotsam. Occasionally threatened by incoming waves, they, like sandpipers, are adept at outrunning the surf; of course, their flat body form and numerous …

The First Autumn Migrants

Mention fall migration and most of us think of duck covered wetlands in October or noisy, wavering Vs of geese in November. In fact, the autumn migration begins by July as the early shorebirds leave their breeding grounds across the Northern Plains and Arctic tundra and head for southern beaches for an extended winter vacation.

Today, I saw a few short-billed dowitchers and black-bellied plovers on the Gulf beaches of Longboat Key, Florida, the first fall migrants of the year (at least from my observations). The number and variety of shorebird migrants will build toward a peak in early September and will continue into early November as late travellers, such as dunlins, cross the Continent. Some will make multiple stops along the way, dropping by to rest and feed along inland lakes and reservoirs, while others head directly for coastal wintering grounds.

Not a fan of summer heat, these first autumn migrants were a welcome sight, a sign that the season of mild days, cool nights and colorf…

The Supernatural Bird

Magnificent frigatebirds are seasonally common on Longboat Key but I have seen more of them this week than on all other visits to the island. Whether hanging above the shore like tethered kites or soaring high overhead like a flock of vultures, the flight capabilities of these birds is truly amazing; indeed, they spend the great majority of their lives in the air, settling down on terra firma only to nest. For most of the year, they wander the open sea, gleaning fish from the ocean surface or stealing the catch of gulls and terns. When gliding over land, these harassment antics are often returned in kind by crows and jays, which mistake the frigatebirds for threatening raptors.

Despite their marvelous skills, frigatebirds possess an unusual silhouette which, to many observers, might bring to mind a Steven King novel. Though I am not a superstitious or religious person, their distinctive image always suggests an omen, perhaps of a coming storm....or worse. Combined with their superior a…

Dusk from a Dock

A dock extends into Sarasota Bay behind our condo and, over the years, I have watched many dusks descend on Longboat Key from that vantage point. On most occasions, red tinged clouds reflect the sunset to the west as darkness envelops the mangroves and the placid waters of this beautiful bay. Flocks of laughing gulls and royal terns move silently to the north, heading for their roosting sites, while herons and egrets make their last inspection of the shallows. This week, bright Venus and a crescent moon glow in the western sky, adding their brilliance to the picturesque scene.

Unless wind is rustling the palms and pines, the sounds of dusk are limited here. Crickets and tree frogs provide a background chorus while night herons squawk from their haunts along the shore, perhaps startled by a nosey raccoon. Now and then, the snort of a manatee will echo across the water or a big metal bird from Sarasota's airport may rumble overhead.

This daily transition from diurnal to nocturnal …

Adventure in a Boat

My wife and I rented a boat this morning, hoping to gain a new perspective on Sarasota Bay; departing at 9AM, we also planned to dodge the afternoon heat and thunderstorms. As we followed the Intercoastal Waterway from Bradenton Beach to Sarasota, we soon learned that boating requires close attention to three factors: other boats, channel markers and the weather.

Most of the channel posts were used as perching sites by marine birds; brown pelicans, double-crested cormorants, laughing gulls and ospreys were the primary occupants. During our four hour tour, we saw most of the birds that reside along the Bay and gained a new appreciation for their fishing forays and their secluded outposts. We also encountered a few dolphins, one just off our bow.

Billowing thunderstorms, near Sarasota, sent us back to the north but we had acquired a new perspective on this fabulous ecosystem. Like climbing a mountain or crossing a desert, traveling to the center of a bay provides an intimate experience th…

Beach Ants

Greer Beach, at the north end of Longboat Key, is always a good area for birding; black skimmers and least terns are more common here than anywhere else on the island. Among other common species are ospreys, yellow-crowned night herons, brown pelicans, willets, migrant shorebirds, white ibis and the usual mix of gulls and terns; this morning, there were also a half dozen frigatebirds and a small flock of mottled ducks, salt water cousins of the mallard.

But what drew my attention today were ant caravans, snaking across the beach from the vegetation zone to the seaweed flotsam. These small, reddish insects formed winding highways every ten yards or so down the beach; at an abrupt escarpment, formed by a recent storm, they moved along its base until they found a break in this sheer cliff of sand, switch-backing upward (or downward) like a pack mule train. Once on the lower level of the beach, these foragers were at the mercy of incoming waves and clearly must sense when a low tide offers…

A Tainted Ecosytem

Walking the beach on Longboat Key, Florida, this morning, all seemed well. Puffy white clouds drifted across the hazy, blue sky and a west wind raised white caps on the clear, turquoise waters of the Gulf. Ibis and willet picked their way along the waterline while mixed flocks of gulls and terns rested on the broad, sandy beach; the latter, molded by the restless sea, was broken only by lines of seaweed and the occasional beach chair. Brown pelicans cruised above the choppy surf and a trio of frigatebirds soared overhead, dancing in the morning breeze.

Oblivious to the tragedy that envelops the northern Gulf of Mexico, the wildlife of Florida's southwest coast will, eventually, be impacted by the oil as well. Though it may never have a visual effect on this barrier island, the deadly crude has already altered the fragile food chain that sustains this vast ecosystem and will likely have secondary consequences throughout the Caribbean and beyond.

Greed and arrogance have unleashed a w…

Final Words from Mark Twain

This summer, the autobiography of Mark Twain will be released, 100 years after his death. An icon of American literature, Twain is renowned for his wit and for his keen observations on human culture. Why such a long wait for his autobiography? In a word: fear.

Reports indicate that Twain reveals some very personal opinions in this book; among them is his disgust for organized religion, especially Christianity, condemning its hypocrisy and declaring that it has done far more damage than good over the centuries. Understanding American society and the likely impact that these convictions might have on his success as an author, Mark Twain stipulated that his autobiography not be published until 100 years after his death. By then, he must have thought, American society would be more sophisticated, capable of respecting the varied beliefs and convictions of its citizens without imposing sanctions or triggering retribution. Unfortunately, on this point, Twain was mistaken.

A century after Mark…

The Resilience of Life

On my many jaunts though nature, whether on a hike in the Colorado mountains or a walk to work in central Missouri, I am often reminded of that famous line from Jurassic Park: "Life will find a way." Perhaps it is a pine, sprouting from the crevice of a boulder, or a stand of sea oats, covering the dunes of a Florida beach. This week, it has been the greening of our street gutters, as persistent warm, humid weather and storm runoff have triggered a bloom of green algae.

Spores and seeds of bacteria, algae, fungi and a wide variety of plants are ubiquitous in nature, awaiting the right conditions for their germination and growth. Depending upon the local ecology, some may wait but a few days while others are dormant for years; many, if not most, will never germinate. The driving force behind all forms of life, including humans, is the will to survive and to propagate our species. This universal imperative explains, among other behaviors, the copious production of spores and se…

Bermuda's Natural History

Bermuda, an archipelago of 138 islands and islets, began as a volcanic seamount that formed in the Atlantic Ocean about 40 million years ago; in fact, it is one of four seamounts that lie in a chain from SW to NE, thought to have developed above a fracture in the North American plate. This volcanic island chain once towered above the sea but, over time, has eroded to the surface by the action of wind, rain and waves. During the Pleistocene, as the sea level rose and fell in concert with the retreat and advance of glaciers, layers of limestone were deposited atop these volcanic pedestals; in turn, this bedrock was covered by sand dunes during warm, interglacial periods.

Today, the exposed landscape of Bermuda is primarily composed of cemented sand and isolated outcrops of limestone; a limestone reef, marking the edge of the seamount, surrounds the archi-pelago. Since the thin soil and porous bedrock does not retain water, the presence of freshwater is extremely limited, primarily availa…

Alex's Plume

Like the smoke from a funeral pyre, a plume of moisture has spread across the Heartland over the past two days. Its origin was in the mountains of northern Mexico, where Hurricane Alex met her fate. The copious moisture that the storm pulled in from the Gulf of Mexico has since been drawn into the Southern Plains and Midwest as a cold front approaches from the west.

The relatively dry, mild air of last week has given way to hazy skies and the increasing humidity is priming our region for showers and thunderstorms. The trigger will be the cold front, attached to a Pacific storm that has crossed the Central Rockies. Still a bit west of our location, the front will lift the remnants of Alex, producing a wide swath of precipitation that will dominate our weather through the coming week.

This scenario is typical of summer weather patterns across the Midwest. While the hurricane injected an unusually large amount of moisture into Texas, the Gulf of Mexico is always the primary source of …

Protecting Freedom

Today we celebrate the birthday of our nation and the unparalleled freedoms that we enjoy. There will be flag waving, parades, air shows and political speeches as the annual wave of patriotism sweeps across the country. There will also be talk of threats to our freedom, focused primarily on the rise of terrorism and on the rogue States that still infest this globe.

But while such external villains have and do exist, there are more insidious, internal forces that pose a threat to our freedom and welfare. As the study of history demonstrates, destructive philosophies such as communism, fascism, genocide and religious zealotry rise from within human society, gaining momentum when an oppressed or uneducated populace is receptive to the message. Recognizing the opportunity for self-promotion and political power, charismatic leaders emerge and their narrow-minded views gain favor.

Operating under the cover of individual freedom, they foment beliefs that threaten the broader rights of human so…

The Wasatch Plateau

Although its official extent seems to vary among geographers, the Wasatch Plateau is a high ridge of horizontal Tertiary and late Mesozoic sediments that angles NNE to SSW through central Utah. To the north, it merges with the southwest end of the High Uinta Range and, to the south, it drops to the high tablelands of northern Arizona. The Plateau itself represents the divide between the Great Basin, to its west, and the Colorado Plateau, to its east; the Bear, Provo, San Pitch and Sevier Rivers drain to the west while the Strawberry, Price, San Rafael and Muddy Creek Rivers, destined to join the Colorado, drain to the east. At the south end of the uplift, the Virgin River flows southwestward, joining the Colorado at Lake Mead.

South of I-70, I-15 parallels the west edge of the Plateau down to St. George, Utah, while, north of I-70, a series of mountain ranges (the Pavant, San Pitch, Wasatch Front and Bear River Range, south to north) rise west of the Plateau. These ranges, representing…

The Nature of July

Despite the hoopla surrounding the Fourth, July is one of the least exciting months for a Midwestern naturalist. The glory of spring has faded and the spectacles of autumn lie ahead. Thunderstorm season is winding down and the snows of winter are but a distant memory. Other than the earliest shorebirds, migrants are content to remain in their summer haunts, not yet dreaming of winter vacations.

While naturalists with a special interest in amphibians or insects might enjoy the mid summer heat, most of us, like the birds and mammals themselves, retreat from the afternoon sun, confining outdoor activities to the early morning and late evening hours. Unlike the colder months, when wild creatures are forced to hunt throughout the day, July encourages many of them to adopt a crepuscular or nocturnal lifestyle, making them less visible to the casual naturalist.

Of course, there are the summer wildflowers to brighten our days and the prolonged sunlight invites late evening walks. July is a…