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Showing posts from October, 2010

Day of Fear

Today, the rituals of Halloween will unfold, man's effort to express and illuminate the fears that pervade our lives. The greatest of these, of course, is the fear of death, unique to the human species; there are other fears that are also buried in our collective consciousness, such as fear of the dark, which stems from our limited capacity to function at night and the threat that nocturnal predators posed to early human tribes.

But most of our fears are learned, the products of terrifying childhood experiences or directly ingrained by our parents, teachers and religious leaders. Fear of wild creatures, such as spiders, snakes or mice, usually stems from the anxiety that they produced in our trusted guardians while fear of the unfamiliar, often manifest as racism and intolerance, arises from the influence of prejudiced and ignorant authority figures. Perhaps most pervasive are the fears ingrained by religion, causing us to loathe many of the traits that make us human; indeed, we co…

The Ural Mountains

Extending north to south through western Russia, the Ural Mountains formed from the collision of two proto-continents, some 250-300 million years ago. Since eroded to a relatively low but rugged chain of peaks and ridges, the Urals stretch for more than 1500 miles, from the Kara Sea to the Ural River Valley; the latter flows through the semiarid steppes of northern Kazakhstan. While the highest peaks are only in the range of 6200 feet, the varied ecosystems of the Urals make them of special interest to naturalists; geographers are also enamored with this range, traditionally accepted to be the border between Europe and Asia.

The northernmost Urals, which extend into the Kara Sea as a chain of islands, are heavily glaciated; possessing a Polar climate, this region is sparsely vegetated and native wildlife, typical of the Arctic, include snowy owls, lemmings, arctic fox, reindeer and rock ptarmigan. In the middle Urals, where the highest summits are located, rich, coniferous forests cloa…

First Freeze

For the first time this season, winter has poked a finger into central Missouri; this morning, the temperature hovered just below 32 degrees F. While this first freeze is about two weeks late, it is a significant event nonetheless, ushering in the dark, quiet season. The winter solstice is still two months away and we'll surely have plenty of mild, sunny weather in the coming weeks but the first jab of winter lets us know that the tide of the seasons has turned.

This morning's freeze will permanently silence many of our insects and send others to the shelter of leaf mulch and basements; some will emerge in the mild days ahead but, slowed by the autumn chill, they will be easy targets for the birds, reptiles and small mammals that continue to prepare for the depths of winter. For humans, it is an opportunity to test the furnace, stoke the fireplace and, of course, complain about the weather.

Some dread the chilly days and frigid nights that lie ahead and, like certain mammalian n…

Control & Happiness

We humans, having the capacity to make plans and set goals, strive to be happy. While we are carefree as children, we come to realize that our happiness is dependent upon the degree of control that we have over the course of our lives. Conversely, unhappiness often results from the sense that we have lost control, whether in our relationships, our career, our health or in some other aspect of our life.

Some choose to live with unhappiness, convinced that their life is governed by a divine force and that suffering is the key to their eternal reward. At the other extreme are the hedonists, willing to forgo personal responsibilities in pursuit of their own gratification. Fortunately, the great majority of humans strive to balance their own happiness with the obligations that they feel toward their families, their friends and their fellow citizens. Indeed, unless based on this balanced approach to life, human society could not endure.

But, as individuals, we must learn to recognize when the…

Wind Storm

Produced by a ripple in the high energy jet stream, a potent storm has developed over the Northern Plains and, as of this morning, is centered over Minnesota. Its trailing cold front blasted through Columbia at 1:45 AM, bringing rain and gusty winds but no severe weather; those farther east, where the air has been primed by a swath of Gulf moisture, may not fair as well and severe thunderstorms are forecast for the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes region. Worse yet, blizzard conditions are expected northwest of the storm's center, where wrap-around moisture, cold air and strong winds will collide.

The primary damage from this storm will likely be from high wind gusts; its central low matches that of many hurricanes and its wind field extends from the Dakotas to the Ohio Valley. While we have dodged the severe weather, central Missouri remains within the storm's massive reach and strong westerly winds should persist for the next 24 hours.

Expected to drift to the northeast, the sto…

Fox in the Mulch

Since we bought our Littleton, Colorado, farm in 1990, a large pile of mulch has been accumulating and compacting in a back corner of the property. This week, while adding limbs to an adjacent brush pile, I noticed an opening at the base of mulch and immediately suspected that another fox was living on our farm. In recent years, a pair of red fox had denned beneath our barn and, every spring, their toddlers would appear, chewing on the garden hose, wrestling on the jacuzzi deck or chasing each other through the pastures.

My suspicions regarding the new resident were confirmed later in the week when a fox suddenly scrambled over the back fence as I approached the area. He (or she) has certainly picked a convenient site, hidden within an overgrown and largely ignored parcel of land, where there are surely plenty of field mice to fuel his activity. We can now look forward to the remnants of his kills (goose feathers, fish heads, squirrel legs) appearing on our property throughout the comi…

Crossing the Storm

As I left Denver this morning, a large storm system was centered over northeastern Colorado. A cool north breeze was flowing southward along the Front Range and an occasional pocket of drizzle coated the windshield. Further east, an upslope flow had developed on the north side of the Palmer Divide, resulting in dense fog, with visibility reduced to ten yards or so.

Once I descended to Limon, the skies cleared and remained so through western Kansas. Strong southerly winds developed east of Russell, spinning the turbines of the Smoky Hills Wind Farm and signaling that I was now east of the cold front. Since the air contained little moisture, only scattered, high clouds marred the deep blue sky; approaching Topeka, however, a band of billowing cumulus clouds appeared on the horizon, indicating that Gulf moisture was now clearly in play. Showers swept across the highway in eastern Kansas and thunderstorms, with possible tornadoes, are forecast for central Missouri this evening; so far, jus…

Flowing Back in Time

West of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, the Colorado River passes through the Grand Hogback and enters the Colorado Plateau, a vast geophysical province that covers western Colorado, eastern Utah, northern Arizona and northwest New Mexico. Characterized by horizontal layers of bedrock, increasing in age from top to bottom, the Plateau is a scenic landscape of mesas, buttes and canyons, all sculpted by the Colorado River and its numerous tributaries; from its entry point in western Colorado to its exit west of the Grand Canyon, the River has cut through 550 million years of geologic history (early Tertiary, Mesozoic and Paleozoic), not to mention part of the ancient Precambrian basement that underlies these sediments.

Just west of the Grand Hogback, which marks the western edge of the Rocky Mountain Province, the Colorado flows across Tertiary terrain; to its north is the Roan Plateau, capped by Eocene sediments (50 million years old) and, to its south, is the massive bulk of Battlement Mes…

Into the Wilderness

Needing a break from the farm work and granted another sunny, mild day, I opted for a hike in the mountains and headed for the Deer Creek Trailhead, which provides access to the southeast edge of the Mt. Evans Wilderness. Picking up the Tanglewood Trail, I snaked upward through the rich, subalpine forest, serenaded by mountain chickadees and scolded by red squirrels. Not having the time (or energy) to reach timberline, I settled for distant and transient views of Bandit Peak and Mt. Rosalie but was rewarded with fresh mountain air, the fragrance of a coniferous forest and the beauty of clear, turbulent streams.

Wilderness hikes offer solitude and tranquility but do not always provide the wildlife diversity that some might expect. Though interesting encounters can and do occur, the native creatures have miles of open space to explore and are not in the business of entertaining human visitors. Of course, there are exceptions, especially if a picnic lunch unfolds or a campsite is establis…

Colorado Junipers

Favoring sunshine and semi-arid soil, junipers are found throughout Colorado, from High Plains escarpments to the canyon walls of the Colorado Plateau; they generally occupy elevations between 5000 and 8000 feet but may grow as high as 9000 feet on south-facing slopes west of the Divide. Rocky Mountain junipers (western red cedars) are found throughout this range while Utah junipers are limited to the Western Slope; one seed junipers, oval-shaped and shrub-sized, are closely associated with pinon pine woodlands and are thus common across southern and western Colorado. Finally, eastern junipers (known as eastern red cedars) are widely planted along the Front Range urban corridor.

While adding diversity to any landscape, junipers are especially appealing since they attract a wide variety of wildlife. Elk, deer and pronghorn browse on their foliage and their fruit (small, berry-like cones) is consumed by a large number of birds and small mammals. In addition, the dense foliage of these tr…

The Nature of Homophobia

As the political season heats up, gay rights have once again become fodder for conservative talk show hosts, politicians and religious leaders, all of whom use disinformation to back their arguments. As in all forms of discrimination, ignorance sets the stage for blind acceptance and large segments of our society harbor the view that homosexuality is a behavioral choice (or, at best, an illness) that may be taught or transmitted to innocent children. They either reject or are oblivious to the fact that homosexuality is an inherited trait, no less innate than blond hair or dark skin; indeed, there is substantial scientific evidence that up to 10% of humans are homosexual or bisexual.

Of course, early religious indoctrination and parental attitudes also influence our views about homosexuality. Like other beliefs that are ingrained during childhood, negative feelings about homosexuality are difficult to restrain, especially amidst the emotional turmoil of the teenage years. The hatred and…

Pheasant of the Plains

This was a beautiful day for traveling across the Great Plains of North America. Under partly cloudy skies and a mild air mass, the grasslands had taken on the golden hues of autumn and splotches of yellow and rust dappled the streamside woodlands. While migrant waterfowl were noticeably sparse, birding along the Interstate was fairly productive, dominated by crows, starlings, red-tailed hawks, meadowlarks and northern harriers. A large flock of longspurs crossed the highway in eastern Colorado and a few ring-necked pheasants foraged along a cropfield in western Kansas.

Ring-necked pheasants, native to Asia, were first introduced in North America during the mid 19th Century and have since been released in many parts of the U.S.; indeed, more than 30 subspecies can be found in our country, attesting to their popularity as a game bird. Favoring open country, these birds are common on the grasslands of the Upper Midwest and Great Plains, where they feed on waste grain and a wide variety o…

A Motley Crowd

Those of us who regularly observe birds at the backyard feeder come to appreciate the varied personalities of our avian visitors. House sparrows and house finches, while skittish, mob the feeder, gorging themselves and defending their positions; they are focused on survival and have no interest in rules of etiquette. Chickadees and titmice, agile and opportunistic, dart in to grab one seed at a time, taking it away to devour in peace; optimistic and carefree, they are highly adaptable and are less concerned that the stash may disappear in their absence.

More fiscally conservative, white-breasted nuthatches also grab one morsel at a time but take it away for storage in the crevices of tree bark; they are preparing for leaner times, when winter sets in and the feeder runs dry. Less concerned are the unflappable mourning doves, observing the chaos from nearby branches or drifting in to search for seed that has fallen to the ground; they and the dark-eyed juncos are content to receive what…

Sphinx Moths

Returning home yesterday afternoon, I found a large, attractive moth on the wall of our front porch. It was a white-lined sphinx moth, a member of the sphinx moth family, which includes hawk moths and hummingbird moths; the latter name derives from their large size, rapid flight and feeding behavior, which involves hovering over tubular flowers to extract nectar. Indeed, sphinx moths, like hummingbirds and certain bats, are important pollinators in most desert regions.

Their large, colorful caterpillars may be encountered in roaming armies, traversing roads or trails; each species has its favored plant food which, unfortunately, includes tomatoes and apple trees. Before pupating, the caterpillar usually enters an underground chamber or settles within the crevices of rock walls or wood piles; most species overwinter in the pupal form.

The attractive adults generally feed at dawn or dusk though some species are active during the day and others are strictly nocturnal. Often mistaken fo…

Man & Mountains

Having evolved in the shadow of Kilimanjaro, man has long been enchanted with mountains. We, and perhaps our immediate hominid predecessors, were the first species to appreciate the significance of these highlands, understanding both the travel difficulties that they impose and the multiple benefits that they offer; for early man, the latter included food sources, water, shelter and defense from hostile tribes and predators. Of course, the peaks themselves, reaching toward the stars and into the clouds, were often infused with mystical significance, the home of the gods, both good and evil.

Today, we have a better understanding of these landforms but are no less inspired by their presence. Offering both an escape from summer heat and a playground for winter sports, they are also a destination for hikers, climbers, hunters and naturalists. Indeed, for the naturalist, they offer a variety of life zones within a short distance, yielding a spectacular diversity of fauna and flora.

Essential…

The Miners & Humanity

Scenes of joy were beamed across the globe over the past two days as 33 Chilean miners were rescued from their ten week ordeal, entombed within the Earth. All humans, Americans and Russians, Palestinians and Israelis, Indians and Pakistanis, could relate to the emotions on display as the miners were reunited with their families and friends.

Some, of course, saw God's hand in these events and will use the images to further their message of divine intervention. Most of us, however, focused on the humanity of this spectacle, admiring the courage of the miners, the skills of the rescuers and the devotion of their loved ones. For a brief moment in time, we reunited as a human community, oblivious to the national, ethnic and religious barriers that divide us.

It is this common human spirit, after all, that allowed our species to populate the globe, to endure the natural elements that confronted us and to achieve the level of knowledge and technology that permitted this rescue to unfold. H…

Jack-o-Lantern Mushrooms

Mushrooms, the spore-producing fruit of fungi, generally prefer cool, moist conditions and are thus rarely encountered during the heat of summer. Indeed, spring and fall are the seasons to observe or collect mushrooms and autumn often offers the greatest variety.

This week, Jack-o-Lantern mushrooms have appeared in our yard, clustering near old stumps, atop the wood mulch or above decaying tree roots. Named for their orange coloration and the fact that their gills, under the right conditions, produce a faint, greenish glow, these mushrooms initially have a convex cap which flattens to a disk and then takes on a larger,cupped shape as they grow; within a few more days, the cluster begins to dry out and crumbles into a darkened mass. Though fragrant (for fungi) and attractive during their growth phase, Jack-o-Lantern mushrooms are toxic to humans, producing a gastroenteritis if consumed.

Like all fungi, this species feeds on organic debris and most of the organism consists of mycelia, thr…

Isolated Peaks & Monoliths

There are few natural landscapes more inspiring than a lone peak or isolated cluster of mountains that tower above the surrounding terrain. In some cases, this topography results from an especially hardened rock formation that has resisted the erosive forces of water, wind and ice. Mt. Monadnock, in southwest New Hampshire, provides an excellent example; composed of metamorphosed sediments from the Silurian and Devonian Periods, this mountain has withstood the advance and retreat of the Pleistocene Glaciers.

Many of our isolated peaks are volcanic in origin, rising above expanding chambers of magma and coated by recurrent lava flows or explosive eruptions. The massive volcanic domes of the Cascades are best known but volcanic peaks are also widespread in the Southwest; Sierra Grande, a dormant stratovolcano in northeast New Mexico, Mt. Taylor, west of Albuquerque, and the San Francisco Mountains, north of Flagstaff, are a few examples.

Finally, many of our natural monoliths developed be…

Birding without Binos

Binoculars are an essential tool for beginning birdwatchers, who learn to distinguish the individual species by close attention to their plumage and other physical characteristics. So too do avid birders rely on binoculars, ever vigilant for rare and accidental visitors to add to their life list.

For many of us, though, birding is simply part of our fascination with natural ecosystems. Once familiar with the birds that reside within or visit our region, we are more interested in how they fit into the ecology, anticipating their presence in the varied habitats. Since we usually bird while we hike and since we recognize birds by their shape, color and behavior, we are less concerned with close inspection, content to simply enjoy their company amidst the sights, sounds and smells of nature.

Of course, I often have my binos in the backpack, just in case I see something that is unusual or not readily identified. And, whenever I visit ecosystems or landscapes that are new to me, I am inclined…

The Chuska Mountains

Forming a topographic wall across northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico, the Chuska Mountains are the remnants of an elongated, sandstone plateau. Almost sixty miles long, the range angles from the NNW to the SSE and sits atop a broader warp of the underlying Jurassic strata, known as the Defiance Plateau, which extends southeastward from the canyon country of Utah.

The sandstone of the Chuska mountains was deposited as windblown dunes but its age remains controversial; initially thought to have accumulated during the Oligocene, some 30-40 million years ago, most geologists now believe that the Chuska Sandstone is late Cretaceous in age (about 65-70 million years old). Heavily dissected by streams, the Chuska plateau ranges in elevation from 8000-9000 feet, with higher pediments, protected by a cap of basalt, rising to 9800 feet or more; these pediments are most numerous in the northern (Arizona) portion of the range and the volcanism that produced their caps occurred during…

Summer Billows Back

After getting shoved to the Gulf Coast by a series of cold fronts, summer has returned in the form of a broad atmospheric ridge that covers the eastern half of the U.S. Beneath this dome of high pressure, winds are light, air is sinking, cloud formation is suppressed and the early autumn sun bakes the landscape. Since the ridge also cuts off flow from the Gulf and the Atlantic, humidity within the dome is low, the warm days are comfortable and radiation cooling develops at night, allowing temperatures to fall into the forties and fifties (F).

Here in Missouri, we will top out in the low to mid eighties over the next few days and, though the foliage hints of autumn, it will feel more like summer. While we humans may be temporarily fooled by the atmospheric conditions, wildlife, responding to the waning daylight, will carry on with their preparations for winter, storing food or winging off to southern lands.

Summer has won this battle in its perpetual war with winter but the victory wi…

Back in the Dark

Two weeks after the autumn equinox, I am shrouded in darkness on my walks to work. From now until early March, there will be no sunlight to brighten my path and the surrounding landscape will be a mosaic of shadows.

Of course, there will be a much better chance to see the creatures of the night. Opossums may waddle across the road, raccoons may inspect the garbage cans and the faint silhouette of an owl may appear in a roadside shade tree or drift silently toward the nearby woods. And then there's the sky, with its moonlit clouds and brilliant stars, reminding me that our darkened planet is but a speck in this vast universe.

This morning's walk was highlighted by a flock of nighthawks, careening about the floodlights of a campus sports field. Feasting on moths to fuel their migration, they are heading south toward balmy weather and longer days and will not return until May flowers adorn our suburbs. By then, I will have walked many miles through the darkness of central Missouri,…

Chickadee Gifts

Hang a new feeder in the backyard or fill an old one for the first time in the fall and, in almost every case, chickadees will be the first birds to accept your gift. Inquisitive, cheerful and trusting, these small birds seem to drift through life with a carefree attitude, oblivious to the many threats that nature may impose. Unlike their fair-weather cousins, chickadees do not depart for southern climes as winter sets in; rather, they roam about in small flocks, often in the company of titmice and downy woodpeckers, feasting on seeds, pupae and insect eggs.

Well equipped to endure the harsh winter weather, chickadees are a source of inspiration throughout the year, exuding optimism as they move through the woodlands or stop to partake of our backyard handouts. Though diminutive, they are undaunted by conditions that cause many animals (including humans) to retreat to sheltered dens. Once again, it is their positive attitude that seems to fuel their energy; they don't just cope wit…

A Chilling Silence

For months now, I have walked to work amidst a chorus of insects. But, on the past few mornings, their chirps and buzzy calls have been stifled by cold overnight temperatures. With morning lows hovering in the upper thirties (F), these exothermic invertebrates have no energy for courting.

As the sun rises and the day warms, they resume their activity, focused primarily on procreation before a deadly freeze descends on the Heartland. Fortunately for them, the weather is expected to warm over the next week, offering a temporary reprieve and, for now, restoring the night music that is so characteristic of late summer and early autumn.

While most insects overwinter as pupae or eggs and many aquatic species spend the colder months as larvae beneath the ice, a limited number of adult insects (such as bees, harvestmen and ladybird beetles) survive winter in sheltered dens or beneath the leaf litter. But the adults of most insects die off with the first hard freeze, which explains their frenzie…

Waxwing Invasion

Taking a break between football games yesterday afternoon, I went out back to enjoy the cool, sunny weather. There I was greeted by hundreds of cedar waxwings, moving among the shade trees and dropping into berry patches along our woodland border.

Unlike raucous armies of crows or grackles, this was a relatively silent invasion, broken only by scattered, soft whistles from the attractive visitors. Cedar waxings are sociable, amiable and cooperative nomads, spending most of the year in large, wandering flocks, searching for berries, insects and tasty flower petals. They may appear in the neighborhood for a day or two and then move on, not to be encountered for weeks or months. Their erratic visits, combined with their mild mannered nature and colorful plumage, make cedar waxwings a favorite of backyard birders.

Yesterday's invasion produced additional benefits as the activity of the large waxwing flock attracted other visitors. Within a short time, chickadees, titmice, yellow-rumped …

October in Words

How do you describe the glorious month of October? One would certainly need to use words like mild, sunny, crisp, colorful and invigorating, not to mention deep blue skies, painted foliage and cool, star-filled nights.

Of course, one should also describe skittish deer, migrant waterfowl, fragrant tailgates, wayward box turtles, the clutter of acorns, frost-covered pumpkins, the yank of nuthatches, an explosion of mushrooms, nostalgic wood smoke, the spooky hoot of owls and a majestic Hunter's Moon.

In the end, one cannot easily convey the glory of October in words or photos. Like a balmy night on a southern beach or the clear, thin air of a mountain summit, one must experience a mild autumn day in the American Heartland to fully appreciate its natural beauty and bountiful gifts.

East Coast Deluge

In North America, storm systems generally move from west to east. Since showers and thunderstorms are produced along the trailing cold front and draw on atmospheric moisture ahead of the front, they are usually transient and of little consequence. It is only when the front flattens out and becomes stationary that storms "train" along the front, repeatedly passing over the same areas and producing floods.

Over the past 48 hours, the heavy rains and extensive flooding along the East Coast have resulted from a different and unusual weather pattern. A tropical depression, characterized by copious, deep moisture, was funnelled northward between two domes of high pressure, one covering the east-central portion of the U.S. and the other over the Atlantic Ocean. Forced out of the Gulf of Mexico by the advancing edge of the western dome and directed northward by the western edge of the Atlantic dome, this tropical moisture was dumped along a narrow swath, from Miami to New York. …