Showing posts from 2011

The Great Basin

Defined by its hydrology, the Great Basin is a large area of the American West within which the rivers and streams drain from an irregular ring of topographic divides toward the interior of the basin, never to reach the sea. The west edge of the Great Basin runs along the crest of the southern Cascades, the Sierra Nevada Range, the Tehachapi Range and the San Bernardino Mountains while the east edge follows the crest of the Wasatch Plateau and the westernmost Uintas. Along its northern boundary, an irregular, low divide separates the watersheds of the basin rivers (dominated by the Bear and Humboldt Rivers) from that of the Snake River. The southern edge of the Great Basin is even more complex, separating basin river watersheds from that of the Colorado River, extending southward into northwest Mexico.

Since the Great Basin is surrounded by topographic divides, winds are downsloping from all directions, warming and drying the air; as a result, the Basin floor, with elevations rangi…

An Extreme Weather Year

By all accounts, 2011 has been a year of extreme weather across the U.S. Severe flooding in New England, a catastrophic drought across the Southern Plains, the worst tornado outbreak in recorded history, massive haboobs in the West and destructive wildfires across Texas have all dominated the headlines.

While years like this spawn doomsday discussions about the viability of our ecosystems, the threat to agriculture and the future welfare of mankind, they have no true predictive value. Though a backdrop of global warming cannot be ignored, these outbreaks of severe weather are more directly related to stagnant weather patterns, atmospheric derangements that often produce adjacent extremes of heat and cold, deluge and drought etc. A warmer climate may add fuel to the fire but the events themselves are sporadic; the last comparable episode of tornadic activity was in 1974 (almost 40 years ago) and the disastrous hurricane season of 2005 has since been followed by rather tepid years fo…

Pileated Woodpeckers

Most birders can easily remember their first sighting of a pileated woodpecker, especially due to their large size and distinctive markings; for me, this occurred along a country road near Wilmington, North Carolina. Though these woodpeckers are fairly common throughout much of their range, they prefer mature forests and are not often seen by the casual suburban birdwatcher.

Pileated woodpeckers inhabit forested areas of the eastern U.S., southern Canada, the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest; other than the rare and possibly extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker of southeastern swamp forests, pileateds are the largest woodpeckers in North America. Adult pairs are monogamous and may remain together for a decade or more. Each spring, the pair excavates a new, oval-shaped tree cavity in which to raise their brood of 3-5 young; both parents incubate the eggs and, once fledged, the offspring will remain with their parents until autumn. The male often uses the nest cavity through the fo…

Moon over Venus

Last evening, a crescent moon gleamed in the southwest sky, its southern point tipped toward the horizon. Below the moon was Venus, its position suggesting a bright ornament hanging from and tilting its larger companion. This, of course, was an illusion, a product of my vantage point and the distance of those heavenly bodies from Earth. In fact, Venus has a diameter of 7521 miles, more than three times that of the moon; however, at its closest approach, Venus is 25 million miles from Earth, more than 1000 times the distance from Earth to the moon.

Such astronomical illusions have confused humans since our earliest days, leading us to see relationships among the stars and planets that don't actually exist. Indeed, many of the named constellations consist of stars that are farther from one another than each is from the Earth; their grouping in the night sky is merely a consequence of our own location in space. For astrologists or other pseudo-scientists to make predictions base…

Coffins: The Final Insult

The chemicals of life initially formed in a supernova explosion, fusing hydrogen and helium atoms to produce the "heavier" elements; these, in turn, combined to form molecules, the building blocks of all substances on Earth. The origin of life coincided with the appearance of DNA, which governs the assembly and function of all organisms, from bacteria to humans. Human DNA is the product of 3.6 billion years of DNA evolution, altered by random mutations, the incorporation of DNA from viral agents and countless recombinations of chromosomal DNA through sexual reproduction, all acted upon by natural selection.

Human DNA does not represent the endpoint of evolution but, rather, the current tip of one branch on the complex tree of life. Furthermore, our ability to live and reproduce on this planet is dependent upon the products of other life forms, most notably the oxygen released by photosynthesis and the nutrients provided by the various plants and animals that we consume. …

Birding in Context

Though I have been a birder for more than 35 years, I have never been one to chase after rare birds or to plan my vacations to add species to my life list. Nor am I crazy about group birding or bird related sporting events such as a "Big Year."

As a naturalist, I enjoy watching birds within the context of their natural habitat, observing their interaction with plants and other animals and coming to understand how they contribute to the function of that ecosystem. Whether the setting is a barrier island, a mountain forest, a rolling prairie or a suburban neighborhood, birds play important roles, as foragers, hunters and potential prey. Furthermore, since many species are migratory, their unique contribution is often seasonal, either as temporary residents or as transient visitors.

Like other creatures, birds are far more interesting than items on a checklist and we cannot truly appreciate their importance without recognizing their vital role in maintaining the health of na…

Humans, Faith & the Universe

Christmas is a meaningful observance for members of one religion on one planet in our vast Universe. Since the Universe harbors trillions of suns, it is safe to assume that there are at least millions of planets similar to Earth, many thousands of which are inhabited by humanoid populations similar to our own. With that probability in mind, one wonders whether the simplistic beliefs associated with Christmas are universal or purely a fabrication of human thought, creativity and culture.

Most human societies support religious freedom as long as those groups or intstitutions do not impose their beliefs on others or invoke those beliefs to abolish or restrict the rights of others. Unfortunately, the indoctrination of innocent children with religious faith, often reinforced by guilt and fear, is a common practice in human society and seems to acknowledge the fact that mature, experienced and educated adults may not be as receptive to such beliefs.

Religous faith is clearly distinct fro…

The Common Good

The Christmas Holiday Season, more than any other time of year, highlights the horrendous disparity between the American socioeconomic classes. While the wealthy shower one another with extravagant gifts and engage in excessive consumption, the poor can barely make ends meet, often forced to choose between holiday gifts and the staples of survival.

In my judgment, the wide gulf between rich and poor in this country reflects the distorted priorities of our economic system. The pay structure of corporate executives is based on profit margins, not on job creation or the social value of their goods and services. At our universities, where the cost of tuition is becoming formidable, football coaches are paid more than ten times the salaries of the best professors. And, throughout our society as a whole, we reward entertainers, athletes and other celebrities far out of proportion to their value to society.

The stories of Christmas, from Bethlehem to Scrooge to It's a Wonderful Life,…

The Desert Raccoon

Natives of Central and South America, coatimundis have spread into the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts of the southwestern U.S. Formally known as white-nosed coatimundis, these members of the raccoon family, unlike their more widespread and familiar relatives, are diurnal and gregarious, often moving about in noisy bands composed of females and their young.

Adult males, twice as large as the females, weigh up to 25 pounds and tend to be more solitary. Mating occurs in the early spring and 4-6 young are born after a gestation of almost 3 months. Females often use rock crevices for nursery dens but she and her offspring later use crude arboreal platforms for sleeping and resting. Wandering about for much of the day, these omnivores locate food and prey with their long, tapered snout; insects, lizards, eggs, nuts and fruit comprise most of their diet. Coatimundis are agile climbers, equipped with sharp claws to grasp limbs and a long tail for balance.

Favoring wooded canyons of the D…

Ice Age Relics

Mention Ice Age relics and most of us think of frozen mammoth carcasses, unearthed Neandertal bones or that living relic, the musk ox. More sophisticated students of natural history might also picture various forms of glacial terrain, erratic boulders or relic groves of hemlock, surviving the warm Holocene in shaded valleys of the Temperate Zone.

In fact, most modern plants and animals lived during the Pleistocene, having "moved" to warmer latitudes or to deeper waters when glaciers advanced and sea levels fell. Of course, the colder and wetter climate of the Pleistocene also spawned the evolution of new species, such as polar bears and Arctic fox, as their ancestors adapted to changing conditions.

We humans are also children of the Pleistocene, having appeared about 130,000 years ago, late in the course of that 2 million year Epoch. Like other creatures, we adapted to its shifting climate but, due to our large brains, we did not require new physical traits to survive; ra…

Kofa NWR

If you enjoy an escape to the Desert Southwest during the winter months but hope to avoid the congestion of large cities and National Parks, consider a visit to Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, northeast of Yuma, Arizona. This extensive preserve (over 665,000 acres) was set aside in 1939 to protect habitat for desert bighorn sheep; more than 80% of the refuge is designated wilderness and it thus harbors some of the most pristine Sonoran Desert landscape in the U.S.

Stretching between the Kofa Mountains on the north to the Castle Dome Mountains in the south, this refuge is accessed by a network of graveled roads, most of which require four-wheel drive vehicles. However, the road to Palm Canyon, leading east from US 95 between Quartzite and Yuma, can be traversed by the family car and is perhaps the best means to explore this ecosystem; a short trail at its terminus leads to a stand of California fan palms and conditioned hikers can proceed on to higher terrain.

In addition to the fan p…

Southwest Storm

Yesterday morning, a deep atmospheric trough covered the western U.S., its leading edge stretching from southern New Mexico to Upper Michigan. As cold air poured southward within this dip in the jet stream, a powerful storm developed along its southern rim, sweeping moisture up from the Gulf of Mexico.

By later in the day, the storm had moved into the northern Texas Panhandle and its central pressure was falling. Strong, counterclockwise winds raked the Southern Plains and, northwest of the cold front, blizzard conditions developed across northeast New Mexico, southeastern Colorado and southwestern Kansas. Ahead of the front, Gulf moisture was streaming through the Midwest, igniting thunderstorms in northeast Texas and heavy rain across eastern Oklahoma, eastern Kansas and most of Missouri.

This morning, the storm has weakened and its center swirls over western Oklahoma. High pressure, dropping southward within the trough, has shut down the snowfall and has shoved most of the rain…

Selling the Church

Tuning into 60 Minutes last evening, I encountered the usual mix of TV commercials for cell phone services, stock brokerages, automobiles and erectile dysfunction medications. But a new ad appeared amidst those expected enticements and was clearly aimed at the upscale, sophisticated viewers of that respected, long-running program. This polished and obviously expensive ad (given its placement on 60 Minutes) was directed at fallen-away Catholics; with images of the Vatican and scenes of aid work across the globe, it was a clear effort to restore the tarnished image of a once powerful and influential institution.

Reeling from the ongoing child abuse scandal and faced with an increasingly educated and skeptical populace, the Catholic Church is attempting to invoke a sense of nostalgia with this advertisement campaign. Whether a Fifth Avenue approach will be effective remains to be seen; after all, it is directed at past members who are unlikely to respond to this glossy package, having…

A Sherbet Sunrise

Yesterday morning, as I left Denver under clear, cold skies, I was treated to a spectacular sunrise on the High Plains. The mellow but brilliant colors reminded me of the rainbow sherbet that I often enjoyed as a child (and still do on occasion). Low, flat clouds had taken on a raspberry glow while a swath of lemon yellow stretched across the horizon, fading to lime green at the fringes. As sunrise approached, the pale yellow evolved to a deep orange off to the southeast, marking the site where the sun would soon appear.

Humans have always been inspired by the sunrise and, for early man, it surely brought hope after the long, frigid winter nights. Even today, the sun's return is especially welcome after the extended periods of darkness that typify the season. More than signifying the recovery of light and heat (what little is provided by a low winter sun), the colorful display offers reassurance that nature's cycle will persevere.

Some may feel that I am overstating the s…

The Owens Valley

The Owens River of southeast California rises along the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, at the southeast edge of Yosemite National Park. After flowing eastward through the Long Valley Caldera, the river angles to the south-southeast and begins its journey through the magnificent landscape of the Owens Valley.

The Owens Valley is a geologic graben, a block of crust that dropped between the parallel faults of the Sierra batholith to its west and the White-Inyo fault block mountains to its east; as the mountains rose on either side, this block slipped downward. The floor of the valley has an elevation of 4000 to 3500 feet (north to south) while its steep walls rise toward some of the highest summits in the Lower 48; the latter include Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada (14,498 feet) and White Mountain Peak (14,252 feet) in the White Mountains. The latter range also includes Boundary Peak (13,167 feet), the highest point in Nevada, while the Inyo Mountains, known for their …

The Art of Parenting

Ask responsible parents and you will find that they all agree on one point: Parenting is both the most rewarding and the most challenging endeavor that a human can undertake. More than a duty to provide food, clothing, shelter and education, it involves the commitment to guide a child (or children) through the varied, tumultuous stages of growth and maturation.

The art of parenting is the ability to offer advice without preaching, to instill confidence without stoking arrogance, to set boundaries without smothering creativity, to encourage social responsibility without stifling personal independence and to foster achievement without setting unreasonable goals. An engaged parent recognizes the innate abilities and natural talents in his or her child and makes the effort to provide the resources (financial, educational and social) that will facilitate their development. Above all else, good parenting involves the capacity to listen, the fortitude to discuss difficult issues and the w…

River Refuge

Following a period of exceptionally cold weather along the Colorado Front Range, most of our lakes and ponds have frozen over, sending waterfowl to the South Platte River for vital nourishment. This annual phenomenon, earlier than usual this winter, concentrates the varied species of waterfowl as well as their natural predators. For birders and naturalists, this seasonal river refuge offers an opportunity to see a wide variety of species on a relatively short hike.

Yesterday morning, under clearing skies and amidst the warming air of a gentle chinook, I took a walk along the river through South Platte Park, in Littleton. As expected, ducks were abundant, including mallards, gadwalls, green-winged teal, buffleheads, common goldeneyes, common mergansers and a few ruddy ducks; hooded mergansers were unusually common, including one flock of a dozen birds. Belted kingfishers, great blue herons, ring-billed gulls, Canada geese, killdeer, black-billed magpies and the usual mix of winter …

Front Range Geese

Lying at the western edge of the Central Flyway, the Front Range of Colorado has always been an important rest stop for migrating Canada geese. Before human habitation, the wetland corridors of the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers attracted these migrants on their journeys between Canadian breeding grounds and wintering areas to our south.

Irrigated croplands and man-made reservoirs were the first developments to alter this pattern, encouraging some of the migrants to settle in for the winter; after all, contrary to popular perception, winters are relatively mild along the Front Range, the product of abundant sunshine, dry air and frequent chinooks. As the human population of the urban corridor exploded over the past several decades, many more lakes, reservoirs, parks and golf courses have made the region even more appealing to Canada geese and some never bothered to return to their homeland. Today, it is estimated that 150,000 Canada geese are permanent residents of the Colorado …

The Wichita Mountains

Rising from the flat terrain of southern Oklahoma, northwest of Lawton, ridges of igneous and metamorphic rock trend northwest to southeast. Thirty miles long, these rock formations originated in a rift zone that developed from the late Precambrian Era into the Cambrian Period, some 550-600 million years ago. Though the rifting process was aborted, plutons of granite, intrusions of gabbro and deposits of rhyolite were encased within and atop the surrounding crust and, over the next 20 million years, were covered by layers of younger Paleozoic sediments.

During the Pennsylvanian Period, about 325 million years ago, the continents began to merge into Pangea. The collision of North America and Africa crumpled up the Southern Appalachians and the docking of South America extended that collision zone toward the west, lifting the Ouachita and Wichita Mountains. Erosion coincided with this uplift and continues today; having carried away the overlying and encasing sediments, wind and water…

December on the Plains

As I left Columbia this morning, a silver dollar moon beamed in the western sky, illuminating the predawn landscape. By the time I reached western Missouri, the pink rays of sunrise were reflecting from a deck of high, puffy clouds and several flocks of snow geese wavered southward above the rolling farmlands.

Once I entered Kansas a thick layer of clouds covered the sky but rusty grasses of the Flint Hills added color to an otherwise drab landscape. Numerous red-tailed hawks perched along the highway, restless Canada geese moved among the crop fields and a lone Cooper's hawk streaked across the roadway, headed for a valley woodland. The first snow banks appeared west of Hays and snow cover waxed and waned for the rest of my trip, peaking near Colby, Kansas, and along the base of the Front Range. On the High Plains, flocks of meadowlarks, horned larks and longspurs drifted across the fields, ring-necked pheasants foraged along the highway and northern harriers flapped low abov…

The Nomad in our Soul

Last evening, a flock of cedar waxwings moved across the slate blue sky, heading toward the orange glow of sunset. We birders are fond of waxwings, admiring their agreeable nature, their cooperative behavior, their attractive plumage and, in particular, the carefree independence of their nomadic lifestyle.

We humans, after all, were nomads for more than 90% of our history. Having evolved some 130,000 years ago, during a warm interglacial period of the Pleistocene, we roamed about sub-Saharan Africa for 50,000 years, trapped by a vast desert to our north and deep seas to our east, west and south. Then, as the Wisconsin Glaciers expanded, sea levels fell and the Sahara retreated, permitting our migration out of Africa that began about 80,000 years ago. By 60,000 YA we had reached Australia and by 50,000 YA humans were in Japan; our ancestors arrived in Europe 40,000 YA, in Siberia about 30,000 YA and had crossed into the Americas by 20,000 YA. Throughout all of this time, members o…

The Unexpected

In the course of our daily lives, unexpected events tend to be of the negative variety, producing hardship and disruption; accidents, injuries, acute illness, plumbing problems and other crises come to mind. Indeed, there are some periods in our lives when we seem to lurch from one crisis to another.

However, for those of us who enjoy the exploration of natural areas, unexpected events are usually rewarding and, in fact, motivate our desire to engage in such activity. Unexpected encounters with various species of wildlife or theretofore unseen plants instill memories that draw us back to the woods, fields and wetlands. It is the anticipation of such experiences that encourage naturalists to visit new areas, whether they are just across town or on the other side of the globe.

Over time, the unexpected may occur less frequently but the potential for its resurgence continues to feed our thirst for adventure. After all, the opportunity to experience nature's hidden and transient g…

Holla Bend NWR

In 1954, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straightened a section of the Arkansas River in an effort to reduce flooding in west-central Arkansas. This detour left an abandoned river bed that dips to the south and, since 1957, Holla Bend NWR has occupied the floodplain ecosystem that lies between the Arkansas and its old channel. Characterized by crop fields, wetlands, shallow lakes and bottomland woods, the refuge is known for its large number and variety of wintering waterfowl; in recent years, this has included trumpeter swans, brought from Iowa in an effort to re-establish a Midwest migratory population.

Attracted by the waterfowl, bald eagles also congregate at Holla Bend during the colder months, as do a number of golden eagles. Permanent residents include greater roadrunners, armadillos, coyotes and a large herd of white-tailed deer while a variety of herons, egrets, rails, shorebirds and summer songbirds inhabit the refuge during the warmer months. Least terns breed at Holla…

Swans over Columbia

At exactly 8:30 this morning, I glanced out a window at the University of Missouri Hospital, just in time to see a flock of swans. Moving east to west over the football stadium, they were too distant and my observation was too brief to make a species identification. Needless to say, the sighting was an unexpected shock to my system and they moved out of view before I could even get an accurate count; my guess is that a dozen swans comprised the flock.

Whether they were tundra or trumpeter swans is impossible for me to say but this was, by far, the largest congregation of swans that I have ever seen in central Missouri. Tundra swans, which breed across the Arctic, generally winter on estuaries along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts though some head south along the Rocky Mountain corridor to wetlands in New Mexico and Texas. Trumpeter swans breed on lakes throughout parts of the Northern Rockies and have been reintroduced across the Upper Midwest over the past few decades; most of th…

Lessons from the Silk Road

Established more than 2000 years ago, the Silk Road is the popular name for a network of trading routes that connected China with the Mediterranean region. These terrestrial roads and sea lanes facilitated an interchange of ideas, products, materials and food items, fueling the rise of early human civilizations and promoting the growth of large urban centers across Eurasia.

Yet, this vanguard of our modern global economy had negative effects as well. The routes were conduits for the spread of disease, the transport of slaves and the invasion of armies. In addition to the valuable goods, caravans and sailing ships brought political and religious zealots, spreading their message with a mix of promise and intimidation.

While modern technology has increased the speed and scope of global trade, the interaction of human cultures continues to produce benefits and risks. The natural tendencies of mankind, focused on personal welfare and survival, assures an imbalance of resources, an abus…

Humans & Cold Weather

Most humans, it is safe to say, are not fond of cold weather; we are, after all, tropical creatures, designed to function in a warm climate. While we enjoy an occasional snowstorm, relish the scent of wood smoke and look forward to the winter Holidays, the first taste of polar air triggers a longing for spring that often persists through the season.

Though we cannot shake our subconcious, genetic recoil to cold weather, some of our negative attitude is learned. Children, while naturally oblivious to threats that surround them and seemingly undaunted by the cold and snow, often learn to despise winter by observing and listening to the reaction of their parents. Then there is that human phase, from the teens through young adulthood, when attention to appearance outweighs the importance of appropriate winter clothing, instilling memories of cold exposure that persist through life.

For all of these reasons, many if not most humans come to loathe winter weather and prefer to remain indo…

Winter Sinks In

The dip in the jet stream that brought frigid temperatures, snow and Santa Ana winds to the West over the past few days has broadened out and the atmospheric trough now covers the western two-thirds of the country; this morning, its leading edge extends from south-central Texas to western New York and wintery conditions stretch from this front all the way back to the Pacific Coast.

A reinforcing cold front has also dropped southward through the Rockies, bringing single-digit and below-zero (F) temperatures to the northern parts of that region while low pressure over the Desert Southwest is spinning snow into southern Colorado, New Mexico and West Texas. Light snow is also expected along the southeast edge of the trough, including northeast Texas, northern Arkansas and southeast Missouri. Here in central Missouri, we dodged the precipitation but the temperature at dawn is 27 degrees F and highs are expected to remain in the thirties for the next several days.

Unlike many winter storm…

Darker Days, Brighter Nights

In the American Midwest, winter days are darker and, of course, shorter; sunrise begins later and sunset occurs much too soon. While sunny days come along, most are cloudy and the low sun angle provides little heat. It is, indeed, a gray and daunting season.

On the other hand, winter nights are often ablaze with stars. The dry, frigid air, free of summer haze, provides an unfiltered view of the heavens, a dazzling display of light arriving from the distant past. Though our own sun has retreated to the south, thousands glow overhead, lending perspective to our lives here on Earth.

The depth of our winter darkness is less than three weeks away but solar warming will take much longer to recover. Until then, we can gaze at distant suns, knowing that they are bringing summer heat to countless populations across our vast Universe.

Short-tailed Weasels

Short-tailed weasels, also known as ermine or stoats, are circumboreal in their distribution; in North America, they are found across Alaska and Canada, extending southward to the Northern Sierra, through the higher Rockies to New Mexico, across the Upper Great Lakes region and into New England. These small mustelids favor taiga, stunted timberline forest and open, brushy woodlands along streams; there they hunt for voles, mice, pikas, chipmunks, rabbits and small birds.

Solitary for much of the year, short-tailed weasels mate in summer and, after a period of delayed implantation, an average of 6-8 kits are born the following spring; able to fend for themselves within 2 months, the young disperse by late summer. Adult short-tailed weasels are generally 10-12 inches long and sport a brownish coat with white underparts during the spring and summer months; come fall, they molt to a white pelt to blend with their snowy surroundings though the tip of their tail remains black in all seas…

Evolution & Climate Change

Most life forms, including the first unicellular organisms, evolved in tropical ecosystems. Even today, the Tropics harbor the great majority of species on Earth and provide an environment in which new species are most likely to evolve.

Over the eons, adaptation to a temperate or cold climate fostered more diversity as plants and animals dispersed across the planet, continents drifted toward colder latitudes and Earth's climate gyrated between periods of glaciation and global warming. Physical traits such as feathers, fur and fat insulation favored survival in the cold while some species developed behavioral adaptations such as migration, estivation or hibernation to survive in regions with a dramatic change in seasonal conditions.

We humans also evolved in the Tropics but, thanks to our large brains, were able to adapt quickly to colder climates without "waiting" for natural selection to control our expansion; the capacity to utilize fire, produce clothing and constr…

Ripples in the Sky

Last evening, after two days of clear, cold weather, a shelf of high clouds stretched across the western horizon, lit by the colorful rays of the setting sun. Along the leading edge of this sheet of ice crystals was a series of ripples, giving the appearance of pink beach sand, molded by incoming waves.

This spectacle was produced by low pressure over the Great Plains, injecting moisture into the upper layers of the atmosphere and creating turbulence as the rising, warmer air encountered the frigid air at an altitude of 40,000 feet. Later in the evening, this thin veil of cirrus clouds moved across central Missouri and produced a halo around the bright crescent moon.

Such high cloud formations usually signal an advancing front and, in this case, a deep trough is forming across the western U.S.; this dip in the jet stream will bring heavy snow and frigid temperatures across the Rocky Mountain corridor and spawn Santa Ana winds in Southern California. Ahead of the front, milder air i…

The Nature of Teen Rebellion

The rebellious nature of teens and young adults is common throughout human society. Reflecting a surge of hormones and an inborn drive for independence, this trait has surely been important throughout the evolution of our species, triggering the dispersal of clans and preventing the negative effects of inbreeding.

While teen rebellion is a source of strife and stress for many families, it can be mitigated and, in the end, may have many positive effects. Parents with rigid belief systems and an unwillingness to discuss other points of view are more likely to endure significant conflict with their teen-aged children. Though these young adults need guidance and clear boundaries, the rationale for such rules of behavior must be explained and the thoughts and ideas of the teen deserve attention and consideration. Of course, in the end, final decisions must fall to the responsible adult.

On the other hand, society benefits from the energy and fresh input of its youth. Many social rebel…

Basement Crickets

Our unfinished basement and its attached crawl space harbor a modest population of cave crickets, especially during the colder months. Easily recognized by their large hind legs, long antennae, light-brown color and hunched-back appearance, these insects and their cousins are found on all Continents except Antarctica; they are also known as camel crickets and are closely related to the sand-treaders that inhabit desert dunes across the globe.

Natural residents of caves, these crickets feed on a wide variety of organic matter, especially decaying plant and animal tissue. Harmless to humans and other creatures, cave crickets favor dark, moist areas and are thus attracted to basements, crawl spaces and laundry rooms where they are easily caught and relocated if so desired.

Adult females lay up to 200 eggs in each brood, many of which are consumed by beetles and birds; as with other Orthopterans, those that survive hatch into miniature replicas of the adults and grow through a series of…

Late Autumn Floodplain

On this cold, gray morning, I headed down to the floodplain of the Missouri River, southwest of Columbia. While most of the Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area was closed for waterfowl hunting, there was plenty left to explore and, as always, much to see.

A variety of ducks, oblivious to the distant shotgun blasts, fed and rested on the open ponds; mallards and northern shovelors dominated the flocks, joined by smaller numbers of pied-billed grebes, gadwall, hooded mergansers, wood ducks, coot and green-winged teal. Geese were absent but a trio of sandhill cranes rose from a harvested cropfield, circled overhead and then moved on to the south. Red-tailed hawks and northern harriers were common, as usual, and a lone rough-legged hawk hovered above a meadow, searching for voles or cottontails. The riparian woodlands and adjacent marsh harbored a mix of songbirds, including red-bellied woodpeckers, American goldfinches and swamp sparrows while mourning doves, eastern bluebirds and America…

An Era of Disrespect

While the quest for power and a disregard for human rights have been evident throughout human history, we seem to have entered an era of disrepect that is especially disturbing. Politicians prefer to ridicule their opponents, corporate executives have little regard for their employees, the wealthy have no empathy for those struggling to survive and religious leaders foment intolerance and hostility within their ranks.

As usual, selfishness feeds this disrespect for those from different cultural, ethnic, political, religious or socioeconomic groups. The drive to protect one's own welfare overshadows any commitment to the rights of others and the importance of personal achievement outweighs the willingness to compromise or to acknowledge the contribution that others have to offer.

Unfortunately, modern technology, which should serve to bring us together, has fostered this tendency toward disrespect and ridicule. The more extreme and outrageous one's point of view, the more at…

Escape to the Country

When cold, gray, damp weather invades the Heartland, I often grab a few CDs and head for the countryside. There, the peaceful landscape, placid livestock and, of course, the rural wildlife never fail to lift my spirits.

Faced with such conditions today, I took a drive through the farmlands east of Columbia and, as usual, encountered a wide variety of grassland birds. Red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures soared overhead, American kestrels and eastern bluebirds perched on the powerlines, wild turkeys foraged near wood margins and massive flocks of starlings performed their aerial ballets. Cardinals, blue jays, juncos, meadowlarks and mockingbirds flashed their colors along the country roads while Canada geese and wintering ducks moved between fields and wetlands. Though I hoped to see a flock or two, snow geese did not grace the scene today and resident mammals, often active in such gloomy weather, remained out of sight.

While the wildlife viewing was less than spectacular, the rura…

Backyard Bluebirds

Yesterday afternoon, my wife announced that two bluebirds were in our backyard. Though she enjoys hiking, gardening and the study of astrophysics, she has never been an avid birder and, since I had never observed bluebirds in our modest sized Columbia yard over the past 14 years, I was more than skeptical. Nevertheless, once I managed to take a look, I saw that she was right.

Eastern bluebirds favor fields and farmlands with scattered trees and are often seen on fences or powerlines in open country. Such habitat is at least two miles from our suburban home and, though we receive an excellent variety of avian visitors, bluebirds had not been on that list. The two males that turned up yesterday were apparently surveying the area for berry shrubs and found one to their liking in the wild border at the back of our property.

Feasting primarily on insects during the warmer months, bluebirds switch to a berry diet in winter, when they often roam the countryside in sizable flocks. Yester…

Detour to the Divide

Leaving our Littleton, Colorado, farm early yesterday morning, low clouds obscured the finale of the annual Leonid meteor shower. The clouds and chilly air were courtesy of a northeast, upslope wind behind a cold front that had pushed across the Front Range overnight.

The prospect of driving across the Plains beneath this low ceiling prompted a detour to the south and I followed US 85 and then I-25 to Colorado Springs. Crossing the Palmer Divide at Monument Hill, just north of the Air Force Academy, I left the clouds behind and descended through the Fountain Creek Valley under sunny skies. Once in the city, I turned east on US 24 and drove across the south flank of the Palmer Divide all the way to Limon, watching the cloud bank lap against the crest of the ridge like an angry sea.

An erosional remnant, the Palmer Divide consists of Tertiary deposits overlying a Cretaceous base. Stretching nearly 70 miles from west to east, it connects the foothills with the High Plains escarpment …

The Two-Basin River

As soon as the Rocky Mountains crumpled skyward, 70 million years ago (MYA), erosional debris began to fill the valleys and basins between the ranges. This process continued throughout most of the Tertiary Period and, by the Miocene (20 MYA), the terrain across this mountain corridor was relatively flat. A second uplift of the region, from the late Miocene into the Pliocene, followed by the wet climate of the Pleistocene, spawned river systems which uncovered the ranges and scoured out the intervening valleys and basins.

One of these streams was the Wind River of central Wyoming which rose along the east flank of the Wind River range, flowed to the southeast and then turned northward, eventually entering the Yellowstone River in southeast Montana. En route, this river crossed two buried ridges, the Owl Creek Mountains of central Wyoming and the Pryor Mountains along the Wyoming-Montana line; with its course set in the overlying Tertiary sediments, the Wind River carved spectacular …

Up on the Farm

Our Littleton, Colorado, farm has taken on the clean, dry look of the winter season. Nevertheless, since it sits at 5400 feet in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains, I have been enjoying the mild, sunny weather that dominates the Front Range urban corridor for much of the year.

As always, I have spent much of the week working outdoors, mulching, repairing fences and, this time, cutting down and stacking tree branches that were brought down by the October snowstorm. Most of the leaves have fallen and signs of the approaching winter are everywhere, led by the numerous flocks of Canada geese that pass overhead throughout the day; they are now joined by small squadrons of buffleheads, common goldeneyes and other wintering ducks. Townsend's solitaires are down from the mountains, feasting in the junipers with bushtits, robins, house finches and the occasional flock of cedar waxwings. Ring-billed gulls, present all year, are now abundant, gathering at our larger reservoirs as the…

The God Paradox

When human atrocities come to light, as occurred at Penn State last week, there are immediate calls to pray for the victims; of course, this public piety is led by those who feel personal guilt for their own inaction. Close behind are broadcasters and politicians, sensitive to the faith of their viewers and constituents; after all, one must not offend those who finance your career.

At the same time, justifiably angry citizens call for the heads of the perpetrator and all who covered up the atrocities. Yet, while vilifying the responsible parties, these enraged individuals join the call to prayer, invoking help from a God who seemingly declined to intercede in the first place.

Therein lies the paradox of God in Western culture. Revered as a loving and all powerful deity who takes a personal interest in our human tribulations, he/she gets a pass when it comes to a lack of preemptive action. One wonders why an empathetic God did not defend the innocent victims by striking down their …

Rare Bird Season

Since both the number and the variety of birds increase during the warmer months, one might think that rare bird sightings are also most common at that time of year. While this is often true in the Desert Southwest, where Mexican species wander into the relatively cool forests of southern Arizona, rare birds are most often spotted from late autumn to early spring throughout most of North America.

Rare loons and waterfowl such as scoters, Harlequin ducks, Barrow's goldeneyes, oldsquaws and smew often get caught up in migrant flocks of more common species as they move about in search of open water; this is also true for a variety of rare and uncommon gulls. Irruptive bird species, whose numbers vary widely from year to year, move down from the north or out from mountain corridors in concert with the availability of food and the severity of the winter weather. Among these latter birds are snowy and great gray owls, snow buntings, redpolls, crossbills, northern shrikes, Bohemian wa…

The Nature of Writers

We writers are compelled to commit words to page; many are storytellers, some are journalists and others are academic scholars. All have a certain facility with the language, including an ear for grammar and nuance.

Preferring to express ourselves in print, writers tend to be introspective, if not reclusive, and are seldom fond of public oration. On the other hand, we are generally good listeners and avid observers of the human condition, traits that provide a wealth of material. Nevertheless, like other creative artists, writers often harbor manic-depressive tendencies, leading to periods of intense productivity interspersed with episodes of brooding inertia.

Above all else, writers must write. While our work may be entertaining, educational or inspiring for others, its production is a vital though challenging process for the author. The prospect of getting published, while emotionally satisfying and, sometimes, financially rewarding, is not the primary motivation for most wri…

A New Canary Island

The Canary Islands are a volcanic island chain off the northwest coast of Africa. Current geologic evidence suggests that this Spanish archipelago developed (and continues to form) above a mantle plume, commonly known as a hotspot. Erupting through Jurassic oceanic crust that formed as the Atlantic Ocean opened, 150 million years ago (MYA), the base of the oldest islands began to take shape during the Cretaceous Period, some 80 MYA, and finally emerged from the sea during the Miocene Period, about 20 MYA. Mt. Teide, 12,200 feet, rises on the island of Tenerife; the highest peak in Spanish territory, it is also the third tallest volcano on the planet.

The Canary archipelago stretches for 500 km, aligned ENE to WSW; the oldest islands, just 100 km off the African coast lie at the northeast end of the chain while the youngest island, El Hierro, just 1.2 million years old, is at the southwest end of the island group. This past summer, earthquake activity began to increase on El Hierro…

Eastern Screech Owls

Though common throughout the eastern U.S. and Mexico, eastern screech owls are seldom encountered by the casual naturalist. However, like other nocturnal wildlife, they become more active and conspicuous during the colder months and may be seen early or late in the day; since they often inhabit residential areas, November through March is a good time to watch and listen for these small raptors.

Yellow-eyed and less than 10 inches from tail to ear tufts, eastern screech owls may be reddish brown or gray in color; the former are more common along the east coast while the latter dominate in western parts of their range. They roost and nest in abandoned woodpecker cavities or in man-made boxes (intended for flickers, wood ducks or for the screech owls themselves); there the female will lay 3-6 eggs in the spring, foregoing the use of nest materials.

Eastern screech owls are perhaps best known for their eerie call, a tremulous, descending whinny; they also deliver a monotone trill. Feas…

Expecting Snows

This is the week each year when the first wave of snow geese generally passes through central Missouri. The autumn migration of these vocal travellers brings them across our State from mid November to mid December and they return from Gulf Coast wetlands between mid February and mid March.

Conditions for their journey have been ideal over the past two days, with clear skies overhead and a cold, north wind raking the Heartland. Like other waterfowl, snow geese take advantage of tail winds and I have been watching and listening for their passage to no avail. But, based on my experience over the past 14 years, they'll show up soon and I'll pay tribute from below, mesmerized by their wavering flocks.

As I have confessed in previous blogs, migrant snow geese stir my soul. More than any other species, they evoke wanderlust as they move across the sky, proclaiming freedom with their high-pitched calls. One of these days, when the responsibilies of my career have ended, I'll …

Unpleasant Topics

This blog, inspired by the writings of Hal Borland, Edwin Way Teale and others (as listed in Recommended Books), tends to focus on the natural landscape of our planet, the natural history of our Universe and the seasonal events of nature's year. But, as a naturalist, I accept the fact that humans are part of nature; while collectively powerful, we are no more or less important than any other species. Nevertheless, our intelligence has spawned industry and technology that, if not properly managed, will threaten the welfare of all species, including ourselves.

In truth, we cannot fully understand nature unless we make an effort to understand human nature, including the physical, emotional and mental traits that govern our lives. In doing so, it is imperative that we acknowledge the dark side of our nature, accept our limitations, understand our impact on other species and learn to improve our lives without compromising the health of natural ecosystems.

This effort to understand o…

When Idols Fall

As Joe Paterno's storied career fades in the shadow of a child abuse probe, we realize that he is just the latest in a long line of idolized individuals who proved to be human after all. Viewed as gods due to their special skills, powerful positions or charismatic personalities, these idols often succumb to personal scandal during their lives or to revelations in their posthumous biographies.

Indeed, it is frequently a flaw in their character that allowed them to achieve fame in the first place. A dominating personality, common to many of our heroes, often comes with a self-centered view of the world, allowing these individuals to focus on their special talents while ignoring those who support them; spousal abuse, infidelity, lack of empathy and self-righteous behavior often blemish their achievements.

We humans do ourselves and our idols a disservice by engaging in celebrity worship. Promoting the conviction that they can do no wrong in our eyes, we set our heroes up for fail…

A Clash of Seasons

For the past two days, a dome of September warmth has covered the eastern U.S. while a trough of December chill dropped across the West; the border of these disparate air masses stretches from Texas to the Great Lakes. Energized by the jet stream and fed by a strong inflow of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, the clash zone has produced a spring-like swath of tornadic thunderstorms, heavy rain and, up north, wet snow.

Here in central Missouri, showers, drizzle and fog dominated the weather yesterday while periods of heavy rain and a few rumbles of thunder passed through overnight. Impeded by high pressure to the east, the front has remained stationary and is forecast to bring more precipitation before cooler and drier air filters in from the west.

While autumn has the reputation as our dry season, outbreaks of spring-like weather are not uncommon and often produce a second tornado season across the Southern Plains and lower Mississippi Valley. Until the jet stream settles to our sou…

The Winter Thrush

While some members of the thrush family, including bluebirds, robins and solitaires, winter in parts of the U.S., most of the spotted thrushes head south of the border for the colder months. An exception is the hermit thrush.

Known for its beautiful song, the hermit thrush breeds in coniferous forests from southern Alaska to New England and southward through the Sierra Nevada, Rocky Mountains and Appalachians. Come autumn, this thrush heads for mixed woodlands and thickets across much of the lower 48 and Central America. There it is more reclusive, scouring the undergrowth for buds, berries and hibernating insects.

Significantly smaller than a robin, the hermit thrush sports an olive-brown back, rusty tail, white eye ring, spotted breast and white abdomen; its tail-flicking habit also aids identification. Usually found alone, this bird is quiet during the colder months but may begin to sing before leaving for its breeding territory in mid spring. Since it seldom visits suburban a…

Human Society & Pedophilia

The current revelations at Penn State and the ongoing scandal in the Catholic Church highlight both the insidious and widespread threat of pedophilia and society's failure to adequately address this scourge. While sexual attraction to children, apparently far more common in men than in women, is likely a result of both genetic predispostion and psychological disturbance, it cannot be condoned or ignored by those in a position to protect the innocent.

The Catholic Church, enamored with celibacy, creates an attractive environment for pedophiles, as do other church groups, scouting troops and the varied youth organizations in modern society. While these groups may provide activities, education and counseling that are important to large numbers of children, they are not always structured to ensure that abuse cannot occur. Furthermore, when abuse is discovered, efforts to protect the organization often prevent full disclosure and appropriate intervention.

Parents are the frontline o…

Zealotry & Ignorance

Zealots are so fanatically devoted to their political, religious or philisophical beliefs that they fail to acknowledge or respect other points of view. Self-righteous, they see the world in black and white and loathe the concept of compromise.

Zealotry feeds on ignorance and zealots know that large segments of the population are poorly educated, either by choice or due to the failure of society. They thus target their message to this receptive audience, promising personal benefits to the faithful and warning of threats from non-believers and the established government.

Though we often relegate the title to extremists in human society, zealots are readily apparent in the current Republican primary field, as many of the candidates appeal to an undercurrent of racism, evangelism and militarism among their legions. Cooperation and compromise have become anti-American and any hint of thoughtful engagement is dismissed as the tool of liberal intellectuals.

Preventing Disease

Modern medicine has succeeded in treating most human diseases but, with the exception of vaccines, it has played a limited role in the prevention of disease. While early screening for hypertension, hyperlipidemia and some cancers has certainly reduced morbidity and mortality, public health measures to eliminate the contamination of food, air and water have been far more important to the health of the general population.

Beyond the actions taken by governments to reduce pollution and to educate the public regarding health care risks, the prevention of disease relies on the commitment of individuals to choose a healthy lifestyle. The decisions to not smoke, to consume a well-balanced diet, to engage in regular aerobic activity, to drink alcohol in moderation and to avoid risky behaviors are far more likely to prevent disease than anything the medical profession has to offer.

Preventing disease by adopting a healthy lifestyle also prevents the need for medications and therapies that, t…

November Rain

Like the showers of early spring, November rain arrives with cold air and gusty winds. Combined with the gathering darkness of late autumn, this chilly, wet weather is, in my opinion, the least inviting weather of the year.

Primed by a southerly flow that swept mild, humid air into Missouri over the past few days, the cold front arrived last night, the leading edge of a broad atmospheric trough that brought snow to the Mountain West and High Plains. With the primary low to our north, we'll be spared the frozen precipitation but I would prefer a dusting of snow to the chilly rain; the former is invigorating, the latter downright ugly.

Then again, these showers will prepare the landscape for migrant geese and ducks that stream through the Heartland over the following weeks. Wet fields, sloughs and shallow lakes are especially appealing to these travellers, providing nutritious reststops on their journey to the sun. From their perspective, this cold November rain is a vital gift …

The Arkansas River

The Arkansas River, 1470 miles long, rises along the Continental Divide in Central Colorado. After flowing southward through one of the most spectacular mountain valleys in North America, flanked by the Sawatch and Mosquito Ranges, the river angles to the east to slice a rugged canyon through the foothills. There it enters Pueblo Reservoir and then begins its long journey across the Southern Plains.

While the Arkansas is the southern counterpart of the Missouri River, it flows through drier terrain and remains rather small for much of its course. However, once in eastern Kansas, eastern Oklahoma and Arkansas, the river enters the moisture plume from the Gulf of Mexico and picks up flow from large tributaries such as the Cimarron, Verdigris, Neosha and Canadian Rivers. Flowing across Arkansas from northwest to southeast, the full-fledged river finally enters the Mississippi a short distance north of the Louisiana border.

Connecting Colorado, where I have spent much of my life, and …

From Islands to Canyon

Late in the Permian, some 230 million years ago (MYA), the western coast of North America curved through what is now western Idaho. Offshore, a volcanic island arc was forming; this volcanism lasted through the Triassic and was followed by a period of sediment accumulation during the Jurassic, when this Wallowa Terrane merged with the western edge of the Continental crust.

Covered by a thick layer of Miocene basalt as the Columbia Plateau formed (15-17 MYA), the Wallowa Terrane would soon lie between the Blue Mountains of Oregon and the Salmon Mountain Uplift of Idaho. Following the rise of the Tetons (about 9 MYA) and in concert with volcanic upheaval from southeast Idaho to northwest Wyoming, the ancestral Snake River began to form, flowing from the east side of the Tetons to the broad, volcanic plain of southern Idaho. There it fed Lake Idaho, which covered the western half of the Snake River Plain during the late Miocene and early Pliocene, draining to the south.

As further vol…

Murder on the Highway

They were half a mile ahead when I first saw them, dressed in black and standing on the highway. Even from a distance, I could tell that they were a pompous bunch, quarrelsome and aggressive. Driving closer I could see the battered corpse, its blood splattered across the road surface, a gruesome scene amidst the fading colors of late October but somehow appropriate on this Halloween weekend.

That murder of crows would likely feast on the carcass throughout the morning before wandering off to harass raptors and annoy humans with their raucous calls. This is, after all, the beginning of their season, when there is plenty of waste grain, winter kill and highway victims to sustain them through the cold, dark months. Celebrating their good fortune, crows gather in large, noisy flocks to wander the countryside before settling down at a favored roost site.

Despised by many humans, these corvids play an important role in nature's cycle, scavenging for leftovers, removing the dead and …

In Praise of Old Barns

Crossing the till plains of the American Midwest, once a spectacular tallgrass prairie and now the productive Cornbelt, is not the most interesting journey on our planet. Fortunately, parcels of forest, scenic stream valleys, a large concentration of raptors and seasonal flocks of waterfowl make the drive more enjoyable. And then there are the old barns.

With all due respect to the architects of our magnificent, ornate cathedrals, old wooden barns are, in my opinion, the most inspiring of man-made structures. While the religious believe that spired churches connect man with his God, old barns surely tie us to the Earth. Farmers have long depended on these wooden buildings to protect their livestock, their harvest and their equipment; at the same time, these scenic structures have provided both food and shelter for a wide range of native creatures, from field mice to red fox to barn owls.

Cathedrals, maintained by devoted parishioners and historical societies, retain their glory th…

Summer Wind

Ahead of an approaching cold front, strong southerly winds are raking Missouri today, pushing afternoon highs into the 80s (F). Despite the colorful leaves and browning grasslands, summer has returned to the Heartland.

Our recent drought has left the woodlands tinder dry; seasonal lakes have given way to parched basins and the creeks are but chains of stagnant pools. After a less than stellar autumn display, this gusty, warm wind is accelerating the leaf fall, making it look like November but feel more like August.

Of course, this summer heat will soon be doused by Canadian air. The cold front, advancing across the Great Plains, is due this evening and is forecast to bring showers and much cooler temperatures in its wake; over the coming days, our afternoon highs will be 30 degrees cooler than they are today. Then we'll remember that winter is closing in and that snow geese will soon call from the cold night sky.

Turkey & Earthquakes

Yesterday's tragic earthquake in eastern Turkey is just the latest in a series of tectonic events that have impacted that region over the past 50 million years. Lying at the confluence of four tectonic plates, the Eurasian, African, Arabian and Anatolian, Turkey is one of the most geologically active regions on our planet.

Most of the country sits on the Anatolian Plate, a small continental plate that is surrounded by the other three larger plates. Fifty million years ago (MYA), as the Tethys Sea began to close, the African Plate drifted northward, colliding with southern Europe and forcing up the Alps and associated ranges. Then, about 30 MYA, the Red Sea began to open, shoving the Arabian Plate toward the northeast; its collision with the Eurasian Plate, which, like that between Africa and Eurasia, continues today, has crumpled up the Zagros Mountains of Iran. In eastern Turkey, the Arabian Plate is scraping along and pressing against the Anatolian Plate, forcing the latter …

Sunday Morn at Eagle Bluffs

On this glorious October morning, I headed for Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, my favorite haunt in central Missouri. There, on the floodplain of the Missouri River, I was greeted by flocks of horned larks along the entry road, by a lone bald eagle atop a dying shade tree and by the sound of distant shotgun blasts, a reminder that the culling season is underway.

Water birds were relatively sparse on the ponds of the refuge; while coot and pied-billed grebes were common, ducks were limited to scattered, small flocks of mallards, gadwall and blue-winged teal; a pair of ruddy ducks caught my eye and noisy killdeer rushed along the shorelines. Raptors were the highlight of this morning's visit, represented by numerous red-tailed hawks, the lone bald eagle, a few northern harriers and a red-shouldered hawk that rose from the marsh with a snake in his talons. Clouds of red-winged backyards drifted across the floodplain, a few great blue herons stalked the shallows, a quartet of barn …

Tardy Snowbirds

Since filling the feeder and hanging up the suet block last week, the usual cast of characters have made their appearance. Chickadees, small yet courageous and ever-optimistic, were the first to arrive, followed closely by tufted titmice, their reliable feeding companions. Industrious white-breasted nuthatches soon stopped by, storing most of their larder in bark crevices for later consumption. Downy and red-bellied woodpeckers led the assault on the suet block while mourning doves, cardinals and white-throated sparrows have scoured the ground beneath the feeder, taking advantage of seed scattered by house finches, blue jays and house sparrows.

But one common visitor has not yet arrived in central Missouri (or at least not on our modest parcel of earth). Dark-eyed juncos, commonly known as snowbirds, usually appear by mid October, just as the last of the summer residents are departing for the south. Most abundant along country roads where they feast on the seeds of grasses, wildf…

Swallowtail Butterflies

Despite the recent chilly nights, a few tiger swallowtails were still flittering about our yard on this mild, sunny, autumn afternoon. Members of the genus Papilionidae, swallowtails are represented by forty species in North America and more than 550 across the globe; though their common name reflects a deeply forked tail, not all species harbor that anatomic trait. Birdwing butterflies, the largest members of the genus (and the largest butterflies on Earth), are found in Australia.

After mating, the male swallowtail secretes a sticky substance that plugs the genital tract of the female, ensuring that his genes do not receive competition from another suitor. The female lays her eggs on a host plant (often very specific) and these hatch into caterpillars within a few days. The larvae have several defenses against predation; in their earliest stage, they resemble bird droppings (not terribly appetizing) which molt several times to become large colorful caterpillars with a variety of…

The Nature of Patagonia

Ecologically diverse, sparsely populated and rich in spectacular landscape, Patagonia covers 800,000 square kilometers across southern South America; this includes all of Argentina south of the Rio Colorado and Chile south of Puerto Montt. A product of Andean volcanism, glacial and stream erosion and cold ocean currents, Patagonia hosts a magnificent diversity of flora and fauna.

As the Atlantic began to open, 160 million years ago, the oceanic Farallon Plate began to subduct beneath the North and South American Plates that were forced toward the west; the Nazca Plate, a remanant of the Farallon, continues to subduct today. Volcanism above this subduction zone has produced the Andes Mountains along the west edge of South America and Patagonia is a composite of volcanic bedrock, lava flows, ash deposits and Tertiary sediments, since molded by glacial and stream erosion. The Chilean segment, which extends to Cape Horn, is a landscape of rugged peaks, ice fields, islands, fjords and s…

Afraid to Live

Catching CNN over lunch, I learned that the American Academy of Pediatrics is now recommending that parents stop using "crib bumpers;" the news report went on to reveal that the deaths of 27 infants have been directly associated with these pads over the past 20 years! While the death of any infant is an unspeakable tragedy, one wonders where crib bumpers rank on the list of risks that these innocent children face.

In the course of any given day, one is bombarded by recommendations from a wide range of experts, warning us to avoid certain foods, activities and products that might harm us in some way. While their points are usually well intended, it is a wonder that any of us open the refrigerator or leave the house. After all, we might choke on food, injure ourselves while hiking or skid on a wet highway.

Unfortunately, the list of risky behaviors and devices is becoming so long that major health risks are trivialized and lost amidst the deluge of warnings. Worse yet, a…

Crossing Paths

It is cool, damp and gray in Columbia today, the first winterish day of the season. As tends to occur each year, the arrival of this raw weather sent me out to fill the bird feeder for the first time since late March. It's not so much that our avian neighbors need my handouts as the fact that I need their company during the dark and dreary days ahead.

No sooner had I opened the feeder than I heard the season's first ringing tune of a white-throated sparrow, just back from his summer in Canada and content to hang out in Missouri for the winter months. In sharp contrast, a house wren flushed from a nearby shrubline and landed on an overhanging branch to clean his bill; unlike the white-throat, this insectivore has summered in the Heartland and will soon leave for southern climes where his prey does not succumb to winter's chill.

The two birds have crossed paths here in our Midwest suburban yard which, in a way, is serving as a link between the vast Northwoods and the Gulf…

The Evolving Nature of Death

For early man, death was often brutal but generally quick. The frail and injured were culled by predators, infections rapidly progressed to sepsis and an acute insult, such as a heart attack or stroke, was a death sentence. With the rise and advance of medical science, we have gained the ability to prevent many diseases, treat most illnesses and offer a vast array of life extending devices; as a result, human life expectancy has greatly increased but the course of dying has been significantly prolonged.

In recent decades, a general enlightenment has spread throughout human cultures and the concepts of refusing resuscitation, foregoing aggressive care and opting for hospice services have taken hold. Nevertheless, large numbers of brain damaged patients, victims of congenital defects, trauma, stroke or dementia, lie in hospital beds for years or decades, subject to indignities that we hope never to experience. Currently, offering them a quick exit from that existence is not acceptab…

Thailand's Flooding

Extensive flooding across Thailand is the product of both geography and an especially active monsoon season. The latter, which generally stretches from May to October, has been characterized by a large number of tropical storms this year, dropping copious moisture throughout the region; indeed, meteorologists report that rainfall across much of Southeast Asia has been the heaviest in more than fifty years.

Most of the severe flooding has occured throughout the western half of Thailand, the majority of which is drained by the Chao Phraya River System. Rising in mountains across the northern and western borders of Thailand, the tributaries of the Chao Phraya flow inward, toward the Central Plains, where most of the country's agricultural land is found; from there, the merging streams feed the primary river channel, which flows south to the Gulf of Thailand, crossing Greater Bangkok enroute.

While nothing can be done about geography and seasonal monsoons, human suffering from the c…

Canada invades the Heartland

Behind the latest cold front, cool, dry, Canadian air is dropping into the Heartland, pushed along by northwest winds between high pressure over the Rockies and a potent low over northern Michigan. Soon to be reinforced by a second front, this heavenly flow will provide classic autumn weather for the coming weekend.

After flirting with the Midwest this past week, summer has been shoved to the Coastal Plain and, as pleasant as this Canadian weather might be, it represents a significant shift in the seasonal war between summer and winter. Overseen by the full Hunter's Moon, this northern invasion is but the vanguard of winter's onslaught; more skirmishes will follow as Indian Summer makes its glorious appearance but, as we all know, the cold, dark season will prevail.

For now, we'll enjoy the colorful splendor of an autumn weekend, free of summer haze and not yet tainted by winter's frigid breath. Let's hope the Canadian invasion is gradual this year, giving us ti…