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Showing posts from October, 2015

Shorebird Diversity in Florida

Birders who visit Florida's beaches during the autumn months enjoy a changing mix of shorebirds.  By mid summer, permanent residents are joined by the first "autumn" migrants, arriving from their breeding grounds across the Arctic tundra and Northern Plains; various species continue to arrive through early November and shorebird diversity peaks during the winter months.

When we arrived on Longboat Key last week, permanent residents, including willets, piping plovers and ruddy turnstones, mingled with sanderlings, short-billed dowitchers and black-bellied plovers, down from the north.  Early this week, flocks of red knots began to appear and, yesterday, a few dunlins foraged on the beach.  Other species, such as long-billed dowitchers, semipalmated plovers and western sandpipers are surely in the area but have yet to cross my path; still others, including spotted  and least sandpipers, whimbrels, marbled godwits, yellowlegs and American avocets prefer tidal mudflats and w…

Trash in the Mangroves

My wife and I bought two small kayaks with which to explore Sarasota Bay; this afternoon, we cruised around two mangrove islands that sit offshore of our condo.  En route, we encountered the usual mix of bay birds, dominated by ospreys, brown pelicans, least terns, laughing gulls, double-crested cormorants and white ibis; we also observed more upside-down jellyfish and were amazed by the large number of striped mullet that jumped near our kayaks.

Unfortunately, we also encountered a fair amount of trash, collecting in the roots of the red mangrove trees on the bay side of the islands.  Plastic bottles, beer cans and styrofoam cups were most abundant but we also found a water-logged football and a relatively new life vest.  We probably spent a half hour or more filling our kayaks with the human generated flotsam.

No doubt, most fishermen and boaters respect natural ecosystems and make every effort to keep trash out of the bay.  On the other hand, there seems to be a sizable minority th…

Bull Sharks

Watching two manatees in our condo complex boat channel this morning, my wife and I were startled by a large fish that partly surfaced near the sea wall, its prominent dorsal fin slicing through the calm water.  I initially mistook it for a dolphin but it never surfaced to breathe and disappeared with no further sightings.

While its identity remains uncertain, I suspect it might have been a bull shark, a species that favors shallow coastal waters, bays and brackish river mouths.  Found across the globe, these sharks are able to live in both saltwater and freshwater habitats and have been found far upstream from the ocean (near the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in North America, for example).  Adults average 7-9 feet in length and generally weigh 300-400 pounds; however, much larger specimens have been encountered.  Breeding occurs in brackish waters, in late summer or fall, and females (which are larger than males) give birth to 4-12 free swimming young after a gestation…

Upside-Down Jellyfish

For the first time since purchasing our Longboat Key condo, I have observed upside-down jellyfish along the seawall of Sarasota Bay.  Long residents of Bermuda, the Caribbean and the Florida Keys, these unusual jellies began appearing in the Bay over the past decade, perhaps due to warming sea temperatures though nutrient availability (related to human activity) may play a role.

Unlike most jellyfish, that feed and breed in the open ocean waters, upside-down jellyfish, also known as mangrove jellyfish, attach themselves to the bottom in shallow waters.  Their flattened bell has a central depression that serves as a suction cup to prevent detachment when waves or currents rake the shallows.  Four branched arms, festooned with short, thick tentacles reach up into the water, filtering plankton on which the jellyfish feeds.  Upside-down jellies also have a symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic algae that color their tentacles and provide an additional source of food (carbohydrates) f…

Humans and the Sea

Walking on the beach at sunset last evening, waves gently lapping the shore, it occurred to me that the calming effect of the sea is buried deep in our collective DNA.  No doubt, the first humans to reach the ocean experienced the same sense of tranquility, a connection that may stem from the evolution of life itself.  After all, our genes are the offspring of ancient marine life, nourished and protected by the sea.

Like the sanderlings that scurried before us last evening, we remain dependent on the oceans, not only for the food that they provide but for atmospheric effects so vital to terrestrial ecosystems.  Though we may fear the sea, unable to survive in her realm without the benefit of ships and specialized equipment, we admire her beauty and respect her power.

Indeed, the sea's power is manifest as I write this blog.  Hurricane Patricia, having reached an intensity heretofore unrecorded in the Western Hemisphere, is pummeling Mexico and dropping torrential rain across south…

Peaches

Having traveled through the Peach State this week, it seems appropriate to consider the nature of that fruit.  Native to China, peaches were later introduced to Persia and were cultivated in the Mediterranean region during the Roman Empire.  Spanish explorers brought peaches to the Americas in the 1500s and the fruit was later taken back to northern Europe on English and French ships.

Since an annual period of cold weather is required for flowering, peach trees are best cultivated in the Temperate Zone.  Members of the rose family and the genus Prunus (which also includes other "drupes" such as plums, cherries, apricots and almonds), peaches and nectarines are variants of the same species; the fuzzy skin of peaches is a dominant genetic trait while the smooth skin of nectarines is a recessive trait.  Both peaches and nectarines may be of the clingstone or freestone variety, depending on whether the pulp clings to the seed husk or not; a large number of cultivars exist for bo…

Crossing the Florida Peninsula

Following a lunch on the bank of the Indian River, near Melbourne, we drove west across the Florida peninsula, headed for our condo on Longboat Key.  Our route took us through the prairie lands south of Orlando, broken by flatwoods of pine, cabbage palm and live oak and by scattered lakes, creeks and wetlands.

Cattle egrets were abundant, feeding among the livestock or hunting insects in fallow fields.  Turkey and black vultures were also common, soaring above the prairies and feasting on roadside carrion.  I saw a couple dozen sandhill cranes, generally in pairs or small flocks, and a squadron of glossy ibis passed overhead.  Other sightings included great blue herons, great egrets, white ibis, American kestrels and a few crested caracaras.

As we crossed Sarasota Bay, ospreys, brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants dominated the scene; a lone magnificent frigatebird was also observed.  In the coming days, many more species will be encountered on this fabulous barrier island; ho…

Down the Coastal Plain

After  a night in northwestern South Carolina, we drove southeastward through the State, crossing the Fall Line near Columbia; the later is the outer margin of the Southeastern Piedmont, where rivers leave the hard crystalline bedrock of the Piedmont and fall into the softer sediments of the Coastal Plain.  This geographic and geologic line can be traced from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Washington, DC, Richmond, Virginia, Raleigh, North Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina, Macon, Georgia and Montgomery, Alabama.

Heading south on Interstate 95, the highway was closed in by a pine-hardwood forest throughout most of South Carolina.  In southeastern Georgia and northeast Florida, numerous meandering rivers crossed beneath the Interstate, flanked by large tidal marshes.  We stopped for lunch in Savannah, Georgia, dining along the Savannah River before walking through the historic city and its beautiful "squares."  History buffs are clearly drawn to Savannah, as are architectural…

Into the Blue Ridge

East of Chattanooga, Tennessee, US 64 leaves the Ridge and Valley Province and knifes into the Blue Ridge Mountains (the easternmost province of the Southern Appalachians).  After snaking past Lake Ocoee, the highway climbs along the Ocoee River where whitewater events took place during the 1996 Olympic Games.  Beyond the river, we turned south to intersect US 76 and drove eastward on that highway, traversing the scenic Blue Ridge landscape of northern Georgia; en route, we passed Brasstown Bald (4784 feet) to our south, the highest summit in the State.

North of Clayton, Georgia, we entered Black Rock Mountain State Park; winding up to the Visitor Center, which sits on the south side of the mountain at an elevation of 3446 feet, we enjoyed a spectacular view of the Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains, backed (to the south) by the rolling Piedmont.  Hiking a portion of the Tennessee Rock Trail, we then enjoyed equally impressive views of the North Carolina Blue Ridge to the north and reached …

A Planned Detour

Over the next few days, we will drive down to our condo on Longboat Key, off Sarasota, Florida.  Having used the standard Interstate routes on numerous occasions, we plan a detour in southern Tennessee and northern Georgia, followed by a southerly route through eastern Georgia, South Carolina and eastern Florida.

In the north Georgia mountains, we intend to visit at least one of many State Parks, where several hours of hiking will temporarily disrupt our travel; since the remainder of the journey will cross a good deal of new terrain, more stops and detours are almost sure to follow.  After all, this longer route will probably be a one-time experience and the opportunity to explore certain sites may never come again.

On our journey through life, detours enrich the experience.  While some are planned, many are unexpected; though the latter may be aggravating, prolonging our journey and delaying our goal, they expose us to new people, interesting places and unique perspectives.  Life wi…

Give Me Reality

In this modern era, in which we communicate and conduct business in cyberspace, travel on GPS screens and visit exotic locations in the palm of our hand, we are advised that virtual reality (VR) will be the next great advance in human culture.

While I can foresee that VR might play an important role in the training of police, soldiers, pilots or surgeons and while the experience of using it might be akin to the thrill of amusement rides (minus the long lines and muscle shirts), I fail to see its benefit to human society as a whole.

We seem to be moving away from the joy of real life experiences, whether they be interpersonal relationships or interactions with the natural world.  Content with impersonal texts and on-screen entertainment, we seem to be losing our need for the very experiences that make us human.  As one who still prefers to engage with all forms of life, give me reality!

North through the Ozarks

After a night in Joplin, I drove east on Interstate 44, entering the Missouri Ozarks; turning north at Lebanon, I crossed the rugged plateau and returned to Columbia.

The Missouri portion of the Ozarks is a plateau of Ordovician dolomite, lifted during the Pennsylvanian Period and dissected by a vast network of streams to produce a maze of ridges and valleys.  Known for numerous caves and springs, the Ozarks also offer broad ridgetop views, scenic cascades and clear, cool streams.  A host of State Parks and nature preserves are spaced across the plateau, providing access for hikers, naturalists, equestrians and fishermen.

This morning, autumn colors painted the woodlands, enhanced by a bright October sun.  Unfortunately, a billboard blight, common throughout Missouri, marred the natural beauty in some areas.  One would think that a State with such a fabulous diversity of natural ecosystems and an attractive network of parks and preserves would join the national movement to remove thes…

The Arbuckle Mountains

About 15 miles north of Ardmore, Oklahoma, Interstate 35 leaves the rolling horse country of southern Oklahoma and climbs across a broad ridge, now topped by a wind farm.  Known as the Arbuckle Mountains, this ancient uplift is the erosional remnant of a tall mountain range that rose during the late Pennsylvanian and early Permian Periods, some 290 million years ago.

The core of the uplift, which is approximately 35 miles long and oriented ESE to WNW, is composed of Precambrian granite and gneiss, 1.4 billion years old.  Flanking this core are volcanic and sedimentary strata, deposited from the Cambrian to the Pennsylvanian Periods.  Permian sediments lap against the north edge of the Arbuckles while Cretaceous deposits abut the southern base of the ridge.

The highest elevations in the Arbuckle Mountains approach 1400 feet above sea level and are found near the western end of the range.  The Washita River, a tributary of Red River, slices through the ridge SSE of Davis, Oklahoma, prod…

Exploring the Llano Estacado

Leaving Amarillo this morning, I drove southeastward on US 287, crossing the flat terrain of the Llano Estacado.  Quilted with irrigated cropfields and ranchlands, this vast plateau of Tertiary sediments also harbors a large number of shallow lakes and wetlands; on this sunny October morning, most of them were filled with waterfowl.  American coot and blue-winged teal were the dominant species, accompanied by flocks of white-faced ibis, American avocets and lesser yellowlegs; these same lakes also attract wintering sandhill cranes (especially in southern and western regions of the plateau).

At Claude, Texas, I turned south on Route 207.  Within fifteen miles or so, the road begins to descend through Palo Duro Canyon, sculpted by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River.  Private property lines the highway and, unfortunately, few pulloffs are available; nevertheless, I managed to take plenty of photos and did some birding during my visit.  Highlights of the latter included loggerhead…

In Nostalgic Terrain

Having lived a good portion of my life in Metro Denver, the landscape of northern and central Colorado has become very familiar over the years.  However, the terrain of southern Colorado and New Mexico still ignites nostalgia in my soul since it was there that I first experienced the Mountain West, way back in my twenties.

Today, those feelings were rekindled as I crossed the Huerfano River Valley, south of Pueblo.  To my NNW was Greenhorn Mountain, at the southern end of the Wet Mountains, while, to my SSW were the majestic pyramids of the Spanish Peaks, massive plutons that rose in the Tertiary Period.  To the west of those peaks I could see the high wall of the Culebra Range (a segment of the Sangre de Cristo Range) and, to my immediate west, Blanca Peak (a "fourteener") poked above mountains in the foreground; stopping to take photos, I was greeted by a golden eagle that soared above the valley and a flock of mountains bluebirds that had descended from higher terrain.  F…

From Denver to Dallas

Over the next two days, I will be traveling from Denver to Dallas.  Though plans can and do change due to unforeseen complications or opportunities, I currently expect to take the following route.

From Metro Denver, I will climb southward through the Plum Creek Valley (a tributary of the South Platte), cross the Palmer Divide and then descend through the Fountain Creek Valley (adjacent to the Rampart Range and the Pike's Peak massif) to its junction with the Arkansas River, in Pueblo.  Another gradual climb along Interstate 25 (passing the Wet Mountains, Spanish Peaks and Culebra Range) will lead to Raton Pass, where I will enter New Mexico and the watershed of the Canadian River.  At Raton, I intend to turn eastward, crossing the Tertiary volcanic landscape of northeast New Mexico, and will then angle southeastward to Dalhart, Dumas and Amarillo; just south of the Canadian River (north of Amarillo), the highway ascends the north escarpment of the Llano Estacado, a vast High Plain…

Too Nice to Leave

Our Littleton farm sits on the west wall of the South Platte Valley, less than a mile from the scenic floodplain and several miles from rugged canyons of the Front Range foothills; within an hour's drive, we can explore mountain forests and alpine tundra.  Despite these magnificent nearby ecosystems, it was just too nice to leave the farm today.

Sunny skies, warm temperatures (low 70s F) and a gentle breeze kept me on the property where autumn colors now adorn the landscape.  While the farm maintains itself at this time of year, I managed to find a few chores to address and otherwise potted around our three acre refuge.  I wasn't alone; the calls of magpies, flickers, blue jays and collared doves echoed across the farm, chickadees and bushtits twittered in the hedgerows, cottontails scampered across the drying pastures, our lone spotted towhee scratched in the leaf litter and flocks of robins fed in the junipers, not yet having to compete with wintering solitaires and roaming …

Human Imagination

Endowed with a large brain, we humans have long been governed by our imagination, for better and for worse.  Early man, exploring his environment, imagined powerful beings that ruled the forces of nature; such mysticism, ingrained in our species, has surfaced as religious faith in modern society.

On the other hand, imagination also propelled humans across the globe and fed the major cultural revolutions: domestication and cultivation, industrialization and the advance of science and technology; in effect, it has taken us from the Stone Age to the Space Age.  Of course, it has also spawned artistic expression (art, music, dance, film and literature) and athletic competition throughout human history.

Indeed, our imagination is a double-edged sword, fueling both science and mysticism, incompatible elements of human culture.  Whether we put our faith in the scientific method or allow mysticism to derail its influence will determine the future of our species and the health of our planet.

Hazy Sunshine in the Valley

Cool air and hazy sunshine enveloped the South Platte Valley this morning.  Both were products of an upslope flow, triggered by a center of low pressure as it creeped eastward along the Colorado-New Mexico border; counterclockwise winds around the low swept Gulf moisture toward the Front Range, forcing the air to rise and cooling it to its dew point.

Down at South Platte Park, in Littleton, I took my usual hike around Eaglewatch Lake, including a short walk along the river.  Waterfowl species were limited, not yet hinting of the large congregations that will descend on the Park later in the month.  Double-crested cormorants were most common, lounging on a log at the south end of the lake or fishing in the calm, blue waters.  Ducks were represented by mallards, wood ducks and hooded mergansers; a few pied-billed grebes dove from the surface and a lone horned grebe hunted at the north end of the lake.  While a few ring-billed gulls settled on the water, no Canada geese were encountered …

Ferrets Reintroduced in Denver

Returning to Colorado today, I learned that my arrival coincided with the introduction of 30 black-footed ferrets at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, in northeast Denver.  Renowned as the most endangered mammal in North America, black-footed ferrets were thought to have become extinct by the 1970s (due to habitat loss, disease and the removal of prairie dog colonies) until a colony of ferrets was discovered in Meeteetse, Wyoming, in 1981 (thanks to the scavenging activity of a farm dog).

Since 1986, a captive breeding program, coordinated by the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center near Carr, Colorado, has been conducted at the Center and at a number of zoos across the country.  Beginning in 1991, ferrets were reintroduced to the Shirley Basin of Wyoming, followed by sites in Montana and South Dakota; later, colonies were reintroduced in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Saskatchewan and Mexico.  To date, more than 1000 black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced to …

October Songbirds

Early October is a great time to observe backyard songbirds in the American Heartland.  Autumn migrants such as warblers, vireos and flycatchers are still passing through on their journey to the south and most summer residents (gray catbirds, brown thrashers, ruby-throated hummingbirds, indigo buntings, Baltimore orioles, house wrens and chimney swifts, among others) have yet to depart for their wintering grounds.

Of course, permanent residents, including blue jays, northern cardinals, flickers, downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers, mourning doves, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, Carolina wrens, house finches, American goldfinches and black-capped chickadees add to the variety and will soon be joined by winter residents and visitors (dark-eyed juncos, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows, fox sparrows, red-breasted nuthatches, brown creepers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers, to name a few).  Finally, cedar waxwings, those colorful and polite nomads, are especially pro…

East Coast Flooding

Heavy rain and flooding are occurring along the East Coast of the U.S., primarily from South Carolina to the Mid-Atlantic States; this deluge, expected to persist for the next two days, is triggered by three atmospheric factors.

First of all, the leading edge of an atmospheric trough lies along the East Coast; cool, dry air behind this stationary front knifes beneath the warm, moist air ahead of the trough, producing lift.  Secondly, a dome of high pressure sits over the North Atlantic, east of Nova Scotia; clockwise winds swirl around this high, sweeping Atlantic moisture toward the East Coast.  Finally, as Hurricane Joaquin moves NNE, paralleling the coast, its counterclockwise winds will augment the onshore flow.

These three factors are expected to produce copious rainfall throughout the Carolinas, perhaps totaling more than eighteen inches in some areas; significant but lesser amounts of rain are forecast for the Mid-Atlantic region to southern New England.  Heavy rains in the mou…

Pelican Pool at Eagle Bluffs

On this bright, crisp morning, I headed down to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River floodplain.  Near the entrance, a barred owl sat on a powerline, a potential omen that birding would be productive at the refuge.

Alas, an armada of tractors and trucks was harvesting the corn crop and initial sightings were limited to turkey vultures, great blue herons, killdeer, eastern bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds and a lone bald eagle.  Further south however, away from the human activity, birds were more numerous, including flocks of American coot and blue-winged teal; a few pied billed grebes and double-crested cormorants were also observed and great egrets fed with the more numerous great blue herons.

Scattered flocks of American white pelicans also graced southern portions of the refuge, lounging on sandbars or moving between the lakes and pools.  Just before I left, the pelicans began to congregate on a single, elongated pool, apparently drawn by fishing activity of the fir…