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Showing posts from January, 2016

Surviving on Mars

This afternoon, my wife and I watched The Martian on streaming video.  The movie is about an astronaut who is stranded on the Red Planet after a storm aborts his team's mission and about NASA's efforts to rescue him.

Throughout the film, emphasis is placed upon the importance of courage, scientific knowledge, human ingenuity and international cooperation in both the astronaut's attempt to survive and in humanity's effort to retrieve one of its own.  There are no scenes invoking the intervention of deities or implying that miracles play a role in the process.  Frankly, mysticism is left out of the equation.

Unfortunately, in our modern world, that is not the case.  Science, especially when it contradicts traditional beliefs, is ridiculed and social support for scientific exploration is waning.  From my perspective, The Martian is less about one man's determination to survive than about the survival of our species.  The latter will require both respect for science ac…

Canada's Missouri

The Missouri River of the U.S. rises along the Continental Divide in Montana and flows eastward across the Great Plains, receiving numerous tributaries along the way.  It eventually empties into the Mississippi, north of St. Louis, which drains southward to the Gulf of Mexico.  During the early European exploration of North America, the Missouri was an important route for traders and trappers; of course, it also provided navigation for the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

Farther north, in Canada, the Saskatchewan River mirrors the drainage of the Missouri.  Its North Fork rises in the Rockies southwest of Edmonton while its South Fork heads as the Bow River, west of Calgary.  After flowing through those respective cities, the primary forks cross the Central Plains of Canada and merge northeast of Saskatoon.  From there, the combined Saskatchewan River continues eastward until it enters remnants of Lake Agassiz (Cedar Lake and thence Lake Winnipeg).  The Nelson River drains Lake Winnipeg…

The Church of Kindness

Since establishing this blog in 2006, I have frequently expressed my disdain for organized religions, the most divisive and oppressive institutions ever conceived by human beings.  Throughout our history, they have spawned more suffering, conflict and intolerance than any other element of human civilization.

While we might admire the art and architecture of cathedrals, temples and mosques, they were built and have been maintained primarily by common laborers yet remain symbols of the wealth and power enjoyed by religious hierarchies.  Kept in line by fear and guilt, the faithful are obliged to participate in rituals, adhere to church rules, engage in public piety and, of course, donate to the coffers.  Meanwhile, church officials, above reproach in many cultures, have long escaped prosecution for their abusive behavior.

In my opinion, morality has no direct relationship to religion.  We don't need the trappings of religion to be kind to one another and, in the end, kindness is key…

March in January

Were it March, today would be described as a raw day; showers are threatening, the afternoon temperature is hovering in the low-mid forties (F) and a gray overcast shrouds the landscape of central Missouri.  However, since it's late January and today's weather arrived on the heels of snow and frigid temperatures, this mid-winter thaw seems mild by comparison.

In fact, the relatively mild conditions coaxed us down to the Forum Nature Area in the Hinkson Creek Valley.  There we completed a two mile circuit through the preserve; unfortunately, pockets of residual ice on the muddy trail forced us to pay more attention to the path before us than to the surrounding winter landscape.  When we did stop to peruse the scene, little activity was noticed though the calls of blue jays, crows, flickers and Canada geese echoed through the Valley.

Nevertheless, this March-like interlude was more than welcome and, according to the current forecast, we can expect another by this coming weekend.…

Sun, Snow & Songbirds

Since returning to Columbia, Missouri, earlier this week, cold, sunny weather has been the rule and several inches of snow continue to cover our lawn and flower beds.  As a result, my bird feeding area (see Giving Up on Feeders) has attracted a large number and variety of songbirds.

House finches, house sparrows, juncos, tufted titmice, chickadees and white-throated sparrows have been most abundant, joined by lesser numbers of cardinals, blue jays, Carolina wrens, American goldfinches, northern flickers and mourning doves; though not yet observed this seasons, purple finches and fox sparrows may join these feeding groups.  Other residents and visitors, while not typically ground feeders, are often attracted to the scene by the activity of birds listed above; these include red-bellied, downy and hairy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, yellow-rumped warblers and cedar waxwings.

No doubt, all of these species would manage just fine without human handouts …

Anatomy of an Eastern Snowstorm

This morning, a massive snowstorm is developing over the Eastern U.S., fueled by several atmospheric and geographic factors.  A potent area of low pressure, currently over western Alabama, is sweeping Gulf of Mexico moisture across the Southeast.  In concert, a high pressure dome over the Great Lakes region is funneling cold air down from Canada, spreading sub-freezing air across all but the southernmost States.

The clash zone between the warm, moist southerly flow and the cold, dry air to the north is currently producing snow across the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys; along the southern edge of this band, an ice storm (including sleet and freezing rain) is expected to develop.  Later today, as the low pressure moves to the Eastern Seaboard, energized by the subtropical jet stream, it will intensify, pulling in copious moisture from the Atlantic Ocean.

Rather than moving rapidly up the coast, the storm is forecast to creep northward, stalled by the high pressure dome to the north.  This &…

Politics, Science & the Environment

As the field of Republican Presidential candidates continues to dwindle, those left are courting the Right Wing of their Party, hoping to garner their support.  Of course, this means that they must ridicule global warming, oppose environmental regulations and promise to reduce federal funding for science, including space exploration and medical research.

Were it up to that segment of the American populace, we would eliminate the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency, would defund Planned Parenthood and stem cell research and would repeal subsidies for clean energy technology.  Opposed to most environmental regulations, they would curtail (if not repeal) legislation devoted to reducing air and water pollution, protecting wilderness areas and limiting human impact on vital ecosystems.

Fortunately, young voters seem inclined to adopt lifestyles that foster human health and protect the welfare of our environment.  Hopefully, they will use the power of the ballot …

North into Winter

Leaving Longboat Key before dawn yesterday morning, winter was already knocking on the door; it was 45 degrees F in southwest Florida.  As sunrise commenced near Tampa, flocks of wood storks streamed across the orange sherbet sky while farther north, near Ocala, sandhill cranes foraged in the chilly morning air.

Though sunny skies prevailed all the way to Chattanooga, the temperature remained near freezing for the rest of the day.  High, wispy clouds stretched above the north Georgia mountains and, west of Chattanooga, a gray overcast shrouded the Cumberland Plateau, signaling the change to come.  Indeed, we stopped in Nashville, Tennessee, for the night, where snow was expected by morning; unfortunately, we received sleet and freezing rain, coating our vehicle with ice.

Heading north from Nashville, we encountered the snow near Clarksville, where plows seemed to be out of service; crawling along on the snow-packed Interstate, we eventually reached clear pavement south of Paducah, Ken…

The Ibis Patrol

Those of us who have homes in the Temperate latitudes of North America are familiar with flocks of robins, starlings or grackles that patrol our lawns, searching for insects, worms and grubs.  Down here in Florida, white ibis also perform that duty.

Roaming about in sizable flocks, these attractive birds feed in a variety of habitats, including fresh and saltwater wetlands, tidal mudflats, sloughs and fields, searching for crustaceans, marine worms, frogs, fish, small snakes and a host of aquatic invertebrates.  White ibis also patrol lawns, often marching side by side while probing the grass for insects and slugs; one such group, composed of four adults and two juveniles, has been feeding along our condo complex in recent days.

Highly social, white ibis nest and roost in large colonies, often in the company of egrets and herons.  They breed along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast, from North Carolina to Mexico and are permanent residents throughout Florida.  Indeed, there are few birds so …

A Night of Tornadoes

Awakened by tornado warnings on our cell phones last night (just before 3AM), we turned on the TV and watched as a twister raked Siesta Key and moved northeastward through Metro Sarasota; three others followed in its wake but were less intense than the first.

The severe weather developed ahead of a potent cold front and were fueled, in part, by a strong subtropical jet stream, an atmospheric feature associated with El Nino.  Indeed, while most Florida tornadoes occur during the annual hurricane season (June to November), the strongest tend to develop during the winter months, especially in El Nino years.

Here on Longboat Key, we received heavy rain last night and continue to experience strong northwesterly winds behind the cold front this morning.  Fortunately, we escaped the brunt of the storms and were treated to a spectacular light show across Sarasota Bay as they moved onshore.  Unfortunately, at least two individuals were killed by the tornadoes.

Florida's High Country

The State of Florida lies completely within the Coastal Plain Province of North America and is not known for hilly or mountainous terrain.  Its highest point, Britton Hill (345 feet above sea level), lies within the North Florida Highlands of the Panhandle, near the Alabama border.

If one were to choose a classic "high country" region, however, it would be along the Lake Wales Ridge that runs north to south in Lake and Polk Counties (between Lakeland and Orlando); from this topographic and geologic ridge, streams flow into several of Florida's major watersheds.  To the northwest are the tributaries of the Withlacoochee River, which eventually enters the Gulf of Mexico at Yankeetown.  To the northeast, streams feed the middle portion of the St. John's River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville.  Directly west of the Ridge, several rivers (including the Alafia and Manatee) drain into Tampa Bay while, to the southwest, the Peace River and its tributaries…

Death of a Loon

Walking along the canal this morning, I found a dead common loon, bobbing behind a sailboat.  Its carcass appeared to be fresh and no injuries were evident.

Like many humans, he had come south to escape the snow and ice of our northern climes and to fish on the warm waters of Sarasota Bay; no doubt, he had made several journeys prior to his death.  Now, a thousand miles from his north country birthplace, his remains float in subtropical waters, soon to sink to the canal's muddy bottom.  There, crabs, fish and a host of marine invertebrates will strip away his flesh and his soft, avian bones will be scattered by the tidal current.

We humans, encountering such a victim, mourn his tragic death.  We grieve to find the lifeless body of such a romantic species so far from his boreal homeland.  But nature's cycle endures and, for many of us, the fate of this loon, to blend with the magnificent ecosystem of Sarasota Bay, is far more appealing than to be buried in a quilted box.

Gannets on the Horizon

After several days of a persistent east wind, the Gulf of Mexico was smooth as glass this morning.  Unfortunately, the resident birds were unimpressed and, during our two mile walk along the beach, we encountered only small numbers of shorebirds, least terns, brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants.

However, whenever I stopped to scan the calm sea, I observed flocks of northern gannets on the horizon, diving for their breakfast; at one point, a few moved closer to shore and could be observed without binoculars.  After breeding on rocky cliffs along the northern Atlantic Ocean (see Gannets of Bird Rock and Bonaventure Island National Park), these large sea birds disperse across the Atlantic for the winter months, where juveniles remain year-round until old enough to breed.  In North America, they may be observed off the East Coast, from the Canadian Maritimes to the Gulf of Mexico.

Today's events highlight the importance of knowing what to look for, having the patience to stop…

Streaming Mergansers

Our Longboat Key condo sits on an inlet of Sarasota Bay and offers a view of the main channel, framed by mangrove islands.  Late this morning, while watching white pelicans, egrets and roseate spoonbills along the inlet, I saw a line of red-breasted mergansers flying low across the bay, passing behind the islands.  To my delight, the streaming flock continued to pass for ten minutes or more, likely composed of at least 2000 ducks.

Unlike their cousins (common and hooded mergansers), which winter on open freshwater lakes and rivers across much of North America, red-breasted mergansers prefer coastal bays and estuaries, where they feed with pelicans, cormorants, loons, ospreys and other sea birds.  There they gather in huge flocks, diving for fish and joining in the feeding frenzies that often develop at low tide.

Indeed, of all the sea birds that winter on Sarasota Bay, red-breasted mergansers are likely the most abundant.  On some days, only a few are encountered while, on others, the…

Atlantic Needlefish

One of the more interesting predators along our seawall is the Atlantic needlefish.  These streamlined, long-jawed fish dart about a barnacle-encrusted rock pile at a bend in the wall, snaring small fish with their numerous sharp teeth; young needlefish, tiny replicas of the adults, hunt in schools, feeding on a host of marine invertebrates.  The needlefish themselves are potential prey for larger fish, inshore sharks and dolphins.

Found along the western coast of the Atlantic Ocean, from Maine to Brazil, these distinctive fish favor shallow, calm, brackish waters near mangroves, marinas, piers and seawalls.  Tolerant of freshwater, many travel up coastal rivers and some have been found as far inland as the Tennessee River watershed (having traversed canals from Gulf Coast streams).  Spawning occurs in May or June, the eggs harboring tendrils that attach to aquatic vegetation.

While Atlantic needlefish are officially listed as gamefish (adults may reach 2-3 feet in length), they are m…

An Aerial Attack

On this cool, breezy day on Longboat Key, we took our usual walk along the beach.  Unfortunately, there was little to observe during our two mile walk; small flocks of sanderlings and ruddy turnstones scoured the beach, a few ring-billed gulls and royal terns lounged on the sand and a squadron of brown pelicans braved the choppy Gulf.

Once we returned to our condo, however, the activity increased abruptly.  My attention was suddenly drawn toward Sarasota Bay as the cries of an osprey rose to a frenzy, a large fish clutched in his talons. The cause for his alarm was soon apparent as an adult bald eagle swooped in from the shore, chasing the osprey across the bay.  Near collisions followed and the smaller raptor eventually dropped his dinner, some fifty feet off our seawall.  The eagle made one last pass, snaring the fish and heading off to enjoy his meal.

While we like to think of our National Bird as a regal hunter, he is more often a scavenger or a thief, feasting on injured waterfow…

Convict Fish

Of all the fish that congregate along our seawall on Sarasota Bay, sheepshead are among the most common.  Often called "convict fish" due to their prominent black and silver stripes, sheepshead are medium-sized marine fish, found along the western Atlantic Coast from Nova Scotia to Brazil; their numbers are especially high in southwest Florida.

Favoring inshore, brackish habitats, sheepshead are best found near mangroves, piers, jetties, seawalls and tidal creek inlets.  They are omnivorous predators, consuming small fish, crustaceans, aquatic insects, a host of marine invertebrates and some aquatic plants.  Come March and April, sheepshead move offshore to spawn but still prefer to gather near human structures or natural reefs.

Members of the porgy and seabream family, which is represented by more than 120 species worldwide, convict fish are prized for their mild, white flesh and are commonly placed in aquariums due to their attractive markings.  Natural predators include a…

Banded Knots on Longboat Key

This afternoon, while walking along the beach on Longboat Key, Florida, I came across a flock of thirteen red knots; on closer inspection, I discovered that three of them had multiple leg bands of various shapes and colors.

Over the past few decades, ornithologists and conservation organizations have been banding certain species of shorebirds, attempting to document their seasonal ranges and migration patterns.  Participating countries along the Atlantic flyway have been assigned specific band colors and banding site codes have been used to clarify the movement of the birds.  Unfortunately, the latter codes (printed or engraved on the bands) are often difficult to read unless a spotting scope is available or, of course, the bird is dead.

Once I documented the color and type of bands on the red knots (only one of which contained a code), I submitted the report to www.bandedbirds.org; in addition, I established a profile with that organization, hoping to submit additional sightings over…

Red-throated Loons

Having encountered my first red-throated loons along the coast of South Carolina yesterday, I thought it might be a good time to review the nature of this bird.  This smallest member of the loon family breeds across northern Alaska, Canada and Greenland, nesting in tundra ponds and wetlands.  In winter, it is found on coastal marine waters from Alaska to the Baja and from Newfoundland to Georgia.

Red-throated loons are monogamous and both parents take part in nest building and in caring for the young.  Two eggs are generally laid in a mound of vegetation that is placed onshore or directly in shallow water; hatchlings are fed aquatic insects while the adults feed on a wide variety of fish and crustaceans.  Unlike their cousins, these smaller, thinner loons do not transport young on their backs and are able to take off from land or the water surface without a running start.

While the adults lose their distinctive red and gray markings in the non-breeding season, wintering birds are iden…

From Mountains to the Sea

Yesterday morning, driving south from Wytheville, Virginia, the splendor of the Ridge and Valley Province spread out before us, backed by the higher terrain of the Blue Ridge.  Upon reaching the crest of the latter, near the Virginia-North Carolina border, we enjoyed a spectacular view of the Carolina Piedmont, stretching away to the south.

After passing Lake Norman, northwest of Charlotte, we continued southward through the Catawba River Valley to Columbia, South Carolina; there we turned east toward the Atlantic Ocean, crossing the Wateree, Black, Great Pee Dee and Little Pee Dee Rivers en route, each flanked by wooded swamplands.

Our destination was the home of relatives along the South Carolina coast; there we were greeted by cloudy and unusually cold weather and decided to delay our beach walk until this morning.  Enticed to the shore by a warmer breeze and partly cloudy skies, our three mile walk offered fresh air, exercise and good birding as well.  Semipalmated plovers, willet…

An Inspiring Day in Appalachia

It was during our drive across the horse country of Kentucky, a probable domain of Conservative Republicans, that I listened to President Obama's speech regarding the expansion of gun purchase background checks and the implementation of gun safety measures; his comments and actions were inspiring if only a few years late.

I was also inspired by the clear, cold air, the blue, cloudless sky and the scenery of Appalachia.  Just east of the Licking River, we climbed onto the Appalachian Plateau, a landscape of wooded ridges, deep valleys and secluded hamlets.  Always a bit claustrophobic for me, the province offered few wildlife sightings, the most remarkable of which was a fair number of pileated woodpeckers.  Nearing Charleston, West Virginia, we dropped into the Kanawha River Valley; this river is a remnant of the Teays, a massive river system that drained the west flank of the Appalachians before Pleistocene Glaciers blocked its flow and molded the Ohio River channel (see From Tea…

A Winter Flood

The numerous December thunderstorms that lashed the American Midwest have produced extensive flooding throughout the Mississippi River watershed.  While the crest of the flood is reported to have passed to the south of St. Louis, the Missouri and its tributaries are still running high and flooding along the Illinois River is not expected to peak for another few days.  According to hydrologists, the crest of the Mississippi flood will not reach New Orleans until January 19.

Crossing the Mississippi just north of St. Louis this morning, we observed widespread flooding, especially along the Illinois side of the river.  Farther east, almost all of the Illinois streams that pass beneath I-70 were bank full and the Wabash River (a major tributary of the Ohio and thus a secondary tributary of the Mississippi) is still spilling across its floodplain.

Midwestern floods are most common in late winter or early spring, when snowmelt and heavy rains run across frozen ground and when dormant trees …

Indirectly South

Heading back to Longboat Key, Florida, over the next few days, we plan to stop in Cincinnati and along the South Carolina coast to see family members.  Our indirect route will take us across the Glaciated Plain of the Midwest, through the Bluegrass lowlands of northern Kentucky, across the Appalachian Plateau of Kentucky and West Virginia, into the Ridge and Valley Province and over the Blue Ridge of Virginia, down through the Piedmont of the Carolinas and then south through the Coastal Plain of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

This wide variety of landscape will make the journey especially interesting and, hopefully, offer a healthy diversity of wildlife sightings.  Overnight stops in Ohio and South Carolina will permit some local exploration and other stops may be triggered by opportunities (some anticipated and surely some unexpected) along the road.

Fortunately, since we will not be on a fixed schedule (one of many benefits that come with retirement), the journey itself will d…

Mouse vs. Man

As 2015 came to an end and a New Year began, a mouse took control of our Columbia home.  He did not scamper across the kitchen floor or invade the pantry; neither did he attack our Holiday treats or incite panic in our guests.  Rather, he simply died in one of our heating ducts, filling the house with the odor of decay.

Unable to locate his carcass by peering through vents or peeling back insulation, we tried in vain to locate a duct cleaning service that might come to the rescue; unfortunately, all were booked up for a week or more.  Following the advice of one expert, we ran the heat continuously (to dry out the corpse), opened windows for ventilation and festooned the home with candles and air fresheners; 24 hours later, those efforts have been fairly successful though a whiff of the mouse is still evident near registers.

As we all know, mice have been invading human homes since the dawn of our species, raiding our food supplies and escaping inclement weather.  Prolific breeders, t…