Wednesday, June 21, 2017

East of Cindy

This evening, Tropical Storm Cindy is churning in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico, southeast of Houston.  Its counterclockwise winds are raking the Gulf and pushing a plume of tropical moisture into the Southeastern U.S.; so far, the major track of this plume has been across southern Mississippi and Alabama and the western Florida Panhandle, producing torrential rain and widespread flooding in those areas.  Unfortunately, the potent but slow moving storm is expected to pump a great deal more moisture into the Southeast before it dissipates and an approaching cold front will draw much of that precipitation into the Southern Appalachians.

Here on Longboat Key, we have been relatively untouched by the tropical storm though rough surf and strong riptides are affecting most of the Florida Gulf Coast, especially from Sarasota to the Panhandle.  We have experienced steady south winds, rising temperatures and intermittent thunderstorms over the last two days as the outermost bands of Cindy pass offshore.

Another tropical system is brewing in the Eastern Caribbean but its fate and path remain uncertain at this time.  We'll likely be back in the Heartland before other storms threaten this region but hurricane season has just begun and will persist into early November.  Perhaps we'll meet up with one of nature's heat-machines later in the year (see Tropical Storm Dynamics).

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Mystery on the Beach

Arriving on Longboat Key late last week, we were surprised and alarmed to find mounds of white filaments on the beach.  Initially concerned that they might be plastic debris, I examined one of the strands and found that it was easily pulled apart, more likely vegetative than man-made.

Having never encountered this material in fourteen years of wandering Longboat's beaches, I contacted the Mote Aquarium.  They explained that these white, straw-like filaments wash up on the beaches every few years and are thought to be bleached "manatee grass;" since root material is not attached, marine scientists believe that a large amount of the grass is broken off by a storm and, under the right current pattern, is kept floating at sea and bleached by the sun before washing ashore.  A similar event occurred on beaches from Captiva to Naples in 2009, prompting investigation and leading to the above theory.

In fact, the specific cause for the irregular appearance of bleached sea grass on barrier islands remains a mystery.  I was just happy to learn that it is a natural event and not just another sign of human impact on marine ecosystems.  My thanks to personnel at Mote Aquarium for helping to clarify this issue.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Tern Attack on Whitney Beach

This morning, my wife and I took a walk on Whitney Beach, which stretches along the northwest edge of Longboat Key.  Renowned for its wide, flat surface, plentiful shells and large congregations of sea birds, the beach is also a nesting site for least terns, black skimmers and snowy plovers.  In order to protect the nesting areas, ropes and signs are used to keep beachcombers away from these colonies, minimizing human disturbance.

Today, the beach was relatively quiet toward its northern end, populated by small flocks of royal and Sandwich terns, ubiquitous laughing gulls, a couple snowy egrets and a few shorebirds (willets, sanderlings and ruddy turnstones); the initial highlight was a large flock of magnificent frigatebirds that soared above the coast.  Farther south, however, were this year's nesting sites; there, a large number of black skimmers and least terns occupied the beach, the latter already attending to chicks that waddled across the sand.

Clearly in protective mode, adult least terns took aim at my floppy sun hat, swooping in to encourage my departure.  They may be the smallest terns in North America but they certainly can be aggressive; after all, successful nesting on open beaches and sandy river islands (favored by least terns) necessitates bold and attentive parents.  I kept my distance and the tern attack soon abated.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Downside of Photography

Anyone who follows this blog knows that I have amassed a large number of landscape photos over the years.  Ill equipped and too impatient to attempt wildlife photography, I settle for images that illustrate the ecosystems that I explore.

Nevertheless, I remain ambivalent about their value and have become convinced that nature photography can detract from the experience of exploring wild areas and enjoying the resident wildlife.  Just yesterday, I watched as a couple in our condo complex became obsessed with taking video and photos of a dolphin that had wandered into this portion of Sarasota Bay.  Trying their best to capture the dolphin when it surfaced, they were running up and down the seawall, disappearing into their condo at times to change batteries or memory cards.  Meanwhile, the visiting cetacean made lazy figure-eights, slicing through the calm water as he chased his prey, no doubt aware of the frenzied humans on the wall.

These days, most of us have a smart-phone camera in our pocket or backpack at all times and are tempted to photograph any scene or event that captures our attention.  Wandering through a nature preserve, our ability to immerse ourselves in its sights, sounds and smells is constantly challenged by the impulse to document the visit.  Though the photos may entice others to explore our parks or refuges, the act of collecting those images can detract from our own experience.  Memories of natural ecosystems should arise from the emotions that they illicit, not from the photos that we take home.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Loggerhead Sea Turtles

Sea turtle nests currently dot the beaches of Longboat Key, marked by stakes and colorful tape to prevent disruption.  Nesting season stretches from May through October and the great majority of nests on the Florida Gulf Coast are those of loggerhead sea turtles.

Among the largest and most widespread sea turtles on the planet, loggerheads inhabit Temperate and Tropical seas across the globe; of those that nest in North America, most use beaches of the Southeastern States and Gulf Coast.  Adults average 300 pounds (occasionally as much as 1000 pounds) and females do not reach sexual maturity until they are 20-30 years old.  Spending most of their lives in the open sea, feasting on a wide variety of invertebrates (and some plants), the females only come ashore to lay eggs, choosing the same beach on which they hatched.

As nesting season approaches, female loggerheads gather offshore, mating with several males; about 110 eggs are laid in each nest and females lay multiple clutches in the course of a breeding season.  While adults are only threatened by sharks, killer whales and humans, eggs and hatchlings may succumb to a wide variety of dangers, from storms to predators (raccoons, fox, herons, vultures, crabs, large fish and others).  Unfortunately, sea turtle eggs remain a delicacy in some human cultures across the globe.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Back in the Subtropics

Just in time for hurricane season, with its hot, humid air and potent thunderstorms, we have returned to Longboat Key in Southwest Florida.  While the weather may not be ideal, the human "snowbirds" have returned to northern climes and this residential island is as uncrowded as it gets all year, a great time to wander the beach.

Of course, the bird population has changed as well.  Shorebirds are limited in number and variety while other species, such as magnificent frigatebirds and roseate spoonbills tend to be more common.  American white pelicans, now breeding across the Northern Plains, will not return until autumn and red-breasted mergansers, abundant on the bay in winter, long ago left for their Canadian homeland.  Nevertheless, most of the herons, egrets and seabirds remain through the year and I encountered 17 species on my walk this morning.

We'll stay in the Subtropics for a week or so.  As one who prefers a cooler and drier climate, that should be plenty of time to explore this barrier island.  More reports to follow!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Disappointment at Chincoteague

On our regular road trips to Longboat Key, Florida, my wife and I like to take varying routes, thereby encountering a diversity of landscapes and ecosystems.  This time, we crossed the Appalachians in order to revisit old friends (see The Flying Ewe) and then set our sights on the Delmarva Peninsula, east of Chesapeake Bay.  Traveling southward through that land of wetlands, pine woods and chicken farms, I was looking forward to visiting the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, renowned for its Atlantic beaches, coastal marshes and wild horses.

My image of the refuge and its setting was first sullied by a seemingly endless chain of billboards along the causeway that leads from the mainland to Chincoteague Island.  Once on that heavily developed real estate, we cruised down Maddox Avenue, lined with gaudy tourist traps.
Relieved to escape across Assateague Channel to enter the Wildlife Refuge, we soon enjoyed spectacular vistas of wooded wetlands, filled with a pleasing mix of coastal birds and, to our delight, a small herd of wild horses.

Unfortunately, my initial enthusiasm diminished significantly when we reached the dune-lined coast.  There I observed what appeared to be a large public beach; hordes of humans and their vehicles stretched along the sandy shore, a scene of recreation rather than conservation.  In all my visits to National Wildlife Refuges across our varied country, I have never encountered such a disturbing sight.  Proudly proclaiming to be "one of the most visited National Wildlife Refuges in the nation," Chincoteague personnel fail to acknowledge that most of those patrons are primarily interested in the sun and surf, not in the wild residents for which the refuge was established.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Human Evolution Revisited

For many decades now, anthropologists have been convinced that Homo sapiens (modern humans) evolved in the East African Rift Valley about 140-160,000 years ago and then spread across the Continent.  Eventually, about 80,000 years ago, some began to leave Africa and colonized other parts of the globe.

Within the past decade, however, a fossilized mandible and skull fragments from Homo sapiens were unearthed in Morocco and recent studies reveal that they date back 300,000 years (per a report in the New York Times); this suggests that our species appeared much earlier than previously thought and likely evolved in multiple areas of Africa.  In other words, mankind may be twice as old as prior evidence had indicated.

Such is the nature of science; it is based on physical evidence but remains open to new discoveries that may alter earlier assumptions and conclusions.  By contrast, Evangelical Christians will remain convinced that the Earth is only 4000 years old and that the science-based evidence of evolution (human and otherwise) is but an illusion.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Medicine Bow Range

North of Rocky Mountain National Park, in north-central Colorado, the Front Range splits into the Laramie Range, to the east, and the Medicine Bow Range, to the west.  The Laramie Range, modest in elevation, continues northward (east of Laramie) and eventually curves westward, ending near Casper; its highest point is Laramie Peak (10,276 feet), northwest of Wheatland.

The Medicine Bow Range, 100 miles long,  angles to the NNW, forming the east wall of Colorado's North Park and, farther north, the west wall of Wyoming's Laramie Basin.  The Range's northern end is marked by Elk Mountain, a massive, isolated peak, just south of Interstate 80, while its northeast section, west of Laramie, is locally known as the Snowy Range; Clark's Peak (12,951 feet), in the Rawah Wilderness Area of northern Colorado, is the highest point in the Medicine Bows.  Tributaries of the Upper North Platte River drain the western flank of the Medicine Bow Range and the Laramie River, which rises near Cameron Pass, flows northward along the eastern edge of the Range, gradually dropping into the Laramie Basin and eventually cutting through the Laramie Range to join the North Platte.

The northern end of the Medicine Bow Range is drained by the Medicine Bow River, which rises in the Snowy Range segment.  Flowing northward, it descends through the mountains and then snakes across the semiarid grasslands of southern Wyoming where it merges with the North Platte River in the Seminoe Reservoir.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Lost Creek Wilderness

As the first heat wave of summer envelops the Front Range urban corridor, I was fortunate to escape to the Lost Creek Wilderness, southwest of Metro Denver, today.  Taking part in a project organized by Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, I spent the day with a group of friendly individuals, building a new bridge across Wigwam Creek.

The Lost Creek Wilderness, dedicated in 1980, is named for Lost Creek which rises among the high peaks of the Kenosha Mountains.  The creek itself, a tributary of Goose Creek and thence of the South Platte River, is named for the fact that is disappears underground at various points along its route.

Though relatively close to Metro Denver and Colorado Springs, this Wilderness Area must be accessed by networks of dirt roads; most visitors leave paved roads at Bailey, at Kenosha Pass or near Deckers to reach Lost Creek campgrounds and trail networks.  Those arriving from the east must first cross the massive burn scar of the Hayden Wildfire that occurred in 2002; this morning, it was heartening to observe that vegetative recovery is slowly progressing across that desolate landscape.  Despite its remote location, the Lost Creek Wilderness remains a popular area for backpacking and at least ten groups passed our work site today.  No doubt, crowding in the Mt. Evans Wilderness, closer to Denver and north of Lost Creek, partly explains the attraction (though spectacular scenery, fine trail networks and abundant wildlife surely play a role as well).

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Scourge of Mysticism

Our large human brains have served us well throughout the course of our history.  We learned to live off the land, evade predators, cultivate plants, domesticate animals, develop the scientific method, and make our lives more comfortable and rewarding through a vast array of industrial, cultural and technologic advancements.

But that brain, the seat of imagination, also fueled mysticism.  Taking root in human cultures long before the scientific revolution, mysticism instilled the concept of gods and religions, offering protection from death itself.  Of course, throughout history, these beliefs have fostered fanaticism, intolerance, discrimination and countless wars.  Threatened by the enlightenment that science has wrought, mysticism resists scientific progress, placing a drag on the advancement of mankind.

Today, thousands of years after mysticism took hold, it continues to mold our culture and ignite human conflict across the globe.  Fed by ignorance, fear and impoverishment, it offers simple answers to complex problems.  Truth is its primary victim.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Hawthorn in Bloom

Hawthorns, members of the apple family, are found across Temperate latitudes of North America and Eurasia.  All are shrubs or small trees, named for the thorns on their branches (not present in some cultivars) and the berry-like fruits (haws).  Flower clusters are generally white in color (though pink and red flowers occur in some regions) and the fruit may be red, orange or black, depending on the species.

Our hawthorn, which I planted on the farm at least 15 years ago, is currently in bloom, its numerous white flower clusters attracting hundreds of honeybees; various butterflies also pollinate these trees.  By fall, as the leaves take on a rusty-orange hue, the red haws will appear, persisting into winter unless consumed by a variety of berry-loving birds; those that fall to the ground are consumed by mice, skunks and other scavengers.

Hardy trees, hawthorns thrive in a wide range of soil conditions and are drought tolerant.  The latter trait is especially appealing for those of us who live in semiarid environments; a tree that provides spring and fall color and attracts an interesting mix of wildlife while requiring minimal maintenance and watering, is a welcome addition to any Front Range property.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Evolution of Bats

Standing outside at dusk last evening, I watched as squadrons of little brown bats strafed the tree tops and pastures of our Littleton farm.  It was easy to understand how many persons, uneducated in the natural sciences, might think that bats are more closely related to swallows and swifts than to terrestrial mammals.

Of course, bats are mammals, represented by more than 1200 species across the globe; about 70% are insectivores while the rest feed primarily on fruit.  Though the specifics of their evolutionary history continue to unfold, it appears that bats likely evolved from tree shrews during the Paleocene, the earliest Period of the Cenozoic Era (the Age of Mammals), some 60 million years ago; the process likely began in the late Cretaceous Period, when Tyrannosaurus rex dominated the fauna of Earth.  Current fossil evidence, augmented over the past decade, suggests that flight developed before echolocation in the insectivore group and mammalogists suspect that flight initially evolved as a means of escape from predators (especially from ancestral raptors).  The earliest bats likely fed during the day (as some fruit bats continue to do today); echolocation eventually permitted crepuscular or nocturnal activity, further enhancing their ability to escape predation.  While the first bats graced the planet by 60 million years ago, their major diversification occurred during the Eocene (about 50 million years ago) as another mammalian group, the cetaceans, were returning to the sea.

In essence, bats, little changed from the early Cenozoic, colonized Earth long before most modern mammals appeared.  As I watched them last evening, I was looking into the evolutionary past, knowing that my own species, barely 140,000 years old, has now become the major threat to all other creatures on our planet, bats included.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Doves in the Deluge

Early this afternoon, skies darkened above the Front Range foothills and, soon thereafter, heavy rain began to fall on our Littleton farm.  Looking out the kitchen window, I noticed two young mourning doves, sitting on our power line and enduring the torrential downpour with no signs of distress.  A half hour later, when the rain had stopped, they were still there, preening in the afternoon sun.

Under similar circumstances, most species of wildlife would head for some form of shelter: trees, shrubs, dens, natural cavities or a host of human structures (barns, bridges, nest boxes etc.).  Exceptions are birds and animals that live their lives in the open; waterfowl, waders and many grassland birds would be obvious examples.

Of course, the rain-drenched mourning doves fit into the latter category.  While they do nest in trees, they spend most of their lives in open country and it is not in their DNA to be intimidated by the occasional summer downpour.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

America First, Environment Last

As expected, President Trump, long a climate-change denier (it's a hoax perpetrated by China), announced that he was pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord.  Placing emphasis on the secondary loss of jobs within the fossil fuel industry and on how America would be "ripped off" by the agreement, Trump declared that the U.S. will not be saddled with regulations and financial obligations that other countries fail to adopt.

Despite near universal support for the Paris Accord by American CEOs, Trump said he intends to speak for those who depend on the coal, oil and gas industries for their livelihood.  He plans to restore the economic losses of the Coal Belt though there is little evidence that power plants will return to that "dirty fuel," especially when we have a glut of cheap natural gas.  Offering lip service to the development of clean, renewable energy, he made no mention of the environmental regulations that he plans to obliterate, posing threats to the health of humans and natural ecosystems alike.

Calling up his EPA Administrator, another climate-change denier, to praise the President's decision, Trump was consumed with his oft-stated goal of Making America Great Again.  There was no mention of American leadership, vitally important in addressing the relentless effects of climate change.  While he suggested the possibility of "renegotiating" the Paris Accord, one doubts his chance of success, especially since he ridicules foreign leaders and distrusts global agreements of any kind.  Defending our environment may necessitate Impeachment.