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Showing posts from June, 2017

Donating to the Postal Service

As a naturalist, a conservationist and a social liberal, I have long donated to a variety of organizations that share my philosophy and serve to protect the human rights and natural resources that I hope to defend.  In concert with that effort, I attempt to limit my personal consumption, recycle what I can and limit correspondence to online communication (i.e. I go paperless whenever possible).

Nevertheless, the very organizations that I support, including several well-respected conservation organizations, deluge my home with monthly (if not weekly) mailed solicitations.  Of course, some also send along free gifts to fuel my commitment, seemingly oblivious of the financial and environmental costs associated with their generosity.

I often wonder what percentage of my donations are used for solicitation purposes.  Indeed, I sometimes question whether my contributions fund the Postal Service more than the groups I hope to support.  No doubt, most readers share my experience and frustrati…

An Evening at Eagle Bluffs

Of my hundreds of trips to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain, the great majority have occurred in the morning.  Yesterday, enticed by mild, sunny weather, a fellow birder and I opted for an evening visit.

Rewarded with serene vistas and the mellow tones of evening light, we saw a large number of great blue herons and great egrets, concentrated by the drying summer landscape.  They were joined by a lone black-crowned night heron, killdeer, spotted sandpipers and a few wood duck families.  Indigo buntings were abundant in the open woodlands and a trio of bald eagles patrolled the refuge.  White-tailed deer were especially common in the waning daylight and restless flocks of red-winged blackbirds swirled above the darkening floodplain.  Other sightings included yellow-billed cuckoos, Baltimore and orchard orioles, dickcissels and lark sparrows.

Not a morning person by nature, I thoroughly enjoyed our evening visit to Eagle Bluffs.  Indeed, it reminded me of…

Swallow-tailed Kites

Leaving Longboat Key this morning, we drove north on Interstate 75, dodging thunderstorms all the way to southern Georgia.  Between episodes of torrential rain, the sky would clear and, on several occasions, a swallow-tailed kite would appear, dipping and soaring above the roadside woodlands.

Among the most exotic and beautiful birds in North America, these fork-tailed raptors once inhabited riverine and coastal wetlands throughout the Southeastern U.S. and northward along the Mississippi River Valley (when extensive swamp forests covered the river's floodplain).  Today, they are still common summer residents in Florida and smaller populations are found along the Southeast Coast and the northern Gulf Coast; come autumn, all head to swamp forests and wooded marshlands of South America.

Aloft for most of the day, swallow-tailed kites feed primarily on flying insects but also snare lizards, tree frogs and snakes from the forest canopy.  Unlike most raptors, they nest in colonies and …

Chuck-Will's-Widow

While making one last visit to the seawall this evening, I heard the distinctive call of a chuck-will's-widow echoing from a mangrove island in Sarasota Bay.  Often heard on Longboat Key during the summer months, these nocturnal birds feed on flying insects, snaring them in their large, gaping mouth; on occasion, they also grab small songbirds and bats.

Largest of the North American nightjars, chuck-will's-widows (named for their call), breed throughout the Southeastern U.S. and are permanent residents in southernmost Florida.  Nests are placed directly on the ground, usually in open woodlands of oak or pine.  Not often observed unless accidentally flushed, they strafe the treetops at dawn and dusk and may be caught in your headlights along country roads; on the other hand, these hunters are frequently heard on summer nights, delivering their endless, repetitive call.

Come autumn, most chuck will's widows head for the Caribbean, Central America or northern South America.  …

Manatees in the Boat Canal

Over the past couple of days, two pair of manatees have been feeding and lolling about in the boat canal of our condo complex on Longboat Key.  Likely females with their calves, they are among the 6600 Florida manatees that inhabit coastal waters, bays and estuaries of the Southeastern U.S., from the Carolinas to Texas.  During the winter months, most retreat to Florida while, in summer, they have turned up as far north as Cape Cod.

Listed as endangered in 1967, when their wild population was estimated to be 600, Florida manatees have recently been downgraded to "threatened" by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  While increased awareness of their plight and stricter boating restrictions have allowed their population to rebound, these large aquatic herbivores remain susceptible to coastal water pollution and careless boaters.

Known as "sea cows" since they graze on a wide assortment of marine and tidewater plants, manatees are actually more closely related to elepha…

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 pa…

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 o…

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, …

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 o…

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…

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 tim…

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 coasta…

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 e…

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 …

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 20…

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 off…

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 …

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 …

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.

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 t…