Saturday, August 25, 2007

Blacktop Black Terns

After three inches of rain fell at our home in the last 2 days, I was convinced that it was time to head to the Palmetto area east of Springfield.

This area has always been prairie, and, as a result, it sometimes attracts bird species that we rarely see in the heart of the Ozarks. These include the shorebirds that manage to appear out of nowhere when flooding occurs in the region. Unfortunately, not enough rain fell this time. Nowhere was there suitable habitat, and so, nowhere was there shorebirds.
The highlight of the day was a flock of over 34 Black Terns. I've always loved terns, and the way that they glide, twisting and turning through the air. Most of the time I see them at a distance, out over the water, but this time it was different. In the middle of the alfalfa is a blacktop and, as I drove down it, the terns came directly toward me. I stopped quickly to grab the bins and get out of the car.

As I stood next to the car, the terns passed by me, many within 50 feet. One hundred yards down the road they landed. The flock was a study in black tern plumage, with every intergrade from fledgling to adult breeding plumage, and it allowed me to approach within 50 yards.
And so, the drive was well worth it, as I drove away replaying in my mind my best looks ever at these graceful "black top Black Terns".

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Conservative Cost of Corn

I stood at the counter of my local MFA feed store to purchase 25 pounds of black oil sunflower seeds. Usually the most reasonable place in town to purchase my bird seed, I was surprised to see the register display $11.67, especially since the last time I purchased seed, the price was $7.95 + tax per 25 pound bag. I know that within the last year that I have paid $9.95 for a 50 pound bag of sunflower seeds there. Without a prompt from me, a young lady employed by the store asked, “Why has that price gone up so much lately?” My comeback was quick. “Must be making ethanol with them.” “That’s right”, said the worker at the cash register. “Corn prices are way up, too,“ he continued, “They say everyone with any available land will be growing corn next year. That will bring the price down again.” (Editor's note: I have determined since that it's not that farmers are making ethanol from sunflowers, but that they are taking land out of sunflower production to grow the higher profit crop, corn. So, next year both the price of sunflower seeds and corn will be even higher)

After I lifted the bag to my shoulder, I felt a heavy burden, but it wasn’t the sunflower seeds. How in the world did this happen? Didn’t anyone in government read the results of numerous studies stating that the production of ethanol uses more energy than the resulting fuel delivers? That alone should have been enough to stop any thoughts of government subsidies and promotion of this destructive technology. Instead, Republicans and Democrats alike jumped on the ethanol bandwagon, further weakening an already addicted fossil fuel nation with an incredibly ridiculous government energy program that pays corporations to establish ethanol plants and gives no thought or credibility to energy conservation measures and renewable energy sources.

As milk approaches $5.00 per gallon and food prices continue to rise, people will begin to realize that they again have been fleeced by agribusiness, energy corporations, and the U.S. government.
As their miles per gallon of fuel drop as a result of ethanol in the tank, people will begin to realize the cost of ethanol in reduced fuel efficiency.

But we still haven’t uncovered the true cost of ethanol production. To take essential food products and convert them to fuel production for use by citizens of an addicted fossil fuel nation must go against what most of us believe about feeding the hungry. It simply shows no regard for the future of this nation or world. Perhaps that’s the true cost.

But, I don’t think so. As a conservationist, I believe that perhaps the most deleterious aspect of the whole ethanol travesty is the fact that land placed in corn, soybean, and sunflower production cannot support sustainable grasses. This results in a downward spiral of grassland species of all kinds and overall soil fertility. Where Conservation Reserve Programs manage critical habitat responsibly to sustain grasslands, prairie playas, and grassland wildlife populations, ethanol production programs totally eliminate the possibility of the recovery of prairies and grassland species inhabiting them. In the not too distant future, the end result of plowed fields replacing fertile grasslands, coupled with the droughts that will be induced by rising global temperatures, just may be the greatest cost of all attributed to ethanol production…the desertification of the most fertile ecosystem on Earth, the North American plains.

I am both amazed and haunted whenever I spot a Loggerhead Shrike, a Henslow’s Sparrow, or an Upland Sandpiper.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Wood Stork in Missouri

Birders in Missouri have had an excellent year for observing post-breeding dispersers in our state. A Roseate Spoonbill, Neotropical Cormorants, White Ibises, A Tri-colored Heron, a Common Moorhen, White-winged Doves, and others have found themselves far away from traditional stomping grounds. My favorite wanderer was photographed by Marvin D. at Four Rivers Conservation Area on August 12.

On July 28 this immature Wood Stork was first sighted at the Four Rivers Conservation Area near Rich Hill, Missouri in the extreme west central part of the state. There have only been a handful of Wood Stork sightings in Missouri since birders began to keep accurate records near the turn of the 20th century. The bird is very cooperative, and, for the most part, has been seen in the exact location of the original sighting. Marvin and I were lucky enough to catch its early morning open beak swishing fishing technique. Seems to be very effective for catching small fish.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Avian Range Expansions: Part Two

Arguably the most beautiful passerine in North America, the sight of a male Painted Bunting delights the most uninterested observer. Recently while viewing one at an area limestone quarry, an employee pulled up in a large gravel truck to ask me what I was doing. I said that I was trying to get a picture of the Painted Bunting. He replied, "What's that?" I said, "Well, take a look." He stepped up to the scope and peered through. "Wow, he said, "what's that bird called again?" I went on to explain to him the contents of this post. He asked if I had a picture of that bird. I showed him the field guide. He left excitedly, eager to share the rare gem that he had found on the lip of the quarry cliff.

With the exception of an isolated pair or two that is periodically reported in the riparian zone of the Mississippi River near St. Louis, Painted Buntings have historically inhabited the glades of extreme southern Missouri. However, the population is rapidly expanding to the north. This year the reported sightings in and around Springfield exploded, all in or on the edge of limestone quarries. Apparently, these manmade habitats offer just what the Painted Bunting needs.

But what is it about the limestone cliffs that attract the birds? That's where I appeal to the birders out there. Does anyone understand why it is that Painted Buntings in our area are almost exclusively reported, and in significant numbers, from two limestone quarries in our area? What requirements of their survival are met by the cedar lined, fenced off, heavily traveled quarry areas? Any ideas?
photo taken by Marvin D.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Avian Range Expansions: Part One

Even during the dog days of summer, there is an avian joy that comes from living on the edge of the Ozarks, where the deciduous forests reluctantly give way to the grasslands of the Great Plains. In addition to the post breeding wanderings that predictably occur this time of year, the ecotonal southwest region of Missouri has become an area characterized by range expansions from the south and west. Many species, including Greater Roadrunner, Painted Bunting, Mississippi Kite, and others, have historically inhabited the extreme southern and southwest corner of the state of Missouri. In very recent history, however, these species have experienced range expansions into our part of the world. The numbers are advancing northward and eastward across the state.

I remember ten or so years ago when I videotaped nesting Great tailed Grackles in the Palmetto area ten miles east of Springfield. At that time, this was the most easterly documentation of Great-tail nesting activity. Today, the species is commonly seen in our region and expanding rapidly across the state.

I always enjoy visiting my hometown in central Kansas, where significant numbers of Mississippi Kites find suitable habitat for nesting in the mature trees within the small towns. I know that when I was a child, city crews routinely sprayed DDT for mosquitoes. It goes without saying that there were no kites there then. In recent years, an avid Joplin birder has reported this wonderful species there. Located 70 miles to the west, Springfield skies were void of kites. Until this year, that is. The first nesting record for Mississippi Kites in Springfield was confirmed when a single nest with one young kite was located in the southern part of the city. Shortly thereafter, reports of pairs of kites came from Ozark and Nixa, both 10-20 miles south of Springfield. So now we know that at least 7 Mississippi Kites called the area their home for the summer. Can't wait to see what the coming years hold!
photo by Charley B.

Next....... Quarries and Painted Buntings

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Action Alert: Aransas NWR: Homes for humans

A 700 acre housing development is planned in critical habitat for Whooping Cranes near Aransas NWR. Just a short post to remind you if you already are aware and to inform you if you are not. The important thing is that we have only TWO DAYS to write the Corps of Engineers to voice our concerns over these plans for development so near the Whooping Cranes' wintering grounds.
Please learn more by clicking here and here, and respond to the Corps of Engineers call for public comment ASAP.

The deadline is Aug. 17. Comments or requests for additional information may be made to: Felicity Dodson, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, P.O. Box 1229, Galveston 77553-1229, or call 409-766-3105.
The public notice of the application may be viewed at

To sign a petition online, go to

Since personal letters are typically more effective, here's my letter. Feel free to use any or all of its content.

-----Original Message-----Sent: Wednesday, August 15, 2007 6:12 PM To: : Falcon Point Development

To Whom It May Concern:

The new record numbers of Whooping Cranes this year is certainly something to celebrate, but this species’ recovery did not happen without strict attention to preservation of wetland habitat. As the population continues to rise toward sustainability, it is vitally important that critical habitat in and around their wintering grounds be protected from development and preserved for the future of this magnificent species.

Please register my opposition to the planned Falcon Point Development Project near Seadrift, Texas.

Thank you very much.


Farewell, Polar Bears, et al: The "Slippery Slope"

Hail, the beauty of global warming. The North Pole is now easily accessible, giving our species more reasons over which to fight wars.

From the AP:

SEATTLE (AP) - A U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker is headed to the Arctic to map the sea floor off Alaska as Canada, Russia and Denmark assert their claims in the polar region, which has potential oil and gas reserves.
The lead scientist on the expedition scoffs at the political implications.
"We're basically just doing science," said Larry Mayer, director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire. "There's no flag-dropping on this trip," he said in an interview from Durham, N.H For the complete story, click here.

Of course, U.S. authorities deny that this action is in response to Russia's recent flag planting exercise under the North Pole.

Ah, yes, the "we're basically just doing science.........." line. Talk about that "beginning with the end in mind" brand of science mentioned in my last blog! You know, I don't believe that the captains of these icebreakers are concerned about the effects of breaking up a few slabs of ice, exposing more dark ocean waters to the surface, increasing absorption of more heat energy, and expediting the melting of the ice caps. There doesn't seem to be much talk about the effects of these voyages and the future consequences of them on the rich store of wildlife that inhabits this pristine environment either.

So, just where is the "Science" in this excursion? It's clearly a race to the poles to ensure the future of the "status quo" fossil fuel based system that we have created and to which we have become addicted.

The "Science" in this situation has reached new depths, just like the ever increasing penetrating solar radiation in polar regions, to be conveniently ignored and/or exploited, depending upon which most benefits the powers that be. Who will be the voice of reason from this wilderness? Who will be the voice of a planet stressed beyond natural limits? Who will be the voice that propels us to new, renewable sources of energy, most of which already exist. It's certainly a "slippery slope" upon which we have arrived.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Beginning with the End in Mind

My interest in the blogosphere has been piqued in recent days, so I’ve decided to start my own. I’m not sure why I feel that my voice will add anything new to the nearly infinite voices of cyberspace, but at least I know that at times I will preach to the choir, while at other times, I will elicit flame. Nevertheless, the focus of this blog will be conservation, science, education, wildlife, and birds. I can’t promise, however, that I won’t diverge a bit at times.
Stephen Covey may have coined the phrase “begin with the end in mind” as a tool for success in the real world, but it certainly spells disaster for the field of science. My history as a science educator has spanned 30 years, from a time when evolution was taught freely in the science classroom to a time when the mention of the word evokes irrational responses and brands one as a card carrying communist and atheist. Sadly, but true, the scientific community must constantly battle the forces of fundamentalist religions that have aggressively attacked and attempted to discredit sound, scientific findings through history and well into the present.
In this month’s Physics Today, there is an article entitled “Science and the Islamic world—The quest for rapprochement”, by Pervez Amirali Hoodbhov. Hoodbhov laments the downfall of science in Muslim countries and asserts that there have been no significant scientific inventions or discoveries that have emerged from the Muslim world in over seven centuries. The article is well worth the read. Click the link above to find it.
Back to “beginning with the end in mind”: Where fundamentalist, proselytizing religions completely dominate, objective inquiry-based science cannot exist. Here, only science, or shall I say pseudoscience, that offers “proof” to the existence of God remains. Science cannot “begin with the end in mind” without becoming a tool of propaganda serving private interests and institutions eager to acquire power. In this state, we all lose. Let this serve as a reminder to the dangers of fundamentalism in our own country. Speak up for sound, objective science whenever possible. Don't let special interests dictate the direction of any science inquiry.

"Science is simply common sense at its best that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic."
Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95) English biologist.