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Posts from the ‘Natural History’ Category

On Watching and Writing

Watching, watching, watching.

I've always been a proponent of watching. Careful observation of wildlife, plants, and weather patterns makes me feel connected to a place and appreciative of the infinite variety of ways that living things have been able to prosper. Recently, though, I've been wondering if I've gone too far, if I've shifted from a participant in life to an observer of it.

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Blogging from the Trail: Harder than Expected

Well, I’ve been on the trail for six weeks now, and I’ve written only two blog posts! It turns out that thruhiking doesn’t actually leave very much time for writing. I wake up in the morning, eat, get water, pack up camp, walk all day, make camp, cook dinner, and go to bed. I write in my (real, physical) journal once I’m tucked in, then fall asleep. The next day, it’s the same thing all over again. Read more

Coming Soon to a Forest Floor Near You

By the end of April, I’ll have hiked the first 300 miles of the Appalachian Trail. It has been a delight to watch spring begin to unfold on the landscape. Hiking up and down and up again, I’ve had the chance to see all shades of the season, from leafy green valleys to still-wintry 6,000 ft. summits.

If you live farther north or at higher elevation, here’s a preview of some of the beautiful spring ephemerals – those all-too-fleeting wildflowers that bloom before the trees leaf out – I’ve been seeing over the past few weeks.

One of the very first flowers to appear is bloodroot: 20140428-213713.jpg

Bluets are another very early bloomer. I was seeing these tiny little flowers even in very early April in the Georgia mountains:
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There are several different species of violets in shades of yellow and purple:

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But it is spring beauty, this lovely little white flower (often with pink rays on the petals), that really signals to me that spring has come:
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Not long after the spring beauty, and often intermingled with it, the cheery yellow blooms of trout lily will begin to appear:
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Subtly tucked in amongst the showy flowers are the more discreet green blossoms of jack-in-the-pulpit:

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Several species of trillium, like the toadshade featured at top or the painted trillium here, also make an appearance:
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So if you’ve been hankering for spring, never fear, the ephemerals are here!

A Few Minutes in the Life of a Coyote

In the wild, coyotes hunt small mammals like mice, voles, and ground squirrels. It's great fun to watch coyotes at work in the winter months, when they use their keen sense of hearing to detect prey under the snow. Yesterday I had the chance to photograph a coyote as it trotted along a nearby trail in the Upper Geyser Basin.

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Tree Tuesday: Meet the Junipers of Badlands

Badlands National Park is not famous for its trees.  But in the winter months, when the prairie grasses are dormant and dry, the park’s dark green junipers stand out against a landscape dominated by shades of tan.

dark green junipers against the tan formations in Badlands National Park

Junipers line a shelf on an otherwise steep slope in Badlands National Park.

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Nor Any Drop to Drink: Watching Water in Badlands National Park

Work for one day in the visitor center at Badlands National Park, and someone is sure to ask, “Why is it called that?”  The term “badlands” is a translation from the Lakota “mako sica” and the French fur traders’ “les mauvaises terres à traverser”—which is to say, “bad lands to travel across.”  The rugged terrain is part of the problem, of course, as is the harsh climate.  Winters can see the mercury plummet to well below zero, while summer temperatures can reach triple digits (in Fahrenheit, of course).  Winds over fifty miles per hour can occur at any time of year, and the starkness of the prairie affords little shelter from the gusts.

But I often think that the lack of potable water in the badlands is what really made this area earn its name.   Read more

Hoar Frost and Rime Ice: What’s the Difference?

The New Year dawned cold in the badlands of South Dakota.  Temperatures in the low single digits at sunrise on January 1 warmed to a balmy 30°F by midday.  The sunny, calm conditions were perfect for my first hike of 2013.  I hadn’t walked fifty feet from the trailhead, however, before the sun glinting off the surface of the snow captured my attention.  I commonly see delicate sparkles on the snow in the morning sun, but these were bold flashes coming from platy ice crystals the size of my thumbnail.

I knelt to see better, and exclaimed in delight.  Even with my naked eye, I could see fine growth ridges running parallel to the edges of each plate, forming beautiful facets.  My first thought was surprise that such big, perfectly hexagonal snowflakes could have persisted since the last snowfall, several days ago.  But then I realized that the ice crystals weren’t old snowflakes at all: they were a beautiful example of surface hoar. Read more

The Hawk in the Hedgerow

We crept slowly forward, peering into the hedge where it thinned, looking to the lawn on the far side. We saw nothing. We closed to within five feet of where the hawk had flown into the hedge. Still nothing. Until, with the same swift grace with which it had flown in, the hawk emerged from the hedge. As the bird sprung aloft, so close in front of us that we felt its wingbeats as much as we saw them, it faced us for the briefest of moments as it elegantly arced back over the hedge and up into the spreading branches of a massive pin oak in the churchyard.

The flash of the hawk’s underside showed that the white feathers of its breast and belly were marked with fine, red barring. We had a bit longer to take in the dorsal view, with the bird’s slate-gray back and banded tail. As the hawk flared its wings and tail to brake into a landing, we could see that the tip of the tail had a deep, C-shaped curve, edged in white. It was a Cooper’s hawk.

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When I was a senior in college, I took a seminar called “Dealing with Natural Disasters” that looked at the power of the insurance industry to change imprudent societal practices–e.g., repeatedly building in floodplains. This is an interesting extension.

Climate Change Reports

Paying out billions of dollars here and billions of dollars there has made the global insurance industry a believer in climate change, according to a new study that shows insurance companies are staunch advocates for reducing carbon emissions and minimizing the risk posed by increasingly severe weather events, reports Ken Weiss at the LA Times. “Climate change stands as a stress test for insurance, the world’s largest industry with U.S. $4.6 trillion in revenues, 7% of the global economy,” writes Evan Mills, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The industry now pays an average of $50 billion a year in weather- and climate-related insurance losses, including property damage and business disruptions, Mills writes  in the journal Science. Such claims have been doubling every decade since the 1980s. Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged the Eastern Seaboard, is just one recent example of the kinds of increasing liability posed…

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Audubon Magazine’s Choices for Best Books of 2012

I’m always on the lookout for great new natural history books to read, but 2012 has been such a busy year that I haven’t paid as much attention to new publications as I usually do.  Hence my delight in seeing the titles chosen for Audubon Magazine’s 2012 List of Notable Books.

A few of the authors on the list are familiar names—I eagerly skim bookshop shelves, looking specifically for their new titles.  But most of the authors are unfamiliar to me, and that is a delight in and of itself. Read more

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