Archive for May, 2014

A New National Monument: Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

On May 21, President Obama announced the creation of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.  The designation provides permanent protection for almost 500,000 acres of pristine, scenic lands in south-central New Mexico. 

“Anyone who’s ever seen the Organ Mountains that overlook Las Cruces, New Mexico, will tell you that they are a spectacular sight,” the President said in a short speech just before signing the proclamation.  ”You get massive rocks that jut up 9,000 feet in the air and stretch for 20 miles, like the organ pipes of a giant.  And they’re home to many of God’s smaller creatures as well.  Deer and antelope roam–falcons, mountain lions.”

Indeed, our nation’s newest monument is a rare American landscape.  Its features include extinct volcanoes, black lava fields, miles and miles of high desert grassland, even a series of hidden water pools.

The monument is also a haven for wildlife, including golden eagles, owls, several species of hawk and quail, desert mule deer, mountain lions, bobcats, pronghorn, javelina, coyotes, bats, rock squirrels, and many other animals.  The rugged mountain landscape is also home to certain plants that exist nowhere else in the world.

Visitors to Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks will find, in addition to hiking and other recreation opportunities, some fascinating earth history.  The vast national monument encompasses the already-established Prehistoric Trackways National Monument, which is a major deposit of fossilized animal prints, dating back about 280 million years.  These prints of ancient land animals, sea creatures, and insects abound, and fossilized plants and petrified wood can also be found there.

The new monument is also rich in human history.  Three groups of native peoples left their marks in various locations in the forms of pictographs–symbols painted on rocks, and petroglyphs–symbols carved into rock.  Much more recent visitors to the area are said to include Billy the Kid and Geronimo.

The new national monument will be a boon to the economy of south-central New Mexico.  According to a recent, independent study, the monument could generate as much as $7.4 million in new economic activity each year from visitors and business opportunities.  And local support for the monument designation has been strong.  In one survey, 83% of local citizens expressed support for the monument designation.

I can’t wait to visit!–April Moore 



Hooray for Science!

Saturday, May 24th, 2014

I have never been especially science-oriented.  As a kid in school, science never even came close to being my favorite subject.

 But now I feel differently.   I find science much more interesting, exciting even, than I ever did when I took all those science courses back in high school.  

 My enthusiasm for science has been growing for some time.  When I ask myself why, the answer seems correlated with my intensifying love for the natural world.  As that love has deepened over the years, my desire to learn more about animals, plants, and natural processes has also grown.  Pursuing that curiosity about our living planet in order to write about what I learn here on TheEarthConnection has been fun, and at times even awe-inspiring.

For example, I loved learning how Indian Pipes could be plants, despite their absence of chlorophyll, why palm trees are classified as grasses rather than as trees, how birds keep warm in the winter.  And so much more!

Reading, a few years ago, THE SONG OF THE DODO by science writer David Quammen, piqued my interest in evolutionary biology.  Quammen had set out to find out more about island ecology, since we are increasingly creating  ’islands’ by cutting unspoiled land into smaller pieces that are separated from each other.  His book reads like a detective story, as he tells us not just about the science but the human biographies that led to the science in the first place.  He writes a lot about evolution, how it works, and the efforts of Darwin and Wallace and others that contributed to our knowledge of this truly amazing process.

Quammen made me realize that I LOVE learning about evolutionary biology!  Who knew?

But probably the reason I’m feeling excited enough about science to want to write about it now is that I have fallen under the spell of a charismatic astrophysicist whose own love of science is irresistible!  The scientist is Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the series COSMOS:  A Space-Time Odyssey, airing Sunday evenings on FOX.  

Tyson’s passion for all things scientific is infectious!  He tells of one fascinating scientific discovery after another.  He blew my mind by showing  how, if the history of the universe were compressed into a single calendar year, our human existence would not show up until December 31!  And late in the day at that.

In addition to telling us so much about the universe, the solar system, and our own planet, Tyson relates stories of some of history’s great scientists.  He makes it clear that powerful interests such as the Catholic Church, the wealthy fossil fuels industry, even the male science establishment have not always welcomed the honest pursuit of truth.

We are introduced to Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church for maintaining that the universe was infinite.  We learn about Cecilia H. Payne, an early twentieth century astronomer whose work revealed the composition of the stars, but who received little recognition for her pioneering work because she was a woman.  We meet Clair Patterson who, in the 1940s, discovered that the lead being added to gasoline had became so widespread in the environment that it had found its way into the bodies of just about everyone.  Since lead is a potent neurotoxin, Patterson tried to sound the alarm, only to be attacked and vilified by the petroleum industry.  It took many years before lead was removed from gasoline.

Learning about these, and other, scientists’ pursuit of the truth, wherever it led them, makes me grateful for their willingness to stand up for truth, regardless of personal cost.  

I see these brave scientists in the same light in which I view today’s climate scientists.  With the fossil fuels industry hard at work sowing doubt about the validity of well-established climate science, some of these scientists are stepping out of the traditional role of scientist to become activists.   They are moving far from their comfort zone to urge our elected leaders to act.   

So, I have become an admirer of science, and of scientists who dedicate themselves to an honest pursuit of the truth.–April Moore 



Celebrate ‘Garden for Wildlife Month’

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

    May is Garden for Wildlife Month.  If you enjoy watching birds and other animals, this may be the time to think about creating some habitat for them right where you live.  And if you provide the four elements wildlife need to thrive–food, water, cover, and a place to raise their young, you can qualify for a Certified Wildlife Habitat designation by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

   In 1973, NWF created its Garden for Wildlife program.  Gardening with birds and other native animals in mind makes a real contribution to the health of many species, especially since we humans have destroyed so much habitat by expanding our cities, shopping strips, and roads, etc., into the areas where so much wildlife lives.

     Pretty much anywhere you live, whether in a suburban neighborhood, a rural area, or even in the heart of a city, you can probably provide the four elements wildlife need to thrive and raise their young.

     In reading about NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program (CWHP), I was surprised and delighted to learn that even someone who lives in an urban apartment, with only a balcony for outdoor space, can create a high quality wildlife habitat that qualifies for certification!

     NWF’s Wildlife Habitat program manager describes several tiny, urban apartment habitats that NWF has certified.  In Suffolk, Massachusetts, for example, a couple  strung their 25-square foot balcony with four hanging bird feeders that attract pine siskins, cardinals, redpolls, blue jays, and a half-dozen other species.  The couple also put out oriole and hummingbird feeders.  And containers of columbine, red-tooth dogwood, and other well-chosen plants provide cover for the birds.  

     I find it so heartening that even when a tiny space is equipped with the things wildlife need, they will find and use that space, wherever it is.

     If you have more outdoor space available, like a back yard, you have more options for creating habitat.  And the National Wildlife Federation has dozens of suggestions for what to plant, ways to provide needed cover, and so much more.  If you get your wildlife habitat certified, you can display your certification sign proudly.  Perhaps you will inspire neighbors and passers-by to establish their own wildlife habitat.

     For information on how to get started in creating your own certified wildlife habitat, click here:

For tips on creating and maintaining wildlife habitat on a balcony or porch, click here:

Once you get started, you can sit back and enjoy watching the wildlife you attract!

April Moore





An Unusual Mothers’ Day Tale

Saturday, May 10th, 2014

    As Mothers’ Day approaches, I am musing on a special, one-of-a-kind memory.

     First, a little background.  I hate it when there are mice in our house.  The sound of scrabbling little feet during the night or a surprise encounter when I open the pantry door gives me the creeps.  My husband and I work at keeping the little critters away, and when our efforts fail, I get angry.   

     Given my feelings about sharing our home with these uninvited guests, the following experience made such an impression on me that I will never forget it.

     It happened back in 2008.  My husband and I were preparing to move from Albuquerque back to our home here in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.  The house was in an uproar of half-packed boxes and piles of stuff.

     The garage too, was in its own state of upheaval.  Dark, dusty crannies that for years had held unused or forgotten items, were now in tumult, thanks to our rummaging to clear things out. 

     Then one evening, I ran from the house into the garage to fetch another packing box.  Flinging open the door, I switched on the light.  Immediately I froze, gasping.   For, staring at me from the other side of the garage was a large, brown mouse.  She too was frozen in place, four tiny babies clinging tightly to her underside.  And the terror in her eyes was palpable.  The safe, dark space where she had been caring for her babies had been invaded by a giant, dangerous animal, and in the sudden bright light, she and her babies had become exposed, vulnerable.

     I knew the mama mouse’s fear was for her babies more than for herself;  no other mouse I’d ever happened upon had anything like such a frightened look in its eyes. 

    After our intense little encounter, mama mouse took off, babies holding on for dear life.  As fast as she could, she dashed for a dark place to hide.

     As for me, I was shaken.  I had just engaged with–not an unwelcome rodent–but another mother, a mammal who, like me, was wired to do all she could to protect her babies.  I sympathized with her plight and felt sorry to have caused her such terror.  I wanted her to find the safe, dark place she needed, even if that place was in our garage.  

     In the years since that evening, I have thought many times of the experience.  Locking eyes with that terrified mother, and knowing I was the cause of her fear, made me realize that a biological connection with another mother mammal, even a mouse, is deeper than my desire for a mouse-free house.--April Moore









Sturgeon Return to the Chesapeake Bay!

Sunday, May 4th, 2014


Matt Balazik tagging an Atlantic sturgeon

    Back in 1997 a young fisheries biologist made a startling discovery.  He spotted some Atlantic sturgeon swimming in the Chesapeake Bay.

     The biologist was astounded because sturgeon were thought to have completely disappeared from the Bay.  Although decades before, tens of thousands of these mighty fish regularly swam up the Chesapeake from the Atlantic Ocean to spawn, no sturgeon had been seen in the Bay for many years.  

     The sturgeon that biologist Dave Secor spotted that day 17 years ago were juveniles.  Therefore, they could not have swum into the Bay from the ocean.  Instead, they must have been born right there, in the Bay.  That meant that at least some sturgeon were spawning in the Bay, that a recovery of at least some size must be underway.  

     Secor and his colleagues were eager to know where in the Bay the sturgeon were spawning.  If the spawning grounds could be found, the scientists reasoned, then perhaps these grounds could be protected, and the sturgeon’s recovery in the Bay strengthened.  

     Restoration of sturgeon in the Chesapeake would indeed be cause for celebration.  A truly ancient species, the sturgeon has been around since long before the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago.   Like the salmon, the sturgeon returns to its natal waters to spawn.  But unlike the salmon, which dies  soon after spawning, the sturgeon spawns repeatedly over its 60-year lifespan.  The mighty sturgeon can reach a length of 14 feet and weigh as much as 800 pounds.   Most of the sturgeon’s life is spent in the Atlantic Ocean, where it travels up and down the shelf break, eating worms and crustaceans it plows up from the bottom with its snout. 

     Prized for its flesh and for the caviar made from its roe, the sturgeon was once heavily fished in the Chesapeake Bay.  The Bay’s sturgeon fishing industry peaked in the 1890s, and no one alive today has witnessed a healthy run of sturgeon in the Bay.  

     The search for the sturgeon’s spawning grounds is challenging because there are so few of them.  But thanks to a $1.75 million grant last year from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources and Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the scientists are getting support for their efforts.  

     Scientists have tagged 240 sturgeon with acoustic transmitters.  Each tag emits a coded sound once per minute, and the sounds are recorded whenever a sturgeon passes within range of a receiver.    And, in addition to assistance from NOAA, the scientists are also aided in their efforts by the U.S. Navy, which has installed 70 receivers, mostly attached to Coast Guard buoys throughout the lower Chesapeake Bay, its tributaries, and out into the Atlantic.  The buoys record environmental data as well, which allows scientists to correlate sturgeon activity with water conditions.  This information will be especially helpful in enabling scientists to understand how sensitive sturgeon are to low oxygen levels that plague the Bay every summer.

     Federal agencies are required to minimize interactions with endangered species, notes Navy biologist Carter Watterson, who regularly sends Secor and his colleagues the tracking data from the buoys.  ”Once we know where and when sturgeon are utilizing the Bay,” Watterson explains,  ”we can work to minimize any impact we have on the species.”–April Moore 


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