Monday, February 25, 2008

Back to the birds...

Enough about electoral politics for now. On the bird front...

February was a good month, overall. The TOS winter meeting at the Paris Landing/Pace Point area early in the month was a good time. The weather held up better than forecasts suggested it would, and most of the usual suspects (avian, that is) were present. The highlights for me were a spectacular look at an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull (first of that plumage in Tennessee for me), and a distant but otherwise cooperative Golden Eagle that gave everyone leisurely looks through scopes multiple times as it soared to the east. A few days later, I had a yard first with a flock of Sandhill Cranes high overhead. And in spite of large numbers of visiting family members, I managed to get in a count for the Great Backyard Bird Count each day, including five American Woodcock calling and displaying around and over our house one evening.

But perhaps the high point of the month was the continuing mini-saga of a sighting from New Year's Eve. On that date, a couple traveling through in their RV on the Natchez Trace Parkway reported that they had seen and photographed a Golden Eagle in eastern Lewis County over the Fall Hollow Village campground along the Trace. I didn't get to see the photos, and over the following weeks when they never arrived by e-mail I began to doubt I ever would. Initially I was dubious, not thinking we really had suitable habitat in the area and having seen several young Bald Eagles in our vicinity over the years. But in January while I was doing my scouting for our prospective CBC, I began to think otherwise. Not far from the area of the sighting are thousands of acres of State and paper company land that consist of high plateaus and steep hills with a mosaic of forest, pine plantation, clearcuts, and pasture land. At several spots where there were expansive views out over the hollows, I could very easily envision a Golden Eagle circling lazily over this landscape, looking right at home. I didn't actually see one, but I have been on special alert ever since and have let no distant "turkey vulture" pass without close scrutiny. To add to the intrigue, my Mom's handyman said that the day after the tornado he had seen a Golden Eagle rising from one of the very large pasture/clearcut areas right along the Tornado track. I've learned that local boys may spend a lot of time hunting and fishing, but if it isn't about deer or turkeys they don't actually know very much about local wildlife or how to identify it. Still, it did raise my eyebrows since it was only 3 miles from my house, and again in the midst of many thousands of acres of thinly populated paper company land and that same mosaic of ridges, hollers, forest, clearcuts, and large pastures.

Then, just a couple of days later, I got a phone call from one of the owners of the local newspaper, who is also one of the few other birders in the county. The photos from the New Years Eve sighting had arrived in his e-mail; the couple had not had internet access until then. He wasn't sure what to make of them, being inexperienced with Golden Eagles, so he forwarded them on to me. When my slow-ass dialup connection finally finished downloading them, I opened the e-mail and was instantly presented with a series of somewhat blurry but unmistakable images of a Golden Eagle, probably a second winter bird. The golden hackles were even visible in one shot. If I get permission to post the photos online I'll put them up here. So NOW I will remain on even higher alert! It would be nifty if it turned out we regularly had a wintering Golden or two around here, and even more nifty if I could nail down some overlook or other vantage point where there was some reasonable possibility of spotting the bird. Golden Eagles are extremely scarce in Tennessee, and the only quasi-reliable spot I know of is the Pace Point/Britton Ford area of the Big Sandy unit of the Tennessee NWR.

Sure would be grand to have a Golden Eagle on the yard list, and really fun to get one on our as-yet-still-in-the-planning-stages local CBC!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Thinking back 8 years

With Ralph Nader's announcement that he will be running for president again this time, everyone is dredging up the old nonsense about how he lost the election for the Democrats in 2000, thus creating the two-term reign of the Neocons that then followed. Let's analyze this particular bit of political fantasy...

First, the question should never have been "Why did that mean old Nader steal our voters and lose us the election?" The question the Democrats have never faced, never wanted to face, the real fundamental question is: "How did we stray so far from our core principles that so many voters who should have been at the heart of our base could not bring themselves to vote for our ticket?" Nader didn't lose the election, the Supreme Court didn't steal it. It never even should have been close, coming on the heels of a popular two-term Democratic president. The Dems lost that election all by themselves, with their own stupidity. And they repeated the accomplishment four years later, even without a significant Nader vote to blame. Think they'll be able to make it three in a row? I won't be at all surprised. And, of course, they have entirely forgotten that the only way the Dems WON the white house in 1992 was that Ross Perot stole enough Republican votes to tip the election to Clinton! As I recall, Clinton didn't win a majority of the popular vote in that election.

OK, so, let's just surmise that Gore had in fact won. Would we not be tangled up in Middle Eastern wars now? First, do you really think the attacks of 9/11/01 wouldn't have happened? Sure, maybe intelligence would have been handled differently, but the intelligence problems identified afterwards were mostly long-standing institutional issues, not just products of the very young Bush administration. I expect events would have played out similarly. OK, sure, but Gore never would have gotten us involved in this inescapable nightmare, right? Don't be so sure. We got into those wars because the American people were thirsting for blood and vengeance after the 9/11 attacks. If President Gore hadn't given them (us) what they (we) wanted, he'd have sunk to levels of unpopularity that would make Bush's current standing look good in comparison. He'd probably have been out on his ass in 2004, if not impeached in 2002, and replaced by someone who would have given us what we wanted: Muslim blood spilled in the desert and Muslim men in concentration camps. It is silly and dangerous to ignore the racist and religious drives behind Americans' initial fervor for this war. The idea of slaughtering vast numbers of (insert anti-Middle-Eastern racist slur here) only became unpopular in this country in hindsight, after it had already been done, when the long-term consequences of those choices began to bear down on us.

The thought that all this somehow rests on the shoulders of one man from a very minor party running in one election for one office is just absurd scapegoating. If the Democratic party can't win the votes of potential Nader supporters honestly (i.e. with policies and actions) rather than by attempting to scare them with nightmare scenarios, berate them with guilt trips, or wheedle them with electioneering games, then maybe it really doesn't deserve to win the White House back.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

One more tornado thought...

I always wonder, when seeing the aftermath of a windstorm such as Hurricane Hugo in 1989 in South Carolina, or last night's tornado just down the road here...

Again and again you see a trailer literally reduced to rubble and scattered over a huge area as though it exploded. Right next to it you see a "stick-built" house with some roof damage, a few broken window, a collapsed carport, damaged but fixable and having entirely protected its occupants. Going by the traditional Fujita system, 26% of tornados will entirely destroy a mobile home (and a majority will be able to roll it over), but only 1% of tornados can demolish a properly built wood frame house. So a tornado is 26 times more likely to level a trailer than a house, leaving any occupants (who, say, may have been sleeping and not heard any warnings) dead or severely injured! Twenty-freekin'-six times more dangerous! Which always brings up the inevitable question that no one ever seems to actually ask:

WHY ON EARTH are these things legal for human habitation???

And don't talk to me about affordability; they are money wasted on a piece of junk that depreciates and deteriorates faster than you can blink an eye.

Winter tornadoes

We've lived quite a few places in our lives where people talk about tornadoes. One of the things I discovered shortly after moving to Tennessee, though, was that here they don't just talk about tornadoes, they actually have them. Sure, places like South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and the Colorado Front Range do sometimes get real tornadoes, occasionally real whoppers. But for the most part they are a peril far more feared than actually encountered. Much to my surprise, that is not the case here. I had hardly been on this land a month before I saw a small (F0) tornado spawned by a hurricane remnant travel down our hill behind the house, cross the road, and suck up a cloud of spray from the neighbors pond. Within a year we experienced tennis-ball-sized hail from a storm that had killed nearly a dozen people before it reached us. Close Encounters of the Supercell Kind are not rare things. The only major US city to have received a direct strike on its downtown high-rise district? Nashville.

Last night a strong, long-lived supercell formed in northern Mississippi and tracked all the way across Tennessee into Kentucky, dragging a tornado most of the way. I didn't pay too much attention to it when it first developed, as it was far from us and most run-of-the-mill supercells don't live that long. But as the evening progressed, it travelled into southern Tennessee, heading in our general direction, and held its form quite well. Reports from the ground indicated that it was indeed producing a tornado while its dopper radar signature continued to show strong and large circulation. Every time I held a straight edge up to the computer screen to track the center of the circulation, it seemed to be pointed awfully close to our direction. Finally when the tornado warning reached us, and the radar still showed this circulation center tracking to within a mile or so of our house, we cleared out the closet under the stairs, gathered dogs and blankets, secured doors and windows, shut off computers, and got ready to take cover.

The lightning show was spectacular and largely without thunder, as often seems to be the case with these tstorms. Flashes were coming many per second, illuminating the low scudding clouds flying from the.. um... ok...east to west. This mean they were spiraling rapidly around and into the circulation (prevailing winds were southwesterly). Our surface winds were strong but not dramatically increasing, also coming from the east, meaning we were within the surface inflow circulation of the mesocyclone. We kept peeking out as the winds shifted around to be southerly and southwesterly again, and the lightning flashes finally shifted to our north. The cell and its possible tornado had skirted just barely to our northwest.

As the storm receded, I phoned my mother (who lives in town, outside of the track of this storm) and it became rapidly apparent that the tornado had been actual, not just possible. She had her police scanner on, and the calls began coming in almost immediately from just down the road from us: trees down, power lines down, buildings damaged. I brought the computer back up, looked at the doppler radar loop, and saw that the strong circulation center had tracked just a mile or two from us and continued along the northwest edge of the county. On the scanner, the emergency workers were naming roads whose locations matched up perfectly with this track.

First thing this morning I headed down the road to see what the situation was. Within a couple of miles I came to orange traffic barricades, which I drove around on the justification that I am a card-carrying trained storm spotter (plus there was not an actual "road closed" sign). I only saw a few downed trees at first, but then I came in sight of the storm track. It was quickly apparent that this had been a significant tornado. Here are some pictures (click any for a larger view):

Extensive tree damage, of course:

Our road is not normally a single track through a brushpile:

Foreground tree damage, background structure damage:

When they tell you trailers are not safe in severe weather, believe them. See how many of the dismembered parts of this mobile home you can identify:

Some of the missing pieces of that trailer can be found here:

Windblown debris and wreckage piled along tree and fence lines in a way that reminds me of the aftermath of a flood:

One of the classic signatures of a tornado: trees felled in intersecting, converging patterns. In contrast,straight line winds flatten trees in parallel or diverging patterns:

More explorations and plotting revealed that the tornado missed our house by less than a mile. So when we were peeking out the front door last night listening and watching, the funnel was literally just beyond the ridge, almost on top of us. And it wasn't even raining.

Farther down its track, the tornado lifted just long enough to avoid giving downtown Nashville its second direct hit. But then it redeveloped and intensified, killing 17 people in Tennessee and triggering a massive fire at a natural gas facility before crossing into Kentucky.

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