Nature

11
Jan

U.S. Mountains: Rockies and Appalachians

The United States is a vast and geographically diverse country that is home to several different climatic zones and landforms.

There are five main major mountain ranges in the United States, including the Rockies, the Appalachians, the Sierra Nevada Range, the Cascade Range, and the Coast Range. Today we will be taking a look at the Appalachian Mountains and the Rocky Mountains, also known as the Rockies.

Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee (part of Appalachians)

The Appalachians

The Appalachians, not to be confused with the European Alps, are an Eastern mountain range located parallel to the Eastern coast of the United States and Southeastern Canada. They stretch from the Canadian island Newfoundland to Central Alabama, a total length of about 2,000 miles. The range is split into Northern, Central, and Southern regions longitudinally and marks a boundary between the Eastern and Midwest areas of the U.S. latitudinally.

The Appalachians are home to a variety of both flora and fauna. The land surrounding the mountains is heavily forested and full of wildlife. The trees that make up this rich landscape consist of firs, pines, hardwood, and spruces. At the ground-level of the forest are shrubberies and herbs, as well as various berries. Animals common to the Appalachians include small and large mammals, large cats and wolves, birds, and snakes. Most well-known are rabbits, deer, wolves, moose, beavers, bears and many species of tree squirrels.

Running through the mountains is the Appalachian National Scenic Trail which connects Mount Katahdin in Maine with Springer Mountain in Georgia.  Hikers that complete the trail through separate trips are called section-hikers, while hikers who complete it in one season are called thru-hikers. The latter group usually hikes from South to North and starts in early spring so they get to the North when the spring does. In total, this 2,000 mile trail usually takes five to seven months to hike.

The Rockies

The Rocky Mountains are a western mountain range located in the United States and Canada. They stretch an impressive 3,000 miles, starting in northern British Columbia and sloping off in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Eight states and provinces are host to the Rockies, including British Columbia, Alberta, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.

The Rocky Mountains were formed around 60 million years ago as a result of the gradual shifting of tectonic plates. A fascinating landform that runs through the Rocky Mountains is the Great Continental Divide, which acts as a boundary that diverts water to the Pacific on one side and the Atlantic on the other. The Triple Divide Peak diverts water to the Arctic Ocean as well as the Pacific and Atlantic.

Because of the wide range in latitude that the Rockies encompass, the climate is highly variable. The variability of altitude also affects the climate, as the temperature decreases the higher you travel up the mountains. Snow is characteristic of the highest peaks, even in the summer months.

While the human population in the Rockies is limited, the wildlife population is thriving. The Rocky Mountains are home to a variety of animals including mammals, birds, and fish. Among the wildlife in the area are grizzly bears, wolves, moose, elk, bison, otters, and mountain goats, as well as bald eagles and cutthroat trout.

11
Jan

On the Trail: Water Birds

Birds are beautiful and diverse animals that inhabit nearly every ecosystem on Earth. There are thousands of different species of birds, ranging from the tiniest hummingbird to the vibrant peacock to the 9 ft tall ostrich. In this article, we will explore the world of water birds. These birds have adapted to life in the water through flattened bills, webbed feet, and waterproof feathers.

Waterproof feathers

Aquatic birds give their feathers water-resistant properties by coating them with waxy oils. This process is called preening, in which the bird distributes oils from the preen gland at the base of its tail to the other feathers. Water birds must continually preen their feathers to keep them water-resistant. Another way these birds stay protected from water is through a dusty powder in their feathers. This powder comes from the breakdown of special feathers called ‘powderdowns’ and adds to the water-resistance of the feathers.

The following birds are examples of North American water birds you may see on the trail:

    1. Waterfowl

Waterfowl is a classification of aquatic birds that live in freshwater. The main types of waterfowl are ducks and geese, who are both commonly found in North America.

Ducks

Ducks can be found in practically any type of body of water including marshes, ponds, rivers, and lakes. They are omnivores and their diet varies by species. Ducks may be shovelers, who eat insects, snails, and seeds, diving ducks, who are able to dive deep to catch fish, or dabbling ducks, who feed on land or at the water’s surface. Dabbling ducks eat plants, grasses, insects, and small animals.

Geese

There are several types of geese, a common example being the Canada Goose. Canada Geese can often be found flying overhead in a V-formation or around water or grassy fields. These birds are herbivores and eat grass, berries such as blueberries, seeds, and grains.

Geese can sometimes get violent both with other geese and with humans. When threatened, they will hiss or honk and may chase after people. If they’re fighting with another goose, they may attack and hit each other with their wings.

Two geese flying in the sky

Geese flying in the sky

     2. Common Loon

The common loon lives mainly in lakes and ponds. A lake populated with loons is often a good indicator that the water is very clean, even crystal-clear. Loons prefer crystal-clear water so they can see their prey easier underwater, which is mainly small fish. They will also eat crustaceans, snails, or leeches if there’s not enough fish around.

Loons are excellent hunters in the water and powerfully dive after their prey with the help of the feet located at the back of their body. They have the unique talent of being able to flip around 180° in less than a second to follow their prey. After lurking in the water looking for fish, they will suddenly dive down and use these skills to their advantage.

     3. Pelicans

Pelicans are relatively large birds with a weight of 30 pounds and a wingspan of up to 10 feet. They can be found on islands in freshwater lakes where they breed or in shallow marshes where they go foraging for their food. During a migration, they may stop at lakes or inland rivers.

Pelicans are very social and often hunt prey together. This is accomplished by using their collective wings to drive fish toward the shore where it will be easy to catch them. Pelicans also travel together in flocks and will occasionally fly in a V-formation like geese over long distances.

The most characteristic feature of the pelican is its throat pouch, called the gular, which they use to catch and drain fish. They mainly eat small fish but will also hunt crayfish and tadpoles; their diet can vary based on the water levels and which types of fish or other creatures are available.

Two pelicans standing in front of a tree

Pelicans standing by some trees

Next time you’re at Houston Leisure, see how many water birds you can spot.