A balancing act

TRUMPETER SWANS in large wild flocks were just part of a huge migration scenario playing out last weekend. This is just the tip of the migration iceberg however with many more ducks and geese to come this month. In one farm field north of Albion, at least 30 trumpeters were resting far from any roadway in last years soybean field. With heads tucked into their back, they waited and rested from long travel that had brought them this far.

At Hendrickson Marsh, the DNR’s wildlife management area located two miles west of Rhodes, a good influx of ducks and geese were present. Ice on the marsh’s water was still present to a large degree. But the ice was obviously getting weak as it melted along edges where wind action could pound the boundary between ice and water. In areas of open water I inspected the assembly with binoculars, spotting scope and telephoto lens camera. I found mallards, red head ducks, canvasback, scaup, pintails and ring-necked ducks. Further west toward the northwest portion of still ice bound waters were thousands of Canada geese, and a good mix of snow geese and white-fronts.

In the air however were many thousands of snow geese and white-fronts. Several huge flocks were circling as if they wanted to come join the groups already on the ice. Such a live flock on the ground is an attraction hard to resist. However, resist is just what the big flocks of snows did. After 15 minutes of orbiting the area, their leaders took off toward the northwest and the huge flock followed. On a day like last Saturday with southerly warm winds, geese could make very good ground speeds on their way toward far northern territories. Eventually the snow geese will be headed toward arctic lands west and northwest of Cape Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.

How far will the geese of all species go on northerly jaunts in March? As far north as the snow line on the ground will let them. The snow line is retreating in a general way. But note what I said about weather in March being fickle. That snow line can move considerably south with a big storm busting its way out of Alberta, Canada. If the snow line on the ground moves south, the geese will be forced to backtrack to places where there is no snow. There they will wait it out again until the snow line melts. Moving north is kind of like watching a yo-yo until Spring finally wins the game.

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DUCKS UNLIMITED will hold their membership banquet two weeks from today, the 19th, at the Impala Ballroom in Marshalltown. This event is a fund raiser for DU which holds similar banquets and fun nights all across the county throughout the year. Come join in the festivities to help wetland conservation put money into action on the land for projects big and small. Ticket information and purchase can be made with Rich Naughton at 641-328-0124.

One topic of conversation at this DU banquet will center around what kinds of ducks and geese have been spotted in the skies of Central Iowa. Then the topic of wetland habitat will be part of the mix as these participants understand the terrific importance of wetland complexes all the way from the Gulf states to northern Minnesota, the Dakotas and far into Canada territories. It takes money to help manage wetland habitats. DU banquets are to be congratulated for their assistance. Be part of it yourself by joining DU. Thanks.

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We just experienced a LEAP YEAR extra day in February. This adjustment to our calendar comes about because of a celestial fact regarding the time it takes for planet earth to make one complete orbit of our sun. That time is actually 365.2422 days give or take a micro second or two. Until Julius Caesar came to power, the calendar was only 355 days long. This convoluted mix messed with feast days sliding into other seasons. Something had to be done.

So Caesar ordered his astronomer, Sosigenes, to make things simpler. He opted for a 365 day calendar with an extra day every four years to scoop up the extra hours. That is how Feb. 29 came to be. But Julius Caesar didn’t like February with 30 days and August had only 29 with July coming in with 31. So a few more arrangements of picking and choosing days for each month followed. February lost out and now every three years has 28 days and every fourth year gets 29. July and August each have 31.

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Here is another bit of natural history, actually celestial and astronomical history to think about. My example is to visualize a frisbee, the common lawn toy our kids throw around in a game of catch. But his frisbee is different. It is mostly clear plastic with a hub that is a yellowish glowing hot spot. Radiating outward from the hub are six or so cloud-like milky-colored spiral arms. Astronomers have studied these systems and given them names like Norma Arm, Cygnus Arm, Crux-Scutum Arm, Perseus Arm and Orion Arm. Now hold this imaginary frisbee flat and look only at its edge. It will appear to be just one milky colored elongated object.

Now hold the frisbee so you can look at it from the top. The circular toy you see has the hot yellow center and the above mentioned fuzzy spiral arms. Between the arms is lots of space but still there is no place that does not have some little specks of white spots. Most of the open spaces are black as if nothing exists between the milky white spiral arms.

A toy frisbee is about 10 inches in diameter. The real Milky Way Galaxy is about 100,000 light years in diameter! If we could look down on it from above, it would have six spiral arms all made up of cloudy masses of stars. The estimate is that these arms contain at a minimum between 100 billion and 400 billion stars. Looking at just the two major arms called Perseus and Scutum-Centaurus, they make up most of this frisbee analogy. But our solar system we know most about is located in a region between the two arms called the Orion-Cygnus arm. This arm is only 3,500 light years across and is 10,000 light years long where it in turn breaks off from the Sagittarius Arm.

Our solar system on this frisbee example is located about one-fourth the way across the total 100,000 light year diameter. Another way to envision our earth on this scheme is to go half way between the center and the outer edge on the Orion Arm. There you will find our Sun, and our local solar system. It would take space travelers 25,000 light years to reach the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, or if traveling in the opposite direction, 25,000 light years to reach the edge. Either option for travel is not within our means.

While astronomers know that our earth takes 365.2422 days to circle our Sun one time, they have also learned it take our Sun 250,000,000 years to rotate just one time around the Milky Way. Holy smokes star watchers, that is a long time indeed. When you or I look up on a clear moonless night at the vast array of stars we can see (about 6,000), and when we see that faint band of milky cloudy concentration of stars making a north to south line along the dark night time sky, we are looking out toward the edge of our own Milky Way frisbee. It is quite a privilege to be able to comprehend the vastness of space and our little spot of life within it called earth. Earth is taking us on a fantastic journey through our super short life time, while still part of a much longer journey in space.

Now to help put another perspective on this galactic picture, no matter where the Hubble space telescope is aimed to study in any direction, it finds countless other galaxies. This is tantalizing stuff to learn about and fun to try and put into some semblance of structure. Science is never settled. You can explore the micro-environments on earth or the macro-environment of space. And one program being offered learn about space studies will be presented at 7 p.m. April 9 by Evan Zerby of Iowa State University. He will present the fifth installment of the acclaimed Robots in Space series. His program will be hosted at the Grimes Farm and Conservation Center. It is free so come that evening to listen and learn.

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There are more stars in the heavens than all the grains of sand from on all the world’s beaches and deserts combined.

Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.