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Crossing the Eastern Divide

Yesterday morning, we left Knoxville, driving eastward through the foggy Tennessee Valley.  After crossing the Holston and French Broad Rivers (which join to form the Tennessee), we climbed into the Blue Ridge Mountains,  following the course of the Pigeon River.  Leveling out west of Asheville, we crossed the divide between the Pigeon and the French Broad Rivers, encountering the largest concentration of tent caterpillars that I have ever seen.

At Asheville, we angled southward on Interstate 26 and crossed the Eastern Divide just south of Hendersonville; this Divide, which snakes north to south through Eastern Canada and the Eastern U.S., separates the watersheds of rivers flowing to the Gulf of Mexico from those flowing toward the Atlantic Ocean.  South of the Divide, we soon arrived at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and were treated to a spectacular view of the Southeastern Piedmont.

After undulating across the Piedmont, hemmed in by a pine-broadleaf forest, we crossed the F…

Road Trip to the Southeast Coast

On our way to a family wedding in South Carolina, my wife and I left Columbia this morning and drove eastward across the Glaciated Plain of Missouri.  After crossing the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers in St. Louis, we angled southeastward across Illinois, eventually fording the Wabash River (a major tributary of the Ohio) before climbing across the Shawnee Hills of southern Indiana (capped with Pennsylvanian sandstone).

After crossing the Ohio River at Louisville, we drove eastward through the Bluegrass Region of northern Kentucky (underlaid with Ordovician Limestone), crossing the Kentucky River near Frankfort and again south of Lexington; the Kentucky flows northward to joint the Ohio.  At Berea, we climbed onto the Appalachian Plateau (a layer cake of Carboniferous sediments) and crossed the Cumberland River (another tributary of the Ohio) in southern Kentucky.  Entering Tennessee, we climbed across the Allegheny Front, the high, western edge of the Appalachian Plateau, and then …

Perseids from the Sky

On my regular flights between Colorado and Missouri, I am usually focused on the ground, studying the topography and rivers; should it be a night flight, I watch for city lights, observing the sequence of towns and cities that I have come to memorize from my numerous road trips.

But tonight, as I fly from Denver to Columbia, Missouri, I will be watching the sky.  This is the annual peak night for the Perseid Meteor Shower, produced by remnant debris from the Swift-Tuttle Comet.  As the Earth crosses the comet's path around the sun, the dust particles collide with and ignite in our atmosphere, producing numerous meteors.  The Perseids are often abundant and are expected to increase in coming decades as the comet's path more closely aligns with the orbit of our planet.

As I write this blog from Denver International Airport, sunset and our takeoff are still two hours away but the radar shows that precipitation is minimal between here and Columbia, suggesting that high clouds wil…

A Sunset Flight

Last evening, my son (a pilot) and I took a flight across the Colorado Piedmont, south of Denver.  Leaving Centennial Airport an hour before sunset, we headed west to Chatfield Reservoir and then turned south, following the base of the foothills.

Crossing over Roxborough State Park, adorned with scenic rock formations, we could see the prominent peaks that rise along the South Platte River Canyon to our west and southwest.  Farther along, we passed the craggy mass of Devil's Head and continued up the Plum Creek Valley to the Palmer Divide.  Angling to the east, we followed the Divide for a short distance, catching a view of Monument and Colorado Springs in the Fountain Creek Valley, off to our south.  After curving across the upper tributaries of Cherry Creek (which eventually joins the South Platte in downtown Denver), we passed above the mesas and buttes that characterize the scenic topography of the Castle Rock region.

As we headed north, near Sedalia, the sun set behind the F…

Prairie Sunflowers

While they may bloom from June to September, prairie sunflowers are generally most abundant and conspicuous in August.  Native to the High Plains, clumps of these wildflowers adorn almost every highway and country road in Eastern Colorado; since they favor full sun and sandy soil, prairie sunflowers have spread throughout most of the West and much of the Eastern U.S., wherever such conditions exist.

These common annuals may look a bit scraggly where they dot an abandoned field but can produce stunning swaths of gold in more favorable areas.  Their seeds are consumed by small mammals and a wide variety of grassland birds and have been used by humans as well (either in whole form or churned into a butter).

Prairie sunflowers are certainly among the more widespread wildflowers on the Great Plains and are especially appreciated when the intense summer sun has baked away most of the greenery.  To me, they represent the vanguard of autumn splendor.

A Good Year for Fruit

Despite excessive heat and a prolonged drought through the first half of summer, the fruit crop on our Littleton farm has been excellent this year.  Mulberries were abundant in June and our various apple and pear trees are more laden with fruit than I have seen in many years.

Of course, this abundance reflects the fact that we did not have a late freeze this spring.  Though some upslope snow fell in March and April, the temperature remained relatively mild and the blossoms emerged intact.  Since I am often out of town, our farm management might be described as willful neglect, characterized by minimal irrigation and no use of fertilizers or pesticides; as a result, the fruit is abundant but not terribly attractive for human consumption.  While I might snack on an apple or two, almost all of the crop is left for the wildlife.

Indeed, nocturnal squabbles have been evident this past week as raccoons and skunks raid the fallen fruit.  Squirrels, flickers and mice also partake and, in som…

Late Summer Flocking

As the days continue to shorten and summer begins to lose its intensity, attentive birders notice flocking behavior in many species.  For most birds (goldfinches are an exception), their breeding season has ended and their territorial instincts have faded; migrants gather in flocks to prepare for their southward journey while many permanent residents form flocks to evade predators and to improve the efficiency of their foraging.

Last evening, I encountered a flock of 30+ barn swallows, strafing a nearby lake to fuel up for their journey to South America; then, this morning, I watched as a flock of 18 snowy egrets moved southward above the South Platte Valley.  Among other late summer migrants that travel in sizable flocks are blue-winged teal,  Swainson's and broad-winged hawks, shorebirds, common nighthawks, American white pelicans and Franklin's gulls.  Non-migrant flocks of cedar waxwings, doves, robins, starlings and various blackbirds are also increasingly common as summ…

Flashback Post IX

While I have often expressed my disdain for organized religion in this blog, I find myself agreeing with Pope Francis this week.  His declaration that the death penalty must be abolished, though based on his faith more than other factors, echoes a post of mine from February of 2014.

See: The Death of Capital Punishment

Counting Birds in Kansas

Yesterday, I made the 11 hour drive back to Metro Denver from Columbia, Missouri.  Since I had my oldest grandson along for the ride, I suggested we count the number of bird species that we encountered along Interstate 70 in Kansas.  Knowing that the Kansas segment of our trip covers 422 miles, I expected to see 30 species or so; much to my surprise (and frustration), we observed only 14.

Contrary to popular perception, the Kansas section of I-70 actually crosses an interesting variety of landscape and habitat, including the eastern woodlands and river valleys, the Flint Hill grasslands, the Smoky Hills region and the Western High Plains; nevertheless, our bird sightings did not match that diversity.  As one might expect, European starlings, rock pigeons and mourning doves were most abundant and a fair number of red-tailed hawks patrolled the eastern half of the State.  The highlight of our count was provided by four Mississippi kites, one pair near Junction City and the other near A…

Abandoned Nests

On my last day in central Missouri, my wife and I took a walk around Perry Phillips Lake, just south of Columbia.  In late spring and early summer, we always stop at the covered fishing deck to watch the nesting activity of barn and cliff swallows; the former place their nests on the cross beams of the structure while the latter adhere their cavities of mud to angular joints of the roof.

Now, in early August, those nests are abandoned.  While barn swallows still strafe the lake and adjacent fields, feasting on insects, the cliff swallows have moved off to the southwest, beginning their long journey to southern South America; by January, during the peak of the Southern Summer, they will head for North America once again, sometimes arriving in the Desert Southwest by late February.  The barn swallows will migrate southward by September, wintering in more northern regions of South America.

The abandoned nests at Phillips Lake are just another sign that summer is winding down, though man…