Friday, April 18, 2014

The Futility of Leash Laws

I am very fond of dogs and have owned five of them in the course of my life.  Fortunately, I or my family always owned property large enough for them to get plenty of exercise.  Today, in this dog crazy country, many pets spend their day cooped up in an apartment building, awaiting a walk around the block in the morning and evening.

An increasing demand for exercise areas has led to the creation of "dog parks" in many urban areas, where owners can let their pooch romp with other canines; in addition, city and State parks have begun to set aside areas where dogs are free to roam (under owner supervision).  Despite these options, most regions of the country still allow dogs in nature preserves, as long as they are kept on a leash;  as one who frequently hikes through such preserves, I can testify that leash laws are widely ignored once the owner  is away from the parking area.  Of course, following their nose and natural instincts, the canines end up chasing wildlife, disrupting native vegetation and leaving their excrement throughout the preserve.

Contrary to popular perception, dogs are not natural residents of Earth's ecosystems.  While their wild ancestors play important roles as predators, dogs were bred for a wide variety of roles and, though many breeds are used for hunting, they are not natural species; indeed, humans are more "natural" than dogs.  Since leash laws are ineffective, it is best, in my opinion, to ban the presence of dogs in nature preserves and other environmentally sensitive areas.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Communing with Wildlife

Last evening, the PBS series Nature aired the personal story of a Wyoming rancher who became closely involved with a herd of mule deer, naming them, interacting with them and, as is typical on such Disneyesque programs, rescuing an orphaned fawn.  Factual information about the mule deer was intermixed with the emotional reactions of the narrator to their trials and tribulations; in the end, it was more about the rancher than the deer.

Many viewers might be fascinated and entertained by this form of programming but, in my opinion, it sends an inappropriate message to the general public.  While it is important to learn about the behavior of our wild neighbors and to make every effort to ensure that they have adequate natural habitat, the decision to become closely involved with their social groups encourages their tolerance of human presence.  Such a close alliance is dangerous for the wildlife and, in some cases, for the humans as well; most of us remember the young man who took up residence with grizzlies and, in the process, lost his life.

Our respect for wildlife is best demonstrated by observing and studying them from a safe and nonthreatening distance.  To become intimately involved with their daily lives, especially with the goal of producing a film, runs contrary to the conservation ethic.  For Nature, a well respected series, to foster such documentaries is both unfortunate and counterproductive.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Reynard Returns

Since buying our Littleton, Colorado, farm in 1990, red fox had been regular visitors (if not residents); indeed, for much of that time, an adult pair denned beneath our barn, raising a litter of pups each year.  While the property was littered with squirrel limbs, fish heads and goose bones, these carnivores controlled our mice and voles and were always welcome on the farm.

Then, a few years ago, a pair of coyotes invaded our small refuge, evicting the resident fox and killing others that wandered onto the property; they even used the old fox den to raise a litter of their own.  Fortunately, we were able to encourage their departure and closed off the denning site to discourage their return.  While these efforts were successful, fox and deer did not return to the farm but we have observed a pair of cottontails, long displaced by the fox and coyotes.

This morning, I looked out the kitchen window to find a young red fox chasing a squirrel from beneath our bird feeders; the agile prey was able to escape up a tree and the fox sauntered on to explore the pasture.  It's good to know that Reynard has returned to our property though the cottontails may not agree!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Carbon & Life

While carbon is the fourth most common element in our solar system, exceeded only by hydrogen, helium and oxygen, it is but a tiny fraction of the elements on Earth, which is composed primarily of iron (more than 32%), oxygen, silicon, magnesium and sulfur (among less abundant elements).  Of course, hydrogen and oxygen (the components of water) dominate the oceans and nitrogen and oxygen comprise 99% of our atmosphere; despite its growing impact on our climate, carbon (in carbon dioxide) is but a small fraction of the atmosphere.  On Earth, graphite and diamond are the naturally occurring compounds composed purely of carbon.

Despite the fact that carbon comprises a very small fraction of the elements on Earth, it accounts for almost 20% of the mass of living organisms.  Able to bind with up to four other atoms, carbon forms strong bonds with hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and other carbon atoms and is capable of forming double or triple bonds with many elements.  Carbon thus forms chains and lattice structures that support the chemistry of life, including carbohydrates, lipids, proteins and nucleic acids.  Indeed, life would not have evolved without the presence of this element.

Mention carbon and most of us think of coal and other hydrocarbons.  Of course, these fossil fuels are remnants of terrestrial plants and marine plankton that lived 200-350 million years ago; depending on its age and the conditions under which it formed, coal is 75-98% carbon.  In like manor, limestones and dolomites are composed of calcium and magnesium carbonates (respectively) that originally formed in oceans or shallow seas from the degradation of shells and marine organisms.  On Earth, the great majority of carbon exists within living plants and animals or within the products of their demise.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

From Summer to Winter

Following a week of summer-like weather, with afternoon highs at or near 70 degrees F, winter conditions have returned to the Colorado Front Range.  A chilly rain fell overnight and was mixing with snow by dawn; as I write this blog, the precipitation has changed over to snow but, so far, accumulation has been minimal due to the warm ground.

The dramatic change in weather, not unusual along the Front Range in March and April, is courtesy of a Pacific storm system that swept across the Rockies last evening.  Ahead of the storm's cold front, severe thunderstorms are forming from the Southern Plains to the mid Mississippi Valley while, behind the front, an upslope flow is bringing snow to the Northern Plains and the Front Range.  The position of the storm's central low, now over southeastern Kansas, is limiting the intensity of the upslope and only four inches of snow accumulation is expected in Metro Denver by midnight.

While the wet snow will pose little threat to the trees and shrubs on our Littleton farm, an overnight low temperature near 20 degrees F will create havoc for the fruit trees that are now in bloom.  The pear, apricot and crabapple crop will surely be poor this year; fortunately, the apple and mulberry trees and the chokecherry shrubs are not yet flowering and their fruit will be spared (at least by this winter outbreak).

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Birds of Summer

All across the Northern Hemisphere, birders will be checking their backyards and local nature preserves over the next few weeks, watching for the arrival of summer residents.  Some, including tree swallows and eastern phoebes, have been back in the Heartland for a month and others have been trickling in since the beginning of April.  Before I left Missouri, a house wren (presumably a male) was already in Columbia, searching our property for suitable nest sites; here in Littleton, Colorado, a lesser goldfinch turned up several days ago, the earliest I have seen one on our farm.  But the majority of summer birds will arrive in the coming weeks, joined by a host of migrants that pass through on their way to more northern breeding grounds.

This morning, at South Platte Park, migrants and pure summer residents were rather sparse.  Squadrons of tree swallows attacked clouds of midges that rose from the ponds, double-crested cormorants now mingled with the flocks of waterfowl, blue-winged and cinnamon teal cruised the river with their cold-loving, green-winged cousins and a few yellow-rumped warblers foraged in the riparian woodlands; of special note was an osprey that perched on a phone pole along South Platte Reservoir.

It is unlikely that the birds of summer will increase in number or diversity over the next 48 hours.  A "spring storm" will arrive this evening and is expected to leave up to six inches of snow by tomorrow afternoon; in concert, the upslope flow will drop our overnight temperature into the low 20s (F).  While the Front Range will enjoy an afternoon high of 71 today, tomorrow's high is forecast to be in the 30s, not terribly inviting for our summer insectivores.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Escalante River

The upper tributaries of the Escalante River rise on the Aquarius Plateau of southern Utah, a mesa capped by Tertiary volcanic rock and flanked by colorful outcrops of the Claron Formation (deposited during the Paleocene).  Tumbling to the desert floor, they flow southward, carving their way through Cretaceous strata that extend northeastward to the Waterpocket Fold and SSW to the Kaiparowits Plateau.

Nearing the main channel of the Escalante River, which begins at the town of Escalante, the tributaries and the primary stream begin to incise a layer cake of Jurassic sandstones, producing spectacular canyonlands.  Flowing eastward and then southeastward, the Escalante makes a tortuous, ninety-mile journey to the Colorado River, which it joins in Lake Powell; en route, the river and its tributaries cut down through Jurassic strata that span sixty million years of Earth's history.  Of course, in that arid landscape, that erosion is seasonal, occurring primarily during the spring snowmelt and the summer monsoon.

Protected within the eastern portion of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (established in 1996) and a northern section of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the remote Escalante was one of the last rivers in the U.S. to be completely mapped and remains one of the last free-flowing rivers in the American West.  Yet, conflicting regional interests, combined with the effects of water diversion, roadway construction and alien tree invasion (primarily Russian olive and tamarisk) have threatened the welfare of the Escalante; fortunately, the Escalante River Watershed Partnership, a concerted effort of local conservationists, State and Federal agencies and the Nature Conservancy, is working to restore the river's natural ecology while respecting the interests of those who rely on the Escalante for their recreation and livelihood.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Up to the Pines

Along the Colorado Front Range, ponderosa pine woodlands cloak sunny slopes of the foothills and lower mountains, generally from elevations of 6500 to 9000 feet.  These large, aromatic conifers tend to form open "parklands" which appeal to humans and wildlife alike.  Douglas fir and Colorado blue spruce grow on the cooler, north-facing slopes, forming dense tracts of forest.

This morning, I visited Mt. Falcon Park, west of Denver, one of the better locations to explore this Montane Forest ecosystem.  American crows, Steller's jays, black-billed magpies and northern flickers were most conspicuous, their raucous calls echoing across the Park, while pygmy nuthatches and those ubiquitous American robins were the most abundant avian residents.  Other sightings included western and mountain bluebirds, Townsend's solitaires, hairy woodpeckers, pine siskins, dark-eyed juncos (the gray-headed race), mountain chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches.

Abert's squirrels, closely associated with ponderosa pine woodlands, inhabit Mt. Falcon Park, as do Colorado chipmunks and golden-mantled ground squirrels.  Mule deer are abundant in this life zone and, today, I encountered a small herd of elk along the entry road, not yet headed for their summer range in the higher mountains.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Problem with Obamacare

As Conservative Republicans continue to attack the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, distracting the electorate from their opposition to the rights of the middle class, women, gays and immigrants, some of us are unhappy with the Act for other reasons.  In our opinion, Obamacare does not go far enough in providing access to healthcare for impoverished and uninsured Americans.

While the Affordable Care Act has addressed many important issues, such as coverage for pre-existing conditions and insurance for young adults on their parents' policy, it has left a segment of society with an inability to obtain affordable healthcare; individuals who are too "wealthy" to qualify for Medicaid but too poor to afford Obamacare remain uninsured.  Of course, these persons live in States that have declined Federal funds to expand their Medicaid programs; in effect, the affordability of quality healthcare varies across the United States.

In my opinion, it is outrageous that the wealthiest country on the planet does not ensure that all of its citizens have access to preventive and interventional healthcare; opposition to that concept is both morally bankrupt and economically unwise.  Conservative Republicans may prefer to focus on our right to own assault rifles but many of us believe that quality healthcare should be a right for all Americans, regardless of their social status.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Western Grebes in Colorado

Having just returned to Colorado, I saw the first western grebes of the season this morning; a pair of those slender divers was feeding on a lake in South Platte Park, in Littleton.  Western grebes are generally found in the State from April through October and pair off soon after they arrive.  They favor lakes and reservoirs with extensive open water for fishing and marsh-lined shores for nesting; common along the South Platte and Arkansas Valleys of eastern Colorado, western grebes also inhabit lakes of the mountain parklands and western Colorado valleys.

The renowned mating dance of these graceful birds is best observed in late April and early May.  Nests are generally placed on mats of floating vegetation, anchored to reeds and hidden amidst the marsh plants.  Three or four eggs are laid and, as with other grebes, the young ride on their parents backs after hatching; while the buoyant youngsters pick insects from the surface, the adults dive for fish and a variety of aquatic invertebrates.

Beyond Colorado, western grebes breed on freshwater lakes from the western Great Lakes region to the Pacific Coast and from southern Canada to Kansas, Colorado, the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin and California; the very similar Clark's grebe inhabits the southwestern section of this range (including Colorado). By November, most have departed for bays and estuaries along the Pacific Coast, from southern Alaska to Mexico.

Monday, April 7, 2014

April on the Great Plains

Driving west on I-70, I entered the Great Plains of North America several miles west of Topeka, Kansas; there, the rolling, wooded terrain of the Kansas River Valley gives way to the grass-covered ridges of the Flint Hills, eroded from Permian sediments.  Today, many parcels of the grassland were charred by recent burning and the hazy air, scented with smoke, offered evidence that this seasonal activity was ongoing.  Within another week or so, scissor-tailed flycatchers will arrive from the south, joining meadowlarks and a host of grassland sparrows on the barbed-wire fences of this prairie ecosystem.

Just west of the Flint Hills, at Junction City, a large flock of double-crested cormorants circled above the Smoky Hill River Valley while, beyond Salina, steady rain grounded a flock of Franklin's gulls and, I assume, their insect prey.  The rain also obscured the numerous turbines of the massive Smoky Hills Wind Farm, north of Ellsworth, but the skies cleared as I neared Russell.

Wildlife observations on the High Plains, which begin at Wakeeney, are generally limited due to the flat, treeless terrain; open country raptors (rough-legged hawks, Swainson's hawks, prairie falcons, northern harriers), migrant cranes and white pelicans, herds of pronghorn (in eastern Colorado), western kingbirds and flocks of grassland sparrows and longspurs are among the usual sightings.  Indeed, the broad dome of the sky, with its varied cloud formations,  fickle weather and colorful sunsets usually offers the grandest spectacle on the High Plains.  Today, mountains of water vapor gleamed in the mid-day sun while their low, slate-gray foundations unleashed curtains of rain; where the highway climbed above 5000 feet, the precipitation changed to wet snow.  More problematic was the strong north wind, gusting to 50 mph at times, that rocked my pickup all the way from central Kansas to the Colorado Front Range.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Birds on a Wire

Many bird species perch on wires from time to time but some are more likely to engage in that practice.  Among raptors, American kestrels are commonly spotted on power lines in open country, surveying the ground for large insects, small mammals or songbirds; screech and pygmy owls also hunt from power lines. Other permanent residents that frequently perch on wires include bluebirds, doves, robins, meadowlarks, rock pigeons and starlings; the latter may gather in large flocks, weighing down the line.

During the warmer months, swallows (all four species) often perch on power lines, forming large congregations as the fall migration approaches.  Among other summer residents and migrants that indulge in this practice are various flycatchers, kingbirds (especially the western species), upland sandpipers, hummingbirds, phoebes, indigo buntings, grackles and dickcissels.

While the above lists are not complete, accurate bird identification often involves knowledge of a species' preferred habitat and behavior.  Novice birders, confronted with the large diversity of birds in a guide book, tend to focus on their color and field marks, often overlooking clues related to location and activity.  Veteran birders, on the other hand, can usually identify common birds at a glance, based more on their silhouette, stance or flight style than on the details of their plumage.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Snake Watching

Today's warm, sunny weather lured garter snakes from our rock wall for the first time this season.  Over the course of an hour or so, I watched several emerge from its crevices, moving cautiously after their long winter slumber.  Too sluggish to hunt, they curled themselves near the base of the wall to bask in the mid-day sun.

Snake watching is a bit less exciting than birdwatching.  The subjects do not flit from branch to branch or sing from an exposed perch.  Neither do they flash their colors in the afternoon sun or announce their presence with a flurry of noise and activity.  Rather, camouflaged amidst the leaf litter, snakes lie motionless for hours at a time, hoping to go unnoticed.  Indeed, their very survival depends on stealth and, unless actively pursuing a mate or prey, they choose to conserve their energy.

Humans, impatient beings that we are, tend to be entertained by action, whether it be sports, computer games, movies or outdoor exploration.  Birding and many other forms of nature study fit into that mode, forcing us to move along and shift our attention among a variety of sights and sounds.  Snake watching, on the other hand, is not likely to appeal to many members of our species but it does have its benefits; after all, to be successful, one must be quiet, move slowly and focus on a relatively small patch of ground.  Like meditation, it is a calming experience, a reprieve from the many diversions of our frenzied lives.