Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Prickly Lettuce in Bloom

Favoring sunny areas and dry soil, prickly lettuce is one of the most abundant wildflowers (some would say weeds) along the Colorado Front Range.  This week, those on our Littleton farm are blooming, their numerous, small, pale-yellow flowers adorning the landscape.

One of many wild lettuces across the globe, this wildflower is also closely related to dandelions and, like the latter, is an introduced native of Eurasia.  Despised by gardeners, this tall plant has prickly, deeply-lobed leaves that alternate sides along the branched stems; since the leaves twist to face the sun, prickly lettuce is also known as the compass plant.  Like dandelions, the leaves and flowers of this wildflower are edible but the milky sap, used for a variety of medicinal purposes, produces a bitter taste and the foliage must be properly cleaned before consumption (not my area of expertise).

Having yanked many stalks of prickly lettuce from our flower beds and shrub lines over the years, I understand those who prefer to call it a noxious weed.  But when the plant blooms (anytime from July to October), it is an attractive wildflower in my book. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Subalpine Solitude

For a naturalist, the Colorado Front Range is a wonderful place to live; within an hour's drive of our Littleton farm, I am able to explore five life zones.  On the other hand, the region has become increasingly congested with humans and I now limit my mountain excursions to weekdays, avoiding the clogged highways and crowded trails that develop on holidays and weekends.

This morning, I set my sights on locations near Kenosha Pass (10,000 feet) that I had not yet visited.  The pass itself, on US 285, is crossed by the Colorado Trail and thus receives a fair number of hikers and backpackers throughout the week; for that reason, I chose other sites that are reached by unpaved roads and remain unknown to tourists and most Front Range residents.  There, surrounded by a subalpine forest of pine, spruce, fir and aspen, I parked my pickup and sauntered along the jeep trails.  Enjoying the cool, fresh mountain air, I was joined only by wildlife that inhabit the woods and meadows; red squirrels, Steller's jays, common ravens, mountain chickadees, gray-headed juncos and least chipmunks were most conspicuous.

Offering views of the Continental Divide, the Mt. Evans massif and the Platte River Mountains, these secluded areas may not have the notoriety of Colorado's tourist hotspots but they share the same mountain climate, topography and ecology.  Better yet, they offer solitude!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Un-American President

Having entered politics by leading the "Birther" movement, Donald Trump spent most of his Presidential campaign ridiculing his opponents, denigrating world leaders and stoking hatred for immigrants and minorities.  Nevertheless, he was elected due to a host of promises that have yet to be realized; among these were building a Wall along the Mexico border, repealing and replacing Obamacare, reigniting the coal industry and keeping jobs in America.  Supporters appreciated his straight talk and, one suspects, his racism.  The fact that he refused to reveal his personal finances and repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin, the brutal dictator of Russia, seemed to have little effect on his legions.

During his campaign, Trump denied knowing anything about David Duke and white supremacists.  Now, after the horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia, he once again has refused to directly denounce those home-grown terrorists.  Beyond his bigotry, his war-mongering, his assault on human rights and his impulsive tweets against allies and his own cabinet members, Trump denies the threat of global warming and has rolled back environmental regulations (see The Anti-Environment President).

While his dedicated believers may be willing to overlook his narcissistic behavior and his coddling of racists and dictators, the majority of Americans must reclaim the principles upon which our country was founded.  We need not wait for the next election to dethrone this wayward, self-absorbed President.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Genetic Bond

Of all human relationships, the parent-child bond is surely the strongest.  While romantic relationships are often intense for relatively short periods of time, the biologic connection between the parent and his/her child is permanent, reinforced by the genetic imperative, a force that governs life in general.

Human parents are both conscious of the physical and emotional needs of their offspring and subconsciously devoted to protecting their own genes that the child now carries.  In other words, we dearly love our children for both altruistic and selfish reasons.  No other human relationship (except perhaps that between grandparents and their grandchildren) shares this dual motivation.

Indeed, while marriages often end in divorce, very few parents divorce their children and, in such cases, some form of mental illness or emotional turmoil in the parent is usually to blame.  On the other hand, the genetic bond is unidirectional; the child may be devoted to their parents due to the nurturing that they provided and the traits that they passed along but their "genetic focus" is on their own offspring.  Above all else, life is devoted to protecting and perpetuating itself; human life is no different in this respect.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Swainson's Hawks at Dusk

This evening, as dusk enveloped our Littleton farm, a trio of Swainson's hawks soared overhead, dipping and hovering as they circled the property.  Now that their breeding season has ended, these attractive Western buteos begin to gather in flocks.  By the time they leave for Argentina, in late summer or early autumn, those flocks may be comprised of hundreds if not thousands of hawks, often mingling with other migrant raptors.

Feasting primarily on mice, voles, ground squirrels and rabbits during the breeding season, Swainson's hawks switch to an insect diet for the rest of the year, snaring dragonflies, butterflies or moths in the air or chasing grasshoppers across fields.

Our visitors appeared to be hunting insects as they cavorted in the darkening sky.  Then again, they may have just been soaring for the fun of it, energized by the cool air and preparing their flight muscles for the long migration ahead.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Back in Rainy Colorado

After three weeks in the hot, dry Midwest, an area known for frequent summer showers and thunderstorms, I have returned to the semiarid landscape of the Colorado Front Range; arriving late yesterday afternoon, I was greeted by torrential rain along the eastern and southern edge of Metro Denver.  Intermittent rain and thunderstorms continued into the evening and, after a respite this morning, they have returned this afternoon.  Indeed, rainy, cool weather has dominated the region for more than a week.

High pressure over the Great Plains, combined with a stationary front through the Rocky Mountain corridor, is funneling monsoon moisture into the region.  In concert, the same dome of high pressure has cut off the flow Gulf of Mexico moisture to the Heartland and has been shunting Pacific storm systems across the northern U.S., depriving the Plains and Midwest of any prolonged rain events.

When weather patterns become stagnant, copious precipitation may drench normally dry regions while rain and humidity fail to reach reliably wet areas (e.g.. the Corn Belt).  Here in Littleton, our farm has regained its spring-like greenery, a dramatic change from the dry, browning property that I left behind three weeks ago.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Sand Wasps

While sitting on the beach at Sandy Lake yesterday, I noticed a large number of plump "bees" burrowing into the sand.  These were female sand wasps which lay eggs within the burrows and provide paralyzed insects for the larvae to feast on once they hatch.

Male sand wasps neither dig burrows nor feed the larvae; like many human males, their parental activity is limited to sperm donation.  While the adult females spend much of their time hunting for insects to feed the larvae, they, like the adult males, feed primarily on nectar, thereby pollinating a variety of flowers.

Sand wasps are found across the globe, utilizing the sandy soil of beaches, floodplains, deserts and prairies.  Since they are colonial nesters, these wasps are often overlooked until one comes across their nesting site (or until the wasps start digging near your beach chair).

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Return to Sandy Lake

This week, we have returned to Sandy Lake, in Portage County, Ohio, where my wife and her siblings own a lakeside cottage.  We have brought along two of our grandsons, ensuring more entertainment and less relaxation.

Like most of the Temperate Zone, this glacial lake in northeastern Ohio is in its summer doldrums.  A few ospreys and double-crested cormorants visit the lake each day and a noisy flock of purple martins have re-established residence in their man-made complex at the end of our dock.  Otherwise, the bird population has been relatively inconspicuous, represented by house sparrows, blue jays and a changing assortment of common summer residents.  Frogs and aquatic turtles grab the attention of our grandsons and, to the delight of the oldest, the bluegills have been biting.

Fortunately, the temperature has been relatively mild and the air pleasantly dry.  Rain is forecast to move in by tomorrow but the moisture is needed in this area and we'll get in our swimming and kayak excursions between the showers.  After all, keeping the grandsons entertained is a vital priority! 

Friday, July 28, 2017

Senator McCain and Healthcare

This week, Senator John McCain of Arizona, having just undergone surgery for an aggressive form of brain cancer, returned to Washington, DC, to participate in the ongoing healthcare debate.  As an individual who has long served our country in both the military and the government, Senator McCain has access to the best healthcare that is available in the U.S.; nevertheless, his current medical condition will likely be fatal, perhaps within the next year.

Last night, Senator McCain, a Republican, cast the deciding vote to shut down his Party's dysfunctional efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare).  No doubt, his own healthcare crisis played a major role in the Senator's decision to take a compassionate stance, thereby preventing Congress from stripping healthcare coverage from millions of Americans.

Receiving the diagnosis of a fatal illness focuses the mind.  One tends to become more empathetic and less judgmental.  Faced with mortality and the complications that illness can bring, we more easily appreciate the hardships that others endure, many of them already dealing with the ravages of poverty.  McCain's willingness to stand up to the folly of his colleagues was surely fueled by both his innate courage and his personal tribulations.

Monday, July 24, 2017

A Reinvigorated Floodplain

Two days after torrents of rain lashed the Missouri River Valley, life on the floodplain has been reinvigorated; this morning, noticeably cooler and drier air enveloped Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area.  The greenery was more vibrant, floral colors were more intense and the resident wildlife were far more active.

Water within the pools and channels had returned to near normal levels and shallows covered low swaths in the fields.  Indigo buntings, dickcissels and common yellowthroats were especially vocal, energized by the milder conditions; butterflies were numerous along the roadways, moving among the shrubs and wildflowers.  By contrast, waders and shorebirds had spread out across the recovering refuge and were less conspicuous than they were before the rains.

A lone bald eagle and two Cooper's hawks patrolled the peaceful scene, minks raced across the levees and a host of swallows skimmed the inviting pools, no longer stagnant and shrinking.  No doubt, hot, humid weather will return to central Missouri but, for now, an early taste of autumn is certainly welcome in the Valley.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Mark Twain Cave

Yesterday, facing another afternoon near 100 degrees F, we opted to take our grandsons to Mark Twain Cave in the Mississippi River Valley, just south of Hannibal, Missouri.  Renowned for its part in Mark Twain's novels and for its role as a refuge for Jesse James, the cave was discovered in the mid 19th Century and began to attract tourists soon thereafter.  Festooned with autographs from the 1800s, this limestone cave (which has about 3 miles of passageways) remains a popular escape from the summer heat and tours start every 15 minutes or so.

Having visited caves across the country, Mark Twain Cave is far from the most spectacular but was plenty interesting for our grandsons.  The narrow passageways are artificially lit and, like most commercialized caves, many of its formations are named.  Unlike most limestone caverns, "water features" such as stalactites, stalagmites and flowstones are very limited and only a few small pools were encountered.  Due to the steady influx of humans, few bats inhabit the cave.

Despite its popularity and artificial features, Mark Twain Cave was interesting from a historical point of view and our guide was both informative and personable.  Of course, an hour or so out of the oppressive summer heat was especially welcome (the cave temperature is 52 degrees F, year round).

Friday, July 21, 2017

Birding in the Cicada Din

On these hot, summer days, many of us prefer to bird during the evening hours when at least a touch of coolness is in the air.  Hampered by a dense woodland canopy to which songbirds often retreat, we rely on their songs or calls to zero in on their location.

Unfortunately, in the middle of a Midwestern summer, the annual cicadas are reaching their peak level of activity and their loud chorus drowns out the birdsong, making our avian quarry difficult to locate.  Focusing on birds that feed on lawns (robins, grackles) or in the open sky (chimney swifts, common nighthawks), we hope to catch sight of other species as they dart between shrubs and tree lines or race across the darkening landscape.

Frustrated by the cicadas, some of us head in early while others, myself included, grab a lawn chair and cede the evening to our noisy neighbors.  After all, their brief adult lives will soon end and, having spent two years underground, they deserve their time in the sun.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Eagle Bluffs on Simmer

Persistent, oppressive heat, an ongoing drought and diminished flow from the Missouri River has left Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area simmering in the midst of a Midwestern summer.  Many of the pools are either dry or coated with algae and the central channel is rapidly evaporating, stranding many fish (especially Asian carp) in the warm, oxygen-poor shallows.

Taking advantage of these conditions, great blue herons and great egrets were abundant this morning, joined by a large number of killdeer that noisily patrolled the expanding mudflats.  Vultures have yet to descend on the hapless victims but small, mixed flocks of shorebirds gathered along the shrinking pools.  Wood ducks were rather numerous and a few double-crested cormorants dove for fish in the deeper areas of the channel.  Other sightings included four bald eagles, a Cooper's hawk, red-headed woodpeckers, indigo buntings, yellow-billed cuckoos, dickcissels and lark sparrows, among other common residents.

Waiting on heavy thunderstorms or late summer cold fronts, this floodplain ecosystem must endure the hot, dry weather.  Many songbirds will retreat to the shade of riparian woodlands while some mammals will estivate until conditions improve.  In the meantime, waders, swallows, shorebirds and turkey vultures will be the primary beneficiaries of the heat and drought.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Back in the Soup

Back in central Missouri for a couple of weeks, I have returned to the hot, humid air of a Midwestern summer.  Unable to cool off, even in the shade, I must retreat at intervals to our air-conditioned home and primarily limit my outdoor activity to the morning and evening hours.

This evening, a cold front is slowly dropping through the Mississippi Valley, promising showers and thunderstorms for those in its path and cool, dry air for those behind the front.  Unfortunately, the latter is not expected to enter our region and, while any rain will be welcomed, it will, in the end, merely add to the humidity.  Afternoon highs are expected to approach 100 degrees F by late in the week.

Of course, the landscape is lush compared to the Front Range, reflecting annual precipitation that is almost double that on the Colorado Piedmont; thick, hot, humid summer air is part of the price for that greenery.  On the positive side, fireflies flicker in the gathering dusk and colorful cardinals, among the last songbirds to bed down, flash among the woodlands.  Natural diversity is good for the soul.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Family Massacre

Early this morning, as I was headed east from Denver, I encountered a tragedy on Interstate 70.  A mother raccoon and her four kits lie splattered across the highway, likely nocturnal victims of a tractor trailer.

Raccoons can be a nuisance to homeowners but even the most hard-hearted suburbanite would be moved by this sight.  The mother, whether escorting her first or tenth litter, was purely following instinct and the youngsters, new to this dangerous world, had but a month or two to explore their surroundings before tragedy struck.

I could shift the discussion toward humans and our impact on natural ecosystems but the scene was too wrenching and the raccoons deserve better.  As fellow mammals, we empathize with their plight and, as intelligent creatures, we acknowledge the risk of sudden and random death.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Trumpet Vine

The orange-red flowers of trumpet vine have been blooming on our Littleton farm over the past few weeks.  Among the most recognizable of plants, this species is native to the Southeastern U.S. but has been widely cultivated and is now naturalized in Temperate and Subtropical latitudes across the globe, including semiarid regions of the American West.

The trumpet vine at our farm was planted at the southeastern corner of the house and, if left alone, would probably cover at least two sides of the building by now.  Drought tolerant, the vine thrives in poor soil and essentially takes care of itself; one need only prune the vine to keep its rapid expansion in check.  Since the flowers form on new growth, pruning is best performed in autumn or early spring.

Of course, this deciduous, woody vine is planted for its showy flowers which attract hummingbirds; our resident broad-tailed hummingbirds visit the trumpets as do a host of bees.  The aggressive vine spreads by both seed and suckering and its "aerial roots" may damage homes, barns and fencing on which it grows; it may also smother shrubs and small trees if not kept in check.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Fishermen and Litter

With all due respect to the large number of fishermen (especially fly-fishermen) who respect the environment and clean up after their activities, a significant percentage of their colleagues seem to be oblivious of the mess that they create and the environmental damage that it may cause.

Discarded beer cans, lunch debris, cut lines and an assortment of floats, weights and empty containers often litter their abandoned fishing site.  Just this morning, I came across such a scene of desecration at South Platte Park, an otherwise pristine nature preserve.

Unlike hunters, who generally seem to connect with the ecosystem in which they seek their quarry, many fishermen are present solely for the recreation, bringing along their folding chairs, music and sustenance.  I doubt that many of them can identify the birds and mammals that share the lake or river and might be endangered by the garbage that they leave behind.  In my personal opinion, fishing should be restricted (if not eliminated) within sensitive natural areas; pelicans, cormorants, diving ducks, mink and other native wildlife will keep the fish population under control.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Monsoon Preview

While the peak of the Southwest Monsoon is likely several weeks away, a preview has arrived this evening.  Patchy showers are moving northeastward across the Front Range urban corridor and a sizable zone of precipitation zeroed in on our farm, bringing a welcome reprieve from our hot, dry weather.

Triggered by high pressure over the Southern Plains and low pressure over the Desert Southwest, the monsoon pumps Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of California moisture across the Four Corners region.  Consulting the radar this evening, one finds a clear dome over West Texas and Oklahoma while patches of rain extend across northern Mexico and then northward through Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado.

Heavy rain is not expected in our region and the cool, wet respite will likely be brief.  But in a semiarid ecosystem such as ours, any precipitation (rain or snow) is always welcome.


Sunday, July 9, 2017

Cottontail Forms

As I reported two years ago (see Our Cottontail Colony), the cottontail population on our Littleton farm has exploded since red fox and coyotes stopped denning on the property.  No doubt, visiting predators (including owls, hawks, fox and coyotes) take a limited toll on their numbers but our resident cottontails remain active and conspicuous, night and day.

Fortunately, the rabbits nibble primarily on the various grasses, weeds and ground-cover plants that cloak our fields and "lawns" and have not significantly damaged the other vegetation; rather, their major impact has resulted from their digging.  While cottontails use the abandoned dens of other mammals and may nest in woodpiles our outbuildings, they do not construct their own underground tunnels and chambers.  However, they are fond of scooping out "forms," shallow depressions in which they rest or place their nests; they also may dig up roots or tubers that suite their fancy.

As a result, our property is pock-marked with cottontail forms and, since the soil is dry and sandy, vegetation is slow to recover.  Add a burgeoning cottontail population and their habit of nesting at least four times each year and we have ourselves a problem.  Despite the cute appearance and docile nature of our cottontails, I'm beginning to root for the predators.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Rattlesnake Alert

This afternoon, just after the latest thunderstorm failed to deliver its nourishing rains to our parched, Littleton farm, I was called to the backyard to see a rattlesnake.  My five year-old grandson wanted me to pick it up so he could feel its back.

Not surprisingly, the rattlesnake turned out to be a rather large garter snake, its mid-section swollen from a recent meal.  We watched as he slithered into the nearby shrubs and I pointed out a few features that excluded his initial identification.

Such teaching opportunities come along on a regular basis here on the farm and I relish the chance to instill both knowledge and natural etiquette during these encounters.  Today, I was able to teach him about garter snakes (including their physical traits, diet and behavior) while also encouraging him to watch the reptile from a safe and non-threatening distance.  He'll surely remember the experience and, hopefully, retain a healthy respect for our wild neighbors.

Friday, July 7, 2017

A Plant-Based Diet

My sister recently recommended that I watch Forks Over Knives, a documentary available on Netflix and elsewhere on the internet.  The film makes a convincing case for adhering to a plant-based diet, especially in relation to the prevention and treatment of disease but also as a means of reducing our impact on the environment.  Of course, it also highlights the political ramifications, including the reluctance of the Federal Government to loosen its bonds with the Meat and Dairy Industries.

I suspect most physicians would agree with the basic points made in the documentary, especially as it relates to the importance of nutrition, weight control and exercise.  Of course, some controversy still exists within the healthcare industry and the implication that diet alone will negate the need for medications will not be well received by those in the pharmaceutical realm.  Nevertheless, impressive evidence links cultural dietary habits and the incidence of both cardiovascular disease and malignancies.  Surely, a combination of diet and drug management might often be in order and, in some cases, a plant-based diet may prove to be sufficient.

Those of us who are already quasi-vegans may be pushed toward a pure plant-based diet by this fine documentary and those of us who already avoid meat, fish and dairy products for humanitarian and/or ecologic reasons will have more ammunition for that choice.  On the other hand, Forks Over Knives is more than a documentary; a quick check of the internet reveals that it has morphed into a mini-industry.  Whether that impacts one's response to the film will be a personal matter but I still highly recommend watching it.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Bees in the Basswood

The large basswood tree on our Littleton farm is now full of fragrant, yellow flowers, attracting hordes of honeybees.  Also known as lindens or lime trees, these trees are represented by at least thirty species across North America and Eurasia.

Long-lived, basswoods are renowned for the honey produced from their nectar and for their soft, light, finely-grained wood, used to construct musical instruments.  The flowers are also used to brew herbal teas which are claimed to have a variety of medicinal properties.  While basswoods attract aphids and the ants that "farm" them for their "honey dew," neither appears to affect the health of the tree.

We'll just enjoy the beauty of our basswood, its fragrant flowers and the shade that its dense canopy offers during the hot days of summer.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Counting on the Courts

A federal appeals court has temporarily blocked the Trump Administration's attempt to role back the clean air standards enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama.  Following the hesitancy of courts to fully impose Trump's immigration restrictions, this is a hopeful sign that the judicial system will slow if not block the current assault on human rights and natural ecosystems.

One would think that moderate Republicans would join Democrats to derail Trump's agenda but statesmanship is sorely lacking among modern politicians.  Their willingness to ignore or justify the President's twitter rants, no matter how disturbing, is the most obvious sign of their party loyalty.

We must therefore count on the courts to protect the rights of women, the poor, the handicapped and the displaced and to defend our planet's environment from the greed of wealthy industrialists.  Until Congress develops a backbone, the courts may be our only hope; on this National Holiday of Freedom, that is a sad conclusion indeed.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Lamb's Ear

Late last summer, a rosette of velvety leaves appeared near the edge of a field on our Littleton farm.  Covered with silver-white hairs, the leaves persisted through the winter and, within the past few days, the plant has sent up stalks with small purple flowers.

Our newcomer is lamb's ear, native to Turkey and Iran.  Often planted as an ornamental in flower gardens, this herb can become naturalized in sunny, dry regions, explaining its sudden appearance on our Front Range property.  Long used for a variety of medicinal purposes, lamb's ear is easily maintained; it tolerates poor soil and does best with full sun exposure.  Since it is drought tolerant and attracts butterflies, it is a welcome addition to our farm.

One of the joys of owning a piece of land, however small, is the discovery of flora and fauna never before encountered.  Of course, shunning the use of pesticides and herbicides and foregoing artificial irrigation will greatly increase such opportunities.