Friday, April 9, 2021

Toad Days

Engaged in yard work on this beautiful April day, I nearly stepped on an American toad as it made its way across the lawn.  Stirred from its winter slumber by the recent warm weather and heavy rains, this common amphibian will soon be joining his/her cohorts at a seasonal pond.

Males will arrive first, trilling to attract potential mates.  Eggs and sperm will then be released into the fishless pool, giving rise to small black tadpoles which will undergo metamorphosis to toadlets within 60 days.  Mating season generally lasts into mid summer, weather permitting.

Adults and young will then disperse across the landscape, consuming a wide variety of insects and other terrestrial invertebrates.  The toads, themselves, may fall victim to snakes, herons, raccoons, hawks (especially red-shouldered hawks) and, of course,  careless humans. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

A Feast for the Senses

Having returned to central Missouri, I enjoyed a glorious April day, mostly from our back deck.  A good book (so far) and a glass of wine augmented the experience!

Vibrant birdsong flooded in from every direction.  The fading blossoms of magnolia trees and the new flowers of redbuds provided a colorful background as the faint smell of cut grass wafted in from a more industrious neighbor's yard.  A pair of carpenter bees zoomed about the deck, an eastern gray tree frog called from his nearby perch and squadrons of turkey vultures soared overhead, enjoying the warm, south breeze as much as I was.

Of course, this idyllic day in early April does not portend a carefree spring.  Thunderstorms are due by early morning and cooler temperatures will follow.  But it is best that we accept nature's gifts when they are offered and today was a feast for the senses. 

Sunday, April 4, 2021

An Easter Road Trip

On this Easter Sunday, I planned a road trip.  I would have preferred a leisurely journey through hilly farmlands with quaint homesteads, old barns, placid livestock, gurgling brooks and parcels of forest.  Unfortunately, that would not be the case.

Instead, I was due to speed eastward on the concrete ribbon of Interstate 70, crossing the bleak landscape of the High Plains.  Relatively featureless, the semiarid Plains are disrupted only by dry stream beds, tree- shrouded farm houses, the massive turbines of wind farms, occasional juniper-pine snow-breaks and small towns clustered around grain silos.

Worse yet, strong south winds pushed afternoon highs near 90 degrees F and, stepping from the car, one faced a blast furnace; while billboards warned that I might be heading for hell, it seemed that I was already there.  Then there were the maskless locals and truckers at rest stops and convenience stores, prowling about as if to intimidate liberals that were passing through Trump Country.  Yes, it was an Easter road trip to remember! 

Friday, April 2, 2021

The Mellowing

By April, a higher sun and regular precipitation have softened the landscape and greenery gradually climbs from the lawns to the treetops.  Early flowers and musical birdsong lend their support to the mellowing of our environment as the harsh grip of winter recedes to the north.

Those of us of a certain age are especially attentive to this transition, feeling fortunate to have survived another winter and witnessed the rebirth that the new season brings.  Having mellowed ourselves, we are content to enjoy the resurgence of life around us and less enamored with the consumption and competitive strategies that characterized our youth.  Personal relationships, past and present, now seem far more important.

Well beyond the spring of our own lives, we have a greater appreciation for nature's cycles and the ultimate demise that we all must face.  We know all to well that life is short and that the simple gifts of spring should not be taken for granted.  

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

A Snow Sandwich

Last evening, as strong southwest winds raked Metro Denver, it was 73 degrees F under sunny skies.  Overnight, the temperature fell to 28 degrees and at least 3 inches of snow blanketed the region.  By tomorrow, mild, sunny weather will return and afternoon highs are expected to approach 80 degrees F within a few days.

Such is spring along the Colorado Front Range.  While many areas of the country report that their weather often changes rapidly, few experience the reliable gyrations that we encounter here, along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountain corridor.  As the regular Pacific storms of spring move in from the west, we initially receive downsloping, southwesterly winds that warm and dry out the air.  Once the storm front crosses the Continental Divide, the winds shift from the northeast, producing the upslope snowstorms of March and April; then, as the storm system moves off to the east, the downsloping winds redevelop and warm, sunny weather returns.

As I have discussed in previous posts, weather in the Mountain West is all about elevation and wind direction.  This week's weather highlights that fact and is more the rule than the exception.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Crow Love

Late this morning, an American crow landed in our large catalpa tree.  Despite the warm, sunny weather, he seemed to be in a foul mood, delivering a long series of raucous calls.  Since there was no hawk or owl nearby to scold, I eventually assumed he was either calling his partner or just venting his frustration.

Ten minutes later, another crow landed in a nearby tree, returning his calls.  This appeared to calm the first crow, who began to bow repeatedly, clicking his bill with each maneuver.  This pattern of loud calls followed by bows and clicks continued for at least twenty minutes while his love interest stuck to more typical crow rants, interspersed with her suitor's performance.  Eventually, he flew over to join her and the two soon left our property.

Often despised for their aggressive and noisy behavior, their omnivorous diet (including nestlings and bird eggs) and their large congregations at winter roosts, crows are highly intelligent birds that play an important role in a wide variety of ecosystems.  The opportunity to observe such intimate behavior this morning certainly softened my image of these large, hardy corvids.  

Sunday, March 28, 2021

An Eerie Wake-Up Call

Just before dawn, when the full moon still illuminated our Littleton farm, the eerie calls of our resident fox pierced the morning chill.  Soon thereafter, barking dogs joined the chorus and, I suspect, the Sunday morning racket was not welcomed by our neighbors.

Red fox, known for their beauty and stealth, are also known to deliver a wide range of calls, barks and screams.  The latter, which continued for 30 minutes this morning, are especially disturbing and, in semi-rural areas, often prompt calls to the police.  These eerie cries are most common during the mating season of January-February but can be heard throughout the year; utilized to locate a mate, to communicate with an established mate, to define the fox's territory or to warn others of an approaching enemy (often a coyote), the screams carry a long distance.

Since we are well past the usual mating period for red fox, I am hopeful that this morning's wake-up call signals the presence of a denning pair on the property.  We will know by late May when up to eight pups might be tumbling about the property. 

Saturday, March 27, 2021

The Worm Moon

I awoke this morning to the bright spotlight of the full moon, about to set behind the Rockies to our west.  The March full moon is traditionally known as the "Worm Moon," a rather ugly name for our brilliant and beautiful satellite.

The name is derived from the fact that, in early spring, the frozen soil is gradually thawing and earthworms are moving toward the surface, a fact clearly noticed by their natural predators (robins, opossums, garter snakes and many others).  Of course, worms play an important role in soil aeration, fertilization and nutrient recycling as well, deserving their astronomical salute.

The Worm Moon will reach its maximum fullness and brightness tomorrow.  We humans may take notice but the countless worms will surely not.  They have important work to do. 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

First Summer Residents

On this first snowless day since I returned to our Littleton farm, two tree swallows circled overhead, the first "summer residents" of the year.  Having wintered along coastal areas of the southern U.S. or in Mexico, they begin to return to more northern latitudes in early spring, well ahead of other swallows.

The first to arrive are primarily males, searching for nest sites that they will claim and offer to potential mates when they return; tree cavities, crevices in outbuildings and "bluebird boxes" are most often utilized.  Since wintry weather will recur along the Front Range through April (at least), such an early appearance is risky for a bird that feeds primarily on flying insects; fortunately, they manage to survive the cold spells by strafing the surface of rivers and open lakes for insects and by supplementing their diet with seeds and berries.

The appearance of these small, energetic, hardy birds is always a welcome sight after a long, cold winter.  Their "faith" is inspiring, especially as spring snowstorms continue to lash the region. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

A Snowy March

 March is the snowiest month along the Colorado Front Range and this March, according to meteorologists, is the 4th snowiest on record.  Of course, the massive snowstorm that occurred 10 days ago contributed significantly to that total but less impressive snowstorms and snow showers have been spaced through the month and are continuing this week.

Indeed, as I write this post, an intense snow shower is passing over Littleton, dropping an inch over the past 30 minutes.  While some may despise the occurrence of snow in spring, it is vital to the health of this semiarid ecosystem; combined with the thunderstorms of May-June and the monsoon rains of August-September, the upslope snowstorms of March and April serve to combat drought which increasingly threatens this region.

One would hope that a wet spring will limit the use of irrigation along the Front Range but green lawns, however small, seem to be important for most homeowners.  As the population continues to explode, record-breaking spring snow will provide but a temporary reprieve from the relentless effects of climate change.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Failed Stewardship at the NPS

A friend of mine gave me a copy of The Business of Scenery, Why America's National Parks need new management, by Christopher Ketcham, published in the April, 2021, issue of Harper's Magazine.  In a few pages, Mr. Ketcham documents how and why the National Park Service has failed in its mandate to protect the natural ecosystems of the Parks.

Bowing to corporate, political and public pressure, the Service has focused on access and entertainment rather than on conservation.  As a result, overcrowding, pollution, traffic jams, injuries and low morale among the Park Service staff have threatened the welfare of the Parks and diminished their "wildness" for those who visit them.

As I have mentioned in the past, I have all but given up visiting our National Parks.  Discouraged by the crowds and not wanting to become part of the problem, I prefer to explore the relatively "undeveloped" landscapes of our National Wildlife Refuges and State Conservation Areas which attract individuals who understand and respect the fragility of natural ecosystems.  I recommend that you read Mr. Ketcham's thoughtful and disturbing article.  

Thursday, March 18, 2021

A Backside Train

The potent storm system that dragged its cold front across the Southeast yesterday, fueling severe thunderstorms and tornados, has been inching its way eastward.  Currently centered over southern Illinois, its counterclockwise winds are pulling up moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and the mid Atlantic, sending it westward below the Great Lakes.

This train of showers, sleet and heavy rain is curving from central Ohio across northern Indiana, central Illinois and northeastern Missouri, dipping southwestward across central Missouri.  Here in Columbia, the swath of unrelenting precipitation has continued overnight and through the morning hours; by this evening, the central zone of low pressure should be far enough to the east that we will escape its pinwheel of chilly rain.

Tomorrow and through the weekend, we expect a southerly flow of warm, dry air and the first sunny days in more than a week.  Spared the destructive storms that devastated the Southeast, we will nevertheless welcome the exit of this large and powerful system.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

A Southeast Tornado Outbreak

As I write this post, tornados are spinning across central Alabama and others have occurred in Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi.  More will follow later tonight as a cold front slices across the Gulf Coast States.

The severe outbreak of long-duration tornados is the result of warm, humid air at the surface, cold air aloft and wind shear produced by southerly surface winds and southwesterly winds at higher elevations; the supercells and their tornados are moving from the southwest to the northeast.  In addition to the tornados and intense lightning, the storms will drop torrential rain, setting the stage for flash flooding.

As the system's cold front races eastward tonight, it will produce strong, straight-line winds, severe thunderstorms and imbedded tornados from the lower Mississippi Valley to the Carolina Coast.  Widespread damage to trees and structures is, unfortunately, expected across the Southeast.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

A Misty Morning at Eagle Bluffs

Since my daughter and grandson are in town, we thought they might enjoy a visit to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River floodplain.  Despite the cool, cloudy, misty weather, it proved to be a good decision.

Highlights included a small flock of snow geese, about fifty American white pelicans and a few bald eagles.  American coot and northern shovelers were abundant, joined by a mix of other common ducks and a handful of pied-billed grebes.  Other sightings included a flock of ring-billed gulls, two red-tailed hawks and the first tree swallows of the season (for me at least).

While my four-year old grandson enjoyed seeing the waterfowl and eagles, he was primarily fixated on the possibility of seeing coyotes.  Unfortunately, those wild canines did not make an appearance this morning but their absence spawned a host of possible explanations from our youngest naturalist and the futile search kept him entertained.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Missing out in Missouri

As the historic blizzard unfolded along the Colorado Front Range this past weekend, I found myself in central Missouri where low clouds and occasional rain were the weather highlights.  My exposure to the massive spring snowstorm was, like for most Americans, virtual.

I thoroughly enjoy a good snowstorm, even when it comes in spring.  In this case, I was beneath the feeder bands, where Gulf of Mexico moisture was flowing northward into the system, fueling thunderstorms on the High Plains and bringing heavy snow to the Front Range.  Potent low pressure, centered over southeastern Colorado swept the moisture toward the higher elevations of southern Wyoming, western Nebraska and the Front Range; Cheyenne received 3 feet of snow while most areas along Colorado's urban corridor were blanketed with 15-25 inches.

Now that I have expressed regret for missing out on the big storm, it is moving east and igniting tornadic thunderstorms.  One is headed in our direction and we may soon find ourselves in the basement.  Just desserts for my personal sentiments. 

Friday, March 12, 2021

Obsession with the Royals

While I can, to some extent, understand and respect the British tradition of a Monarchy, I cannot begin to accept that its members are, in any way, super human.  They have the same strengths and weaknesses that we observe throughout our civilization and to focus so ferociously on their personal and interpersonal problems is a bit obscene.

I am especially disappointed in the American media which has devoted so much time to the recent family squabbles of the Royals, apparently shocked to learn that racism and distrust infect their castle(s).  While racism itself deserves plenty of exposure and condemnation, it is a universal trait of the human species, cured only by education.  Meanwhile, while the cable and television networks devote valuable air time to the "crisis" in London, genocide, famine and human rights abuses across the globe receive fleeting, if any, mention on the evening news.

Unfortunately, news executives know that celebrity scandals garner the most attention and ad dollars.  The ravages of climate change, war and poverty cannot begin to compete.