Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Railing at Eagle Bluffs

By late April, waterfowl migrations are beginning to wind down at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, in central Missouri.  Nevertheless, there were a large number of ducks on the refuge when I visited yesterday morning; American coot, blue-winged teal and northern shovelers were most abundant, joined by hooded mergansers, wood ducks and lesser scaup.  Other sighting included great blue herons, American white pelicans (about 30), double-crested cormorants, Canada geese, belted kingfishers, yellowlegs, spotted sandpipers and two immature bald eagles.

But my goal on that cool, cloudy morning was to find rails, secretive residents of dense cattail marshes and other wetland habitats.  In Missouri, king rails and soras are summer residents while Virginia rails are primarily migrants through the State; though yellow rails and black rails might be encountered, they are very rare migrants in Missouri.  Most rails are best observed at dawn or dusk but they might also leave their vegetative cover on overcast days; even the most common species are more often heard than seen.

Unfortunately, my two hour effort was in vain.  But the hunt, however futile at times, is what draws birders to their "sport" and the shy nature of rails makes their pursuit even more challenging and enjoyable.  I'll try again in another week or so.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Cedar-Apple Rust

Yesterday, after a steady morning rain, my wife called me outside to look at strange, gelatinous growths in our eastern red cedar trees.  Bright orange, tennis ball sized and characterized by numerous tendrils, these alien ornaments had not been observed in previous years.

Cedar-apple rust is a unique fungus that utilizes both eastern red cedars and a tree from the rose family (primarily apples) to complete its life cycle.  Spores infect the red cedars in summer, forming small galls by the following spring.  Often called "cedar apples," the galls enlarge over the next year and spawn the gelatinous tendrils after spring rains; these odd structures release spores that, spread by the wind, infect nearby apple trees.  Spores released by lesions on the apple leaves then reinfect the cedars during the summer months, completing the cycle.

In retrospect, we recently lost a diseased crabapple tree that had grown near the red cedars.  In addition, our hawthorne tree has been losing limbs over the past year and now has yellow spots on some of its leaves; hawthornes, like apple trees, are members of the rose family and are susceptible to cedar-apple rust.  Not inclined to use fungicides, we'll trim out the dead wood as necessary and hope for the best (though the hawthorne's fate seems clear).

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Welcome Invasion

I have returned to central Missouri just in time for the annual invasion of summer and migrant songbirds, which should unfold over the next month.  Having wintered along the Gulf Coast, in Mexico or even in South or Central America, these fair weather species are generally those that rely on nectar, flowers and live insects for their nutrition.

While tree swallows and eastern phoebes arrive in March, the primary invasion begins in mid April and extends through most of May.  House wrens, gray catbirds and brown thrashers often lead the incursion, followed closely by indigo buntings, ruby-throated hummingbirds, chimney swifts, swallows (barn, cliff, bank and rough-winged) and northern orioles.  Of most interest to avid birders are the challenging mix of warblers, vireos and flycatchers that arrive or pass through over the next few weeks.

Long a keen observer of this welcome invasion, I wander our property during the morning or evening hours, hoping to spot those species that are but transient visitors to Missouri; stopping to rest and feed for a few days, they will soon resume their journey to more northern ecosystems.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Travel by Radar

Heading east on the High Plains yesterday afternoon, we knew that our journey involved some risk.  After all, the massive spring storm that brought heavy snow to much of Colorado had also been igniting tornadic thunderstorms on the Great Plains; in fact, as we drove east from Limon, northeast Colorado and almost all of Kansas were under a tornado watch.  As the driver of our pickup, I scanned the horizons for worrisome cloud formations while my wife intermittently checked the regional radar and weather reports via her I-phone.

From Limon to Burlington, white puffy clouds dotted the clear blue sky, consistent with a relatively low dew point in that region; by contrast, two massive thunderheads rose far to our north which, we later learned, had spawned tornadoes near Akron, Colorado.  As we crossed into Kansas, it appeared that we had also crossed the Dry Line, an atmospheric boundary between dry air to the west and warm, humid air to the east.  In concert, the cloud formations began to congeal and thunderheads now rose high into the hazy air.  Though we had initially planned to spend the night in Hays, Kansas, the sudden instability in the atmosphere, coupled with pop up storms on the radar convinced us to stop in Colby.

This proved to be a wise choice since, within the next hour, a swath of severe thunderstorms moved northwestward across western Kansas, eventually passing between Goodland and Colby.  When crossing the Great Plains of North America, ready access to weather reports and radar is essential during all seasons; their utility is even more vital at night.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Detour to Scenic Terrain

Planning to head back toward Missouri today, we learned that Interstate 70 was closed east of Denver due to dense fog and multiple accidents.  We thus took an alternate and far more scenic route.

Colorado 86 runs west to east between Castle Rock, on I-25, and Interstate 70, a few miles north of Limon.  From Castle Rock, the road climbs eastward through the mesa dominated topography south of Metro Denver before dropping through the broad valley of Cherry Creek; the latter stream rises along the Palmer Divide and flows NNW to join the South Platte in downtown Denver.  East of that valley, Colorado 86 undulates across a scenic landscape of pine covered escarpments and short-grass prairie on the northern flank of the Divide, passing through Elizabeth and Kiowa en route; nearing Interstate 70, the route drops across the south side of the Palmer Divide. leaving the higher, pine studded terrain.

The rustic farms, hilly topography and ponderosa pine parklands were a welcome change from the broad, relatively flat grasslands along I-70 east of Denver.  A thick coat of snow, shimmering beneath a bright blue sky, intensified the beauty of the spectacular landscape; though wildlife was relatively sparse at mid-day, I did spot a few small herds of pronghorn, a flock of mountain bluebirds and the first Swainson's hawks of the season, back from their winter in Argentina.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Colorado Spring Breaks

Contrary to the image in the minds of Americans from other States and, perhaps, the citizens of other countries, Front Range cities are not enveloped in snow and ice for most of the year; indeed, periods of warm, sunny weather generally develop during every month.  Then again, measurable snowfall may occur from September to June; only July and August are reliably free of snow.

The general spring warm-up usually begins by late February and continues into mid summer along the Front Range urban corridor.  However, this seasonal process is often interrupted by upslope snowstorms, especially in March and April; in fact, March is, on average, the snowiest month for the Front Range cities.

The latest spring disruption began last evening as a cold front dropped across the Rockies and an upslope flow developed, dropping the temperature from the mid 60s (F) to the low 40s within a few hours.  This morning, steady snow is falling across Metro Denver, coating the colorful blossoms and green lawns and producing a wintry landscape where sunshine and summer-like warmth had ruled for the past few weeks.  While these spring breaks can be frustrating for Front Range gardeners, the vital moisture is more than welcome.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Wild Plum

By mid April, stands of wild plum are readily observed along the Colorado Front Range.  Their clusters of white flowers, appearing before the leaves, adorn the barren limbs; favoring relatively moist soil and full sun exposure, this native shrub (or small tree) grows along streams and in sunny areas of foothill canyons.  Spines often appear on the rigid stems and the leaves, which begin to unfold as the flowers fade, have a finely serrated edge.

The reddish plums appear by early summer and are consumed by a wide variety of birds and small mammals; mule and white-tailed deer also brows on their leaves and stems.  Like other shrubs of the Colorado Piedmont and Front Range foothills, wild plum is drought and cold tolerant and is spread across the semiarid landscape in the droppings of wildlife that feed on its fruit.

Fortunately, developers and homeowners along the urban corridor have utilized wild plum in decorative plantings.  By choosing native plants that are well adapted to the Front Range climate, we minimize the need for supplemental water and artificial fertilizers while supporting the welfare of native wildlife species.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Hardy Lilac

Lilac shrubs, renowned for their beauty and fragrance, are blooming on our Littleton farm, a couple weeks ahead of schedule; two weeks of summer-like weather have triggered the early flowering.  Native to the Balkan Peninsula of Eastern Europe, these attractive shrubs have been planted across the globe and adapt well to the sunny, semiarid environment of the Colorado Front Range.

Indeed, our scattered lilac hedges require very little maintenance and no supplemental watering; cutting out dead limbs is the extent of our intervention.  Since they spread by suckering, lilacs form colonial clumps which favor full sun exposure and well drained soil; found on rocky hillsides in their native range, long-lived lilac stands often mark the past sites of abandoned homesteads in other regions of human habitation.  On the negative side, these hardy shrubs tend to crowd out other vegetation; on our property, two forsythia bushes have recently succumbed to aggressive lilac expansion.

While we humans are enamored with lilacs for their physical traits, they also attract a wide variety of butterflies.  Though they were not introduced to North America until the 18th Century, they have rapidly naturalized across this Continent and are surely here to stay, whether we tend to them or not.

 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Compost Bin West

A year after constructing a compost bin for our Missouri property, I have begun to build a larger one for our Littleton, Colorado, farm.  While we have owned the farm since 1990, we have resorted to using an open compost pile in a wild corner of the lot; since a variety of creatures roam the farm, including red fox and raccoons, we have been reluctant to add fruit and vegetable scraps to the yard "waste," knowing that remnants would soon be scattered by those scavengers.

But my decision to build Compost Bin West was also motivated by the positive experiences derived from the Missouri project.  While we have we become more diligent about recycling kitchen leftovers, the bin has also been an effective teaching project for our grandsons; more than learning about the importance of conservation and the use of natural compost to fertilize our gardens, they have enjoyed adding scraps to the rotting pile and often report on the variety of "bugs" that they observed in the bin.  Indeed, the oldest has become a self-proclaimed expert on compost bins, having learned about their construction and maintenance on one of his naturalist cartoon programs.

Such are the true benefits of conservation related projects and practices.  While they benefit our natural ecosystems today, they also stoke the imagination and passion of future generations.  If enough children are encouraged to forego chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides in favor of organic fertilization and natural pest control, the health of humans, wildlife and our natural environment will all be served.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Tradition of Exclusion

The 79th Masters Tournament begins today at Augusta National Golf Club, in Georgia.  Many Americans will tune in, attracted by the regular ads (airing since January), the drama of the tournament, the manicured landscape, the brilliant azaleas and, for birders, the calls of great-crested flycatchers ringing behind the hushed voices of the broadcasters.

But the tradition at Augusta National has a dark side as well.  Established in 1933, the organization did not admit African American members until 1990 (26 years after the Civil Rights Act) and did not offer membership to women until 2012 (an internationally famous woman and a local female business leader were accepted).  The Club might respond that blacks have been essential participants on the pristine course since its inception.....as caddies; indeed, Augusta National required Masters participants to use their African American caddies through much of the Tournament's history, highlighting the racial disparity at the Club.

Too often, we humans, focused on tradition and our personal passions, ignore the behavior of organizations that we support through membership, sponsorship or indirect participation.  Many Catholics, enamored with the traditions of their Church, continue to offer support despite its lackluster response to the child sexual abuse scandal and its ongoing opposition to gay marriage, contraception and women in the priesthood.  Manifesting a tradition of exclusion, organizations such as the Augusta National Country Club and the Catholic Church face dwindling support from younger generations that eschew tradition in favor of social progress and individual rights.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Squirrel Siesta

On the south side of our Littleton farmhouse is a large catalpa tree, its massive branches extending in all directions.  Every day, just after noon (snowy weather excluded), a fox squirrel stretches out on one of those limbs; if it is warm, he chooses a shady spot and, if it is cool, he lounges in the sun.

While I enjoy a close-up view of this squirrel siesta, I know that such behavior is repeated all across our farm and, no doubt, all across the global range of tree squirrels.  Between feeding throughout the morning and their late day foraging activity, the squirrels, like many other animals, need time to rest and digest their food.  Though this afternoon nap represents instinctual behavior, I am convinced that it is  a pleasurable experience for an animal that spends most of its day scouring lawns, climbing trees, chasing cohorts and escaping predators.

Indeed, any experienced naturalist knows that wildlife viewing is most productive during the morning and late day hours.  By early afternoon, most species have retired to burrows, sheltered roosts or other shaded retreats to rest and to escape the mid-day sun.  We humans might be more productive ourselves if we followed the example of our wild neighbors and took advantage of an afternoon siesta.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Bullsnake Bravado

On my visit to Waterton Canyon yesterday, I took a side trail down to the South Platte, hoping to spot a dipper.  My effort was in vain but, as I returned to the graveled roadway, I was startled by a loud hissing sound near the path.  Looking down, I saw the front half of a large bullsnake, protruding from a burrow.  After a threatening twist of its thick body, the snake disappeared beneath the ground.

Bullsnakes, often called gopher snakes in the Western U.S., range from the Midwest to the Pacific Coast and from southern Canada to northern Mexico.  These heavy-bodied, non-poisonous constrictors may reach six feet or more in length and are identified by brown markings on a yellowish background.  After emerging from their winter dens in April, bullsnakes begin to feed on small mammals, birds and lizards while also searching for a mate.  Once impregnated, females lay an average of 12 eggs in sun-exposed sand where they will hatch by late summer.

Often mistaken for rattlesnakes, which they attempt to mimic, bullsnakes are of no danger to humans (unless carelessly handled) and serve an important role in the control of rodents.  When threatened by humans or other large mammals, loud hissing or snorting (hence the name bullsnake) is often followed by "rattling" of their tail in gravel or leaf litter; the snake may also flatten its head and assume a threatening posture and, in some cases, lunge toward the "intruder."  Needless to say, most humans are responsive to such bravado.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Eastern Phoebe at Waterton Canyon

At the base of Waterton Canyon, southwest of Denver, groves of cottonwood trees and a rich understory of shrubs and junipers line the South Platte River.  I often visit this area, especially during the warmer months, since it attracts a wide variety of Front Range songbirds; in addition, dippers may be found in the river and golden eagles often soar along the edge of the foothills.

This morning, I was surprised to encounter an eastern phoebe, a species that I have not previously observed in Colorado.  Back in Missouri (and across the eastern and central U.S.), this bird is common and is among the earliest summer residents to arrive in the spring.  While its cousin, Say's phoebe is a common summer resident along the base of the foothills (favoring open shrublands), only sporadic sightings of eastern phoebes have been reported in recent years.

Like northern cardinals and white-throated sparrows, eastern phoebes seem to be expanding their range into Colorado.  In such cases, human alteration of natural habitat generally plays a role and eastern phoebes, like cliff and barn swallows, often nest beneath bridges and the eaves of barns, cabins or sheds. Clearly, the Front Range urban corridor (especially along the South Platte River and its major tributaries) has proved to be appealing to this hardy insectivore.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The War on Diplomacy

Now that a framework for the Nuclear Deal with Iran has been released, militarists on all sides have condemned it; in their minds, enemies are meant to be annihilated, not respected.  The fact their their own countries have a history of supporting dictators and occupying other nations does not seem to cross their minds.  No doubt, some will stop to condemn the peace plan as they leave Easter services today.

Of course, we humans have a long history of settling our differences with regional conflicts or broader warfare.  Though we are the only species to have both the cerebral and laryngeal traits to communicate effectively, we have preferred spears, guns and bombs.  Our evolutionary survival has depended as much on military power as it has on creativity and cooperation.

By now, one would think that we would be tired of the cycle of warfare, with its needless suffering and ruthless carnage.  Unfortunately, our divisive tribalism and religious zealotry foster hatred and distrust, derailing efforts to compromise and pursue diplomacy.  Such blind ignorance will persist as long as testosterone-fueled warlords are granted power by the masses.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Blood Moon over the Rockies

Looking west from our Littleton farm this morning, I saw a darkened, reddish moon with a bright, bluish rim along its top edge; the time was 5:50 AM, about an hour before dawn.  In fact, I was witnessing a total lunar eclipse, as Earth's shadow temporarily blocked sunlight from illuminating the moon.

This morning's total lunar eclipse, best observed in the western U.S., will be the briefest this Century, lasting about 5 minutes.  While partial lunar eclipses are relatively common, total lunar eclipses are rare; for any given location on our planet, only 4-5 can be observed each decade.  The term "blood moon," describing the reddish appearance of the lunar surface, results from the scattering of sunlight by Earth's atmosphere; during a total lunar eclipse, only the longer wave lengths of the light spectrum (i.e. red light) reach and are reflected by the moon's surface.

Observing such astronomical spectacles, now explained by our knowledge of planetary motion and light refraction, one can easily understand how early man viewed them as omens, igniting a propensity for mysticism that still haunts our species.

Friday, April 3, 2015

April in the Foothills

April is an excellent month to visit the Montane Forest of the Front Range foothills.  Composed of open ponderosa pine parklands (on sunny, south-facing slopes) and a mix of Douglas fir and Colorado spruce (on shaded, north-facing slopes), this aromatic forest cloaks elevations between 7000 and 9000 feet, attracting a distinct population of wildlife.

Permanent residents of the Montane Forest include mountain lions, black bear, mule deer, Abert's squirrels, Colorado chipmunks, wild turkeys, mountain chickadees, pygmy nuthatches, hairy woodpeckers, northern pygmy owls, Steller's jays, Townsend's solitaires and red crossbills, among more widespread species.  Joining them during the warmer months (and usually arriving in April) are dusky grouse, Williamson's sapsuckers, mountain and western bluebirds, violet-green swallows, broad-tailed hummingbirds, black-headed grosbeaks, western tanagers and chipping sparrows.  Elk winter on meadows of the Montane Zone; other winter visitors include pine grosbeaks, Cassin's finches and rosy finches.

For those visiting Denver, two convenient areas to explore the Montane Forest are Genesee Park and Lookout Mountain Nature Center, both accessed from Interstate 70 within a few miles of entering the foothills.  This morning, following our first April snowfall, I paid a visit to both preserves and was rewarded with brilliant sunshine, cool fresh air, spectacular scenery and a fabulous diversity of wildlife.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Laramie Basin

North of Ft. Collins, Colorado, US 287 angles northwest, climbing into the Front Range foothills.  It then turns northward, passing through a scenic landscape of hogbacks, ridges, rock spires and domes; initially crossing foothill shrublands, it cuts through ponderosa parklands as it nears the Wyoming border.  Just beyond that border, the highway crosses a low pass, leaving the watershed of the Cache la Poudre and descending into the Laramie Basin (also called the Laramie Plains) which has an average elevation of about 8000 feet.

The Laramie River rises near Cameron Pass, in Colorado, flowing northward along the eastern base of the Medicine Bow Mountains.  Entering Wyoming, the river veers northeastward across its broad basin,  cuts northward through Laramie, enters Wheatland Reservoir and then turns eastward once again, carving a canyon through the Laramie Mountains before joining the North Platte River.  The latter mountains form the eastern wall of the Laramie Basin and outcrops of red Pennsylvanian sandstone adorn their western flank.  On the west side of the Laramie Plains is the massive bulk of the Snowy Range, Wyoming's portion of the Medicine Bow Mountains.

The semiarid Laramie Basin is underlain with shales and sandstones from the Cretaceous Seaway; since the soil is thin and the water table is high, the Laramie Plains are used primarily for ranching.  Pronghorns are abundant on the grasslands and numerous lakes dot the basin, attracting migrant and resident waterfowl and the raptors that pursue them; on my visit yesterday, I encountered several bald eagles, a peregrine falcon, a flock of American white pelicans and a wide variety of ducks.  Salt flats and ephemeral pools also characterize the Laramie Plains, attracting killdeer, white-faced ibis, American avocets and migrant shorebirds.  Finally, three National Wildlife Refuges lie within the basin: Bamforth, Mortenson Lake and Hutton Lake NWRs.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Failure to Evolve

We humans have inhabited Earth for at least 130,000 years.  In the course of our history we have spread across the planet, established vibrant cities, developed effective means of global transportation, created technologies to advance communication, healthcare and agriculture, harnessed energy from wind, sun, rivers, uranium and fossil fuels, explored near space and sent probes toward distant planets and galaxies.  While much of our activity has threatened the welfare of Earth's natural ecosystems, we have, in many cases, been able to utilize the same scientific discipline to repair the damage.

Unfortunately, while most humans benefit from the achievements of mankind, only a small minority understand the science that underlies that progress.  Worse yet, the great majority of humans retain mythologic belief systems that cause them to question the validity of science; furthermore, those beliefs tend to foster zealotry and tribalism which impede cooperation and incite conflict.

As a result, most of the resources that might be devoted to cultural development, education and scientific research are directed to politics, intelligence services, military programs and other non-progressive endeavors.  The hope that we might evolve into a more enlightened species, not subject to intolerance, discrimination and warfare, is all but dashed by persistent mythologies that first took root in the creative but science-naive minds of our distant ancestors.  When a species fails to evolve, it is on the road to extinction and we humans are not immune to that reality.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Grasshoppers in March

We generally associate the presence of Orthopterans (grasshoppers, crickets, katydids) with hot summer days and balmy August nights.  However, some species may be encountered in early spring, especially during periods of warm weather.

Following a week of summer-like conditions along the Colorado Front Range, small grasshoppers are abundant on our Littleton farm.  While most species overwinter as eggs and do not emerge until late spring or early summer, some species winter as nymphs, one of several intermediate stages between the egg and adult forms.  Unlike many insects, Orthopterans mature through incomplete metamorphosis; during the nymph stages they have the appearance of miniature adults and molt as they grow.

Grasshoppers encountered in early spring are those species that winter as nymphs, sheltered from the cold in leaf litter or other plant debris.  Fortunately, these species, while providing an important source of food for a variety of birds and mammals, do not damage cultivated plants and crops.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

First Swallows

Tree swallows spend the winter along the Gulf Coast, across Florida or in Mexico, much farther north than their cousins (barn, cliff, bank, violet-green and rough-winged swallows).  As a result, they arrive on their summer breeding grounds much earlier, generally by mid-late March.

Yesterday, I observed a small flock of tree swallows at South Platte Park in Littleton, Colorado, the first I have seen this season.  Strafing clouds of midges that hovered above the ponds, the swallows had likely hitched a ride on recent southerly winds that brought summer-like weather to the Front Range.  Soon they will pair off and locate a cavity (in a tree or nest box) in which the female will build a nest of dried vegetation.

Arriving in Colorado well before the end of our snow and ice season, tree swallows risk annihilation of their primary food source.  Fortunately, these aerial insectivores can expand their diet to include other invertebrates or plant material if necessary.  Nevertheless, one must admire their courage and optimism, even if it is instinctual.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Mental Illness & Public Safety

This week's air tragedy in France was apparently the result of an unrecognized or unreported mental illness in one of the pilots; that failure led to the death of the afflicted individual and 149 other passengers and crew members.  While the perpetrator had sought medical attention for his condition, its ramifications were clearly not dealt with in an open, thoughtful and honest manner; initial reports suggest that airline executives were unaware of his diagnosis.

Similar tragic episodes have occurred in the military, in other industries and in society as a whole.  Due to our inability to accept the nature of mental illness, on a par with heart disease, diabetes and other human maladies, we are less willing to openly discuss its varied presentations or report our observations to mental health professionals.  We don't want to stigmatize relatives or friends with such a diagnosis and suspect that it might jeopardize their career;  unfortunately, this fear is too often confirmed by the actions of employers.  Finally, patient privacy laws may get in the way of effective communication; too often, public safety is ignored.

Mental illness is a biochemical, neuropsychiatric disorder; it is not a personal weakness, a demonic possession or the manifestation of mythological forces and, in most cases, it can be effectively treated with a combination of medications and psychotherapy.  Yet, if not recognized or properly addressed it may lead to tragic consequences for the patient and others.  As a society, we must commit ourselves to dealing with mental illness in a humane, thoughtful and effective manner without jeopardizing the safety of family, friends and the public at large.  (see also Human Society & Mental Illness)