Saturday, December 10, 2016

Between Two Storms

Granted a few mild days between potent winter storms, I headed down to South Platte Park this morning to see what winter had brought to the valley.  The shallow ponds and wetlands were frozen but Eaglewatch Lake remained open, attracting many waterfowl that were forced south by the recent Arctic front.

Canada geese have finally reached their typical winter population and the usual winter ducks are now all represented.  Redheads have finally arrived and lesser scaup, hooded mergansers and ring-necked ducks are far more numerous than they were a week ago.  We are still almost two weeks short of the winter solstice but the season of ice and snow has arrived with a vengeance, sending overnight lows near zero (F) before this brief thaw.  Woodland songbirds seemed to appreciate the warm respite as well and were more conspicuous than on my recent visits to the Park; of note, a lone ruby-crowned kinglet joined the resident insectivores, seemingly unaffected by this week's frigid temperatures.

He'll soon get another chance to prove his stamina.  The next winter storm, now dropping snow across the Intermountain West and Northern Plains, will sweep Arctic air down along the Front Range within a few days.  While many assumed that our exceptionally warm autumn signaled a mild winter as well, nature seems to have other plans.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Tulare Lake

The Tulare Basin occupies the southern portion of California's Great Central Valley.  Prior to the late 19th Century, the basin contained several lakes and a vast wetland, home to a fabulous diversity of wildlife and a magnet for massive flocks of migrant waterfowl.

The largest of the basin lakes was Tulare Lake, once the largest American freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes.  Fed by four rivers that drain the west flank of the southern Sierra Nevada Range (the Kings, Kaweah, Tule and Kern Rivers, north to south), the depth and surface area of Tulare Lake varied throughout the year, receiving maximum inflows during the spring snowmelt.

Unfortunately, in the 1880s, sections of the basin marsh were drained for agriculture and, soon thereafter, the above rivers were dammed and diverted for irrigation purposes.  By the early 20th Century, Tulare Lake had become a dry bed, filling only during years of heavy snowmelt (i.e. when the levees and canals cannot handle the runoff).  In the end, Tulare Lake has become yet another symbol of man's impact on natural ecosystems, exacerbated by our relentless population growth and our ever-increasing demand for agricultural products (much of which we waste).

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Above the Smoky Hill River

As I flew from St. Louis to Denver this afternoon, the latest winter storm had spread dense cloud cover across the Midwest and Great Plains; my views were thus very limited.  Then, about halfway to Denver, there was a break in the overcast and I saw a river meandering eastward across flat terrain.

Of course, most rivers of the Great Plains flow west to east and meander through relatively soft sediments (Cretaceous and Tertiary in age); the tight curves are often bordered by abandoned meanders and oxbow lakes.  Not sure what route we were taking, the river could have been the Platte, the Republican, the Solomon, the Saline or the Smoky Hill River, not to mention any of their major tributaries.

The mystery was solved as a relatively large city came into view; the river flowed along its eastern edge and a large abandoned meander encircled much of the city.  Considering the size of the city and the fact that we were about halfway between St. Louis and Denver, I realized that the city was Salina, Kansas, and that the river was thus the Smoky Hill River; indeed, I had already noticed what turned out to be the Solomon and Saline rivers entering the Smoky Hill from the north. Ironically, the only other clearing in the overcast was along the Kansas-Colorado border where I observed the uppermost tributaries of the Smoky Hill River; the latter rises in eastern Colorado and eventually joins the Republican River in Junction City, Kansas, to form the Kansas River (a major tributary of the Missouri).

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Flood of Arctic Air

A massive pool of Arctic air is plunging south through the Great Plains.  Triggered by a broad dip in the jet stream (an atmospheric trough), the dense, frigid air is sliding down along the Front Range and will soon encompass much of the Central and Eastern U.S., from the Northern Plains to North Texas and from the Rockies to New England.

Dropping afternoon highs into the teens or single digits (F) and overnight lows below zero, the Arctic dome will produce snow (and regional blizzards) along its leading edge as it interacts with warmer, more humid air to its south and east.  After an exceptionally warm autumn across most of the country, the frigid air will feel even colder and offer a blunt reminder that weather patterns can shift dramatically; though our climate is clearly warming, the seasons continue to unfold.

While these Arctic fronts often produce an upslope flow along the Colorado Front Range, resulting in snow and very low temperatures, the dense air tends to slide toward lower elevations of the Great Plains and Midwest, sparing the urban corridor from a prolonged period of severe cold.  In addition, as the Arctic dome shifts eastward, downsloping, southwest winds often develop on the east flank of the Continental Divide; these chinook winds rapidly warm the Front Range cities, bringing seasonal conditions back to the region.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

More Tardy Migrants

Following the recent excitement on our Littleton farm after I discovered a chestnut-sided warbler here in mid November (see Late for the Tropics), four lesser goldfinches visited the property yesterday, gathering at the thistle feeder.  Common residents along the Colorado Front Range during the warmer months, these small songbirds have nested on the farm in the past but generally head for the Desert Southwest or Mexico by mid October at the latest.

Yesterday's visitors were thus a pleasant surprise and, of course, I filed a report with eBird.  Unlike the warbler, which is an insectivore, lesser goldfinches eat small seeds (primarily from thistle and various sunflowers) and are thus more likely to survive periods of cold weather.  Nevertheless, they are not usually found this far north in early December and I suspect that the mild autumn temperatures are (once again) responsible for their late departure.

Such rare discoveries, especially on one's own property, fuel the excitement of birding and prompt more vigilance in the months to come.  After all, winter is usually the best season for observing vagrants and irruptive species; this year, it seems to be a good time to observe summer residents as well!


Saturday, December 3, 2016

Leftovers

Late yesterday afternoon, as dusk enveloped the Front Range, I noticed a sharp-shinned hawk in one of our pinyon pines.  Struggling to balance his prey as he fed on its carcass, he finally lost grip and his meal fell to the ground.  Dropping to tear off another morsel, he flew to a barren fruit tree and consumed that piece within minutes.  While I thought he would return to the victim before darkness set in, he flew off in the twilight.

I, in turn, went out to inspect the scene and found that his victim was a Eurasian collared dove.  Half eaten, I assumed that a fox would grab the leftovers during the night; after all, most of our local predators are opportunists and would not be averse to consuming fresh carrion.  With winter beginning to intensify, easy pickings would be more than welcome and a bit of dove might be appealing on a frigid night.

As it turned out, the carcass went unnoticed by nocturnal predators and, at dawn, the sharp-shinned hawk had returned to his kill, feasting on the ground.  Unlike humans, wild creatures do not waste any food; their survival depends on every calorie.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Childhood and Adult Behavior

Spending a good deal of time with my new grandson, I cannot help but appreciate his innocence and his total dependence on those who care for him.  Fortunately, he has been born to parents who love him and into an family that has the means to provide for all his needs.  He will receive a good education, benefit from the emotional support of his parents and extended family and, no doubt, be well prepared to face the challenges of his adult life.

Unfortunately, a significant percentage of human children do not experience such a loving and caring environment as they mature.  Many are exposed to the ravages of poverty and some are subjected to emotional and/or physical abuse.  Even those who appear unscathed by a troubled childhood retain scars that impact future relationships with friends, marital partners, employers and their own children.

Too often, those who benefitted from a "normal" childhood fail to recognize the impact that early childhood deficiencies (emotional, nutritional and social) have later in life; perhaps if they were more introspective they might recognize behaviors that were clearly instilled or influenced by others.  Genetic inheritance has a profound effect on our physical, social and emotional traits but the childhood environment plays a major role as well.  While crime and other anti-social behavior cannot be condoned, we must recognize that innocent, helpless children do not adopt such traits on their own.  We cannot effectively address our social problems without devoting adequate resources to early childhood health and education.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Cold Sunshine in the Valley

Brilliant sunshine bathed the South Platte Valley this morning but the overnight chill was slow to dissipate.  Ice coated the wetlands and shallow inlets while the lakes remained open, attracting an increasing number and diversity of waterfowl.

Lesser scaup had arrived, joining our other winter residents: mallards, gadwalls, American wigeons, green-winged teal, common and hooded mergansers, buffleheads, common goldeneyes and American coot.  Ring-necked ducks were not encountered this morning, nor were the white-winged scoters that were recently reported.  Canada geese, on the other hand, have been increasing in number over the past two weeks (later than usual) but have yet to reach their typical winter population.

Once again, songbirds were rather sparse, primarily represented by house finches, black-capped chickadees, northern flickers and white-crowned sparrows, joined by a few American tree sparrows.  Perhaps they were waiting for the intense Colorado sun to thaw the landscape before venturing from their winter retreats.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Worry: A Human Scourge

We humans tend to worry.  Of course, some of us worry more than others and those with depression or anxiety disorders are most subject to this human scourge.

We worry about our finances, our health, the welfare of our children, the risks of travel and many other issues; the list could go on for pages and the prospect of a Trump Presidency only augments our concerns.  Our large brains constantly sift through past experiences and tragedies or mishaps often rise to the surface; these may be personal in nature, arise from witnessed events or merely reflect upsetting news that bombards our life 24/7 (aggravated, of course, by social media and cable news networks).

How to minimize our tendency to worry?  There seems to be no easy answer.  Attempting to reason with ourselves is often futile.  Perhaps our best approach is to live in the present and to accept the fact that we have limited control over events in our lives.  To borrow a phrase from several popular songs, it's best to just "Carry On."

Monday, November 28, 2016

Fox at High Noon

On yet another trip to the compost pile, I encountered a red fox, sniffing his way along the west edge of our property.  Spooked by my approach, he scurried over a six foot fence and disappeared.

Common visitors and former residents on our Littleton farm, red fox are most often seen at dawn or dusk, completing or beginning a night of hunting; to see one at noon is a bit unusual.  I suspect our current cold snap has extended his period of activity, a subconscious reminder that he may be facing a long, harsh winter.  Calories are vital during this season of frigid nights and heavy snows and our large populations of voles and cottontails will provide easy targets for this agile hunter.

Extirpated from the farm by coyotes several years ago, red fox are making a comeback since their larger cousins have been discouraged from settling in (see Unwelcome Squatters); unlike coyotes, we welcome the fox, attractive and nonthreatening agents of rodent control.  Hopefully, they'll begin to den on the farm once again and our grandkids can enjoy watching their pups just as our children did two decades ago.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Western Snow, Eastern Rain

A potent winter storm system has entered the Western U.S., bringing snow from the mountains of the Pacific Northwest to the Colorado Rockies and from the Four Corners region to the Northern Plains.  Triggered by a deep atmospheric trough (a broad dip in the jet stream), the system's leading edge will also ignite thunderstorms across the Great Plains.

Over the next few days, the storm will slowly progress to the Great Lakes and Northeast and its trailing cold front is expected to produce tornadic thunderstorms along the northern Gulf Coast.  On the other hand, it will also bring much needed rains to the Southeastern U.S., offering some relief to the drought-plagued areas of Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.

We can only hope that this shift in the weather pattern persists through the winter, augmenting the Western snowpack and putting an end to the Southeastern drought.  If the current atmospheric ridge over the the eastern Pacific remains in place, that scenario could unfold, benefitting most regions of the country.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Yellow Jackets in November

Yesterday, will taking our Thanksgiving scraps to the compost bin, I stirred up a colony of yellow jackets, a type of wasp.  Their presence took me by surprise since we have had several hard freezes along the Colorado Front Range.

In the Temperate zone of North America, yellow jackets are primarily of the eastern or German species; the latter is more aggressive, often stinging humans and other animals that come close to their nest site.  The latter is placed in a cavity or underground chamber; there, the queen constructs the initial cells (using wood fibers) and begins to lay eggs.  Male offspring are drones, remaining in the nest cavity, caring for the queen and fertilizing her; males die after mating.  Female offspring are workers, scouring the regional environment for sugars, protein (insects, carrion, garbage) and wood fibers to enlarge the nest; protein is fed to the larvae while sugars are consumed by the workers, drones and the queen.  At the peak of summer activity, the colony may contain up to 3000 individuals, a few of which will become queens; impregnated, the latter put on fat during autumn in order to survive the winter.

As winter grips the area, the workers and original queen die off and the new queens overwinter in a protected site; by late spring, they will emerge and establish new colonies, renewing the annual cycle.  In tropical or subtropical regions, yellow jackets survive the winter and the nest can become massive; here in Colorado, that will not happen but yesterday's encounter was just another reflection of our unusually warm autumn weather.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Thanks to the Obamas

On this American holiday of Thanksgiving, it seems appropriate to thank President Obama and the First Lady for their inspiration and leadership over the past eight years.  Sandwiched between the militarism of the Bush Administration and the upcoming tenure of a narcissist, their time in the White House will likely be remembered for its dedication to the welfare of humanity.

Though stymied by a Republican Congress, President Obama was able to push through his healthcare program, guide our country from a financial crisis, sign an International accord to deal with climate change and make steady progress against ISIS and other terror organizations.  Most of all, he and Michele (who worked to eliminate childhood obesity) have been superb representatives of our country, dedicated to human rights and conservation across the globe.  Even those who disagree with their policies must admit that they radiated warmth, kindness and tolerance, traits that President-elect Trump seemed to ridicule during his campaign.

I suspect history will judge the Obama years to have been positive for the welfare of our country and for our allies abroad.  Regardless of that assessment, I thank the President and First Lady for their service, their calm leadership, their honest approach to global issues and for the positive image that they bestowed on America.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Waterfowl at Dusk

During the colder months, when a large number of waterfowl gather in the South Platte Valley, a spectacle develops as dusk envelops the Front Range.  In the darkening sky, flocks of wintering ducks begin to appear, streaming above our Littleton farm.

After spending the day feeding on the river and its adjacent wetlands, they are heading for several lakes and reservoirs to our northwest; there they can safely spend the night, protected from fox and coyotes that prowl the shores.  Some are easy to identify in the gathering dusk; tight, rapid flocks of green-winged teal and squadrons of large, torpedo-shaped common mergansers are perhaps easiest to pick out.  But identification is only important for the compulsive birder; the sight of the numerous flocks, joined by noisy V's of Canada geese is inspiring enough for most of us.

Indeed, though our property is surrounded by suburban neighborhoods, the waves of waterfowl offer reassurance that wildness thrives along the urban corridor, just as it did long before humans settled in the Valley.  Hopefully, this evening spectacle will unfold for many generations to come.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Beautiful Gray Day

Those of us who live along the Colorado Front Range are used to sunny days; indeed, sunshine bathes the urban corridor on more than 300 days each year.  But following a prolonged period of warm, sunny and dry weather, today's mix of rain and snow is more than welcome.

After pulling out of the Four Corners region and dropping heavy snow across the San Juans and Central Colorado Mountains, the latest winter storm moved onto the High Plains overnight, producing an upslope flow along the Front Range.  Cool air, a low gray overcast and steady, light precipitation might not create postcard scenery but the sloppy conditions are beautiful in the eyes of drought-weary homeowners.

The mountain snowpack, vital to our Metro-Denver water supply, is well behind schedule this year; this storm system offers some hope that weather patterns are changing.  Time will tell if that optimism is warranted but, for now, we'll relish a day without sunshine.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Tigers at the Aquarium

Yesterday, my wife and I took two of our grandsons to the Downtown Denver Aquarium.  Initially founded as Colorado's Ocean Journey in 1999, the facility is now owned and operated by Landry's Restaurants, Inc.

The well-organized aquarium is composed of an excellent variety of exhibits that house a wide diversity of freshwater and marine life; our grandsons were especially impressed with the giant shark tank and the chance to view those predators at close range.  Unfortunately, in an effort to round-out their Asian ecosystem, the Aquarium also houses Bengal tigers in a "naturalized" indoor cage of rocky terrain, waterfalls and pools.  A big hit with visitors and pictured on most of their brochures, the imprisoned tigers (I only saw one) ruined the experience for me and, I suspect, for any naturalist who might visit the Aquarium.

While this facility, like most zoos and aquariums, takes pride in educating the public and promoting conservation, the willingness to treat tigers like indoor house cats makes one question their sincerity.  The "attractive" tiger exhibit may be pleasing to the eye for human visitors but it is nothing more than an indoor prison for those large, beautiful carnivores.  I, for one, will not be returning to the Downtown Denver Aquarium, just as I shun those that house captive cetaceans.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Edge of Winter

After two balmy days in Cincinnati, I flew back to Denver last evening.  As we left Ohio, where the late afternoon temperature was still in the mid seventies (F), a wall of thunderstorms loomed to the west, providing a spectacular light show for those of us in flight.  Skirting the storms, we flew southwestward to Louisville, Kentucky, and then WNW, passing over St. Louis and Kansas City on our way to Colorado.

The relatively narrow band of thunderstorms was the leading edge of our first blast of winter, a broad atmospheric trough that ended an unusually warm autumn.  The potent storm system dropped a modest amount of snow along the Colorado Front Range but produced blizzard conditions across the Northern Plains.  Of more significance, the plunge of polar air announced the arrival of winter, bringing a hard freeze to most of the country and limited relief to some drought-plagued regions.  Moving eastward, the system will produce lake-effect snows in the Upper Midwest before moving off the Northeast Coast.

Here in Littleton, where overnight lows dropped into the teens, a slow but steady recovery is expected in the coming days.  However, the summer-like warmth is likely over for this year and winter's reign has begun.  Fortunately, chinook winds will provide intermittent relief and the intense Colorado sun will soften the effect of winter's grip.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Familiar Landscape from Above

Flying from Denver to Cincinnati yesterday afternoon, I selected a window seat, cherishing the opportunity to see familiar terrain from 30,000 feet.  The weather cooperated as we flew east across the dry, brown plains of Eastern Colorado but several cloud layers obscured my view once we entered Kansas.

Every ten minutes or so, we would cross a hole in the overcast, providing a brief glimpse of the landscape below.  If irrigation circles were present, I knew we were still above the High Plains while river and creek patterns gave some clues to our location.  At one point, I saw a river entering the west end of a reservoir (Waconda Lake?) and, farther east, the heavily dissected terrain (with tree lined stream beds) indicated we were passing above the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas.

Fortunately, the sky cleared as we reached the Missouri River Valley (just north of Kansas City) and I was able to see a number of my favorite birding haunts as we crossed the State: Smithville Lake, Swan Lake NWR, Grand Pass Conservation Area and Mark Twain Lake, among others.  The sun was setting as we flew over the Mississippi (a bit north of St. Louis) and the cities of Springfield, Effingham, Terre Haute and Indianapolis glowed to our north.  Finally, descending into Cincinnati, we passed above the dark swath of the lower Great Miami River, where Oxbow, Inc. has protected vital wetland habitat (and where I honed my birding skills thirty years ago).

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ten Years of Blogging

Ten years ago today, I watched from my office window as cold, crisp autumn air swept into central Missouri behind a potent storm system.  Having kept nature journals in the past, I decided to start an online nature blog and After the Storm became its first entry.

Nature's Blog now harbors more than 3000 posts, covering topics from wildlife, landscape and geology to natural history and human nature.  As I implied in The Nature of Blogs and The Nature of Writers, the experience has been educational, rewarding and absolutely vital to my personal welfare.  Honored by the interest of readers from across the globe, many of whom have provided kind comments and valuable feedback, nature blogging has become a cherished part of my life.

While the opportunity to document my experiences and to share my passion with others was the initial motivation for this blog, I have come to realize that its potential influence on teens and young adults has been the most rewarding aspect of Nature's Blog.  In particular, I hope that this collection of posts is an inspiration for my children, grandchildren and young persons across the planet long after I'm gone.  After all, the future welfare of Earth's natural ecosystems will depend on their commitment to conservation and naturalist philosophy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Rare Birds beget Birders

This morning, while walking up our driveway, I spotted a small bird flitting about one of our Siberian elms.  To my delight, it was the chestnut-sided warbler that I first encountered four days ago (see
Late for the Tropics).  The warm weather and the elm leaves persist, apparently keeping the tardy insectivore on our farm.

As a devoted member of eBird, I reported the sighting once again and, by mid afternoon, had attracted several avid birders to our property.  Equipped with powerful binoculars and telescopic cameras, they are scouring the farm as I write this post.  While they are more than welcome to search for the warbler, I (like nature) offer no guarantees; as veteran birder's know, our quarry is often fickle.

The visitors, like most hardcore birders, likely chase rare sightings across the State and, perhaps, across the country.  Though my interest in birds is less intense (and more related to their place in natural ecosystems), I am privileged to own this plot of heaven and welcome those who appreciate its bounty.