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.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Above the Chalk Lands

Flying back to Denver yesterday, clouds obscured the landscape of Missouri and eastern Kansas.  When that curtain was finally removed, near WaKeeney, I was looking down on the flat terrain of west-central Kansas, where irregular, white formations broke the squares of cropland.  Most of these stretched west to east just south of a river that meandered across the Great Plains.

What I saw were outcrops of Cretaceous chalk, deposited in a vast sea that covered this region some 100 million years ago.  While most of the chalk is buried beneath younger Tertiary sediments, eroded from the Rockies, escarpments of white rock are exposed by rivers and their tributaries that sculpt the landscape, carrying away the overlying deposits.  In this case, the Saline River has eroded the Plains, providing the aerial spectacle that I encountered.

On my many road trips across the Great Plains, I would rarely see such outcrops of chalk unless I made side excursions to sites such as Castle Rock, south of Quinter.  Air travel, on the other had, offers a grander view of nature's handiwork (clear skies permitting) and yesterday's route was perfect for observing the chalk lands of Kansas.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Donating to the Postal Service

As a naturalist, a conservationist and a social liberal, I have long donated to a variety of organizations that share my philosophy and serve to protect the human rights and natural resources that I hope to defend.  In concert with that effort, I attempt to limit my personal consumption, recycle what I can and limit correspondence to online communication (i.e. I go paperless whenever possible).

Nevertheless, the very organizations that I support, including several well-respected conservation organizations, deluge my home with monthly (if not weekly) mailed solicitations.  Of course, some also send along free gifts to fuel my commitment, seemingly oblivious of the financial and environmental costs associated with their generosity.

I often wonder what percentage of my donations are used for solicitation purposes.  Indeed, I sometimes question whether my contributions fund the Postal Service more than the groups I hope to support.  No doubt, most readers share my experience and frustration but I can only rant for myself!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

An Evening at Eagle Bluffs

Of my hundreds of trips to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain, the great majority have occurred in the morning.  Yesterday, enticed by mild, sunny weather, a fellow birder and I opted for an evening visit.

Rewarded with serene vistas and the mellow tones of evening light, we saw a large number of great blue herons and great egrets, concentrated by the drying summer landscape.  They were joined by a lone black-crowned night heron, killdeer, spotted sandpipers and a few wood duck families.  Indigo buntings were abundant in the open woodlands and a trio of bald eagles patrolled the refuge.  White-tailed deer were especially common in the waning daylight and restless flocks of red-winged blackbirds swirled above the darkening floodplain.  Other sightings included yellow-billed cuckoos, Baltimore and orchard orioles, dickcissels and lark sparrows.

Not a morning person by nature, I thoroughly enjoyed our evening visit to Eagle Bluffs.  Indeed, it reminded me of my early birding years when, after a day at the hospital, I would escape to local parks and nature preserves to hone my skills and to decompress.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Swallow-tailed Kites

Leaving Longboat Key this morning, we drove north on Interstate 75, dodging thunderstorms all the way to southern Georgia.  Between episodes of torrential rain, the sky would clear and, on several occasions, a swallow-tailed kite would appear, dipping and soaring above the roadside woodlands.

Among the most exotic and beautiful birds in North America, these fork-tailed raptors once inhabited riverine and coastal wetlands throughout the Southeastern U.S. and northward along the Mississippi River Valley (when extensive swamp forests covered the river's floodplain).  Today, they are still common summer residents in Florida and smaller populations are found along the Southeast Coast and the northern Gulf Coast; come autumn, all head to swamp forests and wooded marshlands of South America.

Aloft for most of the day, swallow-tailed kites feed primarily on flying insects but also snare lizards, tree frogs and snakes from the forest canopy.  Unlike most raptors, they nest in colonies and even tolerate the presence of non-breeding kites.  Encountering these graceful hunters today was certainly the highlight of our stormy journey.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Chuck-Will's-Widow

While making one last visit to the seawall this evening, I heard the distinctive call of a chuck-will's-widow echoing from a mangrove island in Sarasota Bay.  Often heard on Longboat Key during the summer months, these nocturnal birds feed on flying insects, snaring them in their large, gaping mouth; on occasion, they also grab small songbirds and bats.

Largest of the North American nightjars, chuck-will's-widows (named for their call), breed throughout the Southeastern U.S. and are permanent residents in southernmost Florida.  Nests are placed directly on the ground, usually in open woodlands of oak or pine.  Not often observed unless accidentally flushed, they strafe the treetops at dawn and dusk and may be caught in your headlights along country roads; on the other hand, these hunters are frequently heard on summer nights, delivering their endless, repetitive call.

Come autumn, most chuck will's widows head for the Caribbean, Central America or northern South America.  There they become less territorial, gathering in tropical forests or wooded marshlands for the winter.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Manatees in the Boat Canal

Over the past couple of days, two pair of manatees have been feeding and lolling about in the boat canal of our condo complex on Longboat Key.  Likely females with their calves, they are among the 6600 Florida manatees that inhabit coastal waters, bays and estuaries of the Southeastern U.S., from the Carolinas to Texas.  During the winter months, most retreat to Florida while, in summer, they have turned up as far north as Cape Cod.

Listed as endangered in 1967, when their wild population was estimated to be 600, Florida manatees have recently been downgraded to "threatened" by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  While increased awareness of their plight and stricter boating restrictions have allowed their population to rebound, these large aquatic herbivores remain susceptible to coastal water pollution and careless boaters.

Known as "sea cows" since they graze on a wide assortment of marine and tidewater plants, manatees are actually more closely related to elephants (see Sea Elephants).  Florida manatees are rather solitary creatures for most of the year and are able to breed by age four; nevertheless, most females do not mate until they are seven or older and calves (usually single) often stay with their mother for two years.  Common in Sarasota Bay (especially during the colder months), their appearance always commands attention and their calm, peaceful demeanor seems to infect those of us who watch them.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

East of Cindy

This evening, Tropical Storm Cindy is churning in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico, southeast of Houston.  Its counterclockwise winds are raking the Gulf and pushing a plume of tropical moisture into the Southeastern U.S.; so far, the major track of this plume has been across southern Mississippi and Alabama and the western Florida Panhandle, producing torrential rain and widespread flooding in those areas.  Unfortunately, the potent but slow moving storm is expected to pump a great deal more moisture into the Southeast before it dissipates and an approaching cold front will draw much of that precipitation into the Southern Appalachians.

Here on Longboat Key, we have been relatively untouched by the tropical storm though rough surf and strong riptides are affecting most of the Florida Gulf Coast, especially from Sarasota to the Panhandle.  We have experienced steady south winds, rising temperatures and intermittent thunderstorms over the last two days as the outermost bands of Cindy pass offshore.

Another tropical system is brewing in the Eastern Caribbean but its fate and path remain uncertain at this time.  We'll likely be back in the Heartland before other storms threaten this region but hurricane season has just begun and will persist into early November.  Perhaps we'll meet up with one of nature's heat-machines later in the year (see Tropical Storm Dynamics).

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Mystery on the Beach

Arriving on Longboat Key late last week, we were surprised and alarmed to find mounds of white filaments on the beach.  Initially concerned that they might be plastic debris, I examined one of the strands and found that it was easily pulled apart, more likely vegetative than man-made.

Having never encountered this material in fourteen years of wandering Longboat's beaches, I contacted the Mote Aquarium.  They explained that these white, straw-like filaments wash up on the beaches every few years and are thought to be bleached "manatee grass;" since root material is not attached, marine scientists believe that a large amount of the grass is broken off by a storm and, under the right current pattern, is kept floating at sea and bleached by the sun before washing ashore.  A similar event occurred on beaches from Captiva to Naples in 2009, prompting investigation and leading to the above theory.

In fact, the specific cause for the irregular appearance of bleached sea grass on barrier islands remains a mystery.  I was just happy to learn that it is a natural event and not another sign of human impact on marine ecosystems.  My thanks to personnel at Mote Aquarium for helping to clarify this issue.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Tern Attack on Whitney Beach

This morning, my wife and I took a walk on Whitney Beach, which stretches along the northwest edge of Longboat Key.  Renowned for its wide, flat surface, plentiful shells and large congregations of sea birds, the beach is also a nesting site for least terns, black skimmers and snowy plovers.  In order to protect the nesting areas, ropes and signs are used to keep beachcombers away from these colonies, minimizing human disturbance.

Today, the beach was relatively quiet toward its northern end, populated by small flocks of royal and Sandwich terns, ubiquitous laughing gulls, a couple snowy egrets and a few shorebirds (willets, sanderlings and ruddy turnstones); the initial highlight was a large flock of magnificent frigatebirds that soared above the coast.  Farther south, however, were this year's nesting sites; there, a large number of black skimmers and least terns occupied the beach, the latter already attending to chicks that waddled across the sand.

Clearly in protective mode, adult least terns took aim at my floppy sun hat, swooping in to encourage my departure.  They may be the smallest terns in North America but they certainly can be aggressive; after all, successful nesting on open beaches and sandy river islands (favored by least terns) necessitates bold and attentive parents.  I kept my distance and the tern attack soon abated.