Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Deep Freeze at Eagle Bluffs

The landscape of Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area was especially beautiful this morning; crystal-clear air, bright sunshine and snow-crusted foliage produced spectacular scenery.  On the other hand, the temperature was in the mid teens (F), causing steam to rise from the open pools and injecting patchy fog from the adjacent Missouri River.

Waterfowl, mostly mallards, congregated on what open water remained and large flocks of ducks wheeled above the frozen landscape.  Ten trumpeter swans lounged on an ice covered pool, oblivious of the winter chill, and a single flock of snow geese passed overhead, on their way to less frigid climes.  Several bald eagles and two red-tailed hawks patrolled the floodplain, where massive flocks of red-winged blackbirds scoured the icy fields.

It was nature at its best, combining scenic beauty, the challenges of winter and the fortitude of wildlife.  Watching the activity from the comfort of my heated pickup, I was forced to acknowledge the relative vulnerability of modern man. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

Eagle Bluffs Lite

From November through January, most of Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area is closed to the public for duck hunting season.  Only the northernmost section of this fabulous refuge is accessible; nevertheless, birders may still encounter a good variety of species.

On this cold, snowy morning, I ventured down to that floodplain preserve and was rewarded with a couple new sightings for the season: fourteen trumpeter swans and at least fifty snow geese.  Raptors were limited to a Cooper's hawk and a red-tailed hawk and a host of other sightings brought the species total to sixteen, rather meager for this well-known birding mecca.  The weather and my limited time frame were significant factors and I'm sure my species list would have doubled if I had another hour to explore the accessible region.

Except for a two-hour window in mid afternoon, birders must wait until February to more fully explore Eagle Bluffs once again.  While I have no personal objection to duck hunting (assuming the meat is consumed), I have long wondered whether hunting and birding could not safely coexist across this large refuge (e.g. by narrowing the hunting zones and/or reducing the hunting hours).

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Birding Urban Parks

While most naturalists and veteran birders head for conservation areas, nature preserves and wildlife refuges to observe and photograph wildlife, urban parks have a great deal to offer.  Providing a natural escape from human "development," these urban oases are generally planted with a wide variety of native wildflowers, shrubs and plants, attracting a diverse assembly of wildlife.

Indeed, in my experience, the more extensive the nature sanctuary the more dispersed the wild creatures and the more difficult they are to find.  Urban parks, on the other hand, tend to concentrate wildlife, offering food and shelter that is not readily available in the surrounding concrete jungle.

This morning, my grandson and I walked through Stephens Lake Park on the east side of Columbia.  Though its hike-bike path is less than two miles long, we observed twenty bird species, including a yellow-bellied sapsucker (a lifer for my grandson).  Urban parks may not offer the solitude and tranquility of wilderness or large nature preserves but the local birds certainly appreciate their offerings!

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Boredom on Country Roads

Most adult humans enjoy both the scenery and the serenity of a country drive, especially during the sunny, colorful months of autumn.  Unfortunately, preteens are not always as enamored with the experience.

Since my oldest grandson (a novice birder) is visiting this weekend, I took him on a drive through the farmlands east and south of Columbia.  While the temperature hovered near freezing, bright sunshine illuminated the landscape and an interesting variety of livestock and wildlife were encountered on our journey; raptors were especially common, including numerous kestrels and four red-shouldered hawks.  And though we failed to observe migrant snow geese, waterfowl occupied most of the lakes and farm ponds.

It was one of those days when I could have driven about for the entire afternoon, allowing the chilly air to waft through my pickup and soaking in the peaceful scenery.  But my companion was bored within an hour, asking what I planned to do next; a brief stop for snacks offered some consolation but we were home soon thereafter.  The joy of nature exploration, like that of most human endeavors, is acquired through repetition and I am pleased to offer that experience to my grandkids, however brief the dose.  Over time, I hope it becomes a vital part of their lives, as it has for me.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Our Soulless President

Whether you lean toward a liberal or conservative philosophy, it would seem impossible not to be disgusted by the behavior of our President.  Self-indulgent, he belittles anyone who does not openly adore him.  Women, immigrants, minorities, the press and political "enemies" are his favorite targets.

Having just lost the House of Representatives to the Democrats, Trump held a news conference to wallow in his victory and to chastise those Republicans who shunned his support and then lost their election.  When faced with tragic shootings across our nation, he bemoans the fact that they distract the press from his personal accomplishments.  Taking note of a parade of desperate refuges, far from our border, he sends in the military with instructions to shoot anyone who throws rocks.  Having learned that Saudi officials killed and dismembered a journalist, he readily accepts their denial of complicity.

Trump the narcissist is incapable of empathy. He cannot "feel the pain" of those who suffer since he, himself, has lived a life of luxury.  Soon after ending yesterday's news conference, he announced the forced resignation of his Attorney General, just the latest effort to shield himself from public scrutiny.  It's time for Democrats and Republicans alike to dislodge this soulless President and to restore dignity and compassion to the most powerful office on Earth.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Back to Snow Geese Country

While a fair number of snow geese migrate south along the Colorado Front Range, heading for wintering areas in New Mexico, their numbers pale in comparison to those that travel through the Missouri and Mississippi Valleys; these migrants head for the lower Mississippi Valley and western Gulf Coast, where they spend the winter on crop fields and in wetlands.

Returning to Missouri for a few weeks, we spent the night in Abilene, Kansas, and resumed our journey this morning, guided by a Cheshire moon and bright Venus in the predawn sky.  Once the sun rose, I began to watch for flocks of snow geese though it's a bit early yet for those hardy migrants; unfortunately, I only saw their large Canadian cousins and a host of raptors as we crossed Eastern Kansas and Western Missouri.

No doubt, I'll observe plenty of snow geese (and greater white-fronted geese as well) before returning to Colorado.  After all, I'll be hanging out in the heart of snow geese country!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Chaos at the Refuge

On this cloudy, cold morning, ducks were abundant at South Platte Park.  Northern shovelers, gadwalls and American wigeon dominated the scene, joined by smaller flocks of mallards, hooded mergansers, buffleheads and American coot; a few northern pintails, redheads, green-winged teal and pied-billed grebes were also observed.

The serenity of these flocks was suddenly disrupted by a pair of bald eagles, one adult and one immature, that circled above the lakes, sending clouds of ducks into the air.  Despite their reaction, most of the waterfowl need not fear the eagles, which tend to focus on old, sick or injured birds that are slow to respond or cannot keep up with their cohorts.

While our National Birds are powerful raptors, especially adept at snaring fish from the surface, they also steal fish from ospreys or gulls and often congregate along salmon runs to feed on dying fish in the shallows.  At other times they may be found far from water, feasting on the carcasses of deer or elk that were killed by predators or succumbed to harsh winter weather.  

Friday, November 2, 2018

A Wounded Hunter

As I walked along the South Platte River on this bright but chilly morning, I spotted a coyote on the opposite bank, nosing his way through the thickets.  It soon became apparent that he had injured one of his back legs and could not bear weight on that limb.

While we are entering the season when predators generally have an advantage (leafless foliage, dry grass and active prey), I wondered if this wounded hunter will make it through the winter.  No doubt, it will be harder for him to chase down rabbits and other agile prey.

Then again, coyotes are intelligent and highly adaptable creatures, adept at surviving in remote wilderness as well as in rural and urban environments.  Known to take advantage of human garbage and dog food, they also feed on carrion, berries and domesticated animals in addition to a host of wild birds and mammals.  My bet is that he'll manage just fine. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Winter Tries Again

Just over two weeks ago, the first snowstorm and the first hard freeze of the season descended on the Colorado Front Range, putting an end to autumn for 48 hours.  Though many of the colorful leaves were taken down by the wind and snow, the temperature rapidly rebounded, the snow melted and we have enjoyed summer-like warmth ever since.  Of course, the longer nights produce chilly mornings but afternoon highs have been in the mid 60s to mid 70s (F).

Yesterday, another cold front pushed southward across Colorado, bringing a raw day with intermittent showers.  Overnight, that rain changed to snow and it continues this morning, with minimal accumulation; by this afternoon, the sun will return and the snow will disappear.  Mild conditions are expected for the next week, though temperatures will be more autumn-like.

Once again, winter will retreat northward but it will continue making incursions into the Heartland.  While its grip will likely solidify across the Midwest and Northeast by December, those of us along the Front Range will enjoy mild (if not warm) interludes, thanks to the intense sunshine, dry air and downsloping "chinook" winds.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Table Mountain, South Africa

Watching a film set in Cape Town, South Africa, today, I wondered about the geology of Table Mountain, which looms above the city.  As is often the case, the natural history of that famous massif is complex.

About 500 million years ago, during the Cambrian Period, a rift valley developed in the southern portion of a continental plate that included today's Continents of South America, Antarctica and Africa.  Initially flooded by a shallow sea, the rift accumulated sediments over the next 100 million years.  Throughout the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic Eras, this region was folded, lifted and eroded by tectonic forces as Earth's Continents merged into Pangea and then rifted apart.

Among the sedimentary rocks that formed within the ancient rift valley was a thick layer of hard quartzite sandstone; resistant to erosion, this Table Mountain Sandstone now outcrops as the steep cliffs of Table Mountain and the Cape Fold Ranges of western South Africa.  Of note, the western end of this sandstone formation is now found in Argentina, separated from its South African segment as the Atlantic Ocean opened, some 150 million years ago.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

First Goldeneye, Last Osprey?

On this cool, sunny morning along the Colorado Front Range, I visited South Platte Park.  There I encountered a good variety of waterfowl, including the first common goldeneye of the season; the attractive male was fishing by himself on the clear waters of Eaglewatch Lake.  I was also fortunate to observe a lone osprey, perhaps the last one I will see at the Park this year.

Common goldeneyes breed across Alaska and Canada and winter primarily in coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest, the Canadian Maritimes, New England and the mid Atlantic Region.  Though less common, others winter on lakes across most of the U.S. and at least a few dozen spend the colder months at South Platte Park, feasting on a wide variety of aquatic creatures, from invertebrates to crustaceans and small fish.

Ospreys, on the other hand, are summer residents here and a pair have been nesting at the Park in recent years.  More common along the North American coasts, in the Pacific Northwest and in the Great Lakes Region, these "fish hawks" head for southern shores during the colder months and I suspect that this morning's visitor was on his way.

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Therapeutic Nature of Writing

Those who write, especially those who compose fiction, essays or poetry, know that it is a difficult task; indeed, finding the right words or selecting content that is both interesting and inspiring can be frustrating.  However, I have found that writing is a therapeutic process, forcing the author to confront their own experience, beliefs and biases.

Telling a story or persuading readers is more than an intellectual endeavor, it is an emotional one.  While all humans, consciously or subconsciously, attempt to bury life events that were especially painful, embarrassing or emotionally-charged, writers must actually draw on such experiences to make their content "real" for those who consume it.  Though their work may not be autobiographical, it is always infused with their own thoughts, emotions, convictions and insecurities.

Writers certainly understand these points and most would admit that the writing process is essential to their sense of well-being.  Many psychologists and psychiatrists use writing as a form of therapy and non-writers might want to personally investigate the therapeutic benefits of this human endeavor; it is, after all, a low risk and potentially enjoyable form of self-discovery.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Autumn Crier

A great horned owl was hooting outside our bedroom window last night, the first calls I have heard this season.  Like a town crier with an important message, he seemed to be warning the locals that, despite our current mild weather, winter is on the doorstep.

Of course, this vocal fellow was merely responding to his own hormones, unleashed by the waning period of daylight; the long, chilly nights are good for hunting and his mating season is fast approaching.  At this point, in mid autumn, he is just announcing his presence and his target is not the human ear.

No doubt, his hooting (and that of his eventual mate) will increase in the coming months.  Unfazed by frigid nights and heavy snow, he will relish the dark, quiet season of nature's year.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Nature of Regret

When I hear someone say that they have no regrets in their life, I tend to be skeptical.  After all, regret, whether major or minor, is part of human nature, a product of our large, complex brains.  Prone to ruminate, we often regret past decisions, actions or comments, whether justified or not.

This tendency to live in our past often makes us less happy in the present.  Judging ourself through the prism of hindsight, we are not always fair-minded, having buried the context in which past choices were made; neither do we always acknowledge the benefits that arose from those actions.  It's one thing to regret having made an insensitive remark and quite another to regret major life decisions.

Unfortunately, we are not always honest or reasonable when we review our past; whether we admit it or not, we all harbor regrets.  The real issue, it seems to me, is whether we let those regrets impact our current happiness and relationships.