Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Nature's Year

As we approach the end of another human calendar year, we realize that it has no direct relationship to the solar cycle, which defines nature's year.  Our modern calendar, the product of cultural and religious influence, is just another sign that we humans have split from the natural order of our home planet.  Indeed, early humans were more in touch with the seasons and, as a result, astronomical events such as the winter solstice played a significant role in their lives.

The astronomical year, defined by the time it takes Earth to complete one revolution around the sun, might, by human decree, begin on any calendar day.  Yet, if we divorce ourselves from cultural and religious traditions, we must acknowledge that the winter solstice (of either the Northern or Southern Hemisphere) should mark the beginning of our year.  After all, almost all life on our planet is dependent on solar radiation and nature's year is defined by the waxing and waning of that heat and light.

Weather cycles, vegetative patterns and animal behavior have evolved in response to the solar cycle.  While modern technology and global trade have left us relatively unaffected by the seasonal fluctuation of solar radiation, we cannot deny its vital role in the development and maintenance of natural ecosystems.  And, since our own welfare is tied to the health of those ecosystems, we must accept the fact that it is nature's year, not the human calendar, that truly governs our lives.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Snowless Autumn

One of the joys of living in Missouri is its location within a major North American flyway.  Each spring and fall, large flocks of waterfowl pass through the State, on their way between northern breeding grounds and wintering sites within Missouri or to our south.  Among those travelers are snow geese, a species that never fails to stir my soul.

Moving south in autumn, snow geese congregate at staging areas across the Heartland and tend to travel in massive flocks; in spring, they return to their Arctic breeding range in smaller, more widely scattered groups.  As a result, these vocal migrants are more often encountered in spring (generally from late February through mid March) than they are during the fall (usually mid November through mid December).

As we approach the winter solstice, I have yet to enjoy the sight and sound of migrating snow geese this autumn.  Though I have looked for them on and above the farmlands of central Missouri, listened for them in the night and traveled to regional wildlife preserves in an effort to find them, this is the first autumn since we moved to Columbia (in 1997) that my vigil has failed.  The snows have likely traveled east and west of central Missouri this fall; perhaps some passed through during my time in Colorado.  Whatever the reason for my lack of success, a snowless autumn was certainly a disappointment; then again, late February is but two months away!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Spring in December

Partial sunshine and mild air pushed into central Missouri today.  Down at the Forum Nature Area, it looked like winter but felt more like spring and the avian residents seemed to enjoy the conditions as much as I did.

As I wandered through the preserve, a background chorus was provided by robins, chickadees and roaming flocks of cedar waxwings, broken now and then by the harsh calls of crows, blue jays and red-tailed hawks.  At songbird corner (my personal label), northern cardinals, dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows twittered among the thickets; the latter species, perhaps sensing the approach of spring, were delivering their homesick tune.  Out on the seasonal lake, a pair of great blue herons waded through the calm shallows, stopping now and then to spear a fingerling.

Of course, the mild interlude also brought out joggers, headphone-walkers and trail bikers, all zooming past on their way to a pre-ordained finish line.  Our spring in December is courtesy of the potent storm system that is bringing high winds, heavy rains and mountain snows to California; as it pushes east and  drags in warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico, the storm will ignite thunderstorms across the Southern Plains and Mississippi Valley before moving on to the Eastern States.  In its wake, winter will drop back through the Heartland.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Humans & Vegetables

Childrens' distaste for vegetables is both well known and a common theme in advertising and entertainment.  Yet, we must acknowledge that children tend to speak the truth, unencumbered by social pressure and adult taboos.

As an adult who freely admits a limited attraction to vegetables (raw carrots, celery and fresh salads are favored) I am inclined to defend the youth of our species.  While I suspect that most humans like the natural taste of meats, fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts, fruits and grains, most of us must season our vegetables, fry them in butter, caramelize them with sugar or smother them with sauce before we enjoy their flavor; even salads are made palatable by topping them with dressing, cheese and croutons.  By contrast, most of us enjoy fruits and nuts right from the tree (or shrub) and require only a bit of cooking before we eagerly consume meat, fish and eggs.

While early human ancestors may have munched on leaves and other plants to supplement their diet, one suspects that vegetables, given their taste, may have eventually gained favor in areas where other nutritious foods were in short supply.  Perhaps this is all my self-serving imagination, an attempt to justify my child-like approach to vegetables.  Then again, when certain companies market veggie drinks to make their consumption more tolerable, there must be something to my theory.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Boreal Owls

Boreal owls are small raptors that inhabit mixed conifer-aspen forests across Alaska, Canada and northern Eurasia; their range also extends southward through northern Minnesota, the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains.  Though widespread and fairly common, boreal owls are rarely encountered, primarily due to their small size and strict nocturnal lifestyle.

When observed, they are generally perched in a conifer, where they spend the daylight hours; identification is made by their small size (females are larger than males), tuftless head, yellow eyes, speckled crown, white facial disc and brown and white plumage.  Feeding primarily on mice and songbirds, boreal owls may fall victim to larger owls, fishers or pine martens.  Tree cavities are used for nesting and the clutch size varies widely, averaging 5-6 young; the female incubates the eggs while the male guards the site and brings food.

Though widespread in the subalpine forests of Colorado, boreal owls are (in my experience) most commonly observed and reported near Cameron Pass, west of Fort Collins.  Of course, this may reflect the large population of birders along the Front Range urban corridor and the accessibility of that relatively low pass (10,300 feet).

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

December Gray

A milky-gray dome stretched above central Missouri today, diffusing the sunlight and dulling whatever color is left in the mid December landscape.  Sunrise and sunset were also devoid of color, merely announced by a gradual brightening and darkening of the frosted-glass dome.

With a cold front sagging to our south, a stationary front to our west and the nearest low on the Eastern Seaboard, there was no lift or surface wind to disturb the calm, winter air mass.  While one might say it was a cloudy day, individual clouds could not be identified and no layering of the overcast was evident; neither pockets of blue nor bright horizons held promise of a coming change.

It was, indeed, a classic winter sky in the American Midwest, too cold for rain and too dry for snow.  Beneath the opaque sky, our wild neighbors went about their business, oblivious of the filtered sunlight, and many humans, focused on their holiday shopping, were happy enough to have clear, dry roads.  Some of us would prefer a good winter snowstorm to ring in the season while others despise the December gray, counting the days until the first crocuses poke above the cold, wet soil.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Birding the Wastewater Wetlands

Columbia, Missouri, has a state-of-the-art, eco-friendly wastewater treatment facility, consisting of a chain of wetlands in the lower Perche Creek Valley, southwest of town.  Surrounded by a raised levee and graveled roadway, it is an excellent area for birding; since our local wildlife refuge has been closed for duck hunting, I opted for the wastewater area, where the value of other life forms is clearly acknowledged.

Yesterday afternoon, green-winged teal were abundant on the open pools, joined by smaller flocks of gadwall and mallards. An adult and two immature bald eagles soared above the valley and a pair of noisy red-tails called from the forested hills.  Riparian woodlands north of the facility were filled with thousands of American robins while sycamore groves to the south were alive with woodpeckers and a host of winter songbirds.  Eastern bluebirds and American goldfinches perched on the wire fencing, dark-eyed juncos foraged along the roadway and song sparrows flitted among the marsh reeds.

Of course, I was hoping that the high-pitched calls of snow geese might pierce the gray overcast but those vocal migrants remain elusive this season.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed my stroll around the wastewater marshes, where solitude is almost guaranteed and where silence is broken only by the calls of avian residents, the distant rumbling of freight trains and occasional chatty bikers on the Katy or MKT Trails.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

America's Lucrative Pheasant

Native to Asia, ring-necked pheasants were introduced to North America in 1881; initially bred in captivity and released on private hunting reserves, this hardy game bird has become established in grassland habitats across the northern half of the U.S. and southern Canada.

Most abundant on the Great Plains and selected as the State Bird of South Dakota, ring-necked pheasants are polygamous and prolific.  Dominant males establish harems during the breeding season and females lay multiple clutches until chicks are successfully hatched.  Known to have a negative impact on greater prairie chicken populations (a native species), male pheasants chase male chickens from their territory and female pheasants may parasitize the nests.  Though hundreds of thousands of male ring-necked pheasants are harvested by hunters each year, such artificial population control is, to some degree, countered by the polygamous breeding habits of these popular game birds; of course, many others are killed by severe weather, vehicles or farm machinery.

More than a century after Americans introduced ringed-necks to our continent, we have, in effect, created a massive hunting preserve from the Pacific to the Atlantic.  In some Great Plains States, pheasant hunting is vital to the economy, bringing in funds from hunting licenses and the patronage of regional stores, hotels and restaurants.  While the pheasants have imbedded themselves in natural ecosystems across the country, providing sustenance for hawks, owls, coyotes, fox and a host of egg consumers, they are unwitting participants in man's manipulation of nature for his own benefit, a practice that has nothing to do with conservation.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Suet Platoon

As the dark, cold days of December envelop Missouri, I add suet to our backyard handouts.  While the chunks of high calorie food do not increase the diversity of common winter residents and visitors, the extra activity does augment the chance of attracting rare or uncommon species that might be in the neighborhood.

As is usually the case with new feeders, chickadees are the first residents to inspect the suet, followed by white-breasted nuthatches, titmice, Carolina wrens and downy woodpeckers.  Eventually, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers, northern flickers, red-breasted nuthatches and brown creepers join the suet platoon; indeed, any winter insectivore (including yellow-rumpled warblers) may partake at times.

Industrious (or frugal) birders often produce their own suet blocks, using a wide variety of ingredients.  Most of us, lacking such competence or enthusiasm, would rather shell out a couple bucks for the packaged suet sold at most markets and feed stores.  Fortunately, our Missouri squirrels (both gray and fox) do not have a taste for suet (unlike our Colorado fox squirrels) and keeping this winter treat available is a weekly chore at most.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Flooding in a Parched Landscape

Over the past week, an atmospheric trough developed off the California coast, sweeping Pacific moisture across that parched landscape.  Within a few days, many regions of the State received more precipitation than they had in all of 2013.

Falling on slopes ravaged by wildfires, the steady rains triggered floods and mudslides while, in some urban areas, storm drains could not handle the deluge, stranding motorists and producing sinkholes.  Welcome snows fell across the Sierra Nevada and Transverse Ranges but rapid runoff limited the storm system's benefit at lower elevations.

A significant dent in California's severe, multi-year drought will require recurrent Pacific storm fronts throughout the winter months.  The current atmospheric trough (produced by a dip in the jet stream) is already moving on and meteorologists remain uncertain whether an El Nino pattern will take hold; that oceanic and atmospheric phenomenon would favor the development of recurrent storms in the coming months as the waters of the eastern Pacific begin to warm.  By contrast, a La Nina pattern is characterized by high pressure off the California coast, driving warm surface water and moist air to the west and shunting storm systems northward into Canada and Alaska.  Californians are certainly hoping for a boy this winter!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

White-Crowned Sparrows

Summer residents of Alaska, northern Canada and the alpine tundra of North America's western mountains, white-crowned sparrows winter across most of the Lower 48 (the Northern Plains, New England and South Florida excluded).  There they are usually found in sizable flocks, feasting on a variety of seeds in abandoned farm fields or in shrub lines along pastures; they might also visit feeders, especially in rural towns or semi-rural suburbs.

In Colorado, white-crowned sparrows are among the more common alpine summer residents and are best found near the stunted spruce and bristlecone pines at timberline.  While they migrate through the Front Range urban corridor in spring and fall, they are especially abundant in May as they return from the Southern Plains.  Here in central Missouri, white crowns are locally common winter residents on the farmlands that surround Columbia and, in my experience, are most often observed at suburban feeders in March or early April.

On their northern or alpine breeding grounds, these slender but hardy sparrows place their nest in low shrubs or directly on the ground; 3-5 young are raised and the family feasts on both insects and seeds throughout the summer months.  The male parent is highly territorial during this period and his distinctive song is delivered day and night.  By early autumn, the family members disperse; juvenile white-crowns retain their buff-colored head stripes until the following spring and are thus easily identified in winter flocks.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Cheap Oil & Climate Change

Now that oil prices have dropped to their lowest point in years, Conservative pundits are predicting the demise of clean, renewable sources of energy.  Investors have also punished the stocks of solar, wind and fuel cell companies, concluding that their glory days are over.  Neither group seems terribly concerned about the issues of pollution and climate change.

Of course, in this fickle world, where a terrorist attack or military conflict is just a news day away, the price of oil could rebound at any time, rescuing the profits of oil companies and the budget of several fragile oil-producing countries.  As we accept the gift of low gas and heating oil prices for the holidays, business panels debate whether Americans will return to gas-guzzling vehicles and lose interest in electric cars.

Once again, corporate policies focus on the short-term prospect for profits and the global factors that might impact that goal; the opportunity to address global warming has taken a back seat to dealing with a worldwide glut of oil.  In the end, of course, it doesn't matter if we destroy our planet by burning cheap or expensive fossil fuel.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Fishers of the Forest

Fishers are large members of the mustelid (weasel) family; second in size only to the river otter, male fishers may weight up to 13 pounds.  Solitary for most of the year, fishers prefer dense, old-growth forest where they hunt on the ground and in the trees; snowshoe hares and porcupines are their most common prey species but these omnivores also consume other small mammals, wild turkeys, grouse, fish (rarely, despite their name), fruit, nuts, mushrooms and carrion.  Though they seem to have few natural predators, records of attacks by lynx, coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions have been documented.

Fishers reach sexual maturity within one year and generally have a lifespan of 5 years or less in the wild; captive animals may live ten years or more.  Females give birth to an average of 3-4 kits in spring, most often using a tree cavity as a den; mating occurs soon thereafter but implantation of the fertilized eggs is delayed until the following spring.  Young fishers become independent by autumn and the litter mates disperse to establish their own territories; like their parents, they may be active day or night.

Native to North America, fishers inhabit the boreal forests of Canada and mature forests in New England, the Upper Great Lakes Region and the Northern Rockies (primarily in Canada, Idaho and Montana); isolated populations have also been found in the northern Sierra Nevada.  Over-trapping significantly reduced their population by the early 1900s but their numbers have since rebounded and stabilized.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Environmentalism & Religion

Several days ago, the PBS News Hour reported that the Communist Party of China is beginning to soften its stance on the expression of religion, apparently convinced that faith will boost support for environmentalism.  While their shift toward individual human rights is refreshing, I fail to see the connection between mysticism and a commitment to conservation.

Though Buddhism and other Eastern Religions are more in tune with a nature-based spirituality than the more human-based dogma of Western Religions, all forms of mysticism diminish the authority of science, which is vital to our understanding and effective protection of natural ecosystems.  This is especially true when religious faith depicts man as a chosen species, endowed with spiritual traits that are not shared by other forms of life.  Once we deny our interdependence with the plants and other animals that inhabit this planet, the less committed we are to their welfare and protection.

While there are certainly many ardent conservationists who are also religious, relying on mysticism to promote environmentalism is, in my opinion, misguided.  We debase intellectual honesty and a science based search for truth at our own peril.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Nature of Hanging Valleys

A hanging valley is generally defined as a stream or glacial valley that ends abruptly atop the steep wall of a deeper valley or sea cliff.  Such formations are especially common in glacial terrain and where the sheer wall of the deeper valley or cliff is composed of resistant rock (e.g. granite, marble, etc.).

In mountainous regions that have been subjected to glaciation, the major glacial tongues erode deep, U-shaped valleys through the range; smaller tributary glaciers feed the primary ice flow from either side.  When the glaciers melt back as the climate warms, the deep, steep-walled glacial valley is lined with hanging valleys on either side, where streams run down the shallower tributary valleys and then plunge into the deep, central valley via magnificent waterfalls; Yosemite Valley offers an excellent example of such post-glacial topography.  Of course, if the glaciated terrain has since become an arid landscape (e.g. ranges of the Great Basin) the streams and waterfalls are seasonal.  Finally, in unglaciated regions of the globe, similar topography may develop when rock falls broaden the central valley, cutting off feeder streams well above the primary river.

Hanging valleys may also form atop sheer sea cliffs, where streams draining higher terrain create valleys that end abruptly at the edge of the cliff; there, the stream becomes a waterfall, plunging to the rocky shore or directly into the sea.  In all of the above scenarios, the feeder stream valley is "left hanging" above the central valley floor or coastal beach.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Gila River

Covering more than 58,000 square miles, the watershed of the Gila River includes most of Arizona south of the Mogollon Rim.  The river itself rises on the west side of the Continental Divide in western New Mexico; flowing westward into Arizona, it receives the waters of the San Carlos River within the San Carlos Reservoir, northwest of Mount Turnbull.  Continuing westward, the Gila takes in water from the San Pedro River (flowing north from Mexico), flows south of Chandler, Arizona, and then angles northwestward, passing between South Mountain and the Sierra Estrella, just south of Phoenix.  In southwest Metro Phoenix, it merges with the Salt River; the latter courses westward through the heart of the city after gathering flow from numerous tributaries that drop from the edge of the Mogollon Rim (among these are the Verde, White and Black Rivers and Canyon Creek).

Just west of its junction with the Salt, the Gila receives the waters of the Agua Fria, which rises east of Prescott and flows southward through western Metro Phoenix; en route, the Agua Fria is dammed to form Lake Pleasant.  Below the mouth of the Agua Fria River, the Gila dips southward, passing Gila Bend, and then enters Painted Rock Reservoir; beyond that reservoir, it continues westward through low desert terrain, joining the Colorado River at Yuma, Arizona. At its mouth, the Gila has flowed 650 miles and dropped 5500 feet from its source in the Gila National Forest of New Mexico.

As one might expect in the Sonoran Desert, flow volumes through the Gila River and its tributaries are highly seasonal, fed primarily by the monsoon rains of summer, by mountain springs and by winter snows across the Mogollon Rim.  Reservoirs along the Gila, while providing irrigation for agriculture in its valley, have all but eliminated its contribution to the Colorado, further ensuring that America's great western river will never again reach the sea (unless, of course, human civilization fails and our massive dams succumb to the Colorado's untamed torrent).

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Pioneers of Enlightenment

On this annual American holiday of Thanksgiving, we stop to ponder our good fortune (however meager or extravagant that might be) and to thank those who have had a positive influence on our life.  While many will direct prayers of thanks to a deity and most will focus on the love, encouragement and devotion of family and friends, we should not overlook the gifts bestowed by past members of human society.

In particular, the pioneers of science laid the foundation for human progress, insisting on objective methods in our search for truth and understanding.  Ridiculed and persecuted by the power brokers of society (a resistance that continues today), their perseverance has been vital to both the enlightenment and the very survival of our species.  In like manner, those who championed the rights and dignity of the individual, thereby stemming the forces of oppression and discrimination, fueled the spread of democracy, personal freedom and international cooperation across the globe.  And, of course, the work of early conservationists, long challenged by the captains of industry, is admired and appreciated by all humans who share their concerns for the welfare of Earth's natural ecosystems.

While we cannot personally thank these and other pioneers of human enlightenment, we honor them by acknowledging the benefits of their courageous work and by resolving to build on their past achievements.  We owe that commitment to future generations.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Raptors in the Cold Sunshine

Clear skies and cold air enticed me down to the wooded hills and open farmlands south and east of Columbia this morning.  Besides, a steady north breeze held the promise of migrant snow geese that, like most avian travelers, take advantage of tail winds on their seasonal journeys.  Alas, no snows were spotted in the deep blue sky but thousands of starlings offered some consolation, their spectacular aerial ballets rising like smoke signals in the cold morning sunshine.

But this day belonged to the raptors.  A pair of bald eagles soared above the icy Missouri River while a second pair rested in trees near a rural park, surveying flocks of hooded mergansers and common goldeneyes that had gathered on its lake.  As usual, red-tailed hawks were abundant along the country roads, joined by several red-shouldered hawks and a large number of American kestrels.  Finally, a sharp-shinned hawk streaked across a barnyard, hoping to nab one of the sparrows that fed among the haystacks.

Other sightings included Canada geese, pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers, northern mockingbirds and a flock of cedar waxwings, among more common winter songbirds.  Invigorated by the cold air and bright sunshine, all species were especially active and conspicuous; once the lakes freeze up north, migrant snows and white-fronts will hopefully join the pre-winter frenzy (and make my day in the process!).

Monday, November 24, 2014

Refuge Closed for Killing

On this cold, gray, November morning in central Missouri, I headed down to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River floodplain, hoping to observe snow geese or tundra swans.  Unfortunately, I found that most of the refuge is already closed for duck hunting, a season that seems to arrive earlier each year (surely an illusion, triggered by my biased imagination).  While I understand the need for hunting under some circumstances (to provide sustenance for isolated human cultures and to control the population of certain wildlife species....do to our annihilation of their natural predators), most hunting is purely a sport, matching one's skill against the natural abilities of the prey.  None of the duck hunters at Eagle Bluffs will starve if they miss their targets.

Of course, many will point to the contributions of Ducks Unlimited and other "conservation groups" that fund the restoration and protection of wetlands, thereby sustaining healthy populations of waterfowl species.  Others will remind us that hunting license fees are used to manage open space that benefits a wide variety of wildlife species (not to mention the humans who enjoy watching them).  Perhaps I am unduly cynical but this is the same argument used to justify public gambling programs (i.e. lotteries).

When "conservation funds" are used to provide live targets for hunting, one questions the value of the programs that generate those funds.  Then again, perhaps I should thank the duck hunters for the bald eagles, red-tails, kestrels and oblivious waterfowl species that I did manage to observe during my aborted visit to the refuge.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Great Appalachian Valley

The Great Appalachian Valley of North America, a series of topographic valleys separated by low divides, stretches for more than 1200 miles, from the Richelieu Valley of Quebec (which drains Lake Champlain) to the Coosa River Valley of northeastern Alabama.  While rivers have eroded (and continue to mold) the component valleys, geologic downwarping also shaped the terrain as adjacent mountains rose.

The eastern wall of the Valley is composed (from northeast to southwest) by the Green Mountains of Vermont, the Taconic Highlands of southern New England and the Blue Ridge Mountains, from south-central Pennsylvania through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and northern Georgia.  The west wall consists of the Adirondacks and Catskills of New York and the easternmost ridge of the Ridge & Valley Province, from Pennsylvania to Alabama.  Some of America's most famous rivers course through sections of the Valley (including the Hudson, the Susquehanna, the Shenandoah and the Upper Tennessee) while others, such as the Mohawk, Potomac, Delaware and James Rivers, enter or cut across the Valley.  Cities within the Valley include Burlington, Albany, Harrisburg, Hagerstown, Winchester, Harrisonburg, Bristol and Maryville, among others.

Indeed, the Great Appalachian Valley is not a closed basin and its walls are not continuous.  Rather, rivers enter and leave the Valley through "water gaps" that formed as the mountains rose beneath the entrenched streams.  Nevertheless, the "Great Valley," with its rich soil, diverse ecosystems and scenic vistas, has long provided a natural highway through mountainous terrain for wildlife, Native Americas and modern travelers alike.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Two Cities, Two Owls

Great horned owls are the nocturnal avian predators along the Colorado Front Range, feasting on prey as large as skunks, geese and raccoons.  Not often heard during the warmer months of the year, their gruff hoots begin to echo across our Littleton farm by mid November, continuing through their mid winter breeding season and trailing off by early spring.  Utilizing abandoned hawk or magpie nests (or drum nests placed by humans), these powerful raptors are perhaps best observed in late winter, when mom and her downy youngsters stare down from their roost in a cottonwood grove.

In Columbia, Missouri, our neighborhood is amidst a network of wooded stream valleys and barred owls are far more common than their larger cousins; delivered throughout the seasons, their mellow, questioning calls may be heard day or night.  Barred owls lack the "ear tufts" of great horned owls, have dark eyes and often tolerate close approach, peering down from a trailside tree as hikers pass below.  Their diet, consisting primarily of mice, voles and rabbits, may also include reptiles, amphibians and songbirds; tree cavities are generally used for nesting and, in my experience, mother and young are far less conspicuous than the families of great horned owls.

In either of my home towns, I relish the sight and sound of owls, a natural highlight of the fall and winter months.  Hardy yet mysterious, these efficient hunters rule the night, the hours when we humans are ill equipped to function; it is perhaps that sense of inadequacy that fuels our admiration for these nocturnal raptors.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Snow Disaster in Buffalo

The poster child for lake-effect snow events struck South Buffalo, New York, this week, dropping up to six feet of snow.  According to local weather officials, this is the greatest one-day snowfall in at least 40 years; given the fact that the Great Lakes have existed for about 12,000 years, it's anyone's guess where this crippling storm falls on the spectrum of past lake-effect snow events.

Frigid air, moving west to east over the relatively warm waters of Lake Erie, produced the spectacular accumulation of snow.  Once the wind shifted from a more southerly direction, the skies cleared and the snow machine was shut down; unfortunately, that wind shift is expected to be brief and lake-effect snows are forecast to resume in the Buffalo area, perhaps dropping another two feet or more.

Lake-effect snow bands, like snow-guns used at ski areas, can produce dramatic snow accumulation in one linear region with little or no snowfall to either side of that band; though South Buffalo was buried under six feet of snow, the city's airport, to the north, received only six inches.  Those caught within the band may be trapped in their homes or vehicles and face the threat of falling limbs or collapsed roofs; worse yet, subsequent rainfall, which is expected in the region, is absorbed by the snow, increasing its weight before spawning destructive floods.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pipeline to Oblivion

Political, corporate and public support for the Keystone Pipeline is a direct repudiation of efforts to reduce fossil fuel consumption across the globe.  Touting the economic and societal benefits of the project, supporters voice little concern for its environmental impacts, including our continued reliance on a product that threatens the welfare of our planet.

The tar sands of northeastern Alberta, Canada, lie within Cretaceous sediments of the Athabasca River Valley.  Extraction of their heavy crude has involved both open pit mining and in situ techniques (which require large volumes of water, diverted from the river).  Both forms of extraction threaten the regional environment, either via direct destruction of boreal bogs and forest or by pollution of the river and its tributaries.  Of course, transportation of the heavy crude in a pipeline that crosses the American Heartland raises the possibility of spills in rivers, prairies, wetlands or vital agricultural areas along the way.

But the primary threat of the Keystone Pipeline is its reinforcement of our dependence on fossil fuel.  A shift toward natural gas utilization and clean, renewable energy production have gained significant traction over the past decade, fueled by the threat of global warming, recurring incidents of pollution (such as the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico) and the political ramifications of the international oil market.  Support for the Keystone Pipeline demonstrates an unwillingness to address the ongoing, man-induced degradation of Planet Earth and our accelerating march toward oblivion.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Tribute to Stephen Hawking

Yesterday, my wife and I saw The Theory of Everything, the story of Steven Hawking's rise from a socially awkward graduate student to an international celebrity and pioneering genius in the field of theoretical physics.  His accomplishments, of course, unfolded despite the ravages of ALS that eventually confined him to a wheelchair and necessitated the use of a computerized voice machine; though initially advised that he had two years to live, Steven Hawking continues to lend his intellect and insight at the age of seventy-two.

While some reviewers have criticized the movie for its simplified treatment of Hawking's theories on time, black holes and the origin of the Universe, I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend the film; it effectively blended the roles that love, intelligence and perseverance played in his development as a physicist and as a human being.  It also highlighted Hawking's view that mysticism has no place in science while relating his conviction that the search for truth in the Universe does not diminish the value and potential contribution of each human life.

Though few are blessed with Hawking's intellect, we can all insist on intellectual honesty as we face the challenges of our lives and the mysteries of our vast Universe.  Mysticism need not taint the purity of love nor derail our science-based search for truth.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Harlan's Hawk

Harlan's hawk is a large, dark-plumaged buteo that breeds across Alaska and Northwest Canada.  Once considered a distinct species, this powerful raptor is now classified as a subspecies of the red-tailed hawk, which ranges across most of North America.

Come autumn, Harlan's hawks head primarily for the Southern Plains, from the base of the Front Range to Arkansas and Texas, though individuals have been observed throughout much of the U.S., especially west of the Mississippi River; fortunately, one of these northern predators has been wintering on or near our Littleton, Colorado, farm over the past few years.  His bulky form is often observed on a phone pole or in a large tree, searching the fields and pastures for mice, voles or cottontails.  Oblivious of the frigid air and snow, he is an impressive representative of the vast northern wilderness that is his home.

Indeed, one of the benefits of birding is the opportunity to enjoy the seasonal presence of wild creatures that spend the majority of their lives in distant lands.  More importantly, we come to appreciate that Earth's varied ecosystems are interdependent and that the welfare of these avian travelers is directly related to the health of those widely spaced ecosystems, some of which are heavily impacted by human activity.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Mount Pavlov Eruption

Mount Pavlov, 8560 feet, is a stratovolcano on the Alaskan Peninsula, some 600 miles southwest of Anchorage.  It formed within the last 10,000 years, on the northeast edge of the Emmons Lake Caldera (the remnants of an ancient volcanic explosion); like all of the Aleutian Volcanoes, it is the product of subduction, as the Pacific Plate dips beneath the North American Plate, causing its edge to melt and fuel volcanism.

The most active volcano in Alaska, Mount Pavlov has experienced numerous eruptions, most of which have been relatively benign due to both the volcano's structure and its remote location.  The current eruption began earlier this week with little fanfare; however, over the past 24 hours, Mt. Pavlov's ash plume has intensified, rising 30,000 feet above sea level and threatening air traffic in the region.

Such is the nature of "natural disasters" across the globe.  While the physical evolution of Planet Earth continues, just as it has for 4.6 billion years, we humans ignore (if not dismiss) that evidence until it directly threatens our personal welfare.  As a consequence, we construct cities within subduction zones and along major fault lines, convinced that we are the endpoint of God's master plan, not just another species, subject to the natural forces that mold this planet.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Wintry Waterfowl Count

For the first monthly waterfowl count of the winter season, wintry conditions enveloped South Platte Park in Littleton, Colorado.  Following a one day respite from this week's frigid weather, a second phase of the Polar Express is pushing across the State and light snow developed along the Front Range early this morning.

Needless to say, the cold air, blowing snow and steam-shrouded lakes made the counting difficult at times.  Nevertheless, our group encountered a large number and variety of species on the South Platte and its floodplain lakes; Canada geese, gadwalls, northern shovelers and American widgeon were most abundant, joined by mallards, lesser scaup, buffleheads, common goldeneyes, hooded mergansers, northern pintails and green-winged teal.  Other sightings included pied-billed grebes, a lone western grebe, a muskrat and a rough-legged hawk.

As the lakes freeze over during the winter months, some of the waterfowl will head further south but most will simply move to the the river channel, where the flowing water remains open.  Due to our recent Arctic outbreak, that relocation may be well ahead of schedule.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Frigid Morning at Red Rocks

Red Rocks Park, in the foothills west of Denver, is best known for its outdoor, rock-walled amphitheater, which, over the years, has hosted a wide variety of concerts and other forms of entertainment.  To birders and naturalists, the Park is also known as an excellent place to explore the flora and fauna of the Front Range shrub zone.

Today, my friend and I arrived at the snow-laden landscape of Red Rocks Park by mid morning; the air was calm but the temperature was 8 degrees F.  Since he is a wildlife photographer, we headed straight for the feeder area behind the Trading Post, well known as a magnet for resident birds, migrants, wintering species and rare vagrants.  Though recent reports indicated sightings of golden-crowned sparrows at the Park, we failed to observe them today; neither did we see rosy finches, which often invade Red Rocks after winter storms rake the mountains.  At the feeders, four races of dark-eyed juncos were the most numerous visitors, followed by black-capped chickadees, house finches, scrub jays, black-billed magpies, song sparrows and spotted towhees.  Throughout the remainder of the Park, birds were rather sparse, represented primarily by magpies and red-tailed hawks; despite expectations, no Townsend's solitaires were found.  Mule deer, on the other hand, were abundant, prancing through the snow or foraging on the yucca-studded meadows.

Wildlife observation in frigid weather is always a challenge but it gives one a better appreciation for the hardiness and adaptability of our wild neighbors.  Of course, handouts are welcomed by many species of wildlife and concentrate their activity for the benefit of human observers; then again, they concentrate victims for predators as well!


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Rosetta Mission & Climate Change

Today, ten years after its launch and at the end of a 4 billion mile journey, the Rosetta spacecraft successfully landed its Philae probe on a comet.  The latter was traveling at 85,000 miles per hour and the rendezvous occurred 311 million miles from Planet Earth.  Scientists hope to learn more about the birth of our solar system from data collected on the comet's surface.

This stunning achievement is the culmination of a project that began long before liftoff and, of course, owes its success to the knowledge that we humans have accumulated over more than five centuries.  Few would deny that this feat is just the latest in a long history of monumental scientific achievements, all of which have drawn from our understanding of the laws of nature.

Yet, many who applaud the success of the Rosetta mission remain unwilling to accept the scientific evidence of global warming.  Whether motivated by religion, politics or personal interests, they choose to ignore (if not ridicule) science when it threatens their belief system or their economic welfare.  While the new knowledge gained from the surface of a comet will help to clarify the nature of our planet's origin, opposition to the science of climate change will undermine efforts to understand its future.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Escape from the Frigid Upslope

Facing a cold, cloudy day with intermittent flurries (courtesy of this week's Polar Express), we and our guests escaped to the Western Slope of the Continental Divide.  Climbing through the frigid fog along Interstate 70, we left the upslope clouds just beyond Georgetown, Colorado, which sits at 8500 feet.  From there westward, we enjoyed sunny skies and relatively mild November conditions.

We ended up in Vail for lunch and an afternoon of hiking and birding; highlights of the latter included flocks of cedar waxwings and pine grosbeaks, in town to feast on the varied crops of berries.  We looked in vain for common dippers along Gore Creek but did encounter a ruby-crowned kinglet, seemingly a bit tardy for his journey to the south.

Following our pleasant afternoon west of the Divide, we returned to Metro Denver, re-entering the upslope fog at Georgetown and eventually crawling from the foothills and through the city, where late day snow and temperatures in the teens (F) created icy roads and snarled traffic.  Due to other plans, we won't be able to escape the Arctic blast for the next two days but it's nice to know that topographic relief is just an hour's drive away!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Watching Winter Arrive

This morning dawned clear, sunny and mild along the Colorado Front Range.  Knowing that a potent cold front was on its way, we introduced our visitors to several State Parks, hoping to complete our tour before the Arctic blast arrived.

A quick drive through Chatfield State Park was followed by a hike at Roxborough State Park; enjoying the wildlife and scenic rock formations at Roxborough, we could see a wall of clouds building to our north.  Though it was too warm to hike in a heavy sweatshirt or jacket, we knew that the warm sunshine (64 degrees F by mid morning) would soon give way to wintry conditions.

As the clouds pushed southward, gusty winds produced dust storms across Metro Denver and we headed for the hills, climbing through Deer Creek Canyon and then angling southwestward on U.S. 285.  We were headed for Staunton State Park, on the south side of the Mt. Evans massif and west of a high ridge that cuts across Conifer, Colorado.  There, protected from high winds and the rapidly developing upslope, we enjoyed a loop hike through the montane forest, encountering red crossbills, Abert's squirrels and mule deer, among other common wildlife species.  By the time we returned to our Littleton farm, fog and snow showers enveloped the urban corridor and the temperature had fallen 40 degrees in less than 2 hours (to 24 degrees F).

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Return of the Bark Birds

A pair of brown creepers returned to our central Missouri neighborhood this week and will be observed on occasion throughout the colder months.  After nesting in the Northwoods of Canada, southern Alaska and the Great Lakes region and southward through the Appalachians and Western mountains, these small, slender birds leave their coniferous homeland to winter in mixed woods throughout much of the U.S.

Commonly encountered in parks and suburban areas, brown creepers favor areas with large trees where they circle up the trunk, searching for hibernating insects and spiders.  Nearing the top of the trunk or one of its major branches, they fly to the base of another tree and begin to climb and search once again, picking through the bark with their curved bill.  During their winter visit, creepers may also turn up at suet feeders and frequently join mixed flocks of chickadees, titmice and downy woodpeckers in the barren woods.

Resembling pieces of bark themselves, brown creepers are monogamous during the breeding season and often suspend their nest behind a piece of loose bark; both parents take part in raising the young.  Come autumn, the family members go their separate ways, some remaining in their summer range while others travel hundreds of miles across the lowlands of North America.  Known to winter in flocks on occasion, creepers are (in my experience) most often seen alone or in pairs.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Water: Sculptor of the Earth

While plate tectonics rearranges the Continents, lifts mountain ranges and ignites volcanism, water sculpts the surface of Planet Earth.  Falling as rain, snow or ice pellets and lashing the coastlines as waves, this vital substance erodes and shapes our landscapes.

Whether moving as liquid water in rivers and streams or as solid ice in glaciers, water sculpts the mountains, plateaus and mesas of our planet, carving cirques, canyons and valleys and then spreading that debris across the lowlands or delivering it to lakes and oceans.  Along the margins of the Continents, wind-driven waves mold the shorelines, producing cliffs, sea stacks and barrier islands.

Of course, vegetation modifies this erosion in many regions, stabilizing soil and dunes, slowing and filtering the flow of streams and absorbing excess precipitation.  Unfortunately, we humans have a history of destroying that protection by draining wetlands, clearing forests and plowing prairies, augmenting the risk of destructive floods.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Africa's Aquatic Dinosaur

Last evening, NOVA, on PBS, focused on the discovery and evaluation of Spinosaurus fossils, the largest carnivorous dinosaur yet unearthed and the only one known to have been semi-aquatic.  Larger than Tyrannosaurus rex, Spinosaurus lived in the Saharan Desert region of North Africa, some 95 million years ago.  Its fossils have been found in a layer of late Cretaceous sandstone which also contains the fossils of numerous marine creatures, indicating that a shallow sea covered much of the region during that period.

Characterized by a long, crocodilian snout, relatively large forelimbs and a large, boney fin on its back, Spinosaurus would have been too top-heavy to walk upright like T. rex; indeed, paleontologists have concluded that it was primarily aquatic (scouring the shallows for large fish, sharks and other marine life) and only came ashore to sleep, nest or perhaps to feast on small terrestrial vertebrates.  Its conical teeth and flat feet (both seen in crocodilians) favor this hypothesis.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Spinosaurus story is that fossils of this giant predator were first discovered in Egypt by Ernst Stromer, German paleontologist, but were unfortunately destroyed by a bombing raid during WWII; almost 100 years later, other fossils were dug up in Morocco and sold to a museum in Milan, Italy, setting the stage for the high-tech investigation reported on NOVA.  A full skeleton of Spinosaurus has yet to be found but many surely lie beneath the vast sands of the Saharan Desert.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Anti-Science Coalition

Back when foresighted individuals such as Galileo and Copernicus led humanity toward scientific enlightenment, the Church condemned their theories and attempted to quash their influence.  Over time, as science fueled the industrial and technologic revolutions, religious organizations were forced to acknowledge that the theories of those intellectual pioneers had been valid; nevertheless, where scientific evidence directly undermines the basic doctrines of religion (e.g. evolution), the Church, in its varied forms, continues to reject the message.

Over the past few decades, political forces have joined the anti-science coalition, specifically in the area of global warming.  Protecting industries that fund their livelihood (i.e. the oil, gas and coal companies), conservative politicians ridicule the scientific evidence put forth by climatologists.  In doing so, they further diminish the value of science in the collective mind of an uneducated public.

Since the days of Galileo and Copernicus, science has strived to uncover truths pertaining to the laws of nature and the evolution of our Universe.  When powerful religious and political leaders undermine that effort with mysticism and rhetoric, the welfare of our planet (and, of course, of humanity itself) is placed at risk.  Truth cannot prevail in a climate of fear, deception and ignorance.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Anticipation on the Eastern Plain

Driving to Cincinnati today, I crossed the eastern portion of North America's Glaciated Plain, which stretches from western Illinois to central Ohio.  It is a relatively flat landscape of crop fields and hay pastures (once a tallgrass prairie), laced with streamside woodlands.

On this calm, mild November day, the region and its wildlife seemed to be laying low, awaiting the turmoil of the coming season.  The spectacular October colors were fading toward brown and the trees had undergone a variable degree of defoliation.  Red-tailed hawks perched in trees along the highway or lazily soared above the drying fields while flocks of turkey vultures tilted in the gentle southerly breeze.  Migrant waterfowl speckled the numerous farm ponds and groups of crows strutted through the corn stubble, picking at waste grain and sluggish grasshoppers.

As a traveler through that rural landscape, I sensed anticipation in its wild residents.  They may enjoy another week or two of mild conditions but winter is on the doorstep, ready to coat the trees and fields with ice or send frigid blasts of snow across the flat terrain.  Indeed, another jolt of cold air is expected by mid week and memories of last year's severe winter linger in the minds of Midwesterners; fortunately, the wild residents are not subject to such rumination and the culling season actually favors the raptors and scavengers that patrol this unforgiving landscape.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Migratory Woodpeckers

Mention migrant birds and most of us think of waterfowl, shorebirds, seabirds and a wide variety of songbirds; few would think to include woodpeckers in that mix.  Indeed, most woodpeckers are permanent residents of their home territory, perhaps descending from higher elevations or moving among seasonal habitats but not leaving for more southern climes as winter approaches.

The primary exceptions are the sapsuckers, which prefer to feast on insects and sap.  Yellow-bellied sapsuckers breed across Canada, the Great Lakes region and New England but winter in the Southeastern States and Mexico.  Red-naped and Williamson's sapsuckers summer in the Rockies and Intermountain West but winter from the southern Colorado Plateau and Desert Southwest into Mexico; some Williamson's sapsuckers are permanent residents of the Sierra Nevada range.  Finally, red-breasted sapsuckers breed in British Columbia, southeastern Alaska, the Pacific Northwest States and the Sierra Nevada; most leave more northern latitudes and higher elevations during the colder months.

Lewis' woodpeckers, often seen in flocks, are summer residents of the Rockies, Pacific Northwest and Great Basin, permanent residents of California, the Colorado Plateau and Southern Rockies foothills and winter residents of the Desert Southwest.  Even some of our more common and widespread woodpeckers demonstrate a limited degree of migration; northern flickers leave their Canadian and Alaskan breeding grounds during winter, red-bellied woodpeckers move south from the Great Lakes and southern New England and red-headed woodpeckers abandon the Great Plains and the northern tier of the U.S.    

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Football Weather

As we move deeper into autumn, the term "football weather" is frequently heard.  In many cases, it is used to define unpleasant conditions that devoted fans must endure, including torrential rains in the Deep South, frigid temperatures across the Northern Plains or blowing snow in the Mountain States.  More often, however, it refers to crisp, breezy days, the air faintly scented with barbecue fumes or wood smoke.

Today, it is the latter that envelops Columbia, Missouri, where the Tigers host the Kentucky Wildcats.  Not heading to the game, I'll catch parts of it and other contests on the TV but find it impossible to remain glued to the couch on such a beautiful autumn day, our first chilly afternoon of the season.  After all, there are leaves to rake, feeders to fill and fresh air to inhale.

Like many half-hearted fans, I enjoy football primarily due to the season in which its games take place. In the American Heartland, football weather is synonymous with the glorious days of autumn, with their invigorating air, colorful foliage, active wildlife and spectacular flocks of migrants.  Good for contests on the gridiron, the conditions are even better for outdoor exploration.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Conservatives are Scary Enough

Driving across Kansas yesterday, I was repeatedly schooled on the Conservative message that, they hope, will give them control of the Senate after next week's election.  In a nutshell: they will oppose every program or policy that the Obama Administration has ever enacted, proposed or considered.

Voicing a disdain for the Federal Government (with the obvious exception of the Department of Defense), Conservative Republicans still promise to repeal Obamacare and to eliminate other frivolous components of the Federal Bureaucracy (such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Education); no word on cutting the Farm Bill or the Agriculture budget.  While they abhor governmental regulations that "threaten" corporate profits and gun ownership, they are quick to promise legal action that will block, abolish or diminish the rights of women, gays and immigrants.  In effect, they hope to impose their Conservative "values" on the rest of American society.

Tonight, as witches, goblins and pirates invade our front porch, I will feign fright in the spirit of Halloween.  In reality, the words and policies of Conservative politicians are far more unsettling.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

First Winter Ducks

Yesterday morning, after the potent Colorado sun had warmed the cold night air, I headed down to South Platte Park to see if the rather sluggish waterfowl migration had yet to begin.  The answer awaited on Eaglewatch Lake, where a flock of buffleheads had gathered on the calm, cool waters.  Based on my personal observations, these were the first winter ducks to arrive in the valley.

As expected, they were joined by a variety of summer and permanent residents, including double-crested cormorants, gadwalls, northern shovelers, mallards, pied-billed grebes and common and hooded mergansers.  Noisy flocks of Canada geese, still awaiting the arrival of their northern cousins, passed overhead and a pair of belted kingfishers chattered along the shoreline.  Other sightings included red-tailed hawks, ring-billed gulls, magpies and northern flickers.

No doubt, the buffleheads rode the northerly winds behind our recent cold front and other waterfowl will do the same in the coming weeks.  Depending on conditions up north, migrant geese generally appear along the Front Range in early November and most winter ducks have arrived by the middle of the month.  Contrary to what non-birders might expect, the number and variety of ducks in the South Platte Valley is greatest during the colder months of the year.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Winter's First Punch

Following a mild October along the Colorado Front Range, the first significant cold front of the season pushed across the Rockies yesterday morning and, throughout the day, dropped the temperature in Metro Denver from the low 50s (F) to the upper thirties.  Up to a foot of snow fell in the higher ranges of the State's northern and central mountains while the mountain valleys received a few inches.  A chilly drizzle developed in Denver yesterday afternoon and some of the higher suburbs received a light dusting of snow.

Overnight, Metro Area temperatures fell into the upper twenties, a taste of many mornings to come.  Fortunately, the region's high elevation, intense sunshine and downsloping "chinook" winds, generally limit the duration of winter weather outbreaks.  Indeed, the coldest average afternoon highs, which occur in mid-late January, are in the low forties (though overnight lows often fall into the single digits or below zero).

Throughout the thirty two years that we have lived in Colorado, the week of Halloween has often brought the first significant snowfall in Metro Denver; on the other hand, September snow is far from rare.  This week, however, a rapid warm-up is forecast, pushing afternoon temperatures into the sixties and lower seventies.  There will be no need for bulky coats under those costumes!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Panic, Politics & Policy

Fear and panic over ebola have now been officially endorsed by the Governors of New York and New Jersey, who, no doubt, recognize the political advantage of their new policies.  Mandating an enforced quarantine for health workers returning from West Africa, they choose to ignore scientific evidence in favor of appeasing the masses (and locking up votes).

Inappropriate, demeaning and surely subject to future lawsuits, this arbitrary policy will certainly discourage health care workers from volunteering to serve in the hot zone, where help is desperately needed.  Indeed, unless that crisis is aggressively addressed, the ebola outbreak will spread to other African countries and could easily become a global epidemic.

When politicians begin to make medical decisions, the authority of science is diminished.  While there were some initial missteps by medical personnel and the CDC in Dallas, recent surveillance plans and science-based management protocols will protect Americans without the need to imprison health care workers.  The Governors may want to be viewed as public heroes but they are doing more to fuel panic than they are to address the problem.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Death of an Adversary

For the past five years or so, a large female raccoon has insisted on denning beneath one of the eaves of our Littleton, Colorado, house.  Raising a litter of kits each spring, a scat latrine would soon appear near the edge of the roof, requiring my eventual attention.  Once the young were raised and on their own, I would discourage her continued presence (using a hose if necessary) and clean up the family's mess.

A few days ago, I observed a large, dead raccoon near the driveway of our farm.  Though I had no way of knowing if that was my adversary, I found myself hoping that my annual troubles were finally over.  A wave of guilt soon banished my optimism and I reminded myself that there are plenty more raccoons in the area, some of which may be more destructive and less agreeable than our most recent tenant.

Indeed, we have hosted a long list of wild creatures on our farm, including mule deer, red fox, coyotes, striped skunks and raccoons, not to mention cottontails, fox squirrels, meadow voles, field mice and an assortment of nesting songbirds.  Of course, we also receive a wide variety of visitors, including hawks, great horned owls, little brown bats, wandering flocks of birds and, on one occasion, a wild turkey.  The great majority of our guests (coyotes excepted) have been welcomed but a few (like our mother raccoon) have caused problems.  Such is man's relationship with wildlife; we love to watch them in fields and woodlands but cannot abide their presence too close to home.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Rampart Range

The Rampart Range of Colorado stretches from the south side of Waterton Canyon, in southwest Metro Denver, to Colorado Springs.  North of the Palmer Divide, this mountain wall rises west of the Plum Creek Valley, with its scenic landscape of mesas, while, south of the Divide, it towers above the Fountain Creek Valley.  West of the Rampart Range is the spectacular canyon of the South Platte River, characterized by towering walls, domes and pinnacles of granite.

Indeed, the Rampart Range itself is studded with outcrops of granite, culminating in the jagged crest of Devil's Head, southwest of Castle Rock.  Colorado 67, crosses the range, leading west from Sedalia, soon climbing through Jarre Canyon and then zig-zagging southwestward to Deckers, on the South Platte River.  Rampart Range Road leads southward along the crest of the ridge, passes Devil's Head and eventually drops toward Woodland Park and Colorado Springs.  Visitors are advised that most of these roadways are unpaved and may be difficult to traverse after snow or heavy rains.

Montane forest cloaks the Rampart Range; ponderosa parklands cover the sunny, south-facing slopes while Douglas fir is dominant on the shaded, north-facing hillsides; scenic meadows and some residential areas are spaced throughout the range.  Outlooks along Rampart Range Road offer spectacular views of the eastern Plains, the rugged South Platte Canyon and higher ranges to the west and south, including the Pike's Peak massif.  Visitors are almost certain to see herds of mule deer on the open meadows; other wild residents include black bear, wintering elk, Abert's squirrels, wild turkey, golden eagles, mountain lions (rarely encountered) and a host of other montane birds and mammals.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Nature of Mutation

When cells (or sub-cellular agents such as viruses) replicate, there is a chance that the genetic material (DNA or RNA) that codes for the cell's structure and function may be changed due to the deletion, alteration or displacement of certain genes; the more cells in the population, the more likely such mutations will occur.  Genetic mutation, which may also develop due to radiation, toxins or other external factors, plays a key role in the emergence of disease and has been vital to the process of evolution over the past 3.6 billion years.

Mutations of the genetic code may be favorable, benign or pathologic.  Those that make the cell or organism less viable or more susceptible to environmental threats, will be deleted from the population;  on the other hand, those mutations that favor survival will persist in the cell line and will be passed on to future generations.

In the case of infections, such as ebola, mutations may increase or decrease factors such as virulence.  Ebola is characterized by an extremely high viral load in the tissues and fluids of the victim, increasing the number of replications and, thus, the chance for mutations to occur.  While the media has reported that the ebola virus may "learn" to spread in new ways, changes in the pattern of disease merely reflect the emergence of traits (through mutation) that favor survival of the virus and are thus retained and disseminated in the viral population.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Nature's Sweet Spot

Many if not most naturalists and "outdoors people" who live in the American Heartland would identify mid-late autumn as the best of nature's seasons.  Sunny skies, mild daytime temperatures, dry air and crisp, clear nights are the norm and colorful foliage adorns the landscapes.  After a few overnight frosts, annoying insects are down for the count while native birds and mammals become more active and conspicuous in the autumn chill.

Overhead, flocks of migrant cranes and waterfowl fill the skies, settling on our fields and lakes to rest and feed and attracting hordes of birders and hunters in the process.  Dry trails, painted woodlands and pleasant weather entice hikers and naturalists into the forests and mountains before ice and snow coat the landscape.

Commonly referred to as "Indian Summer," these glorious weeks are nature's sweet spot, warm enough to invite exploration but cool enough to invigorate humans and wildlife alike.  There is no other time of year when we so clearly sense that we are part of nature, a reality that we too often ignore.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Conceding Victory to Nature

Since moving to Columbia, Missouri in the late 1990s, we have watched as the Parks Department attempted to establish a prairie at Forum Nature Area, on the Hinkson Creek floodplain.  Annual mowing was utilized to retard tree invasion and periodic burns were used to eliminate alien plant species.

Despite these well-intentioned efforts, groves of sycamore, cedar and burr oak continued to invade the grassland; after all, intermittent floods inundate the valley, fueling the growth of water-loving trees and shrubs.  Since grass and wildflowers are more tolerant of drought and wind than are trees, natural prairies tend to develop on sunny, dry, windswept uplands, not on moist floodplains.  Coming to this realization and, no doubt, discouraged by the cost and manpower required to maintain the prairie, the Parks Department recently planted native floodplain trees across the valley floor; within a few years, Forum Nature Area will look more like a bottomland forest preserve than a floodplain grassland.

In our effort to diversify habitats for native wildlife, we humans often ignore the relationship between natural ecosystems and the environmental factors that fostered their development.  It is best that we let nature be the architect of her wild lands, whether they appeal to human visitors or not.  While the construction of well-engineered trails that provide access without disturbing the ecosystem is an acceptable intervention, nature knows best when it comes to the landscape.  Try as we might to mold her realm, Mother Nature will eventually exert her will and proclaim victory.

Monday, October 20, 2014

River of Floods

Near the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, as the last of the Continental Ice Sheets was retreating into Canada, a massive lake of meltwater formed along the southern margin of a glacial lobe, covering much of southern Manitoba and a swath of America's Northern Plains.  Known as Glacial Lake Agassiz, its surface area fluctuated over thousands of years; during its maximum extent (some 11-12,000 years ago), the lake's southern arm extended down the border of present-day North Dakota and Minnesota and Lake Agassiz drained southeastward through the valley of the Minnesota River.

As the ice continued to recede, the meltwater shifted northward as well, finding outlets to the east and gradually abandoning its southern arm.  About 9,000 years ago, the Red River began to form in that broad lake bed, meandering northward to the ever-changing contour of Lake Agassiz.  Eventually, when the glacial ice had retreated into northern Canada and the Northern Plains began to rebound from its weight, the Red River emptied into Lake Winnipeg, the largest remnant of Lake Agassiz; Lake Winnipeg now drains into Hudson Bay via the Nelson River.

Today, the Red River snakes northward across the flat bed of Lake Agassiz, covering 545 miles on its journey from Wahpeton, North Dakota, and Breckenridge, Minnesota, to Lake Winnipeg.  Bordered by rich agricultural land and flowing past several large cities (Fargo, Grand Forks and Winnipeg), the river is highly prone to flooding, especially in late winter or early spring when the frozen ground and dormant vegetation cannot absorb excess moisture.  Snowmelt and heavy spring rains overwhelm the capacity of the shallow river and floodwaters spread across the ancient lake bed, inundating farms, towns and urban areas.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

First White-throats in Missouri

As our autumn colors begin to peak, I encountered the first white-throated sparrows of the season at the Fourm Nature Area, in Columbia.  As usual, it was their distinctive song that caught my attention, a tune that will diminish in winter and then build to a frenzy in early spring.

Summer residents of open forest across Canada, the Great Lakes region and New England, these stocky sparrows are among the most common winter residents in the American Heartland and Southeastern States.  Though they migrate across the Great Plains and Intermountain West, white-throats have begun to winter along the Front Range urban corridor over the past decade; they have long been winter residents in coastal regions of California.  Best found along wood borders near thickets and brushy fields, these hardy birds are easily drawn to feeding stations where they scour the ground for fallen seed.

Songbirds and shorebirds migrate in response to the solar cycle and their dates of arrival and departure are fairly predictable each year; white-throated sparrows generally begin to appear in Missouri in mid October and most will depart for Canada by mid-late April.  Waterfowl, on their other hand, migrate in response to food availability and their schedule is far more variable; indeed, as our climate warms, their autumn migrations may be delayed and their journeys will likely be shortened.  On the other hand, sudden, intense storms with heavy snow and severe cold may send them south in huge flocks, sometimes well ahead of their usual schedule.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Connecticut River

The Connecticut River, the largest and longest river in New England, rises in northernmost New Hampshire, just south of the Quebec border.  After coursing southward through a series of lakes, the river angles southwestward, becoming the border between New Hampshire and Vermont and receiving numerous tributaries from the northwest flank of the White Mountains.  At St. Johnsbury, Vermont, the Connecticut begins a more southerly course, entering the basin of Glacial Lake Hitchcock, which extends southward to central Connecticut, just below Hartford; Lake Hitchcock formed late in the Pleistocene (some 15,000 years ago) as glacial meltwater accumulated behind a moraine; layers of sediment accumulated for over 3000 years before lake waters broke through the moraine, draining southeastward to Long Island Sound.

Receiving numerous tributaries from the east slope of Vermont's Green Mountains, the west flank of New Hampshire's mountain corridor and the east wall of the Berkshires of western Massachusetts and northwestern Connecticut, the Connecticut River carries an abundant supply of sand and silt to Long Island Sound, producing vast, shifting sandbars and negating the establishment of a seaport at its mouth.  Numerous dams disrupt its course and Quabbin Reservoir, constructed in the 1930s siphons off much of the flow from one of the Connecticut's major tributaries, the Chicopee River;  this massive reservoir, the largest body of water in New England, supplies water to Greater Boston and much of eastern Massachusetts.

Tidal waters reach almost 60 miles into south-central Connecticut and rich wetlands flank lower portions of the river, home to a tremendous diversity of aquatic wildlife and a magnet for migrant flocks of waterfowl and shorebirds. Some 410 miles south and 2700 feet below its source, New England's Great River meets the sea.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Gonzalo rakes Bermuda

Forty million years ago, Bermuda, 640 miles ESE of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, was part of a volcanic island chain that towered above the Atlantic Ocean.  Over time, that chain eroded into a series of seamounts that have since been capped by limestone and sand as sea levels rose and fell; today, Bermuda consists of 138 islands and islets that represent high ground atop one of the broad seamounts (see Bermuda's Natural History).

As I write this post, Hurricane Gonzalo is approaching Bermuda from the SSW; its outer bands are now raking the archipelago while its eyewall, some 60 miles away, is packing winds of 125 miles per hour.  Now classified as a Category III Hurricane, Gonzalo may weaken a bit as is pushes ashore but significant wind and wave damage is anticipated.

Fortunately, thanks to accurate weather forecasting, residents of Bermuda have had at least four days to prepare for the storm.  Nevertheless, the benefits of living on that island paradise are soon to be weighed against the primary risk (not to mention sea level rise from global warming); though the archipelago lies in the Temperate Zone, Bermuda enjoys a mild year-round climate due to the path of the Gulf Stream, which also fuels tropical storms.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

October Splendor at Eagle Bluffs

It was a beautiful autumn morning at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River floodplain.  Under bright blue skies, fall colors painted the fields and dappled the wooded hills while steam rose from the refuge ponds, entering the crisp morning air.

As is typical for October, American coot were abundant in the lake shallows and flooded fields and massive flocks of red-winged blackbirds moved through the marshes and grasslands.  Other common birds included pied-billed grebes, great blue herons, great egrets, belted kingfishers and song sparrows.  Raptors were limited to a few red-tailed hawks, American kestrels and a lone Cooper's hawk; ducks were also relatively scarce, represented by small groups of mallards and northern shovelers and skittish flocks of blue-winged teal.

Autumn colors should peak within another ten days and the waterfowl count will build significantly in the coming weeks as both migrant and wintering species arrive from the north.  Joining the geese and ducks will be a variable number of trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, horned grebes, loons and those rare, unexpected visitors that draw local birders to this fabulous refuge.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Trust & Healthcare

During my years as an academic Hospitalist and now as a volunteer educator, I have taught medical students and residents that trust is the most important aspect of the doctor-patient relationship.  While patients understand that medicine is an inexact science, that mistakes may occur and that successful results are not guaranteed, they need to know that their provider will do whatever he/she can to diagnose and treat their condition and will keep them informed regarding what they discover and what they don't yet know.  Their trust is earned by such an approach and the willingness of their provider to consult specialists, when appropriate, augments their level of comfort.

Unfortunately, the member nations of the World Health Organization have not engendered the trust of the international community in their approach to the ebola epidemic in West Africa; resources were initially inadequate and the disease will now be much more difficult to contain.  In a similar vein, the CDC, while attempting to calm the American public, offered reassurances that they were in no position to meet; containment of ebola in Texas has been hampered by a number of missteps, including inadequate resources and a lack of strict attention to the enforcement of protocol and quarantine measures.

As a result, the CDC must now re-earn the trust of the American public.  Of more concern, they have lost control of the message which is now in the hands of cable news programs and the social media; as one might expect, hyperbole, inappropriate comparisons and inflammatory statements have entered the public discourse and, as a result, anxiety has become systemic.  The management of a public health emergency requires careful planning, public education, honest discussion and aggressive intervention; until those factors come together, public trust and cooperation will be lacking and the control of ebola in America will be hampered.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Life & Deaths

Threats such as ebola and terrorism are especially anxiety-provoking since we humans are well aware of our own mortality.  Indeed, as children, the death of a friend or family member is often the event that puts an end to our innocent, fantasized image of the world.

Throughout the remainder of our lives, the deaths of loved ones, acquaintances and celebrities mark the course of our journey; though we know that our own life will end, how and when remains a mystery.  Many humans soothe their anxiety by leaning on religious faith and its promise of eternal life.  Others, less inclined toward mysticism, embrace fatalism or commit themselves to a lifestyle that, based on their knowledge or experience, will offer the best chance of a long, productive life.

Regardless of how we approach this natural fear, the deaths of others have a significant impact on our life and keep us attuned to our own mortality.  Those of us with friends or family members who died at a young age are perhaps more sanguine about the future, thankful for the many years that we have enjoyed and less stressed by the prospect of a sudden, random demise.  As a natural species, our bodies evolved to survive long enough to reproduce and raise our young; as intelligent creatures, we hope and plan for a long, rewarding life while knowing it could end tomorrow.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Spring in October

Here in the American Heartland, October is beloved for its sunny, mild days, crisp nights, colorful foliage and dry air.  We do not associate this autumn month with balmy conditions, torrential rain and tornadic thunderstorms; of course, there are exceptions.

Thanks to a deep atmospheric trough and its potent low pressure center, a line of severe thunderstorms developed across the Southern Plains last evening, pushed across Missouri and Arkansas this morning and, as of this evening, stretch from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast.  Heavy rains, flooding, damaging winds, hail and tornadoes have created havoc across the region and will push into the Southeastern States overnight.  On a positive note, this potent storm system will eventually deflect Hurricane Gonzalo away from the Eastern Seaboard.

In central Missouri, we received thunderstorms with heavy rain this morning, followed by a balmy, southerly flow ahead of the approaching cold front; the afternoon temperature approached 70 degrees F and, despite the pumpkins and colorful leaves, it felt more like April than October.  As the low moves east of us tonight, "wrap-around" showers are expected overnight before cooler and dried air filters in from the west.  Though we may relish the weather of a "typical" Midwestern autumn, a restless jet stream can remind us that fall, like spring, is a season when the clash of air masses may have stormy consequences.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Orange is the new Green

Crossing the Great Plains in mid October, one finds that the verdant grasslands and cropfields have given way to a scenic landscape of orange.  Reflecting the bright sunshine of autumn, the rolling terrain is a kaleidoscope of color, from brilliant gold to creamsicle orange to a rusty bronze.

Cattle, pronghorn and, on some ranches, bison graze the colorful grasslands which are patrolled by red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, turkey vultures, American kestrels and restless flocks of crows.  Ring-necked pheasants forage near the highways, Franklin's gulls cavort above the fields and, within the dense vegetation, a variety of small mammals escape the eyes of Interstate travelers, feasting on seeds and grain.

Within six weeks, these fields of orange will fade to brown, perhaps crusted with ice and snow.  Before then, spectacular flocks of cranes and geese will pass overhead and many will stop to rest and feed on the colorful quilt of America's Great Plains.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Black Bears in Colorado

Black bears are common throughout the western 2/3 of Colorado, from the Front Range foothills to the western canyonlands.  Favoring elevations below the Subalpine Zone, they are most abundant in shrublands and montane forest and their population is highest across southern and western portions of the State.  According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, about 17-18,000 black bears inhabit Colorado and their population has remained relatively stable in recent decades; of course, the human population has expanded significantly and bear-human encounters have increased in concert.

More than 80% of Colorado black bears are brown in color, often light cinnamon or even blonde; indeed, some grizzly sightings in the State have been attributed to sightings of large, brown-colored black bears.  Omniverous, plant material (including vegetation and berries) accounts for up to 90% of their diet though they also consume insects, small animals, fish, carrion and, as we know, human garbage.  Adult black bears have a home range of 10 to 200 square miles and are active from March to late November in Colorado; during hibernation, they utilize natural caves and hollow logs or dig out dens beneath fallen trees, rock outcrops or stumps.

Despite their widespread range in Colorado, black bears are seldom encountered unless the natural food crop is reduced and they visit camps or towns in search of nourishment.  Since they are most active in the hours surrounding dawn and dusk, hikers are advised to be especially cautious during those periods.  Black bears avoid human contact whenever possible and are rarely aggressive unless cubs are present; on the other hand, given the fact that adult males weigh up to 500 pounds and that these bears can easily outrun humans, it is best to avoid surprise encounters and to observe them from a safe and nonthreatening distance.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Migrating Solitaires

Late this morning, my wife and I hiked around Hines Lake at Robert Eastman Park; this park is in southwest Metro Denver, near the foot of the Dakota Hogback.  On our lakeside hike, birds were rather sparse; sightings included a lone cormorant, several common mergansers, mallards, pied-billed grebes, red-winged blackbirds and a few ring-billed gulls.

Climbing back to the parking lot, however, I watched as waves of Townsend's solitaires moved from the foothills onto the Colorado Piedmont, funneling eastward through a break in the Hogback. Their annual vertical migration was likely accelerated by cold rain and snow in the upper foothills and mountains that began yesterday afternoon and ended this morning.  Indeed, after breeding in open coniferous forest, Townsend's solitaires move to the lower foothills and Piedmont each autumn, switching from a mixed diet of insects and berries to a strict diet of juniper berries.

Once settled in for the winter, the solitaires are highly territorial, defending their berry cache from one another (though they still must contend with robins, waxwings and other berry consumers).  Our resident solitaire arrived on the farm several days ago, delivering his high-pitched call from the top of a large honeylocust.  Just yesterday, I watched as he chased another solitaire from the property, ensuring an ample supply of berries to survive the winter.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

October Birding at Chatfield

As I headed to Chatfield State Park this morning, rain clouds billowed above the Front Range foothills. Beneath the waning sunshine, the golden leaves of cottonwoods glowed along the South Platte and Plum Creek corridors and clumps of yellow rabbitbrush adorned the grasslands.  As usual, black-billed magpies foraged along the Park's roadways and small flocks of Canada geese, awaiting cohorts from the north, grazed on lawns near the outbuildings, beach and campgrounds.

Out on the reservoir, double-crested cormorants and ring-billed gulls dominated the scene, joined by smaller flocks of American white pelicans, western and pied-billed grebes and, near the inlets, mixed flocks of gadwall, coot, shovelers, common mergansers and mallards.  A group of Townsend's solitaires, down from the mountains for the colder months, fed in junipers near the campground while northern flickers, black-capped chickadees and blue jays were the most conspicuous woodland species.  Western meadowlarks, magpies and a few vesper sparrows were observed on the grasslands, which were patrolled by a pair of red-tailed hawks; the only other raptor sighting was of a sharp-shinned hawk that strafed the lakeside woods, hoping to snare a songbird.

Today's visit to Chatfield was far from my most productive birding experience at the Park, a refuge that many (including myself) consider to be one of the best birding locations in Metro Denver.  Nevertheless, the fresh, cool air, relative solitude and beautiful autumn colors more than compensated for the "lackluster" birding.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Gay Rights, Marriage & Divorce

The Supreme Court's decision not to address District Court rulings regarding gay marriage has reignited the rhetoric of conservative, homophobic politicians and organizations.  Claiming to defend the sanctity of heterosexual marriage and the welfare of the family, these zealots harbor no respect for homosexual relationships.  Opposing the right of gays to marry and to receive the social benefits that come with marriage, they claim that such policies will erode our social structure and destroy the American family.

One wonders why their focus is on gay marriage and not on divorce, which puts an end to more than 50% of heterosexual marriages and has a far greater impact on the emotional and financial welfare of children.  While most of us support the right to divorce, especially when one spouse is subjected to abuse, we also know that many who oppose gay marriage have been divorced themselves, perhaps multiple times.

These social watchdogs, politically astute, cannot afford to focus on heterosexual divorce and its consequences.  After all, their crusade against gay marriage is motivated by homophobia and religious zealotry, not by their professed concern for the welfare of children and families.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Staunton State Park

Stretching across the south flank of Black Mountain, Staunton is one of the newest and most beautiful of Colorado's State Parks.  Backed by spectacular granite cliffs and knobs, the Park's rich, open forest of pine, fir and aspen is accessed by an excellent network of multi-use trails.  To reach the parking lots for this 3800 acre preserve, follow U.S. 285 southwest from Denver; about 6 miles west of Conifer, turn right (north) on Elk Creek Road and follow signs to the Park entrance; a day use fee is charged.

Today, beneath deep blue skies and amidst the brilliant glow of aspen, my wife and I hiked to the base of Staunton Rocks, enjoying views of the massive cliffs and rock formations within the Park, including Lions Head (9450 feet).  Views also extend far to the south, including the high ridge of the Platte River Mountains, Windy Peak, Devil's Head and Pike's Peak, some 60 miles distant.  Along the way, we were serenaded by mountain chickadees and pygmy nuthatches and scolded by Steller's jays and red squirrels.  Though we hoped to encounter elk or hear their bugling, our hike was a bit late in the morning for that stirring experience; the Park's other mammalian residents include mule deer, yellow-bellied marmots, Colorado chipmunks, coyotes, Abert's squirrels, black bear and the elusive mountain lion.

A popular destination for hiking, rock climbing, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and snow shoeing, Staunton State Park is named for Frances H. Staunton who donated most of the land; her family established a ranch on the property in the early 1900s and an old saw mill site is protected within the Park.  Another highlight at this fabulous preserve is Elk Falls, which drops almost 100 feet into the North Fork of Elk Creek.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Attractive, energetic and aggressive, red-breasted nuthatches are permanent residents across southern Canada, the Pacific Northwest, New England and southward through the mountain ranges of North America; throughout the remainder of the Continental U.S., they are winter residents and visitors though they often arrive by September.  Like the call of their larger cousin, the white-breasted nuthatch, their shorter, high-pitched "yank-yank" is always a welcome sound for those who relish crisp, autumn weather.  Favoring coniferous woodlands, red-breasted nuthatches have become year-round residents on our Littleton, Colorado farm, attracted by the pinon pines, Austrian pines, junipers and spruce trees on the property.

In spring, males pick a few potential nest sites, beginning to drill cavities in the soft wood of conifers or aspen trees; females take note of the activity and choose a mate based on his efforts.  She then completes the excavation and the male resorts to bringing food and protecting the site from other suitors; both end up placing nodules of pine resin along the rim of the cavity to deter predators.

During the warmer months, these small birds scour tree trunks and larger limbs for insects and continue to hunt for hibernating invertebrates in winter; however, they are more likely to feast on conifer seeds during the colder months and are easily drawn to feeders with sunflower seed and suet.  Darting back and forth, they typically grab a morsel of food, store it in tree bark and return to the feeder several times each minute; they otherwise roam the winter woods, often in the company of chickadees, titmice, kinglets, downy woodpeckers and other nuthatches.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Autumn at Deer Creek Canyon

Reflecting the bright October sun and stretching beneath a clear blue sky, Deer Creek Canyon Park was a riot of color yesterday morning.  Incising the Front Range foothills southwest of Denver (just west of Chatfield State Park), the canyon is a popular area for biking, hiking and wildlife watching.

Early autumn colors painted the vegetation though the brilliant orange of Gambel oak had yet to materialize; east of the park, the redrocks of the Fountain Formation (Pennsylvanian sandstone) adorn the landscape throughout the year.  Contributing to nature's palate were a variety of colorful foothill birds, including Steller's and scrub jays, rufous-sided towhees, pine siskins and both American and lesser goldfinches.  The highlight of my visit was provided by a large flock of mountain bluebirds, forced down from the higher peaks by recent snows and fueling up before their journey to the Southern Plains and Desert Southwest, where they will spend the winter months.

Mule deer are always common at the Park and, though seldom encountered, mountain lions and black bear inhabit the canyon.  Other mammalian residents include rock squirrels, Colorado chipmunks, striped skunks, red and gray fox, bobcats and coyotes; Deer Creek Canyon Park is also one of the better locations in Metro Denver to observe golden eagles.  Needless to say, the crisp sunny weather and colorful landscape of October make the canyon especially inviting.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Expendable Species

Throughout the first 120,000 years of human existence, we were just another species in natural ecosystems, moving about and subsisting via a combination of hunting and gathering.  Then, about 10,000 years ago, humans began to establish permanent settlements, relying heavily on the domestication of animals and the cultivation of crops.  This break from the natural world accelerated during the industrial revolution and our negative impact on ecosystems began to increase exponentially as pollution, habitat destruction, human overpopulation and the overconsumption of natural resources took a toll on other species.

While human activity has favored some species by creating new habitats (reservoirs in desert regions, forest clearings and nutritious crop fields are a few examples) our overall impact has been decidedly negative.  Indeed, the pollution of air and water by human industry is altering the global climate and threatening the welfare of all species, including our own.  Nevertheless, we have a history of assessing the value of other species that share this planet, granting them protection or minimizing their importance as we continue to plunder Earth's natural resources.

In the end, humans are the most expendable natural species on this planet.  Our value now derives primarily from efforts to diminish or reverse the negative effects that our species has already unleashed.  While other natural species fit into ecosystems as producers, predators, prey, scavengers and nutrient recyclers, we have created our own overpopulated, unnatural ecosystems that degrade the health and function of the natural environment.  Our superior intelligence, which enabled this dominance, has led us to imagine that we are the designated stewards of Planet Earth, a mystical assumption that, in the collective human mind, inflates our own importance.  While healthy natural ecosystems are vital to the welfare of humans, they would thrive in our absence.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Mingling Season

Cool, pleasant autumn weather has enveloped the Front Range cities and early fall colors adorn the South Platte Valley.  Though winter ducks have yet to arrive, resident waterfall have begun to congregate in larger, mixed flocks, abandoning their tendency to remain in family groups during the breeding season.  This behavior offers several advantages throughout the colder months, including a cooperative search for food and better protection from predators.

On my visit to South Platte Park yesterday, the mixed flocks included gadwalls, American wigeon, mallards, common mergansers, blue-winged teal and pied-billed grebes.  Other sightings included double-crested cormorants, Canada geese, an osprey, great blue herons, black-crowned night herons, ring-billed gulls, belted kingfishers and a lone sora, not to mention the common woodland birds.

Activity will dramatically increase in the Valley over the coming weeks as migrant and winter waterfowl move southward from the Arctic tundra and Canadian prairies.  It is then that the mingling season will reach its full potential and birders will search the congregations for rare vagrants, caught up in the excitement of migrating flocks.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Belated Thanks to Jack Gottschang

We humans tend to look back on our lives, identifying individuals who, for better or for worse, had a significant influence on the career choices that we have made.  For some time now, I have had the feeling that my Becoming a Naturalist list, in the right hand column of this blog, was incomplete; then I remembered Dr. Jack Gottschang.

When I started my freshman year at the University of Cincinnati, in the fall of 1968, Jack Gottschang had already been a faculty member at that institution for 18 years, matching my time on planet Earth.  As a middle aged professor, he was given the dubious honor of teaching Biology 101, probably the largest class that ever assembled at UC; of the hundreds of students who filled the auditorium, many were pre-med or biology majors but a large number were merely fulfilling the science requirement of their BS or BA degree.

Nevertheless, Dr. Gottschang approached the course as if each and every student shared his obvious enthusiasm for the wonders of biology.  For those of us who were headed toward careers in the general sphere of biologic sciences, however tentative that initial choice may have been, he reinforced our interest in the complex physiology of life.  In my case, this basic science knowledge proved to be both a vital foundation for my career in medicine and a major influence on my growth as a naturalist.  A belated public thanks to Jack Gottschang who I never met in person but have long admired; one can only begin to imagine the thousands of other students who share my sentiments.  Dr. Gottschang retired in 1989, after almost 40 years of teaching, and died in 2005.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Sudden Entropy

Physics was never my strong suite but I seem to remember that entropy refers to disorder in the Universe (and to the natural tendency of that disorder to increase).  Two days ago, while crossing the Great Plains, a large insect splattered on my windshield, leaving a yellow smear just below the visor.

Within a millisecond, chemicals that had comprised an organism capable of flight, sight, digestion and reproduction were now a lifeless film, rapidly drying in the sun and wind and soon to join the free organic and inorganic compounds that are distributed in our air, soil and water.  One day, perhaps next week or thousands of years from now, they may contribute to the structure and function of other living organisms (bacterial, vegetative, human or otherwise).

Indeed, life resists entropy, producing order from chaos.  Protected by a cellular membrane (or by a multicellular "skin") from the external environment and governed by genes, the chemicals of life produce the specialized structures and metabolic processes that ensure survival, foster growth and enable reproduction.  At death, whether the process is gradual or sudden, that protection is lost and the relentless march toward disorder continues.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Tragedy on Mount Ontake

Japan sits at the intersection of four major tectonic plates, making that country especially prone to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic activity.  Indeed, subduction volcanism produced the Japanese archipelago as the Philippine and Pacific Plates have been forced beneath the Eurasia and North American Plates, respectively.

Two days ago, just before noon, Mount Ontake erupted, pelting the summit with rocks and up to two feet of volcanic ash.  A popular site for hiking, especially during the autumn color display, this 10,120 foot peak (125 miles west of Tokyo) was crowded with visitors at the time of the eruption; at least 36 hikers were killed and many more were injured.  Unfortunately, recent quakes in the area were not thought to portend an imminent eruption and access was not restricted; now, further eruptions are anticipated.

Direct evidence that tectonic activity continues to mold our planet, this tragedy is also a reminder that volcanologists cannot yet accurately predict when eruptions will occur.  Mount Ontake, long dormant and once thought to be extinct, had its only prior documented eruption in 1979 (though a minor one followed in 1991 and the release of steam was observed in 2007).  Individuals who live in subduction zones (Indonesia, the Aleutians, the Cascades, the Andes and others), those who reside near hotspots (Hawaii, the Yellowstone region, northern Arizona) and those who inhabit rift zones (Iceland, East Africa, the Rio Grande Valley) cannot become complacent, even after long periods of regional volcanic inactivity.  After all, our human lifespans are but an instant in the geologic and tectonic history of Planet Earth.