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Showing posts from 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 …

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 t…

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 s…

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 …

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 common…

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 prefe…

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 amon…

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 sev…

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 Mis…

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 m…

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 …

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 deali…

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…

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 co…

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 s…

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 f…

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, …

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 sighti…

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 waterf…

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 Tenn…

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.  T…

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 wa…

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.

B…

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…

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 spe…

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,…

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 t…

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…

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 …

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…

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…

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 monogam…

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 …

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 h…

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 Copern…

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…

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 mo…

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 d…

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 societ…

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.  Dependi…

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 …

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 ne…

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 squirrel…

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 …

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 c…

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…

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 g…

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,…

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 fairl…

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) when glacial meltwater was dammed by 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 wester…

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 a…

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…

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 …

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 san…

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 deg…

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.

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 bl…

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 territ…

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, …

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 …

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 an…

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 fo…

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 al…

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, …

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 Cana…

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 left 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 biolog…

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…

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 e…