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Showing posts from April, 2014

Pensacola Flooding

The storm system that brought deadly tornadoes to Arkansas and Mississippi swept torrential rains across the Florida Panhandle over the past 24 hours; Pensacola received more than 20 inches of rain, flooding large parts of the city.

This destructive deluge resulted from a stalled cold front, curving southward from an upper level low over the Upper Midwest.  Just ahead (east) of the front, heavy thunderstorms ignited, moving northeastward along the front, carrying their copious load of Gulf moisture.  Tracking over Pensacola, this storm train dropped half of that city's annual rainfall in 24 hours; this precipitation amounted to almost 2/3 of the annual total for most Midwestern cities and a full year's total for Denver, Colorado (i.e. rain and snow combined).

While the sandy soil of Florida usually wicks away heavy rain before it causes flooding, copious precipitation over short periods of time (as occurred with this storm system) leads to flash flooding, destroying roads, bri…

The Impersonal Age

Now that cell phones allow humans to speak with one another from almost anywhere on the planet, actual talking has become passe.  Much to my consternation (and I assume the dismay of many others across the globe), I seldom speak with family and friends unless we are at the same location; texting has become the communication of choice, a technology that is both impersonal and, for those of us who are not wed to smart phones, very frustrating.  After all, text messages cannot match the nuance or specificity of human speech, necessitating a chain of followup texts to clarify the initial "discussion."

Of course, the impersonal experience of texting is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  Meetings now occur over the internet, shopping does not involve stores, online courses negate the need for physical classrooms, physicians evaluate patients via telemedicine and many employees work from home.  Actual face-to-face interaction with other humans is becoming so 20th Century.

Man…

Faith in New Jersey

Yesterday, CNN reported that a woman in New Jersey was denied the right to use 8THEIST for her license plate; the State motor vehicle agency felt that it would be too offensive.  Of course, as we all know, there are a myriad of vehicle plates with JESUS SAVES, GOD BLESS and other religious declarations that are deemed to be suitable for public display.

In effect, the State of New Jersey has declared that expressions of faith (even of particular faiths) are acceptable while lack of faith in a divine being is offensive (i.e. immoral, deranged, not in the public interest).  Even though many atheists might be open to the presence of a spiritual plane or a life force that we cannot comprehend (or have yet to discover), they reject the concept that a personal god monitors our lives, intervening as he/she sees fit and demanding our faith in order to reap eternal rewards.  Since religions are governed by doctrine and beliefs vary widely among the faithful, truth cannot be claimed by all; perh…

Consumption & Earth Day

Yesterday, on the annual celebration of Earth Day, I was helping to organize an estate sale in Ohio.  Such events can be emotional for family members as they sort through the detritus of their loved one's life, constantly reminded of the passions that governed their existence.  Yet, the experience also calls attention to the massive amount of possessions that we tend to accumulate during our time on Earth.

In fact, personal consumption, magnified by the ever increasing human population, is perhaps the greatest threat to our natural ecosystems, fueling industrial production, residential and commercial development, habitat destruction, pollution of our air and water, deforestation, depletion of mineral resources and overfishing, among other negative environmental effects.  We each contribute to that process, whether through direct purchases, investment in commercial enterprises or through political support for industries that negatively impact natural ecosystems.

While the celebrati…

Thoughts on Genetic Engineering

Throughout the history of life on Earth, which spans 3.6 billion years, natural selection has acted on genetic variance to select traits that favor survival; this process has been vital to the evolution and diversification of life.  Until recently, genetic variance had resulted from gene mutations, chromosome duplication errors and genetic recombination related to sexual reproduction.  When humans learned to domesticate animals and cultivate crops, some 10,000 years ago, we began to take an active role in selecting traits that we deemed to be favorable; though we did not understand the science of genetics until very recently, humans were having a significant impact on the diversity and relative populations of life on Earth.

Over the last few decades, we have learned to alter genes in plants and animals (including humans) in order to treat disease, restore physiologic function and improve the productivity of various species.  In the case of crops, man has engineered plants that resist …

Spring Fires & Global Warming

Driving back to Missouri yesterday, I crossed the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas.  Most of those grass-covered ridges were charred from recent controlled burns and active fires were scattered across the rolling terrain, sending massive plumes of smoke into the hazy sky.  This spectacle occurs every April in the Flint Hills and, it's safe to say, in many other ranching and agricultural areas throughout the country and across the globe.

One can only begin to imagine how much carbon is added to the atmosphere by this annual rite of spring.  How many power plant closures or vehicle use restrictions would be needed to balance the carbon emissions produced by this activity?  While the process is used to eliminate invasive plant species, control tree growth on the grasslands and enrich the soil, mimicking the effects of natural wildfires, one wonders if these benefits outweigh the air pollution and its exacerbation of global warming.

Of course, many (if not most) farmers and ranchers in t…

The Futility of Leash Laws

I am very fond of dogs and have owned five of them in the course of my life.  Fortunately, I or my family always owned property large enough for them to get plenty of exercise.  Today, in this dog crazy country, many pets spend their day cooped up in an apartment building, awaiting a walk around the block in the morning and evening.

An increasing demand for exercise areas has led to the creation of "dog parks" in many urban areas, where owners can let their pooch romp with other canines; in addition, city and State parks have begun to set aside areas where dogs are free to roam (under owner supervision).  Despite these options, most regions of the country still allow dogs in nature preserves, as long as they are kept on a leash;  as one who frequently hikes through such preserves, I can testify that leash laws are widely ignored once the owner  is away from the parking area.  Of course, following their nose and natural instincts, the canines end up chasing wildlife, disrupti…

Communing with Wildlife

Last evening, the PBS series Nature aired the personal story of a Wyoming rancher who became closely involved with a herd of mule deer, naming them, interacting with them and, as is typical on such Disneyesque programs, rescuing an orphaned fawn.  Factual information about the mule deer was intermixed with the emotional reactions of the narrator to their trials and tribulations; in the end, it was more about the rancher than the deer.

Many viewers might be fascinated and entertained by this form of programming but, in my opinion, it sends an inappropriate message to the general public.  While it is important to learn about the behavior of our wild neighbors and to make every effort to ensure that they have adequate natural habitat, the decision to become closely involved with their social groups encourages their tolerance of human presence.  Such a close alliance is dangerous for the wildlife and, in some cases, for the humans as well; most of us remember the young man who took up res…

Reynard Returns

Since buying our Littleton, Colorado, farm in 1990, red fox had been regular visitors (if not residents); indeed, for much of that time, an adult pair denned beneath our barn, raising a litter of pups each year.  While the property was littered with squirrel limbs, fish heads and goose bones, these carnivores controlled our mice and voles and were always welcome on the farm.

Then, a few years ago, a pair of coyotes invaded our small refuge, evicting the resident fox and killing others that wandered onto the property; they even used the old fox den to raise a litter of their own.  Fortunately, we were able to encourage their departure and closed off the denning site to discourage their return.  While these efforts were successful, fox and deer did not return to the farm but we have observed a pair of cottontails, long displaced by the fox and coyotes.

This morning, I looked out the kitchen window to find a young red fox chasing a squirrel from beneath our bird feeders; the agile prey w…

Carbon & Life

While carbon is the fourth most common element in our solar system, exceeded only by hydrogen, helium and oxygen, it is but a tiny fraction of the elements on Earth, which is composed primarily of iron (more than 32%), oxygen, silicon, magnesium and sulfur (among less abundant elements).  Of course, hydrogen and oxygen (the components of water) dominate the oceans and nitrogen and oxygen comprise 99% of our atmosphere; despite its growing impact on our climate, carbon (in carbon dioxide) is but a small fraction of the atmosphere.  On Earth, graphite and diamond are the naturally occurring compounds composed purely of carbon.

Despite the fact that carbon comprises a very small fraction of the elements on Earth, it accounts for almost 20% of the mass of living organisms.  Able to bind with up to four other atoms, carbon forms strong bonds with hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and other carbon atoms and is capable of forming double or triple bonds with many elements.  Carbon thus forms…

From Summer to Winter

Following a week of summer-like weather, with afternoon highs at or near 70 degrees F, winter conditions have returned to the Colorado Front Range.  A chilly rain fell overnight and was mixing with snow by dawn; as I write this blog, the precipitation has changed over to snow but, so far, accumulation has been minimal due to the warm ground.

The dramatic change in weather, not unusual along the Front Range in March and April, is courtesy of a Pacific storm system that swept across the Rockies last evening.  Ahead of the storm's cold front, severe thunderstorms are forming from the Southern Plains to the mid Mississippi Valley while, behind the front, an upslope flow is bringing snow to the Northern Plains and the Front Range.  The position of the storm's central low, now over southeastern Kansas, is limiting the intensity of the upslope and only four inches of snow accumulation is expected in Metro Denver by midnight.

While the wet snow will pose little threat to the trees and…

The Birds of Summer

All across the Northern Hemisphere, birders will be checking their backyards and local nature preserves over the next few weeks, watching for the arrival of summer residents.  Some, including tree swallows and eastern phoebes, have been back in the Heartland for a month and others have been trickling in since the beginning of April.  Before I left Missouri, a house wren (presumably a male) was already in Columbia, searching our property for suitable nest sites; here in Littleton, Colorado, a lesser goldfinch turned up several days ago, the earliest I have seen one on our farm.  But the majority of summer birds will arrive in the coming weeks, joined by a host of migrants that pass through on their way to more northern breeding grounds.

This morning, at South Platte Park, migrants and pure summer residents were rather sparse.  Squadrons of tree swallows attacked clouds of midges that rose from the ponds, double-crested cormorants now mingled with the flocks of waterfowl, blue-winged an…

The Escalante River

The upper tributaries of the Escalante River rise on the Aquarius Plateau of southern Utah, a mesa capped by Tertiary volcanic rock and flanked by colorful outcrops of the Claron Formation (deposited during the Paleocene).  Tumbling to the desert floor, they flow southward, carving their way through Cretaceous strata that extend northeastward to the Waterpocket Fold and SSW to the Kaiparowits Plateau.

Nearing the main channel of the Escalante River, which begins at the town of Escalante, the tributaries and the primary stream begin to incise a layer cake of Jurassic sandstones, producing spectacular canyonlands.  Flowing eastward and then southeastward, the Escalante makes a tortuous, ninety-mile journey to the Colorado River, which it joins in Lake Powell; en route, the river and its tributaries cut down through Jurassic strata that span sixty million years of Earth's history.  Of course, in that arid landscape, that erosion is seasonal, occurring primarily during the spring snow…

Up to the Pines

Along the Colorado Front Range, ponderosa pine woodlands cloak sunny slopes of the foothills and lower mountains, generally from elevations of 6500 to 9000 feet.  These large, aromatic conifers tend to form open "parklands" which appeal to humans and wildlife alike.  Douglas fir and Colorado blue spruce grow on the cooler, north-facing slopes, forming dense tracts of forest.

This morning, I visited Mt. Falcon Park, west of Denver, one of the better locations to explore this Montane Forest ecosystem.  American crows, Steller's jays, black-billed magpies and northern flickers were most conspicuous, their raucous calls echoing across the Park, while pygmy nuthatches and those ubiquitous American robins were the most abundant avian residents.  Other sightings included western and mountain bluebirds, Townsend's solitaires, hairy woodpeckers, pine siskins, dark-eyed juncos (the gray-headed race), mountain chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches.

Abert's squirrels, close…

The Problem with Obamacare

As Conservative Republicans continue to attack the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, distracting the electorate from their opposition to the rights of the middle class, women, gays and immigrants, some of us are unhappy with the Act for other reasons.  In our opinion, Obamacare does not go far enough in providing access to healthcare for impoverished and uninsured Americans.

While the Affordable Care Act has addressed many important issues, such as coverage for pre-existing conditions and insurance for young adults on their parents' policy, it has left a segment of society with an inability to obtain affordable healthcare; individuals who are too "wealthy" to qualify for Medicaid but too poor to afford Obamacare remain uninsured.  Of course, these persons live in States that have declined Federal funds to expand their Medicaid programs; in effect, the affordability of quality healthcare varies across the United States.

In my opinion, it is outrageous that…

Western Grebes in Colorado

Having just returned to Colorado, I saw the first western grebes of the season this morning; a pair of those slender divers was feeding on a lake in South Platte Park, in Littleton.  Western grebes are generally found in the State from April through October and pair off soon after they arrive.  They favor lakes and reservoirs with extensive open water for fishing and marsh-lined shores for nesting; common along the South Platte and Arkansas Valleys of eastern Colorado, western grebes also inhabit lakes of the mountain parklands and western Colorado valleys.

The renowned mating dance of these graceful birds is best observed in late April and early May.  Nests are generally placed on mats of floating vegetation, anchored to reeds and hidden amidst the marsh plants.  Three or four eggs are laid and, as with other grebes, the young ride on their parents backs after hatching; while the buoyant youngsters pick insects from the surface, the adults dive for fish and a variety of aquatic inver…

April on the Great Plains

Driving west on I-70, I entered the Great Plains of North America several miles west of Topeka, Kansas; there, the rolling, wooded terrain of the Kansas River Valley gives way to the grass-covered ridges of the Flint Hills, eroded from Permian sediments.  Today, many parcels of the grassland were charred by recent burning and the hazy air, scented with smoke, offered evidence that this seasonal activity was ongoing.  Within another week or so, scissor-tailed flycatchers will arrive from the south, joining meadowlarks and a host of grassland sparrows on the barbed-wire fences of this prairie ecosystem.

Just west of the Flint Hills, at Junction City, a large flock of double-crested cormorants circled above the Smoky Hill River Valley while, beyond Salina, steady rain grounded a flock of Franklin's gulls and, I assume, their insect prey.  The rain also obscured the numerous turbines of the massive Smoky Hills Wind Farm, north of Ellsworth, but the skies cleared as I neared Russell.

W…

Birds on a Wire

Many bird species perch on wires from time to time but some are more likely to engage in that practice.  Among raptors, American kestrels are commonly spotted on power lines in open country, surveying the ground for large insects, small mammals or songbirds; screech and pygmy owls also hunt from power lines. Other permanent residents that frequently perch on wires include bluebirds, doves, robins, meadowlarks, rock pigeons and starlings; the latter may gather in large flocks, weighing down the line.

During the warmer months, swallows (all four species) often perch on power lines, forming large congregations as the fall migration approaches.  Among other summer residents and migrants that indulge in this practice are various flycatchers, kingbirds (especially the western species), upland sandpipers, hummingbirds, phoebes, indigo buntings, grackles and dickcissels.

While the above lists are not complete, accurate bird identification often involves knowledge of a species' preferred h…

Snake Watching

Today's warm, sunny weather lured garter snakes from our rock wall for the first time this season.  Over the course of an hour or so, I watched several emerge from its crevices, moving cautiously after their long winter slumber.  Too sluggish to hunt, they curled themselves near the base of the wall to bask in the mid-day sun.

Snake watching is a bit less exciting than birdwatching.  The subjects do not flit from branch to branch or sing from an exposed perch.  Neither do they flash their colors in the afternoon sun or announce their presence with a flurry of noise and activity.  Rather, camouflaged amidst the leaf litter, snakes lie motionless for hours at a time, hoping to go unnoticed.  Indeed, their very survival depends on stealth and, unless actively pursuing a mate or prey, they choose to conserve their energy.

Humans, impatient beings that we are, tend to be entertained by action, whether it be sports, computer games, movies or outdoor exploration.  Birding and many other …

A Flooded Floodplain

A day after the latest storm system passed through Missouri, a strong northwest wind is raking the State and the temperature has dropped almost twenty degrees beneath a slate gray sky.  Down at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain, the pools have expanded significantly and most of the fields held shallow lakes of standing water.

Waterfowl, consisting mostly of coot, northern shovelers and blue-winged teal fed in sheltered coves or along the lee side of the levees while many of the Canada geese have paired off and claimed nest sites along the pools and channels.  Flocks of American white pelicans cruised above the refuge or huddled on sandbars and a few pair of wood ducks and hooded mergansers were observed in the wooded sloughs.  Surprisingly, double-crested cormorants have not yet arrived from the south and shorebirds were rather sparse, consisting primarily of killdeer, a few yellowlegs and a flock of American golden-plovers on a muddy field.  Most conspi…

Deluge in the Heartland

For the past 36 hours, the cold front of the latest Pacific storm system has stretched across or just south of Columbia, Missouri.  Ahead of the front, Gulf moisture is flowing northward and dew points are rising into the sixties and seventies (F) while, just north and west of the front, they are in the thirties.  In Columbia, the dew point has remained in the fifties while the air temperature has been a few degrees lower.

As a consequence, periods of torrential rain, including hail-producing thunderstorms, have raked central Missouri, triggering a flash flood warning.  Today, as the warm air ahead of the front moves farther north, the precipitation is expected to temporarily abate and afternoon highs are forecast to reach the upper seventies.  Then, as the storm's dry line sweeps in from the west, more severe thunderstorms are likely to develop, some of which may produce large hail and tornadoes.

Meanwhile, behind the cold front, heavy snow is falling across the Northern Plains a…

Building a Compost Bin

While we have a large, free-standing compost pile on our Littleton, Colorado, farm, our Missouri property is only half an acre (at most) and my wife insists on a more organized approach to our recycling activities.  We have been faithful about hauling our "yard waste" to Columbia's composting site but have been more negligent when it comes to kitchen leftovers.  In a moment of inspiration, my wife thus "suggested" that I construct a compost bin.

After scouring the internet for ideas, I decided to go with the "wooden crate" style and loaded my pickup with the projected supplies (as usual, a second trip to the hardware store was necessary).  Within 24 hours, we had a first class, wooden compost bin, complete with a hinged lid and screen-covered ventilation ports.  Today, we'll start to load the vegetation but won't have good compost for at least five months or so; when building a compost pile, it is recommended to initially using a layered appro…

The Month of Transition

While April weather can be fickle, there is generally a significant transition toward warmer days, punctuated by regular periods of rain.  Of course, the higher sun and milder air set the stage for severe weather as an active spring jet stream undulates across the Heartland, ushering in a series of Pacific storms.

In concert, greenery climbs through the shrubs and trees and, by the end of the month, the leafing process is nearly complete.  Wildflowers, limited to a host of bulb plants in March, now spread through the woodlands and a wide variety of trees and shrubs begin to bloom; wild cherry and magnolias generally lead the way, followed by peach, apricot, chokecherry and crab apple trees.  By mid April, most of the drab winter songbirds have departed for the north and colorful summer residents are now more numerous and diverse; among the latter are gray catbirds, brown thrashers, northern orioles, indigo buntings, ruby-throated hummingbirds, house wrens, blue-gray gnatcatchers and c…