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Showing posts from October, 2014

Conservatives are Scary Enough

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

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

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

Nevertheless, Dr. Gottschang approached the course as if each and every student shared his obvious enthusiasm for the wonders of biolog…