Sunday, October 30, 2016

Restoring the South Platte

Over the past few years, crews have been "restoring" the South Platte River in southwest Metro Denver.  The stretch north of Chatfield Reservoir had become braided, producing unstable cliffs and lacking a persistent deep channel.  Apparently, the latter was considered a threat to native fish species (and thus an inconvenience to fishermen), spawning the restoration efforts.

Two years into the project, spring floods destroyed much of their handiwork earlier this year but the efforts continue.  Now that the river is low, its ugly channelization is evident, giving it an artificial appearance bordered by gently sloping terrain.  Its human-produced neatness may be appealing to many but it is unsettling to the eyes of a naturalist.

Rising along the east face of the Continental Divide and then cutting through the foothills via rock-walled canyons, the South Platte has always had an irregular flow, high during the annual snowmelt or after heavy monsoon thunderstorms and low for much of the year; after all, once it leaves the mountains, it flows through a semiarid landscape.  Dams are spaced along the river, created for flood control, water supply and recreation; these often augment the seasonal variation of the South Platte's flow and have produced some of the effects that the current restoration is designed to correct.  Judging the success of human river management during our brief life spans, we marvel at the capabilities of our species.  But, over time, nature will sculpt the landscape and our transient restoration projects are futile; it is best that we just get out of her way.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Confrontation on the Farm

Last evening, as dusk enveloped our Littleton farm, a flock of magpies began to squawk from the northwest corner of the property.  Checking on the cause for their alarm, I observed a great horned owl, perched on a limb of an aspen tree.

Oblivious of the confrontation, the stoic raptor gazed out across the pasture as if to apologize for the disturbance.  The magpies continued their vocal onslaught for ten minutes or so but finally gave up and dispersed; the owl, on the other hand, held his ground until darkness obscured his presence.

Fortunately, our two grandsons were visiting last evening and were able to observe this classic confrontation.  Having never seen an owl in the wild, they got a close look at the nocturnal predator and certainly developed an appreciation for the battles that all wildlife endure.  A discussion of the owl's diet and behavior ensued and I have no doubt that the experience will long live in their memories; hopefully, it will also fuel a lifelong interest in nature.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Welcome Back Harly!

A large Harlan's hawk has wintered on or near our Littleton, Colorado, farm over the past decade and returned again today.  This dark subspecies of the red-tailed hawk breeds in Alaska and western Canada; come autumn, they migrate to the southern High Plains, primarily from Colorado to West Texas.

Like all red-tailed hawks, this buteo feeds on small mammals, hunting from a perch or soaring above fields and open grasslands.  Usually seen alone during the colder months, Harlan's hawks are bulky in appearance (partly due to their dark plumage) and may be mistaken for golden eagles.

I welcome "Harly's" return to the farm.  Our large population of cottontails and meadow voles should keep him around for most of the season; besides, he loves to perch in our large, old catalpa tree, which commands a broad view of the pastures and "lawns."

Monday, October 24, 2016

Summer in October

Summer-like heat has enveloped the Front Range urban corridor and is expected to persist for the coming week.  A high pressure dome, centered over the Four Corners Region, is deflecting Pacific cold fronts to our north and producing downslope air flow east of the Continental Divide; these atmospheric and topographic phenomena combine to heat up and dry out the air as it drops toward the Colorado Piedmont.

Here in Metro Denver, our afternoon high is approaching 80 degrees F.  Though the October sun is lower in the sky, the intense sunshine, dry air and thin atmosphere deliver plenty of heat at the surface.  On the other hand, cloudless skies, low humidity and a high elevation combine to augment radiation cooling at night and our early morning and late evening temperatures are distinctly un-summer-like (falling into the low fifties after sunset and near 40 degrees F by sunrise).

Despite the warm afternoon weather, the autumn colors are past peak, the first winter songbirds have arrived and migrant waterfowl continue to increase in number and variety on regional lakes.  It may feel like summer at midday but the seasons are progressing and the first snow flakes in Denver are already overdue.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Return of the Solitaire

On this sunny, warm October day, our resident solitaire has returned from the mountains.  While it may not be the same individual who winters on the farm each year, it is usually a single Townsend's solitaire, mingling with robins and waxwings in our western junipers.

Having summered and bred in the mountain forests, from ponderosa parklands to timberline spruce, these streamlined thrushes head for the lower foothills and adjacent Piedmont during the colder months of the year.  There they are often inconspicuous except when calling from the top of a conifer; rather possessive of their juniper berry crop, they seem to tolerate other species but chase fellow solitaires from the grove.

Our winter tenant will remain on the farm until mid April or so, oblivious of the frigid nights and heavy snowstorms.  He is, of course, a welcome visitor, especially when his high-pitched call rings through the cold, dry winter air.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Vole Control

Early this afternoon, while watching songbirds at the feeding area on our Littleton farm, I noticed several meadow voles, scurrying between a rocky border and the seed-covered ground.  More than willing to share the handouts with our resident mammals (even fox squirrels), I was entertained by the frequent roundtrips of those low-profile rodents.

Of course, meadow voles are prolific breeders and, if it were not for the coyotes, fox, owls and hawks that patrol our farm, I might be less sanguine about their presence.  Indeed, late this afternoon, I observed a sharp-shinned hawk huddled on the ground near the feeding area.  Though songbirds account for the great majority of their prey, sharpies feed on mice and voles as well; sure enough, he had a meadow vole in his talons and soon flew off to enjoy his meal on the comfort of a tree limb.

In forty years of birding, this was my first encounter with a sharp-shinned hawk that was feeding on a rodent.  All others have been strafing grasslands, zooming through woodlands in pursuit of songbirds or feasting on an avian victim, plucking feathers from its lifeless corpse.  Today's unique experience was just another unexpected event in my decades of birding and a dose of reassurance that the population of our resident breeding champs will be kept in check.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Humans to the Rescue

Driving into Metro Denver last week, I heard on a radio program that most wildlife rescue centers have closed along the Front Range.  Lack of funding, an overwhelming influx of wildlife "victims" and conflicts with rules established by the Department of Natural Resources were all given as reasons for the closures.

Unfortunately, responding to humanized nature programming and with limited understanding of natural ecosystems, many citizens have taken it upon themselves to rescue stranded, abandoned or injured animals, especially small, cute babies.  Though well intentioned, their action overwhelms rescue center resources and disrupts nature's web of life.  While human activity is no doubt responsible for increasing the incidence of injury to wildlife, we compound the problem by creating an unnatural system of care and re-release, often merely delaying the death of the animal.

In my opinion, we should concentrate on protecting as much natural habitat and open space as we can and work on minimizing our impact on natural ecosystems; otherwise, we should leave nature and her creatures alone.  After all, nature is neither fair nor sentimental and the death of young animals is vital to the overall welfare of her realm.  As part of that realm, it is best that we not try to manage or disrupt it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

First Juncos

The first dark-eyed juncos of the season arrived on our Littleton, Colorado, farm this morning.  These small songbirds breed across northern latitudes or in mountainous areas, descending to lower elevations or more southern climes during the winter months.

Today's visitors were of the slate-gray race and will soon be joined by members of the Oregon and gray-headed clans; while those of the white-winged race winter in Colorado as well, I have rarely observed them on our Littleton farm.  Foraging on the ground, juncos feast on a wide variety of small seeds and often gather beneath feeders to search for fallen milo, thistle or sunflower kernels.  Indeed, their arrival this morning prompted my first handouts of the season, attracting black-capped chickadees, collared doves, blue jays, house finches and a red-breasted nuthatch as well (not to mention the fox squirrels).

Small but hardy, juncos adapt well to Colorado's regular snowstorms, finding sustenance beneath evergreens or dense thickets.  While backyard birders and nature lovers offer store-bought seed as well, these "snowbirds" would manage just fine without our generosity.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Season of the Hunter

Before dawn this morning, the waning Hunter's Moon glowed just to the west of Orion, The Hunter.  Later in the morning, that large moon hovered above the Front Range, soon to disappear behind the lofty peaks.

By contrast, down at South Platte Park the avian hunters were noticeably absent, represented only by a lone sharp-shinned hawk.  The autumn waterfowl count continues to increase as large numbers of gadwall and American wigeon have arrived at the refuge, joined by the resident mallards, a modest number of northern shovelers, a pair of hooded mergansers and an increasing number of coot and pied-billed grebes.  The number of bald eagles should soon increase along the South Platte River, joining resident red-tailed hawks, Cooper's hawks, American kestrels, golden eagles, prairie falcons, great horned owls and a host of winter visitors.  Since most mammalian carnivores (mountain lions, black bear, coyotes, fox, otter) are nocturnal, none were encountered on this sunny but cool October morning.

As the celestial signs indicated, the season of hunters has begun.  Over the next five months or so, carnivores and raptors will have a distinct advantage; their prey, stressed by harsh weather and diminished food availability, will also be easier to locate in the barren woods or against a white background of ice and snow.  Equipped with a thick coat of fur or dense plumage, the hunters will be well nourished and some will begin to breed long before the warmth of spring envelops the South Platte Valley.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

October at South Platte Park

On this bright, crisp October morning, I returned to South Platte Park in southwest Metro Denver.  Though the weather was glorious, the birding was fair at best; no doubt, the recent warm weather in the West has, once again, slowed the autumn migration.

A modest number of American wigeon, American coot and pied-billed grebes were observed on the lakes and ponds, joining`the resident mallards.  No raptors were encountered on my two mile walk, though I did see a small flock of white-crowned sparrows, two belted kingfishers and the usual mix of woodland residents.  Only a few double-crested cormorants were present, contrasting with dozens in late summer and no herons, snowy egrets or American white pelicans were seen.

Despite the lackluster birding, it was a pleasant visit (as always) and an invigorating walk before another summer-like day along the Colorado Front Range.  The autumn colors are near peak and the summer songbirds have fled to the south but the winter waterfowl will be underrepresented until cold north winds rake the Piedmont.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Watching for Cranes

Heading back to Colorado today, I watched for migrant sandhill cranes in western Kansas.  Most of the western flock of sandhills, which breed across the Arctic of Alaska and Canada, funnel southward across the High Plains, headed for wintering areas in New Mexico, West Texas and Mexico.  In my experience along Interstate 70, their flights are generally best observed between Goodland and Wakeeney and usually occur from mid October into early November.

Alas, my hope of encountering these bugling migrants was not realized today.  My journey was a bit early in the season and late in the day to offer a good chance of seeing them and a strong south wind, pushing the afternoon high near 80 degrees F, likely discouraged any southward migration.

While searching for the cranes, I did observe a fair number of northern harriers (all male), ring-necked pheasants and a few tardy Swainson's hawks, not yet headed for their winter in Argentina.  Perhaps my return trip, likely in November, will be more successful.  See also Cranes over Kansas and Wintering Cranes.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Pelicans, Ibis and a Peregrine

After encountering a series of foggy mornings at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, I was greeted today by sunshine and cool autumn air.  Within minutes of entering the refuge, I could see flocks of American white pelicans in the distance, flapping and gliding above the floodplain; at least 350 graced the preserve, always a welcome sight during their seasonal migrations.

Waterfowl travelers have definitely picked up in central Missouri, dominated this morning by northern shovelers, gadwalls and American coot.  Shorebirds are still moving through the Missouri Valley as well and were accompanied today by five white-faced ibis, heading south from their breeding grounds on the Northern Plains.

But raptors stole the show on this bright, October morning.  An adult bald eagle chased an immature eagle from his hunting grounds, a Cooper's hawk strafed a flock of blackbirds, a red-tail called from the Perche Creek woodlands, a red-shouldered hawk perched above a marshy shore, American kestrels hunted from power lines and an adult peregrine falcon swooped above the wetlands, toying with the waterfowl; once nearly extirpated from North America by the use of DDT, peregrines have made a dramatic comeback, nesting in the Arctic, along the Coasts, throughout the Western States and in large cities of the Midwest and Eastern U.S.  The pelicans, ibis and the peregrine are all on their way to the Gulf Coast for the winter and I was fortunate to witness their brief stay at this fabulous Missouri River rest stop.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Integrity & Politics

Integrity is the willingness of an individual to stand by their moral convictions regardless of the consequences that he/she might have to endure.  This week, in response to the release of Donald Trump's vulgar tape describing his abuse of women, many Republicans are withdrawing their endorsement of Trump as their party's Presidential Candidate.

Some might applaud their integrity, potentially risking the loss of support from Trump's core constituency and financial support from Conservative PACs.  Others might see their reaction as pure political theater, distancing themselves from the "down-ticket" damage that Trump might inflict; after all, they seemed to condone Trump's racism, sexism and narcissism throughout the Republican Primary.

Indeed, it is the rare statesman who demonstrates political integrity, foregoing party tribalism and supporting candidates purely on the basis of their character and qualifications.  Unfortunately, the words politician and integrity are not often used in the same sentence (except, of course, by politicians themselves).

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Fog, Birding & Life

When I arrived at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area this morning, dense fog covered the Missouri River floodplain.  Chilly October air had settled in the valley overnight, interacting with the warm, moist ground to produce saturated air at the surface.  Entering the preserve, I found that the visibility was no more than ten yards and I pulled over to wait for the rising sun to warm the air and "burn off" the mist.  Though I could hear the distant clamor of blackbirds and the occasional shriek of a heron, there was nothing to see through the haze of moisture.

A half-hour later the fog began to lift and my patience was rewarded.  Large, mixed flocks of great egrets, great blue herons, American coot and pied-billed grebes filled the shallows while American white pelicans, double-crested cormorants and belted kingfishers fed in the deeper pools.  Bald eagles flapped above the wetlands, spooking flocks of wood ducks and blue-winged teal, and a female northern harrier patrolled the crop stubble.  A large number of barn swallows strafed the channels as they flew south through the valley and noisy flocks of killdeer moved between the barren fields.

A lesson for birding and for life as well, this morning's experience reminded me that a bit of patience is often worthwhile.  Whether the fog is a cloud of vapor or a veil of uncertainty, rushing toward its resolution is both futile and counterproductive.  It's generally best to let the fog lift before proceeding; by then, the view is clear and the landscape, with its motley cast of characters, is better understood and more fully appreciated.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Limited Gene Pool Theory

My wife has long been familiar with my "limited gene pool theory," a concept that I bring up repeatedly.  Spawned by my experience that many (if not most) humans have a close resemblance to others on the planet and by the knowledge that there must be a limited number of genome combinations in the human population, the theory usually surfaces when we encounter someone who reminds us of an individual from our collective past.

This morning, while supervising my grandsons at a large playground in Columbia, evidence of the theory's validity was readily apparent.  I saw my oldest daughter at age 3, one of my nieces and a boy who was a close friend in grade school.  Of interest, the physical resemblance is often accompanied by behavior and mannerisms that reinforce the link, suggesting that our body features influence our activity and social interactions (or vice versa).

As someone who has often been mistaken for others, perhaps I am especially sensitive to such similarities.  On the other hand, there is little doubt that our genetic heritage has a profound effect on every aspect of our lives, from physical traits to our behavioral, intellectual and emotional makeup.  If nothing else, it's entertaining to recognize relatives, friends and past associates in a crowd of strangers.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Hooting at the Thunder

When I arrived at Eagle Bluffs this morning, the Missouri River floodplain was shrouded by a dense overcast; showers moved across the valley and lightning flashed to the southwest.  A striped skunk ambled along the entry road, not yet finished with his nocturnal hunting, and turkey vultures huddled on a power-line tower, waiting for the sun.

The recent flocks of American white pelicans had departed for the south, leaving the fish for cormorants, great egrets, bald eagles, belted kingfishers and great blue herons.  Blue-winged teal graced a few of the ponds and an increasing number of American coot foraged in the marshy shallows.  Bird sightings were otherwise limited though one raptor was heard rather than seen.

At the south tip of the refuge, where Perche Creek enters the Missouri River, the hoots of a great horned owl echoed from the woodlands, seemingly in response to claps of thunder that rumbled through the valley.  Seldom heard during the warmer months, great horned owls are now tuning up for their breeding season, which won't commence until winter grips the Heartland.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Hurricane Matthew heads North

Almost seven years after a devastating earthquake destroyed much of Haiti, Hurricane Matthew was raking that impoverished nation this morning.  The massive, Category 4 storm, 700 miles in diameter, pounded Haiti with high winds and torrential rain; tropical force winds extend 200 miles from the hurricane's central eye.

Heading north, Hurricane Matthew will cross eastern Cuba before passing through the Bahamas, likely maintaining its strength.  Beyond the islands, the storm is expected to parallel the coast of northeast Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.  The specific track remains uncertain and coastal damage will depend on its proximity to the shoreline.  If the storm does not make landfall (and rapidly diminish in strength), Matthew may impact the coastal regions of the the Mid Atlantic States and New England as well.

While September is the peak of the Atlantic Hurricane Season, October offers its fair share of storms.  By mid November, tropical waters are cooling and upper level winds do not favor tropical storm development (see Tropical Storm Dynamics).

Monday, October 3, 2016

Greater Cincinnati's New Museum

Returning to my home town for a few days, I learned that Greater Cincinnati has a new museum.  Billboards advertising The Creation Museum began to appear near Indianapolis and rose at intervals along Interstate 74; illustrated with cartoonish dinosaurs (no doubt designed to attract the attention of children), the signs indicated that the facility is on Interstate 275.  Indeed, the Museum, which opened in late May, is in Northern Kentucky, west of the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport.

While I will not have time to visit the Museum (and have no interest in doing so), I understand that it presents a Genesis-based history of life on Earth, spanning some 6000 years.  According to their literal interpretation of the Bible, early humans and dinosaurs coexisted; ignoring scientific evidence that dinosaurs inhabited our planet from 225 to 65 million years ago and that humans have walked the Earth for at least 130,000 years, the museum curators prefer to rely on clues from Scripture.

An appropriate companion to The Ark (also in Northern Kentucky), this Museum seeks to attract Christian Fundamentalists from across the country, fostering the long war between religion and science.  Unfortunately, man has yet to evolve beyond the influence of mysticism.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Morning Spectacles at Eagle Bluffs

Arriving at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area before dawn, my friend and I were struck by the serenity.  For the first mile or so, not a single bird or mammal was seen or heard; then, the clamor of red-winged blackbirds began to echo across the refuge.  Before long, these blackbirds, one of the most abundant species in North American, rose from shrub lines and groves of trees, streaming above the floodplain in massive, undulating flocks.  Heading for fields and wetlands, they would consume tons of grain and insects before the day was done.

Near the south end of the refuge, another spectacle would unfold.  A large flock of American white pelicans (300 or more) had gathered to fish in a shallow pool.  Joined by two dozen cormorants, the pelicans were surrounded by great egrets and great blue herons that patrolled the edge of the pond.  As we stopped to observe this early morning feast, the pelicans began to rise in waves, noisily skipping across the water and then climbing into the cool air; their departure took several minutes as wavering lines of pelicans flapped and glided toward the north, searching for more schools of fish.

Other sightings on this chilly, overcast morning included bald eagles, a Cooper's hawk, belted kingfishers, pied-billed grebes, American coot and a small number of blue-winged teal.  But this visit will be remembered for its spectacles, provided by one of least admired and one of the most beautiful species to grace the refuge.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

October Chill

As if on cue, autumn chill has enveloped central Missouri on this first day of October.  Though a gray overcast defies the season and few colors paint the woodlands, the date and the air signal that the hot, muggy days of summer are unlikely to return until mid May or so.

Naturalists and birders anticipate migrant waterfowl in the coming weeks while almost everyone looks forward to the colorful foliage and pumpkin harvest.  Mild, sunny days and crisp, clear nights are the rule during October (especially here in the Midwest) and its name evokes memories of outdoor adventure for all but the most dedicated couch potatoes.

Though I favor the Temperate Zone, where four distinct seasons unfold, I'd take six months of October without complaint.  It's easily my favorite time of the year and I'm in no hurry to face the Holidays.  The cool, invigorating air of October is enough to cheer my soul.