Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Cold Sunshine in the Valley

Brilliant sunshine bathed the South Platte Valley this morning but the overnight chill was slow to dissipate.  Ice coated the wetlands and shallow inlets while the lakes remained open, attracting an increasing number and diversity of waterfowl.

Lesser scaup had arrived, joining our other winter residents: mallards, gadwalls, American wigeons, green-winged teal, common and hooded mergansers, buffleheads, common goldeneyes and American coot.  Ring-necked ducks were not encountered this morning, nor were the white-winged scoters that were recently reported.  Canada geese, on the other hand, have been increasing in number over the past two weeks (later than usual) but have yet to reach their typical winter population.

Once again, songbirds were rather sparse, primarily represented by house finches, black-capped chickadees, northern flickers and white-crowned sparrows, joined by a few American tree sparrows.  Perhaps they were waiting for the intense Colorado sun to thaw the landscape before venturing from their winter retreats.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Worry: A Human Scourge

We humans tend to worry.  Of course, some of us worry more than others and those with depression or anxiety disorders are most subject to this human scourge.

We worry about our finances, our health, the welfare of our children, the risks of travel and many other issues; the list could go on for pages and the prospect of a Trump Presidency only augments our concerns.  Our large brains constantly sift through past experiences and tragedies or mishaps often rise to the surface; these may be personal in nature, arise from witnessed events or merely reflect upsetting news that bombards our life 24/7 (aggravated, of course, by social media and cable news networks).

How to minimize our tendency to worry?  There seems to be no easy answer.  Attempting to reason with ourselves is often futile.  Perhaps our best approach is to live in the present and to accept the fact that we have limited control over events in our lives.  To borrow a phrase from several popular songs, it's best to just "Carry On."

Monday, November 28, 2016

Fox at High Noon

On yet another trip to the compost pile, I encountered a red fox, sniffing his way along the west edge of our property.  Spooked by my approach, he scurried over a six foot fence and disappeared.

Common visitors and former residents on our Littleton farm, red fox are most often seen at dawn or dusk, completing or beginning a night of hunting; to see one at noon is a bit unusual.  I suspect our current cold snap has extended his period of activity, a subconscious reminder that he may be facing a long, harsh winter.  Calories are vital during this season of frigid nights and heavy snows and our large populations of voles and cottontails will provide easy targets for this agile hunter.

Extirpated from the farm by coyotes several years ago, red fox are making a comeback since their larger cousins have been discouraged from settling in (see Unwelcome Squatters); unlike coyotes, we welcome the fox, attractive and nonthreatening agents of rodent control.  Hopefully, they'll begin to den on the farm once again and our grandkids can enjoy watching their pups just as our children did two decades ago.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Western Snow, Eastern Rain

A potent winter storm system has entered the Western U.S., bringing snow from the mountains of the Pacific Northwest to the Colorado Rockies and from the Four Corners region to the Northern Plains.  Triggered by a deep atmospheric trough (a broad dip in the jet stream), the system's leading edge will also ignite thunderstorms across the Great Plains.

Over the next few days, the storm will slowly progress to the Great Lakes and Northeast and its trailing cold front is expected to produce tornadic thunderstorms along the northern Gulf Coast.  On the other hand, it will also bring much needed rains to the Southeastern U.S., offering some relief to the drought-plagued areas of Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.

We can only hope that this shift in the weather pattern persists through the winter, augmenting the Western snowpack and putting an end to the Southeastern drought.  If the current atmospheric ridge over the the eastern Pacific remains in place, that scenario could unfold, benefitting most regions of the country.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Yellow Jackets in November

Yesterday, will taking our Thanksgiving scraps to the compost bin, I stirred up a colony of yellow jackets, a type of wasp.  Their presence took me by surprise since we have had several hard freezes along the Colorado Front Range.

In the Temperate zone of North America, yellow jackets are primarily of the eastern or German species; the latter is more aggressive, often stinging humans and other animals that come close to their nest site.  The latter is placed in a cavity or underground chamber; there, the queen constructs the initial cells (using wood fibers) and begins to lay eggs.  Male offspring are drones, remaining in the nest cavity, caring for the queen and fertilizing her; males die after mating.  Female offspring are workers, scouring the regional environment for sugars, protein (insects, carrion, garbage) and wood fibers to enlarge the nest; protein is fed to the larvae while sugars are consumed by the workers, drones and the queen.  At the peak of summer activity, the colony may contain up to 3000 individuals, a few of which will become queens; impregnated, the latter put on fat during autumn in order to survive the winter.

As winter grips the area, the workers and original queen die off and the new queens overwinter in a protected site; by late spring, they will emerge and establish new colonies, renewing the annual cycle.  In tropical or subtropical regions, yellow jackets survive the winter and the nest can become massive; here in Colorado, that will not happen but yesterday's encounter was just another reflection of our unusually warm autumn weather.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Thanks to the Obamas

On this American holiday of Thanksgiving, it seems appropriate to thank President Obama and the First Lady for their inspiration and leadership over the past eight years.  Sandwiched between the militarism of the Bush Administration and the upcoming tenure of a narcissist, their time in the White House will likely be remembered for its dedication to the welfare of humanity.

Though stymied by a Republican Congress, President Obama was able to push through his healthcare program, guide our country from a financial crisis, sign an International accord to deal with climate change and make steady progress against ISIS and other terror organizations.  Most of all, he and Michele (who worked to eliminate childhood obesity) have been superb representatives of our country, dedicated to human rights and conservation across the globe.  Even those who disagree with their policies must admit that they radiated warmth, kindness and tolerance, traits that President-elect Trump seemed to ridicule during his campaign.

I suspect history will judge the Obama years to have been positive for the welfare of our country and for our allies abroad.  Regardless of that assessment, I thank the President and First Lady for their service, their calm leadership, their honest approach to global issues and for the positive image that they bestowed on America.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Waterfowl at Dusk

During the colder months, when a large number of waterfowl gather in the South Platte Valley, a spectacle develops as dusk envelops the Front Range.  In the darkening sky, flocks of wintering ducks begin to appear, streaming above our Littleton farm.

After spending the day feeding on the river and its adjacent wetlands, they are heading for several lakes and reservoirs to our northwest; there they can safely spend the night, protected from fox and coyotes that prowl the shores.  Some are easy to identify in the gathering dusk; tight, rapid flocks of green-winged teal and squadrons of large, torpedo-shaped common mergansers are perhaps easiest to pick out.  But identification is only important for the compulsive birder; the sight of the numerous flocks, joined by noisy V's of Canada geese is inspiring enough for most of us.

Indeed, though our property is surrounded by suburban neighborhoods, the waves of waterfowl offer reassurance that wildness thrives along the urban corridor, just as it did long before humans settled in the Valley.  Hopefully, this evening spectacle will unfold for many generations to come.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Beautiful Gray Day

Those of us who live along the Colorado Front Range are used to sunny days; indeed, sunshine bathes the urban corridor on more than 300 days each year.  But following a prolonged period of warm, sunny and dry weather, today's mix of rain and snow is more than welcome.

After pulling out of the Four Corners region and dropping heavy snow across the San Juans and Central Colorado Mountains, the latest winter storm moved onto the High Plains overnight, producing an upslope flow along the Front Range.  Cool air, a low gray overcast and steady, light precipitation might not create postcard scenery but the sloppy conditions are beautiful in the eyes of drought-weary homeowners.

The mountain snowpack, vital to our Metro-Denver water supply, is well behind schedule this year; this storm system offers some hope that weather patterns are changing.  Time will tell if that optimism is warranted but, for now, we'll relish a day without sunshine.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Tigers at the Aquarium

Yesterday, my wife and I took two of our grandsons to the Downtown Denver Aquarium.  Initially founded as Colorado's Ocean Journey in 1999, the facility is now owned and operated by Landry's Restaurants, Inc.

The well-organized aquarium is composed of an excellent variety of exhibits that house a wide diversity of freshwater and marine life; our grandsons were especially impressed with the giant shark tank and the chance to view those predators at close range.  Unfortunately, in an effort to round-out their Asian ecosystem, the Aquarium also houses Bengal tigers in a "naturalized" indoor cage of rocky terrain, waterfalls and pools.  A big hit with visitors and pictured on most of their brochures, the imprisoned tigers (I only saw one) ruined the experience for me and, I suspect, for any naturalist who might visit the Aquarium.

While this facility, like most zoos and aquariums, takes pride in educating the public and promoting conservation, the willingness to treat tigers like indoor house cats makes one question their sincerity.  The "attractive" tiger exhibit may be pleasing to the eye for human visitors but it is nothing more than an indoor prison for those large, beautiful carnivores.  I, for one, will not be returning to the Downtown Denver Aquarium, just as I shun those that house captive cetaceans.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Edge of Winter

After two balmy days in Cincinnati, I flew back to Denver last evening.  As we left Ohio, where the late afternoon temperature was still in the mid seventies (F), a wall of thunderstorms loomed to the west, providing a spectacular light show for those of us in flight.  Skirting the storms, we flew southwestward to Louisville, Kentucky, and then WNW, passing over St. Louis and Kansas City on our way to Colorado.

The relatively narrow band of thunderstorms was the leading edge of our first blast of winter, a broad atmospheric trough that ended an unusually warm autumn.  The potent storm system dropped a modest amount of snow along the Colorado Front Range but produced blizzard conditions across the Northern Plains.  Of more significance, the plunge of polar air announced the arrival of winter, bringing a hard freeze to most of the country and limited relief to some drought-plagued regions.  Moving eastward, the system will produce lake-effect snows in the Upper Midwest before moving off the Northeast Coast.

Here in Littleton, where overnight lows dropped into the teens, a slow but steady recovery is expected in the coming days.  However, the summer-like warmth is likely over for this year and winter's reign has begun.  Fortunately, chinook winds will provide intermittent relief and the intense Colorado sun will soften the effect of winter's grip.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Familiar Landscape from Above

Flying from Denver to Cincinnati yesterday afternoon, I selected a window seat, cherishing the opportunity to see familiar terrain from 30,000 feet.  The weather cooperated as we flew east across the dry, brown plains of Eastern Colorado but several cloud layers obscured my view once we entered Kansas.

Every ten minutes or so, we would cross a hole in the overcast, providing a brief glimpse of the landscape below.  If irrigation circles were present, I knew we were still above the High Plains while river and creek patterns gave some clues to our location.  At one point, I saw a river entering the west end of a reservoir (Waconda Lake?) and, farther east, the heavily dissected terrain (with tree lined stream beds) indicated we were passing above the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas.

Fortunately, the sky cleared as we reached the Missouri River Valley (just north of Kansas City) and I was able to see a number of my favorite birding haunts as we crossed the State: Smithville Lake, Swan Lake NWR, Grand Pass Conservation Area and Mark Twain Lake, among others.  The sun was setting as we flew over the Mississippi (a bit north of St. Louis) and the cities of Springfield, Effingham, Terre Haute and Indianapolis glowed to our north.  Finally, descending into Cincinnati, we passed above the dark swath of the lower Great Miami River, where Oxbow, Inc. has protected vital wetland habitat (and where I honed my birding skills thirty years ago).

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ten Years of Blogging

Ten years ago today, I watched from my office window as cold, crisp autumn air swept into central Missouri behind a potent storm system.  Having kept nature journals in the past, I decided to start an online nature blog and After the Storm became its first entry.

Nature's Blog now harbors more than 3000 posts, covering topics from wildlife, landscape and geology to natural history and human nature.  As I implied in The Nature of Blogs and The Nature of Writers, the experience has been educational, rewarding and absolutely vital to my personal welfare.  Honored by the interest of readers from across the globe, many of whom have provided kind comments and valuable feedback, nature blogging has become a cherished part of my life.

While the opportunity to document my experiences and to share my passion with others was the initial motivation for this blog, I have come to realize that its potential influence on teens and young adults has been the most rewarding aspect of Nature's Blog.  In particular, I hope that this collection of posts is an inspiration for my children, grandchildren and young persons across the planet long after I'm gone.  After all, the future welfare of Earth's natural ecosystems will depend on their commitment to conservation and naturalist philosophy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Rare Birds beget Birders

This morning, while walking up our driveway, I spotted a small bird flitting about one of our Siberian elms.  To my delight, it was the chestnut-sided warbler that I first encountered four days ago (see
Late for the Tropics).  The warm weather and the elm leaves persist, apparently keeping the tardy insectivore on our farm.

As a devoted member of eBird, I reported the sighting once again and, by mid afternoon, had attracted several avid birders to our property.  Equipped with powerful binoculars and telescopic cameras, they are scouring the farm as I write this post.  While they are more than welcome to search for the warbler, I (like nature) offer no guarantees; as veteran birder's know, our quarry is often fickle.

The visitors, like most hardcore birders, likely chase rare sightings across the State and, perhaps, across the country.  Though my interest in birds is less intense (and more related to their place in natural ecosystems), I am privileged to own this plot of heaven and welcome those who appreciate its bounty.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Subdued Songbirds

On this warm, sunny morning at South Platte Park, the number and diversity of winter ducks was beginning to increase.  In particular, northern shovelers and ring-necked ducks were more abundant than on previous visits.

By contrast, songbirds were remarkably quiet and inconspicuous.  Of those encountered (black-capped chickadees, song sparrows, downy woodpeckers, northern flickers, white-crowned sparrows, house finches, a spotted towhee and an American tree sparrow), none totaled more than a half dozen individuals.  No doubt, the exceptionally warm air and bright sun kept them in their shady retreats.

Novice birders often assume that warm, sunny days will be most productive when it comes to finding a large number and diversity of species.  In reality, cool, cloudy days are often best, triggering activity and feeding behavior.  This morning's adventure seemed to prove the point.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Smoke in the Southeast

On this cool, cloudy morning along the Colorado Front Range, geese and ducks streaming over the farm, a faint scent of wood smoke hung in the air.  While this natural smell is appealing to most humans, its current presence in the Southeastern U.S. is far from welcome.

Following a prolonged drought, wildfires have erupted across the Blue Ridge Mountains, from eastern Tennessee through southwestern North Carolina to north Georgia and the ridges of northwestern South Carolina.  Fueled by shifting winds and dry timber, the fires have spread plumes of smoke throughout the region, creating unhealthy air in many urban centers, especially those in river valleys.

While drought has been severe in the Tennessee-North Carolina-Georgia Tristate, low levels of precipitation have plagued much of the country as domes of high pressure have deflected Pacific storms across Canada and prevented Gulf moisture from moving northward.  Ski season has been delayed in the West (except at high elevation resorts with snow-making equipment) and dry conditions in the foothills and on the plains have set the stage for western fires as well.  What we need are a few deep atmospheric troughs to displace the ridge of heat and drought; the first blast of near-winter weather is expected in Colorado by the end of the week.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Late for the Tropics

Look up chestnut-sided warblers in most field guides and the illustrated breeding range will encompass southeastern Canada, the northern Midwest, the Northeastern States and the Appalachian Mountains.  However, over the past two decades, this attractive songbird has also been nesting along the Colorado Front Range.

Yesterday morning, while making my daily survey of our Littleton farm, I spotted a warbler flitting about one of our large Siberian elms; due to our persistent mild weather, the tree still retains most of its leaves.  After following the bird with my binos for a minute or so, I was able to identify it as a chestnut-sided warbler in fall plumage; its bright olive cap, greenish wingbars, white eye rings and white, unstreaked breast and abdomen led to the identification.  These insectivores typically snare insects from the underside of leaves, favoring open, second-growth woodlands.

After a summer in the U.S. or Canada, they head for the Tropics, usually to Central America or northern South America.  Why yesterday's visitor was so tardy is hard to say but I suspect our warm autumn weather is the primary culprit; then again, songbirds generally migrate in response to the sunlight cycle, not the daily temperatures.  While yellow-rumped warblers are common winter residents throughout much of the U.S., I've never encountered another warbler species so late in the year.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Kudos for Wild North

A few days ago, while taking care of two grandsons, I searched Netflix for a program that we all might enjoy.  Fortunately, I came across Wild North, a three episode series on the landscape, seasons and wildlife of Norway.

Narrated in English, the program covers the Coastal, Forest and Mountain ecosystems of that far northern country, offering gorgeous scenery and close-up video of the region's many wild residents.  Unlike some modern documentaries, Wild North does not humanize or sanitize nature, providing a balanced overview of her complex web of life.

In many ways, the coverage of life in polar or sub-polar ecosystems is especially inspiring.  Creatures that inhabit those life zones must deal with challenges that go well beyond the typical predator-prey relationships.  Wild North highlights that fact and is recommended for young and veteran naturalists alike.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Kinglet Chatter

When it's mid November in the Heartland and you hear the staccato chatter of a house wren coming from the woods, it is likely the call of a ruby-crowned kinglet.  These tiny insectivores breed in coniferous forest across Alaska and Canada and southward through the Western Mountains; come fall, they head for woodlands across the southern half of the U.S. and frequently turn up in suburban parks and neighborhoods.

Ruby-crowned kinglets are energetic birds that move about constantly as they feed.  They are best identified by their small size, white eye ring, white wing bars and their habit of fluttering their wings when they land on a branch; their ruby-colored crest is usually not evident.  Primarily insectivores, these "cute" visitors may consume berries as well.

Over the past week, I have encountered several ruby-crowned kinglets at South Platte Park and on our Littleton farm.  Usually found alone during migrations (as opposed to traveling in flocks), they nevertheless feed with chickadees, nuthatches and downy woodpeckers.  In my experience, it is their chattering call that most often heralds their presence.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Victory to the Nationalists

Donald Trump's resounding victory reflects a shift toward nationalism in the U.S. and across the globe.  Anti-immigrant fervor, tinged with racism, is part of the motivation, as are the negative impacts of technology and globalization on a large segment of society.

While Trump has yet to offer details regarding the sweeping change that he proposes, it is clear that he will attempt to role back environmental regulations; after all, he has been one of the leading climate change deniers.  Expressing anti-science rhetoric and ridiculing the importance of international cooperation, Trump and his legions may ruin the planet before they have a chance to establish their utopia.

Most unsettling, America, the acclaimed leader of the free world, has elected a narcissist to run the country; subject to speaking, tweeting or acting before he thinks, Trump's tenure will likely be an extension of his entertainment career.  While I respect individuals who do not share my personal politics (social liberal, fiscal conservative), I cannot respect anyone who uses their position of power to foster intolerance, promote discrimination, suppress human rights and oppose the conservation of our natural resources.  Hopefully, Trump's deranged comments were merely a campaign ploy and he will be humbled by the responsibilities that he has been granted.  For a man who led the "birther movement," that will be a dramatic change indeed.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

South Platte Reservoir

Occupying the southwest corner of South Platte Park, in southwest Metro Denver, the South Platte Reservoir was created from an abandoned gravel pit and was completed in 2007.  Siphoning water from several drainage ditches in the area, the reservoir was designed to retain water for Highlands Ranch, a large suburban development on the south edge of the city.

Since it is used for water supply, South Platte Reservoir is not directly accessible to human visitors.  However, a graveled road runs atop the dam and its southern portion is open for walking and bird watching.  Attracting most diving waterfowl that visit the Front Range, the reservoir is known as a magnet for rare or uncommon species such as scoters, loons and long-tailed ducks; the latter have been wintering on this man-made lake in recent years.  Of course, the reservoir is also a good place to observe bald eagles and other raptors and its curving dam attracts a wide variety of open-country songbirds.

On this morning's visit, buffleheads dominated the open waters, joined by smaller numbers of Canada geese, western grebes, pied-billed grebes and ring-billed gulls.  Eurasian collared doves were abundant along the western edge of the reservoir, a belted kingfisher chattered his way across the lake and a red-tailed hawk surveyed the scene from a power pole, his concentration fixed on a colony of prairie dogs.  The highlight of my brief visit was the sighting of an American pipit, wagging his tail as he scoured the rocky wall of the dam.

Monday, November 7, 2016

The November Flycatcher

Say's phoebe, a handsome flycatcher of the American West, breeds from Alaska to Mexico; indeed, it nests much farther north than any other flycatcher in North America.  In addition, unlike most other flycatchers, this phoebe favors dry, open country, where it places its nest on protected rock ledges, under bridges, in tree cavities or beneath the eaves of barns and other outbuildings.

This morning, while making my usual circuit at South Platte Park, I encountered a Say's phoebe, perched on a fencepost near the reservoir dam.  Though it was a cool, sunny morning, many insects remain active along the Colorado Front Range; the mild, snowless weather persists and only a few nights have produced lows near or below freezing.

While other flycatchers have departed for southern climes (many as early as late summer), Say's phoebes are hardy insectivores, arriving early in spring and departing late in autumn.  Today's visitor is a bit later than usual and may be one that nested in Alaska; perhaps he'll stick around for a day or two before continuing his journey to wintering grounds in Mexico or the Desert Southwest.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Lone Survivor

A thin, young fox squirrel has been foraging along the edge of my feeding area this past week.  Ever vigilant of the adult squirrels that chase him from the handouts, this juvenile is probably the lone survivor of a late season litter, his siblings having succumbed to disease or fallen prey to hawks, owls, fox or coyotes.

Our mild autumn weather has certainly favored his survival to date but his thin frame portends trouble when the cold and snow arrive.  No doubt, he has also been evicted from the nest of his parents, perhaps seeking shelter in dense clumps of junipers during our chilly Colorado nights.

While there is plenty of natural food on the farm, his chance of surviving the winter seems slim.  Competing with numerous adult squirrels and other wild residents for sustenance, he must also escape the attention of the many predators that visit our property.  In contrast to the happy outcomes so common on nature programming, his short life will likely end before spring; indeed, nature does not pity the young, the infirm or the ill-prepared.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Robin led Invasion

On this cool, sunny morning along the Front Range, birds were abundant on our Littleton farm.  Large, noisy flocks of American robins apparently led the invasion, feasting on berries in our juniper trees; their activity seemed to draw in the other species.

The most numerous of the cohorts were house finches, joined by a fair number of cedar waxwings, black-capped chickadees and dark-eyed juncos.  Other visitors included black-billed magpies, American crows, red-breasted nuthatches, Eurasian collared doves, blue jays, northern flickers, downy woodpeckers, our lone Townsend's solitaire and, of note, four yellow-rumped warblers.

According to eBird, the latter insectivores are rare for this region on November 1; while I question that designation, I was certain about the identification, their bright yellow rumps reflecting the morning sun.  My thanks to the robins for attracting such a fine diversity of avian visitors; surprisingly, neither Cooper's nor sharp-shinned hawks turned up to enjoy the invasion as well.