Saturday, December 31, 2016

Music & Memories

Music has played an important role in human civilization since the dawn of our species.  For those of us who have lived in the age of mass media, it also marks the emotional roller-coaster of our lives.

During childhood, jingles and holiday songs invade our innocent minds, tied to the seasons and their cultural highlights; as we mature, we are exposed to musical genres that reflect both our upbringing and our personal experience.  Associated with strong emotion from life events or close relationships, certain songs trigger memories until death or dementia intervene.

Music seems to be especially potent in this regard.  As a writer, I try to provoke thought and elicit passion in readers but my success pales in comparison to those who write or perform music.  When lyrics are tied to a beautiful or stirring melody, they resonate in both our mind and our soul and their link to our past is forever sealed.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Autumn Rewind

Patches of snow may cover the ground and the ponds may be frozen over but it feels like early autumn along the Colorado Front Range today.  After a few weeks of wintry weather, autumn has returned, courtesy of downsloping, southwest winds.

Our afternoon high in Littleton is approaching 70 degrees F, some 25 degrees above normal for the date.  But winter "normals" along the Front Range urban corridor are merely numerical averages and it is not unusual to experience temperature swings of forty degrees or more in the course of 24 hours.  Indeed, periods of warm winter weather are rather common in this region and often follow an outbreak of Arctic air; in other cases, the warmth portends a coming change as southwesterly winds intensify ahead of an approaching cold front.

Such is the case this week.  While we bid adieu to 2016 amidst sunny, autumn-like weather, 2017 will be ushered in by the next winter storm.  Within a few days, snow will return to the Front Range, afternoon highs may not reach 20 degrees F and overnight lows will plummet to zero or below.  For now, I'll head back outside in my T-shirt and jeans to enjoy the autumn reprieve.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Sparrows in the Rabbitbrush

Rabbitbrush is a common shrub in semiarid regions of the American West.  For much of the year, it likely goes unnoticed by hikers and casual naturalists but, in autumn, its canopy of pungent, bright yellow flowers attracts everyone's attention.

By early winter, the flowers have faded to dull-colored seed heads and dense stands of rabbitbrush attract a variety of wintering songbirds, especially sparrows.  The abundant seeds offer a plentiful source of food and the shrub's dome-like structure "shades" the ground from snowfall, providing open forage areas and refuge from predators.  Here along the Colorado Front Range, white-crowned sparrows are often abundant in these stands in late autumn, replaced during the colder months by American tree sparrows, song sparrows and, on occasion, Harris' sparrows; spotted towhees, dark-eyed juncos, house finches and goldfinches (both American and lesser) also feed on or beneath the rabbitbrush.

Birders who visit South Platte Park, in Littleton, generally focus on the excellent diversity of waterfowl and raptors.  Unless they stop along the trails to survey the rabbitbrush, they may miss the more reclusive songbirds.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Morning Solitude

On this mild Christmas morning along the Colorado Front Range, I decided to take a walk at South Platte Park.  Along my two mile circuit I encountered only a few humans and they offered but a brief greeting.

Indeed, the wildlife was respectfully quiet as well; the only sounds that broke the silence were the crunch of snow and gravel beneath by boots and the distant, soft roar from highway traffic.  It was a peaceful stroll through bright sunshine and cool, fresh air.

I suppose I could have gone to Christmas services, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the faithful while singing songs of joy and peace.  But nature has been my church for many years; she offers solitude and tranquility without reference to a loving but vindictive deity.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Avian Ranges and Human Activity

As lesser goldfinches continue to hang out on our Littleton farm, almost three months after their usual migration to the south, I have considered how human activity affects the natural range of bird species.  In the case of these finches, suburban landscaping and feeder handouts augment natural food sources and likely diminish migration pressure as winter settles in.

Perhaps the best example of human impact on North American bird ranges is the settlement of the Great Plains.  As towns and cities appeared along the primary rivers, which flow from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi Valley, the ranges of various Eastern bird species (northern cardinals, eastern bluebirds, eastern phoebes, indigo buntings and others) have been spreading westward.  While some woodlands have always lined these rivers, human settlements greatly increase the diversity of vegetation; reservoirs along the streams also spawn the development of backwater wetlands and other riparian ecosystems which attract birds that would otherwise avoid the vast fields and grasslands of the Great Plains.

Indeed, while I often call attention to the human destruction of natural habitat in this blog, I must acknowledge that some species benefit from our activity.  Unfortunately, some of the birds most capable of adapting to human settlements are those that were introduced by man: European starlings, house sparrows, cattle egrets and Eurasian collared doves come to mind.  In the end, it's still best to protect natural habitat, avoid the introduction of non-native species and let nature take control.  See also: Settlers and Cardinals and Feeding Birds.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Humans, Liberalism & Conservation

Humans are social creatures and early man depended on his cohorts to obtain food, construct shelters and protect the clan from predators.  The importance of each individual was surely recognized and, despite their limited resources, I suspect our ancestors acknowledged their dependence on fellow humans and on their natural environment.

Throughout most of our early history, survival was the primary focus and there was little to distract humans from that imperative.  Eventually, spawned by our creativity and imagination, mysticism entered our world and, much later, we engaged in domestication and agriculture.  Finally, the industrial and technologic revolutions molded human society, bringing both advantages and threats to the welfare of our planet.

Over time, we humans created a civilization in which consumption, greed, zealotry, intolerance and discrimination have played an increasing role.  Liberalism, which characterized early human society, has become a target of the rich and powerful and social support systems have been marginalized.  So too, our close connection to nature has steadily diminished; the importance of military might and corporate profits has come to outweigh our focus on conservation.  In effect, the future of our species has been imperiled by both the achievements and delusions that our large brains enabled.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Wandering with Teale

At the beginning of each season, I pull out one of Edwin Way Teale's books from the American Seasons Series.  Born in Joliet, Illinois, in 1899, Teale is a famous naturalist who wrote four travel books (among others) that documented his journeys through the seasons.  North with the Spring, his first, was researched on a trip in 1947, followed by Autumn Across America in 1952, Journey into Summer in 1957 and Wandering through Winter in the winter of 1961-1962.  Teale died in 1980.

More than travelogues, these books offer intimate descriptions of the landscapes and ecosystems through which he and his wife traveled.  While he visited well-known parks and nature preserves along the way, Teale had a curiosity that made every byway interesting and he taught me, as a reader, that we can learn a great deal from what, at first glance, might appear to be rather mundane habitat.  Indeed, it was this trait that attracted me to his books and why I included North with the Spring as one of the Four Books that most influenced my life as a naturalist.

As the astronomical winter begins, I have pulled Wandering through Winter from the shelf and will, at the very least, skim its contents.  More than fifty years after writing his American Seasons Series, Teale is still good company.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Longest Night, Shortest Day

The winter solstice of the Northern Hemisphere arrived at 3:44 AM, Mountain Time.  Last night was the longest of the year (about 15 hours at Denver's latitude) and today will bring the shortest period of daylight (about 9 hours).  From now until the summer solstice (on or about June 21), our days will gradually lengthen.

The variable daylight results from the tilt of Earth's axis.  On our annual journey around the sun, any given area on the planet receives more or less solar radiation as it leans toward or away from the sun.  At the winter solstice of the Northern Hemisphere, the sun is shining directly on the Tropic of Capricorn while, at our summer solstice, maximum radiation reaches the Tropic of Cancer.  Those who live near the Equator experience minimal variation in daylight throughout the year while polar regions go dark over two months surrounding their winter solstice and receive perpetual light for a month on either side of their summer solstice.  In effect, the variation of sunlight between summer and winter increases as one moves farther north or south of the Equator and we notice this phenomenon as the sun moves higher or lower in the sky (highest at the summer solstice and lowest at the winter solstice).

While the winter solstice is the astronomical start of winter, winter weather generally arrives well before it occurs and the coldest weather of the year most often occurs in late January, a month after the solstice (the cumulative effect of low solar radiation).  In reality, our calendar months of winter (December through February) more closely match the period of winter weather than do the astronomical months of winter (late December to late March).

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Concentrated Flocks

After two Arctic blasts scoured the Front Range, most small lakes and ponds have frozen over.  Some of the larger lakes and reservoirs retain pools of open water and the South Platte River continues to flow past its icy banks.

Waterfowl that winter along the Front Range thus concentrate on these open waters, producing a congregation of species that, before the storms, were scattered throughout the valley.  This morning, at South Platte Park, relatively small pools harbored gadwall, coot, hooded mergansers, redheads, common goldeneyes, buffleheads and northern shovelers; mallards, as usual, favored the river, joined in some areas by Canada geese and small flocks of other wintering ducks.

For birders, these winter congregations offer convenient viewing and allow close comparison of the various species.  For natural predators, such as bald eagles and peregrine falcons, the ice concentrates their prey, making hunts more efficient and effective.  Our current warm spell (60 degrees F today) may open more water surface but the next winter storm is expected by Christmas Eve.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Death & Remembrance

We humans become aware of death at age 5 or so; from that point on, our concept of death is molded by our family, our friends and our education.  Across the globe, different cultures instill their unique beliefs and, upon death, conduct specific rites.

Those who live under the influence of mythology (i.e. religion) generally anticipate some form of afterlife and their death is accompanied by ceremonies designed to insure that the transition is successful.  In such cultures, funerals tend to place more emphasis on that transition than on remembrance and attention is turned to traditional prayers and rituals.

Those of us who reject mysticism prefer to focus on remembrance, acknowledging the virtues, influence and accomplishments of the deceased.  We want to celebrate their life, not dwell on their fate after death.  For us, death is life's final act and whatever rewards they might have hoped for have already been received.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Big Oil & Big Tobacco

For many decades, the American tobacco industry dodged evidence that their products were linked to cancer and cardiovascular disease.  That effort was enhanced by pseudo-scientists whom they hired to debunk the conclusions of the medical community.  Eventually, they were forced to acknowledge the risks of using their products and to discontinue advertising in the public media.  Nevertheless, tobacco use persists in the U.S. and the export of their products has exploded across the globe.

In like manner, Big Oil has managed to resist scientific evidence that fossil fuel consumption is primarily responsible for global warming.  While their own studies confirmed that evidence, they have used "experts" to argue against the link between climate change and the Industrial Revolution.  No doubt, the shift from coal to natural gas is beneficial but to deny their contribution to global warming by engaging in a disinformation campaign is a dangerous ruse.

Of course, unlike tobacco, we all still depend on fossil fuels for most of our energy production, including that used to heat our homes, provide electricity and fuel transportation.  While we cannot deny that dependence, many of us want a more open and honest approach to dealing with climate change; to deny that it is a serious problem, linked to our use of fossil fuels, does not serve that purpose and, worse yet, diminishes the public's faith in legitimate scientific research.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Frigid Air & Global Warming

When Arctic air invades the U.S., as it has twice in the past two weeks, climate change deniers begin to resurface, crowing that record lows negate the argument for global warming.  Focused on their own interests, they are quick to claim that severe winter weather is more evidence that concerns over climate change are unwarranted.  Perhaps they should spend some time in Florida where coastal flooding has become a major problem.

Indeed, meteorologists point out that Arctic air invasions are often due to high pressure domes over northern latitudes, an atmospheric condition that is increasing as the climate warms.  Forcing westerly winds to veer northward, these blocking highs end up displacing polar air to the south, invading southern Canada and the U.S.  Of course, similar patterns occur across the globe, producing warm weather in some northern regions and bringing frigid air to more southern latitudes.  While the global climate and transient weather patterns are not always related, this phenomenon illustrates that some linkage occurs (and may intensify over time).

In the midst of a frigid Arctic invasion, we humans may be inclined to welcome the prospect of global warming.  Unfortunately, it is developing with a variety of consequences, most with dramatic effects on natural ecosystems and, thus, on the welfare of our civilization as well.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Tribute to Mom

My mother died today after a long, steady decline.  Having raised eight children and nurtured twenty-one grandchildren, she also came to know six great grandsons.  She was a mom's mom who loved children and we are all better for her devotion.

I, of course, owe my existence to her desire for children and I never had reason to doubt her commitment to my welfare.  Though she was religious, mom was a kind and tolerant person and, though her interests focused primarily on her family, she was a wise mentor and one of the best listeners I have ever known.  In my 66 years on this planet, she was always there when I needed her support and advice.

The world would be a better place if more parents shared my mother's warmth and compassion.  My grief is tempered by a lifetime of fond memories but I will miss her always.  Thanks, mom; I will do my best to reflect the gifts you bestowed.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Between Two Storms

Granted a few mild days between potent winter storms, I headed down to South Platte Park this morning to see what winter had brought to the valley.  The shallow ponds and wetlands were frozen but Eaglewatch Lake remained open, attracting many waterfowl that were forced south by the recent Arctic front.

Canada geese have finally reached their typical winter population and the usual winter ducks are now all represented.  Redheads have finally arrived and lesser scaup, hooded mergansers and ring-necked ducks are far more numerous than they were a week ago.  We are still almost two weeks short of the winter solstice but the season of ice and snow has arrived with a vengeance, sending overnight lows near zero (F) before this brief thaw.  Woodland songbirds seemed to appreciate the warm respite as well and were more conspicuous than on my recent visits to the Park; of note, a lone ruby-crowned kinglet joined the resident insectivores, seemingly unaffected by this week's frigid temperatures.

He'll soon get another chance to prove his stamina.  The next winter storm, now dropping snow across the Intermountain West and Northern Plains, will sweep Arctic air down along the Front Range within a few days.  While many assumed that our exceptionally warm autumn signaled a mild winter as well, nature seems to have other plans.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Tulare Lake

The Tulare Basin occupies the southern portion of California's Great Central Valley.  Prior to the late 19th Century, the basin contained several lakes and a vast wetland, home to a fabulous diversity of wildlife and a magnet for massive flocks of migrant waterfowl.

The largest of the basin lakes was Tulare Lake, once the largest American freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes.  Fed by four rivers that drain the west flank of the southern Sierra Nevada Range (the Kings, Kaweah, Tule and Kern Rivers, north to south), the depth and surface area of Tulare Lake varied throughout the year, receiving maximum inflows during the spring snowmelt.

Unfortunately, in the 1880s, sections of the basin marsh were drained for agriculture and, soon thereafter, the above rivers were dammed and diverted for irrigation purposes.  By the early 20th Century, Tulare Lake had become a dry bed, filling only during years of heavy snowmelt (i.e. when the levees and canals cannot handle the runoff).  In the end, Tulare Lake has become yet another symbol of man's impact on natural ecosystems, exacerbated by our relentless population growth and our ever-increasing demand for agricultural products (much of which we waste).

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Above the Smoky Hill River

As I flew from St. Louis to Denver this afternoon, the latest winter storm had spread dense cloud cover across the Midwest and Great Plains; my views were thus very limited.  Then, about halfway to Denver, there was a break in the overcast and I saw a river meandering eastward across flat terrain.

Of course, most rivers of the Great Plains flow west to east and meander through relatively soft sediments (Cretaceous and Tertiary in age); the tight curves are often bordered by abandoned meanders and oxbow lakes.  Not sure what route we were taking, the river could have been the Platte, the Republican, the Solomon, the Saline or the Smoky Hill River, not to mention any of their major tributaries.

The mystery was solved as a relatively large city came into view; the river flowed along its eastern edge and a large abandoned meander encircled much of the city.  Considering the size of the city and the fact that we were about halfway between St. Louis and Denver, I realized that the city was Salina, Kansas, and that the river was thus the Smoky Hill River; indeed, I had already noticed what turned out to be the Solomon and Saline rivers entering the Smoky Hill from the north. Ironically, the only other clearing in the overcast was along the Kansas-Colorado border where I observed the uppermost tributaries of the Smoky Hill River; the latter rises in eastern Colorado and eventually joins the Republican River in Junction City, Kansas, to form the Kansas River (a major tributary of the Missouri).

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Flood of Arctic Air

A massive pool of Arctic air is plunging south through the Great Plains.  Triggered by a broad dip in the jet stream (an atmospheric trough), the dense, frigid air is sliding down along the Front Range and will soon encompass much of the Central and Eastern U.S., from the Northern Plains to North Texas and from the Rockies to New England.

Dropping afternoon highs into the teens or single digits (F) and overnight lows below zero, the Arctic dome will produce snow (and regional blizzards) along its leading edge as it interacts with warmer, more humid air to its south and east.  After an exceptionally warm autumn across most of the country, the frigid air will feel even colder and offer a blunt reminder that weather patterns can shift dramatically; though our climate is clearly warming, the seasons continue to unfold.

While these Arctic fronts often produce an upslope flow along the Colorado Front Range, resulting in snow and very low temperatures, the dense air tends to slide toward lower elevations of the Great Plains and Midwest, sparing the urban corridor from a prolonged period of severe cold.  In addition, as the Arctic dome shifts eastward, downsloping, southwest winds often develop on the east flank of the Continental Divide; these chinook winds rapidly warm the Front Range cities, bringing seasonal conditions back to the region.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

More Tardy Migrants

Following the recent excitement on our Littleton farm after I discovered a chestnut-sided warbler here in mid November (see Late for the Tropics), four lesser goldfinches visited the property yesterday, gathering at the thistle feeder.  Common residents along the Colorado Front Range during the warmer months, these small songbirds have nested on the farm in the past but generally head for the Desert Southwest or Mexico by mid October at the latest.

Yesterday's visitors were thus a pleasant surprise and, of course, I filed a report with eBird.  Unlike the warbler, which is an insectivore, lesser goldfinches eat small seeds (primarily from thistle and various sunflowers) and are thus more likely to survive periods of cold weather.  Nevertheless, they are not usually found this far north in early December and I suspect that the mild autumn temperatures are (once again) responsible for their late departure.

Such rare discoveries, especially on one's own property, fuel the excitement of birding and prompt more vigilance in the months to come.  After all, winter is usually the best season for observing vagrants and irruptive species; this year, it seems to be a good time to observe summer residents as well!

Saturday, December 3, 2016


Late yesterday afternoon, as dusk enveloped the Front Range, I noticed a sharp-shinned hawk in one of our pinyon pines.  Struggling to balance his prey as he fed on its carcass, he finally lost grip and his meal fell to the ground.  Dropping to tear off another morsel, he flew to a barren fruit tree and consumed that piece within minutes.  While I thought he would return to the victim before darkness set in, he flew off in the twilight.

I, in turn, went out to inspect the scene and found that his victim was a Eurasian collared dove.  Half eaten, I assumed that a fox would grab the leftovers during the night; after all, most of our local predators are opportunists and would not be averse to consuming fresh carrion.  With winter beginning to intensify, easy pickings would be more than welcome and a bit of dove might be appealing on a frigid night.

As it turned out, the carcass went unnoticed by nocturnal predators and, at dawn, the sharp-shinned hawk had returned to his kill, feasting on the ground.  Unlike humans, wild creatures do not waste any food; their survival depends on every calorie.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Childhood and Adult Behavior

Spending a good deal of time with my new grandson, I cannot help but appreciate his innocence and his total dependence on those who care for him.  Fortunately, he has been born to parents who love him and into an family that has the means to provide for all his needs.  He will receive a good education, benefit from the emotional support of his parents and extended family and, no doubt, be well prepared to face the challenges of his adult life.

Unfortunately, a significant percentage of human children do not experience such a loving and caring environment as they mature.  Many are exposed to the ravages of poverty and some are subjected to emotional and/or physical abuse.  Even those who appear unscathed by a troubled childhood retain scars that impact future relationships with friends, marital partners, employers and their own children.

Too often, those who benefitted from a "normal" childhood fail to recognize the impact that early childhood deficiencies (emotional, nutritional and social) have later in life; perhaps if they were more introspective they might recognize behaviors that were clearly instilled or influenced by others.  Genetic inheritance has a profound effect on our physical, social and emotional traits but the childhood environment plays a major role as well.  While crime and other anti-social behavior cannot be condoned, we must recognize that innocent, helpless children do not adopt such traits on their own.  We cannot effectively address our social problems without devoting adequate resources to early childhood health and education.