Thursday, April 27, 2017

Songbird Heaven

Taking advantage of a break in our spring rain, I headed over to the Columbia Audubon Nature Sanctuary, which connects with the adjacent Bonnie View Nature Preserve, in western Columbia.  After all, late April is a great time to look for migrant and summer songbirds and there is no better habitat in central Missouri for observing those species.

Despite the cool, cloudy weather and a soggy landscape, my visit was rewarded.  While robins and cardinals were most abundant and conspicuous, I encountered an excellent diversity of songbirds in the forest, among the open woodlands and on the scenic meadows.  These included indigo buntings, gray catbirds, Nashville, yellow and Tennessee warblers, blue-gray gnatcatchers, ruby-crowned kinglets, eastern phoebes and a great crested flycatcher, joined by many common permanent residents.  Other highlights included two fuzzy, great-horned owlets, a barred owl and a sedge wren.

Veteran birders know that the spring songbird season peaks in late April as summer songbirds arrive, a few winter songbirds have yet to depart and migrant songbirds (especially warblers) are passing through, greatly augmenting the avian diversity in our parks, neighborhoods and nature preserves.  This morning's cool, cloudy weather and wet landscape may not be favored by birders but it certainly did not dampen the bird activity.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Before the Storms

Now that I live primarily in the semiarid climate of Colorado, I sometimes miss the balmy air of a Midwestern spring, especially the warm, humid air that flows northward ahead of a cold front.  Last evening, as storms approached from the west, I sat on our deck in Columbia, Missouri, and enjoyed a dose of that fresh spring air.

Turkey vultures drifted overhead, just clearing the treetops, while squadrons of chimney swifts strafed the cloudy sky, feasting on invisible prey.  Birdsong, primarily provided by cardinals and robins, was especially intense, perhaps an indication that they sensed a coming change.  Carried on a south breeze, the balmy air, unlike the oppressive humidity of a Midwest summer, was scented by the varied blossoms of spring; enveloped in its soothing embrace, I was reluctant to leave the deck and remained outdoors until dusk faded to night.

Checking the radar when I came inside, I saw a swath of rain with imbedded thunderstorms from Minnesota to Oklahoma, the leading edge of an atmospheric trough that dipped across the Great Plains.  The storms reached central Missouri by 2 AM and our high temperature today will be twenty degrees (F) cooler than yesterday.  That balmy air is gone for now but it will return many times before summer's stagnant heat grips the Heartland.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Distant Surprise

Facing limited time in central Missouri and a forecast with several days of rain, I decided another visit to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area was in order on this mild but cloudy morning.  I especially hoped to see some of the summer residents before I visit Ohio and then return to Colorado.

Fortunately, I did encounter a couple yellow warblers, yellow-breasted chats, orchard orioles and indigo buntings, joining the usual mix of permanent residents.  The number of blue-winged teal, American coot and lesser yellowlegs had fallen significantly but the diversity of birdlife was excellent, as usual, totaling 43 species during my two hour visit.  The resident bald eagles were especially active this morning, feeding their hungry offspring and reinforcing their massive nests.

Just before starting my return trip through the refuge, I made one final scan of the large southern lake and noticed a small flock of white birds with black wingtips wheeling above the distant shore; to my aging eyes (aided of course by binoculars), they seemed to have a pinkish or rusty tinge to their head and neck and they were clearly some species of large shorebird.  After watching them intently for a minute or so, it became clear that they were American avocets, uncommon but regular spring migrants through the Missouri River Valley.  Indeed, almost one year ago to the day, I wrote Avocets at Eagle Bluffs in response to a dozen of those graceful visitors.  A lesson for fellow birders: a final look is often rewarded!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Lesser Yellowlegs at Eagle Bluffs

In April, blue-winged teal, American coot and lesser yellowlegs are generally the most common wetland birds at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain.  Today was no exception.

Lesser yellowlegs (mid-sized shorebirds) were foraging along every pool and on most of the flooded fields, joined by smaller numbers of pectoral sandpipers, greater yellowlegs, solitary sandpipers and killdeer.  Very active feeders, lesser yellowlegs prefer shallow water through which they wade to snare aquatic invertebrates, larvae and small fish.  This morning's visitors are on their way to boreal woodlands across Northern Canada and Alaska where they will nest and raise their young.  By August, most will be heading for wintering grounds along our southern coasts or in Central and South America; there they may be found in both fresh and saltwater habitats.

Though they were outnumbered by blue-winged teal, at least 200 lesser yellowlegs graced the floodplain refuge on this sunny, cool morning.  I wish them well on their journey to the north and look forward to their return during the waning days of summer.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

In Support of Science

On this Earth Day, hundreds of marches across the globe demonstrated support for the scientific method, an investigative process that has led to the technologic evolution of human civilization and has greatly expanded our understanding of natural ecosystems, natural laws and the Universe itself.

Prompted by anti-science rhetoric within the Trump Administration, especially as it pertains to the science of climate change, the demonstrations were but the latest salvo in the long war between proponents of mysticism (and their industrial co-conspirators) and the scientific community.  While scientific progress relies on evidence-based facts, the enemies of science attempt to undermine this data when it threatens their religious beliefs, political agenda or corporate profits.

Science has both improved the lives of humans and unleashed industrial processes that threaten the health of our environment; we cannot accept the benefits without also acknowledging the consequences.  Unfortunately, many humans are selective in their approach to science, hailing the accomplishments of modern health care and technology while denying the legitimacy of climate science, ignoring the effects of industrial pollution or shunning the implications of astrophysics.  But the scientific method is universal and it is our only path to uncovering truth.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Late April at Roxborough

This morning, I joined my wife, daughter and grandson for a hike at Roxborough State Park, southwest of Metro Denver.  Adorned with spectacular rock formations from the Cretaceous, Permian and Pennsylvanian Periods, it is one of the most scenic preserves in Colorado.

Though rain was threatening, we completed a two mile loop through the Park.  Mule deer, often abundant at Roxborough, were represented by a single, small herd; birding, on the other hand, was rewarding as always and I spotted a fair number of scrub jays, canyon wrens,  broad-tailed hummingbirds, Say's phoebes and spotted towhees along the trail.  A lone golden eagle circled above the Park, kestrels hunted from the sandstone ridges and the season's first flocks of white-throated swifts and violet-green swallows strafed the open meadows.  Signs of coyotes and fox were evident but those nocturnal hunters remained out of sight, as did the black bears and mountain lions that may be encountered at this fabulous refuge.

As we completed our hike, light rain began to fall, soon mixing with sleet.  The fickle weather of a Colorado spring had taken another turn and we retreated to the warm, dry confines of our vehicle.  No doubt, we'll return to this natural wonderland many times in the coming year.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Tiny Travelers

This week, three small summer species have arrived on our Littleton farm.  I mentioned the house wrens at South Platte Park several days ago and, on the following day, one had settled down on the farm, singing from and moving among brushpiles in our composting area; he will soon be preparing nests to impress the trailing females.

On that same day, three chipping sparrows arrived.  These small, handsome sparrows winter in Mexico, the southern Desert Southwest and in Florida; those that return to the Colorado Front Range generally settle in the foothills where they favor open ponderosa parklands.  Our three visitors have yet to depart and spend most of the day searching for seed beneath the feeders.  Today, another tiny traveler arrived; the first broad-tailed hummingbird of the season is zooming about the property, his wing tips producing a loud, high-pitched trill as he engages in aerial loops.  Like the chipping sparrows, most of these hummingbirds, having wintered in Mexico or Central America, will summer in the foothills or mountains, favoring wooded meadows with plenty of wildflowers; however, a fair number stay down on the Piedmont and we host a nesting pair on the farm each year.

The tenacity and determination of long-distance migrants is always inspiring, especially when the travelers are so small.  I am honored by their presence each spring, whether they stay to nest or move on to other summer quarters.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Painted Ladies Arrive

No, we are not hosting an Easter Parade at our Littleton, Colorado, farm.  Rather, I am referring to the arrival of painted lady butterflies over the past two days, a bit earlier than usual (again reflecting our mild winter and spring weather).

Found across more of the planet than any other butterfly, painted ladies inhabit all of the Continents except Antarctica and are reported to be the only butterflies found on Iceland.  Breeding at Temperate and Subarctic latitudes, the adults arrive in spring and feed on new blossoms, often perching atop shrubs to attract a mate.  The impregnated female deposits single eggs on the leaves of various host plants (primarily thistle, mallow and legumes); once the caterpillars hatch, they feed on those leaves and then pupate.  Adults emerge and may live for up to a month.

In autumn, most painted ladies in North America head for northern Mexico through some may stop in the Desert Southwest; if mild winter weather persists, these hardy butterflies may even overwinter in more northern locations.  Here in Colorado, they are typically present from May to early October; our current guests arrived early but are more than welcome to stay.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Chokecherry Farm

If I were to name our Littleton, Colorado, farm, I would probably choose Chokecherry Farm.  These suckering, drought-tolerant shrubs are widespread on our property, growing along borders, fence lines and our man-made structures.

Now festooned with racemes of small white flowers (well ahead of schedule due to our warm winter and spring), the shrubs will produce clusters of black cherries that attract a wide variety of birds and mammals.  Though they are a bit sour, chokecherries have long been used by humans to produce jams, sauces, jellies and wine.  Unfortunately, the foliage of chokecherries is toxic to ruminants and can be fatal to livestock if consumed in large quantities.

Native to southern Canada and the northern half of the Lower 48 States, the chokecherry is a hardy shrub, able to tolerate both cold winters and hot, dry summers.  Here along the Colorado Front Range, where water use must be curtailed, it is a valuable component of the landscape, offering beauty and a natural food source while requiring little maintenance and no irrigation.

Friday, April 14, 2017

House Wrens return Home

House wrens breed in Temperate areas of North America and throughout most of South America.  During the colder months, they head for warmer climes and most of the house wrens that breed in North America spend the winter in the Southern States or in Mexico.

By mid spring, the males reappear on the nesting grounds and begin to construct several nests in tree cavities, nest boxes or other protected sites.  When the females arrive, the males escort them to their rudimentary nests, hoping to gain favor (and mating privileges).  House wrens prefer open woodlands with shrubs and thickets and are thus often found in suburban areas, on farms or in urban parks.  They feed on a wide variety of insects and spiders and are known to place spider eggs in their nests; it is thought that the spider hatchlings feed on mites and other parasites that threaten the welfare of the nestlings.

Despite their small size and beautiful song, house wrens are very aggressive and highly territorial, easily out-competing chickadees, bluebirds, tree swallows and prothonotary warblers for available nest cavities.  Though they have not yet returned to our Littleton farm, I did encounter several at South Platte Park this morning, just the latest confirmation that winter has made its final retreat (upslope snowstorms notwithstanding).

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Mending Fences

Having spent the morning repairing fences on our Littleton farm, the term "mending fences" kept coming to mind, especially as it pertains to human relationships.  Of course, I couldn't help but think of President Trump; having spent his campaign ridiculing leaders and citizens across the globe, he must now spend most of his time mending fences.

We humans, social creatures that we are, may offend spouses, family members, neighbors, co-workers or close friends with hasty, thoughtless remarks and must then apologize for those comments.  While most of these offenses are relatively minor, some may lead to dire consequences if not acknowledged and handled promptly (just ask the CEO of United Airlines).

Our ability to "mend fences" will depend on our sincerity and on whether we have earned the respect and trust of those we offend.  Frequent misbehavior erodes the latter and often destroys relationships.  In Trump's case, his impulsive and offensive Tweets may cement the fate of his Presidency, abolishing his effectiveness both at home and abroad.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Front Range Warblers

Admittedly, the spring migration of warblers along the Front Range urban corridor is far less spectacular than it is in the Eastern U.S. where their numbers and variety are much greater.  Nevertheless, regional birders look forward to the arrival of these colorful spring migrants and summer residents, an annual event that stretches from mid March to June and generally peaks in early-mid May.

Indeed, for the past month, isolated sightings of yellow-rumped warblers have been reported in the region and, over the past week or so, the first common yellowthroats have appeared.  This morning, at South Platte Park, I encountered thirteen yellow-rumped warblers (in two flocks), indicating that their migration is beginning to accelerate; last year, on May 3, I was treated to an invasion of these cold-loving warblers, when an estimated 300 filled the trees of the Park.  Yellow warblers, the most common summer warbler along the urban corridor, should begin to arrive in a week or two and will be nesting by late spring.  Wilson's warblers, which nest near timberline, are often abundant near area lakes in early May; other fairly common migrants along the urban corridor include Tennessee, Nashville, Black and White and Townsend's warblers, northern parulas, American redstarts and northern waterthrushes.  Summer residents on the Piedmont include yellow warblers, yellow-breasted chats and common yellowthroats; Virginia's warblers, ovenbirds, orange-crowned warblers and chestnut-sided warblers summer in the foothills while MacGillivray's and Wilson's warblers head for the higher mountain forests.

One need not visit State Parks or nature preserves to observe the spring parade of warblers since many turn up in suburban yards and urban parks.  Patience, a decent pair of binoculars and a good field guide are the primary requirements for those hoping to observe and identify these small, active insectivores.

Monday, April 10, 2017

A Loon on a Chilly Morning

As we continue to rebound from the recent April snowstorm along the Colorado Front Range, the afternoons are warm but the mornings remain chilly.  This morning, an hour after dawn, I made my usual circuit around Eaglewatch Lake at South Platte Park, noting that the ducks continue to decline in both number and variety.

Joining them on this crisp spring morning was a common loon, festooned in his attractive breeding plumage.  Looking at home in the dry, cold air, he was fishing on the deeper waters, stopping for periods to rest and preen.  He and his fellow common loons breed on lakes across Alaska, Canada and the northernmost States of the U.S. and primarily winter on bays along the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific Coasts of North America.

This morning's visitor was just stopping in the South Platte Valley to rest and feed on his way to the North Country; fortunately, I was there to enjoy his presence.  As I watched him, chilled by a cold east breeze, I was taken back to my past travels through Maine, Michigan and Canada and wondered where his journey will end.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Wayward Mallard

I returned home on this sunny, mild morning to find a female mallard standing in the dooryard of our Littleton farm.  Undisturbed by my presence, she watched as I unloaded my pickup, neither foraging in the grass nor taking flight.  Why she had stopped by remains a mystery.

Though lakes and ponds are nearby, there are none on our property.  And while mallards often feed in fields (usually in flocks), we have two pastures and several lawn areas that, one would think, would more likely attract a duck than the small dooryard (which is hemmed in by the house, our garage, shrub lines and a grove of trees).  I was initially concerned that she might be ill or injured but there were no signs of distress and she eventually flew off, presumably headed for more typical duck habitat.

While ducks, geese and other water birds fly over our farm on a regular basis and Canada geese often crowd the pastures in winter, this morning's encounter was the first time in 27 years that I observed a lone duck on the property, let alone in our small dooryard.  If nothing else, forty years of birding has taught me that the unexpected becomes routine and that, as much as we like to think otherwise, we have only begun to understand nature and her fickle cast of characters.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Marsh Wren

While making my usual circuit around Eaglewatch Lake this morning (at South Platte Park), the distinctive song and chatter of a marsh wren rose from a dense cluster of reeds near the shore.  Summer residents of wetlands across Canada and the Northern U.S., these reclusive birds also breed along the Pacific coast and in marshes of the Intermountain West.  While most winter in the Southern States or Mexico, some are permanent residents of relatively mild weather locations throughout the West.  Here along the Colorado Front Range, they are uncommon summer residents but are also occasionally observed in winter.

During the breeding season, the male marsh wren constructs a number of dome-shaped nests in cat-tails, cordgrass or other low wetland vegetation and may mate with more than one female if they find his handiwork acceptable.  While the females care for the eggs and hatchlings, he defends the territory, chasing away intruders and often destroying the eggs or killing the nestlings of other marsh birds.  Throughout the year, marsh wrens feed on insects or their larvae which they glean from wetland plants or directly from the water.

Despite this aggressive behavior, marsh wrens are seldom seen, preferring to remain secluded in the dense vegetation.  On the other hand, the males are frequently heard (especially during the breeding season) and may briefly survey their territory from the tip of a reed or cat-tail.  Most of the time, however, birders must settle for fleeting glances of this wetland resident, perhaps noting its white eye-stripe, streaked back, long, narrow bill or cocked tail.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

April Snow

Following a warm, dry March (usually Metro Denver's snowiest month), I returned from Missouri to find our crab apple trees in full bloom; it was April 3 and recent rain showers had greened-up the farm, making it look more like mid April.  Mild air augmented that illusion but change would come overnight.

Upslope precipitation developed late in the evening, starting off as rain and changing over to wet snow; by the morning of April 4, three inches coated the trees, shrubs, pastures and "lawns."  Since the overnight low hovered near 33 degrees F and since the snow offers some insulation for the blossoms, it appeared that our crab apple crop might survive the early April snowstorm. But while most of the snow melted yesterday afternoon, a second wave of snow moved southward through Metro Denver last evening, re-coating the landscape with another three inches.

Such is the nature of spring in Colorado.  In my 35 years of living along the Front Range, I have found that April often produces more "winter weather" than March does (though official statistics suggest otherwise).  Of course, these late blasts of snow and cold weather have more effect on more varieties of fruit trees than those that arrive in March.  No doubt, many homeowners and orchard managers are frustrated by this annual pattern but the many benefits of living in this region are products of the same geography and climate that deliver spring snowstorms.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Eastern Gray Treefrogs

On the evening prior to leaving Missouri, I stepped out on the back deck to enjoy the balmy weather; it had been rainy and cool much of the week but warm, humid air had moved in from the south.  Taking a seat, I was suddenly startled by a loud trill coming from one of our magnolia trees; it sounded like the call of a red-bellied woodpecker but no bird occupied the knotty branches.

I soon realized that I was hearing the mating call of an eastern gray treefrog.  After emerging from a winter beneath the leaf litter, these small amphibians (up to 2 inches in length) climb trees where they feast on a wide variety of insects.  Found across eastern North America, from southern Canada to the Gulf Coast, their breeding season begins in April or May, depending on the latitude; highly territorial, the vocal males stake out sites near shallow pools of water.  The larger females, attracted by their calls, lay eggs in these ephemeral pools and they are immediately fertilized by the male; the eggs hatch within a week and the tadpoles will morph to froglets within two months.

Ranging from gray to brown to green, eastern gray treefrogs may have a mottled or even color pattern on their dorsal surfaces; a white patch is present beneath their eyes.  Since they are capable of changing the color and tone of their skin to blend with tree bark, they are often difficult to see despite their loud mating trill.  Indeed, I never did find the suitor in our magnolia!

Monday, April 3, 2017

Toward Drier Terrain

After a week of rainy days in Columbia, I headed west on Interstate 70, on my way back to Colorado.  Passing through the soggy landscape of western Missouri and eastern Kansas, I encountered periods of heavy rain until I reached Topeka.  Beyond that city, I crossed the waterlogged Flint Hills, some of which poked into the low, gray overcast, and then forded the rain-swollen channels of the Smoky Hill, Solomon and Saline Rivers.

West of Salina, where the topography climbs toward the High Plains, the clouds began to lift and pockets of blue sky appeared above the western horizon.  Nevertheless, flooded fields and sloughs dominated the scene all the way to Hays; it was not until I reached WaKeeney, at the eastern edge of the High Plains that bright sunshine bathed a relatively dry landscape.

There I had traveled west of the Gulf of Mexico plume, into the rain shadow of the Rockies and onto higher terrain where the thin air transports less moisture.  The semiarid landscape of the High Plains may not support the rich woodlands and lush greenery of the Eastern Plains but the sunshine and dryness were welcome after a week of cool, wet weather.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Wild Violets

As April dawns, clumps of wild violets begin to bloom across our modest lawn in central Missouri.  Welcomed by naturalists and many home owners, these attractive perennials are derided as obnoxious and persistent weeds by professional lawn masters.  As you can see for yourself, most internet sites devoted to wild violets focus on methods to eliminate them from your lush, green carpet of grass.

Wild violets are among 600+ species in the genus Viola, most of which favor cool, Temperate climates.  Indeed, they generally become established in moist, shaded portions of the lawn and later spread to adjacent areas that receive partial sun.  Dense, fibrous root networks spread through the soil, giving rise to heart-shaped leaves and the colorful flowers in early-mid spring; seed capsules form beneath the leaves and lawn mowing augments dispersal of the seeds.

In addition to adorning the lawn in spring and diversifying the plant life on your property, wild violets offer sustenance, providing a natural salad component that is a good source of vitamins A and C; the flowers are also used as an additive in teas, honey and deserts.  A variety of medicinal benefits have been attributed to this wildflower though I am not personally aware of scientific data supporting those claims.  For me, their seasonal beauty is therapy enough.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Birding on the Fly

When I go birding, I typically walk or drive slowly, stopping frequently to allow the birds to adjust to my presence.  When one takes along a grandson, however, the pace must be quicker, lest boredom overtake enthusiasm.  And when your "check engine" light comes on, one is not inclined to dally.

For both of those reasons, my visit to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area was rather brief this morning and I covered the 12-mile, roundtrip drive in record time.  Nevertheless, we encountered an excellent variety of waterfowl and raptors on this cool, cloudy morning, including five bald eagles, a northern harrier, a Cooper's hawk, a kestrel and a red-tailed hawk.  A large flock of American white pelicans graced the floodplain refuge and, among the waterfowl, blue-winged teal, northern shovelers and American coot were especially abundant.  Both greater and lesser yellowlegs foraged on the mudflats while red-winged blackbirds, as usual, dominated the fields and marshes.

While our visit to the fabulous refuge was far too short, the effort is always rewarded, whether by the diversity of its wildlife or the serenity of its landscape.  Since I will soon return to Colorado, this brief trip to the Missouri River floodplain will be my last for a while but it, like hundreds of others, will long be remembered.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

Weather for Ducks

Having returned to Missouri, I made plans to visit Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area southwest of Columbia, my favorite birding location in the State.  Fortunately, a fellow birdwatcher was available; unfortunately, the weather was not as cooperative, offering a low, gray overcast, light intermittent drizzle and chilly air.

As is often the case, such ugly conditions were especially attractive to waterfowl and a large variety of ducks filled the shallow pools and flooded fields of the Missouri River floodplain.  Mallards were most abundant, joined by sizable flocks of northern shovelers, blue-winged and green-winged teal, gadwall and American coot.  A small flock of lesser scaup were also encountered and a large number of lesser golden plovers foraged on the mudflats and sodden fields.  Other sightings included greater yellowlegs, pectoral sandpipers, killdeer, belted kingfishers, a few double-crested cormorants, a lone red-breasted merganser, a couple pied-billed grebes and two American white pelicans; three bald eagles (two on their nests) and two red-tailed hawks patrolled the refuge.

Known for its chilly, sloppy weather in the American Heartland, March is often more appealing to ducks than it is to humans.  But, for those of us who don't mind getting mud on our tires and boots, there is no better time to observe the spring tide of migrant waterfowl.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Anti-Environment President

Though he calls himself an environmentalist, President Trump has demonstrated a disregard for the health of our environment with almost every major decision he has made to date.  Today, his Administration added to that dismal record, clearing the way for the Keystone Pipeline at a time when an oil glut has suppressed the price of crude and when countries across the globe are making a concerted effort to diminish their use of fossil fuels; the pipeline, if completed, will transport low-quality crude from the decimated Tar Sands region of Canada to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Of course, both Trump and his Chief of the EPA are climate change deniers and have vowed to withdraw U.S. support for the Paris climate accord.  Meanwhile, hoping to redirect funds to the bloated Defense Department budget, the President and his Administration have proposed cutting funds to various environmental programs, including projects designed to augment the welfare of the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay.  Support for clean, renewable sources of energy will be a low priority for an Administration promising to "bring back the coal industry."

Worst of all, Trump wants to "role back" environmental regulations, willing to accept potential damage to natural ecosystems in order to boost corporate profits.  One would think that the health of our environment, which is directly tied to the welfare of our species, would not be subject to politics.  But, when ignorance and mysticism are pervasive and counter the validity of science, Conservative Republicans retain a base large enough to support their anti-environment agenda.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The End is Near

For more than a month, a ridge of high pressure has been sitting over the Four Corners Region and the Southern High Plains, deflecting Pacific storms and their cold fronts to the north.  As a result, the Front Range urban corridor has enjoyed warm, dry, sunny weather, with afternoon highs often reaching the seventies and low eighties (F).

This afternoon, gusty southwest winds have again brought mild, sunny weather to the area but the end is near.  By 2PM, clouds were building to the west and the Continental Divide began to disappear within an upslope haze of snow.  A broad atmospheric trough, which currently encompasses most of the Pacific Northwest and Intermountain West, is moving eastward, producing a surface low along its leading edge.

By this evening, that cold front will move across the Front Range urban corridor and our winds will shift from the northeast.  This upslope flow will initially produce rain showers but, as the atmosphere cools, wet snow is expected by early morning.  Fortunately, Colorado will be enveloped by the trough for the coming week and cool, showery weather should become the rule, bringing some relief from our recent drought.  Sometimes, The End is a good thing!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Battle of the Goldfinches

As I have reported throughout the winter, a flock of lesser goldfinches stayed on our Littleton farm, declining to head for the Desert Southwest as had been their long-established tradition.  During those months, which were generally mild and relatively snowless, these beautiful freeloaders had the thistle (niger) feeder to themselves, disturbed only by an occasional, brief visit from one of our abundant house finches.

Today, for the first time, a small flock of American goldfinches arrived to take advantage of the handouts.  Larger and bulkier than their lesser cousins (and especially intimidating due to the molting plumage of the males), these new opportunists were initially more aggressive, displacing the lesser goldfinches from the feeder; this pattern continued until the male lessers seemed to have had enough (after all, this had been their exclusive domain for the past several months).  Taking charge, they refused to be dislodged and the American goldfinches soon decided to give up the battle, feeding with the lessers in peaceful coexistence.

Such confrontations are common in nature, fueling natural selection through competition and "the survival of the fittest."  Sometimes, however, when resources are plentiful, cooperation makes more sense.  Humans should take note!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Memories of Jim & Rudy

Now and then, when I'm wandering through a nature preserve, I catch sight of something startling or unusual and I am reminded of NatureScene, a program produced by South Carolina Educational TV.  Initially broadcast to viewers in that State in 1978, highlighting the natural diversity of South Carolina, the popular program was syndicated nationally by 1985 and the adventures of host Jim Welch and naturalist Rudy Mancke took on an international reach.

Pleasant to watch, the shows followed Jim and Rudy as they wandered through a wide variety of habitats, from wilderness to urban parks, backed by a mellow soundtrack.  Their explorations would suddenly be interrupted by Rudy as he spotted a unique plant or animal and explained its features or behavior to both Jim and the viewing audience.  As a budding naturalist, I thoroughly enjoyed those episodes back in the eighties and have since learned that the broadcasts continued until 2003.

This morning, while birding at South Platte Park, my Jim and Rudy moment was provided by an osprey, the first of the season, suddenly entering the airspace above Eaglewatch Lake.  My thanks to Jim, Rudy and the producers of NatureScene for their lasting inspiration; check out their fine work on PBS.org or YouTube!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Warfare trumps Human Care

The Trump Administration rolled out its first budget proposal this week, indicating its intention to significantly increase the bloated Defense Budget; this at a time when the U.S. already spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined.  Determined to keep their promise to protect America, the money will go toward jet fighters, weapon systems, immigration curtailment and, of course, The Wall.

To balance this increase, Trump and his cohorts propose cutting funds to a wide range of social support systems, many of which service the population that put him in office; these include Planned Parenthood, mental health programs, Public Broadcasting, legal services for the poor, international aid, biomedical research, environmental protection, climate change abatement, job retraining programs and a host of community-based service projects.  Of course, the proposed Republican Healthcare Bill will save money as well, eliminating coverage for 24 million individuals over the next few years (according to the Congressional Budget Office).

There is little if any evidence that increased Defense spending will make us safer.  On the other hand, Trump's hostile relationship with immigrants and with the leaders of many foreign countries may serve to fuel the risk of terrorism or outright warfare.  One wonders why Trump and his Administration would place so much emphasis on defending our country from foreign threats while degrading human rights, social welfare and American culture from within.

Friday, March 17, 2017

First Summer Resident

In the lingo of Ornithology, a summer resident is a bird that breeds in your home region but leaves for warmer latitudes or lower elevations during the colder months of the year.  Generally speaking, the summer resident arrives in spring, nests and raises its young and then departs in late summer or autumn for their winter range.

Here along the Colorado Front Range (and, indeed, in much of the country) tree swallows are among the first summer residents to arrive, often by mid March.  Yesterday, while birding at South Platte Park, I encountered 13 of these agile birds, snaring insects above Redtail Lake.  Since they nest in cavities, these small but aggressive insectivores compete with bluebirds, Prothonotary warblers and other species for those nest sites and, since they often out-compete bluebirds for man-made nest boxes, they are not always welcomed by some members of the birding community.

Then again, all swallow species consume a prodigious number of nuisance insects and anyone who lives near ponds or lakes is sure to appreciate their presence.  After nesting and raising their young, tree swallows depart for the south before an autumn cold snap wipes out their prey; unlike most swallows, which winter in Central or South America, tree swallows are satisfied to stay along the Gulf Coast and thus get a head start for the spring migration.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Glorious Weather spells Trouble

To date, March as been sunny, dry and exceptionally warm along the Colorado Front Range.  While periods of mild weather are not unusual here (during any season of the year), March and April typically bring most of our annual moisture, dumped on the urban corridor by upslope snowstorms.  If this glorious weather persists, it will increase the risk of wildfire across the region and prompt increased water usage in suburban and agricultural areas.

Of course, the water supply for Metro Denver and other Front Range cities is provided primarily by snowmelt west of the Continental Divide and from river systems that rise among the high peaks of the Front Range; fortunately, the mountain snowpack has been decent this year.  On the other hand, demand for that water has increased in concert with the rampant growth of the region's population and we cannot afford to use that precious liquid to maintain our parks, lawns, golf courses and lush suburban landscapes.

We can hope for a change in the weather pattern, bringing upslope precipitation to the Front Range; indeed, in some years, April is snowier than March.  Over the long run, we can certainly plant native shrubs and grasses that thrive in a semiarid climate and thus reduce the need for artificial irrigation.  We may also be bailed out by an early and stormy Southwest Monsoon.  But, if this sunny, dry weather persists, trouble is certain to follow.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Apricots in Bloom

The apricot trees on out Littleton farm are in bloom this week, attracting large numbers of honeybees.  Among the earliest fruit trees to bloom in the spring, they rarely produce fruit on our property since heavy frosts and sub-freezing nights are common here in March and April.  Nevertheless, they are festooned with numerous pink-white flowers, offering nectar for the bees.

Native to Armenia, apricot trees were cultivated across the Persian Empire and were later taken to many areas of the globe;  Spanish explorers brought them to California, where most of the apricot production now occurs in the United States (Washington and Utah are also large producers).  Like peaches, this "stone fruit" will only grow in areas that have winter seasons and are thus planted in Temperate latitudes.  While they do best in sunny areas with well-drained soil, apricot trees do not tolerate excessive heat.

Here along the Colorado Front Range, their late winter beauty is a welcome sight.  If our warm weather persists, we may even get apricots this year; since I'm not fond of their taste, I'll leave them for the wildlife.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Frisky Juncos

A large number of dark-eyed juncos winter on our Littleton, Colorado, farm, including members of the slate-gray, Oregon and gray-headed races.  Hanging out with house finches, black-capped chickadees, bushtits and, this year, lesser goldfinches, the juncos are relatively inconspicuous through most of the winter, feeding beneath shrubs and thickets.  At times they will join the other birds in our feeding area, searching for seed that has fallen (or was thrown) on the ground.

Over the past week, our visiting juncos have become highly conspicuous, the males singing from trees or chasing prospective mates, their outer white tail feathers flashing as they zig-zag across the clearings.  Highly territorial on their nesting grounds, the male juncos seem to be preparing for that duty, chasing robins, flickers and other much larger birds from their local winter haunts.

Most will leave by early April, heading for coniferous forests in the Rockies or Canada.  Until then, I'll be entertained by their hormone-driven antics, wondering if their seasonal obsession will blind them to the raids of sharp-shinned hawks that regularly patrol our farm.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Clear Creek of the Front Range

Clear Creek rises along the Continental Divide at Loveland Pass, just south of the Eisenhower Tunnel.  It then tumbles eastward, paralleling Interstate 70 until it is east of Idaho Springs; there it curves northward, away from the highway, and descends through its spectacular canyon in the Front Range foothills, flowing onto the Colorado Piedmont at Golden.  From this historic town, Clear Creek snakes eastward to join the South Platte River north of Denver.

The South Fork of  Clear Creek rises along Guanella Pass, which connects the Mt. Evans massif with the Continental Divide (to its west).  This tributary then descends northward, entering the main channel at Georgetown.  The West Fork of Clear Creek rises along the Continental Divide west of Berthoud Pass and tumbles to the ESE, entering the main channel just west of Dumont.  Fall River rises along the Continental Divide northeast of Berthoud Pass and drops to the southeast, merging with Clear Creek west of Idaho Springs.  Finally, the North Fork rises along the Continental Divide near James Peak and descends to the southeast, joining Clear Creek within its granite-walled canyon.

Local naturalists know Clear Creek for its whitewater rapids, which attract dippers, for its spectacular canyon through the foothills and especially for the rich aquatic ecosystems along upper sections of its major tributaries.  There, beaver ponds slow the drainage and thick stands of willow attract a host of subalpine birds and mammals.  White-tailed ptarmigan are especially common at Guanella Pass and moose may be encountered along upper stretches of the western and northern forks.  As many travelers know, bighorn sheep are often observed along the main valley of Clear Creek, especially on the north side of Interstate 70 near Dumont and Georgetown.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

EPA Chief ignores Climate Science

Scott Pruitt, the former Attorney General of oil-rich Oklahoma (see A Seismic Shift in Oklahoma), was confirmed as Chief of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Trump Administration.  Long a climate change denier, Mr. Pruitt declared again this week that human-produced carbon dioxide has not been convincingly linked to global warming.

Toeing the Party line, Pruitt sides with the fossil fuel industry, casting doubt on the overwhelming scientific evidence that links global warming with human activity; this from the man who is charged with protecting our environment!  Like many Conservative Republicans, dedicated more to corporate profits and religious zealotry than to human rights and the welfare of our natural environment, Mr. Pruitt likely abhors science which attacks his agenda with evidence-based facts.

When threatened by the power of science, one declares that our information is incomplete; the EPA Chief says that more studies are needed.  In other words, he'll delay any meaningful action as long as he remains in charge.  After all, 97% of climate scientists might be wrong!


Friday, March 10, 2017

Regal Visitors

While reading outside this morning, my attention was diverted by a loud, repetitive call that I initially presumed to be coming from a northern flicker.  To my surprise, the sound arose from an adult northern goshawk, perched in a large cottonwood tree.  Within a few minutes, it was joined by an immature goshawk and the large accipiters flew off soon thereafter.

Permanent residents of mature forests across Alaska, Canada, the Western Mountains, the Upper Great Lakes and Northern New England, northern goshawks are known for their rapid, powerful flight, their fierce engagement with prey or competitors and an aggressive defense of their nesting territory.  Prey includes large birds (grouse, woodpeckers, jays) and small mammals (especially rabbits, hares and squirrels); they may also kill other raptors that invade their home area.

During the colder months, some goshawks descend to intermountain valleys or adjacent lowlands; it is then that they may turn up across the High Plains and Upper Midwest.  Today's sightings were the first (at least for me) on our Littleton, Colorado, farm and their brief visit was both welcome and inspiring.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Mistaken Identity

As one who has been an avid birder for more than 40 years, I have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of bald eagles, primarily during my years in Missouri.  It was thus easy for me to identify an immature bald eagle as it flapped its way across the South Platte Valley this morning.

Heading for a large, barren cottonwood, west of Eaglewatch Lake, the young eagle joined another large raptor that occupied one of the limbs.  At first, I assumed that the other predator was a light colored red-tailed hawk that has visited the refuge throughout the winter; after all, its wings and back were brown in color and its head was dull white.  Zeroing in with my binoculars, I was surprised to find that it was another bald eagle, different in appearance from any that I had seen over my birding career.

Approaching on the lakeside trail, I got a close look at what appeared to be a dull, sooty adult bald eagle, its white head speckled with gray blotches.  It was, in fact, likely a three or four year old bird, having molted from its dark immature plumage but not quite festooned with the regal coat of a breeding adult.  Once fledged, young bald eagles retain their dark feathers, broken by a variable pattern of white markings on the wings for at least two years; a gradual transition to the mature adult plumage occurs during the third and/or fourth year.  An eagle with a bright white head and tail and dark wings and torso is thus at least four years old; breeding capability coincides with achieving mature plumage.  While both juvenile and adult bald eagles have yellow feet, juveniles have a thick gray bill that takes on a bright yellow color as they mature.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Monte Vista NWR

Upon entering the San Luis Valley (see previous post), I headed for the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, in the southwest portion of that vast basin.  It is there that most of the sandhill cranes tend to congregate, resting and feeding in fields throughout the day and spending the night in shallow lakes, safe from predators.

According to the current refuge brochure, 23,000 to 27,000 cranes stop in the valley during their spring and fall migrations; the peak spring migration now occurs in early March, earlier than in the past (perhaps another sign of global warming).  During my two hour visit, I'm sure I encountered at least 5,000 cranes; while most were quiet and stationary, the mobile and vocal flocks were especially inspiring, their bugling one of nature's most stirring sounds.  Canada geese were also abundant but ducks were rather limited since many of the pools remained frozen.  Other sightings included a small number of snow geese, a golden eagle, several rough-legged hawks and northern harriers, a few American kestrels and a modest number of mountain bluebirds.

The refuge is located approximately 6 miles south of Monte Vista on Highway 15.  An auto tour road begins at the refuge entrance but other viewing areas are located along the highway itself and on county roads east of Route 15.  According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the majority of cranes that migrate through the San Luis Valley are greater sandhill cranes though Canadian and lesser subspecies may also be observed.  From 1975 until 1989, the Rocky Mountain sandhill cranes were used as foster parents in an effort to expand the range of whooping cranes in North America; unfortunately, that program was not successful.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Valley of the Cranes

Since researching my book, Colorado's Year, over 20 years ago, I have not returned to the San Luis Valley, in south-central Colorado.  Tomorrow's journey to that beautiful and fascinating landscape, the largest of the State's intermountain parks, will thus be a special treat.

Hemmed in by the Sangre de Cristo Range to the east and the San Juan and La Garita Mountains to the west, this high, sun-scorched basin is perhaps best known to birders as the spring staging area for Rocky Mountain sandhill cranes.  Having wintered in New Mexico, especially at and near the Bosque del Apache NWR, the cranes stop to rest and feed in the San Luis Valley on their way to breeding grounds in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.  The Valley's unique hydrology and high water table offer ideal feeding areas for these majestic birds, which feast on tubers, waste grain and a variety of invertebrates.  Cranes begin to arrive in late February, peaking in number (usually more than 20,000) in mid-late March.

My route from Denver will take me along U.S. 285, climbing through the Front Range foothills and then dropping into South Park beyond Kenosha Pass.  After skirting the northern and western edges of that Park, the highway crosses Trout Creek Pass at the southern end of the Mosquito Range, entering the scenic, upper valley of the Arkansas River where the massive Collegiate Peaks of the Sawatch Range rise along its western edge.  Angling south to Poncha Springs, U.S. 285 then crosses Poncha Pass, entering the San Luis Valley.  More details tomorrow!

Addendum:  The brochure at Monte Vista NWR reports that the peak population of sandhill cranes in the San Luis Valley (ranging from 23-27,000) now occurs in early March.  Perhaps this shift is just another sign of global warming.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Waterfowl Exodus in the Valley

It was partly cloudy and pleasantly mild down at South Platte Park this morning but strong southerly winds raked the valley for the third straight day.  Waterfowl numbers had declined dramatically, suggesting that migrants may have taken advantage of strong tail winds and headed north.

On the positive side, buffleheads and common goldeneyes were still present in significant numbers and the male goldeneyes were performing their unique courtship displays.  Other sightings of note included an immature bald eagle, two red-tailed hawks, two kestrels and a lone male greater scaup.  The strong winds kept most of the songbirds in the shrubs and thickets, making them less conspicuous; indeed, I identified the song sparrows and a spotted towhee by their voices alone.

Veteran birders know that strong winds hamper birdwatching more than any other weather condition (with the possible exception of heavy rain).  It is certainly disappointing to head out on a warm, sunny morning, only to discover that a steady or gusty wind is keeping the birds in their secluded haunts.  Today, it may have also encouraged many of our wintering waterfowl to depart for their northern breeding grounds.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Inspiration from the Dead

Most sports fans are familiar with the scenario.  An athlete loses a relative or close friend and then goes on to deliver an exceptional performance, stating that he/she felt the presence and heard the encouragement of the deceased loved one.  Of course, the media takes advantage of these emotional events, soothing both athlete and fans with the conviction that the dead individual is "looking down" with pride.

No doubt, those who experience such a loss often imagine that they receive communication from their dead friend or relative.  After all, we are emotional creatures and many retain hope that death is but a temporary separation.  As a naturalist, I believe that death is the final event of life and reject the mysticism that feeds these public stories.  Nevertheless, I do accept the fact that the advice, encouragement and emotional support offered during one's life has a lasting impact on those who survive them.

In my mind, this is the lesson to be learned from such stories.  During our own life, it is important that we express our love, acknowledge our pride, extend our kindness, offer our support and share our philosophy with family and friends.  Those gifts live on and will surface repeatedly after our death.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Lure of the West

Raised in the eastern suburbs of Cincinnati, I seemed to have a fascination with "the West" before I understood the function of a compass.  By the time I was 5 or 6, I had noticed castle-like buildings on the prominent ridge west of the Mill Creek Valley; in later years, I learned that one was a water tower and the other a retirement home.  Nevertheless, when my paternal grandparents eventually moved to the west side of town, I relished the lengthy excursions (probably an hour or less) to their new home; the fact that we sometimes stopped to ride horses at a roadside amusement park only added to the illusion that they lived in the exotic West.

Since my family always vacationed either at Lake Erie or in Florida and since high school field trips took us to history-laden cities of the East, the West remained a land of mystery, revealed only in nature documentaries, in films about the Wild West or on the colorful pages of calendars.  I would not cross the Mississippi until I attended a friend's wedding in St. Louis, in 1973, and would not see the Mountain West until my wife and I interviewed for residency programs in 1975.  It was this latter trip, which included a circuit through the Desert Southwest and Pacific Northwest, that cemented my attraction to the West.

Now, having lived in Colorado (at least part time) since 1982, I realize that the West begins with the High Plains; every city and landscape east of that high, dry corridor belongs to the East, a region I associate with my youth.  To me, despite its many spectacular ecosystems, the East is defined by greenery, humidity, history and tradition.  The West, on the other hand, is thin air, arid landscapes, lofty peaks and adventure.  My soul resides in the West.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Denying Complexity

Anyone with even a modest science education would agree that the Universe is a complex place.  At least 13.7 billion years old, it contains billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars, many if not most of which possess their own solar systems.  Our home planet is amazingly complex, composed of complex ecosystems that harbor a vast array of complex organisms.

We have just begun to understand the biochemistry of our own bodies, which are sustained by complex organ systems that carry out complex functions and are subject to complex diseases.  Our tremendously complex brains orchestrate a wide range of complex behaviors and dictate the very nature of our being.

Ironically, it is the human brain, the most complex structure in the animal kingdom, that leads many members of our species to deny complexity itself.  Our imagination has led to mysticism which offers simplistic answers to the mysteries of life and simplistic solutions to the problems faced by our society.  One need only look at the actions and platitudes of our new President to understand how the tendency to deny complexity can lead to rash decisions and produce far ranging consequences.  We cannot solve the problems of human civilization by denying that they exist or by waving the magic wand of executive orders.  Ignorance is no excuse and details matter; life is complex.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Denver's Snow Season

Those who have never spent much time along the Colorado Front Range often imagine that the region is snowbound for at least six months of the year.  But, while it may snow in Metro Denver during ten months of the year (July and August are generally the exceptions), the city enjoys mild, sunny weather most of the time, even during the winter season.

In fact, most of the snow along the Front Range urban corridor falls in March, April and November (in that order).  Since the Continental Divide "wrings out" moisture arriving from the Pacific Ocean, snowfall east of the mountains is primarily the product of Gulf of Mexico moisture, pulled northward and westward across the Great Plains.  As storm systems move eastward, counterclockwise winds around the central zone of low pressure sweep the moisture-laden air toward the Front Range, causing it to rise and cool; depending on the regional air temperature, the "upslope precipitation" falls as rain or snow.  Denver generally gets its heaviest upslope snowstorms when the surface low moves eastward along the Colorado-New Mexico line.

The upslope snowstorms of March, April and, yes, early May bring most of the annual snowfall (which averages 55 inches) to Metro Denver.  Fortunately, the intense spring sun usually melts the snow within a day or two and provides warm interludes between the storms.  After a mild, dry winter, many of us who live along the Front Range hope that spring storms bring plenty of moisture this year (even if the heavy, wet snow flattens the tulips).

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Beautiful Freeloaders

Winter returned to the Colorado Front Range the day before I did; as a result, the resident birds on our farm have been especially active and conspicuous, including the usual mix of chickadees, nuthatches, juncos, magpies, doves, woodpeckers and house finches.  Joining them is a small flock of lesser goldfinches that, contrary to past experience, have stayed for the winter (see More Tardy Migrants).

Before I left town, I made sure that the thistle (niger or nyjer) feeder was full; ignored by squirrels and most of our avian residents, this seed is favored by most finches and was utilized daily by our beautiful freeloaders.  I was thus pleased to find that they were still on the farm when I returned from Missouri and it is now clear that they will stay through the winter.  Having discovered comfortable lodging in a large juniper on the south (sunny) side of our house and taking advantage of the handouts, the lesser goldfinches had little reason to migrate.

On the other hand, these attractive songbirds would have surely survived without my assistance; there are plenty of weed seeds to provide nourishment and our mild winter weather, perhaps related to our warming global climate, made their stay more tolerable.  Whatever their reason for staying on the farm, I appreciate their company.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Into a North Wind

As I headed back to Colorado today, a strong north wind raked the Great Plains and rattled my aging pickup truck.  Wind driven rain impaired travel east of Topeka while horizontal flurries caused temporary whiteouts between Topeka and Russell.

Despite these challenging conditions, I encountered two flocks of sandhill cranes, fighting their way into the teeth of the frigid northerly winds; the first, west of Wilson, Kansas, numbered 35 or so while a larger flock (about 70) crossed the Interstate near Ogallah.  Of course, they were likely on their way to their major "spring" staging area on the Platte River, in south-central Nebraska (see Cranes on the Platte River).

While migrating cranes and waterfowl often take advantage of tail winds to minimize energy consumption and hasten their travels, spring flocks have procreation "in mind" and, I suspect, are less patient than they might be in the fall.  One must admire their fortitude and today's determined flocks were an inspiring sight indeed; if nothing else, they forced me to realize that my own travel woes were minimal by comparison.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Cumberland River

Forming just north of Harlan, Kentucky, from three headwater forks that rise in the Appalachian Plateau of that State, the Cumberland River begins its tortuous, 690-mile journey to the Ohio River.  After snaking westward and passing through the Pine Mountain ridge at Pine Mountain State Resort Park (Kentucky's oldest), the river angles to the NNW, where its spectacular falls (known for its seasonal moonbows) is protected within Cumberland Falls State Resort Park.

Winding westward once again, the river receives flow from its Big South Fork (which is surrounded by a National Recreation Area) and soon enters Lake Cumberland (home to another Kentucky State Park) before turning south just west of Dale Hollow Lake and entering Tennessee.  Curving to the southwest, it leaves the Appalachian Plateau (known locally as the Cumberland Plateau) at Carthage and flows westward into Old Hickory Lake, just south and east of Hendersonville.  The Cumberland River then curves through Metro Nashville before angling to the northwest, entering Cheatham Lake and then passing Clarksville, Tennessee.

Crossing the karst plain of western Kentucky, the Cumberland then enters Lake Barkley, which forms the eastern edge of Kentucky's Land Between the Lakes, before joining the Ohio River a couple miles east of the mouth of the Tennessee River.  Few Eastern U.S. rivers connect so many well-known parks and recreation areas as they sculpt our landscape; of course, the dams that created some of these human playgrounds have significantly altered the river's ecology.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Three Days in Music City

Every year or so, my wife and I like to visit a city that we have not yet explored.  While we have traveled through Nashville, Tennessee, on many occasions, we never stopped to look around.  Over the last few days, we remedied that oversight.

Stretching along the Cumberland River Valley, west of the Appalachian Plateau, Nashville is renowned as the center of the country music industry.  Strolling along Broadway (and in other sections of town), one can enjoy free, live music in a large number of bars, cafes and restaurants.  Though I have never been a big fan of country music, I enjoyed the performances and marveled at the fact that many of the popular songs manage to mingle such disparate themes of human nature: faith, love, heartache, intoxication and infidelity, to name just a few.  Of course, we also visited the Country Music Hall of Fame; there we were surprised to find Jimi Hendrix on the Walk of Fame and to learn that Bob Dylan's decision to record in Nashville (during the late 1960s) ignited the music industry that the city fosters today.

Beyond the entertainment provided in Music City, we visited Vanderbilt University, stopped by Centennial Park to see its replica of the Parthenon and wandered through the Cheekwood Botanical Gardens, southwest of town.  Sprawling across 55 acres of rolling terrain, the Gardens were adorned with early blooms of magnolias, daffodils, forsythia and annual plantings, at least three weeks ahead of schedule due to the unusually warm winter weather.  Serenaded by male cardinals and Carolina wrens, we hiked the two-mile network of trails, encountering stands of bamboo, a Japanese Garden, collections of crape myrtle and dogwood trees, a cluster of endangered "stinking cedar" and a hardwood forest, festooned with works of sculpture. I highly recommend a visit to Music City!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Three Hours in the Woods

Granted beautiful weather and a free afternoon, I headed over to the Columbia Audubon Nature Sanctuary, on the west side of town, yesterday.  Lying adjacent to and connected with the Bonnie View Nature Sanctuary, this refuge is characterized by rolling terrain, carpeted with forested ravines and wooded meadows; it is an excellent area for birding.

Accessed by a fine network of wide, grassy trails, the preserve lies along a tributary of Hinkson Creek which, itself, is a branch of the Perche Creek watershed.  During my three hour visit, which included many stops on the rustic trailside benches, I encountered 24 avian species, including 930 snow geese that passed overhead in five flocks.  Among the other highlights were a pileated woodpecker, a sharp-shinned hawk, red-headed woodpeckers, a yellow-bellied sapsucker and a lone, male purple finch.  The most abundant species proved to be black-capped chickadees, dark-eyed juncos, white-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice and Carolina wrens.

Though it was a warm, sunny afternoon, almost all of the human activity was confined to the paved path that runs along the outer edge of the refuges; since dogs and bikes are not permitted on the earthen trails, they remained relatively empty and I only encountered a few other hikers during my lengthy stay.  What can be better for a naturalist: pleasant weather, beautiful natural habitat, a well designed trail network and solitude!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Glacial Lake Iroquois

When the last Pleistocene Glacier (the Wisconsin) plowed southward, it scoured out the Great Lakes from a network of ancient river valleys.  As the Ice Sheet melted back to the north, beginning about 15,000 years ago, massive amounts of meltwater collected in those lake basins, spreading onto the surrounding Lake Plains.  Since drainage through the St. Lawrence Seaway was blocked by ice, the glacial lakes had a much larger surface area than they do today; Glacial Lake Algonquin was the predecessor of Lake Huron while Glacial Lake Warren would become Lake Erie.

Glacial Lake Iroquois was the predecessor of Lake Ontario; it was three times as large as Lake Ontario and its surface was 100 feet higher, essentially equal to the elevation of Lake Erie today.  As Lake Iroquois continued to enlarge (receiving meltwater directly from the glacier and from the other Glacial Lakes), its waters spilled eastward to the north and south of the Adirondacks; the north spillway gave rise to the Hudson Valley while the southern spillway became the Mohawk River Valley.  This major flooding event began about 13,300 years ago.

Once the ice retreated beyond the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Great Lakes drained through that channel and eventually dropped to their current levels; of course, the Niagara River and its Falls developed during that period and connections to the Hudson and Mohawk River watersheds were abandoned.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Mystery at Eagle Bluffs

Arriving just before dawn at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, my friend and I were greeted by a flock of greater white-fronted geese, traveling northward through the Missouri River Valley.  Within the refuge itself, mallards dominated the scene, occupying every lake, pond and slough of the floodplain.  Though joined by an excellent variety of waterfowl, including gadwalls, northern shovelers, northern pintails, green-winged teal and hooded mergansers, mallards easily outnumbered the combined population of the other ducks.

Sightings also included six bald eagles (two on their nests), a large number of Canada geese, four red-tailed hawks, a dozen American white pelicans and, to my delight, about 250 snow geese.  As usual, red-winged blackbirds were abundant, joined by sizable flocks of common grackles and European starlings.  A dozen Wilson's snipe foraged with killdeer on the mudflats and the woodlands were alive with various woodpeckers and songbirds.

Of note, not a single great blue heron was encountered during our tour of the refuge.  Usually common (if not abundant) at Eagle Bluffs, the stoic waders had abandoned this portion of the Missouri River floodplain.  Despite the gorgeous weather and widespread shallows in which to feed, the herons were inexplicably absent.  While I have long become used to the fickle nature of birding, today's experience will likely remain one of the most notable mysteries of my forty-year career.

Friday, February 17, 2017

When Truth is Personalized

Buoyed by his own pompous personality, by the subdued reaction of Party loyalists and by the zeal of his uneducated worshipers, President Trump defines truth as that which places himself in a positive light.  Everything else is "false news."

Threatened by both journalism and science, this narcissist has become our Mythologist in Chief, focused on the perception of his legions rather than on facts.  Like all zealots, Trump has personalized truth, ignoring the ideas and criticism of others when they clash with his beliefs or tarnish his public image.  He is only interested in facts that embellish his bloated self-esteem.

Of course, if he were merely a TV personality, this corruption of truth might be entertaining.  But he is now at the reins of American power, attacking freedom of speech, human rights and the legitimacy of science.  Since there are few statesmen within the Republican Party to derail this assault on truth, We the People must demand aggressive opposition and, hopefully, Trump's eventual Impeachment.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Return to Goose Alley

For a birder or naturalist, there may be no better month to visit Missouri than February.  Though its fickle weather can pose a challenge, late winter is a great time to observe migrant geese (snows and greater white-fronts), American white pelicans and a good diversity of wintering waterfowl.  Of course, bald eagles and peregrine falcons are often present as well, feasting on injured or winter-stressed birds.

Anyone who has read this blog over the years knows that I am especially inspired by snow geese.  After wintering in Gulf Coast marshes or on croplands of the lower Mississippi Valley, these vocal travelers funnel northward, on their way to Arctic breeding grounds.  Massive flocks may be encountered across a broad flyway that extends from central Kansas to western Illinois; Missouri lies within the heart of that flyway and hosts the majority of the migrants.

Here in central Missouri, Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain, is one of the better areas to observe snow geese, which often mingle with greater white-fronted geese, Canada geese, tundra swans and a host of ducks.  Recent reports indicate that up to 900 snow geese have been encountered there this week and I plan a visit within a few days to enjoy the spectacle myself.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

eBirding the Interstate

On my regular trips between Colorado and Missouri, I rely on wildlife viewing to limit my boredom as I drive across the overly-familiar landscape.  Since I joined eBird last March, I thought it might be interesting to compile a list of sightings along Interstate 70, covering its 423 mile stretch across Kansas.

As one might expect, the most abundant birds observed yesterday included two introduced species: European starlings and rock pigeons.  But I also saw Lapland longspurs, rough-legged hawks and 82 red-tailed hawks (all but 10 of which were seen between Hays and Kansas City).  Perhaps most surprising on that six hour drive across Kansas was that I only saw 20 species, including a rather small number of American crows on the vast farmlands; of course, traveling at 70 mph, some birds (including most of the ducks) could not be identified by species.

The highlight (as often occurs in February) was provided by migrant snow geese; a relatively small flock crossed the Interstate at Russell and a much larger flock moved northward east of Lawrence.  I plan to repeat the count on future journeys across the Sunflower State and anticipate significant changes through the seasons.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Carcass in the Grass

This morning, winter had returned to the Colorado Front Range.  Down at South Platte Park, a low, gray overcast shrouded the refuge, broken only by the smudge of the rising sun, and light flurries swept through the valley.

Hiking along the river, I spotted a feathered carcass in the tall, dry grass.  It was the remains of a Canada goose, an abundant resident or visitor in most regions of our country.  Indeed, I cannot visit that riverine preserve without encountering twenty or more of those large birds and can hardly look out the windows of our Littleton farmhouse without seeing a noisy flock moving across the sky.  But, while these wild geese were once a rare and stirring sight in many areas of the U.S., they are now derided as a nuisance, "soiling" our parks, walkways and golf courses.

This morning's victim was likely killed overnight, perhaps ambushed by a fox or coyote. Most of the meat had been consumed, his remains, except for the feathers and fresh blood, now reminiscent of a turkey carcass after the Thanksgiving feast.  He will no longer honk across the evening sky or spoil our manicured human habitats.  His carcass will be scattered by mice, skunks and other creatures, soon to blend with the soil of the refuge.  Speaking for many others, I appreciate his donation and promise to do the same when the time comes.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Surge of Hormones

On this cool, sunny morning along the Colorado Front Range, spring was in the air.  While the afternoon temperature will be at least 20 degrees cooler than yesterday, the birds and mammals on our Littleton farm were responding to the lengthening daylight and their breeding seasons will soon begin.

Both Eurasian and mourning doves delivered their seasonal tunes, a northern flicker offered his first hysterical calls of the season and a pair of blue jays had switched to their softer, more musical voice.  Male house finches have taken on their brighter red plumage of spring while eastern cottontails chased one another across the pastures, soon to produce their first litter of the year; by late summer, the females born in February will have litters of their own.

Joined by the first faint greenery of spring, these revelers do not know that the heaviest snows of the season likely lie ahead.  They are merely responding to a surge of hormones, nature's annual gift to their species.  Unlike humans, subject as we are to cerebral override, they will always heed the call.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Dramatic Change in Weather

As the New England snowstorm developed today, many TV meteorologists couldn't stop talking about how dramatically the conditions had changed in 24 hours.  Indeed, on the day before the storm, dozens of Northeast cities had set record highs for the date (in the 50s and 60s F).

Of course, despite the hysterics of the TV weathermen (who know better), such a dramatic change of weather is typical with potent winter storms.  As the system approaches from the west, strong southerly winds ahead of the front sweep warm air well to the north.  Then, as the cold front knifes in from the northwest, winds shift from the north and Arctic air blasts across the region.  Meanwhile, the storm's central zone of low pressure, surrounded by strong, counterclockwise winds, sweeps the warm, moist air above the dense, frigid air, producing snow, sleet or freezing rain (depending on the depth of the invading cold air).  Farther south, the clash of air masses results in severe thunderstorms.

Too often focused on entertainment as much as on public education, TV meteorologists would better serve their viewers by explaining the nature of the storm dynamics.  After all, there is a scientific explanation for that dramatic change in weather and, when we downplay science, we open the door to mysticism.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Typical February Weather

This week's weather highlights might suggest that our planet is undergoing catastrophic change: more heavy rain and snow in the Pacific Northwest, excessive warmth along the Colorado Front Range, tornadoes along the Gulf Coast and a major snowstorm (just now developing) in New England.

In actuality, though some of these events have been especially severe, their occurrence is not unusual in the month of February.  Were it not for the excessive precipitation in January, the current rain and snow in Northern California, Oregon and Washington would not be considered unusual for this time of year.  Here in Colorado, February is often characterized by periods of warm, sunny weather, to be followed by the upslope snowstorms of March, April and early May.  While yesterday's tornado near New Orleans was especially severe (a record for that area), tornadic thunderstorms are relatively common along the Gulf Coast in February.  Finally, as a winter storm descends on New England, promising more than a foot of snow and blizzard conditions in some areas, we must remember that most severe "Nor'easters" develop in this month.

While global warming cannot be directly blamed for any of these events, it may intensify storms when they occur and alter weather patterns such that droughts or floods become more common in some regions.  But, for now, we must accept the fact that this week's weather is fairly typical for February, a sign that the jet stream is becoming restless as the sun rises higher in the southern sky.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Effective Opposition

When an Administration comes to power and threatens both human rights and the health of our environment, it triggers a strong reaction in those of us who are committed to those issues.  Solutions are sought and a wide range of actions are taken, some of which can be counterproductive.

While peaceful demonstrations are worthwhile, keeping the issues in the public's collective mind, they often have little effect on the President and his Administration.  More effective are our personal and financial support for legal and environmental organizations (e.g. the ACLU, the Sierra Club) that have the power to intervene, either slowing or derailing the progress of the Government.  Equally important is active support for the opposition Party and for journalists and news organizations that both expose and challenge the policies of the Administration.  Finally, supporting the input of business and community leaders, who may have some positive influence on both the Executive and Legislative Branches of Government, is essential; the role of engagement with those in power must not be dismissed or ridiculed.

However we choose to participate in the opposition, we must take action.  Waiting for the next election is not an option.  The attacks on human rights and on the environment degrade our society and threaten the welfare of our planet.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Greater Scaup at South Platte Park

On this spring-like morning in early February, I headed to South Platte Park, in Littleton.  Though I enjoyed the bright sunshine and crystal-clear air, a strong south wind produced a bit of a chill and kept the waterfowl in sheltered coves.

An exception was a flock of greater scaup, bobbing in waves along the retreating ice.  These circumpolar ducks breed across Arctic latitudes of North America and Eurasia and generally winter on coastal bays of those Continents.  While they may turn up on large, inland, freshwater lakes during migrations, they are not often encountered away from saltwater during the winter months.

Larger cousins of the more common lesser scaup, greater scaup have been declining in population over the past few decades.  Since they feed on aquatic mollusks and crustaceans during the winter months, it is thought that chemical pollution in coastal bays and estuaries may be taking a toll on these handsome diving ducks.  To observe a flock along the Colorado Front Range this morning was thus a special treat.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Mauritius: A Hybrid Island

Like many volcanic islands across the globe, Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar, was thought to have formed above a hotspot.  In such cases, a mantle plume pushes upward into the oceanic crust, igniting volcanism and the formation of land that gradually emerges from the sea.  If the oceanic plate is moving above the hotspot, a chain of islands is formed (see The Hawaiian Ridge).

The volcanism that produced Mauritius has occurred on and off for about 9 million years.  Recently, however, as reported in the New York Times this week, a geologist has discovered the presence of continental crust beneath the volcanic rock.  In essence, it appears that a hotspot formed adjacent to or beneath the continental fragment or that oceanic crust has been subducting beneath that fragment to produce the volcanism; the latter seems less likely.

The continental fragment itself apparently broke away from Gondwana as it split up to form the Southern Continents (Africa, South America, Antarctica, India and Australia) some 200 million years ago.  The Madagascar-Seychelles platform, north of Mauritius, is also a continental fragment of Gondwana; such fragments move about the globe as oceans open and close and these exotic terranes may eventually fuse to the edge of the major Continents.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Chinooks in the Night

After several days of cold, cloudy weather, a warm front pushed across Colorado overnight.  Indeed, at about 12:30 am, the windows rattled on our Littleton farmhouse as a brief period of strong winds raked the Front Range.

This morning, it is 46 degrees F in Littleton, a couple degrees warmer than it is in Phoenix, Arizona.  Such is the effect of downsloping, Chinook winds.  With high pressure west of the Continental Divide and low pressure to our east, air flows down the eastern flanks of the mountains, compressing, warming and drying out as it descends.  Our afternoon high is forecast to be 60 degrees F but, starting at 46 and soon to be bathed by the intense Colorado sun, I expect the afternoon temperature to be a bit higher.

As the next winter storm moves from the Pacific Northwest to the Great Lakes and Northeast, we will be relatively unaffected along the Front Range urban corridor.  Afternoon highs should be above "normal" all week and not a wisp of snow is expected.  Then again, March and April, two of our snowiest months, lie ahead and snow in May is never out of the question.  But, for now, we'll enjoy a prelude to spring.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Genetics, Evolution & Mysticism

When Charles Darwin developed his theory of natural selection, the role of chromosomes would not be discovered for another fifty years, the structure of DNA would not be determined for another century (Watson and Crick released their findings in 1953) and the human genome would not be mapped for more than 150 years (2003).

Indeed, Darwin's projections were based solely on his powers of observation and deduction.  Noting the diversity of species within a genus and the variation of individuals within species, Darwin concluded that these findings were due to inherited factors, the persistence of which was determined by their relative importance in ensuring the survival of that species.  Many years later, we would discover the role of genes, sexual recombination and genetic mutations in this process.

While Darwin faced his skeptics and dissenters, modern science has since confirmed the validity of his theory.  Nevertheless, the power of religious mysticism, fueled by fear and threatened by objective data, continues to influence human society.  After all, the science of evolutionary biology indicates that all plants and animals, humans included, are species on the ever-expanding web of life; having evolved from ancestral species they will all either become extinct or evolve into future species (assuming the environment is not destroyed beforehand).  The simplistic story of creation, conceived by man, is no longer viable.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Darwin & Domestication

In The Origin of Species (the shortened title of his book from the second edition onward), Charles Darwin devotes his first chapter to the diversity observed in domesticated plants and animals.  One might wonder why such a well-traveled naturalist would initially focus on these common, well-known species.

Since his book was written in the 1850s, well before scientists, let alone the general public, had much knowledge of inheritance, Darwin apparently chose this approach to insure that his points were more easily understood, based on the personal experience of his audience.  In essence, he uses the chapter to illustrate the diversity of domesticated species and the diversity of individuals within any given species.  Placing emphasis on the selective breeding process, engineered by humans, he sets the stage for his theory of natural selection to follow.

Clearly conscious of the potential reaction from other scientists, religious leaders and the public at large, Darwin eases his readers into the concept of evolution, a process that negates the role of a Creator.  In the mid 19th Century, that was a courageous undertaking indeed.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Straight from Darwin

Born in Shrewsbury, England, in 1809, Charles Darwin initially planned careers in medicine and theology before joining the crew of the HMS Beagle in 1831.  Over the next five years, he explored natural ecosystems across the globe, including those of the Cape Verde Islands, much of coastal South America, the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand, eastern and southern Australia, several islands in the Indian Ocean, the Cape of Good Hope and the Azores.  Heavily influenced by Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, Darwin began work on his own treatise outlining his theory of natural selection and published the "abstract" as On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859.  Since the release of that seminal work, he has rightly been hailed as the father of evolutionary biology and has been widely criticized by religious zealots across the globe.

As one who was raised in a religious family but also received an excellent education in the sciences (including a B.S. in Biology), I have been heavily influenced by Darwin's theories throughout my life.  Indeed, his work, as well as the early writings of men like Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Alfred Wallace, set the stage for modern advancements in genetics, biology and natural history; at the same time, the role of mysticism in human civilization, while still potent, has gradually diminished.

Though long familiar with Darwin's theory of natural selection, I have never read The Origin of Species.  That deficiency will be corrected over the next week or so as I absorb Darwin's argument in his own words.  I look forward to the intellectual adventure and will dutifully report any highlights in this blog.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Delaware River

Historically and geologically famous, the Delaware River rises as two primarily forks in the Catskills of southeastern New York.  The western fork passes through Cannonsville Reservoir while the eastern branch feeds Pepacton Reservoir; the two forks join at Hancock, NY, and the primary channel then snakes southeastward between the Poconos of northeastern Pennsylvania and the Catskills of New York (both eastern portions of the Appalachian Plateau), forming the border between those two States.

Entering the Ridge and Valley Province, the Delaware River angles to the southwest, forming the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  At the Delaware Water Gap, the river angles eastward through the Blue Mountain/Kittatinny Ridge and then flows southeastward across the Piedmont to the fall line at Trenton, New Jersey; from there, it flows southwestward on the Coastal Plain, passing Philadelphia before entering the upper end of Delaware Bay.  On its journey from the Catskill reservoirs to its Bay, the Delaware is undammed, one of the few free-flowing rivers in the Eastern U.S.; though 300 miles of the Delaware have been declared Wild & Scenic, its riverine ecosystem is threatened by water diversion, agricultural runoff and industrial pollution.

Formed (like other East Coast Bays) as sea levels rose after the Pleistocene and flooded the lower valley of the river, Delaware Bay is perhaps most famous to birders and naturalists as the site where thousands of red knots stop to feed on the eggs of horseshoe crabs as they migrate toward Arctic breeding grounds each spring.  Unfortunately, industrial activity in the bay and an increasing harvest of horseshoe crabs have dramatically diminished this annual spectacle and further threatened the survival of the endangered red knots.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Fear Trumps Freedom

In the name of protecting Americans from terrorism, President Trump has signed an Executive Order banning Muslims from seven Middle Eastern countries from entering the United States.  Included in the ban are many individuals who were en route at the time of the order, possessing valid visas and having already been vetted overseas.

Fulfilling his campaign promise to close our borders to Muslims while stoking the irrational fears of Conservative zealots across the country, Trump is tarnishing the freedoms for which the U.S. has long been admired.  At the same time, he is playing into the hands of Islamic extremists across the globe, endangering Americans who will now become symbols of religious discrimination and Muslim hatred.

As I write this post, hundreds of Muslim business travelers, tourists, immigrants and refugees are being detained at U.S. airports.  In response, onsite demonstrations are occurring and lawsuits to overturn the order are being filed by the ACLU and affected State Governments.  The real question is whether Republican members of Congress will side with the President or have the courage to uphold the liberties that generations of Americans have fought and died to defend.

Addendum:  A Federal judge in Brooklyn, New York, has granted a stay on the enforcement of the Executive Order.

Ice Music

As warm weather returns to the Colorado Front Range, the ponds and lakes are re-opening.  This morning, at South Platte Park, I was serenaded by ice music, a varied chorus of cracks, pings and vibratory sounds.

At times, the breakup mimicked the sounds of wildlife, suggesting the squawk of a heron, the croak of a frog or the shriek of a hawk.  Then there were the musical warbles, the linear "zings" or the sound of a metal sheet unraveling.

To the inexperienced, the "booming" of ice can be haunting or even disturbing.  But, for those of us who understand its source, it is a welcome collage of sound, a sign that seasonal change is underway.  Of course, the lakes may refreeze and re-thaw several times before spring takes hold but, for now, we can enjoy the music and hope for the best.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Drought & Global Warming

Following the heavy precipitation in California and the Southeast this winter, the National Weather Service announced that, for the first time since 2011, there are no areas of extreme drought in the United States.  No doubt, many climate change deniers will use this information to bolster their argument that global warming is a politically motivated delusion.

Of course, we have plenty of scientific evidence to support both the occurrence of global warming and the fact that human activity is a major factor in its development.  Average annual temperatures have been rising across the globe, polar ice sheets are melting and sea levels are rising.  How climate change will alter regional drought, however, is not yet clear.

While desert regions that lie within the rain shadow of mountain ranges will likely remain arid, those that formed due to the effects of ocean currents may experience a dramatic change as a warming climate alters weather patterns near the poles.  It is certainly possible that some semiarid regions will become wetter while humid areas of the Temperature Zone (including farmlands of the American Midwest) will experience more droughts.  We already know that fisheries are being altered and tropical reefs are being threatened by rising sea temperatures and similar effects will surely become evident in terrestrial ecosystems.  We can either ignore the potential impacts of climate change or do what we can to minimize man-induced global warming; unfortunately, the new Administration in Washington appears to favor a wait-and-see approach.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Trump Slams Environmentalism

Meeting with auto executives this morning, President Trump declared that "environmentalism is out of control."  Claiming to be an environmentalist himself (of course he is), our supreme leader wants to bring industrial plants back to the U.S. and promises less regulation for those who comply with his policy.

One wonders what environmental regulations he plans to shave.  How much air and water pollution is he willing to accept?  How many species can we safely annihilate?  Just the small ones?  And what about carbon emissions?  Is he right that global warming is a hoax, floated by the Chinese?  Should we switch back to coal-powered plants and steam locomotives to restore mining jobs?  Can heavy crude from Canada's decimated tar sands provide the salvation we need?

In his simple-minded world, cutting regulations and lowering taxes will "Make America Great Again." Unfortunately, as our planet and its complex ecosystems deteriorate, human health will decline as well and, given his zeal to slash medical programs, the ravages of pollution and climate change will rapidly take their toll.

Monday, January 23, 2017

January Tornadoes

Over the past two days, a potent but slow moving storm system moved across the Southeastern U.S., unleashing severe thunderstorms and tornadoes; as of this morning, the storms killed 18 people in Mississippi and Georgia.

The central low moved eastward through the region, producing strong southerly surface winds that destabilized the atmosphere with warm, moist air; in concert, the subtropical jet stream energized the system and, knifing in from the southwest, clashed with the southerly surface winds to create spin in the lower atmosphere, igniting supercells and tornadoes.  As the central low reached northeastern Alabama last evening, its trailing cold front swept through northern and central Florida, producing tornadic thunderstorms across the peninsula.

Typically striking the Gulf Coast States in late February and March, this January tornado outbreak may be yet another sign that our warming climate is changing weather patterns across the globe.  Meanwhile, the current system is expected to move up the Eastern Seaboard, bringing heavy rain, strong winds and high waves along the coast, from the Mid Atlantic to New England.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Songs from the Marsh

Having returned to Colorado after ten days on the Gulf Coast, I decided a visit to South Platte Park was in order.  On this sunny, crisp morning, one month past the winter solstice, the ponds had begun to open and an excellent variety of waterfowl graced the preserve.

But the highlight of the morning was provided by one of the least admired residents, the lowly but seasonally abundant red-winged blackbird.  Responding to the lengthening daylight, the males were singing from the frozen marsh, anticipating the onset of their breeding season.

Of course, many cold days and frigid nights lie ahead and the heaviest snows of the "winter" will not likely arrive until March and April, when upslope storms rake the Front Range.  But the red-winged blackbirds are not meteorologists and pay no attention to the human calendar.  They respond only to solar signals and the longer days unleash their hormones.  We humans notice the higher sun as well and, despite memories of fickle weather in February and March, sense the early tide of spring.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Loud People

Sitting at the Tampa airport this morning, awaiting our flight. we have already moved once due to a pair of chatty young women discussing their Facebook entries.  Now we are listening to another couple, commiserating about their health problems, preferred beauty products and plans for the week.

Loud women seem to prefer broadcasting news about their relationships, medical issues and life struggles while loud men want to impress us all with their business activities, sports knowledge or investment expertise.  In either case, the individuals are oblivious of their obnoxious behavior or crave the attention that their pontifications elicit.

We humans are social creatures and generally need a willing foil with whom to share our ideas and problems.  But those who consciously or subconsciously broadcast their personal thoughts to an unwilling public either have self-control issues or need the attention to fuel their self esteem.  No doubt, their disrespectful banter is learned behavior in many cases (who can forget the Loud Family on Saturday Night Live) and complaints from others will likely have only a temporary effect, if any.  As one who appreciates solitude more than most, I hope readers will excuse this spontaneous rant; if nothing else, it's a harmless diversion from the disastrous coronation in Washington, D.C.