Friday, November 17, 2017

The Art of Listening

Effective communication is vital to human relationships and the art of listening is its key component.  While we admire those who can express their ideas in efficient or creative ways, communication is a two-way street and an attentive listener is equally important.

Too often, we humans equate communication with debate.  But debate is all about winning an argument and the debater listens just enough to formulate his or her counterattack.  Waiting to pounce on their opponent, the debater only gleans the highlights of the points that are made.

Unfortunately, most humans are more comfortable being the speaker than the listener.  Intimately connected to their own ideas, beliefs and experience, they easily become disinterested (if not bored) with the stories or reasoned arguments of others.  The art of listening is the ability to stay engaged, focusing on what is being said (without prejudgment) and willing to fully consider the views of the speaker.  If we all adopted that art, human communication would be greatly improved and the spectrum of intellectual logjams, such as the one that stymies the U.S. Congress, would be cleared from the paths of personal growth and human progress.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Summer Day in November

An atmospheric ridge over the Western U.S., combined with downsloping, southwesterly winds east of the Front Range, has brought summer-like conditions to Metro Denver in the middle of November; our afternoon high today was 74 degrees F.

Anyone who has not spent much time in this region likely imagines Denver to be a cold and snowy place; after all, it is the gateway to many ski areas.  But, while it may snow here from September through early June, we enjoy a relatively mild, sunny climate.  Warm weather interludes, like today's, occur throughout the colder months and are often followed by brief periods of rain or snow.

Indeed, the weather of the Front Range urban corridor is all about wind direction.  As storm systems approach from the west, we often receive downsloping, southwesterly winds ahead of the cold front; as the air is forced down from the Continental Divide to the Piedmont, it compresses, dries out and heats up, producing the summer-like conditions.  But once the storm moves east of the Divide and onto the High Plains, we usually receive upsloping, northeasterly winds; as the air is forced to rise by the regional topography, it cools down and it's moisture condenses as rain or snow.  In fact, rain and chilly air are forecast to arrive by tomorrow afternoon. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Goose Season

Returning to Colorado a few days ago, I noticed a significant increase in the Canada goose population since I left town in late October.  While the arrival of wintering geese has been late in recent years, the current flocks are right on schedule, apparently chased southward by potent cold fronts and snowstorms up north.

Of course, many suburbanites, park managers and golfers are not thrilled by the influx of our messy Canadian neighbors but some of us enjoy watching their large, noisy flocks as they move above the urban corridor.  Typically arriving in early November, the wintering geese occupy the region until early spring when they begin their journey to breeding grounds across Canada and the Northern Plains (see Front Range Geese).

The arrival of wintering Canada geese is of interest to birders for another reason.  Though they account for the great majority of geese along the Front Range, other species often get caught up in their autumn migration.  Just yesterday, I observed a snow goose in one of the flocks and a variable number of greater white-fronted geese join the Canadas each year.  Cackling geese, nearly identical in appearance but smaller in size and smaller billed, often mingle with the Canada geese; once thought to be a subspecies, they are now recognized as a separate species that breeds farther north and west than their larger cousins.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Males & Sexual Abuse

The recent spate of sexual abuse revelations involving men (politicians, pundits, broadcasters and entertainers, among others) offers clear evidence that we humans are part of the animal kingdom and that our large brains do not always protect us from ingrained animal behavior.

Throughout the animal kingdom, from invertebrates to mammals, the primary role of the male is to impregnate as many females as possible.  This often involves combat with other males (which may prove fatal), coercive behavior toward females and, in some cases, the instinct to kill the offspring of other males.  In almost all species, the male engages in sexual dominance, which may include the gathering of harems, and he plays a minimal role in nurturing and raising the young.

Early humans, like our hominid ancestors, most likely practiced polygamy.  As our civilization advanced, laws were established to protect families, women and children, though the nature of these laws (and their enforcement) varies widely among human cultures.  Unfortunately, the male sexual drive, influenced by parenting, personal experience and psychological factors, often overrides these social constraints (especially when those individuals occupy positions of power) and sexual abuse repeatedly occurs.  While knowledge of our natural history should not serve to condone such behavior, acknowledging male traits and tendencies is the first step in dealing with this issue.  Appropriate law enforcement, counseling and zero tolerance must then follow.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Iran-Iraq Earthquake

A magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck the Iran-Iraq border region yesterday; the initial death toll is over 450 individuals and is almost sure to rise.  The quake occurred in an active tectonic zone where the Arabian Plate is colliding with the Eurasian Plate.

About 40 million years ago, the Red Sea began to open, rifting the Arabian Plate from the African Plate; this rift continues southward as the East African Rift that will eventually split the Continent.  Twenty million years later, during the Miocene Period, the Gulf of Aden began to open as well and the combined forces of these active rifts zones are pushing the Arabian Plate to the NNE; its collision with the Eurasian Plate has been crumpling up the mountain ranges of Iran and Turkey, a process that continues today.

While the tectonic drift of continents is too slow for humans to observe during our brief life spans, the sudden release of pressure along fault lines, resulting in earthquakes, attests to the massive forces involved in this process.  Having sculpted the surface of our planet long before our species evolved, we must now live with the consequences of plate tectonics (See also The Eurasian Mountain Arc).

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Swans at Phillips Lake

On this damp, cloudy and chilly morning, my wife and I decided to take a walk around Perry Phillips Lake, in south Columbia.  After all, from now through the end of January, Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area is occupied by duck hunters and Phillips Lake is one local alternative for those hoping to observe migrant waterfowl.

To our surprise, two swans turned up as we circled the lake, gliding across the calm waters.  Initially assuming they were trumpeter swans that are increasingly common in the Heartland (see Midwest Trumpeters), I zeroed in with my binoculars.  I noticed that they had pinkish bills with black tips, indicating a juvenile status, and could not find a yellow spot at the base of their bills, present in most (but not all) adult tundra swans.  On the other hand, their necks extended straight up from their chests without the curve typical of trumpeter swans.  They also seemed a bit slim for trumpeters, especially when they flew away at the end of our visit, and leg bands were not observed as they passed overhead (most reintroduced trumpeters are banded).  Unfortunately, the visitors remained silent and thus could not be identified by their calls.

Distinguishing juvenile trumpeters from juvenile tundra swans is a bit of a challenge for most birders, especially when a direct, simultaneous comparison cannot be made in the field.  While tundra swans are far more numerous in North America, most migrate to coastal estuaries and relatively few are encountered in the Heartland; then again, a fair number turn up along the Missouri and Mississippi Valleys.  By contrast, trumpeter reintroduction programs have become widespread across the Upper Midwest and this largest species of American waterfowl is increasingly common in the Heartland.  I'm leaning toward the decision that this morning's visitors were juvenile tundra swans but, either way, it was a pleasure to see them.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Irruption of Crossbills

Over the past few weeks, red crossbills have been reported across Metro Denver and here in central Missouri; no doubt, these irruptive migrants have been spotted in many other areas of the U.S. as well.  Residents of Southern Canada, New England, the Great Lakes region and the Western Mountains, red crossbills occasionally appear at lower elevations or in more southern latitudes.

Irruptive species, while usually non-migratory, expand their territory when food (seeds, berries or prey) becomes scarce in their homeland; the scarcity may be do to normal fluctuations in prey populations, severe weather, insect blight, wildfire or, perhaps, climate change.  Red crossbills are among the more common irruptive migrants and have been known to nest outside their usual breeding range if they encounter sites with a large supply of pine cones; indeed, this species may nest during any season of the year.

On the other hand, irruptive species tend to be restless, moving about the landscape in search of food.  Here one day and gone the next, they are often a source of frustration for hopeful birdwatchers, as a friend and I found out yesterday.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Thomas Hill Reservoir

Located about ten miles southwest of Macon, Missouri, Thomas Hill Reservoir was formed by damming the Middle Fork of the Little Chariton River.  The 4950 acre lake and the surrounding Conservation Area are on property owned by the Associated Electric Cooperative, which built the reservoir to providing cooling water for its power plant.

For those who live in the region, Thomas Hill Reservoir is best known for its excellent fishery and birders flock to the lake to observe resident and migrant bald eagles, gulls, terns and waterfowl.  Today, accompanied by a friend and fellow birder, I had the opportunity to view several sections of the reservoir; there we observed two large rafts of lesser scaup, joined by smaller flocks of buffleheads, coot, hooded mergansers, redheads and northern shovelers.  A large number of Bonaparte's gulls wheeled above or settled on the choppy waters and small groups of pied-billed grebes foraged in the shallows.  Other sightings included two bald eagles, a red-shouldered hawk, a northern harrier, great blue herons, ring-billed gulls, double-crested cormorants, killdeer, Wilson's snipe, mallards and a lone northern pintail.

A unique feature of Thomas Hill Reservoir is a warm channel near the power plant that remains open through the winter months.  This unnatural hot-tub concentrates wintering waterfowl and is always a good place to look for rare vagrants that might wander into north-central Missouri.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Ruckus of Robins

On this raw November morning, a large congregation of American robins had taken over part of the Columbia Audubon Sanctuary.  Concentrated along the creek, the massive flock created both a visual and an auditory spectacle.

Flying between the stream and the surrounding trees, the robins attracted many other species, including a large flock of cedar waxwings.  The sudden appearance of a barred owl only added to the frenzy, drawing in a blue jay posse that soon dislodged the raptor with their raucous calls.  Other attendees included a yellow-rumped warbler and a ruby-crowned kinglet among more common avian residents.

Non-birders associate American residents with their well-trimmed lawns where these common thrushes hop about, stalking earthworms.  But during the winter months, when the surface soil hardens and the worms move to deeper layers, robins gather in large flocks that wander about, feasting on berries or scouring the soggy soil of wooded marshlands.  This morning's chilly, damp weather surely intensified their activity.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Since the rain had stopped and sunshine returned to northeastern Ohio, my wife and I headed over to Cuyahoga Valley National Park this morning.  Formerly a National Recreation Area, established in 1974, the preserve became a National Park in 2000; the refuge stretches along 22 miles of "the Crooked River" Valley, between Akron and Cleveland.

Entering via westbound 303, west of Hudson, we first stopped at the Happy Days parking area and hiked southward and upward to the magnificent Ledges, outcrops of Pennsylvanian Sharon Conglomerate that offer broad views of the Cuyahoga Valley.  Heading north along the River, we then stopped at the Boston Mills Visitor Center before heading over to Brandywine Falls near the east edge of the Park where a wooden stairway offers spectacular views of the cascade.  After a lunch in Brecksville Station, we continued northward along the Cuyahoga and then climbed eastward through the scenic gorge of Tinkers Creek, where overlooks, scenic waterfalls and picnic areas are connected by a hike-bike trail.

The Buckeye Trail cuts through Cuyahoga Valley National Park and the Towpath Trail follows the Ohio & Erie Canal that parallels the river from Cleveland to Akron; constructed in 1827, the canal was abandoned as railroads offered more efficient freight transportation in the 1860s.  In addition to the scenic topography, interesting geology and historical features of the Park, stands of Canadian hemlock (remnants of the Pleistocene) mix with the hardwood forest, offering a rich diversity of habitat for resident wildlife.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Kent State Wetlands

Obtained from the Frank family in 1967, Stark Pond has since become the centerpiece of an Environmental Education Center at Kent State University, characterized by riparian woodlands, cattail marshes and spring fed ponds.  The 200 acre refuge, accessed by a paved hike-bike trail, stretches along the southeast edge of the campus.

Today, I used that trail to explore the wetland.  Despite the cool, cloudy weather, I encountered an excellent variety of birds, including wood ducks, gadwall, pied-billed grebes and a host of songbirds; among the latter were white-throated and song sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, northern cardinals, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers and blue jays.  American robins were especially common in the riparian woodlands, feasting on berries, insects and earthworms.

The highlight of my visit was a red-shouldered hawk, surveying the scene from a dead tree.  Often associated with marshlands, this buteo typically hunts from a perch, looking for small mammals, snakes and a variety of amphibians.  Huddled in the chilly air, he was clearly the king of this wetland.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Autumn at Sandy Lake

We have returned to my wife's family cottage on Sandy Lake in northeastern Ohio.  Autumn colors are peaking though a gray overcast and intermittent showers have cast a pall on the annual display.

Hiking around the lake this afternoon, I encountered the usual mix of permanent and winter residents, including mallards, great blue herons, belted kingfishers, red-bellied woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees and dark-eyed juncos.  A tardy double-crested cormorant was fishing on the choppy waters and blue jays were especially numerous and conspicuous in the lakeside woodlands.  Ospreys, common here during the warmer months, have apparently departed for warmer climes and bald eagles, present throughout the year, did not make an appearance on this mild, cloudy day.  The highlight of my walk was a lone golden-crowned kinglet, foraging in thickets along the inlet canal.

We'll spend a few days here before returning to Missouri and I hope to visit other birding hotspots before we leave town.  More on those excursions in the coming days.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Return to Eagle Bluffs

After a three month hiatus, I returned to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area this morning.  Arriving just before dawn, I first encountered large, restless flocks of red-winged blackbirds and a lone flock of common grackles.

Mallards were abundant on the flooded fields, ponds and central channel, joined by a fair number of American coots, nine pied-billed grebes, a small group of northern shovelers and a single northern pintail.  Two bald eagles, a pair of northern harriers and a red-tailed hawk patrolled the Missouri floodplain refuge, great blue herons stalked the shallows and two belted kingfishers noisily hunted along the channel.  Killdeer, the only shorebirds encountered this morning, foraged on the mudflats while song, savannah and white-crowned sparrows were common along the roadways, joined by eastern bluebirds and American goldfinches.

Unfortunately, the southern half of Eagle Bluffs has already been closed to the public (to provide refuge for wintering waterfowl) and most of the northern half will soon be reserved for those humans who hope to kill them.  Such is the nature of modern Conservation Areas.   

Friday, October 27, 2017

Merlin Weather

As the clouds thickened, the north wind intensified and light snow fell in the frigid afternoon air, a merlin appeared on our farm yesterday.  These small, dark falcons breed across Alaska, Canada and the Northern Rockies and their appearance each fall often coincides with the first bout of winter weather.

During the colder months, merlins are fairly common across the Western U.S. and in coastal areas of the Southeast; there they favor open country with nearby trees where they feast on songbirds and shorebirds.  Often hunting from a perch, these small but powerful raptors chase prey as they scatter into the air, snaring a victim in flight.

Yesterday's visitor had perched in a leafless locust tree overlooking our front "lawn" and a small pasture.  Unfortunately, his presence drew the attention of black-billed magpies that harassed him with their raucous squawks and the falcon soon disappeared into the gray, snowy sky.  

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Front Range Nosedive

Yesterday afternoon, the high temperature in Metro Denver reached 86 degrees F, far too warm for late October.  When such extreme weather events occur, they often presage a coming change and our summer-like heat was no exception.

Mild conditions persisted this morning and the temperature at dawn was 63 degrees.  However, a light north breeze was evident and, by 11AM, the temperature had fallen to 51 degrees under partly cloudy skies.  An hour later, the wind kicked up and clouds moved in; by 1PM, it was 42 degrees.  Throughout the afternoon, the gray overcast thickened and the temperature continued to fall; by 5PM, it was 35 degrees and light snow flurries danced in the north wind.  We expect an overnight low of 26 degrees F, a drop of 60 degrees over 36 hours.

The culprit for our temperature nosedive is an atmospheric trough, dropping across the Great Plains.  Blizzard conditions have developed in North Dakota and Minnesota is experiencing its first significant snow accumulation of the year.  Since we are on the west edge of the trough and since we are not receiving classic northeasterly upslope winds, our snowfall is expected to be minimal and temperatures along the Colorado Front Range should rebound quickly in the coming days.  Indeed, we expect a high near seventy on Sunday.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Power of Love Denied

Except for those who marry their high school sweetheart and live happily-ever-after, most humans experience love affairs that, for whatever reason, do not work out.  Though we go on to marry or live with someone else, that unrequited love haunts our life.

Unlike the love that leads to marriage, its intensity is never tainted by the stress and challenges that come with balancing our careers and family life.  Rather, it is forever associated with our youth, when we were free and blissfully unaware of the emotional turmoil that lay ahead.  Embellished over the years, the failed relationship resurfaces in our memories, fueling nostalgia and causing us to question the choices that we made.

Of course, had that youthful romance led to marriage, someone else would now represent the love we were denied; it is the nature of the human condition.  Indeed, deep down, we may know that the past relationship would not have lasted but love is immune to intellectual reasoning.  The pain of love denied is a powerful and unrelenting emotion.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

In Defense of Millennials

Millennials, loosely defined as those humans born between the early 1980s and late 1990s, get a bad rap, usually related to a tendency to focus on their personal needs.  While they have been referred to as the "Me Generation," I seem to recall similar sentiments directed at my generation, the Baby Boomers, many of whom opposed the Vietnam War and thus shunned military service.

As a social liberal and environmentalist, I admire Millennials for a number of reasons.  They seem to be less focused on personal consumption, preferring to live in urban condos or apartments,  to use mass transit and to forego high-priced clothing, upscale restaurants and automobiles.  Socially conscious, they are avid volunteers, oppose racism, defend the rights of the LGBT community and generally loathe Trump's anti-global policies.  Finally, Millennials have demonstrated less susceptibility to mysticism (i.e. religion), the major threat to science, environmentalism and human enlightenment across our planet.

Growing up in the digital age and confronted with the economic challenges created by the Great Recession, Millennials have a unique perspective on both the problems facing humanity and on the potential opportunities that technology offers in dealing with them.  Youth will always remain a beacon of hope for our species and I have faith in Millennials; they know how to co-exist!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Autumn Roars Back

After a week of summer-like weather in Metro Denver, a potent cold front dipped across the Front Range overnight, raking the trees and rattling the windows.  The winds brought in clear, crisp Canadian air and our afternoon high will be twenty degrees (F) cooler than it was yesterday.

High pressure behind the front has settled over the upper limits of the Great Basin and will produce Santa Ana winds across Southern California in the coming days.  Meanwhile, the cold front continues to march eastward and will clash with warm, humid air flowing up from the Gulf of Mexico; this collision will ignite a band of strong thunderstorms across the Great Plains and the Upper Midwest.

Our dose of autumn will be brief and summer warmth will return tomorrow, persisting for several days before snow arrives late in the week.  One sign of our gradual transition to winter has been the annual return of a Harlan's hawk to our Littleton farm; after breeding in Alaska and Western Canada, this dark subspecies of the red-tailed hawk winters across the Southern Plains, from Colorado to West Texas (see Welcome Back Harly!).

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Invasion of Blackbirds

Yesterday afternoon, at about 3:45 PM, the vanguard arrived on our Littleton farm.  Twelve common grackles gathered beneath the feeders, feasting on fallen seed.

Over the next hour, their activity and calls attracted other blackbirds that were passing through the area and a full invasion was underway.  Peak numbers reached about 70 grackles, 50 red-winged blackbirds and six black-billed magpies.  The noise was deafening as the skittish birds intermittently scattered into nearby trees and then returned to the feeding area; some began to spread into the adjacent fields while others clamored for spots along or within the bird bath.  Meanwhile, a few mourning doves, oblivious of the frenzy around them, waddled among the blackbirds, searching for overlooked seed.

Suburban homeowners, farmers and many birders are not terribly fond of blackbirds, whether they be European starlings, common grackles, brown-headed cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds or other less common, regional species.  But these noisy and aggressive birds consume uncountable weed seeds, grubs and insect pests in addition to the grain and bird seed that they scavenge.  Nevertheless, when they invade our property in large, noisy flocks, it can be difficult to appreciate their role in nature.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Morning Spectacle

Sometimes, taking out the garbage before dawn can be a rewarding experience.  This morning, a Cheshire Moon smiled in the eastern sky, just above the bright beacon of Venus.

To the SSW, Orion gleamed through the crisp, crystal-clear air and Sirius, the brightest star from Earth, trailed to its east.  The cluster of the Pleiades was high in the western sky, while the zig-zag of Cassiopeia cut through the darkness to the northwest and the well-known Big Dipper hung to the southeast.  As if to add an exclamation point, a meteor streaked across the southern sky.

One is both inspired and humbled by the night sky which reminds us that, contrary to long-held beliefs, our planet is but a speck in the massive Universe.  The Constellations, which change with the seasons, now confirm that we are approaching the cusp of winter; indeed, the appearance of Orion coincides with the cool, crisp air of autumn and the Hunter will dominate the southern sky through the frigid nights ahead.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

California's Firestorm

Last winter, when heavy snows fell across the Sierra Nevada and soaking rains caused flooding in the lowlands, one might have concluded that California's multi-year drought had finally come to an end.  Indeed, the drought-severity map improved significantly and concerns about the water supply for cities and agriculture were temporarily ignored.  Then came the dry season.

New vegetation growth, fueled by the copious winter precipitation, brought greenery to the semi-arid landscape.  As summer progressed, however, the relentless sun and dry air took a toll on this plant fuel and, combined with an abundant supply of dry timber from years of drought and fire suppression, the stage was set for an October inferno.  Low humidity, typical in early autumn, and strong offshore winds, triggered by high pressure over the Great Basin, have also been major factors in both the intensity and speed of the deadly wildfires.

Those who live in semi-arid regions (including the Colorado Front Range) know that periods of heavy precipitation are but temporary reprieves for a landscape that has long been shaped and renewed by wildfire.  The dry air and abundant sunshine offer an attractive setting for an outdoors lifestyle but come with a risk that is currently all-too-evident in the wine country of Northern California.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Waterfowl Migration Picks Up

Down at South Platte Park this morning, the diversity of waterfowl had significantly increased.  While the number of mallards and Canada geese was below normal, American widgeon remained the most abundant species, followed by gadwalls, American coot and pied-billed grebes.

Making their first appearance were a dozen or so green-winged teal, a pair of ruddy ducks and a lone northern pintail; among the common winter ducks yet to arrive are buffleheads, common goldeneyes, ring-necked ducks and scaup (both lesser and greater).  Though common mergansers are permanent residents here and a few hooded mergansers have been encountered in recent weeks, they were not observed today.

As our climate warms, the autumn waterfowl migration will likely occur later in the year (as I have noted in recent years); unlike songbirds, which migrate in response to the daylight cycle, waterfowl move south in concert with the availability of open water and food.  Perhaps our recent cold front, which brought snow to the Front Range, is responsible for this first wave of migrants but, since warm weather has returned to the West, we may have to wait a while for their cohorts.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Faith & Comfort

Religious persons rely on their faith for comfort during personal or family tragedies; even some agnostics "find religion" when faced with a fatal illness or life-threatening injury.  Some of us, however, not enamored with mysticism, prefer to rely on science, human resilience and human kindness for that comfort rather than on the intervention of a vindictive and mysterious god.

Though many admire the emotional support that believers receive from their faith, they must also acknowledge that religion fosters intolerance, discrimination and self-righteousness among the faithful, leading to social injustice, the degradation of human rights and, too often, war.
Their personal comfort cannot be divorced from the unnecessary suffering that religious faith has long spawned across the globe.

No religion is benign.  Each instills mystical beliefs, usually ingrained in childhood, that taint the believer's view of science and thereby threaten the welfare of our civilization and our planet.  Comfort can be achieved with truth and kindness; it need not rely on the promises of ancient mysticism. (See also The Church of Kindness). 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Bugling in the Sky

Yesterday afternoon, during my daily exploration of our farm, I heard the distant bugling of sandhill cranes.  Scouring the clear blue sky, I eventually located the flock, containing about sixty birds.  Unfortunately, the high-flying migrants had already moved off to the south and their rattling bugles rapidly faded.

While Rocky Mountain sandhill cranes (which breed in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming) migrate through the San Luis Valley and winter in New Mexico, this morning's flock was likely composed of lesser sandhill cranes, which breed across Siberia, Alaska and Canada and winter in eastern New Mexico, West Texas and Mexico (see Wintering Cranes).

Whatever their destination, I appreciated their journey above our Littleton farm.  Indeed, while I have encountered numerous migrant cranes on the Great Plains (see Cranes over Kansas), this was the first flock I have seen (and heard) so close to the Front Range.  I'll be sure to listen for others in the weeks ahead.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Unfriendly People

As one who hikes frequently, I often encounter other individuals along the trail; many have their dog, some are talking into their cell phone and a few, like me, are paying attention to the landscape, fauna and flora.  Most of these persons are friendly, smiling, nodding or offering a brief greeting in response to my own comment.

However, a small but significant percentage of those encountered (usually males) offer no sign that they are aware of my presence and do not respond to my greeting; some stare at me but neither speak nor smile, seeming to express that they resent my presence.  Of course, some of these unfriendly people are socially awkward due to extreme shyness, autism or other psycho-social malady but I suspect most are just plain anti-social people.

It is the later group that worries me.  What percentage of mankind has no interest in or civility toward persons they do not know?  One doubts that they are capable of kindness and one suspects that they would never come to the aid of a stranger in distress.  One hopes that these anti-social traits are recognized by family and friends who will encourage the individual to seek counseling before their apparent disdain for strangers leads to violence.  

Monday, October 9, 2017

An Upslope Sea

As I flew into Denver this morning, a sea of whitecaps stretched above Northeastern Colorado, lapping against the high wall of the Front Range to the west; lit from above by bright sunshine and a dome of brilliant blue sky, the white sea hid the High Plains below.  On our final descent, we entered its dense mist, flying through a milk-white atmosphere for almost twenty minutes before dipping below its undersurface a hundred feet above the ground; there we encountered heavy, wet snow and a wintry landscape.

On the heels of a sunny, warm weekend, a cold front dipped across Northeastern Colorado last night.  Behind that front, cold, Canadian air swept Great Plains moisture toward the Front Range; as that moist air was forced to rise by the landscape, it was chilled below its dew point and several inches of snow fell along the urban corridor.

While many Front Range residents are familiar with upslope snowstorms, which are especially common in March and April, relatively few get to witness their dynamics from above, whether from the high peaks of the Front Range or from an aircraft.  Indeed, the opportunity to fly greatly expands both our appreciation of landscapes and our understanding of the weather systems that mold them.  

Friday, October 6, 2017

Autumn of the Painted Ladies

Painted ladies, the most widely dispersed butterflies on our planet, have been abundant along the Front Range urban corridor this fall.  According to regional lepidopterists, their numbers peaked in mid September but they are still numerous on our Littleton farm and, two days ago, local radar picked up a massive flight of these migrants.

Summering across central latitudes of the Americas, Africa and Eurasia, painted ladies often lay their eggs on thistles and are thus also known as thistle butterflies.  Their caterpillars feed on those plants while the adults feast on nectar from a wide variety of cultivars and wildflowers; among the latter are sunflowers, asters and rabbitbrush that bloom during their late summer and early fall migration.

Those funneling south along the base of the Front Range are headed for the Desert Southwest where they'll spend the winter.  Their abundance this year reflects a very successful breeding season, a product of good weather conditions and an abundance of the plants on which the painted ladies and their larvae feed.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A White-Crowned Visitor

This morning, a lone white-crowned sparrow stopped by our farm, foraging beneath the feeders with a number of permanent residents.  After nesting near timberline across the Front Range, these hardy songbirds move to lower elevations for the winter, preferring open fields and grasslands with nearby shrubs and thickets.  Some spend the winter on the Colorado Piedmont but most head for the Southern Plains.

Unlike many sparrows, white-crowns are omnivorous, consuming seeds, insects and berries.  Usually encountered in flocks during the colder months, they scour clearings, escaping to thickets or hedgerows if threatened by predators.  Abandoned farmlands offer ideal habitat for these sparrows and they are often observed along fence lines on country roads.

Today's visitor was surely the first of many to drop by our farm in the coming months but their numbers along the Front Range urban corridor usually peak in early May as migrants await snowmelt in their lofty breeding grounds.  Those not heading for the high terrain of the Western Mountains will continue northward to nest on the Arctic tundra of Alaska and Canada. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Voting with our Wallets

Following the greatest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, appropriate gun laws will likely fail to be enacted once again, thanks to the powerful lobby of the NRA and the lack of courage in the U.S. Congress.  This does not mean that sane Americans cannot take action.

Money talks in the U.S. and policies change if companies, States and cities are placed under economic pressure by those who oppose liberal gun laws.  We can boycott stores that sell semi-automatic rifles and the ammunition that they require.  We can shift vacation plans to regions of the country (or globe) that impose reasonable gun control.  We can make sure that we are not actively or passively investing in companies that produce these deadly weapons and we can actively support politicians who have the fortitude to oppose the gun lobby.

Of course, voting for courageous statesmen is important in the long run but voting with our wallets is something we can do each and every day.  As deadly shootings continue to plague our cities (there are more gun deaths in America each day than occurred in Las Vegas on Sunday), there is no time to waste.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Leaving Nature Alone

A couple of days ago, I took my ten year-old grandson on a birding walk at South Platte Park.  It was a beautiful, early autumn morning and we were fortunate to observe a large variety of species; among the highlights were an osprey, a large flock of American wigeon, hooded mergansers, a snowy egret and a great horned owl.

Crossing a stream, we encountered a butterfly that had become trapped in the water.  Responding to his empathetic instincts, my grandson pulled it from the creek and placed the insect on a rock to dry, thereby saving its life.  That proved to be a teaching moment and we discussed the positive and negative effects of rescuing wild creatures.

While I admired his compassion, I did point out the ramifications of interfering with nature's web of life.  As a naturalist, I am committed to limiting my impact on natural ecosystems, including resisting the impulse to rescue wild animals that succumb to or are threatened by natural forces.  Unless the creature's plight directly results from human activities or structures (e.g. turtles on highways), I am inclined to let nature take its course.  This may seem to be a cruel approach but the more we interfere with nature the more problems we tend to create.  In my opinion, we humans should focus on protecting natural habitat and minimizing our impact on both the health and the function of natural ecosystems.  The less we get involved the better. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Pinnacle of the Year

It's October, the pinnacle of nature's year across central latitudes of North America.  Of course, this is my personal opinion but I suspect that many if not most naturalists would agree.

October days tend to be mild, sunny and dry while the star-filled nights are usually clear and crisp.  Many of our summer songbirds have yet to leave while winter species begin to arrive.  Out on our lakes and wetlands, the autumn tide of migrant waterfowl picks up steam and, in our woodlands and forests, the fall rut is underway for large herbivores.  The colorful foliage of the month, contrasting with a bright blue sky, invites everyone to explore the great outdoors where a fabulous diversity of wildlife is preparing for the winter months.

No doubt, many humans prefer spring, when nature recovers from winter, flowers adorn the landscape and the warm days of summer lie ahead.  But I'll take October, a choice that has persisted since childhood and seems even more appropriate as I've entered the autumn of my life.  Winter may loom on the horizon but its threat makes the pleasant days of October even more inviting.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Changing Face of Earth

Since forming from molten stardust some 4.6 billion years ago, the face of our planet has been constantly changing.  The earliest Continents had no resemblance to those we find today and have changed their size, shape and position as they have been rifted apart and sutured together by the opening and closing of oceans.  Of course, that process continues today but is too gradual to be noticed during our short life spans; hints of that relentless activity are offered by observable rift zones and the earthquakes that result from the collision, lateral scraping or subduction of Earth's tectonic plates.

Today's surface geography has only settled into place over the last 50 million years or so, a very brief period in Earth's natural history.  While volcanic islands continue to appear and Continental shorelines expanded and contracted throughout the Pleistocene (2 million to 10 thousand years ago), humans did not have the technology to adequately map and view our planet's surface until the last few centuries.

Indeed, the coming generations will be the first in human history to directly observe the changing face of Earth as our climate warms, sea levels rise and coastal geography changes dramatically.  Hopefully, that reality will ignite a more fervent commitment to minimize human impact on both the atmosphere and the natural ecosystems of our home planet.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Mountain Visitor

Anyone who has traveled through the mountains of Western North America has likely encountered Steller's jays.  Represented by several subspecies, these conspicuous birds are adorned with a black head and crest, contrasting with the blue plumage of their body and wings.  Their loud, raucous calls often bring attention to their presence.

Along the Colorado Front Range, Steller's jays are common residents of subalpine forests across the mountains and of the ponderosa pine-Douglas fir woodlands of the upper foothills.  While they are occasionally observed along the base of the foothills, these noisy omnivores seldom venture onto the adjacent Piedmont except when heavy winter snows blanket the higher terrain.

Yesterday, a lone Steller's jay appeared on our Littleton farm, feeding with a group of blue jays; he was the first to turn up here during the non-winter months.  Perhaps the first mountain snows of the season forced him down or maybe he's just an adventurous individual.  Whatever the cause for his visit, he was more than welcome, reminding me that attentive naturalists are often rewarded with unexpected sightings. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Out of the Gloom

After several days of a low, gray overcast, chilly air and intermittent showers, the clouds have pulled away from the Front Range this morning, revealing the first thick blanket of snow across the higher peaks.  Down here on the Piedmont, the sunshine and mild temperatures were inviting after the gloomy period and the precipitation had softened the landscape.

Surveying the farm this morning, I encountered the usual mix of avian residents but also came across a rock wren, foraging on one of the woodpiles; he was the first I have seen on the property since we purchased it in 1990.  Of course, his presence only added to the joy that the pleasant weather had brought.

The atmospheric trough that produced our cool, rainy conditions is pushing eastward across the Great Plains and warmer, drier air will soon move in from the Southwest.  On the backside of the trough, those air masses will clash and thunderstorms are forecast for tomorrow afternoon.  By the weekend, however, we expect sunny skies and highs in the seventies (F). 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Leadership by Bullhorn

Donald Trump has little respect for anyone but himself.  Wallowing in his pool of self importance, he sends out tweets deriding his staff, fellow Republicans, foreign leaders, civil rights advocates and, this week, professional athletes.  Still campaigning in regions of the country that adore his in-your-face style, Trump attacks critics and opponents with zeal, shunning the decorum expected of American Presidents.

This leadership by bullhorn is both divisive and ineffective, as evidenced by his near total lack of achievements to date.  Limited to signing executive orders, Trump remains at the mercy of the Legislative and Judicial Branches which, hopefully, will keep this bombastic narcissist from destroying America's image across the globe.  Why the Republican leadership has not been more vocal in criticizing this wayward President is almost as disturbing as Trump's behavior itself.

Of course, The Donald could care less what the rest of us think.  He is all about himself and speaks only to his poorly educated, provincially-minded, racist base.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Chill Alarm

The first chilly weather of late summer or early autumn certainly catches the attention of humans and wildlife alike.  After months of hot weather, it is a welcome reprieve for both but it is of more significance to our wild neighbors.

Though animal behavior is most closely tied to the daylight cycle, the cool weather is an instinctive alarm that the harsh months of winter lie ahead and that harvesting is now especially important.  That may mean putting on a layer of fat for hibernation, fueling up for migration or storing food in dens or natural cavities for the lean months.  In response to this seasonal alarm, wildlife species become more active and conspicuous, delighting many humans who are also invigorated by the chill.

Last night, our low temperature dropped into the mid forties (F), kicking on the furnace for the first time since April; the first prolonged run of chilly weather is expected to arrive by this weekend.  This morning, I toured the farm, taking in the cool fresh air and watching our resident birds and mammals as they began their initial preparations for winter.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Hurricanes send a Message

After enduring widespread destruction from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, North Americans and residents of the Caribbean now face Hurricane Maria, churning toward the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.  Just upgraded to a category 5 storm, Maria has become the third major hurricane to threaten the region within the past month.

While much of our focus has centered on evacuation and recovery, the elephant in the room is global warming which may not increase the frequency of hurricanes but will surely augment their intensity.  Tropical storms and hurricanes are heat machines, fueled by warm ocean waters and the hot, humid air into which they move.  Global warming will increase all three factors as sea temperatures rise and a warming atmosphere retains more water vapor.

Unfortunately, while many industrialists and politicians appreciate the technology that predicts the path and intensity of hurricanes, they reject the science of climate change.  Few cities are planning for a warmer climate and politicians continue to fight over funding for infrastructure.  The message sent by these powerful storms should resonate across the globe; few if any regions of the planet will be immune to the effects of a warming climate. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Apache Jumping Spiders

Sitting on a railroad tie along one of our flower beds, I looked down to see a small group of jumping spiders in the dry, weedy grass.  Yellow-orange patches on their cephalothorax and abdomen indicated that they were female Apache jumping spiders, a species common across central latitudes of the U.S.

Like all jumping spiders, they have excellent vision, provided by four pair of eyes (including a large, dominant pair).  Foraging in the bright sunshine, they search for a wide variety of small insects and will return to their den if clouds role in.  Unlike many spiders, jumping spiders do not spin webs but do use silk to create a nest for their young or a cozy retreat for themselves; the nest is typically placed in a protected crevice among rocks or logs.  The life span of these small, active arachnids is generally about one year; Apache jumping spiders overwinter in their immature stage.

It is always interesting to come across small creatures that, if not for sheer luck, might otherwise go unnoticed.  Some landscapes, such as our weedy, dry "lawns", would not seem attractive to many species of wildlife; but, if we stop and look, we are often surprised to discover an amazing diversity of fascinating creatures.  Backyard safaris are often rewarding.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Borrowing Genes

All life forms on this planet, from fruit flies to humans, borrow genes that determine their physical and behavioral traits.  Having received half of their genome from each parent via sexual reproduction (or all of it in lower forms that are asexual), the genes are a blueprint for our structure and the biochemical processes that sustain life.  Many human genes date back to ancestral primates, having persisted through natural selection during 60 million years of evolution.

Unfortunately, some genes are harmful or corrupted, producing disease or failing to block disease processes; most of these bad genes were inherited while some mutated from good genes during our lives.  We have long used medication and surgery to deal with the effects of this "malware" in our chromosomes and are just now beginning to use gene therapy to correct the defects in our genome.

In the course of our lives, we may pass along some of our genes to biologic children, including some that may threaten their health.  As the saying goes, "we cannot choose our parents" and we are subject to any deleterious genes that we inherit.  Finally, upon our death, a sizable fragment of our genome persists in our biologic children; the rest is removed from the genome of our species, never to be returned.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Engaging North Korea

Despite the saber-rattling and bombastic threats from the two narcissistic leaders, neither North Korea nor the United States has anything to gain from a military confrontation.  Though some war hawks in Congress are pushing for a tough stance, diplomatic engagement is the best answer in the long run.

It may be difficult to demonstrate respect for a dictator who brain washes and oppresses his citizens but we cannot encourage change by isolating and ridiculing Kim Jong Un.  Efforts to bring North Korea into the world economy will produce opportunities to shine light on the inequities that exist in that country and better introduce its population to the freedoms enjoyed in Western Society.

If Kim Jong Un is granted a more significant role on the world stage and if other major players initiate diplomatic relations with North Korea, we should be able to avoid military conflict and eventually bring that country into the international community.  Warfare, on the other hand, will lead to the death of thousands (if not millions) of innocent civilians.  See also War and Speech.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Second Coming of Man

Earth formed about 4.6 billion years ago, some 9 billion years after the Big Bang.  Life would appear on our planet a billion years later but would not emerge from the sea until 440 million years ago.  Primates evolved about 60 million years ago and the first hominins appeared about 5 million years ago; finally, modern man graced the scene about 150,000 years ago.

While our species had a limited effect on natural ecosystems for most of our history, we began to significantly pollute the planet over the last few centuries.  Fouling the air, water and soil, we have also altered the climate through our widespread use of fossil fuels.  There is a reasonable probability that Earth may become uninhabitable within a few more centuries unless we make major strides in the areas of population control and pollution curtailment.  Of course, supervolcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes and nuclear war could also play a role in our extinction.

Many humans envision that we will escape to other planets or other solar systems before our species is annihilated.  More likely, it seems to me, we will fall victim to our lack of stewardship, perhaps aggravated by natural catastrophe, and, in our absence, nature will heal herself.  Hundreds of millions of years later, assuming the sun has not yet begun to die, we may re-evolve from "lower species" that managed to survive the turmoil on Earth.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Irma's Fury becomes Personal

As I write this post, Hurricane Irma is still meandering WNW along the northern coast of Cuba.  The most recent computer models suggest that it will soon turn north, slamming the Florida Keys, hugging the west coast of Florida and sparing Metro Miami.  In concert, celebrity reporters and weathermen are racing across the peninsula to be close to the action.

Anyone who has read this blog, even on a casual basis, likely knows that my wife and I own a condo on Longboat Key, off Sarasota.  It now appears that it will incur significant damage but we are fortunate that we have other homes and that none of our family members are currently using that property.  Since purchasing the condo, in 2003, we and our relatives have repeatedly enjoyed Longboat Key with nothing more serious than chilly weather to taint our vacations.

Of course, we always knew that the purchase was a risk and have never believed that public funds should be used to bail out those who choose to occupy barrier islands, river floodplains, volcanic slopes or other high risk zones.  Nature is not cruel but neither is she sentimental; if we do not respect her power or acknowledge the processes that culminated in her beautiful landscapes, we cannot complain when we suffer the consequences.  And when it comes to hurricanes, human-induced global warming will likely make them more frequent and more powerful.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Mexico's Subduction Quake

While the attention of most North Americans has been focused on Hurricane Irma, about to unleash her fury on Florida, a strong earthquake struck off the Pacific Coast of southern Mexico yesterday.  The magnitude 8.2 quake occurred along a subduction zone, where the Cocos Plate (a remnant of the massive Farallon Plate) is dipping beneath the North American Plate; unfortunately, at least 58 persons were killed by the earthquake.

In such subduction zones, the edge of the over-riding plate is pulled down by friction with the subducting plate.  Eventually, this edge rebounds upward, displacing a massive amount of seawater and often triggering a tsunami.  Fortunately, in this case, the latter did not develop.

As the North and South American Plates continue to drift westward in concert with the opening of the Atlantic Ocean, subduction of the Farallon remnants (the Juan de Fuca, Cocos and Nazca Plates, north to south) will continue, igniting volcanic ranges (the Cascades, Mexican volcanoes, Central American volcanoes and the Andes) as they melt and triggering earthquakes offshore that spread across the mainland.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Record-Setting Hurricane

Hurricane Irma, churning its way toward Florida, has pulverized a few Caribbean islands along the way.  Since it formed, in the tropical Atlantic, this storm has maintained a symmetrical structure and has not encountered obstacles to its development (wind shear, dry air, cold water or mountain ranges).  As a result, the massive hurricane achieved category 5 status and has retained that strength for more than twice as long as any Atlantic hurricane in recorded history.

Expected to pummel the Turks and Caicos today, the storm's center remained north of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and will likely miss Cuba as Irma continues to track to the WNW.  The Bahamas will soon feel its leading edge and a hurricane warning has now been posted for Southeast Florida and the Florida Keys.

An atmospheric trough to the north, combined with a large dome of high pressure over the mid Atlantic, will eventually steer Irma northward.  When and where it makes that turn will make all the difference to residents of Florida, southern Georgia and the Carolinas.  We should know within 48 hours. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A Pumpkin Moon

Over the last few days, as the waxing moon approached its full stage, our lone natural satellite has taken on an orange hue here in Metro Denver.  Looking like a giant pumpkin, it has hovered over the Eastern Plains in early evening and loomed above the Front Range peaks at sunrise.

The cause for its beautiful yet mysterious appearance is simple.  The moonlight is shining through a smoky haze that has settled across the Colorado Piedmont.  Extensive wildfires in Idaho and Montana are the source of the smoke, which moved southward within an atmospheric trough.  While the latter brought welcome, cooler air to the urban corridor, the smoke has greatly diminished the visibility and has produced a significant health risk for those with pulmonary disease.

While the wildfires continue to burn, winds are expected to shift back to the southwest in the coming days, bringing heat back to the Front Range but clearing out the smoke.  Of course, our pumpkin moon will then lose its colorful tinge.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Scrub Jay visits the Farm

Woodhouse's scrub jays are common, permanent residents of the Mountain West, from Nevada to Mexico.  Here along the Colorado Front Range, they are primarily found on the shrublands of the lower foothills and, until yesterday, I had not observed one on our Littleton farm.

While reading at the edge of our driveway, I was startled by the jay as he wandered out from the shrub-lined "lawn," picking at the asphalt in search of food.  After a minute or so, he flew off to our grove of pinyon pines and then headed south.

Like most jays, scrub jays are noisy, aggressive and omnivorous birds; unlike some species, they are usually found alone or in pairs.  They lack the distinctive crest of blue jays (a common permanent resident on the farm) and Steller's jays (an occasional winter visitor here).  Perhaps, like red-breasted nuthatches and lesser goldfinches, they'll become new, year-round residents on our property.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Laborers in America

American laborers generally come from the lower and middle classes; their income is but a small fraction of those in the upper class.  Many laborers have more than one job and few can afford to have their spouse stay home with the kids.  They don't belong to fitness clubs and rarely eat out.

Laborers work at country clubs and resorts but cannot afford to use those facilities.  Some work at professional sports stadiums but could never afford to attend the games.  Laborers avoid toll lanes and reserved parking lots.  They often use mass transit and, while they may load your plane or cruise ship, they could not afford the journey.

Many laborers are guest workers.  They pick our crops, repair our highways, cut our lawns and build our homes.  They take on jobs that more affluent Americans would never consider.  And when they're done, we send them back.  Happy Labor Day!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

September Heat

By September, the longer nights bring chilly mornings to the Front Range cities and, in most years, afternoon highs drop into the 70s F.  In fact, the first snow of the season often dusts the urban corridor before September ends.  This year, however, summer heat is slow to abate.

A ridge of high pressure, the same that blocked Harvey from moving inland, remains in place over the American West.  Deflecting Pacific fronts across the Northern States and blocking the Southwest Monsoon that usually brings rain in August and September, this atmospheric dome is prolonging the summer season and putting the cool, crisp days of autumn on hold.

For those of us who relish the invigoration that autumn brings, this static pattern is less than welcome and may portend a seasonal change that global warming will bring.  Until the jet stream dips across our region, we'll have to rely on migrant songbirds to provide reassurance that the seasons are changing; as in recent years, the waterfowl will likely be in no hurry to come south.  We can only hope that chilly air will arrive in time to spark the glorious colors of October. 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Rock Wrens

This morning, on my regular birding walk at South Platte Park, I encountered a rock wren, foraging on a spillway.  While these small songbirds are common in canyons and on rock outcrops and boulder fields of the Front Range foothills and mountains, I rarely see them down on the Piedmont.

Found throughout western North America, from southern Canada to Mexico and from the High Plains to the West Coast Ranges, rock wrens are identified by their pale gray coloration (except for a light, rusty wash on their lower abdomen), a long, thin bill, a barred tail and short legs.  Almost always found on rocky slopes or boulder fields, they hunt for insects and spiders, bobbing over the rocks, searching the crevices with their bill or springing into the air to snare their prey.  As one might expect, these vocal birds place their nest within rock crevices, using dried vegetation, sticks and bark chips to build a shallow cup; of interest, they also construct a "patio" of pebbles at the entrance to the crevice.

Come autumn, rock wrens depart the northern half of their summer range (including Colorado), heading for the Central Valley of California, the Desert Southwest or Mexico.  I suspect this morning's visitor at South Platte Park was beginning that biannual trek.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Detour to the San Juans

Returning to Littleton from Crested Butte, I opted for a detour to the south, covering a stretch of landscape between Gunnison and Creede that I had not previously explored.  Just west of Gunnison, at the east end of the Blue Mesa Reservoir, I turned south on Colorado 149, undulating across sage grasslands that are broken by rocky outcrops.

After dipping through a few creek valleys, the highway makes a significant descent to the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River which it follows upstream.  Hemmed in by cliffs of volcanic sediments, the river rises in the northern San Juans near Lake City.  After passing through that town, Route 149 begins a climb toward Slumgullion Summit, about 11,600 feet; en route, the road offered a spectacular view of Lake San Cristobal and, at the summit, a broad view of majestic peaks to the northwest.  Unfortunately, bark beetles have decimated the forest in this area (as in many other areas of the San Juans); dipping through pockets of dead and cleared forest, the highway crosses the Continental Divide at Spring Creek Pass (a thousand feet lower than Slumgullion Summit) and begins a winding descent toward the Rio Grand River.

Along the way, an overlook provides a magnificent view of the uppermost Rio Grand Valley, including the Rio Grande Reservoir and Pyramid Peak; the north flank of that mountain has been officially recognized as the source of the Rio Grande.  Paralleling the river just upstream from Creede, Route 149 winds eastward along the Rio Grande all the way to South Fork, Colorado, where it intersects US 160 and the river's southern fork.  Turning east on this highway, I headed toward the San Luis Valley and familiar landscape.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Up to Crested Butte

Despite numerous road trips throughout Colorado over the past thirty years, I had yet to visit Crested Butte.  Facing two days with no commitments, I decided to remedy that deficiency and set out from our Littleton farm early this morning; three hours later, I was in Gunnison, enjoying a delicious brunch.

Colorado 135 leads north from Gunnison, crossing the Gunnison River and then following it upstream to Almont, where it rises from the merger of the East and Taylor Rivers.  Before heading to Crested Butte, I drove northeastward on Route 742 through the scenic Taylor River Valley which is quilted with ranches and resorts; numerous pull-offs along the road offer access to the beautiful river, a popular stream for fly-fishing.  About 15 miles from Almont, I reached the spectacular Taylor Park Reservoir, backed by the high peaks of the Sawatch Range.  Returning to Highway 135, I then continued north through the East River Valley which is bordered on the west by the volcanic West Elk Mountains; nearing Crested Butte, the road angles northwest along the Slate River (a tributary of the East), which parallels the base of the Ruby Mountains.

The Old Town area of Crested Butte offers a mix of shops, pubs and cafes while the ski area (Mt. Crested Butte), northeast of town and on the north side of Crested Butte (12,162 feet), has the look and feel of a modern resort.  Before getting some dinner in Old Town, I drove past the ski area and continued northward on Forest Road 317 which yields broad views of the Elk Mountains and of the upper East River Valley at their base.  Throughout the day, I enjoyed the company of mountain bluebirds, Steller's jays, Clark's nutcrackers, pine siskins, magpies and, of course, those vocal subalpine residents, red squirrels.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Science, Disaster & Denial

Just a few days ago, when Harvey was but a tropical depression in the Western Gulf of Mexico, meteorologists predicted that it would strengthen into a hurricane and then stall along the Texas Coast, causing widespread, disastrous flooding in the region.  No doubt, many in Texas and across the country ignored (and perhaps ridiculed) that forecast.  Unfortunately, the scientists were right.

This week, our anti-science, pro-coal President will likely fly over the extensive flooding; if he sticks to his script, he will express dismay over the tragedy and promise that the Federal Government will provide ongoing assistance.  Once the disaster has resolved, however, he will go back to denying climate change and other inconvenient science-based predictions.

A warming climate will surely increase the incidence of flooding events in coastal regions in addition to its other life-threatening effects across the globe.  Yet, the fossil fuel industry, based in Texas, has long denied the role of human activity (specifically oil, gas and coal consumption) in global warming, contrary to the findings of its own scientists.  No doubt, some evangelical ministers will blame the social tolerance of progressives for this divine retribution and our anti-science, pro-business EPA Director will go on slashing environmental regulations.  The scourge of mysticism will maintain its grip on a large segment of human society, imperiling all life on our planet. 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Western Heat & Texas Floods

An atmospheric ridge, characterized by a dome of high pressure, currently sits over the Southwestern U.S.  Over the past few days (and for several more to come) sinking air within the dome has pushed afternoon highs near 90 degrees F here in Metro Denver.  In concert, the stagnant high pressure has diverted Pacific storm systems to the north and has cut off the Southwest Monsoon moisture from the south.

This same atmospheric ridge will keep the remnants of Hurricane Harvey along the Texas and Louisiana Coasts, perhaps allowing it to re-strengthen.  Preventing the storm from moving northwestward into the Southern Plains, the high pressure dome will also deprive the Gulf Coast region of Pacific fronts that, under other circumstances, might pull the tropical system into the Midwest and thence to the Mid-Atlantic or New England.

Stuck in place, the remnants of Harvey will drop flooding rains from Corpus Christi to San Antonio and northeastward into Louisiana.  Meanwhile, those of us in the Southwest will have to rely on pop-up showers and thunderstorms to provide relief from the heat and drought.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Harvey Approaches Texas Coast

Just a tropical depression 36 hours ago, Hurricane Harvey rapidly strengthened over the very warm waters of the western Gulf of Mexico.  Current forecasts indicate that it will strengthen further, perhaps to a Category 3 storm, before making landfall just north of Corpus Christi.

Counter-clockwise winds of 125 mph or more will lash the coast north of the hurricane's center, producing a storm surge of 9 feet or more in some areas.  Of course, wind damage and widespread inland flooding are also expected.

Indeed, the major problem with Hurricane Harvey is that the storm is moving slowly and will not be whisked away by any approaching fronts.  Rather, the hurricane (or its remnant system) is forecast to meander along the Texas Gulf Coast for several days, dumping prodigious amounts of rain on an area that has already experienced a wet spring and summer.  Two feet of precipitation (if not more) will fall in some locations and widespread, severe flooding is almost certain to occur, perhaps as far inland as San Antonio.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Bad Habits, Good Genes

Most of us have had friends, family members or acquaintances who, despite unhealthy habits (smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, a junk-food diet and a lack of aerobic exercise) live long, disease-free lives; having practiced medicine for forty years, I encountered many such individuals.  Of course, these persons were saved by a genetic allotment that prevented the consequences of their careless behavior.

Exposure to such individuals tends to make the rest of us fate-oriented and may convince us to abandon efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle; when one's parents lived to an advanced age despite bad habits, the delusion is especially powerful.  However, we each have our own, unique set of genes and until such time that genetic screening is widely available at a reasonable cost (and completely understood by the medical community), it is wise to cut your risk by adhering to healthy life choices.  Counting on your genes to protect you is just a game of chance.

Finally, most of us will face serious health issues in the course of our lives and the effort to remain active and healthy beforehand will significantly improve our ability to survive such insults, whether they be accidents or illnesses.  We can't change our genes (at least not yet) but we can try to prevent disease by avoiding toxic behaviors, ingesting a healthy diet, engaging in regular aerobic activity and adhering to appropriate screening recommendations.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Scotts Bluff

Returning to Colorado after the solar eclipse, I angled southwestward to Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, in an effort to escape the heavy traffic.  While that plan failed miserably, I was able to view Scotts Bluff itself, protected in a National Monument since 1919.  This massive erosional remnant rises up to 800 feet above the North Platte River, which sculpted most of its broad valley over the past 5 million years.

During the Cretaceous Period, some 100 million years ago, a shallow sea covered most of the High Plains region, leaving behind shale and sandstone as the Rockies rose and the sea retreated.  In concert, the mountains eroded as fast as they rose and sheets of sediments were spread across the adjacent plains; volcanic debris also blew in from the San Juans of southwest Colorado.  Periods of uplift, especially in the Miocene and Pliocene, intensified the erosion and fed large, meandering rivers.  Today, Scotts Bluff, like the cliffs along the edge of the North Platte Valley, is a testimonial to that natural history; it is a layer-cake of sedimentary rocks deposited during the Oligocene and Miocene Periods, some 34 to 20 million years ago.

Named for Hiram Scott, a fur trapper who died in this area in 1828 (at the age of 23), Scotts Bluff has long been an important landmark, both for Native Americans and for settlers who traveled west on the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails.  I would have visited the Monument myself but I had eight hours of stop-and-go traffic ahead of me.

Monday, August 21, 2017


As I left Denver this morning, a magenta sunrise spread across the eastern horizon; I wondered if the solar eclipse would match the beauty of that brilliant display.  Heading northeastward along Interstate 76, I crossed the rolling grasslands of the High Plains, adorned in late summer by swaths of prairie sunflowers.  Near Wiggins, the highway drops into the valley of the South Platte River, often shrouded in a dusky fog during the early morning hours.

I exited the Interstate in a pea-soup fog at Sterling, Colorado, and headed north on Route 113, climbing from the valley and re-entering the bright sunshine; wind turbines lined the crest of the escarpment, east and west of Peetz.  Farther north, I crossed Interstate 80 at Sidney, Nebraska, and continued northward on US 385, dipping through the North Platte River valley at Bridgeport, where the first eclipse-watching celebrations lined the roadway.  South of Alliance, I cut westward on a graveled road, finally escaping the parade of vehicles that had accompanied me all the way from Denver.

Choosing a location along a wooded ridge, I waited for the big event; the skies were clear except for a few high cirrus clouds.  A north wind raked the ridge and a loggerhead shrike provided company, hunting along a fence line.  About fifteen minutes before totality, a faint darkness began to envelop the landscape, suggesting the onset of dusk; the rate of darkening increased until totality occurred, when the sun's corona produced a brilliant ring around the edge of the moon's dark disc.  While the total solar eclipse was spectacular (and well worth my five hour journey), it was the sudden return of brilliant sunshine, shattering the darkness, that, for me, produced the emotional highlight of this celestial event.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

North to the Darkness

Tomorrow, I plan to head north to view the solar eclipse.  My current plan is to drive northeastward to Sterling, Colorado, then northward to Sidney, Nebraska, and then farther north to somewhere in the North Platte Valley to experience the spectacle.

While I look forward to the event and hope that clear skies enhance nature's show, I must admit that we Americans seem to be over-reacting to an astronomical convergence, one that happens somewhere on our planet every 18 months or so.  For scientists, the eclipse will provide a unique opportunity to study the sun's corona but, for most of us, it will be more of an emotional event; no doubt, some will ascribe mythical significance to this transient phenomenon.

Whether I actually reach the zone of totality or not, I'll enjoy the road trip which will take me across the stark landscape and grassland ecosystems of the High Plains.  More on the entire experience tomorrow evening.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Prickly Lettuce in Bloom

Favoring sunny areas and dry soil, prickly lettuce is one of the most abundant wildflowers (some would say weeds) along the Colorado Front Range.  This week, those on our Littleton farm are blooming, their numerous, small, pale-yellow flowers adorning the landscape.

One of many wild lettuces across the globe, this wildflower is also closely related to dandelions and, like the latter, is an introduced native of Eurasia.  Despised by gardeners, this tall plant has prickly, deeply-lobed leaves that alternate sides along the branched stems; since the leaves twist to face the sun, prickly lettuce is also known as the compass plant.  Like dandelions, the leaves and flowers of this wildflower are edible but the milky sap, used for a variety of medicinal purposes, produces a bitter taste and the foliage must be properly cleaned before consumption (not my area of expertise).

Having yanked many stalks of prickly lettuce from our flower beds and shrub lines over the years, I understand those who prefer to call it a noxious weed.  But when the plant blooms (anytime from July to October), it is an attractive wildflower in my book. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Subalpine Solitude

For a naturalist, the Colorado Front Range is a wonderful place to live; within an hour's drive of our Littleton farm, I am able to explore five life zones.  On the other hand, the region has become increasingly congested with humans and I now limit my mountain excursions to weekdays, avoiding the clogged highways and crowded trails that develop on holidays and weekends.

This morning, I set my sights on locations near Kenosha Pass (10,000 feet) that I had not yet visited.  The pass itself, on US 285, is crossed by the Colorado Trail and thus receives a fair number of hikers and backpackers throughout the week; for that reason, I chose other sites that are reached by unpaved roads and remain unknown to tourists and most Front Range residents.  There, surrounded by a subalpine forest of pine, spruce, fir and aspen, I parked my pickup and sauntered along the jeep trails.  Enjoying the cool, fresh mountain air, I was joined only by wildlife that inhabit the woods and meadows; red squirrels, Steller's jays, common ravens, mountain chickadees, gray-headed juncos and least chipmunks were most conspicuous.

Offering views of the Continental Divide, the Mt. Evans massif and the Platte River Mountains, these secluded areas may not have the notoriety of Colorado's tourist hotspots but they share the same mountain climate, topography and ecology.  Better yet, they offer solitude!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Un-American President

Having entered politics by leading the "Birther" movement, Donald Trump spent most of his Presidential campaign ridiculing his opponents, denigrating world leaders and stoking hatred for immigrants and minorities.  Nevertheless, he was elected due to a host of promises that have yet to be realized; among these were building a Wall along the Mexico border, repealing and replacing Obamacare, reigniting the coal industry and keeping jobs in America.  Supporters appreciated his straight talk and, one suspects, his racism.  The fact that he refused to reveal his personal finances and repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin, the brutal dictator of Russia, seemed to have little effect on his legions.

During his campaign, Trump denied knowing anything about David Duke and white supremacists.  Now, after the horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia, he once again has refused to directly denounce those home-grown terrorists.  Beyond his bigotry, his war-mongering, his assault on human rights and his impulsive tweets against allies and his own cabinet members, Trump denies the threat of global warming and has rolled back environmental regulations (see The Anti-Environment President).

While his dedicated believers may be willing to overlook his narcissistic behavior and his coddling of racists and dictators, the majority of Americans must reclaim the principles upon which our country was founded.  We need not wait for the next election to dethrone this wayward, self-absorbed President.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Genetic Bond

Of all human relationships, the parent-child bond is surely the strongest.  While romantic relationships are often intense for relatively short periods of time, the biologic connection between the parent and his/her child is permanent, reinforced by the genetic imperative, a force that governs life in general.

Human parents are both conscious of the physical and emotional needs of their offspring and subconsciously devoted to protecting their own genes that the child now carries.  In other words, we dearly love our children for both altruistic and selfish reasons.  No other human relationship (except perhaps that between grandparents and their grandchildren) shares this dual motivation.

Indeed, while marriages often end in divorce, very few parents divorce their children and, in such cases, some form of mental illness or emotional turmoil in the parent is usually to blame.  On the other hand, the genetic bond is unidirectional; the child may be devoted to their parents due to the nurturing that they provided and the traits that they passed along but their "genetic focus" is on their own offspring.  Above all else, life is devoted to protecting and perpetuating itself; human life is no different in this respect.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Swainson's Hawks at Dusk

This evening, as dusk enveloped our Littleton farm, a trio of Swainson's hawks soared overhead, dipping and hovering as they circled the property.  Now that their breeding season has ended, these attractive Western buteos begin to gather in flocks.  By the time they leave for Argentina, in late summer or early autumn, those flocks may be comprised of hundreds if not thousands of hawks, often mingling with other migrant raptors.

Feasting primarily on mice, voles, ground squirrels and rabbits during the breeding season, Swainson's hawks switch to an insect diet for the rest of the year, snaring dragonflies, butterflies or moths in the air or chasing grasshoppers across fields.

Our visitors appeared to be hunting insects as they cavorted in the darkening sky.  Then again, they may have just been soaring for the fun of it, energized by the cool air and preparing their flight muscles for the long migration ahead.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Back in Rainy Colorado

After three weeks in the hot, dry Midwest, an area known for frequent summer showers and thunderstorms, I have returned to the semiarid landscape of the Colorado Front Range; arriving late yesterday afternoon, I was greeted by torrential rain along the eastern and southern edge of Metro Denver.  Intermittent rain and thunderstorms continued into the evening and, after a respite this morning, they have returned this afternoon.  Indeed, rainy, cool weather has dominated the region for more than a week.

High pressure over the Great Plains, combined with a stationary front through the Rocky Mountain corridor, is funneling monsoon moisture into the region.  In concert, the same dome of high pressure has cut off the flow Gulf of Mexico moisture to the Heartland and has been shunting Pacific storm systems across the northern U.S., depriving the Plains and Midwest of any prolonged rain events.

When weather patterns become stagnant, copious precipitation may drench normally dry regions while rain and humidity fail to reach reliably wet areas (e.g.. the Corn Belt).  Here in Littleton, our farm has regained its spring-like greenery, a dramatic change from the dry, browning property that I left behind three weeks ago.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Sand Wasps

While sitting on the beach at Sandy Lake yesterday, I noticed a large number of plump "bees" burrowing into the sand.  These were female sand wasps which lay eggs within the burrows and provide paralyzed insects for the larvae to feast on once they hatch.

Male sand wasps neither dig burrows nor feed the larvae; like many human males, their parental activity is limited to sperm donation.  While the adult females spend much of their time hunting for insects to feed the larvae, they, like the adult males, feed primarily on nectar, thereby pollinating a variety of flowers.

Sand wasps are found across the globe, utilizing the sandy soil of beaches, floodplains, deserts and prairies.  Since they are colonial nesters, these wasps are often overlooked until one comes across their nesting site (or until the wasps start digging near your beach chair).

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Return to Sandy Lake

This week, we have returned to Sandy Lake, in Portage County, Ohio, where my wife and her siblings own a lakeside cottage.  We have brought along two of our grandsons, ensuring more entertainment and less relaxation.

Like most of the Temperate Zone, this glacial lake in northeastern Ohio is in its summer doldrums.  A few ospreys and double-crested cormorants visit the lake each day and a noisy flock of purple martins have re-established residence in their man-made complex at the end of our dock.  Otherwise, the bird population has been relatively inconspicuous, represented by house sparrows, blue jays and a changing assortment of common summer residents.  Frogs and aquatic turtles grab the attention of our grandsons and, to the delight of the oldest, the bluegills have been biting.

Fortunately, the temperature has been relatively mild and the air pleasantly dry.  Rain is forecast to move in by tomorrow but the moisture is needed in this area and we'll get in our swimming and kayak excursions between the showers.  After all, keeping the grandsons entertained is a vital priority! 

Friday, July 28, 2017

Senator McCain and Healthcare

This week, Senator John McCain of Arizona, having just undergone surgery for an aggressive form of brain cancer, returned to Washington, DC, to participate in the ongoing healthcare debate.  As an individual who has long served our country in both the military and the government, Senator McCain has access to the best healthcare that is available in the U.S.; nevertheless, his current medical condition will likely be fatal, perhaps within the next year.

Last night, Senator McCain, a Republican, cast the deciding vote to shut down his Party's dysfunctional efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare).  No doubt, his own healthcare crisis played a major role in the Senator's decision to take a compassionate stance, thereby preventing Congress from stripping healthcare coverage from millions of Americans.

Receiving the diagnosis of a fatal illness focuses the mind.  One tends to become more empathetic and less judgmental.  Faced with mortality and the complications that illness can bring, we more easily appreciate the hardships that others endure, many of them already dealing with the ravages of poverty.  McCain's willingness to stand up to the folly of his colleagues was surely fueled by both his innate courage and his personal tribulations.

Monday, July 24, 2017

A Reinvigorated Floodplain

Two days after torrents of rain lashed the Missouri River Valley, life on the floodplain has been reinvigorated; this morning, noticeably cooler and drier air enveloped Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area.  The greenery was more vibrant, floral colors were more intense and the resident wildlife were far more active.

Water within the pools and channels had returned to near normal levels and shallows covered low swaths in the fields.  Indigo buntings, dickcissels and common yellowthroats were especially vocal, energized by the milder conditions; butterflies were numerous along the roadways, moving among the shrubs and wildflowers.  By contrast, waders and shorebirds had spread out across the recovering refuge and were less conspicuous than they were before the rains.

A lone bald eagle and two Cooper's hawks patrolled the peaceful scene, minks raced across the levees and a host of swallows skimmed the inviting pools, no longer stagnant and shrinking.  No doubt, hot, humid weather will return to central Missouri but, for now, an early taste of autumn is certainly welcome in the Valley.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Mark Twain Cave

Yesterday, facing another afternoon near 100 degrees F, we opted to take our grandsons to Mark Twain Cave in the Mississippi River Valley, just south of Hannibal, Missouri.  Renowned for its part in Mark Twain's novels and for its role as a refuge for Jesse James, the cave was discovered in the mid 19th Century and began to attract tourists soon thereafter.  Festooned with autographs from the 1800s, this limestone cave (which has about 3 miles of passageways) remains a popular escape from the summer heat and tours start every 15 minutes or so.

Having visited caves across the country, Mark Twain Cave is far from the most spectacular but was plenty interesting for our grandsons.  The narrow passageways are artificially lit and, like most commercialized caves, many of its formations are named.  Unlike most limestone caverns, "water features" such as stalactites, stalagmites and flowstones are very limited and only a few small pools were encountered.  Due to the steady influx of humans, few bats inhabit the cave.

Despite its popularity and artificial features, Mark Twain Cave was interesting from a historical point of view and our guide was both informative and personable.  Of course, an hour or so out of the oppressive summer heat was especially welcome (the cave temperature is 52 degrees F, year round).

Friday, July 21, 2017

Birding in the Cicada Din

On these hot, summer days, many of us prefer to bird during the evening hours when at least a touch of coolness is in the air.  Hampered by a dense woodland canopy to which songbirds often retreat, we rely on their songs or calls to zero in on their location.

Unfortunately, in the middle of a Midwestern summer, the annual cicadas are reaching their peak level of activity and their loud chorus drowns out the birdsong, making our avian quarry difficult to locate.  Focusing on birds that feed on lawns (robins, grackles) or in the open sky (chimney swifts, common nighthawks), we hope to catch sight of other species as they dart between shrubs and tree lines or race across the darkening landscape.

Frustrated by the cicadas, some of us head in early while others, myself included, grab a lawn chair and cede the evening to our noisy neighbors.  After all, their brief adult lives will soon end and, having spent two years underground, they deserve their time in the sun.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Eagle Bluffs on Simmer

Persistent, oppressive heat, an ongoing drought and diminished flow from the Missouri River has left Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area simmering in the midst of a Midwestern summer.  Many of the pools are either dry or coated with algae and the central channel is rapidly evaporating, stranding many fish (especially Asian carp) in the warm, oxygen-poor shallows.

Taking advantage of these conditions, great blue herons and great egrets were abundant this morning, joined by a large number of killdeer that noisily patrolled the expanding mudflats.  Vultures have yet to descend on the hapless victims but small, mixed flocks of shorebirds gathered along the shrinking pools.  Wood ducks were rather numerous and a few double-crested cormorants dove for fish in the deeper areas of the channel.  Other sightings included four bald eagles, a Cooper's hawk, red-headed woodpeckers, indigo buntings, yellow-billed cuckoos, dickcissels and lark sparrows, among other common residents.

Waiting on heavy thunderstorms or late summer cold fronts, this floodplain ecosystem must endure the hot, dry weather.  Many songbirds will retreat to the shade of riparian woodlands while some mammals will estivate until conditions improve.  In the meantime, waders, swallows, shorebirds and turkey vultures will be the primary beneficiaries of the heat and drought.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Back in the Soup

Back in central Missouri for a couple of weeks, I have returned to the hot, humid air of a Midwestern summer.  Unable to cool off, even in the shade, I must retreat at intervals to our air-conditioned home and primarily limit my outdoor activity to the morning and evening hours.

This evening, a cold front is slowly dropping through the Mississippi Valley, promising showers and thunderstorms for those in its path and cool, dry air for those behind the front.  Unfortunately, the latter is not expected to enter our region and, while any rain will be welcomed, it will, in the end, merely add to the humidity.  Afternoon highs are expected to approach 100 degrees F by late in the week.

Of course, the landscape is lush compared to the Front Range, reflecting annual precipitation that is almost double that on the Colorado Piedmont; thick, hot, humid summer air is part of the price for that greenery.  On the positive side, fireflies flicker in the gathering dusk and colorful cardinals, among the last songbirds to bed down, flash among the woodlands.  Natural diversity is good for the soul.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Family Massacre

Early this morning, as I was headed east from Denver, I encountered a tragedy on Interstate 70.  A mother raccoon and her four kits lie splattered across the highway, likely nocturnal victims of a tractor trailer.

Raccoons can be a nuisance to homeowners but even the most hard-hearted suburbanite would be moved by this sight.  The mother, whether escorting her first or tenth litter, was purely following instinct and the youngsters, new to this dangerous world, had but a month or two to explore their surroundings before tragedy struck.

I could shift the discussion toward humans and our impact on natural ecosystems but the scene was too wrenching and the raccoons deserve better.  As fellow mammals, we empathize with their plight and, as intelligent creatures, we acknowledge the risk of sudden and random death.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Trumpet Vine

The orange-red flowers of trumpet vine have been blooming on our Littleton farm over the past few weeks.  Among the most recognizable of plants, this species is native to the Southeastern U.S. but has been widely cultivated and is now naturalized in Temperate and Subtropical latitudes across the globe, including semiarid regions of the American West.

The trumpet vine at our farm was planted at the southeastern corner of the house and, if left alone, would probably cover at least two sides of the building by now.  Drought tolerant, the vine thrives in poor soil and essentially takes care of itself; one need only prune the vine to keep its rapid expansion in check.  Since the flowers form on new growth, pruning is best performed in autumn or early spring.

Of course, this deciduous, woody vine is planted for its showy flowers which attract hummingbirds; our resident broad-tailed hummingbirds visit the trumpets as do a host of bees.  The aggressive vine spreads by both seed and suckering and its "aerial roots" may damage homes, barns and fencing on which it grows; it may also smother shrubs and small trees if not kept in check.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Fishermen and Litter

With all due respect to the large number of fishermen (especially fly-fishermen) who respect the environment and clean up after their activities, a significant percentage of their colleagues seem to be oblivious of the mess that they create and the environmental damage that it may cause.

Discarded beer cans, lunch debris, cut lines and an assortment of floats, weights and empty containers often litter their abandoned fishing site.  Just this morning, I came across such a scene of desecration at South Platte Park, an otherwise pristine nature preserve.

Unlike hunters, who generally seem to connect with the ecosystem in which they seek their quarry, many fishermen are present solely for the recreation, bringing along their folding chairs, music and sustenance.  I doubt that many of them can identify the birds and mammals that share the lake or river and might be endangered by the garbage that they leave behind.  In my personal opinion, fishing should be restricted (if not eliminated) within sensitive natural areas; pelicans, cormorants, diving ducks, mink and other native wildlife will keep the fish population under control.