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 coot, 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.