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Showing posts from 2018

Earwigs in the Apples

On this bright, warm, autumn morning, our youngest grandson visited our Littleton Farm.  Searching for an activity that might entertain him, my wife suggested picking some of our green apples and making cinnamon apple sauce.

He, of course, enjoyed the collection process and sampled quite a few of the apples before they were processed.  Since we do not use pesticides on the farm, a good number showed signs of insect damage and earwigs emerged from a few of the cavities.  Represented by about 2000 species across the globe, these elongated, flattened insects are easily identified by the pincers at the end of their abdomen.  Females lay their eggs in protected crevices by mid autumn and, in some species, overwinter with them to offer protection; after hatching in late winter, the juveniles undergo at least four molts before they mature to adults.  Throughout these stages, they feed on a wide variety of plant and animal matter, including flowers, vegetation, fruit, other insects and carri…

Autumn Chill in the Valley

While the afternoons are still summer-like along the Colorado Front Range, the mornings now bring an autumn chill due to the longer nights.  Down on the South Platte River just after dawn, that chill was especially intense and, in response, the wild residents were noisy and active.

Canada geese, mallards, magpies and cedar waxwings were especially conspicuous and migrant ducks were beginning to arrive from the north; this morning's visitors included blue-winged teal, American wigeon and gadwalls.  A few summer residents still remain and a lone snowy egret, huddled on driftwood in the shallows, seemed to be contemplating his escape to warmer climes.  Normally nocturnal, a beaver was active in the post-dawn chill, inspecting his dam before winter arrives.

We humans, like the wildlife, are also invigorated by the chilly air and the riverside path was filled with walkers, bikers and joggers.  After all, the fall equinox arrives this weekend (September 22) and the glorious month of Oc…

Flooding and Federal Policy

As we witness the tragic flooding from Hurricane Florence along the Southeast Coast, we are reminded of the devastation in Houston caused by Hurricane Harvey and the repeated spring flooding along some American Rivers (the Red River of the Northern Plains comes immediately to mind).

Having decided that flood insurance is a money losing proposition, private insurance companies have backed away from such coverage, donating that option to the Federal Government.  As is often the case, the U.S. Government accepted the challenge and is now billions of dollars in the red (even before the devastation caused by Hurricane Florence).

One wonders whether Federal dollars would be better spent buying up properties on floodplains and barrier islands and assisting with local engineering efforts rather than encouraging insurance holders to rebuild in those flood-prone areas.  After all, global warming is threatening coastal communities as sea levels rise and will likely intensify the power of tropic…

Love Songs

We often speak of "Love Songs" as one category of music.  But when you think about it, almost all pop, rock and country songs could be categorized as such; even the great majority of instrumental music (including jazz and classical) has been inspired by that emotion.  Exceptions seem to be limited to secular holiday tunes and commercial jingles.

Most of our popular music is devoted to the joy of love, the pursuit of love, the complications of love or the loss of love.  That love may involve another person, a pet, a place (including nature), an activity or a mystical being, among less common subjects.

It is no wonder that the most complex and intense human emotion has spawned so much creativity.  After all, nothing is more important in our lives.

Florence lashes the Southeast Coast

Florence, now downgraded to a Category 2 Hurricane, has grown into a broad storm with hurricane or tropical storm force winds stretching across 400 miles.  The outer bands have come ashore in eastern North Carolina this morning, igniting tornadic thunderstorms and producing heavy, wind-swept rain.

Due to "blocking highs" to its north and northwest, Hurricane Florence is expected to stall near the Coast and then drift southwestward along the southeastern coast of North Carolina and the northeastern coast of South Carolina, perhaps as far south as Charleston.  North of the storm's eyewall, which currently has sustained winds of 105 mph, onshore winds will produce a storm surge of 10 feet or more, as well as inland flooding from up to 2 feet or more of rain.

Due to its slow forward motion (toward the coast and then down the coast), the high winds, storm surge and heavy rain will persist for a long period of time (perhaps 48 hours), increasing the risk of flooding and damag…

Treating Dementia

This afternoon, I attended a conference on the diagnosis and treatment of dementia.  Several crucial points were made, including the importance of an accurate diagnosis (only 65% of cases are actually due to Alzheimer's Disease).  Furthermore, a variety of treatable conditions may cause dementia-like symptoms (alcohol abuse, depression, certain vitamin deficiencies, sleep disorders, toxins, hypothyroidism and hyperparathyroidism, among others) and, for these, curative measures are available.

Advances in genomics and biomarker technology may assist with early diagnosis, and a healthy life style (a Mediterranean diet, regular aerobic exercise and tobacco avoidance) may diminish the incidence and progression of Alzheimer's Disease.  While certain medications may modify the severity and course of dementia, curative treatments are not available at this point (though ongoing research studies offer hope).

What was not discussed at this conference (and a subject generally avoided by …

Late Summer Heat Wave

Following two weeks of relatively mild temperatures and intermittent rain, the next (and hopefully last) heat wave is building along the Colorado Front Range.  Once again, it is the product of a high pressure ridge, expanding northward from the Desert Southwest.  For the next week or so, afternoon highs are expected to reach the lower to mid 90s F, well above average for September.

Fortunately, the recent rains have revived the vegetation and the longer nights, combined with our high elevation and thin, dry air, have allowed overnight temperatures to drop into the fifties.  In addition, rising hot air often ignites thunderstorms above the Front Range peaks, which then drift eastward to provide spotty relief from the heat.

Our risk of these heat waves will continue until the jet stream becomes less stable in mid autumn, undulating across the country and dislodging warm atmospheric ridges with cool atmospheric troughs.  Snow usually dusts the higher peaks by late September and upslope …

Fall without Football

Watching college football is among my earliest memories, gathered around the black and white with my father and uncles, enjoying both the snacks and their beer-fueled banter.  Throughout high school and college, that pattern continued as I joined friends on Saturday afternoons to watch the games and indulge in our favorite beverages.

My wife and I have also honored that tradition over the years, enjoying the pageantry and the legendary announcers (Jackson, Lundquist et al.) as much as the games themselves; however, other than her devotion to the Wisconsin Badgers, we have not been avid fans of any given teams.  Long disturbed by serious injuries suffered in the name of school pride and big money, we have lost our enthusiasm for college football as the evidence of sports-related CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) has become impossible to ignore.

Despite the enjoyment that college football has provided over the years, we can no longer lend our support by attending games or watching…

The Delusion of Simplicity

Nothing of consequence in life is simple.  Surely, no one would argue that love or personal relationships are uncomplicated.  And who would suggest that parenting is simple or that their career has been devoid of complications?  To imply that there are simple solutions to our social ills or to the threats that we impose on natural ecosystems is exceedingly naive.

Indeed, life itself is highly complex, having evolved into a vast array of species over the past 3.6 billion years.  Despite our technologic advancements, we still do not fully understand the countless biochemical processes that support life and are far from eliminating the many diseases that threaten its existence.

Those who offer simple solutions to the problems that confront individuals, human society or our environment are delusional, seemingly unaware that all interventions have potential side effects and unforeseen consequences; most of these individuals are poorly educated and prone toward mysticism.  Our Universe, ou…

The Published Word

Published writing, whether in the form of literature, a news article, an essay, a blog post or an email, must be owned by the author.  After all, it will be a permanent record of that person's ideas, experience, convictions and philosophy.

Those in the business of writing (authors, journalists, bloggers, etc.) come to understand this fact and personally read and re-read their material before it is published.  Subsequent to that publication, their writing (and its implications regarding the author) will often be questioned or criticized and may become fodder for lawsuits or various forms of social persecution.  In that respect, the willingness to produce published content (whether fictional or not) requires a certain degree of courage.

Unfortunately, those who publish via email, text or tweet, do not often understand the permanence and potential consequences of their comments.  Then there are those who publish anonymously, refusing to accept personal responsibility for the content…

The Atlantic Comes Alive

After a slow start to the Atlantic Hurricane Season, a chain of tropical storms, hurricanes and tropical waves has developed in the past few days.  Of course, September is generally the peak month of the annual Hurricane Season (which runs from June to early November) and current atmospheric and oceanic conditions are favoring storm development.

Just yesterday, Tropical Storm Gordon made landfall along the Mississippi Coast and its flooding rains continue to fall near Pensacola and Mobile; in the coming days, that tropical system will inject copious moisture into the Midwest which will interact with a cold front to produce flooding from Arkansas to the Great Lakes.  Next in line is Hurricane Florence, currently a Category 3 storm in the Central Atlantic; its future course remains uncertain but it could potentially affect the entire East Coast of the U.S.  Behind Florence are three tropical waves, emerging from the West Coast of Africa every few days; since wind shear has currently di…

Visiting Coastal Colorado

After my recent travel to beaches and coastal wetlands of the Southeastern U.S., I thought I would visit Coastal Colorado today, a term I have previously applied to the lakes, gravel pits, sloughs and canals across the South Platte Valley of northeastern Colorado.

Unlike the Southeastern wetlands, those of the South Platte Valley are not characterized by lush, verdant vegetation.  Rather, in this semiarid climate, trees (mostly plains cottonwoods) are found only along the river, its primary tributaries or irrigation canals.  Since this summer has been especially hot and dry, the natural grasslands have browned, adorned only by clumps of prairie sunflowers and rabbitbrush.  Though I saw hundreds (if not thousands) of American white pelicans (especially at Barr Lake State Park), most avian species were limited in number; among these were Swainson's hawks, American kestrels, western grebes, cattle egrets, Franklin's gulls, American avocets and shorebirds that were too distant to…

River Otter at Eagle Bluffs

On this pleasant morning in central Missouri, a friend and I headed down to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain.  Bird sightings were far from spectacular though a large number of great egrets and great blue herons were encountered.  The highlight of this morning's visit was the sighting of a river otter, feeding in a channel at the south end of the refuge.

Nearly extirpated from Missouri in the early 20th Century, river otters have made a dramatic comeback due to a reintroduction program that began in the 1980s.  Now found in rivers, large creeks and lakes throughout the State, these large mustelids feast primarily on fish, crayfish and amphibians; the young are born in late winter and family groups may be found throughout the year.

Since river otters are primarily nocturnal, they are not regularly observed by the general public and are more abundant than most of us might suspect.  This morning's sighting was thus a special and unexpected treat; …

The Liberal Press

President Trump, like many other conservative politicians, often ridicules "the liberal media."  Of course, our narcissist-in-chief also refers to their reporting as "fake news" and openly suggests that they are the "enemy of the people."

While I despise almost everything that Trump does or says, I must agree that professional journalists tend to be liberal.  After all, they are well-educated, worldly individuals, students of history and well-informed on social issues.  Journalists are generally open-minded and tolerant, strongly devoted to free speech and human rights; more than most citizens, they are repeatedly exposed to the inequities in human society and understand the vital role that a free press plays in addressing those problems.

Unlike zealous politicians, who see the world in black and white, journalists appreciate the many shades of gray and work to uncover the truth, wherever their search might lead.  Truth, in turn, is the enemy of zealots …

Spectacle at Dusk

On this cool, breezy evening in Columbia, Missouri, I went out to the back deck for a bird count.  After spending an hour in the lounge chair, I had seen a fair variety of birds, all common summer residents in our area.

As dusk progressed, I was about to go inside when a flock of common nighthawks appeared in the darkening sky; numbering 32, they were drifting to the SSE.  To my delight, this initial flock was followed by two more, all heading the same direction; the total count for all three flocks was 84.

Though large flocks of migrating nighthawks are not unusual in late August and early September, this evening's spectacle, unexpected and almost missed, was especially inspiring as the silent travelers passed overhead.  They are on their way to South America, always leaving well ahead of the autumn chill; unlike some insectivores (e.g. chimney swifts), which stick around until mid October, nighthawks do not risk any depletion of their prey (flying insects).  Feeding on the wing…

Flashback Post X

Two days after visiting the Columbia Audubon Sanctuary, where (among other habitats) I crossed a restored prairie, I am experiencing an outbreak of chigger "bites."  Though I stayed on the trails, my preventive efforts were otherwise minimal, having ignored my own advice from June of 2016.

See:  Chigger Season

A Morning of Pewees

Back in central Missouri, I visited the Columbia Audubon Sanctuary this morning.  Though we are in the midst of another heat wave, it was relatively mild and breezy just after dawn but harassment by horse flies hastened my walk through the refuge.

While I encountered a fair variety of species, including pileated woodpeckers and a barred owl, eastern wood pewees dominated the scene, moving about in small groups and calling from every parcel of forest.  The most common and widespread flycatcher in the eastern U.S., these birds generally arrive in May and depart for South America by early October.  Throughout the warmer months, they are most often seen alone, perched near the tip of a dead limb from which they make repeated sorties to snare flying insects; they may also glean prey (insects or spiders) from the foliage.

Upon arriving in spring and just before leaving in the fall, eastern wood species, like many other birds, may congregate in favored locations where food is plentiful.  Th…

The Threat of Provincialism

President Trump's election was, in large part, the result of his promise to enact policies that focus purely on the welfare of Americans.  Many of those who supported his populist message were looking out for their own welfare, placing it above the welfare of humans in general.

Such provincialism is especially strong in rural areas and small towns, where residents tend to be like-minded and where a distrust of the Federal Government is especially strong.  Though many rely on subsidies (e.g. farm supports) and turn to the Federal Government when natural disasters destroy their homes or threaten their livelihoods, they abhor the liberal politics of urban centers.

Were this provincialism limited to regional politics, it might be amusing.  But the welfare of our species and the health of our environment depend upon cooperation throughout our country and across the globe.  We cannot effectively deal with climate change, pandemics, poverty, environmental pollution and human rights by f…

Crossing Mississippi

Mention the State of Mississippi and most Americans likely think of Delta cotton fields or beautiful Gulf beaches bracing for the next tropical storm or hurricane.  But most of the State is covered by forest and woodlands, a fact that I confirmed as we traveled through Mississippi yesterday.

Returning to Missouri, we entered Mississippi west of Mobile, Alabama, and exited the State just south of Memphis, Tennessee.  From the Alabama border to Hattiesburg, we undulated through the De Soto National Forest, crossing the Chickasawhay and Leaf Rivers, tributaries of the Pascagoula which enters the Gulf of Mexico.  Between Hattiesburg and Jackson, the terrain leveled out as we crossed the "pine belt" before reaching the Pearl River, which also flows to the Gulf.

North of Jackson, woodlands still predominate but are broken by small farms and ranches and by wetlands along the Big Black River and the upper tributaries of the Yazoo River (all of which flow westward to the Mississippi…

Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park

On our way out of Pensacola, Florida, this morning, my wife and I visited Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park, southwest of the city.  The Preserve's 4200 acres stretch east of Perdido Bay, occupying (and expanding) the former site of the Perdido Pitcher Plant Prairie.  Known for its orchids and carnivorous plants, the refuge is accessed via a network of earthen trails and boardwalks.

Short on time and de-energized by the heat, we settled on the Tarkiln Bayou Trail (1.5 miles roundtrip), which leads southwest from the parking lot on State Route 293.  This paved walkway first crosses a woodland of slash pine and saw palmetto and then snakes atop boardwalks where pitcher plants (primarily of the white-topped species) abound in the shallow wetlands.  The trail ends on the east shore of scenic Tarkiln Bayou, which is surrounded by tidal marsh and empties into Perdido Bay.

This State Park is named for tar kilns, locally used in the 1800s to process pine tar that was collected from south…

White Beaches of Northwest Florida

The Florida Panhandle is known for its sparkling white beaches, a trait that results from their composition.  The "sugar sand" of this region is composed of fine, ovoid quartz crystals, eroded from the Blue Ridge Mountains and deposited in the Gulf of Mexico by the Apalachicola River.

Spread by currents within the Gulf, the quartz crystals are a primary component of beaches all along the Florida Gulf Coast but are least "contaminated" with shell fragments along the Panhandle.  In beaches along the Florida Peninsula and Keys, variable amounts and color of shell fragments alter the appearance of the sand; in some areas, the shell fragments predominate and the beach is gray, tan or nearly black.

Here on Pensacola Beach, the white sand is dazzling in the bright afternoon sun, squeaking beneath your feet and producing a sharp contrast with the clear, turquoise water of the Gulf.  As one might expect from the above discussion, shells are small, mostly white and far less…

Off to the Northern Gulf

Since the red tide was worsening on Longboat Key, we decided to head to the Northern Gulf Coast and settled on Pensacola Beach, an area that neither of us had visited.  The seven hour drive was uneventful, rather devoid of interesting wildlife; an exception was a huge number of cattle egrets on ranchlands to either side of Interstate 10, just west of Interstate 75.  Also of note was the change in character of the rivers, from the clear, tea-colored water of the peninsula (flowing through limestone and sandy soil) to the muddy water of the Panhandle rivers, draining the clay soils of the interior.

Nearing Pensacola, we cut south on Route 281, crossing the broad east arm of Pensacola Bay to Gulf Breeze before continuing out to the narrow barrier island of Pensacola Beach.  As is typical of the Northern Gulf Coast, Pensacola Beach boasts a scenic strip of white sand, backed by modest dunes and hotels.  While it is surely a delightful location for sun worshipers, surfers and boaters, it …

A Pelican Roost

For the first time since we purchased our condo on Longboat Key, a group of brown pelicans has established a roost on a mangrove island, some 50 yards off our seawall in Sarasota Bay.  Common local residents, these marine birds breed along both coasts of North America, from Southern California and the Mid Atlantic States, southward.

Brown pelicans generally nest and roost in colonies, preferring offshore islands where they are relatively safe from predators; here in South Florida, mangrove islets are most often used.  Once their breeding season has ended, some wander northward as far as British Columbia and New England, returning to more southerly latitudes in the fall; vagrants may even turn up along major river valleys, especially in late summer.

Comical looking but highly skilled as fliers and divers, brown pelicans usually feed by plunging into schools of fish, using their bill pouch to snare their prey.  Often observed at fishing docks, looking for handouts, they are one of the …

Inspecting the Dead

Wanting to get closer to the red tide destruction, my wife and I visited Whitney Beach this morning.  Stretching along the northwest edge of Longboat Key, it is both the most scenic stretch of sand and (in my opinion) the best birding location on this barrier island.  As expected, the beach was littered with dead fish, eels, rays and horseshoe crabs and the variety of birds was far below normal.

Wandering among the dead, we endured the nauseating stench of rotting sea life.  While a couple of yellow-crowned night herons and a dozen shorebirds (black-bellied plovers and ruddy turnstones) scoured the beach, they stayed clear of the victims; brown pelicans and large flocks of laughing gulls passed overhead or lounged far offshore.  Except for a lone hunter with his metal detector, we were the only humans on that popular beach.

Though the algal counts have waxed and waned along Florida's Southwest Coast, the red tide is expected to persist until a tropical storm or cool autumn weathe…

Benefits from a Red Tide?

This past week, the Governor of Florida declared a State of Emergency along the Southwest Coast, responding to the natural and economic damage wrought by the toxic algal bloom.  Many marine species have been killed and both the fishing and tourist industries are taking a hit.

But could there be a natural benefit from these algal blooms?  Could they be important in marine ecosystems, thinning out populations, releasing nutrients and "re-setting" the regional web of life?  After all, many other natural phenomena are deemed to be harmful or cruel from the human perspective.

On a selfish note, the red tide has cleared out much of the human population on Longboat Key and we almost have our condo complex to ourselves.  Then again, one cannot help but wonder if this bloom, like those that occur on inland lakes and coastal bays, is aggravated by human activity.  We pump a huge amount of nutritious effluent into our rivers and human-induced global warming will surely enhance algal b…

Encountering the Red Tide

Since we had a wedding to attend in South Carolina in mid August, we decided to spend the second half of this month at our condo on Longboat Key, Florida.  Unfortunately, in the weeks leading up to the wedding, we learned that a severe and persistent red tide had developed along the coast of Southwest Florida.  Nevertheless, we decided to investigate for ourselves.

A toxic algal bloom of Karenia brevis, a red tide results in extensive fish kills, littering the beaches with rotting fish; a neurotoxin released by the algae may also kill dolphins and manatees and, this year, the corpse of a whale shark washed ashore.  In addition, particulate debris from the abundant algae wafts in on the sea breeze, causing eye, throat and lung irritation for those humans who do not abandon the region altogether.

We arrived to find that the dead fish odor was indeed strong along the beaches but that the wind-blown irritants were rather mild.  Though we will likely depart earlier than planned, we'll…

Crossing the Eastern Divide

Yesterday morning, we left Knoxville, driving eastward through the foggy Tennessee Valley.  After crossing the Holston and French Broad Rivers (which join to form the Tennessee), we climbed into the Blue Ridge Mountains, following the course of the Pigeon River.  Leveling out west of Asheville, we crossed the divide between the Pigeon and the French Broad Rivers, encountering the largest concentration of tent caterpillars that I have ever seen.

At Asheville, we angled southward on Interstate 26 and crossed the Eastern Divide just south of Hendersonville; this Divide, which snakes north to south through Eastern Canada and the Eastern U.S., separates the watersheds of rivers flowing to the Gulf of Mexico from those flowing toward the Atlantic Ocean.  South of the Divide, we soon arrived at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and were treated to a spectacular view of the Southeastern Piedmont.

After undulating across the Piedmont, hemmed in by a pine-broadleaf forest, we crossed the Fa…

Road Trip to the Southeast Coast

On our way to a family wedding in South Carolina, my wife and I left Columbia this morning and drove eastward across the Glaciated Plain of Missouri.  After crossing the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers in St. Louis, we angled southeastward across Illinois, eventually fording the Wabash River (a major tributary of the Ohio) before climbing across the Shawnee Hills of southern Indiana (capped with Pennsylvanian sandstone).

After crossing the Ohio River at Louisville, we drove eastward through the Bluegrass Region of northern Kentucky (underlaid with Ordovician Limestone), crossing the Kentucky River near Frankfort and again south of Lexington; the Kentucky flows northward to joint the Ohio.  At Berea, we climbed onto the Appalachian Plateau (a layer cake of Carboniferous sediments) and crossed the Cumberland River (another tributary of the Ohio) in southern Kentucky.  Entering Tennessee, we climbed across the Allegheny Front, the high, western edge of the Appalachian Plateau, and then …

Perseids from the Sky

On my regular flights between Colorado and Missouri, I am usually focused on the ground, studying the topography and rivers; should it be a night flight, I watch for city lights, observing the sequence of towns and cities that I have come to memorize from my numerous road trips.

But tonight, as I fly from Denver to Columbia, Missouri, I will be watching the sky.  This is the annual peak night for the Perseid Meteor Shower, produced by remnant debris from the Swift-Tuttle Comet.  As the Earth crosses the comet's path around the sun, the dust particles collide with and ignite in our atmosphere, producing numerous meteors.  The Perseids are often abundant and are expected to increase in coming decades as the comet's path more closely aligns with the orbit of our planet.

As I write this blog from Denver International Airport, sunset and our takeoff are still two hours away but the radar shows that precipitation is minimal between here and Columbia, suggesting that high clouds wil…

A Sunset Flight

Last evening, my son (a pilot) and I took a flight across the Colorado Piedmont, south of Denver.  Leaving Centennial Airport an hour before sunset, we headed west to Chatfield Reservoir and then turned south, following the base of the foothills.

Crossing over Roxborough State Park, adorned with scenic rock formations, we could see the prominent peaks that rise along the South Platte River Canyon to our west and southwest.  Farther along, we passed the craggy mass of Devil's Head and continued up the Plum Creek Valley to the Palmer Divide.  Angling to the east, we followed the Divide for a short distance, catching a view of Monument and Colorado Springs in the Fountain Creek Valley, off to our south.  After curving across the upper tributaries of Cherry Creek (which eventually joins the South Platte in downtown Denver), we passed above the mesas and buttes that characterize the scenic topography of the Castle Rock region.

As we headed north, near Sedalia, the sun set behind the F…

Prairie Sunflowers

While they may bloom from June to September, prairie sunflowers are generally most abundant and conspicuous in August.  Native to the High Plains, clumps of these wildflowers adorn almost every highway and country road in Eastern Colorado; since they favor full sun and sandy soil, prairie sunflowers have spread throughout most of the West and much of the Eastern U.S., wherever such conditions exist.

These common annuals may look a bit scraggly where they dot an abandoned field but can produce stunning swaths of gold in more favorable areas.  Their seeds are consumed by small mammals and a wide variety of grassland birds and have been used by humans as well (either in whole form or churned into a butter).

Prairie sunflowers are certainly among the more widespread wildflowers on the Great Plains and are especially appreciated when the intense summer sun has baked away most of the greenery.  To me, they represent the vanguard of autumn splendor.

A Good Year for Fruit

Despite excessive heat and a prolonged drought through the first half of summer, the fruit crop on our Littleton farm has been excellent this year.  Mulberries were abundant in June and our various apple and pear trees are more laden with fruit than I have seen in many years.

Of course, this abundance reflects the fact that we did not have a late freeze this spring.  Though some upslope snow fell in March and April, the temperature remained relatively mild and the blossoms emerged intact.  Since I am often out of town, our farm management might be described as willful neglect, characterized by minimal irrigation and no use of fertilizers or pesticides; as a result, the fruit is abundant but not terribly attractive for human consumption.  While I might snack on an apple or two, almost all of the crop is left for the wildlife.

Indeed, nocturnal squabbles have been evident this past week as raccoons and skunks raid the fallen fruit.  Squirrels, flickers and mice also partake and, in som…

Late Summer Flocking

As the days continue to shorten and summer begins to lose its intensity, attentive birders notice flocking behavior in many species.  For most birds (goldfinches are an exception), their breeding season has ended and their territorial instincts have faded; migrants gather in flocks to prepare for their southward journey while many permanent residents form flocks to evade predators and to improve the efficiency of their foraging.

Last evening, I encountered a flock of 30+ barn swallows, strafing a nearby lake to fuel up for their journey to South America; then, this morning, I watched as a flock of 18 snowy egrets moved southward above the South Platte Valley.  Among other late summer migrants that travel in sizable flocks are blue-winged teal,  Swainson's and broad-winged hawks, shorebirds, common nighthawks, American white pelicans and Franklin's gulls.  Non-migrant flocks of cedar waxwings, doves, robins, starlings and various blackbirds are also increasingly common as summ…

Flashback Post IX

While I have often expressed my disdain for organized religion in this blog, I find myself agreeing with Pope Francis this week.  His declaration that the death penalty must be abolished, though based on his faith more than other factors, echoes a post of mine from February of 2014.

See: The Death of Capital Punishment

Counting Birds in Kansas

Yesterday, I made the 11 hour drive back to Metro Denver from Columbia, Missouri.  Since I had my oldest grandson along for the ride, I suggested we count the number of bird species that we encountered along Interstate 70 in Kansas.  Knowing that the Kansas segment of our trip covers 422 miles, I expected to see 30 species or so; much to my surprise (and frustration), we observed only 14.

Contrary to popular perception, the Kansas section of I-70 actually crosses an interesting variety of landscape and habitat, including the eastern woodlands and river valleys, the Flint Hill grasslands, the Smoky Hills region and the Western High Plains; nevertheless, our bird sightings did not match that diversity.  As one might expect, European starlings, rock pigeons and mourning doves were most abundant and a fair number of red-tailed hawks patrolled the eastern half of the State.  The highlight of our count was provided by four Mississippi kites, one pair near Junction City and the other near A…

Abandoned Nests

On my last day in central Missouri, my wife and I took a walk around Perry Phillips Lake, just south of Columbia.  In late spring and early summer, we always stop at the covered fishing deck to watch the nesting activity of barn and cliff swallows; the former place their nests on the cross beams of the structure while the latter adhere their cavities of mud to angular joints of the roof.

Now, in early August, those nests are abandoned.  While barn swallows still strafe the lake and adjacent fields, feasting on insects, the cliff swallows have moved off to the southwest, beginning their long journey to southern South America; by January, during the peak of the Southern Summer, they will head for North America once again, sometimes arriving in the Desert Southwest by late February.  The barn swallows will migrate southward by September, wintering in more northern regions of South America.

The abandoned nests at Phillips Lake are just another sign that summer is winding down, though man…

Stopping by Eagle Bluffs

During a brief stay in central Missouri, I took my oldest grandson down to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area.  Though he is a novice birder, his attention span remains short, ensuring that our visit would be relatively brief and efficient.

Unfortunately, we were greeted by dense fog in the Missouri River Valley and our initial leg through the refuge offered only brief glimpses of the wildlife.  But, by the time we turned back at the south end of the floodplain preserve, the sun had taken its toll on the haze and we were rewarded with a good variety of species.  Turkey vultures, great blue herons and great egrets were most abundant (if you don't count the red-winged blackbirds and indigo buntings) but we also saw bald eagles, wood ducks, a double-crested cormorant, belted kingfishers and a mix of shorebirds.  Highlights, new to my grandson, were a pair of American avocets and a small flock of blue-gray gnatcatchers.

While our visit was short and the weather was not ideal, a chance to…

A Killing at the Party

This afternoon, some of our family members and close relatives gathered for lunch at the Sandy Lake cottage.  Since it was a beautiful day with partly cloudy skies and mild conditions, we chose to party on the deck which offers a broad view of the lake.

Soon after completing our meal (though not our drinks!) our attention was drawn to the beach by loud shrieking and a frantic flock of purple martins exploded from their apartment complex.  A Cooper's hawk had streaked in at low altitude, grabbing one of the occupants as it strafed the dwelling's roof.  Zooming off with the victim in his talons, the raptor was pursued by other martins until it disappeared into a nearby woodland.

Many present were disturbed by the event, the life of a beloved songbird extinguished by a much larger and more powerful creature.  Ironically, most of them had just consumed a chicken sandwich but we humans are reluctant to think of ourselves as predators.

Return to Sandy Lake

We have returned to my wife's family cottage on Sandy Lake this week.  A moderate-sized kettle lake in the glaciated Appalachian Plateau of northeast Ohio, it is always a pleasant retreat in summer, offering cooler air and a reliable breeze.

While our grandsons relish the chance to fish, swim and kayak, I am content to wander around the lake or sit on our lakeside deck, enjoying the escape from urban congestion.  Ospreys, herons, cormorants and gulls are regular visitors and a large colony of purple martins reside in apartments along the shore.  A female mallard and her attentive brood have been plying the open waters, oblivious of snapping turtles that cruise below the surface.

The modest humidity is a welcome change from the Front Range climate and a few heavy downpours have broken the local drought.  More thunderstorms are forecast for later today but most of the week should bring pleasant conditions.  Any unusual observations will certainly be reported but I anticipate a rela…

The Southern Blue Ridge

This week, I started reading Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, some 20 years after its initial publication.  This highly acclaimed novel is set in the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains during the Civil War; much to my delight, it is accompanied by a map of that region, an area through which I have travelled on many occasions.

Before getting too far into the novel, I decided to review the topography of the Southern Blue Ridge, with specific attention to its major rivers.  The mountains themselves stretch along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, extending into northwestern South Carolina and northern Georgia; their highest summit is Mt. Mitchell (6684 ft.), in North Carolina.  This swath of highlands is bordered by the Ridge and Valley Province, to its north and west, and the Southeastern Piedmont to its south and east.  The eastern section of the Southern Blue Ridge is drained by the Watauga River, flowing northward to the Holston River, and the Catawba River, flowing southward …

Unfettered Narcissism

Those who do not understand President Trump's interaction with Putin in Helsinki should consider the nature of narcissism, a psychological disorder which Trump exemplifies.  Narcissism is an extreme focus on oneself, resulting in little regard for the opinions or advice of others and fueling the conviction that he/she is superior in every way (e.g. no need to prepare for summits or read intelligence reports).

His agitation related to the Russia Investigation is primarily due to its ramifications concerning the legitimacy of his own election.  Trump admires (and envies) Putin and Kim Jong Un because they are dictators, free from criticism by the press and unconstrained by Legislative and Judicial Branches; he also relishes those rallies with his adoring base, where he is treated like a god, regardless of the lies and conspiracy theories that he might spew.

While we need to recognize and understand Trump's psychologic disorder, we cannot allow it to degrade American Democracy o…

Heat, Life & Survival

Wandering outside this morning, it was easy to see the toll that our hot, dry summer has taken on the foliage of our Littleton farm.  While heat and water are essential to life, the balance of these factors is crucial and this season has not been kind to the plants.

Life first evolved in warm, shallow seas and near hot smokers along mid oceanic ridges.  Even today, the vast majority of species are found in the Tropics, where moisture is abundant, placing a check on the air temperature.  In desert regions and semiarid landscapes, the low humidity results in dense air which can reach much higher (and often deadly) temperatures; of course, animals and plants that inhabit deserts have adapted to their environment in a variety of anatomic, physiologic and behavioral ways.  While birds and mammals can generate their own internal heat, the low temperatures in polar regions have also required physical and physiologic adaptations for wild residents (fat insulation, thick fur and dense plumage…

An Avian Weathervane

Following a blessedly cool day with intermittent showers, bright sunshine has returned to the Colorado Front Range.  Though a high near 90 degrees F is officially expected, the wind has not yet shifted to the south and its northeasterly direction is producing an upslope flow that has a mild cooling effect along the urban corridor.

As if to emphasize that fact, a Swainson's hawk soared above our Littleton farm this afternoon, stopping at times to hover into the northeast breeze.  Though relatively high in the clear blue sky, this raptor's keen eyesight allows him to pick out prey (small mammals, songbirds, large insects) near the ground, toward which he might make a sudden "stoop."  Today's visitor seemed to be more interested in cavorting overhead, perhaps enjoying the cool respite as much as the summer-weary humans far below.

Then again, Swainson's hawks do not stick around for our crisp autumn weather, often circling toward Argentina by September.  There t…

Giving in to Mysticism

Most humans give in to mysticism.  Their religious faith is the product of a lack of education, guilt instilled during childhood or intellectual laziness; in many if not most cases, all three factors are involved.

The election of Donald Trump was the result of greed and mysticism in America.  The wealthy were looking for tax breaks and deregulation while his religious base was fueled by their opposition to abortion, their racist and provincial tendencies and their distrust of science.  This latter group, devout believers, do not worry about the political, environmental or international consequences of Trump's proclamations; they put their trust in God.

Mysticism is not a benign human trait.  Since the days of Copernicus and Galileo, it has been an enemy of science and a threat to human rights.  Even today, it threatens both the welfare of human civilization and the health of natural ecosystems.  To give in to mysticism is to give up on truth.

A Golden Morning

On this cool, breezy morning, I took a walk along the South Platte River before summer heat enveloped the Front Range.  Once again, low water attracted a variety of herons and egrets to the river shallows while cormorants fished in the deeper pools and a host of swallows strafed the water surface for insects.  A family of belted kingfishers lounged along a beaver pond and black-billed magpies were especially noisy and abundant.  But the highlight of my walk was the presence of a golden eagle, perched in a tree along the river.

Not nearly as common as bald eagles and ospreys along this stretch of the South Platte, golden eagles are more frequently observed in foothill canyons or near buttes and mesas on the High Plains where they nest on rock ledges.  Nevertheless, they may be encountered in rural areas of the Colorado Piedmont, hunting for prairie dogs, ground squirrels and rabbits; these powerful raptors are also known to kill grouse, wild turkeys, fox, fawns and young pronghorns on…

Haboob Season

The annual Southwestern Monsoon is beginning to intensify as high pressure over the Southern Plains and low pressure over the Baja region combine to sweep moisture into the Desert Southwest; some of this precipitation arrives from the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Cortez but even more is swept across Mexico from the Gulf of Mexico.

The heat and moisture ignite thunderstorms which often drop torrential rain on the parched landscape, leading to flash floods in the canyons and arroyos.  Cold downdrafts within these storms are forced outward when they strike the ground, producing gust fronts that race across the adjacent desert, picking up sand and dry soil to create massive dust storms, known as haboobs.

Often hundreds (if not thousands) of feet high and moving at 60 mph or more, these storms blind drivers, coat buildings and cars with debris and, of course, severely impact air quality.  The Southwest Monsoon, with its thunderstorms and haboobs, peaks in July and early August in Arizona and …

The Nature of Rip Currents

As hordes of humans head for the beach this summer, rip currents will take a deadly toll.  Unfortunately, they often develop when conditions at the shore appear to be ideal, catching many swimmers off guard.

Rip currents evolve due to a steady onshore flow of seawater; this may result from counterclockwise winds around an offshore storm or from clockwise winds around a dome of high pressure.  In either case, water builds up along the beach and that pressure leads to breaks within the offshore sandbar; as the retreating flow funnels through those breaks, strong rip currents (not always evident on the surface) develop, sweeping bathers away from shore.  Those caught in a rip current are advised to swim parallel to the shore until they are safely out of the channelized stream; unfortunately, panic often sets in and such advice is fatally ignored.

Today, as Tropical Storm Chris churns 200 miles off Wilmington, North Carolina, rip current warnings have been posted for most of the State…

Memoryland

Back in Cincinnati for a wedding, I am constantly reminded of my past as we travel about the city.  Born and raised here, I finally left after graduating from medical school and returned for only a few years when our kids were young.

Nevertheless, memories are powerful products of the human brain, often triggered by sensory stimuli such as sights, sounds and smells.  Of course, my home town is loaded with sights that unleash memories, including certain roads, buildings, neighborhoods and natural landscapes.  Most of these memories might be classified as pleasant nostalgia but some exhume painful or tragic events.

While dwelling on our past is generally unproductive, the connections provided by memory lend perspective to our lives and offer insight into how we became who we are.  A trip down memory lane (or through a memory-laden city) can be both enjoyable and enlightening.


Good Riddance, Mr. Pruitt

Scott Pruitt, Trump's Chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, resigned today following a series of reports and investigations spawned by his unethical behavior.   Of course, President Trump accepted his resignation while praising his work at the E.P.A.

I, like many Americans, was glad to see him go, not so much for his misuse of taxpayer funds but for the environmental regulations that he diminished or abolished.  A close ally of those in the fossil fuel industry, Pruitt is an outspoken climate change denier who also demonstrated a lack of commitment to protecting the quality of our air and water.

Just the latest cabinet member to leave the Administration, Scott Pruitt was but a conduit for Trump's misguided policies; to have chosen Pruitt to lead the E.P.A. was perhaps the most glaring evidence of the President's disdain for environmentalism.  Until Trump and his accomplices are voted out of office, the welfare of this planet and its life-sustaining ecosystems will…

Expecting a Spectacular Light Show

On this 4th of July, patriotic Americans anticipate colorful fireworks displays and most will not be disappointed.  But I will be flying east, above the Great Plains, to attend a wedding in my home town.   Nevertheless, I anticipate a spectacular light show as well, provided by Mother Nature.

As I wait for my flight at Denver International Airport, large thunderstorms are spaced across the Plains, from southern New Mexico to Wisconsin.  Fueled by heat and a meandering cold front, those supercells will likely produce damaging hail, tornadoes and, of course, intense lightning.

We will travel between the storms, likely detoured from our planned flight path.  And while I may witness human fireworks displays along the way, nature's light show is sure to be more spectacular.

Fall Migration Begins

I suspect most avid birders are least enamored with summer.  Summer residents and permanent residents, well known to the local birders, have settled in for the season and are relatively inactive in the summer heat; rare vagrants, the fuel for avid birders, are all but unheard of during the summer months.  We naturalists usually turn our attention to insects, amphibians, reptiles and summer wildflowers.

But the fall migration actually begins in mid-summer as the first wave of shorebirds arrives from Arctic breeding grounds, on their way to southern beaches or wetlands.  En route, they stop to rest and feed on mudflats that line our lakes and reservoirs or in the flooded fields that thunderstorms leave in their wake.

The earliest migrants usually arrive by early-mid July and the peak of the "fall shorebird migration" generally occurs from August through September; late migrants (e.g. dunlins) may still be observed across the Heartland in early November.  Providing some consol…

Canadian Refreshment

While the Trump Administration believes that our northern neighbors are a security threat, I certainly appreciate the cool, dry air that they sent this way (no tariffs attached).  This morning, it felt more like late September than late June along the Colorado Front Range.

This welcome change was the product of high pressure over the Pacific Northwest and low pressure over the Northern Plains.  Between these atmospheric pumps, the pleasant Canadian air was driven southward, displacing the heat that has plagued us for the past week or so.  Colliding with that heat, the cool air may spawn thunderstorms later today.

Unfortunately, our respite will be brief and the southwestern atmospheric ridge will reclaim the Front Range by Monday.  In the meantime, we'll enjoy highs in the upper seventies and low eighties and overnight lows in the upper fifties (F).  My personal thanks to Canada for the refreshing air, however short it's visit.

Front Range Heat Wave

The atmospheric ridge that has been building over the Desert Southwest this past week has spread northward to the Colorado Front Range.  We reached an afternoon high of 100 degrees F yesterday and expect to exceed that mark today.

Beneath this high pressure dome, air sinks and heats up.  In addition, cloud development is suppressed and Pacific cold fronts are shunted to the north of the dome, reducing any chance of precipitation.  Highs in the Desert Southwest have exceeded 110 degrees F at lower elevations (e.g. in Phoenix and Las Vegas) and overnight lows have barely dipped below 90 degrees F.  To the east, across the Southern Plains and lower Mississippi Valley, the heat is less intense but is exacerbated by humidity (with dew points in the mid seventies), producing a heat index near 100 degrees F.

Fortunately, the higher elevation and drier air along the Front Range enhances radiative cooling at night and our overnight lows are falling into the low-mid sixties (still almost ten d…

Death on the River

Due to the hot, dry weather (and primarily due to reduced water release from upstream reservoirs), the South Platte River was very low this morning, attracting a variety of waders and shorebirds; among these were great blue herons, snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons, killdeer and spotted sandpipers.

While focusing in on one of the great blues, I watched as he suddenly jabbed into the tall riverside grass and turned back with a small mammal in his formidable bill; too large to be a field mouse, I suspect it was a meadow vole or a young muskrat.  After dipping it the river to moisten the fur, the heron tilted his bill skyward and swallowed the victim in a single gulp; he then resumed stalking the shallows for his next snack.

Though we often watch herons and egrets in wetlands and along shorelines, feasting on small fish or aquatic invertebrates, we are undisturbed by their natural activity.  But when a large heron grabs a small mammal and swallows it whole, we empathize with the …

Scrambled Eggs Slime Mold

Wandering about our Littleton farm this morning, I noticed a yellow object in a swath of wood mulch.  Thinking it was a toy left behind by one of my grandsons, I walked over for a closer look and found that it was a yellow, sponge-like mass, broken by a few orange creases; frankly, it resembled a cheese omelet.

In fact, it was Fuligo septica, commonly known as scrambled eggs slime mold (or, if you prefer, dog vomit slime mold).  One of the more abundant species of slime molds, it is a member of the plasmodial group, characterized by sprawling masses of fused amoebic cells; once the cells congregate, their cell walls break down and the resulting structure is a cytoplasmic bag with thousands of nuclei.  The cellular slime molds, on the other hand, produce a mass in which the amoebic cells retain the integrity of their cell walls.  In both groups, fruiting structures eventually form, releasing spores that mature to form individual amoebic cells.

Once included in the Fungi Kingdom, slime…

Focused on Watersheds

While birds and birding are the subjects of most posts in this blog, I am personally most interested in ecosystems and in the landscapes that they occupy.  Landscapes are the products of geology, tectonic forces and erosion, the latter occurring primarily by the action of water or ice.  Terrestrial ecosystems reflect the underlying geology and topography, the regional climate and the availability of water (in the form of precipitation or surface water brought in by streams).

It is with this knowledge that I focus on watersheds as I travel about our country or the globe and even pay close attention to them within my home cities.  Water, after all, is both essential to life and the primary architect of natural landscapes.  Understanding the regional topography requires that we know its component watersheds, from the main rivers to their smallest tributaries.

In the U.S., some States greatly assist our effort by using road signage to demarcate the watersheds (North Carolina and Tennesse…

Flashback Post VIII

Today marks the summer solstice, the beginning of the astronomical summer in the Northern Hemisphere.  Some of us have already had enough oppressive summer heat and look forward to the mild days and crisp nights of fall.  In the meantime, we often escape (at least in our minds) to cooler climes, a sentiment I shared in June of 2011.

See: Carrabassett Flashbacks

The Smoky Hills of Kansas

Yesterday, as I flew from Missouri to Colorado, our route took us across the central latitudes of Kansas.  The low morning sun angle and clear skies provided ideal conditions for observing the topography below and I got a good look at the Smoky Hills.

The Smoky Hills Province of the Great Plains stretches across north-central Kansas and into south-central Nebraska.  It is characterized by low hills that have been sculpted from Cretaceous bedrock by the tributaries of the Smoky Hill, Saline, Solomon and Republican Rivers (south to north).  That bedrock, deposited within and along a Cretaceous Sea that once covered most of the Great Plains region, is comprised of three bands: Dakota Sandstone, Greenhorn Limestone and Niobrara Chalk (east to west).

Those who drive across Kansas on Interstate 70, cross the southern portion of the Smoky Hills Province between Salina and Hays; there, some ridges of the Province are adorned with turbines of the massive Smoky Hills Wind Farm.  The High Plain…

A Bird's-eye View of Eagle Bluffs

Returning to Colorado this morning, I flew out of Columbia Regional Airport, in central Missouri.  The plane took off to the south and then banked westward, crossing the Missouri River just south of Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area.

Fortunately, I had a window seat on the right side of the aircraft and was treated to a fabulous view of that floodplain preserve, my favorite birding location in the Midwest (see Ding Darling of the Midwest).  While I have often explored its many pools, channels, marshes and woodlands at ground level, I have never observed them from above.

Indeed, I realized that my perspective matched that of migrant waterfowl, pelicans, cormorants and shorebirds as they arrive from the south each spring.  Though water levels are currently low across the floodplain, the result of an ongoing drought, it was obvious why this refuge is a magnet for those migrants as they travel up the Missouri Valley, on their way to northern breeding grounds.

Governing by Scripture

Defending the Trump Administration's policy to separate children from their parents at the U.S. border, Attorney General Sessions quoted the Bible, using a passage from Romans that instructs citizens to obey their government.  This low point in the Administration's tenure is disturbing on so many levels.

First of all, efforts to defend that immoral policy deserve condemnation by anyone with a shred of humanity in their soul; capable of abolishing this outrageous practice with a stroke of his pen (or a simple phone call), Trump chooses to use it as a political football, blaming the policy on Democrats.  Secondly, the use of Scripture to justify immoral behavior, while recurrent throughout the course of human history, is both ludicrous and inappropriate; a quotation from the Bible can be found to support almost any belief or behavior and mysticism has no place in the creation and enforcement of federal legislation.

Once again, religious mysticism has reared its ugly head, this …

A Northern Sunrise

Back on May 26, when I flew from Washington, DC, to Geneva, Switzerland, the last rays of sunset lit the western horizon as we passed over Nova Scotia; by the time we reached Newfoundland, it was totally dark.  Within another hour, however, as we flew eastward above the North Atlantic, the glow of "sunrise" spread across the northern horizon and persisted until we angled southeastward toward the coast of Ireland; by then, the eastern sunrise had begun to illuminate the landscape.

That "northern sunrise" was, of course, the southern extent of the perpetual daylight that occurs above the Arctic Circle during the month preceding and the month following the summer solstice.  The tilt of the Earth's axis produces this annual phenomenon as well as the perpetual darkness surrounding the winter solstice.

As with most natural spectacles, it was a matter of being in the right place (i.e. latitude) at the right time.  Had we crossed the Atlantic farther south, I would no…

Crossing Greenland

On our flight back from Geneva, Switzerland, yesterday, the route took us over the southern tip of Greenland, the largest island on our planet.  It was our first encounter with that land of ice, rock and scenic fjords and, for twenty minutes or so, we were mesmerized by the spectacle, 34,000 feet below.

Sparsely populated by humans, this Arctic nation is an independent territory of Denmark.  Mountain ranges run along its east and west coasts while a massive ice sheet covers 80% of the island's surface.  Icebergs speckled the fjords as we passed over Greenland and the majesty of its landscape was truly inspiring.

Of course, one cannot mention Greenland without invoking the fact that its Arctic ecosystem is threatened by global warming.  The rate of melting has sharply increased and the total loss of Greenland's ice sheet would raise sea levels by 24 feet, a disaster for island and coastal communities and ecosystems across the planet.

See also:  Greenland and Iceland and The Gr…

Tolerating Trump

Those Americans who support President Trump are either uneducated or enamored with his policies.  The latter include his anti-immigration stance, his overt racism, his tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy and his roll back of regulations related to industry and the environment.

But even if they support such policies, one wonders how they tolerate his incessant lying, his attraction to dictators, his crude talk and behavior and his attack on democracy at home and abroad.  One can espouse conservative principles without attacking the press, the Judicial Branch and the Intelligence Services.  Unfortunately, in Trump's case, his narcissism fuels impulsive tweets and decisions that diminish American leadership, ridicule our Allies and threaten both human rights and individual freedom across the globe.

It is extremely disturbing that most Republican Congressmen and Congresswomen are willing to tolerate Trump's behavior in order to push their conservative agenda; statesmanship …

Flashback Post VII

Following the deaths of two more celebrities (Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain) from suicide this past week, I am republishing a post from August of 2014 that related to the tragic death of Robin Williams.

See: Public vs. Private Persona 

The Glacier Express to Zermatt

Yesterday, we took The Glacier Express, Switzerland's premier train experience, from St. Moritz to Zermatt; en route, we crossed four major watersheds and enjoyed spectacular alpine scenery.

Leaving St. Moritz, we climbed northward through the Inn River watershed (a tributary of the Danube) and then passed through a tunnel to enter the vast watershed of the Rhine; one of Europe's major rivers, the Rhine eventually empties into the North Sea near Rotterdam.  In Switzerland, two major branches, each with several large tributaries, merge to form the Rhine west of Chur; we descended northward along its southern (or Posterior) fork to that junction and then climbed westward along its western (or Anterior) fork.  At Oberalppass, we crossed into the watershed of the Reuss River, which flows northward to and through Lucerne (or Luzern) before entering the Aare River.  Finally, another long tunnel (the longest in the Alps) took us into the Upper Rhone Valley and we descended westward …

To Italy and Back

As planned, we took a train to Bernina-Diavotezza this morning and boarded a cable car for a ridgetop vista; unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate and our views were limited by dense clouds.  We thus descended much earlier than planned and made the fortunate decision to continue southward to Tirano, just across the border with Italy.

While Tirano offered a taste of Italian life and architecture, including a host of outdoor cafes, our journey to and from that  town was the highlight of our day.  On our way south, we climbed to a pass at Lago Blanco and then began a long, winding descent through a broad glacial valley to Poschiavo and its scenic lake; the latter is drained by the Poschiavino River, which we followed to Tirano.  This entire stretch of railroad, from St. Moritz to Tirano, is the southernmost section of the UNESCO World Heritage Railway, mentioned in yesterday's post.

Along our journey we crossed alpine tundra, passed remnant glaciers, hugged the edge of sheer …

Scenic but Sedate: St. Moritz

Leaving Luzern this morning we caught a series of trains to St. Moritz; en route, we passed Lake Zurich and Lake Walen before climbing southeastward through the Alps.  The rail stretch between Chur and St. Moritz, which crosses numerous bridges and passes through 55 tunnels, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage railway.  St. Moritz itself sits in the Inn River Valley, surrounded by high peaks, and stretches along the north and west shores of St. Moritz Lake; scenic Lake Silvaplauna is a few miles upstream.

Though my personal expectations were that St. Moritz, a playground for the rich and famous, would be a bustling resort town with numerous shops, cafes and clubs, it is relatively devoid of those amenities and proved to be a rather sedate destination in early June.  While historic hotels dot the valley walls, many of the buildings are modern structures that are anything but quaint; we expected a Vail or Aspen like atmosphere and found neither.  St. Moritz does have a casino b…

Guatemala's Volcanic Eruption

The eruption of a volcano in Guatemala and its tragic consequences have drawn attention across the globe this week.  Some will blame the event on the random violence of nature while others will see the hand of God in the destruction and suffering.  But if you must accuse someone or something, blame the Atlantic Ocean.

During the Permian Period, some 250 million years ago (MYA), the Continents had merged to form Pangea.  By the Triassic, about 200 MYA, the Tethys Sea opened, separating Laurasia (the northern Continents) from Gondwanaland (the southern Continents).  Then, during the Jurassic Period (some 150 MYA), the Atlantic began to open and the American Continents were pushed westward, a process that continues today.  In concert, the oceanic Farallon Plate was forced to subduct beneath the advancing Continental Plates; today, the Juan de Fuca Plate (in the Pacific Northwest), the Cocos Plate (west of Mexico and Central America) and the Nazca Plate (west of South America) are the pr…

Northeast to Lucerne

Leaving Interlaken East this morning, our train paralleled the north shore of Lake Brienz and then continued eastward through a broad, scenic glacial valley.  At Meiringen, we climbed northward to cross Brunig Pass and then began a long, gradual descent to Lake Lucerne through the Sarner River Valley.  Lake Lucerne is also fed by the Reuss River which drains the lake and continues northward through Lucerne, eventually merging with the Aare River before the latter enters the Rhine.

The city of Lucerne (Luzern in German) sits along the northwest shore of Lake Lucerne and is bisected by the Reuss River as it flows northward from the lake.  Riverfront walks, lined with outdoor cafes and historic buildings, are connected by a number of foot bridges, including the Chapel Bridge, a wooden covered bridge that dates from 14th Century.  Lucerne's Old Town occupies the north side of the river, extending up to the original city wall and its watch towers; visitors can climb one of those tower…

Into the Alps

On this mild but cloudy morning in central Switzerland, we caught a train and climbed southward from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen a scenic mountain town that sits at the mouth of a spectacular glacial valley.  Changing from the train to a bus, we continued southward through that valley, lined with sheer rock walls and adorned with waterfalls that plunge hundreds of feet to the valley floor.

At Stechelberg, we arrived at the base of a cable car lift, one of four that took us up to Schilthorn; this isolated peak, some 9700 feet in elevation, offers a magnificent, 360 degree panorama of the surrounding Alps, including the trio of The Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, all over 13,000 feet.  After enjoying the views, fresh air and alpine environment (marred only by noisy crowds of tourists) we decended two lifts to Murren, an attractive town of cafes and shops that occupies the greener, wooded slopes of Schilthorn; there, dairy cattle graze among the wildflowers, their bells echoing across the va…

Three Alpine Valleys

Leaving Montreux this morning, our train climbed the mountain wall to its east and crossed a divide via a long tunnel.  Exiting that tunnel, we were in the broad watershed of the Saane River (or Sarine River in French).  Descending along one of its tributaries, we enjoyed fabulous views of the high Alps to our south.  At Montbovon, we joined the main channel of the Sanne and followed it upstream as far as Gstaad, which sits in a beautiful alpine valley.  The Saane itself flows NNW from this area, eventually passing through Fribourg and entering the Aare River northwest of Bern.  Of interest, the Saane (or Sarine) roughly marks the border between the French and German linguistic regions of Switzerland.

From Gstaad, the train climbed northward, leaving the watershed of the Saane and entering that of the Simme River.  After lunch and a change of trains in Zweisimmen, we followed the Simme down to the broad Valley of the Aare River, were it joins the Kander River before entering Lake Thu…

Edge of the Alps

This morning, we left Nyon and took a train to Montreux, an upscale city near the east end of Lake Geneva that sits at the edge of the Alps.  A lakefront promenade, through what is known as the Montreux Riviera, is adorned with a fabulous diversity of Mediterranean plants and offers a spectacular view of the Alps as it winds along the lakeshore; a host of shops, cafes, monuments, fishing decks and parks line the walkway.

Home to an International Jazz Festival, Montreux is the point at which Switzerland's train network first enters the Alps for those traveling eastward from Geneva.  From here, one can follow the edge of the Alps northeastward to Spiez, Interlaken and Luzern or head into the heart of the Swiss Alps to visit famous alpine destinations such as Zermatt, Davos and St. Moritz.

Our plan for tomorrow is to take the train to Interlaken, which sits in the Aare River Valley between Lake Brienz and Lake Thun.  More on that journey and our adventures along the edge of the Alps…

Racists United

Why is President Trump failing to denounce the overtly racist tweet of Rosanne Barr?  Simply put, racists have each other's back.

Besides, our Racist in Chief relies on a base that manifests racist tendencies; many (if not most) of his supporters harbor negative sentiments toward those who are not like themselves.  This fact explains their anti-immigrant fervor and their lack of response to police brutality.  If he is to stay in office, Trump needs to retain the support of these relatively uneducated and close-minded citizens.

Herein lies an opportunity to take back our democracy from the Trump Administration.  The Democratic Leadership must mobilize Americans who abhor such racism in addition to those who are directly affected by racist policies.  Unfortunately, those who reject racism, in all its forms, may not be as large a group as we'd like to believe.

Born Again Birder

Veteran birders who suddenly find themselves in a new environment re-experience the excitement of their early birding days, when almost every sighting was a new species.  Such has been my experience here in Switzerland where, aside from house sparrows, European starlings, herring gulls and Eurasian collared doves, most birds have been "lifers" when first encountered.  Even the crows, known here as carrion crows, have a unique appearance and call.

I have mentioned a number of the new species in previous posts (red kites, black kites, white storks, chaffinches and black redstarts, to name a few) and I came across black-headed gulls,  two great crested grebes and a few European coot on Lake Geneva the other day.  A grey heron flew over our hotel last evening (looking very much like a great blue heron) and blue tits (blue and yellow chickadees) have been foraging around the complex since our arrival; other local sightings have included European magpies, wood pigeons and black s…

The Aare River

The Aare River, the longest river that lies totally within Switzerland, rises near Grimsel Pass, in the Bernese Alps and eventually empties into the Rhine River along the country's northeast border with Germany.  Flowing more than 180 miles and draining a watershed that covers half of Switzerland, the Aare has been heavily dammed for both flood control and hydroelectric power; the three largest lakes along its course are Lake Brienz, Lake Thun and Lac de Bienne.

While the Aare is perhaps most famous for its gorge in the Alps, it and its many tributaries are most often encountered during travel across the central and eastern portions of the Swiss Plateau.  It flows through Bern, one of Switzerland's major cities, and is a scenic treasure for many smaller towns along its course.

Today I visited Olten, a pleasant city on the Aare River in the Germanic region of northeastern Switzerland.  Sitting at the base of the Jura Mountains and known for its Old Town shopping district, Olte…

Exploring the Swiss Plateau

Today, I made a circuit across the Swiss Plateau using the country's fine train network; smooth and efficient, the trains provide an excellent means to explore the landscape.  The Plateau region, nestled between the Alps and the Jura mountains, is characterized primarily by rolling farmlands (dairy cattle and sheep predominate), dotted with lakes and scenic towns.

As a birder, I was pleased to see a large number of black kites and red kites on my journey, joined by a half dozen white storks.  Though I passed through Lausanne and Bern, my primary stop was at Neuchatel, at the base of the Jura Mountains and on the north shore of Lac de Neuchatel.  A visit to the splendid lakeside park turned up several more European birds (red-crested pochards, chaffinches and black redstarts, to name a few) and offered a spectacular view of the Alps to the south.

On my final leg of the journey, I found that vineyards are abundant along the base of the Jura Mountains, certainly a reflection of the …

Lac Leman

During our first week in Switzerland, my wife and I will be staying in Nyon, on the north shore of Lac Leman, more commonly known as Lake Geneva throughout the English-speaking world.  Created by glacial erosion during the last glaciation of the Pleistocene, this crescent shaped lake is one of the largest in western Europe, 45 miles in length and up to 8 miles wide.

Near Nyon, the deeper Grand Lac portion (to the east and southeast) gives way to the Petit Lac, a shallower and narrower section that extends westward to Geneva.  This latter portion of Lac Leman was subjected to the serial deposition of terminal moraines as the glacier melted back toward the Alps as well as sedimentation from glacial streams that entered from its north and south.  The Rhone River, now rising from its residual mountain glacier in the Alps, flows through Lac Leman and then drains it through southern France before entering the Mediterranean Sea.

This afternoon, we enjoyed a spectacular view of Lac Leman fro…