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Showing posts from 2018

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…

Treescapes

On my flight from Denver to Washington, DC, today, trees were a reliable indicator of the regional climates.  Across the semiarid High Plains, spotty groves of trees were observed along dry stream beds or surrounding farmhouses but were otherwise absent.  Farther east, the green ribbon of the Platte River snaked across southern Nebraska, demonstrating a steady supply of water for plains cottonwoods and other riparian trees and shrubs.

The riverine corridors thickened after we crossed the Missouri River (just south of Omaha) as the size and number of the streams increased, fed by abundant moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.  After flying over the Illinois River at Peoria, trees diminished once again across the Glaciated Plain of central Illinois; once a vast prairie, it is now productive farmland, studded with wind farms.  Clouds obscured the landscape over most of Indiana and Ohio and, when breaks in the overcast finally returned, a sea of trees stretched below us, indicating that we h…

Getting There

When I travel, whether by car, train or plane, the journey to and from my destination is often just as interesting as the destination itself; indeed, the landscape or ecosystems encountered en route may prove to be the highlight of the trip.  Setting out for Switzerland tomorrow morning, I know that the flight from Denver to Washington, DC, will cross familiar terrain but I'm almost certain to observe some geographic features heretofore unseen.

Having checked the International route on Flight Aware, I also know that my second flight will head northeast, crossing New York City, Boston, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland before venturing out across the dark Atlantic.  Early the next morning, we will cross Ireland before angling SSE across England and France to Geneva.  Since I have never been to Europe (unless I count the eastern half of Iceland, which is part of the Eurasian Plate), this final stretch will be all new territory, viewed from 30,000 feet.

Of course, I have secured my windo…

Waiting on the Tanagers

Since purchasing our Littleton, Colorado, farm almost three decades ago, western tanagers have never failed to visit the property in mid May.  Indeed the appearance of those colorful migrants is one of the highlights of nature's year.  So where are the buggers this spring?

Summer residents of the upper foothills and lower mountain forests, western tanagers winter in the Tropics.  They are primarily insectivores, gleaning their prey from foliage or flycatching from the top of trees; tanagers also consume berries and often invade our mulberry trees if the fruit has ripened when they visit.

Well, we have plenty of insects and the mulberries are close to being edible but the tanagers have not yet arrived.  We birders pride ourselves in knowing a good deal about the behavior and migration patterns of our quarry but nature is fickle and the birds are not here to entertain us.  Our farm is surely an attractive rest stop for the migrating tanagers but so are many other locations along th…

A Nervous Assassin

Late this morning, I looked out of our kitchen window and noticed an immature Cooper's hawk in the side yard, seemingly lounging in the sunshine.  Within a few seconds, however, he began to repeatedly hop into the air, twisting about as if performing a ceremonial dance.

Grabbing my binoculars, I focused in on the ritual and observed the tail feathers of a songbird poking from the grass; from what little I saw, I suspect it was a house finch.  Interrupting his dance, the hawk would roll the carcass to one side or the other and then resume his antics.  Finally, after five minutes or so, he took the victim to a grove of pinon pines where he settled on the ground for a bit before ascending to a limb to pluck his meal.

Large adult Cooper's hawks (especially females) often pluck and consume their victim at the site of the kill, unconcerned that crows or other scavengers might turn up.  Smaller birds (males and immatures) prefer a secluded location to enjoy their meal in peace, ofte…

Flashback Post VI

Tired of mowing already?  Why not make your property more wildlife friendly and save yourself some work at the same time.  Check out this post from April of 2010.

See: Lose some Lawn

The Jura Mountains

While Switzerland is famous for its Alps, which cover the southern half of the country, it also harbors a second mountain range, the Juras, which stretch along its northwestern border with France.  More than 200 miles in length, the Jura Mountain Range arcs from the Rhone Valley, at Geneva, to the Rhine Valley, at Basel.

The Jura Mountains have a core and outcrops of marine Jurassic limestone, deposited in the Paratethys Sea when dinosaurs roamed the planet; these sedimentary rocks were uplifted during the Pliocene Period of the Cenozoic Era (some 5-2 million years ago) as pressure from the ongoing Alps Orogeny rippled the landscape to their north.  While Jura means forested or mountains in regional native languages, it is also the basis for the word Jurassic, a name chosen by geologists for the middle period of the Mesozoic Era.  The Jura mountains are indeed forested except for alpine grasslands on the higher summits and sheer rock cliffs on some of the mountain flanks; the highest…

Golf and the Environment

Many of us like to play or watch golf due to the pristine landscapes in which the courses are set.  But this sport, more than any other, has a significant impact on our natural environment.

For instance, this week's PGA Tour Event is being held at the Trinity Forest Golf Club in Dallas, Texas; named for the forest from which it was cut, not a single tree remains on the course.  Others have been established in the deserts of the Southwest, where sunshine and mild temperatures are almost guaranteed but rainfall is spotty at best; tremendous amounts of water, most of it pulled from the Colorado River, is used to irrigate those unnatural landscapes.  Even in the relatively wet climates of our planet, golf courses require regular mowing (just imagine the amount of fossil fuel burned each year) and massive doses of herbicides and pesticides to maintain those immaculate fairways and greens.

So, while watching those exciting matches on TV or when indulging in the sport yourself, don'…

Colorado & Switzerland

Since I will be visiting Switzerland in the near future, I have begun to study its geography and noticed some significant similarities to Colorado.  Of course, they are both mountainous regions (the Rockies in Colorado and the Alps and Jura Mountains in Switzerland) and that topography gives birth to major river systems.

Here in Colorado, the mountain corridor stretches north to south through the central part of the State and also curves westward in Southwestern Colorado.  East of the Continental Divide the terrain is drained by the North Platte, South Platte, Arkansas and Rio Grande Rivers while the massive Colorado River Watershed drains the Western Slope.  The North and South Platte Rivers merge to become the Platte River in Nebraska (a major tributary of the Missouri), the Arkansas eventually enters the Lower Mississippi River and the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico.  The Colorado almost reaches the Sea of Cortez.

The Alps stretch across southern Switzerland while the …

MacGillivray's Warbler

On my stroll through South Platte Park this morning, I was fortunate to encounter a MacGillivray's warbler.  Not easily observed, this migrant favors riparian thickets on its way from Mexico and Central America to breeding grounds in the Western Mountains and Pacific Northwest.  Indeed, I found this morning's visitor in shrubs along the South Platte River and would have missed him altogether if I hadn't noticed movement of the foliage.

MacGillivray's warblers also nest in streamside thickets or dense understory, favoring new growth woodlands; here in Colorado, they are best found between elevations of 8500 and 10,000 feet during the summer months.  Like most warblers, they are insectivores, gleaning prey from the vegetation or directly from the ground.

Once considered to be a subspecies of the mourning warbler, which breeds in Canada and migrates through the central and eastern U.S., the birds are now classified as distinct species.  Regardless of his classification, …

The Guessing Game Begins

From mid May through most of the summer, thunderstorms often build above the Front Range peaks by late morning.  Steered by upper level winds, they move eastward across the urban corridor and then onto the High Plains where they may grow into monster supercells; June is the peak month for tornadic thunderstorms across the Plains of Eastern Colorado.

For those of us in Metro Denver and other Front Range cities, the path of these storms is fodder for a daily guessing game.  During years when the landscape is parched, we hope that one will move over our property, dropping heavy rain.  On the other hand, these storms often produce damaging hail and, if the seasonal moisture is up to par, we hope that they will angle to our north or south.

Today's storms began to build by mid morning and the largest of the group moved across downtown Denver (no word yet on any damage); here in Littleton, we received only a brief shower.  While second or even third rounds may occur, the first line of s…

Flashback Post V

We humans love and appreciate our mothers for a wide variety of reasons.  But there is one reason to express our gratitude that many are not aware of, a fact discussed on Mother's Day back in May, 2007.

See: Mom's Mitochondria

Invasion of Violet-Green Swallows

On this cool, cloudy morning along the Colorado Front Range, large flocks of violet-green swallows swirled above the South Platte, strafing the river and adjacent ponds for insects.  Just as many perched on nearby power lines, resting in the chilly drizzle.

Having wintered in Mexico or Central America, these aerialists usually arrive in late April or May, resting and feeding on the Piedmont before heading into the foothills and mountains.  There they will nest in tree cavities or rock crevices and feast on a variety of flying insects.  Throughout the summer, they are often observed in foothill canyons, feeding with white-throated swifts.

Damp, chilly conditions force swallows to congregate along and above rivers or lakes, where their prey hovers over the relatively warm water.  I encountered about 850 violet-green swallows along a 1.5 mile stretch of the river this morning, joined by much smaller numbers of cliff, barn, tree and rough-winged swallows which arrived earlier and have al…

Diplomacy Works, Even for Tyrants

President Trump and his Administration are basking in the release of three American prisoners by North Korea and in the prospect of an upcoming summit with the North Korean dictator.  While many of us who despise Trump applaud this shift toward diplomacy, we remain unconvinced that the President's war mongering and public ridicule of Kim Jong-un had anything to do with this breakthrough.  On the other hand, more intense sanctions, joined by China, clearly had an impact.

Both Trump and Kim Jong-un are power-hungry narcissists who feed on attention and punish those who refuse to proclaim their loyalty.  Fortunately, here in the U.S., the Legislative and Judicial Branches keep Trump in check; otherwise, we would quickly witness the rise of King Trump and the decimation of both human rights and freedom of the press.

On a more positive note, the current scenario reinforces the fact that diplomacy can work, even when dealing with a ruthless regime; though the results remain uncertain, …

A Nostalgic Sound

On my visit to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area this morning, the refuge seemed a bit subdued; while thunderstorms rumbled to its south, the floodplain preserve received but a few passing showers.  Beneath the low, gray overcast, the birds carried on with their morning routines but were relatively quiet, especially for early May.  A significant exception was the calling of northern bobwhites, apparently proclaiming their territorial rights.

During my pre-teen years, when I lived in the northeastern suburbs of Cincinnati, my friends and I spent much of our time exploring the nearby fields and woodlands (see Wonderland).  On those excursions, I became very familiar with the call of the bobwhite and we would occasionally flush those eastern quail as we tramped across abandoned farmlands.

Now, almost 60 years later, that sound is not nearly as common in the Central and Eastern U.S. since agriculture and suburban "development" have destroyed much of the quail habitat.  Nevertheles…

The Real Chaplain Scandal

The ongoing chaplain controversy in the U.S. House of Representatives seems to be the product of both political and religious objections to the Catholic priest who has recently held that position.  Some say his firing was in response to his criticism of the Republican Tax Cut while others report that evangelical Congress Members want a chaplain who is more accepting of their beliefs.

In my opinion, the real scandal lies with the appointment of a House Chaplain to begin with, funded by American taxpayers and plying his trade on Government property.  The same goes for those Prayer Breakfasts that our Presidents and Congress Members attend; I assume we also fund those mystical events.

Legislators certainly have the right to attend the church, synagogue or mosque of their choice and can seek the advice of shamans if they like; they can even arrange for their piety to be photographed in order to impress or appease their constituents.  But this mysticism should not occur on Government prop…

The Key to Achievement

Human achievement seems to depend on factors that extend beyond intelligence and social status.  One segment of our population makes the most of their abilities and opportunities while others settle for the comfort of mediocrity or end up relying on social assistance.  This division occurs across all cultures and all economic groups and a variety of factors are likely responsible.

No doubt, mental illness and psychological disorders often play a role, as do genetic traits and the quality of parental nurturing.  While intelligence and access to a good education surely favor human achievement, many exceptions occur and some humans demonstrate remarkable success without the benefit of formal training.  Life is complex and one's genetic constitution, skills, experience and opportunities all influence its course.

But it seems to me that self-esteem is a crucial factor.  If one is raised in an environment where expectations are low, where criticism abounds and where blame is frequently…

Flashback Post IV

As spring unfolds across America, the lawn masters descend on suburbia, promising a thick, green carpet of grass for those who utilize their services.  In my opinion, those services are both unnecessary and unwise, thoughts expressed in a post from April, 2008.

See: The Chemicals of Spring

Global Big Day at Eagle Bluffs

On this annual Global Big Day, sponsored by eBird, I had every reason to choose Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area for my personal bird count.  This refuge, on the Missouri River floodplain, is one of the best birding locations in Missouri; indeed, I have personally referred to it as the Ding Darling of the Midwest.

Arriving just after 7 AM, I spent three and a half hours scouring the refuge, paying more attention to the woodland areas than I often do on my regular visits.  By the time I left, I had seen 66 avian species, more than my combined Big Day counts for the past two years (which were at the Mendocino Botanic Gardens, in California, and at our Littleton farm, in Colorado).  My seasonal firsts on this sunny, warm morning included prothonotary warblers, warbling vireos, least sandpipers and dickcissels; surprisingly, the count did not include any raptors other than bald eagles and their growing eaglets.  Among the more numerous species were red-winged blackbirds, blue-winged teal, …

An Avian Symphony

I returned to the Columbia Audubon Sanctuary this morning and was greeted by an avian symphony so intense that birdwatching was a bit of a challenge.  We birders, ambling through a natural habitat, depend on bird calls or songs to attract our attention, allowing us to focus in on the source.  However, when those calls and songs echo from every direction, their origin is not so evident and we must count on movement to locate our quarry; as veteran birders know, this can be a trying and tiring experience.

Now at the peak of their spring migration, a fabulous diversity of songbirds fill Midwestern woodlands: migrant warblers, flycatchers, vireos, wrens, thrushes and tanagers join the chorus of permanent residents.  Some will settle in and stay for the summer, raising their youngsters in the Heartland, while others are merely passing through, on their way to more northern breeding grounds.  Among this mornings songsters were red-eyed and blue-headed vireos, golden-winged and Nashville wa…

Birding between the Storms

Last night, a line of strong thunderstorms passed through Columbia, Missouri, and more are expected this afternoon.  I thus took advantage of the hiatus to visit two of my favorite local birding areas: Perry Phillips Lake and the Forum Nature Area.

Cloudy, warm conditions and a light southwest breeze made those visits quite pleasant and the birds were especially active following last night's heavy rain.  Among the seasonal firsts were green herons, Baltimore orioles and Tennessee and black-throated green warblers; other highlights included soras, a red-shouldered hawk, indigo buntings and a mother wood duck with her ten ducklings.

I encountered about forty species during the course of my visits and completed them within a few hours.  We have to take what nature gives us and a balmy interlude between storm systems offered both productive birding and enjoyable exercise.  Even more beneficial, the storms are bringing much needed rain to central Missouri.

Northern Waterthrush at Eagle Bluffs

On this warm, breezy morning, I returned to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area for the first time since March.  Except for blue-winged teal and American coot, waterfowl numbers had fallen dramatically and summer songbirds were reclaiming the refuge.  Of course, spring migrants were also passing through the Missouri River Valley, one of which was foraging in a soggy drainage ditch, oblivious of the beautiful landscape that covers most of the floodplain.

The visitor was a northern waterthrush, a large warbler that favors wooded swamps and bogs.  Feasting on insects and other invertebrates, this bird spends most of its time on the ground, searching mossy logs and muddy shorelines for its prey.  On his way to Alaska, Canada or northern regions of the U.S., he likely spent the winter in Central or South America, though some head to southernmost Florida.

We birders look forward to the spring warbler migration, searching trees and shrubs for those active, colorful insectivores.  But we must als…

Back in the Gulf Plume

Having returned to central Missouri, I am back in the plume of moisture that flows up from the Gulf of Mexico.  Repeatedly pumped northward by low pressure zones as they ride eastward along the jet stream, this intermittent but relatively steady supply of moisture produces the verdant landscape of the American Midwest, a marked change from the semiarid environment of the Colorado Front Range.

Taking advantage of the insect hordes that warm, humid air spawns, migrant insectivores are streaming northward through the Heartland and I headed over to the Columbia Audubon Sanctuary to observe the parade; the preserve was adorned with flowering redbuds and, throughout my visit, I was serenaded by a mixed chorus of songbirds, tree frogs and trilling American toads. Among my first seasonal sightings were eastern wood pewees, yellow-throated, black and white and prairie warblers, Swainson's thrushes, blue-gray gnatcatchers, eastern kingbirds and a lone common yellowthroat.  Other seasonal f…

A Secretive Visitor

As I walked to our barn yesterday afternoon, I caught a brief glimpse of a medium-sized songbird that scurried into one of our shrub lines, its cocked olive tail my only clue.  I immediately suspected that it was a green-tailed towhee, yet another first sighting on our Littleton farm.

Birders who live along the Colorado Front Range know that this bird is a common summer resident of the foothill shrublands, often heard but seldom observed.  Scratching for insects and seeds, it spends most of its time under the cover of shrubs and thickets; though males may sing from a perch to defend their territory, green-tailed towhees are less conspicuous than their spotted cousins.  After nesting and raising their young in foothill canyons or on sun-drenched slopes below 8000 feet, these towhees head for the Desert Southwest or Mexico for the winter months.

Today, I waited for our visitor to emerge from the shrubs but he remained partly concealed.  A flash of his rusty orange crown confirmed my id…

Just Down River

Just downstream from South Platte Park, where the river has not been "restored" (channelized for fish), the South Platte flows through braided channels, broken by sandbars and marshes.  This morning, I wandered along 1.5 miles of that attractive ecosystem and was rewarded with a fine diversity of wildlife.

Among the birds were three seasonal firsts: a black-crowned night heron, three snowy egrets and a dozen or more cliff swallows.  Other avian highlights included a large number of blue-winged and cinnamon teal, two American avocets, a couple Say's phoebes, several great blue herons and the usual mix of raptors.  A coyote hunted along the opposite bank and a muskrat plied a calm stretch of the river.

This morning's walk was both a pleasant change from my usual birding route (within the Park) and a nostalgic return to the "old South Platte." The wildlife seemed to share my preference for a more natural ecosystem, however hemmed in it might be by human devel…

Nesting Cooper's Hawks

The Cooper's hawks that have been cavorting about our farm for the past couple of weeks are now preparing to nest in one of the large Siberian elms.  Actually, the male is building the nest, piling sticks atop one of several squirrel nests in that tree.  Stopping to rest or to hunt for himself, he spends most of his day on the farm.  Meanwhile, the much larger female departs for extended periods of time, letting her mate handle the construction work.

Sources disagree on this point, some reporting that both partners construct the nest while others confirm my observation.  In either case, it will take a couple of weeks to finish the nest and another month of incubation before the fuzzy chicks appear.  The female will provide most of the incubation and the male will do the hunting during that period.  Since Cooper's hawks feed primarily on mid-sized songbirds, the local doves, pigeons, flickers, jays and robins may be in for a harrowing summer.  Large females are also known to t…

Spooked by a Bittern

As I circled Eaglewatch Lake at South Platte Park this morning, I accidentally flushed an American bittern and was spooked myself by his sudden rise from the marsh.  A medium-sized heron, this bittern has a thick torso and neck, making him appear quite large at close range; a long bill adds to his menacing appearance.

Foraging near the water's edge in both freshwater and brackish wetlands, American bitterns feed on fish, amphibians, lizards, large insects and small mammals.  When threatened, they assume a classic pose with their bill pointed skyward and their streaked plumage blending with the reeds and tall grasses.  This morning's encounter was too acute to permit that camouflage routine and he took off across the lake.

Wintering primarily in coastal marshes of the southern U.S. and Mexico, American bitterns way also utilize drier areas with tall grass.  Most nest in freshwater wetlands of southern Canada and the northern U.S. while smaller numbers summer in lakeside marshe…

The Appeal of Birding

Most birdwatchers begin their hobby due to the influence of a relative or friend who is already a devotee.  They soon learn that there are far more local species than they had realized and enjoy the hunt for more.

While some eventually lose enthusiasm, many continue birding throughout their lives, fascinated by the large variety of birds that reside in or visit their community.  Some begin traveling to regional wildlife refuges to augment their "life list" while others actually plan vacations to birding meccas.

But beyond the enjoyment and challenge of finding and recording species, birding appeals to conservation-minded individuals because birds connect us with distant regions of the planet, bearing witness that Earth's far-flung ecosystems are interconnected and interdependent.  The migrants that we attract with our landscaping and feeders are both welcome visitors and messengers from afar, temporarily taking advantage of our hospitality.  In return, we come to apprec…

Earth Day: Not Enough

Today is Earth Day, an annual celebration of our planet's many resources and of our commitment to protect them.  There will be speeches, festivals, marches, fun-runs and other human activities, designed to highlight the threats to our environment and to educate attendees how to minimize their personal impact on natural ecosystems.

Of course, those efforts will be ineffective unless they challenge the financial power of industry and the political forces within our government that strive to derail the work of conservationists.  It is good that many humans will "show their green" on Earth Day but they must followup that demonstration by making "green choices" when they shop, as they manage their own property and at the ballot box.

It is fun to gather on a warm, sunny day to taste organic foods, buy natural trinkets and accept free trees and bumper stickers but it is harder to join community action groups, support conservation organizations and take part in the po…

Relentless Evolution

We modern humans are the products of 3.6 billion years of evolution, governed by genetic mutations, genetic recombination (through sexual reproduction) and the overriding process of natural selection.  Even among the global human population, differences have developed as tribes have adapted to their environment (e.g. darker skin in those native to the Tropics and more adipose tissue in those native to the Arctic region).

Today I came across an article in the New York Times which reports on a study from the journal Cell.  It describes an anatomic alteration present in the Balau people of Southeast Asia, a coastal culture that has long sustained itself by deep diving to spear fish and to collect mollusks from the sea bed.  Known for their ability to remain underwater for prolonged periods of time, members of this tribe were found to have enlarged spleens (an organ that is also enlarged in other diving mammals such as seals and which plays an important role in the diving reflex observed…

A Colorado Low

During the spring, an upper level low often develops over the Four Corners region and moves eastward onto the High Plains.  In concert, its cold front bows southeastward from the central zone of low pressure, separating dry air, to its west, from warm, humid air, to its east.

Known as the Dry Line, this frontal boundary often ignites supercell thunderstorms across the Southern High Plains, from eastern New Mexico to West Texas and Oklahoma.  North of the low, counterclockwise winds push moisture toward the Front Range, producing cold rain or snow as the air is forced to rise by the terrain.

This scenario is playing out this evening.  The Dry Line and its attendant thunderstorms stretch along the New Mexico-Texas line and are moving eastward; hail is expected and tornadoes may develop.  Here in Metro Denver, chilly rain is falling which will likely change to snow overnight.  Since it has been very warm along the Front Range, significant accumulation is unlikely and the precipitation i…

The Avian Spring Migration

Across central latitudes of North America, the avian spring migration extends from February through May.  During this time, summer residents are arriving from the south, winter residents are leaving for their northern (or mountain) breeding grounds and other migrants are merely passing through, on their way from wintering areas (to our south) to breeding areas (to our north).

Migrant snow geese, northern white-fronted geese and American white pelicans are among the early migrants, often heading north by February.  During March, the duck/loon/grebe migrations begin to heat up and hardy summer residents appear; the latter include American woodcocks, eastern phoebes, mountain bluebirds and tree swallows.  Early shorebirds may also turn up in March though the number and variety of shorebirds usually peaks in mid-late April.  Mid April is an interesting time for birders since the wave of summer residents begins to increase and the last of the winter residents begin to depart; among the fo…

Seasonal Firsts at South Platte Park

Those of us who have been birding for many years rarely encounter a "new species" unless we travel to a new region of the country (or of the planet).  To compensate, we generally look for birds that are "the first of the year" or "the first of the season."  Of course, these species are either migrants or season residents.

This morning, despite a gusty southwest wind, I headed down to South Platte Park, hoping to see some "seasonal firsts" and I was not disappointed.  The first of these firsts was a male yellow-headed blackbird, lounging on a beach of Eaglewatch Lake; perhaps tired from his journey, he was basking in the bright sunshine, oblivious of the strong wind.  The second was an American avocet, foraging in the residual pool of Bufflehead Lake (where the water level remains low); joined only by six green-winged teal, he is on his way to ephemeral pools of the Northern Plains.  Finally, two ospreys graced the scene, cavorting in the gusty …

A Sage Thrasher visits the Farm

On this cloudy but warm afternoon, a sage thrasher visited our Littleton farm; it is the first one I have seen on the property since we bought it, 28 years ago.  Since this small thrasher prefers dry grasslands with nearby shrubs or pinon pines, I'm not surprised that he stopped by.

Spending most of their time on the ground, sage thrashers often chase grasshoppers and other insects, climbing into shrubs to feast on berries.  They breed across the sage flats of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau, wintering on the Southern High Plains or in the Desert Southwest of the U.S. and Mexico.

Primarily migrants along the Front Range, these thrashers are identified by their yellow eyes, their relatively short and slightly down-curved bill, their dull gray upper plumage and their boldly streaked or spotted chest and abdomen.  When disturbed, as our visitor was by my close inspection today, they retreat to shrubs or thickets and repeatedly flick their tail.

Can Scientists be Religious?

The answer to this question, it seems to me, depends on how we define scientist.  Those who use scientific facts in a practical way (e.g. teachers, lab technicians, flight engineers, medical practitioners) can likely balance their scientific knowledge and their religious beliefs without facing a philosophical crisis.  Basic scientists, however, especially those delving into the mysteries of the Universe and the nature of life itself, are less likely to accept the tenets of religious faith.

Indeed, organized religion has attempted to derail the validity of science since the days of Galileo and Copernicus.  Since that time, our scientific knowledge has expanded tremendously as theories have been proven or disproven using the scientific method.  Meanwhile, religious beliefs, not subject to scientific analysis, remain unchanged, a source of pride for most true believers.

But scientists can be just as kind, just as charitable and just as committed to human rights as any of their religious…

A Muted Protest in Denver

Despite the sunshine, the turnout at Denver's March for Science was underwhelming this morning.  Those who did participate were enthusiastic but, for a city as large and liberal as Denver, the message from here was muted.

Even the number of booths was disappointing and most were devoted primarily to recruiting members; I gravitated toward those that had a philosophical edge, such as organizations promoting freedom from religion.  While there was certainly a good deal of anti-Trump sentiment during the March itself, the displays and speakers were relatively apolitical.

Having come of age in the sixties, I've participated in my fair share of protest marches.  But the anger and fervor of that period was not matched today.  Perhaps we've become immune to Trump's daily tweets and executive orders, hoping to wait out the term of his dysfunctional Administration.  Unfortunately, they are doing a great deal of damage in the meantime and we will need a revolution to change the…

March for Science

What are you doing this Saturday, April 14?  If you are alarmed by the anti-science rhetoric of the Trump Administration and the Religious Right, consider taking part in the second annual March for Science that will occur in cities throughout our country and across the globe.

More than a protest rally, March for Science also highlights the importance of science education, scientific research and evidence-based policies related to human society and our stewardship of the planet.  Unfortunately, many industries, politicians and religious leaders have taken an anti-science approach to protect their own interests.

The Earth is not flat.  The evolution of life on our planet has been unfolding for 3.6 billion years and continues today.  The health of human society is directly related to the welfare of natural ecosystems.  Global warming is real and is primarily caused by our use of fossil fuels for more than a Century.  Tobacco use is a major health hazard.  These are scientific facts; to …

Summer Crosses the Mountains

A high pressure dome over the Four Corners region, combined with low pressure over the Northern Plains, has produced strong WSW winds along the Colorado Front Range.  Warm air from the Desert Southwest is being swept across the Continental Divide and, as that air is forced to sink along the Eastern Slope, it warms up and dries out.  As a result, we reached 81 degrees F in Metro Denver this afternoon.

Working outside on our Littleton farm, the summer-like conditions were readily apparent and I had to retreat to the shade on a regular basis.  The birds were noticeably quiet on this hot afternoon but insects and arachnids were especially conspicuous, including bees, yellow-jackets, jumping spiders, cabbage white butterflies, a wide assortment of beetles and clouds of midges.  Due to the recent mild weather, the pear and crabapple trees are beginning to bloom and most of the shrubs are almost leafed out.

The warm weather is expected to continue through tomorrow but rain and/or snow is fo…

Caged Birds

On this warm, April afternoon, as I watched a flock of gulls soar above our Littleton farm, I, like most humans since the dawn of our species, wished that I could join them.  While a small minority of humans have a pilot's license and an even smaller percentage are capable of using some form of a glider, we will never match the experience that birds enjoy on a daily basis.

It is thus especially sad to encounter a caged bird, capable of soaring above the countryside but trapped behind bars for the amusement or "education" of humans.  As a child, I enjoyed the banter of my grandmother's parakeet and took part in its care; too young to understand the deprivation that I was witnessing, that caged bird may have actually played a role in my early development as a naturalist, interested as I was in its vocalizations and behavior.

Is there a more cruel sentence that humans impose on wildlife?  Certainly the physical abuse of animals and trophy hunting come to mind but to ca…

Creativity & Substance Abuse

History is replete with authors, painters and musicians who used (and often abused) alcohol and/or illicit drugs.  One might question the reason for this association.

First of all, it seems that creativity is associated with manic-depressive tendencies.  It is for this reason that writers, artists and musicians often experience prolific periods that alternate with episodes of inertia (e.g. writer's block).  As a result, they may resort to the use of stimulants to augment their productivity or rely on alcohol to assuage their depression.  On the other hand, alcohol and certain drugs tend to diminish our inhibitions and may enhance creativity; one might argue that the secondary honesty or unique perspective may play a significant role in the success of the work.

Of course, there is a fine line between use and abuse and history is also replete with creative artists who died young due to their dependence on drugs and/or alcohol.  In some cases, the pressures associated with celebrity…