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Showing posts from 2018

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…

The Perching Tree

When we bought our Littleton, Colorado, farm in 1990, we noticed that a weeping mulberry tree, less than 10 feet from our picture window, was partly obstructing our view of the South Platte Valley and of the High Plains Escarpment to the southeast.  There was some discussion as to whether we should cut it down but, fortunately, it still stands.

During the warmer months, its dense clusters of curved branches are festooned with rich green foliage and, in early summer, it provides a copious supply of sweet red mulberries, enjoyed by humans and wildlife alike.  If one lives in the semiarid climate of the Front Range, anything that is green and provides tasty fruit is best left alone.

But it is during the colder months that I most appreciate this "ugly" tree.  It is then that a wide variety of birds perch on or within its net of barren branches.  Bathed in sunshine from dawn to dusk, the weeping mulberry attracts small songbirds such as juncos, finches, sparrows and bushtits but…

Sharp-shin in the Snow

Returning to the farm on this cold, snowy morning, I discovered a sharp-shinned hawk perched on the bird bath.  Oblivious of the blowing snow, he flew away when I stepped from my pickup.

Winter residents across the lower elevations of Colorado, sharp-shinned hawks return to the mountains or to the conifer belt of Canada to breed.  Throughout the year they prefer wooded areas where they hunt from a secluded perch or race through the trees to snare their prey.  Small to medium sized songbirds are their primary victims though they may feast on large insects and occasionally dine on snakes or amphibians.

I did not see the remains of a songbird near the bird bath and assume he merely stopped by for an icy drink.  But his unexpected presence in the swirling snow was both a special treat and a source of inspiration.  He was off to hunt in the April snowstorm while I grabbed the groceries and headed indoors!

Who We Are

Most humans accept the fact that our physical body is a product of our genome, modified by our lifestyle and, perhaps, by disease or injury.  However, many reject the concept that our thoughts, emotions, memories and dreams are also products of anatomic and biochemical systems.

In fact, from fetal life to the time of our death, our body is bombarded with stimuli; received through our senses, the signals and interactions are recorded in our brain and become as much a part of us as our external features.  Molding our sense of self, these experiences, remembered or not, determine who we become.

While our genes govern the physical framework and biochemical mechanisms with which we respond to life's challenges, the events and relationships of life's journey are equally significant.  Indeed, we are also products of the joy or pain, the love or rejection, the kindness or criticism and the nurturing or abuse that we experience along the way.

Flashback Post III

The first week of April is a great time for many American sports fans.  The Final Four reaches its exciting climax, the Masters Golf Tournament is held and the Professional Baseball Season gets underway.  It seems like an appropriate time to reflect on one of my posts from February, 2013.

See: Rooting for Champions

Wind Herding

As one who has been birding for many years, I know that strong winds and heavy rain are the two weather factors that most often keep birds inactive and out of sight.  On the other hand, a steady wind often concentrates our quarry, encouraging them to forage in sheltered areas.

This morning, at South Platte Park, a strong northwest wind raked the valley and I clearly noticed the herding effect described above.  The waterfowl congregated along the western and northern shores of Eaglewatch Lake, almost negating the need for binoculars.  Songbirds gathered in the same regions, sheltered from the wind by the reservoir levee and by a housing development north of the lake.  Of course, we birders find those areas more pleasant as well, bathed in sunshine yet protected from the chilling effect of the wind.

Among this morning's highlights were a common loon, two horned grebes (in breeding plumage), blue-winged teal (just beginning to populate the Front Range), a greater yellowlegs and a fe…

Walking into Spring

After two weeks of raw weather in Missouri, I have returned to our Littleton farm.  As I walked onto the property, I noticed the effects of a recent spring snowstorm; several large tree limbs lay on the ground, one partially blocking the driveway.  On the other hand, it was 70 degrees F and it sure felt like spring.

Indeed, the recent snows have brought greenery to our "lawns" and a host of bulb plants are providing the color that we associate with April.  One of my favorite wildflowers, the common dandelion, adorns the farm and both the wild cherries and the apricot trees are in bloom, attracting hordes of bees.  Though some of the shrubs have begun to leaf-out, the larger deciduous trees remain barren, a sign that nights remain cold along the Colorado Front Range.

No doubt, more upslope snowstorms lie ahead (April is second only to March when it comes to snowfall in Metro Denver) and tomorrow will be 20 degrees colder than today after 40 mph winds rake the area overnight.…

Flashback Post II

On this Easter Sunday, I thought I would link back to a post from April of 2012 which describes a formative experience in my development as a naturalist.

See: Easter Awakening

Loons Visit Columbia

Common loons breed on freshwater lakes across Alaska, Canada, the Great Lakes region and northern New England.  During the colder months, they migrate to coastal bays and estuaries or to large inland lakes of the southern U.S.

As they move between their breeding and wintering areas, these large, attractive divers often turn up on reservoirs across the country and are frequently encountered on those here in Missouri.  Since the immediate Columbia area is devoid of large lakes, migrating loons are less common here but a few have stopped to rest and feed on Perry Phillips Lake, south of town.

On our walk around the lake yesterday, my wife and I were fortunate to observe three of the visitors, joining a flock of ruddy ducks, a small squadron of coot and a trio of pied-billed grebes on the choppy lake surface.  Cutting a large but low profile, the loons were easy to identify with their attractive black and white plumage and their dagger-like bills.  They'll probably stay for a few mor…

A Noisy Morning at the Audubon Sanctuary

Finally, the sun is shining in Columbia, Missouri.  I took advantage of this sunny interlude to visit the Audubon Sanctuary on the west side of town and was greeted by a noisy avian chorus.

The songs of northern cardinals, Carolina wrens and tufted titmice dominated the chorus, joined by the hysterical calls of northern flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers.  Percussion was provided by the latter birds in addition to downy woodpeckers, a pileated woodpecker and a yellow-bellied sapsucker.  Twenty-three species were observed on my 2-mile walk, including two brown creepers, the first I have encountered this spring.

As I have mentioned in the past, the Columbia Audubon Sanctuary is an excellent site for birding, accessed by wide, well-maintained trails and characterized by an attractive mix of woodlands, forest, creeks and meadows.  The sunshine and the birdsong made this morning's visit especially pleasant.

Greater Yellowlegs at Eagle Bluffs

On yet another cool, cloudy, damp morning in central Missouri, I ventured down to the Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area.  Shrouded by low, gray clouds and enveloped in a chilly mist, this floodplain refuge hosted an increasing number of migrant waterfowl, now dominated by blue-winged teal, northern shovelers and American coot.  Another flock of American white pelicans had stopped to rest and feed on their way to the Northern Plains, bald eagles were incubating their broods and eastern phoebes were hunting along the waterways.

This morning's highlight was a large number of greater yellowlegs.  Foraging in both the shallows of pools and in flooded fields, these large, attractive shorebirds were feasting on small fish and a host of invertebrates.  Having spent the winter along southern coasts of the U.S. and throughout Mexico, they are on their way to central latitudes of Canada and the southern rim of Alaska where they will nest in wooded bogs.

Among the earlier shorebirds to arrive i…

A Midwest March

Since arriving in Missouri a week ago, the weather has been a mix of chilly air, low clouds, fog and intermittent rain.  A band of thunderstorms passed through the region yesterday morning and a few fleeting moments of sunshine reassured us that pleasant days will eventually return.

This week has reminded me of my childhood in Cincinnati, when March was a period of endurance before the true spring of April and May; it was perhaps my least favorite month, a gauntlet of gray skies and cold rain.  Later, as I began to appreciate the value of this bleak, sloppy weather, my tolerance has improved (somewhat) and, festooned with rain gear and boots, I visit March wetlands to witness the annual tide of migrant waterfowl.

While March is usually the snowiest month along the Colorado Front Range, a subject of ridicule by many who favor the greenery of the Midwest, I'll gladly endure those upslope snowstorms, intermingled as they are with bright sunshine and periods of dry, mild weather.  To…

A Wrinkle in Science

Earlier today, I saw Disney's A Wrinkle in Time with my ten year-old grandson.  The story begins by focusing on two physicist parents and their science-oriented children.  When the father disappears into the Universe after discovering a "wrinkle" in the time-space continuum, the children and a friend are induced to search for him.

From this point on, the story takes on a moralistic tone, with emphasis on the struggle between "light and darkness" and on the universal power of love.  In other words, there is a shift from science to human mysticism.

While the film offers valuable lessons for children, especially related to self-esteem and one's relationship with friends and family, it seemed to ridicule the value of science that is devoid of humanistic qualities.  Rather than pointing out our relative insignificance in this vast Universe, the story, with its Disneyesque ending, implies that natural forces can be altered or diminished by human behavior.  Once …

Pectoral Sandpipers at Eagle Bluffs

On this cool, cloudy and breezy morning, a friend and I returned to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River floodplain.  Various species of waterfowl remained common though not especially abundant: mallards, northern shovelers, blue-winged and green-winged teal and American coot were most numerous but a quartet of ring-billed ducks and a lone red-breasted merganser were also observed.  A half-dozen American white pelicans lounged on one of the pools, pied-billed grebes dove in the shallows and the usual mix of raptors patrolled the floodplain.  As their breeding season gets underway, northern flickers were very conspicuous this morning, moving about in small flocks.

Fortunately, the spring shorebird migration seems to be gaining momentum.  A few greater yellowlegs and five Wilson's snipes joined killdeer on the mudflats and, thanks to my birding companion, we discovered nine pectoral sandpipers in a flooded field.  These latter shorebirds breed on the Arctic tundra o…

An Early Kite

On this sunny, cool morning in central Missouri, a friend and I headed down to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River floodplain.  For mid March, waterfowl were not abundant, represented primarily by Canada geese, mallards, northern shovelers, blue-winged teal and American coot; a few wood ducks and a pair of hooded mergansers were also encountered.  Shorebird sightings were limited to seven greater yellowlegs.  About 30 American white pelicans graced the floodplain and raptors were fairly common, including bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, American kestrels,  northern harriers and a lone merlin.

But the highlight of my visit occurred after my friend left and as I was driving out of the refuge.  Just before reaching the exit, I noticed a "white bird" perched in a grove of trees near the river.  Close examination with my binoculars revealed that its head, chest and abdomen were white (or very light gray) and that its back was a darker gray.  About the size of a pe…

Flashback Post I

Rather than repeating myself when it comes to seasonal highlights, I have decided to start directing readers to past posts.  This first Flashback Post relates to the annual congregation of sandhill cranes on the Platte River in south-central Nebraska.

See: Cranes on the Platte River

Fitness: A Gift to our Kids

We all want what's best for our children.  From the time of their birth, we provide the love, food and shelter that they need.  We take them to interesting places, help them with school work and attend their sporting events or performances.

But one of the most important gifts that we can offer is to encourage them to adopt a healthy lifestyle.  Introducing them to healthy foods, discouraging intake of sugary snacks, educating them about the dangers of tobacco, illicit drugs and alcohol, and encouraging various forms of exercise will instill habits that, in the long run, will minimize their risk of preventable disease.

Obesity, a global scourge, is best prevented during childhood.  Primarily familial, it runs in families because children follow the example of their parents when it comes to diet and exercise.  By remaining fit themselves, parents steer their children away from obesity, tobacco use, alcohol abuse and their many complications.

Mind over Body

The phrase "mind over body" generally has positive implications.  Individuals hampered by physical disability, injury or disease overcome those conditions to survive and thrive, inspiring those of us who do not face such challenges.

But the phrase might also be used when talented teams or individuals fail to meet expectations; the recent Winter Olympics and the current NCAA Basketball Tournament offer examples.  The stress induced by the pressure to succeed (often triggered by public expectations) impairs physical performance.

Contrary to the belief that the mind and body are separate, a concept most often instilled by religious mysticism, they are intimately connected and the health of one is dependent on the health of the other.  Disorders such as brain injury, dementia and psychological stress alter the function of other organs and tissues and physical disease can have dramatic effects on brain function.  Our thoughts and our emotions, like our muscular activity, are pro…

Nuthatch Thievery

Yesterday afternoon, as I peered outside to check on the progress of our expected rain showers, I saw a red-breasted nuthatch in one of our black locust trees.  Circling a major branch with a seed in his bill, this avian acrobat was searching for a bark crevice in which to store his larder; when food is plentiful (as it is thanks to my feeders), this is typical behavior for a nuthatch.

Having selected his storage spot, the red-breasted nuthatch crammed the seed under the bark, maneuvering it with his bill.  Seemingly proud of his frugality, he stepped back to admire his work when a white-breasted nuthatch swooped in and snared the seed from its natural locker.  Miffed, the red-breast poked at the intruder but did not seriously challenge his larger rival.  Once he flew off, the white-breasted nuthatch casually devoured the prize.

Such competition and opportunism are widespread in nature but we seldom get the chance to witness these encounters.  I must admit, in more than 40 years of b…

Stephen Hawking's Legacy

Stephen Hawking, the renowned cosmologist and theoretical physicist, died yesterday at the age of 76.  Diagnosed with ALS in 1963, when he was 21, he was advised that he had but two years to live.  So much for predicting the course of human disease.

Determined to receive his Doctorate, Hawking carried on with the support of his first wife, eventually overcoming the loss of both his mobility and his speech.  Nevertheless, his courageous perseverance and remarkable intelligence led to discoveries about the nature of our Universe and its origin (especially black holes), furthering the work of Einstein and others.

Despite his physical limitations, Stephen Hawking relied on modern technology to communicate with colleagues and to educate the general public.  In the course of doing so, he retained a strict devotion to the scientific method, refusing to condone mysticism in any form.  In the end, he exceeded all expectations.   See also: A Tribute to Stephen Hawking

An Owl Duet

The great horned owl that has been serenading our Littleton farm for the past two weeks appears to have attracted a partner.  Last night, about 3 AM, a duet of hoots and other vocalizations echoed from the top of a large honeylocust next to the house; two hours later, the owls either stopped calling or flew off.

It is a bit late in the season for great horned owl romance but the prospect of having a nesting pair on the farm is exciting.  There's certainly plenty of prey here (cottontails, mice, voles and even skunks) though the large trees may be too exposed for owl nesting.

I'll certainly watch for any signs of owl domesticity and report developments should they occur.  We have had red fox and coyotes den on the property and a mule deer raised her fawn here one year.  To have an owl family grace the farm would be a welcome first.

Birding 101

Fortunately, after a series of visits to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, near Columbia, Missouri, and South Platte Park, in Littleton, Colorado, my ten year old grandson has maintained an interest in birding.  Harboring a life list of at least 60 species, his enthusiasm persists; of course, the birding excursions also include snacks, wide-ranging discussions and exposure to other wildlife.  Among today's topics was the probability that other intelligent civilizations inhabit our Universe (a point on which we heartily agreed).

This morning, we took a drive through Chatfield State Park, in southwest Metro Denver.  Stopping at several locations along the reservoir and walking past a few small lakes in the South Platte Valley, we saw a fair variety of birds, including an immature bald eagle and a red-tailed hawk.  The highlight proved to be a large flock of redheads on one of the smaller lakes, a new species for his list.

Of course, I saw a few species that I did not mention to my bi…

Armchair Birding

Late this afternoon, as I sat in our farmhouse living room watching college basketball, a small raptor landed on a limb of our catalpa, framed within a small window just above the television.  It was a sharp-shinned hawk, a small accipiter with a long, barred tail that is squared off at its terminal edge; as if to assist my identification, the sharpie turned 180 degrees, showing off its finely striped chest and abdomen.

Feasting on songbirds, sharp-shinned hawks are fairly common throughout most of the Lower 48 during the colder months of the year, retreating to mountainous areas or Canadian latitudes to breed.  Their smaller size and squared-off tail distinguish them from Cooper's hawks which are permanent residents across most of the country.

As veteran birders know, such incidental sightings are rather common for those of us attuned to nature.  Sometimes, after scouring nature preserves for half the day, we return home to encounter the most interesting species in our own backy…

Our Protectionist President

This week, President Trump announced that he plans to protect American jobs by imposing tariffs on steel, aluminum and, perhaps, other products; oh, and by the way, he wants to gut NAFTA.  As usual, his answer to a complex problem is simple and he doesn't appear to consider the ramifications of his policies.  After all, this is the man who promises to save the coal industry, to wall off the country to keep us safe and to protect school children by arming the teachers.

Unfortunately, Trump's protectionism is selective.  He is not interested in protecting the environment, our National Monuments or the rights of American citizens (unless, of course, they are native-born, white, heterosexual males).

What we really need is to be protected from this impulsive narcissist.  The Republicans are not willing to comply and, unless Robert Mueller sinks his ship, Trump will be around until we vote him out of office.

Reducing Stress

In this 24/7, hurry-up world, stress affects us all to some degree.  Excessive stress can lead to a variety of medical problems: headaches, anxiety, peptic ulcers, cardiovascular disease and irritable bowel syndrome to name but a few.  Whatever we do to mitigate stress is sure to be beneficial and the following are my personal recommendations.

If you face a number of problems or duties that need to be addressed, take on only one per day.  Avoid cable news, talk radio and social media; obtain your news from calm, reliable sources (I suggest NPR or the New York Times) and check your email no more than twice each day.  Read books, paint, exercise and play or listen to music (easily mingled with household chores).

Finally, get outside as much as possible and walk through natural areas, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells that nature offers.  She is, in my opinion, the best antidote to stress.

Red Flag Warning

A red flag warning has been issued for eastern Colorado, from the Front Range foothills to the Kansas border.  High winds, produced by high pressure west of the Continental Divide and low pressure on the High Plains, will rake the area, increasing the risk of wildfires.  Dry vegetation and low humidity exacerbate that risk.

Relatively snow deficient this winter, the region is counting on upslope snowstorms in March and April to bring moisture to the dry landscape.  This week's storm tracked north of Colorado, bringing some snow to the Western Slope but leaving the Front Range urban corridor and Colorado Plains under sunny skies.  Just yesterday, a grass fire developed in Elbert County, destroying several homes and barns.

As the winter storm moves east and high pressure envelops most of the State, the gusty winds will abate and the red flag warning will expire.  Hopefully, Pacific storms will begin taking a more southerly track, augmenting our chance for rain and/or snow.

See also…

Bicoastal Storms

Storm systems are centered around an area of low atmospheric pressure and the lower the pressure the more potent the storm.  Here in the Northern Hemisphere, winds circle counterclockwise around the central low, sweeping waves and precipitation in that direction.

Currently, a strong "Nor'easter" is centered off the mid-Atlantic Coast.  Having pummeled inland areas with high winds and heavy snow, it is now raking the coast of New England; as the strong winds come ashore, high waves and storm surge cause coastal flooding and beach erosion.  Meanwhile, in the Pacific Northwest, another strong storm has brought high winds and heavy precipitation to Northern California, the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada; since the storm is centered off Oregon, the coastal effects are greatest to its south as the counterclockwise winds lash the shore.
Of course, both storms are gradually moving off to the east, the Nor'easter into the North Atlantic (where it may affect the Canadian Mari…

Night of the Owl

Last night, I was awakened by the hoots of a great horned owl; it was just after midnight.  The owl was clearly perched near to our farmhouse but, despite the bright full moon, I could not see it from the bedroom window.

Long fascinated by owls, I always enjoy hearing their calls and listened as his nocturnal lecture continued.  Our farm is home to dozens of cottontails and I assumed he was biding his time until a meal wandered by; unfortunately, hunting did not seem to be a priority and he continued calling for the next three hours.

Though I managed to doze off for periods of time, the hooting led to a fitful sleep and my fondness for owls began to take a hit; he must have finally flew off (or fell asleep himself) and I was granted some peace.  Of course, I hope he returns on a regular basis as long as the visits are reasonably short.

Above Kansas Rivers

Flying back to Denver this morning, the landscape of Missouri was shrouded by clouds but clear skies over Kansas and Colorado provided a spectacular view of the Great Plains geography.  The first recognizable feature was Perry Lake, northeast of Topeka, fed by the Delaware River; to the south, Clinton Lake, fed by the Wakarusa River, shimmered in the early morning sun.  Both of these rivers are tributaries of the Kansas River which empties into the Missouri at Kansas City.

Approaching Manhattan, the Kansas River came into view and we soon crossed the lower segment of Tuttle Creek Lake on the Big Blue River.  Just northwest of Junction City, we passed over Milford Lake, on the Republican River and the Smoky Hill River sliced through the city, joining the Republican to form the Kansas River.

From that junction into eastern Colorado, we paralleled the Smoky Hill River, passing over Salina, the massive Smoky Hill Wind Farm (north of Ellsworth), Russell and Hays before our path crossed In…

A Late Winter Chorus

While walking around Perry Phillips Lake, south of Columbia, this morning, I heard the first chorus frog calls of the season.  Resembling the sound produced by running your thumbnail down the teeth of a comb, the calls are delivered day and night as males gather in temporary pools to attract females.  Eggs are fertilized as they are laid and attach to vegetation in the base of the pools.  After hatching and undergoing metamorphosis, the young frogs spend the warmer months searching prairies and wetlands for insects and spiders, retreating beneath logs, rocks or leaf litter to rest or to escape danger.

Officially classified as boreal chorus frogs throughout most of Missouri (except in the Boot Heel region), these tiny amphibians are the first frogs to breed in the spring, their mating calls often heard by late February.  Potential prey for snakes, herons, fish, mink and raccoons, among other predators, surviving chorus frogs spend the winter encased in mud.

We humans, though pleased t…

Diamonds in the Sky

On this pleasant, late afternoon in central Missouri, I went out on the back deck to see what avian visitors might stop by and I was treated to a noisy mix of resident and wintering birds.  Turkey vultures were most numerous, lazily circling overhead before settling in their roost a mile up the road.  Other common species included white-throated sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, black-capped chickadees and American robins; less abundant were northern cardinals, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, song sparrows and a lone Cooper's hawk.

The highlight proved to be a large flock of snow geese, passing overhead and flying north.  Too high to hear, their white bodies reflected the setting sun and I was fortunate to spot them as I scanned the sky before going indoors.  Like a shimmering diamond necklace, its chain broken and wavering against a deep blue background, the snows, as always, were an inspiring sight.

Once again, the decision to go outside …

Migrants on the Floodplain

This morning, a friend and I headed down to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River floodplain.  Despite the damp, chilly and cloudy weather, it was a productive visit, especially for waterfowl watching.

Once again, mallards dominated the scene, numbering 6000 or more; they were joined by northern pintails, gadwall, northern shovelers, ring-necked ducks, coot and a pair of redheads.  Bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, a northern harrier and a kestrel patrolled the refuge and a fair variety of songbirds moved through the riparian woodlands and lakeside thickets.

But migrant geese provided the highlight of our visit.  At least 1000 Canada geese graced the preserve and a large flock of snow geese (estimated at 1500) had settled in the southwestern corner of the refuge.  They were joined by a few hundred greater white-fronted geese which also occupied other fields across the floodplain; in total, we estimated that at least 2000 white-fronts were staging at Eagle Bluffs, the larg…

An Icy Morning in Columbia

Following heavy rains yesterday, an overnight freeze placed a coat of ice on the vegetation of central Missouri.  Nevertheless, after thawing out our VW Beetle, I headed over to the Columbia Audubon Nature Sanctuary, on the west side of town.

The grassy trails crunched beneath my boots and the wooden bridges were a bit slippery but the resident birds were noisy and active despite the morning chill; red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmice and Carolina wrens were especially conspicuous.  The highlight of my visit was provided by a large flock of greater white-fronted geese that flew over the refuge, headed west toward the Missouri River Valley.

While I can't say the weather was pleasant, the birding was decent, the exercise was beneficial and the cold, fresh air was invigorating.  Like most humans in the Heartland, I'm ready for spring, but we can't let these wintry interludes prevent us from enjoying the great outdoors!

On the Atmospheric Fence

Here in central Missouri, we are temporarily caught between a deep atmospheric trough in the West and an atmospheric ridge in the East.  The former has brought cold, wintry weather to the western half of the country and the latter has produced record highs in Florida and warm weather throughout the Southeast, Midwest and New England.

The clash zone between these disparate air masses is inching eastward and, this morning, brought strong southerly winds to our region; taking advantage of the tail wind, flocks of migrant snow geese and greater white-fronted geese travelled northward through the Missouri River Valley.  By early afternoon, rain began to fall, a sign that the cold air behind the front is beginning to undercut and lift the warm, moist air to its east.  Thunderstorms may develop ahead of the front and heavy rain is expected by tomorrow.

Our spring-like conditions will end by Wednesday as cold, Canadian air plunges into the Heartland, reminding us that winter has not yet conc…

Thoughts and Prayers

Another week and another mass shooting in America.  As usual, Conservative Republicans will offer their thoughts and prayers but nothing else.  They blame the problem on disturbed young men and suggest that mental health services are inadequate.  This from a political group that is cutting health care access and defunding social programs.

When it comes to gun control, they dance around the subject, deferring to the political clout of the N.R.A.  In their defense of the Second Amendment, they bow to the extreme views of those who finance their campaigns, even refusing to impose universal background checks and gun registration.

Awash in firearms, this country must make a choice.  Either we jail or deport all disturbed and angry men or we take a reasonable approach to gun control.  Easy access to assault rifles makes no sense and puts innocent Americans (including school children) at risk.  Change will only come at the ballot box.

The Wings of Spring

Anyone who does not believe that spring begins in February should have been at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on this balmy morning in central Missouri.  The pools and channels of the refuge, mostly ice free, were clogged with migrant waterfowl.

Thousands of mallards dominated the scene, joined by Canada geese, northern pintails, northern shovelers and gadwall.  Large flocks of snow geese and greater white-fronted geese moved about the floodplain and five trumpeter swans flew northward above the Missouri River.  Bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, northern harriers and American kestrels patrolled the refuge and flocks of ring-billed gulls cavorted in the gusty south breeze.

Despite all the activity, a mystery arose, one that has occurred in the past; though I explored the refuge for almost two and a half hours, I did not encounter a single great-blue heron, a species that is common at Eagle Bluffs throughout the year (even when ice grips the floodplain).  Where were those hardy waders on …

American Tree Sparrows

On this mild, breezy afternoon, my wife and I took a walk around Perry Phillips Lake, south of Columbia, Missouri.  Two pair of red-tailed hawks cavorted in the wind but the lake remained frozen and no waterfowl were observed.  However, we did come across a flock of American tree sparrows, foraging in thickets along the south shore.

Residents of Alaska and Northern Canada where they breed in the Arctic Zone, these attractive sparrows are best identified by their rusty cap, white wing bars and light gray underparts with a central breast spot.  Gregarious during the winter months, they visit northern and central latitudes of the Lower 48, favoring open country with wooded streams or wetlands; while they visit backyard feeders on occasion, these sparrows are far more common in rural areas.  And though their name suggests otherwise, they spend most of their time on the ground or in low shrubs and saplings.

By late winter, the males begin to sing, longing to return to their northern homel…

Under Snowless Skies

Returning to Missouri today, we traveled across the Great Plains under sunny skies and enveloped in mild air.  Snow cover gradually diminished as we drove eastward and a south wind had placed the wind turbines in a steady spin.  Rough-legged hawks and northern harriers patrolled the High Plains of Eastern Colorado and Western Kansas, gradually replaced by American kestrels and red-tailed hawks as we moved toward Missouri.  A small flock of American white pelicans graced a lake near Lawrence, Kansas, while several flocks of wild turkeys scoured fields farther east.

But I was looking for migrant flocks of snow geese that begin their northward journey by mid February; having wintered in the lower Mississippi Valley, in Gulf Coast marshes and on croplands across the Southern Plains, they head toward Arctic breeding grounds before spring unfolds in the Heartland.  Scanning the clear blue skies, I observed only scattered flocks of Canada geese, moving about the farmlands.

Since I'll be…

The Korean Peninsula

In light of the ongoing Olympics, I thought I might take a look at the geography of the Korean Peninsula.  Extending southward from northeastern China and extreme southeastern Russia, the Korean Peninsula separates the Sea of Japan, to its east, from the Yellow Sea, to its west.  More than 65% of the Peninsula is covered by mountainous terrain, primarily across its northern and eastern regions.  Most of the ranges are composed of Precambrian igneous and metamorphic rock though some areas of volcanism exist as well.  Paektusan, just over 9000 feet, is the highest summit on the Peninsula, rising along the border of China and North Korea; it is known for it large caldera (created by a massive eruption in 946 AD) which holds Heaven's Lake.

Three major rivers drain most of the Korean Peninsula: the Nakdong flows southward through its southeastern region, the Han River flows westward through the central portion of the Peninsula (passing through Seoul) and the Taedong River flows southw…

Conservatives and Science

Conservatives, including many industrialists, politicians and farmers, are selective in their appreciation of science.  While they rely on scientific progress for the development of jet fighters, satellite technology, modern transportation, biomedicine and high-tech agriculture, they resist scientific evidence when in comes to subjects such as evolution and climate change.  Protecting their faith and their industries, they sow doubt among their legions and ridicule the evidence itself.

Worse yet, as we have seen in Idaho this week, pressure is placed on educational systems to avoid or "tone down" discussion of these "controversial" issues.  In other words, conservative politicians are deciding what can or cannot be taught in our public schools, regardless of the scientific evidence.

Science, long at war with religion, must now battle conservative zealots from both the government and the corporate sector.  Human enlightenment and social progress have long been fuel…

The Nature of Patriotism

Yesterday, Our Dear Leader, Donald Trump, indicated that he wants our country to hold an annual Military Parade, similar to those held in France (and in Russia and North Korea); this, he believes, would demonstrate our patriotism, like standing for the National Anthem or applauding Our Dear Leader during his State of the Union Address.

But patriotism is not superficial.  Waving a flag, saluting tanks and clapping for the President are not acts of patriotism.  We are patriotic when we defend our democracy, when we protest unwise or unjust war, when we support human rights and when we demand social justice.

A President who divides us, who threatens freedom of the press and who ridicules the Judiciary is not patriotic.  A President who foments racism and demeans immigrants is not patriotic.  A President who repeatedly lies to American citizens is not patriotic.  Donald Trump is not a patriot.

Grape Hyacinths

Natives of the Mediterranean region, grape hyacinths are bulb plants that are represented by a variety of species.  Having colonized most Temperate regions of the globe, they are among the first flowers to appear in the spring and some species yield clumps of greenery throughout the winter months.

Here in Littleton, Colorado, grape hyacinths have spread along the south side of our house and the appearance of their narrow leaves is among the first signs of spring on the farm.  Favoring sandy soil and full sun, these fragrant wildflowers adapt well to the Front Range climate, spreading by bulb division, seed or both (depending on the species).  Blue, urn-shaped flowers cluster along a central stem, resembling bunches of grapes and attracting hordes of bees.

Hardy and invasive, grape hyacinths may not be welcome in pristine flower beds but, for those of us who favor naturalized landscapes, they are a carefree addition to our drought-tolerant vegetation.  Besides, they often begin to flo…

Subtle Signs of Spring

Once the weather warms, the greenery appears and the flowers bloom, everyone knows it is spring.  But those who pay close attention to nature notice signs of spring well in advance of the full blown season.

This morning, at South Platte Park, the ponds and lakes were mostly ice covered and the brown vegetation offered no hint of spring.  The winter ducks were all still present and nesting behavior was not yet evident (though I'm sure great horned owls have broods by now).  However, the territorial calls of red-winged blackbirds were beginning to rise from the marsh and a trio of male common goldeneyes were displaying for a female who showed no immediate interest.

Humans, slaves to our large brains, tend to define the seasons using rigid guidelines (i.e., the calendar months, the equinoxes and the solstices).  But nature's year is a continuum, and the cycle of life varies with each species.  Those who adopt this fluid image of the natural world, our own lives included, are mor…

On the Cusp of Spring

This morning, it is cloudy, cold and trying to snow along the Colorado Front Range.  Nevertheless, we have entered the First Month of Spring, when crocuses and hyacinths often make their appearance across central latitudes of North America.

Sap begins to rise in the trees, skunk cabbage pushes through icy wetlands and, by the end of the month, tree frogs call from the chilly waters of transient ponds and sloughs.  Snow geese and American white pelicans migrate northward in February while some owls, including great horned owls, are already caring for their fluffy young.  Red tailed hawks breed as the days lengthen, magpies repair their bulky nests and the homesick tune of white-throated sparrows intensifies across the Heartland.

Many of these February events are observed along the Front Range but we know that the snows are far from over.  In fact, March and April tend to be the snowiest months of the year and snow is not unusual in May.  This year, having experienced a snow drought to…

Four Valleys in New Mexico

Yesterday morning, I left Roswell (in the Pecos River Valley) and drove west on Highway 380.  Climbing toward the Sacramento Mountains, I left the desert and soon reached grass-covered hills, passing Capitan Peak (10,083 feet) to my north.  The highway then entered steep-wall canyons before offering a spectacular view of Sierra Blanca (11,973 feet), the crest of the Sacramento Range.

At the Indian Divide, I left the Pecos River watershed and dropped into the Tularosa Basin, famous for White Sands National Monument and the massive Carrizozo basalt flow (5000 years old).  Highway 380 crosses the latter and several pull-offs are provided for close observation of this interesting volcanic landscape.  After climbing the Oscura Mountains, the road then drops into the Jornada del Muerto (Day of Death) which I hastened to cross.  A long, slow climb from there took me to the east wall of the Rio Grande Rift, lined with fault-block ranges, laccoliths and volcanic domes.

After descending to the…

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Named for its large alkaline lake, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, in the Pecos River Valley, was established in 1937 to protect a vital desert oasis for migratory birds and resident wildlife.  As the Pleistocene gave way to the Holocene, some 10,000 years ago, the climate gradually warmed and flow through the Pecos River has gradually declined.  Fed by artesian springs from the Roswell Aquifer, the lakes, ponds and wetlands of the refuge have been managed by the use of levees and canals to ensure a range of salinity that provides diverse natural habitat.

Renowned for its large variety of dragonflies, Bitter Lake NWR also provides vital breeding habitat for least terns and snowy plovers.  A wide variety of shorebirds stop here to rest and feed during their spring and summer migrations while wintering sandhill cranes, geese (including Ross's geese), ducks, coot, bitterns and wading birds utilize the preserve from mid autumn to early spring.  Among other birds that breed here…

Into the Land of Enchantment

South of Raton Pass, Interstate 25 drops onto the broad grasslands of northeastern New Mexico which are broken by volcanic hills, drained by the Canadian River and grazed by cattle and pronghorns.  Off to the west looms the southern portion of the Sangre de Cristo Range, its higher snow-capped peaks mostly hidden by mesas and foothills.  Today, ravens patrolled the highway, joined on occasion by a red-tailed hawk or kestrel.

A few miles beyond Las Vegas, I cut south on Route 84 which hugs the east wall of the Pecos River Valley before dipping to cross the river and then climbing back onto the High Plains; mountain bluebirds adorned this scenic route and a golden eagle scanned the valley from a roadside cliff .  Crossing Interstate 40, the road continues south as Route 219, undulating across rocky mesas and dry washes, covered with junipers and cholla cacti.  After angling southwestward to Vaughn, I drove the final 90 miles to Roswell on US 285, crossing some of the bleakest landscape…

South to Bitter Lake

About 40 years ago, I read Edwin Way Teale's fourth book in his American Seasons collection.  Titled Wandering through Winter, it was researched in the winter of 1961-1962 and published in 1965.  On his journey across the country, accompanied by his wife, Teale stopped at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, just northeast of Roswell, New Mexico, in the Pecos River Valley.  The highlight of that visit proved to be massive flocks of sandhill cranes, returning to the refuge at dusk after feeding in nearby fields.

Teale's description of that spectacle has stayed with me over the years and I have long intended to visit Bitter Lake myself; that intention will finally be realized over the next two days.  Early tomorrow morning, I plan to drive south on Interstate 25, cross Raton Pass at the New Mexico border and proceed to Las Vegas, New Mexico, before cutting off on smaller highways that will offer a more direct route to Roswell.

As always, the anticipation of that road trip, inc…