Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Deep Freeze at Eagle Bluffs

The landscape of Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area was especially beautiful this morning; crystal-clear air, bright sunshine and snow-crusted foliage produced spectacular scenery.  On the other hand, the temperature was in the mid teens (F), causing steam to rise from the open pools and injecting patchy fog from the adjacent Missouri River.

Waterfowl, mostly mallards, congregated on what open water remained and large flocks of ducks wheeled above the frozen landscape.  Ten trumpeter swans lounged on an ice covered pool, oblivious of the winter chill, and a single flock of snow geese passed overhead, on their way to less frigid climes.  Several bald eagles and two red-tailed hawks patrolled the floodplain, where massive flocks of red-winged blackbirds scoured the icy fields.

It was nature at its best, combining scenic beauty, the challenges of winter and the fortitude of wildlife.  Watching the activity from the comfort of my heated pickup, I was forced to acknowledge the relative vulnerability of modern man. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

Eagle Bluffs Lite

From November through January, most of Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area is closed to the public for duck hunting season.  Only the northernmost section of this fabulous refuge is accessible; nevertheless, birders may still encounter a good variety of species.

On this cold, snowy morning, I ventured down to that floodplain preserve and was rewarded with a couple new sightings for the season: fourteen trumpeter swans and at least fifty snow geese.  Raptors were limited to a Cooper's hawk and a red-tailed hawk and a host of other sightings brought the species total to sixteen, rather meager for this well-known birding mecca.  The weather and my limited time frame were significant factors and I'm sure my species list would have doubled if I had another hour to explore the accessible region.

Except for a two-hour window in mid afternoon, birders must wait until February to more fully explore Eagle Bluffs once again.  While I have no personal objection to duck hunting (assuming the meat is consumed), I have long wondered whether hunting and birding could not safely coexist across this large refuge (e.g. by narrowing the hunting zones and/or reducing the hunting hours).

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Birding Urban Parks

While most naturalists and veteran birders head for conservation areas, nature preserves and wildlife refuges to observe and photograph wildlife, urban parks have a great deal to offer.  Providing a natural escape from human "development," these urban oases are generally planted with a wide variety of native wildflowers, shrubs and plants, attracting a diverse assembly of wildlife.

Indeed, in my experience, the more extensive the nature sanctuary the more dispersed the wild creatures and the more difficult they are to find.  Urban parks, on the other hand, tend to concentrate wildlife, offering food and shelter that is not readily available in the surrounding concrete jungle.

This morning, my grandson and I walked through Stephens Lake Park on the east side of Columbia.  Though its hike-bike path is less than two miles long, we observed twenty bird species, including a yellow-bellied sapsucker (a lifer for my grandson).  Urban parks may not offer the solitude and tranquility of wilderness or large nature preserves but the local birds certainly appreciate their offerings!

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Boredom on Country Roads

Most adult humans enjoy both the scenery and the serenity of a country drive, especially during the sunny, colorful months of autumn.  Unfortunately, preteens are not always as enamored with the experience.

Since my oldest grandson (a novice birder) is visiting this weekend, I took him on a drive through the farmlands east and south of Columbia.  While the temperature hovered near freezing, bright sunshine illuminated the landscape and an interesting variety of livestock and wildlife were encountered on our journey; raptors were especially common, including numerous kestrels and four red-shouldered hawks.  And though we failed to observe migrant snow geese, waterfowl occupied most of the lakes and farm ponds.

It was one of those days when I could have driven about for the entire afternoon, allowing the chilly air to waft through my pickup and soaking in the peaceful scenery.  But my companion was bored within an hour, asking what I planned to do next; a brief stop for snacks offered some consolation but we were home soon thereafter.  The joy of nature exploration, like that of most human endeavors, is acquired through repetition and I am pleased to offer that experience to my grandkids, however brief the dose.  Over time, I hope it becomes a vital part of their lives, as it has for me.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Our Soulless President

Whether you lean toward a liberal or conservative philosophy, it would seem impossible not to be disgusted by the behavior of our President.  Self-indulgent, he belittles anyone who does not openly adore him.  Women, immigrants, minorities, the press and political "enemies" are his favorite targets.

Having just lost the House of Representatives to the Democrats, Trump held a news conference to wallow in his victory and to chastise those Republicans who shunned his support and then lost their election.  When faced with tragic shootings across our nation, he bemoans the fact that they distract the press from his personal accomplishments.  Taking note of a parade of desperate refuges, far from our border, he sends in the military with instructions to shoot anyone who throws rocks.  Having learned that Saudi officials killed and dismembered a journalist, he readily accepts their denial of complicity.

Trump the narcissist is incapable of empathy. He cannot "feel the pain" of those who suffer since he, himself, has lived a life of luxury.  Soon after ending yesterday's news conference, he announced the forced resignation of his Attorney General, just the latest effort to shield himself from public scrutiny.  It's time for Democrats and Republicans alike to dislodge this soulless President and to restore dignity and compassion to the most powerful office on Earth.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Back to Snow Geese Country

While a fair number of snow geese migrate south along the Colorado Front Range, heading for wintering areas in New Mexico, their numbers pale in comparison to those that travel through the Missouri and Mississippi Valleys; these migrants head for the lower Mississippi Valley and western Gulf Coast, where they spend the winter on crop fields and in wetlands.

Returning to Missouri for a few weeks, we spent the night in Abilene, Kansas, and resumed our journey this morning, guided by a Cheshire moon and bright Venus in the predawn sky.  Once the sun rose, I began to watch for flocks of snow geese though it's a bit early yet for those hardy migrants; unfortunately, I only saw their large Canadian cousins and a host of raptors as we crossed Eastern Kansas and Western Missouri.

No doubt, I'll observe plenty of snow geese (and greater white-fronted geese as well) before returning to Colorado.  After all, I'll be hanging out in the heart of snow geese country!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Chaos at the Refuge

On this cloudy, cold morning, ducks were abundant at South Platte Park.  Northern shovelers, gadwalls and American wigeon dominated the scene, joined by smaller flocks of mallards, hooded mergansers, buffleheads and American coot; a few northern pintails, redheads, green-winged teal and pied-billed grebes were also observed.

The serenity of these flocks was suddenly disrupted by a pair of bald eagles, one adult and one immature, that circled above the lakes, sending clouds of ducks into the air.  Despite their reaction, most of the waterfowl need not fear the eagles, which tend to focus on old, sick or injured birds that are slow to respond or cannot keep up with their cohorts.

While our National Birds are powerful raptors, especially adept at snaring fish from the surface, they also steal fish from ospreys or gulls and often congregate along salmon runs to feed on dying fish in the shallows.  At other times they may be found far from water, feasting on the carcasses of deer or elk that were killed by predators or succumbed to harsh winter weather.  

Friday, November 2, 2018

A Wounded Hunter

As I walked along the South Platte River on this bright but chilly morning, I spotted a coyote on the opposite bank, nosing his way through the thickets.  It soon became apparent that he had injured one of his back legs and could not bear weight on that limb.

While we are entering the season when predators generally have an advantage (leafless foliage, dry grass and active prey), I wondered if this wounded hunter will make it through the winter.  No doubt, it will be harder for him to chase down rabbits and other agile prey.

Then again, coyotes are intelligent and highly adaptable creatures, adept at surviving in remote wilderness as well as in rural and urban environments.  Known to take advantage of human garbage and dog food, they also feed on carrion, berries and domesticated animals in addition to a host of wild birds and mammals.  My bet is that he'll manage just fine. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Winter Tries Again

Just over two weeks ago, the first snowstorm and the first hard freeze of the season descended on the Colorado Front Range, putting an end to autumn for 48 hours.  Though many of the colorful leaves were taken down by the wind and snow, the temperature rapidly rebounded, the snow melted and we have enjoyed summer-like warmth ever since.  Of course, the longer nights produce chilly mornings but afternoon highs have been in the mid 60s to mid 70s (F).

Yesterday, another cold front pushed southward across Colorado, bringing a raw day with intermittent showers.  Overnight, that rain changed to snow and it continues this morning, with minimal accumulation; by this afternoon, the sun will return and the snow will disappear.  Mild conditions are expected for the next week, though temperatures will be more autumn-like.

Once again, winter will retreat northward but it will continue making incursions into the Heartland.  While its grip will likely solidify across the Midwest and Northeast by December, those of us along the Front Range will enjoy mild (if not warm) interludes, thanks to the intense sunshine, dry air and downsloping "chinook" winds.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Table Mountain, South Africa

Watching a film set in Cape Town, South Africa, today, I wondered about the geology of Table Mountain, which looms above the city.  As is often the case, the natural history of that famous massif is complex.

About 500 million years ago, during the Cambrian Period, a rift valley developed in the southern portion of a continental plate that included today's Continents of South America, Antarctica and Africa.  Initially flooded by a shallow sea, the rift accumulated sediments over the next 100 million years.  Throughout the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic Eras, this region was folded, lifted and eroded by tectonic forces as Earth's Continents merged into Pangea and then rifted apart.

Among the sedimentary rocks that formed within the ancient rift valley was a thick layer of hard quartzite sandstone; resistant to erosion, this Table Mountain Sandstone now outcrops as the steep cliffs of Table Mountain and the Cape Fold Ranges of western South Africa.  Of note, the western end of this sandstone formation is now found in Argentina, separated from its South African segment as the Atlantic Ocean opened, some 150 million years ago.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

First Goldeneye, Last Osprey?

On this cool, sunny morning along the Colorado Front Range, I visited South Platte Park.  There I encountered a good variety of waterfowl, including the first common goldeneye of the season; the attractive male was fishing by himself on the clear waters of Eaglewatch Lake.  I was also fortunate to observe a lone osprey, perhaps the last one I will see at the Park this year.

Common goldeneyes breed across Alaska and Canada and winter primarily in coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest, the Canadian Maritimes, New England and the mid Atlantic Region.  Though less common, others winter on lakes across most of the U.S. and at least a few dozen spend the colder months at South Platte Park, feasting on a wide variety of aquatic creatures, from invertebrates to crustaceans and small fish.

Ospreys, on the other hand, are summer residents here and a pair have been nesting at the Park in recent years.  More common along the North American coasts, in the Pacific Northwest and in the Great Lakes Region, these "fish hawks" head for southern shores during the colder months and I suspect that this morning's visitor was on his way.

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Therapeutic Nature of Writing

Those who write, especially those who compose fiction, essays or poetry, know that it is a difficult task; indeed, finding the right words or selecting content that is both interesting and inspiring can be frustrating.  However, I have found that writing is a therapeutic process, forcing the author to confront their own experience, beliefs and biases.

Telling a story or persuading readers is more than an intellectual endeavor, it is an emotional one.  While all humans, consciously or subconsciously, attempt to bury life events that were especially painful, embarrassing or emotionally-charged, writers must actually draw on such experiences to make their content "real" for those who consume it.  Though their work may not be autobiographical, it is always infused with their own thoughts, emotions, convictions and insecurities.

Writers certainly understand these points and most would admit that the writing process is essential to their sense of well-being.  Many psychologists and psychiatrists use writing as a form of therapy and non-writers might want to personally investigate the therapeutic benefits of this human endeavor; it is, after all, a low risk and potentially enjoyable form of self-discovery.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Autumn Crier

A great horned owl was hooting outside our bedroom window last night, the first calls I have heard this season.  Like a town crier with an important message, he seemed to be warning the locals that, despite our current mild weather, winter is on the doorstep.

Of course, this vocal fellow was merely responding to his own hormones, unleashed by the waning period of daylight; the long, chilly nights are good for hunting and his mating season is fast approaching.  At this point, in mid autumn, he is just announcing his presence and his target is not the human ear.

No doubt, his hooting (and that of his eventual mate) will increase in the coming months.  Unfazed by frigid nights and heavy snow, he will relish the dark, quiet season of nature's year.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Nature of Regret

When I hear someone say that they have no regrets in their life, I tend to be skeptical.  After all, regret, whether major or minor, is part of human nature, a product of our large, complex brains.  Prone to ruminate, we often regret past decisions, actions or comments, whether justified or not.

This tendency to live in our past often makes us less happy in the present.  Judging ourself through the prism of hindsight, we are not always fair-minded, having buried the context in which past choices were made; neither do we always acknowledge the benefits that arose from those actions.  It's one thing to regret having made an insensitive remark and quite another to regret major life decisions.

Unfortunately, we are not always honest or reasonable when we review our past; whether we admit it or not, we all harbor regrets.  The real issue, it seems to me, is whether we let those regrets impact our current happiness and relationships.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Leaf Armies

Here on our Littleton, Colorado, farm, I do not bother raking the leaves.  While we have a large number of deciduous trees and shrubs, I'm inclined to let nature handle their autumn debris.  Besides, it can be entertaining, watching the leaf armies race across our driveway and "lawns."

In this semiarid climate, the leaves rarely get bogged down by precipitation; they may be stabilized by a snowfall for a day or two but the intense Colorado sun rapidly frees them to rustle across the landscape once again.  Eventually, the armies settle down beneath the shrub lines and wood borders, providing fertilizer for next spring's growth.

It's a win-win situation.  Entertainment and no work for me and natural nutrients for our trees and shrubs.  The mounded leaves also offer winter protection for many invertebrates, at least until they are discovered by the birds, mice, raccoons and skunks that visit the farm.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Tourism and our National Parks

Anyone who has visited our National Parks in recent years has certainly noticed a dramatic increase in the tourist population.  The massive crowds detract from the serenity and, more importantly, have a significant impact on the natural ecology.  As a result, some Parks have begun to limit access and others will surely be forced to do the same.

Some might argue that tax-paying citizens own these natural preserves and that any limits placed on access is inappropriate if not un-Constitutional.  Of course, other citizens resent the protection of Federal lands altogether, favoring access for grazing, mining, drilling and "development."  In the end, we Americans will have to decide what should be protected for the benefit of future generations and for the welfare of our planet and its ecosystems.

Those seeking natural retreats without the tourist throngs should consider visiting our National Wildlife Refuges.  Relatively unknown to the general public and often devoid of the "comfort facilities" that most tourists seek, they offer some of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the planet.  Some of the more popular refuges can get a bit congested during peak viewing seasons but it's nothing like the urbanization of our National Parks.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Colorado's Indian Summers

Following a snowstorm and a hard freeze, we are back in the warm, sunny days and crisp, cool nights of mid autumn, the classic "Indian Summer" that outdoor enthusiasts relish; here along the Front Range, we expect highs in the upper 60s and 70s (F) over the next few days.  Now that most pesky insects have been killed, hiking, birding and other outdoor activities are especially pleasant.

Defined as the warm period following the first hard freeze, Indian Summer sets the stage for at least six months of similar weather patterns along the Front Range urban corridor.  This undulating cycle of mild sunny days following a brief period of cold and snow tends to occur from October to early May; in essence, we experience a continuous series of Indian Summers.

Unlike most regions of the country, the Colorado Front Range climate is not characterized by four distinct seasons.  Rather, we have summer and winter, battling for dominance for much of the year; while plant life cycles, the changing angle of solar radiation, astronomical events, mammalian ruts and bird migrations offer some justification for identifying spring and fall in Colorado, the weather itself is usually summer-like or winter-like.  Indeed, layered clothing is a must for outdoor adventure here since we often experience both summer and winter in the same day!

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Mountain Bluebirds off to the Desert

Mountain bluebirds, among the most attractive songbirds in North America, breed throughout the Intermountain West, from Northern Canada to Northern Arizona and New Mexico.  During those warmer months, they favor open areas with scattered trees and may be observed on meadows of the foothills and mountains, in pinyon-juniper woodlands or on the alpine tundra near timberline.

Come fall, they descend to lower elevations, heading for the Desert Southwest or the Southern High Plains.  On their journey, they often travel in large flocks, adding color to the drying autumn landscape of the Colorado Piedmont and the volcanic terrain to our south.

Following the first major snowstorm of the season, flocks of mountain bluebirds have been spotted all across Metro Denver and I was fortunate to observe ten of those beautiful migrants at South Platte Park.  By March, when snowstorms still lash the Front Range, they will return, fueling what little spring fever may arise during that fickle season here in Colorado. 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

First Snowstorm of the Season

As predicted, a potent cold front dropped southward through the Rockies and Northern Plains last night.  Following yesterday's warm, sunny weather, snow developed overnight and continues along the Front Range this morning; up to six inches of accumulation is expected.

While our spring, upslope storms are usually triggered by Pacific storms that move eastward along the Colorado-New Mexico line, autumn and winter snowstorms most often result from cold fronts that plunge down from Canada.  Driven by cold high pressure, clockwise winds along the leading edge of this dome sweep moisture in from the Great Plains, producing the snowstorms.  As the dome moves eastward or southward, the Front Range upslope breaks down, the snow subsides and clear, cold high pressure grips the region.  Eventually, on the backside of the dome, southerly winds sweep warmer air across the Front Range urban corridor and mild conditions persist until the next cold front arrives.

Such undulating weather is common here throughout the colder months, as warm, sunny periods alternate with snowstorms.  It is an invigorating climate and those who live here welcome the snow; after all, it is primarily responsible for keeping our semiarid environment from becoming a desert.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Natural Solutions to Climate Change

While our President and his Administration reject the evidence and ramifications of global warming, we must do what we can to protect our home planet for future generations and for all life that shares Earth's ecosystems.

Though we are all aware of efforts to wean mankind from fossil fuel, it is also important to understand that nature can play a major role in reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide.  For an overview of this concept and how you might participate, visit the websites of Nature4Climate and The Forgotten Solution, sponsored in part by The Nature Conservancy.

Of course, we can also make a difference by reducing our personal energy consumption, by planting trees, by supporting conservation groups and, most importantly, by voting Trump and other climate change deniers out of office.

Friday, October 12, 2018

The Other Autumn Warbler

Birders who reside across central latitudes of the U.S. are never surprised to see yellow-rumped warblers in October; indeed, these hardy insectivores even stay for the winter in some parts of the Midwest.  But there is another warbler that is also slow to head for southern climes and may still be encountered in mid autumn: the orange-crowned warbler.

Breeding in open woodlands or in the deciduous understory of coniferous forest, orange-crowned warblers summer across Alaska and Canada and southward through the Western mountain ranges.  Come fall, they head for coastal areas of California and the Southeast or farther south to Mexico and the Caribbean.  En route they generally appear alone, scouring shrubs, thickets and the lower branches of trees for a wide variety of insects; like many insectivores, they occasionally visit suet feeders and may consume berries if their insect prey is scarce.

A lone orange-crowned warbler has been visiting our Littleton farm the past few days, feeding with chickadees and yellow-rumped warblers.  I doubt he'll stay much longer but, unlike most warblers that are well south of the freeze line by now, our visitor has already shrugged off several frigid nights and a few periods of snow.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Harriman Lake Park

Harriman Lake is a 67 acre water storage reservoir in southwest Metro Denver, fed by an irrigation canal; a 1.7 mile graveled trail leads around the lake and past several wetland areas, offering broad views of the open water and of the Front Range foothills to the west.  Access to the Park is via a parking lot on the north side of Kipling Parkway, a short distance south of West Quincy Ave.

Though modest in size, Harriman Lake is a magnet for resident and migrant waterfowl and is one of the region's best locations for viewing and photographing those species.  Last week, as a cold front loomed to the northwest, my wife and I visited this Park; on our walk around the lake we saw an excellent variety of waterfowl, including the first American coot, ruddy ducks and redheads that I had observed this season.  A lone American white pelican lounged on the shore, double-crested cormorants fished on the lake and pied-billed grebes dove with the coot in the marshy shallows.

While naturalists and birders usually prefer more secluded nature preserves, far from the trappings of human civilization, wild creatures are often content to utilize less pristine habitat; as long as they feel safe and their preferred food is abundant, they will stick around.  Harriman Lake, just southwest of a busy intersection, offers an excellent example; it certainly appeals to waterfowl.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Surge Coast

The entire Gulf Coast of Florida, from the Keys to Pensacola, is especially vulnerable to storm surge as hurricanes and tropical storms come ashore.  Counterclockwise winds push water toward the coast on the "right" side of storm's eye, forcing it across the low country and up the coastal rivers.

This process is accentuated along the Florida Gulf Coast due to the topography of the Gulf itself.  A broad shallow area, representing the west portion of the Florida Platform, parallels the State's Gulf Coast; as ocean water is swept in by the storm, it cannot displace downward and builds to destructive depths across the barrier islands and coastal lowlands, leveling structures and flooding the landscape.

Hurricane Michael, now a Category 4 storm, is poised to come ashore near Panama City this morning.  Storm surge is expected to reach 13 feet or more in some parts of the Great Bend before the hurricane and its remnants cut a swath of destruction across the eastern Panhandle, south Georgia and the Carolinas.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Tropical Kingbird in Colorado

Several days ago, a tropical kingbird was sighted in southwest Metro Denver, just west of South Platte Reservoir.  As one might expect, it has since attracted birders from throughout the region and I made my pilgrimage yesterday afternoon (after all, the location is just a few miles south of our Littleton farm).

Though the weather was far from tropical (cloudy, cold and misty), the large, attractive flycatcher was gleaning insects from the side of a building, stopping to rest on a barbed wire fence.  Joined by a Say's phoebe and a small flock of house finches, the rare vagrant seemed unfazed by the raw, autumn weather.

Permanent residents of Mexico, Central America, northern South America and extreme South Texas, tropical kingbirds also breed in southeastern Arizona.  While most birds withdraw toward the Tropics in winter, some have long traveled northward along the Pacific Coast; most stop in California but some have been sighted in the Pacific Northwest, as far north as southeast Alaska.  Other vagrants have turned up in valleys of the Intermountain West, along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and even in the Great Lakes region.  Most of the far-flung vagrants have been encountered during the spring or fall; controversy remains as to whether some of the sightings (especially those in the East) were of Couch's Kingbird.

Monday, October 8, 2018

A Hermit visits the Farm

Yesterday, while wandering through our Littleton farm, I noticed movement behind a row of shrubs.  Standing my ground, I waited several minutes before the stranger emerged and, though he remained in the shadows, I knew at once that he was a hermit thrush.

Summer residents across Canada and southward through the mountains of North America, this hardy thrush is slow to migrate southward or to the coasts, feeding on berries once the insects disappear.  Like his cousins, he prefers to feed on or near the ground, running into the cover of shrubs or thickets if disturbed.

While most hermit thrushes end up wintering across the southern U.S. or along the coasts, some linger in colder regions if adequate food is available.  Yesterday's visitor was the first I have seen on our farm and, if we have another mild winter, he may just stay for the season.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Snowbirds Drift In

On this cloudy and chilly afternoon, the first dark-eyed juncos of the season appeared on our Littleton, Colorado, farm.  They were members of the Oregon subspecies and had arrived just in time.

Commonly known as snowbirds, juncos are small, hardy songbirds that summer up in Canada or in the mountain ranges of North America.  Fond of cool weather, they winter primarily across the northern half of the U.S. and often arrive with the first snows of autumn.  The latter fact is especially true here in Metro Denver and, within the next few weeks, our farm will host dozens of these winter residents.  Gray-headed juncos descend from the Front Range and the slate-colored and Oregon subspecies arrive from more northern latitudes; on occasion, white-winged juncos also visit from the Black Hills region of western South Dakota.

All four subspecies are classified as dark-eyed juncos and are often observed in suburbs and along country roads, their white outer tail feathers obvious as they scatter toward cover.  I am pleased to have them back on our farm and I appreciate the weather warning that they bring....snow flurries are expected tonight or tomorrow. 

Friday, October 5, 2018

Cormorant Exodus

Yesterday morning, beneath a clear blue sky and enveloped in cool autumn air, I visited South Platte Park.  A steady, southeast wind kept many of the songbirds under cover and the waterfowl numbers remained well below par for early October.  Fortunately, a massive parade of double-crested cormorants made the visit especially memorable.

Beginning about 8 AM, small flocks of cormorants appeared overhead, flying southward through the South Platte Valley.  They were followed by a steady line of cohorts, numbering 87 birds in all.  I can only assume that these "fish crows" are beginning their exodus to southern lakes or the Gulf Coast, perhaps stopping by Chatfield Reservoir for a day or two of fishing before moving on.

Their exodus is surely triggered by the waning sunlight hours but they might also sense a change in the atmospheric pressure as a cold front gradually approaches from the northwest.  We expect cooler, rainy weather in the coming days and possible snow showers by early next week.  While that would not threaten the welfare of these hardy fishermen, their lives are governed by instinct and they "know" it's time to travel south.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Great Black Wasps

Yesterday afternoon, while sitting outdoors, my wife and I noticed a large black wasp that was scurrying across the driveway.  It soon became evident that it was dragging a dead or paralyzed cricket toward a mulched area next to the pavement.

This was a great black wasp, found across North America, from southeastern Canada to Mexico; it is a resident of all of the Lower 48 States except Washington and Oregon.  Females dig a hole in the soil in which they lay a single, fertilized egg; they then capture a grasshopper, cricket or katydid, paralyze it and place it in the nest cavity, repeating the process multiple times throughout the warmer months.  Once the egg hatches, the larval grub feeds on the hapless victim until it is mature enough to pupate.  Adults emerge from the pupae and spend much of the summer feasting on nectar; in the process, they pollinate a variety of flowers.

Of course, most of this life cycle is unnoticed by humans.  Gardeners may encounter great black wasps as they move among flower beds but yesterday's encounter was pure luck on our part.  Unaggressive, these wasps rarely sting humans (unless threatened) and play an important role in controlling grasshopper and cricket populations.  Their means of feeding larvae may seem cruel but nature's web of life is not always pretty to behold.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Milkweed Bugs

Walking through South Platte Park the other day, I looked ahead and saw bright red masses on the side of the trail.  Initially thought to be some type of fungus or slime mold, I found that they were large clusters of small bugs.....milkweed bug nymphs to be exact.

Found throughout North America, from southern Canada to Mexico, these true bugs feed exclusively on milkweed plants.  Eggs are repeatedly laid on the plants by the adult female; during her month of adulthood, she will lay thousands of eggs.  Upon hatching, the nymphs molt five times before reaching the adult stage; each nymph phase is about 6 days in length.  While the elongated adults have a striking black and orange pattern on their dorsal surface, the younger nymphs are bright orange-red.  Both adults and nymphs may cluster where milkweed seed pods are abundant and their bright coloration warns potential predators that they are toxic (due to compounds ingested from milkweed sap).

Unlike most insects, milkweed bugs overwinter as adults; those that mature in northern latitudes must migrate to southern climes or find a protected site in which to wait our the season.  Considering the date, most of the nymphs that I encountered will likely not reach the adult stage before cold autumn weather envelops the Front Range. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

A Forty Degree Swing

Autumn is the season when those of us along the Colorado Front Range often experience a 40 degree (F) temperature swing in the course of a day, awakening to a temperature in the upper thirties and basking in warmth near 80 degrees by mid afternoon.  Such broad temperature ranges are common in arid and semiarid regions across the globe, especially those that lie at relatively high elevation in the Temperate Zone.

By October, the longer nights, high elevation and dry air augment heat radiation, permitting overnight temperatures to fall near freezing.  During the day, intense sunshine, dry (dense) air and, on some days, a downsloping wind push afternoon highs into the seventies or eighties.

Of course, potent cold fronts or a persistent upslope flow may disrupt this cycle, as is forecast to develop later this week.  By early next week, daytime highs may be within 10 degrees of the overnight low and the first snow showers of the season are expected to dust the urban corridor. 

Monday, October 1, 2018

Truth and Politics

Almost every human endeavor relies on truth (at least as defined by the latest scientific evidence) in order to offer products and services that are safe, reliable and competitive.  A few careers (fiction writing comes to mind) may be independent of truth while some, especially those that peddle mysticism (e.g. organized religion), are threatened by science-based truth.

Politicians, on the other hand, maintain a fuzzy relationship with truth.  Focused on the demands of their constituents and on their own re-election, they pick and choose what truths they publicly believe.  Those who represent regions with coal, gas and oil production play down evidence of global warming while those who hail from agricultural areas are loathe to acknowledge the environmental pollution that results from farming and ranching activity; many other examples could be offered.

Worse yet, some politicians seem willing to lie or to dismiss the truth in order to further their political or personal agenda.  Our President offers an extreme example and the ongoing efforts to elect Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court reveal that Conservatives (including Evangelicals) are willing to overlook false testimony in order to achieve their ultimate goals.  Of course, truth will eventually prevail but damage (perhaps irreversible) to our government, to our environment and to our society may occur beforehand.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Mystery Tsunami in Indonesia

Yesterday, following two earthquakes (the second a magnitude 7.5 quake) and a series of aftershocks off the west coast of Sulawesi Island, a tsunami struck Palu, at the end of a long, narrow bay.  Both the Island and the adjacent Makasser Strait lie squarely on a southern extension of the Eurasian Plate, which encompasses all of Indonesia.

Destructive tsunami's are generally triggered by Subduction Earthquakes, where one tectonic plate dips beneath another; such a subduction zone stretches along the outer border of Indonesia, where the Australian and Philippine Plates are subducting beneath the Eurasian Plate.  Yesterday's series of quakes and aftershocks are thought to have developed along a transverse fault, where two microplates (of the Eurasian Plate) are scraping past one another; such faults do not generally produce vertical lift of the overlying sea, the tectonic process that usually generates tsunamis.

Geologists suspect that some vertical movement of one of the microplates may have occurred and that the topography of the narrow bay likely amplified the wave that was produced.  Regardless of the geologic explanation, the tsunami struck Palu and killed at least 384 residents and visitors.

Update:  As of 10-3-18, more than 1400 bodies have been recovered and the death toll is expected to rise.  

Friday, September 28, 2018

Praise for Christine Ford

On behalf of all Americans who care about women's rights and equal justice, I want to commend Dr. Christine Blasey Ford for her courage.  Despite her personal fear and anxiety and the threats made to her family, she was willing to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee to accuse Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault during their high school years.  Her testimony was calm, credible and, in my opinion, 100% convincing.

On his part, Judge Kavanaugh delivered an emotional opening statement but then resorted to dismissive, confrontational and disrespectful behavior when questioned by Senate Democrats.  Repeatedly reminding the Senators and the TV audience of his professional accomplishments and his regular church attendance, the judge surely pleased Trump and his conservative base but likely failed to convince most Independents and Democrats of his innocence.  An innocent individual would not ridicule those entrusted with assessing his fitness for the Supreme Court, he would not answer simple questions with rambling soliloquies and he would welcome an independent investigation to clear his name.

America needs more patriots like Christine Ford and fewer pompous, entitled white males like Kavanaugh; she certainly earned my gratitude and admiration, regardless of the Senate vote.  No doubt, the many women who have experienced sexual assault or harassment share my sentiments.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Pink Egrets at Dusk

Last evening, I went out at dusk to explore our Littleton farm.  Most of the bird sightings were of mallards, great blue herons and ring-billed gulls, heading toward their nightly quarters to our northwest.

A squadron of small bats strafed the farm and our colony of cottontails emerged for a leisurely night of nibbling.  Off toward a corner of the property, a noisy flock of magpies had gathered in a tree, apparently heckling a hawk or owl.  Above it all, jets drifted toward DIA and the clouds took on the changing hues of sunset.  Not to be outdone by Earthly events, Jupiter gleamed from the southwest while Saturn sparkled in the southern sky.

The highlight of my evening stroll proved to be a flock of pink egrets, fourteen in number, flapping toward a roost somewhere north of the farm; of course, they were snowy egrets, painted by the last rays of the setting sun.  Apparently unfazed by the cooler weather, they will spend at least another day along the Front Range before heading south.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Looking for Migrants

On this chilly, autumn morning, with a full moon balanced on the foothills to our west, I went down to South Platte Park, hoping to encounter fall migrants.  The early morning chill had brought out the songbirds, flitting and twittering among the shrubs and trees, but all was relatively quiet on the lakes and river.

During my one hour visit, I did observe two flocks of blue-winged teal, passing overhead, a handful of pied-billed grebes and a pair of Wilson's warblers, down from the mountains.  That was the extent of the autumn migration, a tide that has not yet gained momentum.  I did see plenty of permanent and some summer residents, including an osprey, a great horned owl, gray catbirds, double-crested cormorants and wood ducks, but the migrants have been slow to appear.

Nevertheless, it was a pleasant walk around Eaglewatch Lake.  I got my exercise, enjoyed the fresh, cool air and appreciated the company of the resident wildlife.  The migrants will turn up soon enough.

Addendum:  My ongoing search for migrants was rewarded early this afternoon, when a flock of 5 sandhill cranes circled southward above our Littleton farm.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Earwigs in the Apples

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

He, of course, enjoyed the collection process and sampled quite a few of the apples before they were processed.  Since we do not use pesticides on the farm, a good number showed signs of insect damage and earwigs emerged from a few of the cavities.  Represented by about 2000 species across the globe, these elongated, flattened insects are easily identified by the pincers at the end of their abdomen.  Females lay their eggs in protected crevices by mid autumn and, in some species, overwinter with them to offer protection; after hatching in late winter, the juveniles undergo at least four molts before they mature to adults.  Throughout these stages, they feed on a wide variety of plant and animal matter, including flowers, vegetation, fruit, other insects and carrion; since they are primarily nocturnal, earwigs are seldom encountered unless found within crops or in basements.  They, in turn, are preyed upon by a diverse group of insectivores, including amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals.

Despite the earwig damage, most of the apple crop remained edible and the applesauce was enjoyed by all.  Though he is not yet two years old, I'm sure our grandson gained some insight into food production, watching it go from tree to stove to mouth!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Autumn Chill in the Valley

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

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

We humans, like the wildlife, are also invigorated by the chilly air and the riverside path was filled with walkers, bikers and joggers.  After all, the fall equinox arrives this weekend (September 22) and the glorious month of October, which usually brings the first snow showers to the urban corridor, is just around the bend. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Flooding and Federal Policy

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

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

One wonders whether Federal dollars would be better spent buying up properties on floodplains and barrier islands and assisting with local engineering efforts rather than encouraging insurance holders to rebuild in those flood-prone areas.  After all, global warming is threatening coastal communities as sea levels rise and will likely intensify the power of tropical storms and hurricanes.  We cannot expect leadership from the current Administration but both the financial and climate realities will eventually force the Federal Government to take a more intelligent approach to this recurrent and worsening problem.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Love Songs

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

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

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

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Florence lashes the Southeast Coast

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

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

Due to its slow forward motion (toward the coast and then down the coast), the high winds, storm surge and heavy rain will persist for a long period of time (perhaps 48 hours), increasing the risk of flooding and damage to trees, power lines and structures.  Of course, the Hurricane Stuntmen will be there to bring us the action.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Treating Dementia

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

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

What was not discussed at this conference (and a subject generally avoided by physicians at this stage of human enlightenment) is the option of assisted suicide for end-stage dementia patients.  This group of diseases, which rob individuals of their mind and their dignity, place a great deal of stress on caretakers and a tremendous financial burden on families and on society as a whole.  Should a dementia patient, while still capable of making decisions, request this intervention at a given point in their disease progression, I, for one, strongly support their right to die with dignity.

See: Thoughts on Assisted Suicide 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Late Summer Heat Wave

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

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

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

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Fall without Football

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

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

Despite the enjoyment that college football has provided over the years, we can no longer lend our support by attending games or watching them on television.  This will be our first fall without football.

See also:  Modern Gladiators and Brain Trauma Season

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Delusion of Simplicity

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

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

Those who offer simple solutions to the problems that confront individuals, human society or our environment are delusional, seemingly unaware that all interventions have potential side effects and unforeseen consequences; most of these individuals are poorly educated and prone toward mysticism.  Our Universe, our planet, our civilization, our relationships, our bodies and our natural environment are far more complex and interconnected than most humans appreciate; there is nothing simple about them.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Published Word

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

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

Unfortunately, those who publish via email, text or tweet, do not often understand the permanence and potential consequences of their comments.  Then there are those who publish anonymously, refusing to accept personal responsibility for the content of their pronouncement.  Both of these scenarios are especially disturbing for those of us who respect the published word.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Atlantic Comes Alive

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

Just yesterday, Tropical Storm Gordon made landfall along the Mississippi Coast and its flooding rains continue to fall near Pensacola and Mobile; in the coming days, that tropical system will inject copious moisture into the Midwest which will interact with a cold front to produce flooding from Arkansas to the Great Lakes.  Next in line is Hurricane Florence, currently a Category 3 storm in the Central Atlantic; its future course remains uncertain but it could potentially affect the entire East Coast of the U.S.  Behind Florence are three tropical waves, emerging from the West Coast of Africa every few days; since wind shear has currently diminished over the Atlantic and sea temperatures are in the upper 80s (F) off the Southeast Coast, the stage is set for potential landfalling hurricanes.

While the incidence of tropical storms and hurricanes will vary with a host of atmospheric and oceanic patterns, our warming climate will surely add fuel to systems that do develop.  Storms in the Eastern Pacific have dominated the headlines in recent months but the Atlantic has now come alive!

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Visiting Coastal Colorado

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

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

I have been visiting this region in late summer for more than thirty years, enjoying the mosaic of shortgrass prairie, cropfields and ranchlands that surround the river, lakes and wetlands.  In recent years, however, fracking wells and oil storage tanks have begun to dominate the scene in some areas and one wonders what impact they will have on the quality of the water and the welfare of the aquatic ecosystems.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

River Otter at Eagle Bluffs

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

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

Since river otters are primarily nocturnal, they are not regularly observed by the general public and are more abundant than most of us might suspect.  This morning's sighting was thus a special and unexpected treat; though I have encountered many mink and muskrats at Eagle Bluffs, this was my "first otter" after hundreds of visits to that fabulous refuge.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Liberal Press

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

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

Unlike zealous politicians, who see the world in black and white, journalists appreciate the many shades of gray and work to uncover the truth, wherever their search might lead.  Truth, in turn, is the enemy of zealots and they fear (and thus denigrate) those who bring it to light.  Fortunately, the harsh rhetoric and threats that come from Trump and his admirers will not prevail in this country.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Spectacle at Dusk

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Flashback Post X

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

See:  Chigger Season

Monday, August 27, 2018

A Morning of Pewees

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

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

Upon arriving in spring and just before leaving in the fall, eastern wood species, like many other birds, may congregate in favored locations where food is plentiful.  The cause for their abundance this morning is uncertain but their cheerful calls and "bug-control" services are always welcome.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Threat of Provincialism

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

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

Were this provincialism limited to regional politics, it might be amusing.  But the welfare of our species and the health of our environment depend upon cooperation throughout our country and across the globe.  We cannot effectively deal with climate change, pandemics, poverty, environmental pollution and human rights by focusing solely on our local community and personal welfare.  Provincialism is selfish, close-minded and, in the long run, self-destructive. 

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Crossing Mississippi

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

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

North of Jackson, woodlands still predominate but are broken by small farms and ranches and by wetlands along the Big Black River and the upper tributaries of the Yazoo River (all of which flow westward to the Mississippi).  On both sides of the Coldwater River, the northernmost of those waterways, broad swamplands had attracted hundreds of great egrets, providing the natural highlight of our journey through the State.  

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park

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

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

This State Park is named for tar kilns, locally used in the 1800s to process pine tar that was collected from southern yellow pines (commonly known as slash pines); the tar was used primarily by the shipping industry but also in the production of soap.  While the refuge is home to an excellent diversity of wildlife, we encountered only ospreys, red-headed woodpeckers and eastern towhees on this hot August morning.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

White Beaches of Northwest Florida

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Off to the Northern Gulf

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

Nearing Pensacola, we cut south on Route 281, crossing the broad east arm of Pensacola Bay to Gulf Breeze before continuing out to the narrow barrier island of Pensacola Beach.  As is typical of the Northern Gulf Coast, Pensacola Beach boasts a scenic strip of white sand, backed by modest dunes and hotels.  While it is surely a delightful location for sun worshipers, surfers and boaters, it did not immediately appeal to this naturalist.  We did encounter a fair number of brown pelicans on the bay, but only a handful of sanderlings and laughing gulls were observed on the beach.

We'll be here for a couple of days and I'll surely have more to report before we leave.  Stay tuned!




Monday, August 20, 2018

A Pelican Roost

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

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

Comical looking but highly skilled as fliers and divers, brown pelicans usually feed by plunging into schools of fish, using their bill pouch to snare their prey.  Often observed at fishing docks, looking for handouts, they are one of the most recognizable marine birds along southern coasts and are more than welcome on our inlet of Sarasota Bay.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Inspecting the Dead

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

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

Though the algal counts have waxed and waned along Florida's Southwest Coast, the red tide is expected to persist until a tropical storm or cool autumn weather invades the region.  There is trouble in paradise and, this morning, we bore witness to its wrath. 

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Benefits from a Red Tide?

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

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

On a selfish note, the red tide has cleared out much of the human population on Longboat Key and we almost have our condo complex to ourselves.  Then again, one cannot help but wonder if this bloom, like those that occur on inland lakes and coastal bays, is aggravated by human activity.  We pump a huge amount of nutritious effluent into our rivers and human-induced global warming will surely enhance algal blooms in the future.  All of these issues are food for thought and it is best that we concentrate on protecting all natural ecosystems from pollution and climate change.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Encountering the Red Tide

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

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

We arrived to find that the dead fish odor was indeed strong along the beaches but that the wind-blown irritants were rather mild.  Though we will likely depart earlier than planned, we'll limit our beach walks and focus our activities on the bay side of the island, which seems to be less affected.  Of note, the Mote Aquarium, in Sarasota County, has developed a method to kill the algae by injecting ozone into the water; now used to protect their tanks, they will try this method in canals before experimenting in the open Gulf.  On the other hand, since a bloom of Karenia brevis is a natural phenomenon, one wonders whether such treatment will have unintended consequences.

See also: Red Tide in January

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Crossing the Eastern Divide

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

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

After undulating across the Piedmont, hemmed in by a pine-broadleaf forest, we crossed the Fall Line at Columbia, leaving the Precambrian bedrock of the Blue Ridge and Piedmont and traveling across the flat, sandy soil of the Coastal Plain.  We'll spend a few days along the South Carolina coast before heading south to Florida.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Road Trip to the Southeast Coast

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

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

We'll spend the night in Knoxville before continuing our journey to the Coast.  Tomorrow we cross the Eastern Divide.


Sunday, August 12, 2018

Perseids from the Sky

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

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

As I write this blog from Denver International Airport, sunset and our takeoff are still two hours away but the radar shows that precipitation is minimal between here and Columbia, suggesting that high clouds will not obscure my view.  Though the meteors are best observed after midnight, I hope to see many from 30,000 feet, far removed from the "light pollution" on the ground.


Saturday, August 11, 2018

A Sunset Flight

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

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

As we headed north, near Sedalia, the sun set behind the Front Range and we could see the multiple ridges of foothills and mountains that produce a stair-step landscape, leading to the Mt. Evans massif.  After taking it that spectacular view, we headed back to Centennial with a fresh appreciation for terrain that we have long known only from the ground.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Prairie Sunflowers

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

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

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

Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Good Year for Fruit

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

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

Indeed, nocturnal squabbles have been evident this past week as raccoons and skunks raid the fallen fruit.  Squirrels, flickers and mice also partake and, in some years, mule deer wander in to feast on the bounty.  What could be better for a naturalist than trees that require no maintenance and attract a host of wild creatures? 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Late Summer Flocking

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

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

While the influx of winter songbirds will not begin until mid October, these late summer flocks offer some excitement as birders try to recover from the mid summer doldrums.  Better yet, they are a preview of autumn migration spectacles and hint at the cool, crisp days that lie ahead.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Flashback Post IX

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

See: The Death of Capital Punishment

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Counting Birds in Kansas

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

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

While the highway birding was far less than spectacular, in part due to our speed and the mid summer conditions, it did keep my grandson entertained and made that six-hour segment seem shorter.  Perhaps we'll get to try again during the spring or autumn migration; then, the ranch ponds will hold more than cattle.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Abandoned Nests

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

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

The abandoned nests at Phillips Lake are just another sign that summer is winding down, though many days of oppressive heat still lie ahead.  Some of us, while fond of our four-season climate, envy these long-distance travelers, choosing to ignore the many natural and human-induced threats that they face along their journey.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Stopping by Eagle Bluffs

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

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

While our visit was short and the weather was not ideal, a chance to explore Eagle Bluffs is never declined by this birder and two new species for a budding naturalist were unexpected benefits.  Though I will be returning to Colorado in a few days, I'm already looking forward to my next visit to this fabulous refuge, hopefully to catch the peak of the autumn waterfowl migration.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

A Killing at the Party

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

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

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

Monday, July 23, 2018

Return to Sandy Lake

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

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

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

Thursday, July 19, 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 past Charlotte and then through South Carolina.  The central section (harboring Great Smoky Mountains National Park) is primarily drained by the French Broad River, which rises near the South Carolina border and flows northward past Asheville, eventually merging with the Holston to form the Tennessee River east of Knoxville; among its major tributaries are the Pigeon and the Little Pigeon Rivers (Cold Mountain, 6030 ft., rises between the East and West Forks of the Pigeon River).  Upper tributaries of the Savannah River drain the southern portion of the central section and the Little Tennessee River rises just west of the French Broad headwaters, flowing northwestward to join the Tennessee downstream from Knoxville.

Finally, the western section of the Southern Blue Ridge is drained by the Hiwassee River, which flows WNW to join the Tennessee upstream of Chattanooga, and the upper tributaries of the Coosa and Chattahoochee Rivers, which flow southwestward through northern Georgia.  Now I can read the novel with a better understanding of its natural setting. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

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 or damage our relationship with allies across the globe.  It is time that he be declared psychologically unfit for office and be removed before he can do further damage.  Criminal indictments can follow, if indicated.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

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, to name a few).  We humans, having evolved in the Tropics, were able to colonize hot and cold landscapes due to our large brains; the use of clothing, wells, tents and air conditioning come to mind.

Humans and wildlife now face global warming, a product of fossil fuel consumption, which threatens the survival of many species.  Melting polar ice sheets and mountain glaciers are already stressing regional inhabitants and flooding coastal ecosystems (at all latitudes) as sea levels rise.  In concert, warming ocean waters are killing coral reefs, spawning deadly algal blooms and reducing the supply of plankton, vital to marine food chains.  It is imperative that we humans use our large brains once again to mitigate climate change and protect Earth's ecosystems.  

Monday, July 16, 2018

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 they spend the Southern summer, not to return to Colorado until late April.