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Showing posts from May, 2018

Racists United

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

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

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

Born Again Birder

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

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

The Aare River

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

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

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

Exploring the Swiss Plateau

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

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

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

Lac Leman

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

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

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

Treescapes

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

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

Getting There

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

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

Of course, I have secured my windo…

Waiting on the Tanagers

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

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

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

A Nervous Assassin

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

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

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

Flashback Post VI

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

See: Lose some Lawn

The Jura Mountains

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

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

Golf and the Environment

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

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

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

Colorado & Switzerland

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

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

The Alps stretch across southern Switzerland while the …

MacGillivray's Warbler

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

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

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

The Guessing Game Begins

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

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

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

Flashback Post V

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

See: Mom's Mitochondria

Invasion of Violet-Green Swallows

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

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

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

Diplomacy Works, Even for Tyrants

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

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

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

A Nostalgic Sound

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

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

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

The Real Chaplain Scandal

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

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

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

The Key to Achievement

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

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

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

Flashback Post IV

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

See: The Chemicals of Spring

Global Big Day at Eagle Bluffs

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

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

An Avian Symphony

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

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

Birding between the Storms

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

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

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

Northern Waterthrush at Eagle Bluffs

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

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

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

Back in the Gulf Plume

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

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