Saturday, June 30, 2018

Canadian Refreshment

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

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

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

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Front Range Heat Wave

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

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

Fortunately, the higher elevation and drier air along the Front Range enhances radiative cooling at night and our overnight lows are falling into the low-mid sixties (still almost ten degrees above normal).  Here in Colorado, the atmospheric ridge is expected to retreat by the weekend, bringing cooler temperatures and a chance for precipitation.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Death on the River

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

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

Though we often watch herons and egrets in wetlands and along shorelines, feasting on small fish or aquatic invertebrates, we are undisturbed by their natural activity.  But when a large heron grabs a small mammal and swallows it whole, we empathize with the victim, a creature that, like us, must have some sense of what is happening.  We easily imagine the nature of its gruesome death and may even resent the heron's unfazed response.  Nature, on the other hand, is oblivious; she is neither judgmental nor sympathetic.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Scrambled Eggs Slime Mold

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

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

Once included in the Fungi Kingdom, slime molds are now recognized to be unique life forms within the Kingdom Protista.  Unlike fungi, they do not feed on decaying organic matter but, rather, on the microorganisms that do so (i.e. bacteria).  Recent storms along the Front Range, following a prolonged period of hot, dry weather, likely triggered the slime mold's appearance.

For more details on slime molds see: Hybrid Life Forms

Friday, June 22, 2018

Focused on Watersheds

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

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

In the U.S., some States greatly assist our effort by using road signage to demarcate the watersheds (North Carolina and Tennessee come to mind) while other States fail to label all but their largest streams.  Others, like Colorado, compulsively label passes, streams and elevations but are lax when it comes to watersheds.  The more we understand our natural landscapes and ecosystems, the more committed we will be to protecting them. 

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Flashback Post VIII

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

See: Carrabassett Flashbacks

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Smoky Hills of Kansas

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

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

Those who drive across Kansas on Interstate 70, cross the southern portion of the Smoky Hills Province between Salina and Hays; there, some ridges of the Province are adorned with turbines of the massive Smoky Hills Wind Farm.  The High Plains border the Smoky Hills to the west while the Permian swath of the Flint Hills stretches north to south to their east; the Smoky Hill River Valley demarcates the southern edge of the Province.

Monday, June 18, 2018

A Bird's-eye View of Eagle Bluffs

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

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

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

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Governing by Scripture

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

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

Once again, religious mysticism has reared its ugly head, this time through the mouth of our Attorney General, the one person who should be especially committed to the separation of Church and State.  But the Trump Administration pays little attention to our Constitution and has repeatedly favored mysticism over morality and science. 

Friday, June 15, 2018

A Northern Sunrise

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

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

As with most natural spectacles, it was a matter of being in the right place (i.e. latitude) at the right time.  Had we crossed the Atlantic farther south, I would not have seen the "northern sunrise."   

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Crossing Greenland

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

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

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

See also:  Greenland and Iceland and The Greenland Ice Sheet

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Tolerating Trump

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

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

It is extremely disturbing that most Republican Congressmen and Congresswomen are willing to tolerate Trump's behavior in order to push their conservative agenda; statesmanship is rare among their ranks.  While Trump destroys our Democracy, our environment and our relationships with democratic Allies, they tow the line to protect their own re-election.  America is no longer a beacon of justice and freedom.  

Monday, June 11, 2018

Flashback Post VII

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

See: Public vs. Private Persona 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Glacier Express to Zermatt

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

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

Unlike St. Moritz, Zermatt has proved to be a bustling town, with numerous hotel vans ready to retrieve visitors at the train station.  The downtown area is lined with shops, restaurants, bars and outdoor cafes and the Matterhorn looms to the southwest.  Today, we took the cog railway to Gornergrat, on the alpine tundra above Zermatt; there we viewed the Matterhorn, the Gorner Glacier and many other high peaks under clear blue skies.  On the way back, we exited the train near timberline and endured a winding, six mile hike down to our hotel; tomorrow we will surely pay for that decision. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

To Italy and Back

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

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

Along our journey we crossed alpine tundra, passed remnant glaciers, hugged the edge of sheer cliffs, observed magnificent waterfalls, wound through rich subalpine forests and took in breathtaking views of deep glacial valleys and the scenic towns that grace their floors.  Had the weather been clear and sunny this morning we might not have travelled to Tirano and would have missed some of the most spectacular alpine scenery in Switzerland.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Scenic but Sedate: St. Moritz

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

Though my personal expectations were that St. Moritz, a playground for the rich and famous, would be a bustling resort town with numerous shops, cafes and clubs, it is relatively devoid of those amenities and proved to be a rather sedate destination in early June.  While historic hotels dot the valley walls, many of the buildings are modern structures that are anything but quaint; we expected a Vail or Aspen like atmosphere and found neither.  St. Moritz does have a casino but we do not plan to indulge.

On the other hand, numerous trails lead along the lakes and onto the mountain slopes and several cable cars whisk visitors to alpine vistas.  Indeed, tomorrow we will travel to Bernina-Diavolezza, southeast of St. Moritz, and will take a tram to an elevation of almost 3000 meters.  More on that adventure in my next post.  

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Guatemala's Volcanic Eruption

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

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

As these oceanic plates subduct, their leading edge melts when it approaches the Earth's mantle, triggering the formation of volcanoes (the Cascades, the western mountains of Mexico and Central America, and the Andes); earthquakes and tsunamis also result from this tectonic activity.  The current eruption in Guatemala, releasing volcanic ash, pyroclastic flows and lahars, is thus a secondary effect of the Atlantic's expansion.  Earth did not stop evolving when we humans appeared!

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Northeast to Lucerne

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

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

The northern Swiss Alps beckon across the southern horizon and we will return to those mountains after a couple of days in Lucerne.  Urban walks, museums and a boat ride on Lake Lucerne will occupy most of our time in the city. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

Into the Alps

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

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

Before returning to the lowlands, we caught another train that took us up to Grindelwald, a resort town that sits at the base of The Eiger, its massive hulk looming to the SSW.  After a brief stay and more alpine photography, we completed our day in the Alps with yet another train ride back to Wilderswil, our temporary home in the Aare River Valley.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Three Alpine Valleys

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

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

A short journey up the Aare Valley brought us to Interlaken West, a resort town that sits north of a high wall of peaks; among these is the famous Eiger, 13,026 feet in elevation.  Tomorrow, we plan to ascend to higher terrain via a train, bus and cable car to enjoy views of those mountains and of the Aare Valley far below.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Edge of the Alps

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

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

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