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.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Giving in to Mysticism

Most humans give in to mysticism.  Their religious faith is the product of a lack of education, guilt instilled during childhood or intellectual laziness; in many if not most cases, all three factors are involved.

The election of Donald Trump was the result of greed and mysticism in America.  The wealthy were looking for tax breaks and deregulation while his religious base was fueled by their opposition to abortion, their racist and provincial tendencies and their distrust of science.  This latter group, devout believers, do not worry about the political, environmental or international consequences of Trump's proclamations; they put their trust in God.

Mysticism is not a benign human trait.  Since the days of Copernicus and Galileo, it has been an enemy of science and a threat to human rights.  Even today, it threatens both the welfare of human civilization and the health of natural ecosystems.  To give in to mysticism is to give up on truth.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

A Golden Morning

On this cool, breezy morning, I took a walk along the South Platte River before summer heat enveloped the Front Range.  Once again, low water attracted a variety of herons and egrets to the river shallows while cormorants fished in the deeper pools and a host of swallows strafed the water surface for insects.  A family of belted kingfishers lounged along a beaver pond and black-billed magpies were especially noisy and abundant.  But the highlight of my walk was the presence of a golden eagle, perched in a tree along the river.

Not nearly as common as bald eagles and ospreys along this stretch of the South Platte, golden eagles are more frequently observed in foothill canyons or near buttes and mesas on the High Plains where they nest on rock ledges.  Nevertheless, they may be encountered in rural areas of the Colorado Piedmont, hunting for prairie dogs, ground squirrels and rabbits; these powerful raptors are also known to kill grouse, wild turkeys, fox, fawns and young pronghorns on occasion.  Unlike bald eagles, they do not typically feed on carrion though they sometimes feast on dead deer or elk during the colder months.

Residents of the Northern Continents, golden eagles are primarily found in the Western U.S. but may wander to the Eastern States in winter.  This morning's visitor, while far from rare, was an unexpected treat, especially during the birding doldrums of summer.  

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Haboob Season

The annual Southwestern Monsoon is beginning to intensify as high pressure over the Southern Plains and low pressure over the Baja region combine to sweep moisture into the Desert Southwest; some of this precipitation arrives from the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Cortez but even more is swept across Mexico from the Gulf of Mexico.

The heat and moisture ignite thunderstorms which often drop torrential rain on the parched landscape, leading to flash floods in the canyons and arroyos.  Cold downdrafts within these storms are forced outward when they strike the ground, producing gust fronts that race across the adjacent desert, picking up sand and dry soil to create massive dust storms, known as haboobs.

Often hundreds (if not thousands) of feet high and moving at 60 mph or more, these storms blind drivers, coat buildings and cars with debris and, of course, severely impact air quality.  The Southwest Monsoon, with its thunderstorms and haboobs, peaks in July and early August in Arizona and New Mexico; by mid August, its nourishing rains generally reach the Colorado Front Range and will be especially welcome after this hot, dry summer. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Nature of Rip Currents

As hordes of humans head for the beach this summer, rip currents will take a deadly toll.  Unfortunately, they often develop when conditions at the shore appear to be ideal, catching many swimmers off guard.

Rip currents evolve due to a steady onshore flow of seawater; this may result from counterclockwise winds around an offshore storm or from clockwise winds around a dome of high pressure.  In either case, water builds up along the beach and that pressure leads to breaks within the offshore sandbar; as the retreating flow funnels through those breaks, strong rip currents (not always evident on the surface) develop, sweeping bathers away from shore.  Those caught in a rip current are advised to swim parallel to the shore until they are safely out of the channelized stream; unfortunately, panic often sets in and such advice is fatally ignored.

Today, as Tropical Storm Chris churns 200 miles off Wilmington, North Carolina, rip current warnings have been posted for most of the State's beaches.  Visitors are strongly advised to heed those warnings and to avoid unguarded beaches.  After all, rip currents are among the leading, weather-related causes of death across the globe.

Friday, July 6, 2018


Back in Cincinnati for a wedding, I am constantly reminded of my past as we travel about the city.  Born and raised here, I finally left after graduating from medical school and returned for only a few years when our kids were young.

Nevertheless, memories are powerful products of the human brain, often triggered by sensory stimuli such as sights, sounds and smells.  Of course, my home town is loaded with sights that unleash memories, including certain roads, buildings, neighborhoods and natural landscapes.  Most of these memories might be classified as pleasant nostalgia but some exhume painful or tragic events.

While dwelling on our past is generally unproductive, the connections provided by memory lend perspective to our lives and offer insight into how we became who we are.  A trip down memory lane (or through a memory-laden city) can be both enjoyable and enlightening.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Good Riddance, Mr. Pruitt

Scott Pruitt, Trump's Chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, resigned today following a series of reports and investigations spawned by his unethical behavior.   Of course, President Trump accepted his resignation while praising his work at the E.P.A.

I, like many Americans, was glad to see him go, not so much for his misuse of taxpayer funds but for the environmental regulations that he diminished or abolished.  A close ally of those in the fossil fuel industry, Pruitt is an outspoken climate change denier who also demonstrated a lack of commitment to protecting the quality of our air and water.

Just the latest cabinet member to leave the Administration, Scott Pruitt was but a conduit for Trump's misguided policies; to have chosen Pruitt to lead the E.P.A. was perhaps the most glaring evidence of the President's disdain for environmentalism.  Until Trump and his accomplices are voted out of office, the welfare of this planet and its life-sustaining ecosystems will be at risk.      

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Expecting a Spectacular Light Show

On this 4th of July, patriotic Americans anticipate colorful fireworks displays and most will not be disappointed.  But I will be flying east, above the Great Plains, to attend a wedding in my home town.   Nevertheless, I anticipate a spectacular light show as well, provided by Mother Nature.

As I wait for my flight at Denver International Airport, large thunderstorms are spaced across the Plains, from southern New Mexico to Wisconsin.  Fueled by heat and a meandering cold front, those supercells will likely produce damaging hail, tornadoes and, of course, intense lightning.

We will travel between the storms, likely detoured from our planned flight path.  And while I may witness human fireworks displays along the way, nature's light show is sure to be more spectacular. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Fall Migration Begins

I suspect most avid birders are least enamored with summer.  Summer residents and permanent residents, well known to the local birders, have settled in for the season and are relatively inactive in the summer heat; rare vagrants, the fuel for avid birders, are all but unheard of during the summer months.  We naturalists usually turn our attention to insects, amphibians, reptiles and summer wildflowers.

But the fall migration actually begins in mid-summer as the first wave of shorebirds arrives from Arctic breeding grounds, on their way to southern beaches or wetlands.  En route, they stop to rest and feed on mudflats that line our lakes and reservoirs or in the flooded fields that thunderstorms leave in their wake.

The earliest migrants usually arrive by early-mid July and the peak of the "fall shorebird migration" generally occurs from August through September; late migrants (e.g. dunlins) may still be observed across the Heartland in early November.  Providing some consolation for bored summer birders, the migrant shorebirds also offer hope that the oppressive summer days are numbered and will eventually give way to the glorious season of autumn.