Thursday, January 31, 2019

The President is Speaking

I don't watch much television, except for some news, sports, business and weather, but when I hear the words "The President is Speaking" I have a Pavlovian response, immediately turning off the set until his allotted time to display his ignorance is over.

Who can respect or even believe the words of this man, famous for his endless lies and narcissistic rants?  How can we trust someone who sidles up to dictators, denounces the free press, degrades immigrants, fosters racism and ridicules the science of climate change?  And how can anyone who cares about the health of our environment respect this enemy of conservation, devoted to the coal, oil and gas industries and determined to eliminate every environmental regulation that Congress or the EPA have enacted?

No, I cannot respect this man.  The 2020 elections cannot arrive soon enough and it is my hope that Impeachment ends his reign well in advance of that democratic process. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Midwest Deep Freeze

Residents of the Upper Midwest are awaking to temperatures of 20 to 30 degrees below zero (F) this morning; by mid afternoon, record low high temperatures will be recorded across the region with most areas staying at or below minus 15.  In addition, steady winds will produce a wind-chill of minus 50 or lower.

The cause for this extreme weather event is a dip in the northern jet stream, allowing Arctic air to plunge southward and then eastward; meanwhile, in Alaska, where the jet is curving northward, temperatures are well above normal.  As the atmospheric trough of frigid air drifts eastward, the atmospheric ridge that is now over Alaska will follow, allowing temperatures across the Upper Midwest to rebound in dramatic fashion; by this weekend, highs near 40 degrees F will bathe the frozen landscape.

No doubt, those who deny global warming will use this extreme, record-breaking chill to bolster their argument.  Of course, this is pure folly on their part; even as the climate warms, regional weather patterns will allow polar air to spill southward at times.  It is the persistent rise in global average temperature that has begun to threaten Earth's ecosystems and, eventually, the welfare of mankind.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Violent by Nature

Yesterday, while watching Fareed Zakaria's program on CNN, I saw his interview with Jane Goodall, the renowned primatologist who has studied the behavior of chimpanzees in their natural habitat.  She reminisced about her discoveries in the field, especially regarding the similarities between chimpanzee and human behavior; this includes maternal devotion, empathy, the use of tools and a propensity toward violence, among other characteristics.

Her findings are not surprising since the human lineage diverged from chimpanzees just 6 to 8 million years ago, very recent in the span of natural history.  Our own capacity for violence is all too evident though we like to believe that our superior intelligence protects us from such impulsive and savage behavior.

Then again, our large brains also gave birth to imagination which, in turn, led to mysticism, among the most potent triggers of hatred, discrimination, intolerance and violent behavior in human history.  Indeed, we are superior to chimpanzees in many ways, including our achievements in the fields of slavery, torture, criminality and warfare. 

Sunday, January 27, 2019


Canada geese are common along the Colorado Front Range throughout the year but are especially abundant from November to March, when non-resident visitors descend on the urban corridor.  During that period, one can hardly gaze in any direction without seeing a flock or three of Canadas crossing the sky; in recent winters, large flocks of cackling geese have significantly augmented the regional goose population.

Our Littleton farm sits along the west wall of the South Platte Valley and stretches up from a bikeway greenbelt.  Canada geese love to graze on that swath of grass and have been working their way toward our farm for months.  Over the past week, they have been enticed to explore the open space that our pastures and "lawns" provide, waddling up the driveway or dropping in from the sky.  A hundred or more were here last weekend and their numbers have steadily decreased through the week; however, a dozen or so continue to visit, attracted by the seed in the feeding areas.

From a distance, Canada geese are a joy to behold, flapping and honking above the Front Range landscape, gliding across our lakes and ponds, or peacefully grazing on our fields and parklands.  Up close, they are not so inspiring, bickering with one another, hissing if you get to close and, worst of all, leaving their deposits across every stretch of pavement.  While I appreciate the natural fertilization, I'm not fond of zigzagging my way down to the mailbox or having to leave my footwear at the back door.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Dog in the Gym

America has become a dog-crazy nation.  We now see them on airplanes, in big box stores, in grocery stores and in restaurants.  This morning, I encountered my first dog in a gym.

The owner was a middle-aged woman who leaned a bit to one side, suggesting that she may have a hip or lower back problem; on the other hand, I doubt that the smallish dog on a leash offered any additional stability.  I certainly respect the use of assist dogs when indicated but the great majority of dogs that are turning up in "human habitats" seem to be more for the social benefit of the owner; this morning's canine visitor was well-behaved and garnered a great deal of attention from walkers on the track.

Having owned dogs for most of my life, I do not oppose their presence in private settings or in outdoor parks, assuming that the owners are responsible and abide by whatever restrictions might be posted.  But as humans have increasingly moved into smaller dwellings, dog ownership has exploded, forcing many of these pack animals to spend most of their lives indoors (and often alone); one questions the true reason for dog ownership in many cases.  I favor letting "dogs be dogs" and, if we do not have the outdoor space or the personal time to ensure that quality of life, we should reconsider owning them.  Disclaimer: this argument might not apply to those fuzzy doglets.

See also: The Futility of Leash Laws

Thursday, January 24, 2019

An Incursion of Ring-necks

Throughout my birding career, which spans more than forty years, ring-necked ducks have usually been "also rans" on my field trips.  Best identified by the prominent white ring on their bills (they should be called "ring-billed ducks"), they have generally been outnumbered by other waterfowl species.

Yesterday, on an afternoon walk at South Platte Park, the tables were turned.  While the largest lake was mostly iced over, smaller ponds had thawed and ring-necked ducks (totaling 83) were more than twice as numerous as the runner-up (northern shovelers).  Prior to that field trip, I had seen no more than six ring-necks at any location during the current winter waterfowl season.

After breeding across Canada, the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes region and northern New England, where they prefer freshwater, woodland lakes, ring-necked ducks generally spend the winter across the southern half of the U.S. or farther south in Central America.  Though they are diving ducks, feeding on aquatic plants and invertebrates, they also feed in shallow water and may even scour flooded fields for waste grain. Yesterday's incursion was a special treat for me but nowhere near the record for Colorado (1400) or for Arapahoe County (413), as documented on eBird.  

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Venus-Jupiter Conjunction

This morning, as the first light of dawn spread across the eastern horizon, Venus and Jupiter were paired in the southeastern sky.  They have been "approaching" one another in the morning sky for the past week and will now gradually separate as the month progresses.

Venus, much brighter from our vantage point, will slowly sink toward the eastern horizon while Jupiter will move higher in the morning sky.  The "conjunction" of our two brightest neighbors was closest yesterday morning but clouds obscured the spectacle along the Colorado Front Range.

Such astronomical events, while inspiring to observe, are deceptive, a mere product of our vantage point here on Earth; Venus and Jupiter remain as far apart as usual.  Nevertheless, we humans have long been fascinated by the movement of heavenly bodies and look for some mystical significance when they pass in the night.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Tale of Two Wind Directions

For most of the day, a gusty SSW wind brought sunshine and mild temperatures to the Colorado Front Range.  Produced by high pressure to our northeast and low pressure to our west, this wind was downsloping from the Front Range and from the Palmer Divide to our south.  As air descends, it heats up and dries out, producing the mild, sunny conditions.

About 3:30 PM, the wind suddenly shifted from the northeast, reflecting the fact that a cold front had crossed the urban corridor.  From that point on, the wind was upsloping, pulling in moisture from the High Plains and cooling the air as it was forced to rise by the terrain.  The mountains and foothills to our west were soon hidden by clouds and haze and snow is expected to develop along the Front Range later this evening.  Continuing through the night and during the morning hours, up to 8 inches of accumulation are expected, especially in western and southern suburbs of Metro Denver.

Here along the Colorado Front Range, weather is all about wind direction and a sudden shift in the wind leads to a dramatic change in temperature and cloud cover.  Since I was outdoors this afternoon, that transition was immediately apparent; our avian residents took notice as well, suddenly flocking to the feeding area where a calorie source is readily available.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Wolf Moon

Wolf Moon.  What better name for the January full moon that now shines from the frigid night sky and casts shadows on the snowy landscape?

After all, this is the heart of the culling season, when the survival skills of all wild creatures are put to the test, and a wolf is the epitome of power, endurance and cunning.  We humans, ill equipped by nature to thrive in the cold and the dark, have long feared these predators and, unfortunately, have launched campaigns to banish them from the planet; even efforts to reintroduce wolves in wilderness areas have been met with resistance.

Those of us who respect the vital role that predators play in natural ecosystems know that humans, driven by fear, ignorance and personal interests, have a long history of disrupting the fragile balance of those ecosystems; the wolf has become the unwitting symbol of our misguided policies. 

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Siskins on the Farm

Pine siskins are slender, heavily streaked finches that breed across Canada and throughout the Western Mountains; yellow patches on their wings and at the base of their tail aid identification but are primarily visible when they fly.  While they winter throughout most of the Lower 48, their numbers are highly variable, typical of many irruptive species.

This morning, a flock of pine siskins turned up at the feeding station on our Littleton farm.  Feasting on both niger and sunflower seeds, they scattered when a pair of magpies flew in and they might not return; indeed, siskins have been irregular visitors on the farm and may not appear at all during some winters.

These gregarious finches often nest in colonies, consuming insects, seeds and various flower parts during the warmer months.  Come autumn, they wander about in sizable flocks, usually feeding in the company of house finches or American goldfinches.  They are welcome on our farm any time but I won't expect to see them on a regular basis. 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The First Chorus of Spring

Yes, it is only mid January and, yes, we can expect at least four more months of intermittent snow along the Colorado Front Range.  But the red-winged blackbirds have noticed the lengthening days and, in a marsh at South Platte Park, the males have begun to stake out territories and are delivering their distinctive calls.

While the chorus remains a bit muted, there were enough participants this morning to give one the distinct impression that spring has arrived.  The presence of snow on the ground means nothing in Colorado and the mild, sunny conditions only added to the feel of the coming season.

No doubt, the red-wing chorus will be suppressed by winter weather on occasion but the "musical" calls will only increase over the next few months.  While they are often maligned for their abundance and their potential damage to crop fields, red-winged blackbirds are hardy and highly successful creatures and their mating calls, however annoying and however premature, are among the earliest signs of spring.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Refuge on the River

Recent cold weather has iced over most of the ponds and lakes along the Colorado Front Range and the South Platte River has become a magnet for wintering waterfowl, especially through the night.  The moving water is relatively warm and sandbars offer protection from fox and coyotes.

Early this morning, huge flocks of Canada geese and smaller groups of cackling geese clogged the stream, joined by a host of wintering ducks; mallards dominated the latter group but gadwalls, greater and lesser scaup, buffleheads, common goldeneyes, ring-necked ducks and common and hooded mergansers were also present.  A stoic great blue heron stalked the shallows while a bald eagle surveyed the scene from a cottonwood, no doubt watching for any sign of injury among the congregants.

Shortly after sunrise, the geese became restless and began to disperse to nearby fields, golf courses and crop fields where they will feast on grass, seeds and waste grain.  Most of the ducks will stay on the river while some might head for larger lakes that are now partly open.  Come evening, they'll all return to their refuge on the river.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Death on the Initial Journey

Tundra swans, formerly known as whistling swans, breed along the Arctic Coasts of Alaska and Western Canada.  Monogamous, adult pairs remain together throughout the year and raise up to seven cygnets each summer.  Fledged within two months, the young remain with their parents through the first winter and disperse the following spring.

Most tundra swans winter on estuaries along the Pacific Coast (from Alaska to Northern California) or along the Mid Atlantic Coast.  Smaller numbers head for wetland areas of the Desert Southwest and Southern Plains and some move south along the Colorado Front Range en route.  Over the past few weeks, a lone immature tundra swan settled on a lake at South Platte Park; clearly he/she became separated from the family or could not keep pace due to a congenital or acquired illness.  Indeed, in recent days, several birders noted that the visitor seemed to be ill and, this morning, it was dead, lying on the shore of the lake.

Tundra swans have an expected natural lifespan of 15-20 years.  Obviously, our visitor did not survive his/her initial journey from the Arctic, perhaps succumbing to a genetic defect or perhaps poisoned by the careless activity of humans.  A life cut short is always a sad event but when the victim is a beautiful and graceful long-distance migrant, the death seems especially tragic.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Five Hundred Miles of Snow

Heading back to Colorado today, I crossed 500 miles of snowy landscape, from central Missouri to western Kansas.  The deepest snow was in Columbia (still nearly a foot) and the depth gradually decreased as I drove westward.  Once I reached the High Plains of western Kansas, the snow rapidly dissipated beneath intense sunshine and a mild southwest breeze.  Farther west, the snow reappeared across the Palmer Divide and persisted into Metro Denver (another sixty miles).

As expected, raptors were common on the snow-laden Plains and northern harriers were especially abundant, flying low above the fields and crop stubble.  At least a half dozen coyotes were observed on the wintry landscape and large flocks of Canada geese reliably graced the scene.  The highlight, as is often the case for me, was a flock of snow geese that circled above the highway west of Topeka.

Of my numerous road trips across the Great Plains, this was certainly one of the snowiest (though no snow was falling and, fortunately, the Interstate was clear and dry).  As the climate warms and winter snow cover decreases, this may become a rare experience for future travelers. 

Saturday, January 12, 2019

A Snowstorm in Missouri

As I prepare to return to Colorado, a snowstorm has paralyzed much of Missouri.  Beginning as rain yesterday morning, snow developed by early afternoon and more than ten inches have accumulated here in Columbia; light to moderate snow is expected through the day and a few more inches will likely fall before the storm pushes off to the east.

After forming in New Mexico, the central low of this potent winter storm has stayed in southern latitudes, moving across the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma and Arkansas; it is expected to continue that track, eventually crossing Georgia and the Carolinas before heading out to sea.  Ahead of the low, southerly winds have swept Gulf of Mexico moisture into a mass of cold air (reinforced by high pressure over the Great Lakes region).  Missouri will likely receive the brunt of the snow but significant accumulations are also forecast for the Ohio Valley and Virginia.

Thanks to my pickup, we will not be trapped by the storm but most roads in central and eastern Missouri remain impassable for cars and efforts to clear suburban roads will likely not begin for a day or two; power outages, due primarily to broken tree limbs, have also plagued the region.  Though beautiful to behold, snowstorms remind us that, despite our modern structures and vehicles, we remain at the mercy of nature's power. 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

A Grand Reopening

Now that the duck hunters have completed their tour of duty, the northern 2/3 of Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area has reopened for birders and naturalists; the southern third remains closed as a refuge for wintering ducks.

On this sunny but cold morning, it was a pleasure to access most of the preserve.  A couple of thousand mallards still dominated the scene but gadwalls, northern shovelers and green-winged teal were observed as well; the highlight was the presence of 44 trumpeter swans, a quarter of which were immature.  Raptors were represented by bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, a Cooper's hawk and a red-shouldered hawk.

Within a few more weeks, the spring migration will commence at Eagle Bluffs as large flocks of snow geese, greater white-fronted geese and early American white pelicans stop to rest and feed on the Missouri River floodplain.  The winter shutdown has ended and some of the best days at this fabulous refuge are just a month away.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

A Leeward Aviary

On this sunny, mild morning in central Missouri, I arrived at the Columbia Audubon Sanctuary to find a gusty northwest wind raking the preserve.  This was a disappointing development since strong winds often cause songbirds to shelter in dense thickets or shrubbery, making them less visible.

As I descended a trail toward the central creek, my concern seemed justified; a few birds were heard but none were seen.  Then, on the west side of the valley, I entered a leeward aviary, where numerous birds, protected from the wind and attracted to trees that were lit and warmed by the morning sun, flitted among the branches.  Indeed, of the nineteen species I observed this morning, all but one (a red-tailed hawk) were represented on that sunny hillside.  American goldfinches, dark-eyed juncos and eastern bluebirds were most abundant while fours species of woodpecker were most conspicuous.

Once I left that area on my two-mile loop, it was back to birding by ear and relatively few birds were actually observed.  Like humans, wild creatures gravitate to sites where they are most comfortable; those who look for them might acknowledge this clue but there are no guarantees in the field of birding. 

Monday, January 7, 2019

Yellowstone in Missouri

Following a night of steady rainfall, I headed down to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain.  The early morning sun, filtered by a gray overcast, lit the crest of the riverside hills and a southwest breeze swept mild, humid air into the valley.

As I was surveying flocks of mallards on a large, transient lake, a trio of white-tailed deer entered my field of vision, running across the soggy grassland and then splashing through the shallow edge of the pool.  In their wake was a pair of coyotes, clearly relishing the chase and likely assessing the health and stamina of the deer; more dependent on mice, cottontails and game birds for their sustenance, they would surely welcome a windfall of venison.  Watching the drama unfold, I could not help but think of the Yellowstone ecosystem, where wolves keep the elk herds in check.

Indeed, the specter of deadly encounters is universal in nature, as common in our backyards as it is in major wilderness areas.  We may choose to ignore this element of the natural world but it is vital to the health of all ecosystems.  On this January morning in central Missouri, it certainly held my attention.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

An Ordinary Week

Those of us who write, whether for enjoyment or for income, often encounter periods when compelling material is elusive.  Since starting this blog, more than twelve years ago, I am more than familiar with such periods and the past week has proven to be a classic case.

While Trump supplies an endless source of fodder for the progressive media and armchair philosophers, one tires of his crude narcissism.  As a nature writer, I prefer topics related to wildlife, ecosystems and natural history and this week has offered ordinary January weather, common wild residents and a lack of rare visitors or unusual events.

But complaining about the ordinary is fraught with danger.  Life is short and often marred by tragedy; ordinary is good.  Besides, who does not appreciate fresh air, the tranquility of natural ecosystems and the company of wild neighbors, however common they might be.  There, I had something to write about!

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Intelligence, Knowledge and Mysticism

Intelligence is the measure of an individual's capacity to acquire, retain and analyze information while knowledge is the data that he/she has obtained through education and personal experience.  Mysticism refers to belief systems that have been employed by humans throughout our history to explain what we don't or cannot understand.

Early humans were surely as intelligent as modern humans.  However, their knowledge, while perhaps superior in some ways (especially resulting from their intimate relationship with natural ecosystems) was very limited; the advance of science, technology and other fields of human enlightenment lay far in the future.  Indeed, their lives were dominated by mysticism, which they used to explain most natural forces and events.

Today, as our knowledge about the Universe and life itself has greatly expanded, mysticism has faded in significance.  Yet, it retains its power among a sizable segment of human society, especially those who are not well educated.  One might expect that intelligence and education would protect most humans from mysticism but we are also subject to fear and guilt which fuel those primitive beliefs. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Happy New Human Year!

On this first day of the human year 2019, we must again acknowledge that it has no correlation with nature's year, which begins with the winter solstice.  The sun's heat and light is vital to all life on our planet and the solar cycle is thus the most appropriate definition of a year on Earth.

Regardless of how we might define the year, let's hope that humans renew their commitment to the health of Planet Earth and make every effort to confront the political, industrial, agricultural and social forces that threaten natural ecosystems.  We can contribute by supporting conservation organizations, by voting for politicians who are committed to the welfare of our environment and by reducing our personal impact on the planet.

Let's also hope that American leadership is soon restored when it comes to dealing with climate change, environmental pollution and the protection of vital habitat.  Of course, that goal will depend upon the willingness of Congress to neutralize Trump and his Administration, either via impeachment or through veto-proof, bi-partisan legislation.  There is currently little reason to expect either will occur but a new year brings renewed hope.