Thursday, February 28, 2019

Land of Sun and Snow

Having recently returned from South Florida, where sunshine is abundant but snow rarely falls, and from the Midwest, where snow is often abundant but winter sunshine is all too infrequent, I am glad to be back in Colorado where 300+ days of sunshine combine with relatively frequent snowstorms.

Of course, it may snow here from September to May but the intense Colorado sun prevents any long term inconvenience.  Then again, heavy upslope snowstorms in March and April can put a damper on spring, crushing the flower beds and disrupting seasonal sports.

Indeed, the first spring snowstorm is expected this weekend, ushering in the snowiest month along the Front Range; up to eight inches are expected.  But we know that sunny, warm weather will quickly return and acknowledge the fact that snow is vital to the welfare of this semiarid ecosystem.  For those of us who enjoy both sunshine and snow, there is no better place to live.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Death by Goshawk

Just outside the living room window of our Littleton, Colorado, farmhouse is a cluster of juniper shrubs.  Dark-eyed juncos often feed beneath those shrubs during the colder months and are frequently joined by a few cottontails.

On this cold, foggy morning along the Front Range, I was watching the news when I heard a crash and a loud squeal outside that window.  Peering through the fog, I saw a large accipiter within the shrubs, stomping on an apparent victim; alas, it was a northern goshawk and one of the cottontails would be his breakfast.  The raptor moved the lifeless rabbit out onto the snow to enjoy his feast but returned to cover when I attempted to get a photo.

Northern goshawks are permanent residents of coniferous and mixed forests across Alaska and Canada and southward through the Western mountains and the Northeastern U.S.; their range expands during the winter months when a small number usually turn up along the Front Range urban corridor.  This morning's visitor was only the third I have ever seen on the farm; lucky for me but not so lucky for the cottontail!

Monday, February 25, 2019

Rivers in the Snow

Flying back to Denver this morning, we passed above a snowy landscape from Kansas City to Denver.  Initially crossing the southern portion of the former Metroplex, our route eventually switched to the north side of Interstate 70 near Junction City, Kansas.  As we continued westward, paralleling that highway, I enjoyed a fabulous view of southern Kansas and southern Colorado, the river valleys producing black channels through the snow-covered terrain.

Noting the Smoky Hill River just south of the Interstate, I watched as the Solomon and Saline Rivers curved in from the north to merge with that stream.  A bit farther west, as the upper Smoky Hill made a beeline toward Colorado, I could see the broad northern curve of the Arkansas River far to the south, passing Great Bend, Kansas, before it dipped toward Wichita.  As we passed over Oakley, in western Kansas, I observed the Arkansas Valley once again, angling northwestward toward the Colorado line.

In Southeast Colorado, our route curved northwestward above Rush Creek and I could see the Purgatoire River to the southwest, flowing northeastward from the Raton Mesa to join the upper Arkansas; the latter stretched westward toward the high spine of the Sangre de Cristo Range.  After crossing the broad ridge of the Palmer Divide, with Pike's Peak looming to the west, we entered the South Platte watershed and made our final descent into Denver. 

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Uncommon Goldeneyes

Common goldeneyes are attractive diving ducks that breed on wooded lakes across Canada where they nest in tree cavities.  Come winter, most travel to the northwestern quadrant of the U.S., to the Great Lakes or to coastal areas of the Northeast but smaller numbers may be found on lakes and rivers throughout most of the country.

Yesterday, while walking around Phillips Lake in southeast Columbia, my wife and I encountered five male goldeneyes, the first I have seen in Missouri; though I regularly observe these ducks along the Colorado Front Range (during the colder months), they are certainly uncommon in the Heartland.  On the other hand, while they are usually seen in small groups or scattered flocks, they may gather in large numbers at favored staging areas, especially during the spring and fall migrations.

Bobbing in the waves and diving for aquatic invertebrates, yesterday's visitors were among the few species observed on a cold, cloudy and windy afternoon; joined by a large flock of cackling geese and a lone mallard, the stoic goldeneyes seemed unfazed by the raw conditions.  After all, they are Canadians.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Southeast Flooding

When we left Longboat Key, Florida, yesterday morning, it was sunny and 80 degrees F; these pleasant conditions persisted as we drove northward, as far a southern Georgia.  An hour south of Atlanta, however, clouds began to thicken and intermittent showers cooled the air into the forties; by the time we reached that city, a steady rain was falling and dense fog shrouded the skyscrapers and the landscape.

We spent the night just north of Atlanta, in Marietta, and learned from the desk clerk that rain had been falling for days.  Throughout the night, lightning flashed and thunder rolled and, by morning, a flash flood advisory covered all of northwest Georgia; indeed, the streams were bank full along the Interstate all the way to Chattanooga.  Once we reached Tennessee, the rain had stopped but all of the rivers westward to Nashville and northward to Paducah were out of their banks and shallow lakes covered many of the fields.

Flooding was especially severe at the mouths of the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers and along the lower Ohio itself.  Recurrent heavy rains, combined with melting snow and cold, compact soil, were responsible for the soggy landscape, setting the stage for both the spring waterfowl migration and the verdant months ahead.

See also: Flood Season

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Recovery in the Bay

On our last full day on Longboat Key, I am pleased to report that signs of recovery in Sarasota Bay are increasing.  Following the devastating red tide last summer, the Bay ecosystem is slowly returning to normal and, over the past two weeks, the evidence of that recovery has become more convincing.

Bottle-nosed dolphins have cruised past our condo and a handful of manatees are now hanging out in the boat canal.  While ospreys remain far less common than usual, flotillas of American white pelicans have re-entered our portion of the bay, red-breasted mergansers are diving for their meals and cormorants are once again perching on the channel markers between their fishing expeditions.  Low tide always brings a host of waders to the bay; though their numbers remain relatively low, all species have been represented during our stay.

No doubt, the Bay's recovery has a way to go but the signs are promising.  We have observed schools of large fish from the seawall and more jumpers have breached the surface each day.  The ecosystem has been recharged and we humans must minimize any pollution that might fuel future toxic algal blooms.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Rushing through Perico Preserve

On this cool, foggy morning in South Florida, my wife and I visited the Perico Preserve, east of Anna Marie Island, off Manatee Avenue.  Another terrific site for birdwatching, this refuge is a mosaic of upland woods and scrubland, freshwater wetlands and a tidal pool.  Accessed by trails and boardwalks, the preserve stretches out to mangroves along Perico Sound.

Unfortunately, mosquitos were numerous and voracious during our early morning visit and, since we left our repellant at home, our exploration was short and swift.  Nevertheless, we encountered 25 species of birds, including common gallinules. tri-colored herons, a yellow-crowned night heron and a trio of wood storks.  Though not observed this morning, Florida scrub jays inhabit this scenic refuge.

On our way back to the condo, we stopped by Whitney Beach on the northwest coast of Longboat Key.  There, a steady, cool breeze and gentle mist were especially soothing after our mosquito gauntlet at Perico.  Though birds were impossible to see on or over the rough Gulf (due to the dense fog), we were greeted by a large, mixed flock of laughing gulls, black skimmers, royal terns, Sandwich terns and Forster's terns that lounged on the beach, waiting for the fog to lift.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Emerson Point Preserve

Located at the western end of Snead Island at the mouth of the Manatee River, Emerson Point Preserve is one of the best birding locations in Manatee County.  Characterized by upland woods of palm, oak and pine, mangrove swamps, lagoons and salt marshes, this 270 acre refuge is owned by the State of Florida and managed by the County.

The preserve is accessed by a fine network of shell trails and wooden boardwalks and an observation tower offers broad views of the Manatee Valley, barrier islands and Tampa Bay.  On our two-hour walk this morning, my wife and I observed ospreys, anhingas, brown pelicans and a wide variety of wading birds; home to gopher tortoises, the refuge also harbors remnants of early North American culture, including the 1200 year-old Temple Mound.

Unfortunately, the western tip of Emerson Point Preserve has become a popular site for local fishermen, sun bathers and water recreation enthusiasts, detracting from the natural beauty and serenity of this subtropical refuge.  If one sticks to the trail and boardwalk network, however, the pristine quality of the preserve's varied habitats is fully appreciated.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

A Magnificent Visitor

Back on Longboat Key, Florida, I was birding along Sarasota Bay this morning, watching American white pelicans, red-breasted mergansers, double-crested cormorants, brown pelicans and laughing gulls feast on the recovering fish population (see Birdlife after the Red Tide) when a prehistoric figure soared in from the Gulf; it was a magnificent frigatebird, the first I have seen this year.

Spending most of their lives at sea, these marine aerialists snatch fish from the ocean surface, scavenge refuse from fishing boats or steal prey from other sea birds.  Visiting subtropical and tropical bays throughout the year, they only land during the summer breeding season when they gather in colonies on mangrove islands.  Ill equipped to maneuver on land and unable to rise from the ocean surface, they do not swim and cannot walk; rather, they must wait for winds to takeoff from their mangrove perch.  Each pair raises one chick per year and the female provides food for its first year of life.

Though I have seen large flocks of magnificent frigatebirds in the past, a lone winter wanderer is especially inspiring, knowing that he has been aloft for six months or more, often sleeping as he soars above the warm but turbulent waters of tropical and subtropical seas.  The fact that he often steals his meal does not diminish my admiration.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Cheated by Clouds

Many of us who enjoy plane travel relish the opportunity to observe our planet from 30,000 feet.  Indeed, that perspective gives the traveler a unique opportunity to observe and appreciate the topography and hydrology of our varied natural landscapes.

Anticipating my roundtrip flight between Atlanta and Denver this week, I hoped to view the southernmost Appalachians, the Tennessee River Valley, the lower Mississippi floodplain and the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas, among other landforms; I also expected to catch aerial views of Birmingham, Memphis, Little Rock and Wichita, which are along our scheduled flight route.  Alas, thick clouds obscured the landscape in both directions (except for the sun-baked terrain of Colorado); indeed, even my views of the Atlanta area were limited to the airport itself.

Of course, we naturalists understand that weather is unpredictable and that nature's whims do not always match-up with the hopes and expectations of human travelers.  Maybe next time!

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Flashback Post XII

On this Hallmark Holiday of Romantic Love, I thought I might share a few past posts on this complex human emotion.

See: The Nature of Love, Human Love and Love at First Smell

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

A Change in the Trees

Returning to our Littleton farm after a ten-day absence, I initially saw nothing new; pockets of snow covered the brown "grass," a deep blue dome stretched overhead, the bright Colorado sun offered its warmth and reassurance and goose poop still littered the driveway.  But there was a change in the trees, one that was even more evident at South Platte Park this morning.

Looking at the canopy of deciduous trees, I could see that the buds had enlarged significantly, a product of rising sap; after all, this is maple syrup season across the Northeastern U.S. and this February phenomenon occurs in many other trees as well.  Awaiting warmer conditions before they burst into flower or leaf, the swollen buds are an early sign of the coming spring.

No doubt, most humans pay little attention to this annual process, focused as they are on the cold, snow and the weather gauntlet that still lies ahead.  But naturalists know that nature's year is a continuum and that a host of natural events connect the classic seasons.  The rise of tree sap is one that often goes unnoticed.

Monday, February 11, 2019

To Winter and Back

Due to some personal business, I have left warm, sunny Florida and will return to Denver for a few days.  It was 76 degrees F when I boarded the plane in Sarasota this morning for the 1.5 hour leg to Atlanta; as I write this post, I am sitting in the Atlanta airport, staring out at cloudy skies and light fog.  It is 45 degrees.

My flight to Denver leaves later this afternoon and I can expect to be greeted by near-freezing temperatures there; ah the joys of modern travel, trading in summer for winter.  After a brief stay in Colorado, I'll then return to Longboat Key for another respite before our drive back to Missouri.

We humans, having evolved in the Tropics, relish a journey to warm climes in the winter but are often slow to adapt when we return; fortunately, the dry air and intense sunshine in Colorado will ease my abrupt transition.  Besides, what better destinations for an outdoors enthusiast?

Sunday, February 10, 2019

South to Gasparilla Island

As I have mentioned in the past, my wife and I often take day trips from our condo on Longboat Key and have explored most areas of the Florida Peninsula.  On this warm, sunny Sunday, we decided to visit Gasparilla Island (90 minutes to our south), which stretches along the west side of Charlotte Harbor.

This long barrier island, named for a legendary pirate, is accessed via a toll bridge at its north end.  Home to Boca Grande, an upscale community of spacious homes, golf courses, restaurants and a marina (where we enjoyed a pleasant lunch on the bay), Gasparilla Island is renowned as a fisherman's paradise and hosts Gasparilla State Park, which stretches along the southwest edge of the island.

Accessed by a series of small parking lots (which were packed with visitors today), the Park is a strip of Gulf beaches and their adjacent dune ecosystem.  Shelling is a popular activity there and shells were certainly abundant on our brief afternoon walk; on the other hand, wildlife was all but absent, represented by only a couple of ring-billed gulls (no pelicans, terns, shorebirds or other seabirds on the beach, on the Gulf or in the air).  I am often amazed when seemingly pristine habitat fails to attract even a modest variety of wildlife; no doubt, this phenomenon was transient but it was disappointing nonetheless.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Old Miakka Preserve

East of Sarasota, Florida, Fruitville Road crosses a mosaic of cattle ranches which attract sandhill cranes, cattle egrets and a host of raptors.  Just over 11 miles east of Interstate 75, that road ends and a short graveled lane, which leads to the Old Miakka Preserve, begins.

This 132-acre preserve offers four miles of grass/sand trails that cross pine flatwoods, open scrub habitat and creeks that flow to the upper Myakka River.  On this sunny, mild morning, we roamed that network of trails, encountering turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers and an assortment of open country songbirds. Gopher tortoises inhabit the preserve but were not observed today.

Though there is a great deal to enjoy and explore on Florida's Coasts, much of the State's unique fauna an flora are found on the prairies and in the flatwoods and wetlands of the Peninsula's interior.  Each time we visit Longboat Key, we plan at least one excursion to that fascinating region, landscapes largely ignored by the hordes of tourists.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Birdlife after the Red Tide

Returning to Longboat Key, Florida, for the first time since last summer's devastating red tide, I have found that the regional bird populations have been affected.  While the land birds remain as common as usual, those that feed on fish and marine invertebrates seem to be far less abundant.

Though we have only been on the island for 24 hours, most ospreys, pelicans, waders, cormorants, mergansers, gulls and terns appear to have moved to areas where prey is more readily available.  Far fewer fish are jumping on the Bay and schools observed from the seawall are less widespread and composed primarily of smaller fish.

Perhaps our initial observations are deceiving but there is little doubt that the 2018 red tide had a dramatic impact on the local marine ecosystems, both on the Gulf of Mexico and in Sarasota Bay.  A full recovery will eventually occur but the fish and bird populations will likely remain low for an extended period of time.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Entering Spring

If spring was lurking in central Alabama, I wouldn't know.  A dense fog enveloped the highway from Birmingham to Montgomery and the adjacent landscape was all but invisible.  South of Montgomery, however, early leafing of shrubs and small trees was evident, a reliable sign that we had entered the season of renewal.

When we reached Interstate 10, in the Florida Panhandle, we found ourselves in the midst of extensive tree damage from Hurricane Michael that ravaged the region last October.  Mixed among the carnage were flowering red maples, another sign that we had changed seasons.  Heading east on the Interstate, we found that the tree damage extended to the outskirts of Tallahassee; thereafter, the greenery of spring was persistent, including a green blush in the canopy of large trees.

Later, driving south down the Florida Peninsula on I-75, we eventually reached the Subtropics where the classic seasons are replaced by two: the Dry Season, from December to May, and the Wet (Hurricane) Season, from June to November.  We had reached Spring and left it behind in the same day.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Driving toward Spring

Leaving Columbia this morning, we headed toward spring; it was cloudy and cool in central Missouri and patchy snow still covered the ground.  As we drove eastward to St. Louis and then southward through western Illinois, we encountered multiple flocks of snow geese and greater white-fronted geese, vanguards of the coming season.

When we crossed the swollen Ohio River, we were greeted by sunshine and warm conditions but a brown, wintry landscape still stretched along the highway.  A large flock of American white pelicans, also a harbinger of spring, graced Lake Barkley, southeast of Paducah and green fields finally appeared in southern Kentucky.

Throughout Tennessee and into northern Alabama, mild, sunny weather persisted but convincing signs of spring remained elusive.  After dipping through the Tennessee River Valley and then knifing into the southern end of the Appalachian Chain, we stopped for the night near Birmingham.  Spring still lies farther south (stay tuned).

Saturday, February 2, 2019

First Spring Migrants

On this cloudy but mild afternoon in central Missouri, my wife and I took a walk around Philips Lake in south Columbia.  Following the recent Arctic weather, the lake remained completely frozen over and, despite the pleasant weather, birds were few and far between.  A female norther harrier strafed the adjacent fields and a red-shouldered hawk hunted from his perch in a marsh-side tree; otherwise, songbirds were limited to northern cardinals, northern mockingbirds and song sparrows.

While watching a noisy flock of Canada geese pass over the lake, I caught sight of another wavering flock of geese, smaller and more slender than their Canadian cousins.  On close inspection, they proved to be greater white-fronted geese, 35 in number; heading northwest, they were the first spring migrants that I have observed this year.

Summer residents of the Arctic, primarily across Alaska and northwestern Canada, these long-distance migrants are most abundant west of the Mississippi, wintering in the Central California Valley, southern Mississippi Valley, the western Gulf Coast, the Southern Plains and Mexico.  There they feast on grasses, waste grain and wetland plants before beginning their return trip in February, among the earliest spring migrants on the planet.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Watching Metal Birds

As I write this post, I am sitting at Denver International Airport, watching human flying machines takeoff and land.  Within a couple of hours, I will be in the air myself, enjoying the scenery and then the urban lights on my way to Columbia, Missouri.  That stay will be brief, since we plan to drive down to our condo on Longboat Key.

Though I cannot fly a plane, I enjoy views of the Earth from above and certainly appreciate the efficiency of jet travel.  While it cannot match the freedom of avian flight, it is the closest we humans will likely get (except for the use of gliders) and I look forward to every opportunity.

Even the sight of those big birds landing and taking off is inspiring; a British Airways 747 just arrived from London, highlighting the technological progress that our species has made.  Who knows what the future may hold but, during my lifetime, the ability to observe our planet from 30,000 feet is rewarding enough.

See: Meeting Stan Freden