Sunday, March 31, 2019

First Flowers

Returning to Colorado, I found clumps of deep-blue Scilla siberica adorning sun-exposed areas of our Littleton farm.  These showy bulb plants are always the first flowers to appear on the property, often blooming by mid February.

Native to southwest Russia and eastern Europe, this wildflower is commonly known as Siberian squill (though it is not native to that region).  Now planted in gardens across the globe, scilla readily naturalizes by both seed and bulb offsets, producing carpets of blue in woodlands and fields alike.  These wildflowers favor full-sun and well-drained soil but adapt to a variety of conditions.

By late March, Siberian squill, grape hyacinths, dandelions, wild cherry shrubs and apricot trees are all usually blooming on the farm.  Due to extreme cold and heavy snow in late winter, however, spring color is well behind schedule this year, making the beautiful clumps of scilla especially welcome.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Late March at Eagle Bluffs

Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain, is not always a pretty place in late March.  Cloudy, cool weather with intermittent showers is typical and flooding often inundates the woodlands and fields.

But, while they may not appeal to humans, such conditions are ideal for migrant waterfowl and shorebirds and, of course, for raptors that feast on those travelers.  This morning, as a fine mist obscured the view from my Beetle, I drove slowly along the muddy roads, stopping at various points to scan the pools and flooded fields.  Blue-winged teal, American coot and northern shovelers were abundant, joined by smaller flocks of lesser scaup, gadwall and green-winged teal.  Wilson's snipe were common in the boggy wetlands while early tree swallows strafed the sloughs and canals.  A few dozen American white pelicans lounged on a sandbar, pairs of Canada geese guarded nest sites along the grassy shorelines and a host of raptors (bald eagles, red-tails and northern harriers) patrolled the refuge; both eagle nests at the preserve were occupied.  Among other sightings were great blue herons, belted kingfishers, pied-billed grebes and pectoral sandpipers.

More than 30 bird species and a lone river otter were observed during my final visit to Eagle Bluffs before returning to Colorado.  As always, the refuge offered a memorable and inspiring sendoff. 

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Spring Rolls In

All afternoon and into the evening, bands of thunderstorms have rolled across central Missouri, bringing warm, moist air and intermittent rain to the wintry landscape.  In concert, the lawns have greened and the first blossoms now adorn our magnolias.

While snowmelt and heavy rains across Nebraska and the Dakotas has produced flooding in the Missouri River Valley, most of the regional landscape has remained relatively dry and today's storms may signal a transition to more seasonal conditions.  The leafing of shrubs and small trees will likely commence in the next few days, well behind schedule.

Then again, the thunderstorms are developing ahead of an approaching cold front, which will sweep cooler and drier air into the region; afternoon highs are forecast to remain in the forties (F) over the coming weekend.  As we are reminded each year, the fickle weather of March must run its course before spring can truly take hold.

Monday, March 25, 2019

No Collusion!

The Mueller Report, at least in the eyes of the Attorney General, clears our Dear Leader of any collusion with Russia.  Needless to say, President Trump feels vindicated.

Then again, he has not been cleared of racism; nor has he been absolved of his anti-immigrant and anti-environment policies.  His denigration of our intelligence agencies and our free press and his adoration of dictators remain intact.  His narcissism, his lies to the American public and his willingness to ridicule our allies continue to taint his Presidency and the image of our country.

Though he may still face indictments related to his personal behavior and businesses and while most Americans deplore his ignorance and his lack of empathy, Trump is now recollecting the support of his fellow Republicans.  After all, there was No Collusion!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Back in Thick Air

I am back in Missouri for a week and, despite the date, the landscape shows little evidence of spring.  The long, cold winter has delayed leafing and flowering and the lawns are only half-hearted in their greenery.

As is often the case, the most significant change to my "birding-eyes" is the larger number and variety of songbirds in more eastern ecosystems, fueled as they are by humid air, a higher amount of precipitation, greater diversity of vegetation and a much larger number of insects.  Over the next six weeks or so, that variety of songbirds will be especially large, as winter species gradually depart, summer species arrive and migrants pass through the region, all joining the permanent avian residents.

Sitting out on our back deck on this mild, cloudy morning, I saw or heard a dozen or more species within a half hour and will surely see far more when I visit my favorite birding haunts.  While I am partial to drier landscapes, the mild, humid air of the Midwest is especially inviting in early spring, delayed though it may be.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

A Super Worm Moon

The title "Worm Moon" has been given to the full moon of March, referring to soil changes in the Temperate Zone of the Northern Hemisphere at this time of year.  Occuring in concert with a thawing of the soil, which brings worms toward the surface (and robins onto our lawns), this year's Worm Moon also coincides with the vernal (spring) equinox.

In addition, this year's Worm Moon occurs near the perigee of the moon's orbit around the Earth, the closest it comes to our planet.  This makes the moon appear about 10% larger than an average full moon, prompting the title of Super Moon.

Rising above the Eastern Colorado Plains this evening, the Super Worm Moon was certainly impressive.  While both our beautiful satellite and the "lowly" earthworms are oblivious of human terminology, they are no less vital to our welfare.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Spring and the Equinox

For those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, the spring equinox occurs today, when the sun's radiation falls directly on the equator; for individuals in the Southern Hemisphere, it is the autumn equinox.  While this astronomical definition of the season makes sense from a global point of view, it has little to do with the onset of "spring conditions."

Spring has been unfolding across southern latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere for the past month or so, as flowers and greenery adorn the landscape and severe thunderstorms, some with devastating tornadoes, have ravaged the countryside.  Farther north, across Temperate latitudes, subtle signs of the season have also been apparent for weeks (crocuses and skunk cabbage pushing through the frozen soil, chorus frogs calling from icy ponds and a swell of birdsong, to name a few); nevertheless, polar fronts and snowstorms continue to threaten the region.  Even farther north (across the Arctic and sub-Arctic) and in the high elevations of our mountain ranges, spring conditions may not arrive for two months or more.

Indeed, despite the ubiquitous pronouncements on this "First Day of Spring," the season is a continuum, determined by latitude, elevation and atmospheric patterns, the latter varying from year to year.  Those of us along the Colorado Front Range, anticipating periods of snow into May and regularly gazing toward the snow-covered peaks to our west, are less inclined to accept a strict definition of the season. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Flashback Post XIII

As the NCAA Basketball Tournaments are set to begin, upsets are almost certain to occur.  My take on this human phenomenon was expressed in a post from April of 2011.

See Advantage: Underdogs

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Dipper upstages Ducks

On this morning's Waterfowl Count at South Platte Park, ducks were few and far between.  Our group was assigned a section of the river south of the Nature Center and we probably encountered no more than 30 ducks on our walk along the east bank; buffleheads, common goldeneyes, mallards and lesser scaup were the primary representatives.

However, as we rounded a curve east of Redtail Lake, I caught site of a plump, gray bird, bobbing on a log near the bank and intermittently plunging into the adjacent rapids.  It was an American dipper, common along mountain streams and in nearby canyons but far less common on the Colorado Piedmont.  This winter, however, a small number have turned up along the river in and near South Platte Park.

Favoring clear, fast-flowing streams, dippers feed on a variety of aquatic invertebrates in addition to fish eggs and minnows.  Their nest is placed beneath a rock ledge or man-made bridge, close enough to receive spray from waterfalls or rapids; twigs and moss are used to construct the dome-shaped structure.  The winter visitors to South Platte Park will likely return to the foothills or mountains to nest but, if the river continues to run high, they might just stick around.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

A Lesson from Juncos

Dark-eyed juncos are attracted to our Littleton, Colorado, farm, with its naturalized habitat and numerous shrub lines; they are especially drawn to a cluster of juniper shrubs in front of the farmhouse which provide dense cover.  Each winter, at least 25-30 individuals winter here, comprised primarily of slate-gray, Oregon and gray-headed subspecies.

The various subspecies are identical in their size and behavior, differing only in the coloration of their plumage.  Indeed, they feed in large, mixed flocks, scouring the ground for seed (grass, weed or store-bought) in peaceful coexistence.  The only "conflicts" among these small, peaceful birds arise between males of the same subspecies when early spring hormones trigger territorial behavior.

We humans would do well to mimic the behavior of these juncos, blind to superficial differences and cooperative in their efforts to find shelter and food and to evade predators.  Fortunately, they are not subject to the effects of a large, complex brain which makes us susceptible to discrimination, intolerance, racism, mysticism and other forms of deranged thought or destructive behavior.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Front Range Blizzard

During the night, a steady rain began to fall along the Colorado Front Range.  By early morning, the rain had changed to snow and, by late morning, a blizzard raged along the urban corridor.  The potent winter storm brought a record low pressure of 975 mb to Pueblo and wind gusts as high as 97 mph in Colorado Springs (another record).  Thunder claps accompanied the heavy snow here in Littleton.

In Metro Denver, wind gusts have reached 80 mph and the combination of high winds and low visibility closed Denver International Airport.  While Denver may get only 5 inches of snowfall, we expect up to 10 inches in western Littleton, where the terrain is a bit higher.  Needless to say, the depth of the snowfall will be less of an issue than the strong, gusty wind which has already caused extensive tree damage and power outages and will threaten travelers and livestock with deep drifts and a deadly wind chill.

As I have often mentioned in this blog, March is the snowiest month along the Colorado Front Range but this storm is especially potent.  Its track has actually been too far north to produce maximal upslope precipitation in Metro Denver and the storm's effects will thus be especially severe across western Nebraska and South Dakota.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Rock Squirrel on the Farm

I returned from Austin to find that a rock squirrel had taken up residence on our Littleton farm, the first to do so since we purchased the property in 1990; since he appears to have a den beneath one of our old raised flower beds, he may have arrived last autumn and is merely emerging from hibernation.

Common throughout the Intermountain West, rock squirrels favor lower canyons and shrub zones of foothills, often denning beneath rock ledges; colonial for much of the year, they become more territorial during the breeding season.  Omnivorous, these attractive ground squirrels feed on nuts, seeds, fruit, insects, eggs and carrion and I observed our current resident as he scoured the bird feeding area.

Often encountered across the lower Front Range foothills, rock squirrels descend onto the Piedmont along stream beds and I have previously seen them on the banks of the South Platte River.  While one stream (Raccoon Creek) passes within a few hundred yards of our farm, I'm not sure how our lone resident found his way to the property.  Perhaps he was following his nose to our annual crop of pinon pine nuts!

Monday, March 11, 2019

McKinney Falls State Park

Before heading to the Austin airport yesterday, I visited McKinney Falls State Park in the southeastern quadrant of the city.  There, Onion Creek has sliced a channel through the Cretaceous limestone that underlies the region, exposing broad expanses of that bedrock and dropping over two scenic waterfalls (the Upper and Lower McKinney Falls).

Rising near Johnson City, Texas, west of Austin, Onion Creek winds through the Hill Country before snaking across southern Austin; almost 80 miles from its origin, the creek enters the Colorado River east of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

As one might expect, the State Park was crowded with tourists and local visitors on a warm Sunday afternoon.  While other hordes were visiting the South X Southwest festivities downtown, nature is a potent competitor for human attention and this Park harbors some of the most scenic landscape in Metro Austin.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Whistlers in Dry Country

On our last full day in Austin, my wife and I took a hike along the Slaughter Creek Trail, in the southwest Metro Area.  Once again, we were at the edge of the Hill Country, hiking through semiarid grasslands and counting on groves of oak and juniper to provide some protection from the bright March sun.

After almost 90 minutes of enduring heat and dryness, we came to a secluded pond, where a quartet of ring-necked ducks dove for their lunch; to our pleasant surprise, there was also a trio of black-bellied whistling ducks, lounging along the shore.  Permanent residents of Mexico, southern Arizona, South Texas and South Florida, these colorful birds also nest throughout Eastern Texas and may wander farther north during the summer months.

Lanky, slender ducks, they are easily identified by their black belly, white wing-patches and bright pink-orange bill.  They nest primarily in tree cavities near water and feed on both aquatic and terrestrial insects and plants.  While I have encountered them in Florida over the years, I had not seen black-bellied whistling ducks in several years and was especially surprised to find them in the semiarid landscape west of Austin.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Austin's Botanical Gardens

During our visit to Austin, Texas, we had the pleasure to visit the city's two botanical gardens.  The Zilker Botanical Gardens stretch across the Colorado River hills just west of the downtown area.  Relatively small but attractive, this preserve mingles a natural ecosystem with native plantings, historic structures and a variety of water features.  Access is via a network of paved and earthen trails, bridges and rock stairways.

Much larger and nationally famous is the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center (also known as the Texas Botanical Gardens), southwest of the central city area.  It too offers a mix of natural habitat, plantings and historic structures and is a center for education and horticultural research.  The extensive, flat landscape is accessed by several miles of paved and unpaved trails.

More than peaceful destinations for observing and photographing flowers, modern botanical gardens often introduce visitors to plants from across the globe but focus primarily on regional flora.  Emphasis is placed on both education and conservation and attentive patrons gain appreciation for evolutionary adaptations in the plant world and the vital roles that plants play in our natural ecosystems.  For birders, botanical gardens, with their broad array of plant life, always attract an excellent variety of species. 

Friday, March 8, 2019

Edge of the Hill Country

The Hill Country, in central Texas, is primarily the product of marine Cretaceous limestone that was deposited in a shallow sea some 100 million years ago; later lifted as a plateau, it has since been sculpted into hills by numerous streams; in some regions, granite domes rise above the limestone, also lifted by tectonic forces.  The widespread limestone bedrock has produced a karst landscape, characterized by numerous caves, springs, sinkholes and underground streams.

The eastern edge of the Texas Hill Country cuts across western Austin, offering broad views of the Metroplex from higher terrain.  Representing the easternmost segment of the Desert Southwest, the semiarid hills are covered by yucca and prickly-pear studded grasslands and by woodlands of juniper and oak.  Wildlife includes white-tailed deer, coyotes, fox, bobcats, armadillos, roadrunners, a host of raptors and a wide variety of songbirds.

On this cloudy, mild morning in Austin, my wife and I visited two sites along the edge of the Texas Hill Country.  The first was Mount Bonnell, perhaps Austin's most popular overlook, with rises above the north bank of the Colorado River, northwest of the city.  After taking in the views from that limestone ridge, we enjoyed a two-mile hike through the Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve, on the east side of Route 360, which protects a segment of the Hill Country ecosystem from the relentless encroachment of suburban development.   

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Colorado River of Texas

Visiting Austin, Texas, for a week, I have found that the Colorado River is the highlight of this southern landscape.  Entering the city along its northwest border, the river flows southeastward to the downtown area and then curves eastward past the International Airport.  Fortunately, our temporary residence, in a downtown skyscraper, offers several views of the Colorado Valley.

After rising on the Staked Plains of the Texas Panhandle, near Lamesa, the Colorado River flows southeastward for 862 miles to enter Matagorda Bay of the Gulf of Mexico, making it the longest river totally within the State of Texas.  En route, it cuts through the Hill Country of south-central Texas, passes through multiple reservoirs and drops about 3000 feet from its origin to its mouth.

Rivers, sculptors of our landscapes, tend to be dominant natural features of most geographic areas.  While our focus may be directed to hills and mountains, they are the products of uplift and erosion, the latter conducted by rivers of water or ice.  Far south of North America's glaciated regions, the Colorado River of Texas has long been fed by torrents of rain, natural springs and melting snow.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Disappearing Peaks

This morning, it was sunny and mild along the Front Range urban corridor.  A gentle southwest breeze was associated with the pleasant conditions, leading one to doubt that snow might develop by nightfall.

But looking west to the mountains, one noticed that the higher peaks had developed a hazy appearance, contrasting with the sharp, sun-drenched terrain of the foothills; later in the morning, that haze had coalesced into a band of clouds that totally hid the peaks.  By early afternoon, the wind along the urban corridor had shifted from the north, the temperature had cooled significantly and clouds had begun to replace the bright blue sky.  The forecast of a coming storm was then much easier to accept.

The high peaks of the Front Range are 30-40 miles west of Metro Denver and up to 9000 feet higher in elevation.  As storm systems push in from the west, the higher terrain is first to demonstrate evidence of the developing upslope; enveloped by colder air and already blanketed by snow, the high country is both the first and last area to experience precipitation when storm fronts move through.  Clouds will eventually lower over the urban corridor as the wind shifts from the northeast and, in concert, the snow level will descend from the crest of the Front Range to the Piedmont and High Plains.