Tuesday, April 30, 2019

April ends with Snow

April is bowing out with snow along the Colorado Front Range, not an unusual occurrence.  Arriving last evening, the upslope storm left only an inch or two of snow across Metro Denver, coating the lawns and trees by daybreak.

Heading down to South Platte Park, I found that the wildlife was generally unfazed by the chilly air and wintry landscape.  Exceptions were the large flocks of violet-green swallows that strafed the river or huddled in trees along the shores of Eaglewatch Lake; just back from the Tropics, I'm sure they were dismayed to find that the cold weather had stunned and grounded their prey.  Other birds were as active as ever, perhaps even invigorated by the chill; an osprey tore apart a fish atop a power pole, a mixed flock of cormorants and mergansers dove for their morning meal and a host of songbirds (chickadees, yellow-rumped warbers, house wrens, woodpeckers) gleaned lethargic insects from the shrubs and trees.  Even a pair of broad-tailed hummingbirds, seemingly out of place in the wintry landscape, chased one another through a lakeside woodland.

Thanks to the high April sun and despite the gray overcast, the snow was gone by noon and the look (if not the feel) of spring has returned.  Alas, another round of light snow may fall tonight but a rapid warmup is expected by the weekend when summer-like conditions will envelop the urban corridor.  Such is spring in Colorado.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Sleep and Creativity

Most humans tend to view sleep as downtime for the brain, disrupted only by crazy dreams of dubious significance.  In like manner, highly productive workaholics often dismiss sleep as a waste of time, bragging about their limited need for sleep.  But medical science has discovered that a certain amount of sleep (generally in the range of 7-8 hours per day) is important for our health and that, contrary to popular perception, sleep is a active neurological process.

Indeed, persons engaged in creative fields of endeavor (writing, music, art, architecture, design, etc.) can recount incidences in which they awoke from sleep with a unique and often detailed idea, unrelated to any rumination that might have occurred prior to sleep.  I can personally attest to the fact that a dozen or more of my blog posts were written in the middle of the night, almost fully constructed at the time that I awoke.  There is little doubt in my mind that the brain synthesizes, analyzes and correlates ideas during sleep, drawing data from our conscious experiences and stored memories.

To be fully transparent, this post was prompted by the "appearance" of a person in a dream whom I have not seen and not consciously thought about in more than 40 years.  Our conscious memories are but a small fraction of those stored in the circuitry of our brains and sleep allows us to "explore" that hidden data, providing fuel for our creativity.  It seems to me that those who shun sleep to increase their productivity are failing to take advantage of a valuable creative resource.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

A Swarm of Painted Ladies

Like monarchs, which they resemble, painted lady butterflies are migratory, heading to the Desert Southwest for the winter.  In the fall of 2017, their swarms were especially large along the Colorado Front Range and, this March, the migrating ladies created a spectacle in Southern California, the result of a massive desert bloom that was triggered by heavy winter rains in that region.

Early this evening, when I went out to look for new summer birds on our Littleton farm, my search was disrupted by the steady movement of painted ladies across the landscape.  Moving from southwest to northeast, these fast flying butterflies (capable of reaching 25 mph) constantly caught my eye.  Within a half hour, I'm certain I saw at least 1000 of the hardy migrants, anxious to reach their breeding sites.

Preferring to lay their eggs on thistles and related plants, painted ladies utilize most habitats in Colorado and may be observed throughout the warmer months.  However, it is in mid spring and early autumn when their mass migrations may catch the eye of even the least attentive observers of nature.  This evening's spectacle will certainly be long remembered by this naturalist.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Summer Songbirds stream Northward

Birders who reside in the Northern Hemisphere know that late April and early May offer some of the best birding of the year as summer songbirds return to their breeding grounds.  Here along the Colorado Front Range, that annual parade is well underway.

Over the past week, broad-tailed hummingbirds and house wrens have returned to our Littleton farm and, down at South Platte Park, I have recently observed barn and violet-green swallows (joining their tree cousins), brown-headed cowbirds, white-crowned sparrows and a green-tailed towhee; Swainson's thrushes, blue-gray gnatcatchers, chipping sparrows, gray catbirds, Lazuli buntings and Bullock's orioles should arrive any day now.  The number of migrant yellow-rumped warblers has been increasing on a daily basis and other Western warblers and flycatchers are expected within the next two weeks.

All of these summer species will be greeted by our next round of chilly rain and snow early next week but they "know" Colorado and always adapt well.  We birders certainly appreciate the seasonal message that they bring, especially during the fickle weather of a Front Range April. 

Monday, April 22, 2019

Leonardo on Nature

Today, I had the pleasure to attend an exhibit on the Life and Work of Leonardo da Vinci at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  During his 67 years on this planet (1452-1519), da Vinci accomplished a great deal in the fields of art, mechanical invention, anatomy and philosophy, most of which was not publicly acknowledged prior to his death.

While most of us are familiar with some of his paintings (especially the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper) and his anatomical drawings, the exhibit expanded on his personal philosophy and how those beliefs impacted his work.  Nature was clearly the inspiration for all aspects of his creativity, a source of truth from which, he believed, we must learn and to which we should aspire.

Natural processes inspired his inventions and natural laws governed his view of life and the Universe.  Leonardo, a perfectionist himself, believed that perfection only exists in nature and that our capacity to love or hate something is totally dependent upon our ability to fully understand it.  In his view, we humans reflect truth only by aligning ourselves with nature, inspirational words of wisdom in the mind of this naturalist.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

A Finch Invasion

Returning to our Littleton farm late this afternoon, I stepped from my pickup and was struck by the amount of chirping that arose from the canopy of one of our large Siberian elms; the source of the noise was a large flock of American goldfinches (18 by my count).  Of course, I went in to grab my binoculars for a closer look and returned to find that the flock had scattered to a grove of piñon pines.

Taking a seat, I watched the brightly colored finches move among the trees and was soon aware that they were joined by a half dozen lesser goldfinches, eight pine siskins and at least twelve house finches, not to mention the chickadees, bushtits and a lone red-breasted nuthatch that were drawn to the scene.  In addition, while I was focused on the finch invasion, I was pleased to hear the familiar buzzy whistle of a broad-tailed hummingbird as it looped about the farm, the first of the season.

No doubt, the flock of American goldfinches, permanent residents along the Front Range urban corridor, had picked up the pine siskins as they moved through the area; the latter birds will soon return to the foothills where they will nest and raise their young before winter weather drives them down to lower elevations.  The house finches and lesser goldfinches, permanent residents on the farm, merely joined in the feeding frenzy when the nomads arrived.  While none of these finches are rare or even uncommon, I cannot recall another time (on this farm or elsewhere) when I encountered so many in one place at the same time; it was a special treat to watch and listen to their activity.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Towhee Romance

For at least six years, a lone male spotted towhee has lived on our Littleton farm (and has been the subject of several past blog posts).  Each spring, he has sung his heart out but failed to attract a mate; while most towhees reside in the shrub belt of the lower foothills, these large sparrows seem to be spreading across the adjacent Piedmont and have become permanent residents in our area.

Over the past two weeks, I have noticed that he is now in the company of a female, identified by her chocolate-brown head, chest and back (in sharp contrast to his black coloration).  Noticeably quieter this spring, I suspect the male's vocalizations will increase once nesting begins and he feels the need to defend his territory.  If all goes as nature plans, the female will construct a cup-shaped nest beneath or within low shrubs and lay anywhere from 2 to 6 eggs; since towhees may produce up to three broods each year, our farm might be over-run with their offspring by late summer!

Feasting primarily on insects during the breeding season, spotted towhees also consume seeds and berries; most of their food is located by scratching through leaf litter and it is that activity that often draws our attention to their presence.  I wish to publicly congratulate our longtime bachelor and hope that the couple will spend many happy years on the farm!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Fire, Faith & Human Culture

Anyone who cares about art, architecture and human culture mourns the tragic destruction of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris this week; such a reaction is independent of one's religious faith or lack thereof.  As I write this post, the cause of the fire remains unknown though an accident, related to restoration work, seems most likely.

It is understandable that this tragedy, having occurred during Holy Week, is especially painful for Catholics and it is also unsurprising that many believers find solace in that association.  Inclined to accept messages from God in various forms, they see a heavenly hand in the destruction of a great human cathedral, mimicking efforts to destroy The Church by killing Jesus.  So too, the Cathedral will be reborn.

This relationship (and friction) between human culture and religious faith has been evident throughout our history.  After all, for much of that time, The Church has controlled both the financial pursestrings and the political power.  Today, that balance has begun to shift, primarily related to the scientific revolution and partly to revelations of scandal within the Catholic Church.  As human enlightenment progresses, we will hopefully retain our interest in and devotion to historical culture while discarding the bonds of mysticism.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge

Browns Park is a broad river valley in extreme northwest Colorado, bordered by the Diamond Mountains (the eastern end of the Uinta Range) to the west and the Cold Springs Mountain ridge to the east.  The Green River, a major tributary of the Colorado, courses through the valley after leaving Flaming Gorge in Utah; in southern Browns Park, it re-enters the mountains at the spectacular Gates of Lodore (within Dinosaur National Monument).

Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1965 to protect vital riverine wetlands and associated riparian habitats which have long been nourished by seasonal flooding.  Following the construction of the Flaming Gorge Dam (which eliminated that flooding) refuge personnel established a water management system that pumps water from the river and local creeks into the wetland areas.  After all, migrant birds have long relied on these wetlands as they cross the dry terrain of western Colorado; in addition, many species of waterfowl and shorebirds nest along the Green River.

The 12,150 acre refuge protects those riverine habitats as well as a swath of upland shrub zone, characterized by sage, greasewood, needle grass, piñon pine and Utah juniper.  Among the 68 species of mammal that inhabit the refuge are moose, mule deer, pronghorns, river otters, badgers, beaver and wintering herds of elk.  Other species of note include golden and bald eagles, sage grouse, white-faced ibis, American bitterns, Woodhouse's toads and, of course, rattlesnakes.  The spectacular scenery and solitude of this remote refuge are equally appealing to the visitor; during my two-hour visit (admittedly on a Monday afternoon), I did not encounter another human being.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Journey to Browns Park

West of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, U.S. 40 parallels the meandering Yampa River, flanked by wetlands and, this time of year, by flooded fields due to the mountain snowmelt.  I was pleased and somewhat surprised to see several ospreys along the highway, already preparing to nest in that scenic alpine valley.

Beyond Hayden, the Yampa dips to the south and the highway begins its long journey across a semiarid plateau, covered by sage grasslands and dissected by small streams; pronghorn, mule deer and livestock foraged on the grasslands while western meadowlarks, common ravens, black-billed magpies and a host of raptors (golden eagles, red-tails, kestrels, northern harriers and prairie falcons) represented the avian population.  West of Craig, highway signs advise that there is "no snow plowing between 7PM and 5AM," clear evidence that I was off the beaten path (though on a major U.S. route).

The Yampa returned to recross the highway just east of Maybell, where I cut northwestward on Route 318 and crossed the Yampa once again.  After fording the Little Snake River a bit farther down the road, I began a long excursion through a dry, desolate landscape of sage valleys and sandstone ridges, the latter adorned with Utah juniper; I might add that a sign warned of "no services" for the next 120 miles!  Finally, some 50 miles from Maybell, I descended into Browns Park, watered by the Green River and home to a scenic National Wildlife Refuge; details on the refuge tomorrow.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Colorado's Remote Corner

The northwest corner of Colorado, which borders Wyoming and Utah, is surely one of the more remote locations in the State.  On the other hand, this region harbors Colorado's portion of Dinosaur National Monument and is the home of Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge, which I plan to visit over the next two days.

The refuge straddles the Green River, a major tributary of the Colorado, that rises on the west flank of Wyoming's Wind River Range.  After passing through Flaming Gorge, which straddles the Wyoming-Utah line, the river curves eastward into northwest Colorado where it receives the waters of the Yampa River before returning to Utah; there it eventually joins the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park.

Always remote, Browns Park was the site of a fur trading post back in the early 1800s and was a popular hideout location for outlaws such as Butch Cassidy.  My route from Denver will take me west to Silverthorne, north through the Blue River Valley to Kremmling, across Rabbit Ears Pass to Steamboat Springs, westward across Colorado's Northwest Plateau and then northwest on Route 318 to the refuge.  More details in coming posts.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Insectivores Crowd the River

On this raw April morning in the South Platte Valley, with a dusting of snow on the ground and the air temperature hovering near 30 degrees F, there was an excellent diversity of birdlife along the river.  While the number and variety of ducks continues to decrease, the cold conditions had drawn flocks of insectivores to the relatively warm waters of the South Platte.

Red-winged blackbirds, American robins, European starlings and common grackles were most abundant, noisily scouring the banks and even hunting from rocks and logs that poke above the shallows.  Joining them were killdeer, Say's phoebes and yellow-rumped warblers while squadrons of tree and violet-green swallows strafed the river's surface.  Adding to the avian diversity were belted kingfishers, double-crested cormorants, black-billed magpies, northern flickers and a lone osprey, among other common species.

Novice birders tend to avoid excursions on foul weather days but such conditions often augment the activity of their quarry.  This morning, the chilly air sent many regional birds to the relative warmth of the South Platte River and those of us who ventured down there were rewarded as well.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Rivers of Southeast Australia

Having watched two seasons of Secret City on Netflix, I naturally wondered about the source of the scenic lake in Canberra.  With a bit of online research, I found out that Lake Burley Griffin lies along the course of the Molonglo River; this stream rises in Tallaganda State Forest, on the west flank of the Great Dividing Range, southeast of Canberra.  After flowing northwestward to the city, it angles westward to merge with the Murrumbidgee River, the second longest in Australia.

Rising in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, the Murrumbidgee flows northward past Canberra ( in the Australian Capitol Territory) and then westward across the plains of southern New South Wales.  Almost 925 miles from its source, this river joins the Murray River (Australia's largest and longest) near Boundary Bend.  Unfortunately, a large portion of the Murrumbidgee's headwaters have been diverted into reservoirs, significantly reducing the flow through this ancient and once powerful river; nevertheless, severe floods have continued to plague valley towns during wet years (see La Nina and the Australian Floods).

The Murray River, 1558 miles in length, rises in the Australian Alps, ENE of Melbourne.  Flowing northwestward through the "Breadbasket of Australia," the Murray forms the boundary between New South Wales and Victoria.  At Mildura, the river angles westward, entering South Australia, and, at Morgan, it turns southward, flowing toward Lake Alexandrina (southeast of Adelaide) and thence to the Southern Ocean.  While Canberra lies relatively close to the Pacific Coast of Southeast Australia, its lake and river waters flow a very long distance before reaching the sea.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Winter in April

After almost two weeks of mild, dry weather, the spring vegetation on our Littleton farm was in need of precipitation.  I was thus pleased to find a cool mist bathing the plants this morning and was even more encouraged when that mist changed to a steady light rain.  On the other hand, that moisture was the leading edge of a "winter storm" that would set back the progress of spring for a few days.

Triggered by a deep southward dip in the jet stream, this April snowstorm will stretch from Colorado to Wisconsin, dropping up to two feet of snow across the Northern Plains; worse yet, the potent system is expected to produce blizzard conditions throughout much of that area, especially from northeastern Colorado into Nebraska and South Dakota.

Snow developed along the Front Range urban corridor by early afternoon and continues as I write this post.  Additional snowfall may only be modest in Metro Denver but northerly winds will pick up as the storm moves eastward, dropping overnight lows into the mid twenties (F) for the next two nights.  Recent afternoon highs near 80 F will be cut in half but such wild weather swings are common here in April.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Transition in the Valley

As we move through April, the transition from the "cold season" to the "warm season" is increasingly evident in the South Platte Valley.  The large flocks of Canada and cackling geese that wintered along the Front Range have left for northern climes and the remaining Canadas have paired off to nest along our lakes and ponds.  The number and variety of wintering ducks have also decreased significantly while the first wave of blue-winged and cinnamon teal and migrant shorebirds have returned to Colorado.

Here on our Littleton farm, most of the dark-eyed juncos have dispersed to Canada or to the mountains and the last few pine siskins are stopping by the feeders; in their place, chipping and white-crowned sparrows will soon visit the farm before heading to higher terrain.  Double-crested cormorants, tree swallows and American white pelicans are now soaring above the urban corridor, soon to be joined by white-faced ibis, Franklin's gulls and other migrants.

Within another week or two, broad-tailed hummingbirds, gray catbirds, barn swallows and house wrens will join our permanent songbirds and the spring warbler parade will begin.  By early May the transition will be complete and the South Platte Valley will settle into a pattern of warm, sunny days and late afternoon thunderstorms; of course, an upslope snowstorm will not be out of the question until mid June!

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Sport & Society

Early man had every reason to remain physically fit.  After all, his very survival depended on his ability to confront dangerous prey and predators and to face the challenges imposed by his natural environment.  Once we developed permanent settlements, facilitated by the cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals, our physical prowess turned to warfare and sport; the latter, of course, included physical combat for the purpose of entertainment.

Today, some 10,000 years later, those rudimentary sports have morphed into a wide range of amateur and professional contests, the latter commanding some of the highest salaries in human civilization.  As the Final Four gets underway and the Masters Golf Tournament looms in the near future, it seems appropriate to consider whether professional athletes are valued out of proportion to other (more vital) members of our society.  While youth and amateur sports play an important role in the health of humans, the economics of both college and professional sports seems to be out of control.

Certainly, successful athletes have worked long and hard to achieve their stature and cannot be denied the right to cash-in on that effort.  However, Big Money has repeatedly corrupted college sports and the value placed on professional athletes has fueled a wide range of social ills and personal tragedies. It seems to me that we can honor sport and admire talent without bestowing god-like celebrity on the participants and without directing financial resources away from vital social programs.  That decision lies with the fans, not with the power brokers of professional sports leagues. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Return of the Vultures

Turkey vultures are common to abundant summer residents across most of the Lower 48 States; throughout the southeastern quadrant of the country, as well as along the California Coast, these scavengers are permanent residents.

Here along the Colorado Front Range, turkey vultures are relatively uncommon and are only present during the warmer months (April to October); come winter, they head for Mexico, South Texas or the Desert Southwest.  This morning, I observed two of them soaring above our Littleton farm, the first I have encountered this spring.

Feeding almost exclusively on carrion, turkey vultures take advantage of roadkill and also scavenge the remains of deer and elk killed by predators or storms; they also feast on fish that are stranded by shrinking ponds and reservoirs.  Not pretty up close, these birds are among nature's most talented aerialists and certainly play a major role in her recycling system.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

A Message from Argentina

At 2:15 this afternoon, I personally received a message from Argentina.  The Southern Hemisphere has ceded the sun's direct radiation to the Northern Hemisphere; in other words, we in the Northern Hemisphere have now moved past the vernal equinox.

The carrier of that message was a Swainson's hawk, the first I have observed this year.  Soaring above our Littleton farm, the hawk had left the Argentinian autumn and traveled to the North American spring. He and his cohorts will nest across the High Plains, Colorado Plateau and Great Basin provinces before heading back to Argentina next fall.  There they will "winter" in the Argentinian summer.

Favoring open country with scattered trees in which to perch and nest, Swainson's hawks feed on a variety of large insects, reptiles and small mammals and are often observed soaring above crop fields and grasslands.  Today's lone traveler was the first but I will surely observe dozens (if not hundreds) of these migrant raptors over the next six months.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Birding at Noon: No Fooling

Novice birders are often advised to search for their quarry early or late in the day, when many species tend to be most active.  While this recommendation is certainly legitimate, especially during the heat of summer, it should not discourage birding activity at other times.  Indeed, some birds (soaring species for example) may not be active until several hours after sunrise, when solar heating is potent enough to produce thermals.

Today, I walked out to explore our Littleton farm at noon.  A golden eagle was soaring overhead, harassed by a small flock of crows.  Within an hour I had encountered more than a dozen other species, many of which flushed to cover when a sharp-shinned hawk streaked across the farm.

Such sightings (the eagle and the hawk) often occur when least expected and at any time of day.  The best advice for any beginning wildlife watcher is to get out there at every opportunity, during any season and at any hour of the day (or night).  No Fooling!