Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Amphibian Weather

Here in central Missouri, we have experienced hot, humid days and warm, sultry nights over the past week, broken only by occasional showers and thunderstorms.  Such tropical conditions are ideal for amphibians.

One of these moisture-loving creatures has taken up residence in our magnolia tree, as he has the last few years.  His loud trill, at times mimicking the call of a sandhill crane and at other times sounding like a crazed red-bellied woodpecker, has intensified with the oppressive heat and humidity.  Small and well camouflaged, he is almost impossible to locate amidst the dense greenery of early summer.

Our noisy neighbor is an eastern gray treefrog.  Highly territorial, the male attracts females with his intense trilling, fertilizing eggs that they lay in shallow, ephemeral pools (often within small cavities on the tree).  By mid summer the mating frenzy should subside and he'll feast on countless insects before hibernating in loose soil beneath leaf litter or a brush pile.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

An Uneventful Morning

Compared with most visits to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, this morning's tour was, to be perfectly honest, uneventful.  No eagles, hawks or falcons were observed and the total waterfowl count amounted to six mallards; common grackles and red-winged blackbirds were the most abundant birds.

On the other hand, a friend and I encountered 28 avian species.  Great blue herons and great egrets graced the shallows, killdeer raced along the mudflats, dickcissels sang from the grasslands and a host of songbirds (indigo buntings, common yellowthroats and a yellow-billed cuckoo, among others) delivered their distinctive calls from the cattails and woodlands; we were also fortunate to observe deer, a mink and a raccoon.

Indeed, uneventful is a relative term, defined by past experience.  If it had been our first visit to this spectacular refuge, the adventure would surely be described as memorable.  And for this naturalist, every opportunity to explore the Missouri River floodplain, with its diverse flora and fauna, is rewarding (even when it is uneventful!).

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Taking Down Giants

One of the most appealing characteristics of our Columbia, Missouri, neighborhood is the large number of massive deciduous trees.  Primarily oaks, they are also represented by maples, sweet gums, black walnuts and honeylocusts, among other species.

For some reason, there has been an assault on these giants this summer as new homeowners have some of the trees removed; since the trees appear to be healthy one can only guess at the rationale.  During a time when global warming threatens our planet, the loss of these natural respirators is especially tragic.

Ironically, amidst the background din of chainsaws, I have been reading The Overstory, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Richard Powers.  A saga of interlocking stories, the book explores the nature of trees and man's relationship with these large, long-lived, social plants.  I highly recommend the book for anyone interested in natural history, ecology and conservation.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

A Welcome Kite

During the doldrums of summer birding, we hope for unexpected sightings to highlight our bird counts and field trips.  This evening, a Mississippi kite provided that service.

While fairly common in central Missouri during the warmer months, Mississippi kites are a bit erratic in their presence and today's visitor was the first I have seen this year.  Swooping and tilting just above the treetops, it was hunting for flying insects, its primary source of nutrition; these elegant raptors also prey on a variety of amphibians and reptiles.  Most abundant across the Southern Plains, Mississippi kites are long-distance migrants, wintering in southern portions of South America.

Always inspiring to observe, this evening's visitor was especially welcome as June draws to a close.  As I have mentioned in the past, it is, in my opinion, the least interesting month for birding across central latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere (see The Month without Migrants).

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Flashback Post XX

On this Father's Day I thought I might re-share some of my earlier posts regarding the vital but often neglected responsibilities of fatherhood.

See: Fathers
        Nature and Fatherhood
        Fathers & Sons   

Saturday, June 20, 2020

A Nostalgic Environment

Since leaving our home State of Ohio in 1976, my wife and I have lived in North Carolina, West Virginia, Arkansas, Missouri and Colorado.  All of those locations, with the exception of the latter, share a similar natural environment, typical of the Eastern U.S.

While sunny skies, dry air and a semi-arid ecosystem characterize the Front Range, our other home towns offered lush greenery, a product of humid air, rich soil and regular precipitation.  Coexisting with that greenery was a larger variety of songbirds, amphibians, insects and plant life not to mention the fragrant, soothing air.

Though I have come to prefer the Front Range climate, I do appreciate the diversity of my old haunts and enjoy visiting them when I can.  After all, they take me back to the nature of my youth when I first explored the "wilderness" beyond my own backyard.  See Wonderland.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Pollen Cone Drifts

The largest tree on our Columbia, Missouri, property is an eastern white pine that rises next to the driveway.  Offering shade and beauty, the stately pine also has its disadvantages; since it is close to the garage, its shed needles clog the underlying gutters each fall and the tree's small pollen cones are dropped on the driveway, vehicles and walkways in the spring.

Monoecious, pines harbor both male and female cones.  The large, woody "pine cones" that we see high in the tree or that collect at its base are remnants of the female "seed cones." while the small, soft "pollen cones" drop from the tree and deteriorate after releasing pollen in the spring.  More properly called microsporangiate strobili, these male cones develop in clusters just behind the new needle bundles and their numbers vary widely from year to year.

Yesterday, when we returned from Colorado, we found drifts of the tiny pollen cones on our driveway, blown by the wind against the garage door and retaining wall.  As I discovered this morning, they amounted to a heaping wheelbarrow's worth and have since been relocated to our compost bin.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

A Summer Crossing

Those who have followed this blog for any length of time know that summer is my least favorite season of the year.  As I drove across the Great Plains today, returning to Missouri from Colorado, that sentiment was reinforced.

Traveling beneath a hot dome of high pressure, interesting weather was shunted to the north or south though a strong north wind raked the High Plains, producing a blast furnace effect.  Bird sightings were limited to open country "black birds:" turkey vultures, crows, grackles and starlings.  Only the occasional cloud of swallows broke that monotony.  Absent were the spectacular migrant flocks of spring and fall (cranes, pelicans, geese, ducks) and the conspicuous, abundant raptors of winter.

Summer is the season for air conditioning and cruise control; of course, music helps to while away the hours.  Nature, herself, has little to offer across the Great Plains (at least at the latitude of Interstate 70).

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Escape to Mountain Coolness

Facing another afternoon in the 90s (F), my wife and I decided to head for the mountains yesterday.  After packing a lunch, we drove to Colorado 103 that begins north of Evergreen and winds westward and upward to Squaw Pass.

There, the road levels out, snaking across the northern flanks of Squaw and Chief Mountains before reaching Echo Lake that sits at an elevation of 10,600 feet.  Knowing that the lake picnic grounds would be crowded, we stopped at one of the smaller picnic areas along the pass road, enjoying spectacular views of the Clear Creek Valley and Continental Divide to the north and of the Mt. Evans Massif and Upper Bear Creek Valley to the south.  This pass is always a good area to spot birds of the Subalpine Zone, including gray jays, Clark's nutcrackers, Cassin's finches and, if you're lucky, three-toed woodpeckers.

After a couple of hours in the cool mountain air (it was in the low 60s), we passed the crowds at Echo Lake and began a winding descent through the Chicago Creek Valley to Idaho Springs; from there, we joined the Interstate traffic and returned to Metro Denver.  As we pulled into our Littleton farm, the temperature was 93 degrees.   

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Jackson Lake State Wildlife Area

Jackson Lake State Park, established in 1965, sits in the South Platte Valley, NNW of Wiggins, Colorado.  As my wife and I discovered today, the park is crowded with campers, fishermen and water sports enthusiasts on summer weekends.

Seeking an escape from the congestion, we headed to to the Jackson Lake State Wildlife Area, which stretches along the north shore of the 2500-acre reservoir.  There we found near solitude amidst a mosaic of lakeside woodlands, scrubby grasslands and a tree-lined irrigation canal.  American white pelicans and double-crested cormorants were abundant on the lake while Swainson's hawks, northern harriers and kestrels patrolled the grasslands.  Killdeer noisily foraged in the clearings and an excellent mix of songbirds moved among the trees; the latter included Bullock's orioles, blue grosbeaks, a lone brown thrasher and an abundance of eastern and western kingbirds.  Finally, huge flocks of cliff swallows strafed the lake and fields, nesting beneath bridges on the adjacent rural roadways.

Once again, we found that wildlife areas, lacking the human amenities of State Parks, offer both solitude and pleasant settings for wildlife observation.  We are more than willing to forego the congested campgrounds, beaches, boat docks and "comfort facilities."

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Enforcing Equality

As an older, white male, I can only begin to imagine the hardships and discrimination endured by most African Americans.  On the other hand, I suspect that all minority groups seek equality, not special treatment.

They, like other Americans, seek access to quality day care and education for their children.  They want equal justice under the law and equal opportunity within businesses and corporations.  They, like all of us, want freedom from harassment and discrimination, equally able to enjoy the economic, recreational and cultural benefits of living in this country.

Unfortunately, contrary to the opinion of Trump and his sycophants, there is systemic racism in America and its cure must include erasing the inequities that exist.  Reforming the criminal justice system will be a good start but equality of opportunity must be enforced across the entire spectrum of American life.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

White-throated Swift

White-throated swifts are common summer residents throughout the American West, nesting on the sheer walls of canyons and rock monuments.  Social birds, they often roost, nest and hunt in large flocks, catching insects in the air.  Come September, these handsome swifts depart most of the Western States to winter in Southern California, the Desert Southwest, Mexico or Central America.

Though they are abundant in the foothill canyons and "red rock" formations of the Front Range foothills, I had never observed one above our Littleton farm, which is about six miles to the east; this evening, as I retrieved our garbage can from the curb, I looked up just in time to see one as he flew west toward the setting sun.

I suspect the cool, rainy weather that began last night and continued into the morning had encouraged him to hunt at a lower elevation; whatever the reason, I was glad he passed overhead, the first to join my farm bird list that is now almost 30 years old.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Summer Chinooks

During the colder months of the year, the Front Range urban corridor is famous for its downsloping "chinook" winds, which dry and warm the air and melt any snow cover that may exist.  Producing spring-like conditions in the middle of winter, these winds are welcomed by most.

Today, following severe thunderstorms and destructive winds yesterday, Front Range cities are experiencing gusty, southwest winds, produced by high pressure over the Four Corners region and low pressure over the High Plains (currently centered over west-central Nebraska).  As they descend from the Continental Divide, these strong winds produce hot, dry air that evaporate soil moisture and push afternoon highs well above normal (near 90 degrees F today).  Of course, they also dramatically increase the risk of wildfire in areas that have not received much snow or rain this spring.

While winter chinooks are generally regarded to be beneficial, summer chinooks are, for the most part, unwelcome.  Here in the semiarid ecosystem of the Front Range, where the intense Colorado sun presents its own challenges, we do not need hot, desiccating winds.  Fortunately, this atmospheric wind machine is expected to break down overnight and the next Pacific cold front should arrive tomorrow evening, bringing cooler air and another chance for rain. 

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Cristobal churns toward NOLA

Tropical Storm Cristobal, which formed in the western Gulf of Mexico, has crossed the Yucatan Peninsula and is churning northward toward New Orleans.  Though not excessively strong at this point, the storm has a broad wind field which will lash the northern Gulf Coast, from Louisiana to the Great Bend of Florida.

Onshore winds, combined with heavy rain, will produce storm surge, rip currents and coastal flooding; the northern and western shores of Lake Pontchartrain appear to be most at risk if Cristobal maintains its current course.  Once inland, the storm is forecast to move northward through Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois, spawning tornadoes and dumping heavy rain; areas east of that track may also share its wrath.

Once again, the levees and pumps of New Orleans will likely be tested and the folly of living below sea level may be demonstrated.  We can all hope that the storm will weaken and that residents of the northern Gulf Coast will not experience serious flooding in the midst of our viral pandemic. 

Friday, June 5, 2020

Essential Workers

One of the few benefits of the coronavirus pandemic is that it has clarified what workers are most essential in American society.  Of course, medical professionals, researchers, hospital employees and first responders head that list.

But, before the pandemic, how many of us truly appreciated the work of grocery personnel, food producers, manufacturers of vital supplies (toilet paper for instance), truckers, home delivery workers, trash collectors and utility technicians, among others.  None of those jobs are glamorous and most are rewarded with average incomes at best.  There are no celebrities among these essential workers and, with the exception of medical professionals, their careers are not generally encouraged by parents, professors or job placement counselors.

Too often, we admire individuals based on their prestige or income.  However, when a crisis strikes, their value fades in comparison to those persons who are truly essential.  Bloggers, of course, are on neither list.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The Nature of Complicity

Complicity is the willingness to support or overlook the illegal or immoral ideas and behavior of others.  Currently, it is manifest in the police officers who failed to intervene in the killing of George Floyd.

Throughout history, the term can be applied to those who carried out the savage decrees of dictators, who hid the known side effects of various industrial products (e.g. tobacco), who failed to expose the cruel behavior of their associates (e.g. Catholic priests and bishops) or who voted the party line to protect their own tenure while knowing that the legislation was unfair or discriminatory.  We must also admit that individuals who ignore current public health recommendations are complicit in the spread of Covid-19.

Many Republican Senators and Congressmen have demonstrated profound complicity throughout Trump's reign, failing to acknowledge his lies, choosing to support his dangerous policies and signing onto legislation that threatens the environment, human rights and International cooperation.  They, like the police officers in Minneapolis, must be held responsible for their complicity.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Colorado's Tornado Season

North America has the dubious honor of experiencing more tornadoes than any other Continent and the majority of these develop across "Tornado Alley" which stretches through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa and western Missouri.  Tornadoes may develop during any month of the year but peak in the month of May.

Here in Colorado, tornadic thunderstorms most often develop in June and most often occur in the northeastern portion of the State.  Developing over the Continental Divide, the storms drift eastward, gaining strength as they draw in heat from the High Plains.  Weld County seems to be the focal point of these powerful storms though they may form anywhere east of the Front Range.

As Hurricane Season begins in the Southeastern U.S., Tornado Season gets underway in Colorado.  Let's hope neither is seriously destructive this year but our warming climate augments the risk.