Tuesday, September 21, 2021

21st Century Darwinism

It is painful to watch.  Hundreds of thousands of Americans dying needlessly from a preventable illness.  The culprits?  Misinformation, lack of eduction and political correctness appear to lead the list.

Despite the technological advances that led to the safe and effective vaccines, many Americans value their personal freedom and party affiliation more than their own health and the health of their fellow citizens.  This misguided philosophy leads to a tragic and seemingly endless cycle of severe illness and death.

While innocents (children, the elderly and the immunocompromised) are also victims of this social dysfunction, one must accept the fact that we are witnessing 21st Century Darwinism.  Those unwilling to accept scientific data and to take advantage of the vaccines are being culled by natural forces.  Nature is neither sympathetic nor forgiving.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Devil's Backbone

A few miles east of Columbia Regional Airport, Cedar Creek makes a hairpin turn on its way to join the Missouri River.  Within that narrow curve, a ridge of Mississippian limestone, known as the Devil's Backbone, offers spectacular views of the Creek Valley.

Having never visited the site ourselves, we headed east on Englewood Road from the northeast corner of the Airport.  After passing through the town of Englewood, we continued another mile or so to Backbone Road which leads southward to the ridge.

Once there, we enjoyed broad views of Cedar Creek Valley and watched as a flock of turkey vultures, joined by a lone bald eagle, soared along the cliffs.  As spectacular as the views were today they are no doubt more expansive during the winter months when the deciduous leaves have fallen.  We will certainly return to find out! 

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Saved by Soras

When a friend and I arrived at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area early this morning, dense fog shrouded most of the Missouri River floodplain.  As the morning progressed, the fog burned off and we enjoyed a pleasant tour of the refuge; unfortunately, the birding did not match the scenery.

While teal hunters crouched in the muck with their decoys, we did not see a single goose or duck during our two hour visit; indeed, a lone pied-billed grebe was the only bird found on the pools and central channel.  Among the 17 species that we encountered, the only "highlights" (a generous term) were a handful of great blue herons, a single green heron, a female northern harrier, a broad-winged hawk and a belted kingfisher.  Then, as we headed for the exit, loud cackling arose from a marsh along the central roadway.

The source of the noise was a trio of soras, small rails that migrate through Missouri; after breeding in freshwater marshes across Canada and the Northern and Western U.S., soras depart for saltwater marshlands along southern coasts of the U.S., Mexico, Central America and South America.  More often heard than seen, the reclusive, omnivorous rails saved our morning excursion. 

Saturday, September 18, 2021

A Swallow-tailed Kite in Kansas

 Most of us associate swallow-tailed kites with Florida and neighboring States and, until today, I had never encountered one outside of that region.  Shortly after 11 AM, as I drove eastward on Interstate 70, I saw one along the highway, just west of the 435 interchange in eastern Kansas (Wyandotte County).

Its beautiful black and white plumage, deeply forked tail and typical kite maneuvers made identification easy, even when traveling at 65 mph.  Nevertheless, I was shocked to see the bird and was relieved to find that another birder also reported the sighting (on eBird) from the same area.

In fact, if one reviews the map of swallow-tailed kite sightings over the past 5 years (available on eBird), these magnificent aerialists have been observed as far north as Southern Canada and as far west as Wyoming, eastern Colorado and Southern California.  While most of these were likely non-breeding wanderers, it is rewarding to know that this kite might be reclaiming some of its past breeding grounds, which extended along rivers to the Northern Midwest.

Friday, September 17, 2021

From Autumn Chill to Summer Heat

Last night, I was awakened by the strong scent of wood smoke wafting through the open windows of our Littleton farmhouse.  A cold front had just passed southeastward across the Front Range urban corridor, pulling down smoky air from the Western fires.

By this morning, as we left for Missouri, the temperature was 48 degrees F, the lowest it has been this season in Metro Denver.  Cloudy and chilly conditions persisted all the way to Colby, Kansas; just south of that city, we passed through a band of rain, the leading edge of the cold front.  Once through the rain, the temperature gradually rose, reaching 70 degrees F in WaKeeney and 81 degrees F in Hays, where we will spend the night.  According the the forecast, summer-like heat, with a high of 91 degrees F, will greet us in Columbia, Missouri, tomorrow.

Unfortunately, we will miss the best weeks of the year (in my opinion) for exploring the Rocky Mountains.  From mid September to mid October, the summer crowds have thinned, early snows dust the higher peaks, the beautiful aspen display unfolds and the bugling of elk echos through the mountain valleys as bulls gather their harems.  My consolation prize will be the spectacular autumn migration of waterfowl, shorebirds and hawks through the Missouri River Valley.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Blog Fodder

Waiting on a phone call, I took a brief stroll through our Littleton farm on this warm, sunny September morning.  I wasn't expecting to observe anything unusual but one never knows.

As it turned out, I encountered the first plumbeous vireo of the fall migration season, watched a mixed group of white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches storing sunflower seeds in the crevices of tree bark and outbuilding walls and enjoyed the comical antics of a fox squirrel, tip-toeing atop a pasture fence with a large apple in his mouth.  Nothing worth a post, some might suggest, but it is my blog!

Indeed, since I have written more than 4000 posts over the past 15 years, I am occasionally asked how I come up with enough material.  While there is plenty of redundancy in this blog (hence the Feedback Posts), there is a simple answer to their query: I go outside and look around.  The more one pays attention to nature's diversity, the more there is to write about (like a squirrel with his over-sized lunch).  

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Riders on the Storm

Just before noon, dark clouds were building to our west and, as the storm approached, cool winds swept across the farm, displacing the warm air that the morning sunshine had produced.  As if on cue, our resident birds became active, clearly invigorated by the sudden chill.

Overhead, a quartet of cormorants, a red-tailed hawk and a Cooper's hawk soared in the westerly breeze, staying just ahead of the approaching storm.  In the end, we received little rain from the darkening sky but the aerial display was rewarding enough.

Of course, as I watched those birds, I immediately thought of Jim Morrison's song, Riders on the Storm, which was popular fifty years ago this summer (just after Morrison died in Paris at the age of 27). Always intrigued by his dark lyrics, I think this morning's event was a fitting tribute to the famous poet and songwriter.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

September Bird Count

This morning, I took part in the September bird count at South Platte Park.  My group was assigned to the southern section of the South Platte River and to adjacent ponds and lakes.

While we encountered only 23 species over two hours, we did see a large number of snowy egrets and double-crested cormorants; other sightings of note included six wild turkeys, more than a dozen common mergansers, wood ducks and a lone sharp-shinned hawk.

As is often the case, once we left our assigned area, we saw several more species: American white pelicans, an osprey and a kestrel, among others.  Veteran birders know that we often encounter more species in our own backyard than we do on an official count; after all, birds are highly mobile and pay little attention to human boundaries and designated preserves (as well intentioned as those refuges may be).

Friday, September 10, 2021

Hike to Panorama Point

Corwina Park is accessed from a parking lot along Bear Creek, just east of Kittredge, Colorado.  A 3.5 mile roundtrip hike takes visitors from this lot to Panorama Point, which commands a broad view of the Upper Bear Creek Valley.

The first portion of the hike climbs gradually southward along a small side creek, passing through ponderosa parklands, small groves of aspen and fingers of the Douglas fir forest; Colorado blue spruce also rise along the creek.  Within a mile, this entry trail intersects both the Panorama Point Trail and the Bear Creek Trail; the former begins a steep climb onto the east wall of this side valley, using short stairways and a series of switchbacks.

Once at Panorama Point, hikers are rewarded with a spectacular view of the Upper Bear Creek Valley, centered on the Mt. Evans massif where the creek heads.  Kittredge stretches across the valley in the foreground and the outskirts of Evergreen, farther west, poke above and intervening ridge.  The rocky overlook is a great spot for a picnic lunch and, if you do break out the treats, you can count on Steller's jays and Colorado chipmunks to turn up for handouts. 

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Flashback Post XXIV

Since the American football season begins this week, I thought it might be a good time to exhume my blog post from December, 2012.

See:  Modern Gladiators

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Medical Messaging

One of the complicating factors during the COVID pandemic has been mixed messaging from the CDC, FDA and "experts" across the country.  The experts, which hail from universities, research centers and pharmaceutical companies, are given a broad audience by national cable services that are always looking for controversy and drama.

In my opinion, the medical community should coalesce their messaging, uniformly standing behind science-based data that would be released monthly by the CDC Director.  This data should include case numbers, vaccination rates and specific recommendations regarding protective behavior (vaccination, masking, social distancing, etc.) and therapeutic options.

Mixed messaging may be welcome fodder for the news services but it is also a potent excuse for those who refuse vaccination and/or do not adhere to other protective measures.  The current mix of personal opinions, predictions, theories and recommendations is counterproductive and dangerous. 

Monday, September 6, 2021

Past and Present II

As we progress through our lives, most of us have some regrets.  These may be related to relationships, career choices or other factors that determine the course of our life.

Dwelling on such regrets, we tend to overlook the context in which our decisions were made and, too often, wish that we could somehow change what we did or did not do.  It is easy to assume that our lives would have been more enjoyable or more rewarding if we had taken a different path.

But, of course, changing the past would undo the present and, for most of us, that would be unacceptable.  It is the nature of humans to judge ourselves and we often must learn to be happy; taking credit for what we have achieved and who we have become is the ultimate cure for futile (though unavoidable) regret. 

Sunday, September 5, 2021

The Lunatic Fringe is Widening

American democracy, public health, human rights and the welfare of our planet are all under assault, led by a growing number of Republicans.  Cowed by threats from Trump and his legions, Republican politicians and their media enablers push conspiracy theories, block efforts to address climate change, enact laws that limit voting rights and personal choice, disrupt effective management of the pandemic and stymie the important function of Congress.

Despite an increasing number of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID, vaccination rates remain far too low (especially in Red States) and mask mandates are challenged.  Despite the costly devastation and human misery wrought by wildfires, hurricanes, flooding and severe winter storms, the majority of Republicans still deny climate change and do not support adequate spending on infrastructure to deal with its effects (not to mention the cultural changes required to reverse its progression).

Saddled with this large and growing populace of scientifically-uneducated and conspiracy-minded individuals, effective government is nearly impossible.  When individuals are willing to put the health and future of their children at risk, there is little room for reason or compromise.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Back to Staunton State Park

After a seven-year hiatus, my wife and I returned to one of Colorado's most beautiful State Parks this morning.  Staunton State Park stretches beneath a wall of scenic rock formations along the southeast edge of the Mt. Evans massif; it is accessed via Elk Creek Road from U.S.285.

A fine network of trails lead hikers and mountain bikers through open parklands of ponderosa pine, stands of aspen and dense pockets of Douglas fir.  Views extend to domes of granite that rise along the north edge of the Park and to the high spine of the Platte River Mountains along the southern horizon.  Visitors are almost certain to see mule deer, elk (in winter), Abert's squirrels, golden-mantled ground squirrels and an excellent diversity of Transition Zone birds (Steller's jays, mountain chickadees, gray-headed juncos and pygmy nuthatches were most conspicuous this morning); black bears and mountain lions also inhabit the Park but are seldom encountered.

Due to its beautiful setting, fine trails and proximity to Metro Denver, Staunton State Park can be crowded, especially on fair weather weekends.  I thus recommend a weekday visit and, as always, an early or late day visit will be most productive for wildlife viewing.  A nominal day-use fee is charged (currently $10 per vehicle).

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

A Stroll at Hudson Gardens

On this cloudy, relatively cool afternoon in Littleton, my wife and I took a walk at Hudson Gardens in the South Platte River Valley.  Once a private botanical gardens and long a venue for outdoor concerts and holiday events, the Gardens are now owned and managed by the South Suburban Recreation District; admission is free from sunrise to sunset.


Unlike some botanical gardens, which have an artificial feel, this attractive preserve is a mosaic of plantings, natural vegetation, creeks, ponds and wetlands; of course, educational exhibits are also utilized to promote conservation and habitat protection.  Since we visited in the afternoon, we encountered few birds but did see a bull snake and a muskrat.

Most of all, we enjoyed a pleasant stroll on uncrowded trails, enveloped in soothing, early autumn air.  I'm sure we'll return frequently in the coming months, especially since the Gardens are directly accessible from the riverside Greenway Trail, a path we often hike along.  

Monday, August 30, 2021

Ida Stretches Out

After causing devastation in Louisiana, the remnants of Hurricane Ida will inject copious moisture across the Tennessee River Valley and as far to the northeast as Southern New England.  Augmented by a cold front that is dipping across the region, the heavy rains are expected to produce widespread flooding, especially in areas where the soil is already water-logged.

While hurricanes are best known (and most feared) for their high winds and storm surge, inland flooding is often their most deadly consequence, especially in areas where hilly or mountainous terrain concentrates the run-off.  Ida's tropical moisture may thus prove to be most problematic in the Southern Appalachians.

Of course, our warming climate is, once again, playing a role in this scenario.  The warming seas fuel the tropical storm or hurricane and the warmer air carries more moisture to distant landscapes.  Meanwhile, out west, the forests bake and wildfires rage.