Friday, January 24, 2020

A Dearth of Doves

As one who regularly submits bird counts from our Littleton, Colorado, farm to eBird, I have noticed a significant scarcity of doves over the past year, especially this winter.  Since it has been a relatively mild winter along the Colorado Front Range, inclement weather is certainly not the explanation.

Since buying the property in 1990, we have almost always had a few pair of mourning doves in the vicinity, joined by Eurasian collared doves in the 2000s.  Regularly calling from the tree lines, sitting on the fences or foraging beneath the feeders, they were among the more common avian residents on the farm.  Over the past year, however, the number of both species has fallen dramatically.

The cause for this dearth of doves is uncertain.  Perhaps it reflects predation by Cooper's hawks which are regular visitors; or maybe their numbers are falling in concert with other grassland species, as noted in national surveys.  Regardless of the cause, I hope it's a temporary phenomenon; those mellow birds are always welcome here.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Winter Shorebirds

For those of us who live throughout the Interior of the United States, shorebirds are primarily migrants, breeding across Alaska and Canada and wintering along southern coasts.  Of course, there are exceptions; spotted sandpipers summer and breed across most of the country and a fair number of species (upland sandpipers, mountain plovers, snowy and piping plovers, long-billed curlews, willets, Wilson's phalaropes, black-necked stilts and American avocets) summer on the Northern Plains and/or Intermountain West.  Only three species are regular winter residents across the Interior.

Killdeer, large, noisy plovers are often observed on fields, along lakeshores and on the banks and sandbars of larger streams and rivers during the winter months, especially throughout the southern half of the country.  Wilson's snipe, a stocky, long-billed "shorebird," favors wetlands and riverine mudflats, where it probes the damp soil for invertebrates; it, too, is primarily a winter resident across southern and central latitudes of the U.S. but is a permanent resident in the Northwest.  Finally, American woodcocks are secretive residents of the eastern U.S. (summer residents in the north and permanent residents in the south); active at dawn and dusk, they prefer moist woodlands with nearby clearings.

This morning, at South Platte Park, I was fortunate to observe two of these winter shorebirds (killdeer and a lone Wilson's snipe), foraging on mudflats along the river and the valley pools.  Of note, a spotted sandpiper, usually on southern shores by now, has been observed along the South Platte River in recent weeks.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Violence in Lawrence

The brawl at the end of the Kansas-Kansas State basketball game last evening was unfortunate but not terribly surprising.  After all, a small but significant percentage of college athletes (especially in football and basketball) should not be in college to begin with.

Recruited to bring fame and money to the University, these very talented but ill-equipped players are stressed by the demands of academics, long practice hours, travel, rabid fans, sports pundits and national television audiences, all the while living on the edge financially.  At times, as occurred last evening, they act out, resorting to the "street behavior" that characterized their pre-college lives.

While the violence of last evening cannot be condoned, a host of broadcasters and studio analysts declared that such behavior "has no place in college athletics."  Perhaps we should admit that certain talented athletes have no place in college and acknowledge that the others should be paid for risking injury and bringing in millions of dollars to their coaches and University.  Farm systems, long part of Major League Baseball, would seem to offer a better opportunity for many college-aged athletes.

Monday, January 20, 2020

A January Ridge

An atmospheric ridge of high pressure, currently centered over the Four-Corners region, extends northward into southern Wyoming, shunting polar air to the east and producing mild conditions here along the Colorado Front Range.  Afternoon highs are expected to remain in the 50s F for the remainder of the week, contrasting with severe cold across the eastern half of the U.S. that will bring near-freezing temperatures to the Gulf Coast and much of Florida.

Of course, this protective ridge will also shut off Pacific moisture for the time being and the mountain snowpack, while decent this year, will not be augmented until the ridge breaks down.  An undulating jet stream, responsible for these weather extremes from West to East, is expected to flatten out by next weekend, producing more seasonable conditions across the country.

Until then, we'll enjoy the January ridge in Colorado, knowing (or hoping) that spring snowstorms will likely bring vital moisture to this semi-arid ecosystem.  The fact that we will be warmer than Tampa in a few days should be no cause for celebration.

Friday, January 17, 2020

The Big Supernova?

Contrary to the six days of the Genesis story, current scientific evidence indicates that our Universe is 13.7 billion years old, having come into existence with the Big Bang.  By 12 billion years ago, the galaxies (more than 100,000 of them) were forming across the outer edge of an expanding sphere, each composed of billions of stars with their planets, comets and asteroids.  Within these galaxies, dying stars eventually exploded as supernovas, their gas and debris giving birth to younger solar systems surrounding a remnant black hole.

Our sun, a middle-aged star, ignited 5 billion years ago on an outer arm of the Milky Way Galaxy; it and its planets, comets and asteroids are all remnants of a supernova explosion.  Indeed, all of the basic chemicals in the atmosphere, oceans, rocks and life forms of Earth (including we humans) were formed during that stellar explosion.

As awe-inspiring and humbling as these facts may be, religious individuals often point out that we have no scientific explanation for what preceded and caused the Big Bang.  But what if that event, itself, was a massive supernova explosion within a much larger Universe?  In other words, maybe our Universe has a parent Universe; maybe it has a grandparent Universe!  Just some food for thought.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Winter Birds on the Farm

Most of the birds observed on our Littleton farm during the winter months are permanent residents but we do welcome some regular winter visitors and residents.  Among these are dark-eyed juncos (slate-gray, Oregon and gray-headed subspecies), common ravens, pine siskins, brown creepers, white-crowned sparrows, American tree sparrows and a lone Townsend's solitaire.

Less common winter visitors include mountain chickadees, Steller's jays, red crossbills, Cassin's finches, golden-crowned kinglets and the occasional northern goshawk.  Since purchasing the property in 1990, I have observed one flock of Bohemian waxwings on the farm and I am still hoping to encounter evening and pine grosbeaks, pygmy nuthatches, Harris' sparrows, northern shrikes and other rare visitors here.

Of course, it is this latter group of wanderers that coax me outside on cold winter days to scan the trees and shrub lines.  Hoping to find the unexpected is the motivation for all birders!

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Kudos to BlackRock

BlackRock, the largest asset management company on the planet, has announced a shift toward investing in companies that are making significant strides toward lowering their carbon footprint and promoting sustainability.  Focusing both on how climate change will affect companies and how they are addressing that risk, BlackRock (like many companies and investment firms) is countering the negative effects of Trump Administration policies, including its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.

While BlackRock has been criticized in the past for retaining fossil fuel companies in its portfolios, this decision may have dramatic effects on its competitors and on companies that hope to benefit from BlackRock's investment clout.  My personal kudos to CEO Laurence Fink for directing this change in a very public manner.

Until President Trump is removed from office (via Impeachment or the 2020 Election), we must rely on industry, local governments, investors and consumers to take up the fight against climate change.  BlackRock's decision may prove to be a significant turning point in that global effort.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Love in the Moonlight

As the bright Wolf Moon spread shadows across our farm and frigid air settled along the Colorado Front Range, a pair of great horned owls arrived to serenade one another.  After all, this is their mating season and they are oblivious of the winter chill.

Having settled in large trees just outside of our bedroom window last night, they hooted for twenty minutes before flying off; even then, I could hear their deep calls in the distance.  The most widespread owl in North America, great horned owls have adapted to all natural habitats except Arctic tundra, feasting primarily on small mammals (mice, rabbits, skunk, opossums) but also large birds and snakes.  They generally select the abandoned nest of a hawk, crow or magpie into which up to five eggs are laid (2-3 is typical).

These aggressive hunters may be primarily responsible for the cottontail crash on our Littleton farm but they are welcome anytime, especially on cold winter nights.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Good News: No Hell!

Today, in The New York Times, Dr. David Bentley Hart explains why many (if not most) Christians believe in hell, citing Biblical and anecdotal accounts that counter that narrative.  Of course, as a religious philosopher, he does not address why most humans are believers to begin with.

While the idea of eternal torment is indeed ludicrous, it is not much of a leap from other religious beliefs; mysticism is mysticism no matter how you try to justify its accuracy.  It is the product of the human brain, instilled in the pre-science era and handed down (via fear and guilt infused teachings) through the generations.  Indeed, religious zealotry has triggered conflict, intolerance and discrimination throughout human history, ensuring that many experience their hell before death; no need for one in the afterlife.

Sadly, many humans spend their entire life focused on the heavenly rewards they anticipate after death.  We would all be better off if we accepted the fact that the heaven we seek and the hell we hope to avoid are right here on Earth.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

A Flycatcher in Winter

On my walk along the South Platte this morning, I encountered a good variety of wintering waterfowl on the river and the usual mix of winter songbirds and raptors in the riverside woodlands.  Only one bird was unexpected: a Say's phoebe.

This flycatcher is common on semiarid grasslands across the Western U.S. during the warmer months, feeding on a wide variety of insects; come fall, most head to the Desert Southwest or into Mexico.  While eBird continues to list Say's phoebe as a rare winter species along the Colorado Front Range, it has become a regular though uncommon winter resident in Metro Denver in recent years.  During this season, they are usually observed near out-buildings, barns or open water where they presumably survive by eating berries, larvae and insect eggs; perhaps they consume seeds as well.

Say's phoebe is yet another species that may be expanding its winter range as our climate warms.  This morning's encounter, set amidst residual snowbanks, was both rewarding and inspiring.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Puerto Rico's Earthquakes

The residents of Puerto Rico have endured a series of earthquakes over the past two weeks, all centered along the island's southwest coast; to date, the strongest was magnitude 6.4.  A brief review of the regional geology and natural history explains why hurricanes are not the only natural threat to this Caribbean island.

Having initially formed as a volcanic island arc off the northwest coast of South America, Puerto Rico and the adjacent Caribbean Plate were forced between the North American and South American Plates as the Atlantic Ocean opened; this process began about 160 million years ago and continues today.  Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands lie on a microplate, bordered by deep-sea canyons, troughs and subduction zones, where pressure builds between it and the Caribbean and North American Plates and is repeatedly released in the form of earthquakes.  Indeed, along the northern edge of Puerto Rico, the North American Plate is both scraping past and subducting beneath (via the Puerto Rico Trench) the Puerto Rico-Virgin Islands microplate.

While minor quakes are nearly continuous in this region, most are too weak to cause damage or be noticed by residents.  However, more significant earthquakes are far from uncommon and may be associated with a prolonged series of aftershocks (as has occurred this month).

See also:  Earthquakes & Tectonic Plates and The Nature of Aftershocks

Friday, January 3, 2020

Impulsive Foreign Policy

Yesterday's assassination of Iran's top General was described by Trump and his Administration as a "decisive act" to ward off an "imminent threat," the details of which have not yet been revealed.  But it seems to be another impulsive act in Trumpian foreign policy that places our country, our troops and our allies in danger.

While many of us agreed with Trump's attempt at diplomacy with North Korea and with his commitment to end our military presence in the Middle East, his policies have been riddled with insults and inconsistencies and have not been conducted in coordination with our allies.  Yanking troops from Syria placed the Kurds at risk and yesterday's drone strike, which turned a terrorist into a martyr, invites more terrorism from a country that had once signed a nuclear arms agreement with the free world (slashed, of course, by Trump).

If we truly want peace on this planet, it will only come through diplomacy.  War begets war and economic sanctions are far more effective in the long run.  Fueled by his own narcissism, Trump claims to know what is best for our country; no need to consult Congress or military experts.  His impulsive foreign policy is just another reason to remove Trump from office.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Life through the Decades

We humans, unlikely to live a century or more, tend to measure recent history by the decade, often identifying each by its social characteristics: the placid Fifties, the turbulent Sixties, etc.  Those of us born at the beginning of a decade are perhaps most inclined to make these associations.

Of course, the historical decades are of no natural significance, having been established by religious and political decree.  Nevertheless, we tend to measure human life by the decade, often defining youth, middle age and old age by using that unit of time and referring to one's age as "mid thirties, late eighties, etc."

So now we begin another decade of human history; some of us are in the early decades of our life while others are nearing the end.  Entering the 2020s and facing political threats to our environment, to human rights and to American democracy itself, one wonders how the next ten years will unfold.  The first clue will be unveiled next November.

Friday, December 27, 2019

A Winter Egret

Great egrets are fairly common in Missouri during the warmer months.  Most of these birds, the largest egret in North America, do not breed in our region but wander up the Mississippi and Missouri Valleys in late summer.  Since they feed primarily on small fish and aquatic invertebrates, they generally head south before ponds, lakes, wetlands and streams freeze over.

I was thus surprised to encounter a lone great egret at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area this morning; flying across the entry road, the bird appeared to be in good health.  Following several mild December days, with highs in the 60s (F), the weather was more winter-like this morning and the sighting of an egret was certainly unexpected.  Indeed, other sightings were rather limited, including hundreds of mallards, a lone canvasback, six great blue herons, three red-tailed hawks and the usual mix of winter songbirds.

The winter egret symbolized the reason why birding is a popular hobby; we never know what species we may encounter, regardless of the season or weather conditions.  Bored by a host of common residents, we may suddenly come across a rare visitor, making our field trip especially memorable.