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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Prairie Poppy Mallow

For the first time since we bought our Columbia, Missouri home, 24 years ago, clumps of greenery with showy, up-facing flower cups have appeared in the herb garden.  After a bit of research, we have determined that they are prairie poppy mallow, a member of the hibiscus family native to the Midwest and South-Central States.


Most often found in dry, well-drained soil typical of glades, roadsides and disturbed areas, these flowers are often planted in rock gardens; a deep tab root explains their drought tolerance.  Since. poppy mallows spread by seed, they must have reached our garden with the assistance of birds.

Once again, nature has surprised us with her diversity and adaptability.  Try as we might to pave over, till up or pollute her landscapes, she manages to thrive. 

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Surrounded but Unscathed

As the atmospheric ridge begins to retreat from Colorado, thunderstorms blossomed along the Front Range late yesterday afternoon.  Here in Littleton, we were spared the destructive effect of the storms (high winds, hail, torrential rain) but missed out on the vital moisture as well.

Indeed, while tornados spun across northeast Colorado and flash floods ravaged the San Luis Valley, far to our southwest, we endured only cloudy skies and cooler temperatures, a pleasant break from the intense sunshine and extreme heat.  Acknowledging our serenity in the midst of the storms, almost all air traffic departing DIA flew over our area, continuing westward until able to skirt the turbulent weather.

More storms are expected this afternoon and we hope to receive some rain this time around.  Late day thunderstorms, which build along the Continental Divide and drift eastward, are common here during the summer months but their beneficial rains and destructive wrath are not evenly spaced along the Front Range urban corridor.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Luna Moth

On this hot day along the Colorado Front Range, I elected to spend the afternoon indoors, watching the U.S. Open from Torrey Pines.  Though the camera shots provided beautiful geographic scenery along the Southern California Coast, I had no intention of writing a blog post.  Then, my wife sent a photo (below) from our home in Columbia, Missouri.

It is a luna moth, resting on the wall of our house.  A member of the giant silk moth family, these eye-catching insects inhabit the eastern half of North America, from Southern Canada to the Gulf Coast.  Those that live in more northern latitudes produce one new generation each year while luna moths in the Southern U.S. may cycle through three generations.  Females lay eggs on the underside of leaves; hatching within 10 days, the larvae go through five molts before pupating.  The pupal stage lasts about three weeks (or throughout the fall and winter in the North Country) and the adults live but a week, focused solely on mating and egg-laying.

It has been proposed that the long "tails," extending from their secondary wings, confuse bats (their primary predators) by interfering with echolocation.  Whatever the reason, adult luna moths are one of our more attractive and distinctive insects.  Now, back to the golf match! 

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Climate Change Epitomized

As severe heat and drought plague the Western U.S., the latest tropical system is forming in the Gulf of Mexico, headed for the soggy landscape of the Southeastern States.  These parallel extremes illustrate the impact that global warming is beginning to bring.

While the long-term effects of climate change are difficult to determine with certainty, most climatologists anticipate that typically dry areas will get drier and repeated flooding will threaten normally wet areas.  Warming sea water and rising air temperature will, of course, be the primary culprits, altering ocean currents and fueling extreme weather events (during all seasons).

Though we must focus our efforts on reducing carbon emissions and increasing carbon capture, it is also imperative to discourage further "development" in areas prone to the effects of drought, wildfires, flooding and rising sea levels.  Otherwise, we face the prospect of social upheaval and economic disaster.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Excessive Heat in the West

Excessive heat is plaguing most of the Western U.S., severely exacerbating the severe drought across the region.  While afternoon temperatures approaching or exceeding 110 degrees F are not unusual in the Desert Southwest, that area is expecting highs near 120 degrees.  Furthermore, afternoon highs as far north as Montana will approach or exceed 100 degrees in the coming days.

Here along the Colorado Front Range, we are expected to reach 100 degrees the next few days, under intense sunshine; fortunately, our elevation, combined with the dry air, will enhance radiative cooling at night, providing some relief as the temperature falls into the mid sixties.  Furthermore, the Continental Divide is a focus for thunderstorm development, offering spotty and transient relief for some towns and cities as the storms drift eastward.

A persistent atmospheric ridge is responsible for the excessive heat, diverting cold fronts and Pacific moisture into Canada.  By next weekend, that ridge is expected to break down, withdrawing toward the Desert Southwest; then, those of us in the northern and eastern regions of the American West can expect more seasonable conditions.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Big Bluestem

The two pastures on our Littleton, Colorado, farm host a variety of grasses, both native and invasive.  One of the dominant species is big bluestem, a tall, warm season bunchgrass that is native to prairie ecosystems from the Front Range to the Atlantic Coast.

Reaching 4 to 8 feet in height (depending on available moisture and soil conditions), big bluestem is a hardy, drought tolerant grass that once fed massive herds of bison.  Today, it is favored as forage for livestock but is also known to attract a wide variety of grassland birds, mammals and butterflies.  Its deep root system, which recycles annually, stabilizes and adds organic matter to the soil (augmenting carbon capture); of course, it is also responsible for the plant's drought tolerance and, since we do not irrigate our pastures, explains its dominance here.

Due to the branching configuration of its seed heads, big bluestem is also known as turkey foot.  Whatever one chooses to call it, this grass is a beautiful and beneficial component of any grassland ecosystem, however small that landscape might be.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

A Biannual Windfall

It is early June and the biannual windfall of elf-leaf beetle larvae has attracted a mixed flock of birds to our Littleton farm driveway.  The tiny, translucent slugs, which I first noticed two years ago, have hatched from eggs that were laid in the canopy of our large Siberian elms.  

While most of the larvae drop safely to the grass or other low vegetation, thousands land on the asphalt driveway where a host of insectivores and omnivores feast on the unfortunate victims.  American robins are the most abundant hunters, filling their beaks with the wriggling slugs before flying back to their nest; the robins are joined by black-billed magpies, spotted towhees, house wrens and an occasional blue jay.  No doubt, chickadees, nuthatches, bushtits and other aerialists consume the larvae before they drop from the leaves.

Elm-leaf beetles produce two broods each year, one in late spring and a second in late summer.  Though countless other invertebrates are available for our resident birds and small mammals to consume, this biannual windfall, served up on the barren driveway, is certainly a convenient and welcome offering. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Exceptional Greenery

Returning to our Littleton, Colorado, farm, I found that the plant life is exceptionally luxuriant.  While June is often the greenest month along the Front Range, I do not recall such a verdant landscape during the thirty years that we have owned the property.

Of course, the cool, wet spring, followed by warm, sunny weather over the past week or so, explain the transformation during my absence.  While the explosive growth comes with a shabbiness that some may deplore, I and our resident wildlife find that the jungle-like conditions (I exaggerate) are rather inviting.  Indeed, that such a change could occur without a drop of artificial irrigation is especially rewarding.

Though most of the Western U.S. remains in the grip of a severe drought, the Front Range urban corridor has received a steady supply of snow and rain throughout the spring.  On the other hand, hot, dry weather is forecast for the coming week and a change in the prevailing weather pattern may hasten our return to reality: the perils of living in an over-crowded, semi-arid landscape where water shortages may soon unleash an ecologic and social disaster. 

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Back in the Air

For the first time since the pandemic began, I boarded a flight yesterday.  Headed for Denver from Columbia, I was required to change planes in Dallas, Texas, where, unfortunately, a cluster of persistent thunderstorms closed the airport for almost three hours.

Finally able to depart, we headed northwest to Denver.  In the wake of the storms, clear skies prevailed and I was treated to sweeping views of the Southern Plains and Western High Plains.  Across Northern Texas and the Panhandle of Oklahoma, a series of rivers cut through the dry landscape, all flowing southeastward toward the Gulf of Mexico.  At the Tristate of New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado, outcrops of volcanic basalt adorned the surface of the Raton Mesa; beyond this broad ridge the terrain dropped into the Arkansas River Valley of Southeastern Colorado where a mosaic of crop fields bordered the stream.  Farther north, as the Front Range Peaks came into view, we flew above the pine-studded Palmer Divide and descended into DIA.

After more than a year on the ground, it was a pleasure to view our planet from a plane once again.  While the varied ecosystems and their residents may lie far below, too distant to fully appreciate, their interconnection is especially evident from 30,000 feet. 

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Cicada Golf

As I have mentioned in past posts, I enjoy watching professional golf on TV, partly due to the interesting geography associated with many of the PGA venues.  This weekend's Memorial Tournament, in Dublin, Ohio, is interesting for another reason: the ongoing emergence of the Brood X periodical cicadas.

Among the many 17-year periodical broods, Brood X has emerged in the Mid-Atlantic States, across Western Ohio and most of Indiana and throughout Eastern Tennessee.  The noisy, active adults are solely focused on mating and will not feed during their brief tenure above ground.  Females will lay their eggs on the tender twigs of trees and shrubs before dying; once they hatch, the larvae fall to the ground and enter the soil where they will ingest nutrients from a tree root for the next 17 years.

Those of us who do not live in Brood X territory can get a feel for the event by watching this weekend's golf match.  A background din, provided by the males, waxes and wanes throughout the broadcast while cicadas zoom across the camera shots and swarm about the players and gallery.  Of course, many of us can also look forward to the annual, "dog-day" cicadas that begin to emerge in a few weeks. 

Friday, June 4, 2021

Summer Mode at Bradford Farm

Bradford Farm, east of Columbia, is a University of Missouri Agricultural Research Center.  A popular birdwatching area, it is best known for migrant waterfowl, grassland sparrows, raptors and a host of open country species, most of which are best observed during the colder months of the year.

By June, the farm settles into its summer mode when birding is not especially interesting.  This morning, European starlings and red-winged blackbirds dominated the scene, joined by mourning doves, turkey vultures and a few eastern kingbirds.  Single sightings included a great blue heron, a killdeer and an American kestrel; a lone water snake also rippled the surface of one of the ponds.

Nevertheless, Bradford farm always provides a bit of solitude (except for scattered farming activity), fresh air and broad vistas.  On the other hand, I doubt I'll return before September. 

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Summer spreads into Missouri

After a long, chilly, wet spring, summer weather is moving into Missouri from the West.  Though I am not a fan of the season, it is good to know that nature's cycle remains intact.

Down at Eagle Bluffs this morning, the floodplain was drying and the distinctive tunes of summer songbirds rang across the refuge; those of dickcissels, common yellowthroats, indigo buntings and yellow-breasted chats were most evident.  Scattered flocks of great blue herons and great egrets foraged in the shallows while a trio of beavers played in one of the canals.

Back home, it was time to clear vines and weeds from one of our fence lines, an effort to stay ahead of the explosive growth that heat and humidity will fuel.  As one might suspect, once that job was completed, I already missed the cool air of spring.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Fueling the Compost Bin

After six months of surviving on dry vegetation and occasional scraps from our kitchen, the residents of our compost bin received a nutritious banquet this morning.  Granted one of the few warm, sunny days of this chilly spring, my wife and I spent a couple of hours trimming and weeding, donating the greenery to the bacteria, fungi and invertebrates that inhabit the dark confines of the bin.

Fortunately, for them, relatively hot, humid weather is expected later this week, finally producing the conditions in which they thrive.  Then again, the bin is no Garden of Eden; a host of predators, from centipedes to moles and shrews, patrol the mini ecosystem.

From our point of view, it was rewarding work.  The flower beds look better, we benefited from the exercise and we took advantage of a free recycling service, one that churns out rich compost for the garden.  

Friday, May 28, 2021

Detour to Southern Illinois

On our way back to Missouri, my wife and I decided to make a detour to a couple of interesting parks in Southern Illinois.  Leaving Interstate 24 in northwestern Kentucky, we crossed the Ohio River via the Cave in Rock ferry.  The small town of Cave in Rock, Illinois, is the home of Cave in Rock State Park, which sits above bluffs on the north shore of the river.  Named for a large, natural cave in the bluffs, the Park commands fabulous views of the Ohio River Valley.

Following lunch at the Park, we drove to the Garden of the Gods National Recreation Area in the hills of Shawnee National Forest.  There, a short loop trail leads visitors past spectacular formations of Pennsylvanian sandstone and mudstone; deposited in a sea some 320 million years ago, these sediments were later uplifted and sculpted by streams.  From the pinnacles themselves, one enjoys a sweeping view of the forested hills of the Garden of the Gods Wilderness.


Our last minute detour, partly prompted by threatening weather, will surely be the highlight of our three day journey.  Now back in the chilly, damp weather of this year's Midwestern spring, we will return to Missouri tomorrow. 

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Gators of the Alachua Sink

On the southeast edge of Gainesville, Florida, at the south end of 15th St. SE, the La Chua trail leads into the Alachua Sink within the Paynesville Prairie Basin (see the earlier post this month).  From the parking lot, a paved trail soon becomes a fine boardwalk, which zigzags above vegetated shallows of the Sink.


We arrived by mid morning, hoping to observe a few alligators during our brief visit; as it turned out, we saw at least twenty, basking on the banks or gliding across the open pools.  Attentive to those fickle reptiles, a host of herons and egrets lined the shores, attempting to snare fish without becoming victims themselves.  To our delight, a pair of limpkins also graced the scene.

In the interest of time and due to the building heat, we did not continue along the trail which becomes an earthen path that leads out to drier areas of the prairie.  Also intolerant of the rising temperature, the alligators slipped into the shallows as we retraced our route to the parking lot.