Thursday, May 23, 2019

Along the Apple River

The Apple River of northwest Illinois rises in extreme southwestern Wisconsin.  Flowing southeastward through the Driftless Area (see The Wisconsin Ozarks), it enters Apple River Canyon State Park some 25 miles east of Galena.  There it slices through a ridge of Silurian dolomite and then angles to the southwest, passing Elizabeth, Illinois, and flowing through Hanover before reaching the Mississippi.

On this beautiful spring day in Illinois, we drove to Apple River Canyon State Park, where the river merges with Clear Creek and exposes scenic walls of dolomite.  Five trails lead through the forest, along the river and atop the bluffs; while they surely offer spectacular vistas in winter, the dense foliage of May obscured our view in most areas and our visit was a bit disappointing.

As experienced hikers know, State Parks and Nature Preserves vary widely in the quality of their trail networks and in the access they provide to natural wonders.  Then again, nature can manage just fine without human-friendly facilities and, in fact, her welfare is often threatened by the crowds that they attract.  Her beauty exists whether we witness it or not and if we pick the wrong season to view a canyon, well, that's our problem! 

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

In Driftless Terrain

As I described in The Wisconsin Ozarks, an area of the Upper Midwest was sparred the effects of the last Pleistocene glaciation.  This Plateau of early Precambrian limestones and dolomites (known as the Driftless Area) extends from central Wisconsin into southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and extreme northwestern Illinois. Galena and its environs lie within that geologic zone, where the topography is characterized by knobs, hills and ridges, carved from the plateau by glacial meltwater and numerous post-glacial streams.

This morning, after breakfast in historic downtown Galena, we headed to Horseshoe Mound Preserve, just southeast of town.  From that pinnacle, one enjoys a panorama of northwestern Illinois, extending to southern Wisconsin and across the Mississippi River Valley to Iowa.  Our next stop was a bit farther south, where the Casper Bluff Land and Water Reserve, stretches above the east bank of the Upper Mississippi; covered by restored prairie, oak savanna and riparian woodlands, it also harbors ceremonial mounds from the Late Woodland Period (700-1000 AD), including a thunderbird effigy mound.

Our third hike of the morning was at Galena's Gateway Park, still under development; some of the trails through this hilly, abandoned farmland were not well-maintained and the walk seemed much longer than it actually was. On the other hand, it was a great area for birding and rose-breasted grosbeaks were especially common.  Following that rather strenuous trek we rewarded ourselves with a visit to a winery northeast of Galena; there we indulged in one of its products on a shaded veranda, enjoying a pleasant view of the driftless terrain.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

May Foliage & March Weather

On our journey to Galena, Illinois, the landscapes were verdant (as one might expect in mid May) but it felt more like March.  Cool air, a low gray overcast and a strong east wind persisted all the way from central Missouri to northwest Illinois.

As we had learned prior to the trip, flooding was extensive along the Mississippi, also backing up and flooding the feeder creeks and rivers that we crossed in northeast Missouri and eastern Iowa.  Forced from the flooded woodlands, flocks of wild turkeys scoured the soggy fields and raccoons ambled along the country roads.  Turkey vultures were often abundant in the gray skies, joined at times by American white pelicans as we snaked up the Mississippi Valley.

Before heading into Galena, we visited Mississippi Palisades State Park, which stretches atop cliffs that line the east edge of the valley.  There, a series of overlooks offer spectacular views of the Great River and its wooded islands, all part of the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge.  After a front moves through later this evening (the same system that brought severe thunderstorms and tornados to Oklahoma and Missouri) our weather is forecast to be more spring-like tomorrow.

Monday, May 20, 2019

North to Galena

Tomorrow, my wife and I will head to Galena, a historic town in the Mississippi River Valley of Northwest Illinois.  Known for its preserved architecture, prehistoric mounds and wineries, this town is also close to a number of parks, nature preserves and, of course, the great river itself.

While our exact route is still under consideration, we plan to drive northeastward across the Glaciated Plain of northern Missouri and Iowa before crossing the Mississippi at Davenport.  We will then snake northward along and near the east bank of the river all the way to Galena.  Barring unexpected problems or detours, it should be a five hour journey from Columbia.

Hopefully, our mid week road trip, occurring during the peak of spring, will lead through beautiful natural landscapes and expose us to an excellent diversity of wildlife (while avoiding the human crowds of weekends and summer).  The validity of those expectations will be clarified in coming posts.

Friday, May 17, 2019

The Murder of a Tree

Our Columbia, Missouri, home is in an older neighborhood near the University, where large shade trees line the streets.  Mostly oaks and sweet gums, the stately giants are surely at least 75-100 years old.  A few have succumbed to disease or storm damage, but most are healthy and full, offering beauty, shade and both food and sanctuary for wildlife.

We were thus dismayed, to say the least, to observe the willful destruction of one of those giants today; I suspect the slow execution will take a few days to complete due to the size of the tree.  It is a sweet gum that appeared to be healthy prior to the assault; perhaps the new owners are not fond of the copious "gum balls" dropped by that species and decided to avoid the annual cleanup that would lie ahead.

Focused on convenience, we humans often design landscapes that suit our own needs, giving little consideration to the ecologic ramifications.  In this case, the owners certainly have the right to remove a healthy old tree from their property but, for many of us who watched the execution, it was a gut-wrenching affront to nature, a murderous sacrilege in the name of tidiness.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Birding by Ear

The month of May can be frustrating for birders, especially for those with limited experience.  On the one hand, birdsong is reaching its annual peak as summer and permanent residents engage in nesting and territorial behavior and as a parade of migrants are passing through the region.

On the other hand, the shrubs and trees are now fully leafed-out, obscuring the location (and identity) of the numerous songsters; in other words, birds seem to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.  Standing beneath large deciduous trees of the Midwest, one can often identify a variety of tunes but cannot locate their source.  Of course, the solution to this mid-spring conundrum is to learn to identify the various migrant and resident species by their songs and calls, not just by their appearance.

Easier said than done, avid birders come to appreciate the value of this skill and, over the years, become adept at audio-identification; fortunately, digital recordings are now available to assist with that learning process.  As with other human skills, some of us are more talented than others and practice is essential.  Handicapped in this area myself, I have found it helpful to sit on the back deck and just listen for a while; when uncertain, I try to confirm my identification by sight but, amidst the luxuriant foliage of May, that is often difficult! 

Monday, May 13, 2019

Flooding on the Floodplain

Back in Missouri, I made a bee-line down to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area this morning, one of the best birding locations in the Midwest.  Initially greeted by dense fog and cool air, the skies cleared within a half hour and the birding, as usual, was excellent.  On the other hand, flooding along the Missouri River spilled across large portions of this floodplain refuge, having a significant impact on the mix of species.

Swallows dominated the scene, strafing the pools and flooded fields; within that group, cliff swallows were by far the most numerous, joined by their tree, northern rough-winged and barn cousins.  Indigo buntings were also abundant, far outnumbering dickcissels and American goldfinches that shared the shrinking grasslands; a pair of blue grosbeaks and a couple of lark sparrows were the highlights in that habitat.  Woodland sightings included Baltimore and orchard orioles, red-bellied and red-headed woodpeckers, yellow-breasted chats, yellow warblers and a lone male magnolia warbler.  Despite the extensive flooding, waterfowl were limited to Canada geese, blue-winged teal, a have dozen coot, a few northern shovelers and a token number of mallards; conversely, perhaps due to the flooding, raptors were limited to bald eagles and a lone kestrel.

No doubt, I'll be back at Eagle Bluffs several more times before I return to Colorado; whether the flooding persists (or not) will depend on the whims of Mother Nature and, to some degree, the water management decisions of refuge personnel.  Regardless of the water levels, each visit will surely offer unique and unexpected sightings. 

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Flashback Post XIV

On this annual celebration of Moms and all they do for families in particular and for human society in general, I decided to offer links to past Mother's Day posts.  My personal remembrance, thanks and admiration as well.

See: Mom's Mitochondria, Maternal Devotion, Natural Peacemakers and Homage to Mother Nature

Friday, May 10, 2019

Back to Spring

After several days of chilly rain and snow along the Front Range, the sun has reappeared and mild air is sweeping across the urban corridor.  Down at South Platte Park, walkers, birders, bikers and fishermen resumed their usual activity, encouraged by a promising weather forecast.

A new wave of migrants and summer residents were also present at the Park, including gray catbirds, cliff swallows, western kingbirds, western wood pewees, yellow-breasted chats, a western tanager and an olive-sided flycatcher.  In concert, the winter ducks have all but disappeared, represented only by a pair of buffleheads and a lone hooded merganser.

While we often experience brief, winter-like setbacks in spring, the potent May sun, dry air and high elevation ensure a rapid recovery.  Within another day or so, we'll forget all about the snow showers that, just yesterday, tested our patience.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Avoiding Socialism

Republican politicians and Big Business leaders are all atwitter (literally) about the proposals put forth by Democratic Presidential Candidates regarding medical care, education and wage fairness, labeling those Liberals "Socialists" who are out to ruin American Democracy (unlike our current President).

Perhaps they should stop to analyze where the real threat to Capitalism lies: with the massive and immoral income disparity in American society.  If Republicans and Business leaders want to head off socialism they must address this issue.  Unfortunately, any discussions related to minimum wage and benefits such as quality health care and free child care are immediately met with the objection that profit margins will be reduced.  But if the obscene salaries and perks of the CEOs and other executives are cut back to balance those costs, profits will be unaffected.

Almost everyone would agree that American Capitalism is superior to the Socialism of Cuba and the Communism of Russia.  But it is far from perfect and, unless we get serious about addressing the needless disparities in American Society, we will face our own Revolution.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Year of the Chipping Sparrow

Chipping sparrows are small, attractive songbirds that breed across the U.S. and Canada, wherever open woodlands are found.  Displaced from urban centers by house sparrows, they are still common in parks, suburbs and undisturbed habitat.

Here along the Front Range urban corridor, chipping sparrows are primarily migrants and most head into the foothills to nest; there they prefer open "ponderosa parklands" between 7000 and 8000 feet in elevation.  Each spring, a few small flocks of these travelers turn up on are Littleton farm, stopping to rest and feed for a day or two; this week, large flocks (more than sixty individuals yesterday) have appeared and are hanging around to join the house finches and white-crowned sparrows that scour our weedy lawns.

I suspect their abundance on the Piedmont is a result of the rainy weather that has enveloped the Front Range for the past several days; having just arrived from Mexico, they may be waiting for less stormy conditions before heading into the mountains.  From my perspective, both the rain and the chipping sparrows have been more than welcome.

See also: The Hair Bird

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

A Lone Lazuli Bunting

Thunderstorms raked the Front Range this afternoon and, between two of those storms, I went out to explore our farm.  Greeted by our usual avian residents and a large flock of migrant chipping sparrows, I was about to head indoors when I spotted a bird atop one of our hackberry trees; it was a male lazuli bunting, just back from Mexico.

Unmistakable with his sky blue head and back, conical bill, white wing bars and cinnamon chest, the visitor was surveying our weedy lawns and shrub lines, perfect summer habitat for lazuli buntings.  In reality, these open-country birds are best found across scrub habitat of the lower foothills or on broken grasslands of the adjacent Piedmont.  While solitary birds may be encountered during migration, they are more often observed in flocks during the summer months, scouring the ground for seeds and insects.

Breeding throughout the Intermountain West, from the Colorado Front Range to California, lazuli buntings also inhabit the Great Plains where their range overlaps with that of indigo buntings; while the two species have been known to interbreed, both tend to be highly territorial when nesting.  By mid-late summer, lazuli buntings begin to drift southward toward their winter homes in Mexico.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Wilson's Warbler

On this cloudy, mild evening along the Colorado Front Range, I noticed a small bird flitting about a grove of small trees in the "wild corner" of. our Littleton farm.  Initially assuming it was a house wren, I zeroed in with my binoculars to discover that it was a male Wilson's warbler, easily identified by his black cap, contrasting with bright yellow plumage.

Having wintered in the Tropics, Wilson's warblers nest across Alaska and Canada and southward through the mountain ranges of the West.  Fairly common migrants along the Front Range urban corridor, they head to higher elevations (generally above 10,000 feet) to nest along the shores of alpine lakes or in willow thickets along mountain streams; indeed, they are one of the more common songbirds found near timberline.

Like many humans, these small insectivores apparently like seasonal change, escaping the hot, humid environment of their "winter" to summer and breed in chilly landscapes of the far north or higher mountains.  One must admire their audacity!

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Golden Currant

Golden currant is a small, drought tolerant shrub native to western North America; it has also become naturalized across most of the U.S., excluding the Southeastern States.  Its loosely-branching, woody stems bear lobular, maple-like leaves; in early-mid spring (depending on elevation and latitude), clusters of fragrant, tubular yellow flowers appear, attracting hummingbirds, orioles and a variety of pollinating insects (including monarch butterflies).

On our Littleton farm, we have several patches of golden current; favoring partial shade, they mingle with chokecherry, lilacs and other shrubs in our woodland borders.  Blooming over the past week, the flowers will yield small blue-black berries by early-mid summer, consumed by a host of songbirds and small mammals; humans also enjoy currant berries, using them to make jams and jellies.

Like most plants on our farm, these natives require no irrigation or maintenance.  Better yet, they more than compensate for the space they occupy, offering beauty and attracting many wild visitors.  Over time, those visitors will return the favor, spreading the plant's seeds to other areas of the property.