Wednesday, June 21, 2017

East of Cindy

This evening, Tropical Storm Cindy is churning in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico, southeast of Houston.  Its counterclockwise winds are raking the Gulf and pushing a plume of tropical moisture into the Southeastern U.S.; so far, the major track of this plume has been across southern Mississippi and Alabama and the western Florida Panhandle, producing torrential rain and widespread flooding in those areas.  Unfortunately, the potent but slow moving storm is expected to pump a great deal more moisture into the Southeast before it dissipates and an approaching cold front will draw much of that precipitation into the Southern Appalachians.

Here on Longboat Key, we have been relatively untouched by the tropical storm though rough surf and strong riptides are affecting most of the Florida Gulf Coast, especially from Sarasota to the Panhandle.  We have experienced steady south winds, rising temperatures and intermittent thunderstorms over the last two days as the outermost bands of Cindy pass offshore.

Another tropical system is brewing in the Eastern Caribbean but its fate and path remain uncertain at this time.  We'll likely be back in the Heartland before other storms threaten this region but hurricane season has just begun and will persist into early November.  Perhaps we'll meet up with one of nature's heat-machines later in the year (see Tropical Storm Dynamics).

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Mystery on the Beach

Arriving on Longboat Key late last week, we were surprised and alarmed to find mounds of white filaments on the beach.  Initially concerned that they might be plastic debris, I examined one of the strands and found that it was easily pulled apart, more likely vegetative than man-made.

Having never encountered this material in fourteen years of wandering Longboat's beaches, I contacted the Mote Aquarium.  They explained that these white, straw-like filaments wash up on the beaches every few years and are thought to be bleached "manatee grass;" since root material is not attached, marine scientists believe that a large amount of the grass is broken off by a storm and, under the right current pattern, is kept floating at sea and bleached by the sun before washing ashore.  A similar event occurred on beaches from Captiva to Naples in 2009, prompting investigation and leading to the above theory.

In fact, the specific cause for the irregular appearance of bleached sea grass on barrier islands remains a mystery.  I was just happy to learn that it is a natural event and not just another sign of human impact on marine ecosystems.  My thanks to personnel at Mote Aquarium for helping to clarify this issue.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Tern Attack on Whitney Beach

This morning, my wife and I took a walk on Whitney Beach, which stretches along the northwest edge of Longboat Key.  Renowned for its wide, flat surface, plentiful shells and large congregations of sea birds, the beach is also a nesting site for least terns, black skimmers and snowy plovers.  In order to protect the nesting areas, ropes and signs are used to keep beachcombers away from these colonies, minimizing human disturbance.

Today, the beach was relatively quiet toward its northern end, populated by small flocks of royal and Sandwich terns, ubiquitous laughing gulls, a couple snowy egrets and a few shorebirds (willets, sanderlings and ruddy turnstones); the initial highlight was a large flock of magnificent frigatebirds that soared above the coast.  Farther south, however, were this year's nesting sites; there, a large number of black skimmers and least terns occupied the beach, the latter already attending to chicks that waddled across the sand.

Clearly in protective mode, adult least terns took aim at my floppy sun hat, swooping in to encourage my departure.  They may be the smallest terns in North America but they certainly can be aggressive; after all, successful nesting on open beaches and sandy river islands (favored by least terns) necessitates bold and attentive parents.  I kept my distance and the tern attack soon abated.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Downside of Photography

Anyone who follows this blog knows that I have amassed a large number of landscape photos over the years.  Ill equipped and too impatient to attempt wildlife photography, I settle for images that illustrate the ecosystems that I explore.

Nevertheless, I remain ambivalent about their value and have become convinced that nature photography can detract from the experience of exploring wild areas and enjoying the resident wildlife.  Just yesterday, I watched as a couple in our condo complex became obsessed with taking video and photos of a dolphin that had wandered into this portion of Sarasota Bay.  Trying their best to capture the dolphin when it surfaced, they were running up and down the seawall, disappearing into their condo at times to change batteries or memory cards.  Meanwhile, the visiting cetacean made lazy figure-eights, slicing through the calm water as he chased his prey, no doubt aware of the frenzied humans on the wall.

These days, most of us have a smart-phone camera in our pocket or backpack at all times and are tempted to photograph any scene or event that captures our attention.  Wandering through a nature preserve, our ability to immerse ourselves in its sights, sounds and smells is constantly challenged by the impulse to document the visit.  Though the photos may entice others to explore our parks or refuges, the act of collecting those images can detract from our own experience.  Memories of natural ecosystems should arise from the emotions that they illicit, not from the photos that we take home.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Loggerhead Sea Turtles

Sea turtle nests currently dot the beaches of Longboat Key, marked by stakes and colorful tape to prevent disruption.  Nesting season stretches from May through October and the great majority of nests on the Florida Gulf Coast are those of loggerhead sea turtles.

Among the largest and most widespread sea turtles on the planet, loggerheads inhabit Temperate and Tropical seas across the globe; of those that nest in North America, most use beaches of the Southeastern States and Gulf Coast.  Adults average 300 pounds (occasionally as much as 1000 pounds) and females do not reach sexual maturity until they are 20-30 years old.  Spending most of their lives in the open sea, feasting on a wide variety of invertebrates (and some plants), the females only come ashore to lay eggs, choosing the same beach on which they hatched.

As nesting season approaches, female loggerheads gather offshore, mating with several males; about 110 eggs are laid in each nest and females lay multiple clutches in the course of a breeding season.  While adults are only threatened by sharks, killer whales and humans, eggs and hatchlings may succumb to a wide variety of dangers, from storms to predators (raccoons, fox, herons, vultures, crabs, large fish and others).  Unfortunately, sea turtle eggs remain a delicacy in some human cultures across the globe.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Back in the Subtropics

Just in time for hurricane season, with its hot, humid air and potent thunderstorms, we have returned to Longboat Key in Southwest Florida.  While the weather may not be ideal, the human "snowbirds" have returned to northern climes and this residential island is as uncrowded as it gets all year, a great time to wander the beach.

Of course, the bird population has changed as well.  Shorebirds are limited in number and variety while other species, such as magnificent frigatebirds and roseate spoonbills tend to be more common.  American white pelicans, now breeding across the Northern Plains, will not return until autumn and red-breasted mergansers, abundant on the bay in winter, long ago left for their Canadian homeland.  Nevertheless, most of the herons, egrets and seabirds remain through the year and I encountered 17 species on my walk this morning.

We'll stay in the Subtropics for a week or so.  As one who prefers a cooler and drier climate, that should be plenty of time to explore this barrier island.  More reports to follow!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Disappointment at Chincoteague

On our regular road trips to Longboat Key, Florida, my wife and I like to take varying routes, thereby encountering a diversity of landscapes and ecosystems.  This time, we crossed the Appalachians in order to revisit old friends (see The Flying Ewe) and then set our sights on the Delmarva Peninsula, east of Chesapeake Bay.  Traveling southward through that land of wetlands, pine woods and chicken farms, I was looking forward to visiting the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, renowned for its Atlantic beaches, coastal marshes and wild horses.

My image of the refuge and its setting was first sullied by a seemingly endless chain of billboards along the causeway that leads from the mainland to Chincoteague Island.  Once on that heavily developed real estate, we cruised down Maddox Avenue, lined with gaudy tourist traps.
Relieved to escape across Assateague Channel to enter the Wildlife Refuge, we soon enjoyed spectacular vistas of wooded wetlands, filled with a pleasing mix of coastal birds and, to our delight, a small herd of wild horses.

Unfortunately, my initial enthusiasm diminished significantly when we reached the dune-lined coast.  There I observed what appeared to be a large public beach; hordes of humans and their vehicles stretched along the sandy shore, a scene of recreation rather than conservation.  In all my visits to National Wildlife Refuges across our varied country, I have never encountered such a disturbing sight.  Proudly proclaiming to be "one of the most visited National Wildlife Refuges in the nation," Chincoteague personnel fail to acknowledge that most of those patrons are primarily interested in the sun and surf, not in the wild residents for which the refuge was established.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Human Evolution Revisited

For many decades now, anthropologists have been convinced that Homo sapiens (modern humans) evolved in the East African Rift Valley about 140-160,000 years ago and then spread across the Continent.  Eventually, about 80,000 years ago, some began to leave Africa and colonized other parts of the globe.

Within the past decade, however, a fossilized mandible and skull fragments from Homo sapiens were unearthed in Morocco and recent studies reveal that they date back 300,000 years (per a report in the New York Times); this suggests that our species appeared much earlier than previously thought and likely evolved in multiple areas of Africa.  In other words, mankind may be twice as old as prior evidence had indicated.

Such is the nature of science; it is based on physical evidence but remains open to new discoveries that may alter earlier assumptions and conclusions.  By contrast, Evangelical Christians will remain convinced that the Earth is only 4000 years old and that the science-based evidence of evolution (human and otherwise) is but an illusion.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Medicine Bow Range

North of Rocky Mountain National Park, in north-central Colorado, the Front Range splits into the Laramie Range, to the east, and the Medicine Bow Range, to the west.  The Laramie Range, modest in elevation, continues northward (east of Laramie) and eventually curves westward, ending near Casper; its highest point is Laramie Peak (10,276 feet), northwest of Wheatland.

The Medicine Bow Range, 100 miles long,  angles to the NNW, forming the east wall of Colorado's North Park and, farther north, the west wall of Wyoming's Laramie Basin.  The Range's northern end is marked by Elk Mountain, a massive, isolated peak, just south of Interstate 80, while its northeast section, west of Laramie, is locally known as the Snowy Range; Clark's Peak (12,951 feet), in the Rawah Wilderness Area of northern Colorado, is the highest point in the Medicine Bows.  Tributaries of the Upper North Platte River drain the western flank of the Medicine Bow Range and the Laramie River, which rises near Cameron Pass, flows northward along the eastern edge of the Range, gradually dropping into the Laramie Basin and eventually cutting through the Laramie Range to join the North Platte.

The northern end of the Medicine Bow Range is drained by the Medicine Bow River, which rises in the Snowy Range segment.  Flowing northward, it descends through the mountains and then snakes across the semiarid grasslands of southern Wyoming where it merges with the North Platte River in the Seminoe Reservoir.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Lost Creek Wilderness

As the first heat wave of summer envelops the Front Range urban corridor, I was fortunate to escape to the Lost Creek Wilderness, southwest of Metro Denver, today.  Taking part in a project organized by Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, I spent the day with a group of friendly individuals, building a new bridge across Wigwam Creek.

The Lost Creek Wilderness, dedicated in 1980, is named for Lost Creek which rises among the high peaks of the Kenosha Mountains.  The creek itself, a tributary of Goose Creek and thence of the South Platte River, is named for the fact that is disappears underground at various points along its route.

Though relatively close to Metro Denver and Colorado Springs, this Wilderness Area must be accessed by networks of dirt roads; most visitors leave paved roads at Bailey, at Kenosha Pass or near Deckers to reach Lost Creek campgrounds and trail networks.  Those arriving from the east must first cross the massive burn scar of the Hayden Wildfire that occurred in 2002; this morning, it was heartening to observe that vegetative recovery is slowly progressing across that desolate landscape.  Despite its remote location, the Lost Creek Wilderness remains a popular area for backpacking and at least ten groups passed our work site today.  No doubt, crowding in the Mt. Evans Wilderness, closer to Denver and north of Lost Creek, partly explains the attraction (though spectacular scenery, fine trail networks and abundant wildlife surely play a role as well).

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Scourge of Mysticism

Our large human brains have served us well throughout the course of our history.  We learned to live off the land, evade predators, cultivate plants, domesticate animals, develop the scientific method, and make our lives more comfortable and rewarding through a vast array of industrial, cultural and technologic advancements.

But that brain, the seat of imagination, also fueled mysticism.  Taking root in human cultures long before the scientific revolution, mysticism instilled the concept of gods and religions, offering protection from death itself.  Of course, throughout history, these beliefs have fostered fanaticism, intolerance, discrimination and countless wars.  Threatened by the enlightenment that science has wrought, mysticism resists scientific progress, placing a drag on the advancement of mankind.

Today, thousands of years after mysticism took hold, it continues to mold our culture and ignite human conflict across the globe.  Fed by ignorance, fear and impoverishment, it offers simple answers to complex problems.  Truth is its primary victim.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Hawthorn in Bloom

Hawthorns, members of the apple family, are found across Temperate latitudes of North America and Eurasia.  All are shrubs or small trees, named for the thorns on their branches (not present in some cultivars) and the berry-like fruits (haws).  Flower clusters are generally white in color (though pink and red flowers occur in some regions) and the fruit may be red, orange or black, depending on the species.

Our hawthorn, which I planted on the farm at least 15 years ago, is currently in bloom, its numerous white flower clusters attracting hundreds of honeybees; various butterflies also pollinate these trees.  By fall, as the leaves take on a rusty-orange hue, the red haws will appear, persisting into winter unless consumed by a variety of berry-loving birds; those that fall to the ground are consumed by mice, skunks and other scavengers.

Hardy trees, hawthorns thrive in a wide range of soil conditions and are drought tolerant.  The latter trait is especially appealing for those of us who live in semiarid environments; a tree that provides spring and fall color and attracts an interesting mix of wildlife while requiring minimal maintenance and watering, is a welcome addition to any Front Range property.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Evolution of Bats

Standing outside at dusk last evening, I watched as squadrons of little brown bats strafed the tree tops and pastures of our Littleton farm.  It was easy to understand how many persons, uneducated in the natural sciences, might think that bats are more closely related to swallows and swifts than to terrestrial mammals.

Of course, bats are mammals, represented by more than 1200 species across the globe; about 70% are insectivores while the rest feed primarily on fruit.  Though the specifics of their evolutionary history continue to unfold, it appears that bats likely evolved from tree shrews during the Paleocene, the earliest Period of the Cenozoic Era (the Age of Mammals), some 60 million years ago; the process likely began in the late Cretaceous Period, when Tyrannosaurus rex dominated the fauna of Earth.  Current fossil evidence, augmented over the past decade, suggests that flight developed before echolocation in the insectivore group and mammalogists suspect that flight initially evolved as a means of escape from predators (especially from ancestral raptors).  The earliest bats likely fed during the day (as some fruit bats continue to do today); echolocation eventually permitted crepuscular or nocturnal activity, further enhancing their ability to escape predation.  While the first bats graced the planet by 60 million years ago, their major diversification occurred during the Eocene (about 50 million years ago) as another mammalian group, the cetaceans, were returning to the sea.

In essence, bats, little changed from the early Cenozoic, colonized Earth long before most modern mammals appeared.  As I watched them last evening, I was looking into the evolutionary past, knowing that my own species, barely 140,000 years old, has now become the major threat to all other creatures on our planet, bats included.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Doves in the Deluge

Early this afternoon, skies darkened above the Front Range foothills and, soon thereafter, heavy rain began to fall on our Littleton farm.  Looking out the kitchen window, I noticed two young mourning doves, sitting on our power line and enduring the torrential downpour with no signs of distress.  A half hour later, when the rain had stopped, they were still there, preening in the afternoon sun.

Under similar circumstances, most species of wildlife would head for some form of shelter: trees, shrubs, dens, natural cavities or a host of human structures (barns, bridges, nest boxes etc.).  Exceptions are birds and animals that live their lives in the open; waterfowl, waders and many grassland birds would be obvious examples.

Of course, the rain-drenched mourning doves fit into the latter category.  While they do nest in trees, they spend most of their lives in open country and it is not in their DNA to be intimidated by the occasional summer downpour.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

America First, Environment Last

As expected, President Trump, long a climate-change denier (it's a hoax perpetrated by China), announced that he was pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord.  Placing emphasis on the secondary loss of jobs within the fossil fuel industry and on how America would be "ripped off" by the agreement, Trump declared that the U.S. will not be saddled with regulations and financial obligations that other countries fail to adopt.

Despite near universal support for the Paris Accord by American CEOs, Trump said he intends to speak for those who depend on the coal, oil and gas industries for their livelihood.  He plans to restore the economic losses of the Coal Belt though there is little evidence that power plants will return to that "dirty fuel," especially when we have a glut of cheap natural gas.  Offering lip service to the development of clean, renewable energy, he made no mention of the environmental regulations that he plans to obliterate, posing threats to the health of humans and natural ecosystems alike.

Calling up his EPA Administrator, another climate-change denier, to praise the President's decision, Trump was consumed with his oft-stated goal of Making America Great Again.  There was no mention of American leadership, vitally important in addressing the relentless effects of climate change.  While he suggested the possibility of "renegotiating" the Paris Accord, one doubts his chance of success, especially since he ridicules foreign leaders and distrusts global agreements of any kind.  Defending our environment may necessitate Impeachment.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Miller Time

The miller moth invasion seems to be getting an early start this year.  Though their exodus from the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains usually peaks along the Front Range in mid June, a fair number have been turning up in our Littleton house and avian activity on the farm suggests that they are beginning to arrive.

Western wood pewees and willow flycatchers have been active through the day and a few western tanagers have been making sorties as well.  Overhead, squadrons of tree and barn swallows are strafing the treetops and, close to the ground, non-flycatchers such as blue jays, house wrens and house sparrows have been chasing down the moths.  Though not evident during the day, a variety of mammals, including bats, shrews, skunks, raccoons and bears may feast on these nutritious travelers as well.

While I'm not looking forward to finding dozens of miller moths in the house each morning, they clearly play an important role in the natural food chain.  After all, their annual trek has been occurring long before we humans turned up and built house traps.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Hound's Tongue

Clumps of hound's tongue are blooming along our pasture fence this week and may continue to flower through much of the summer.  Yet another Eurasian species that was introduced to North America, the plant is now found across most of the U.S. and Canada.

Preferring sandy soil and full-sun exposure, this wildflower is drought tolerant.  Its small red flowers, which hang from drooping stems, face downward, making them rather inconspicuous.  Nevertheless, they manage to attract hordes of bees and butterflies, ensuring propagation once the numerous prickly seeds are released.

Despite a long list of "medicinal" uses for this plant, it is toxic to livestock if consumed in large quantities.  For this reason, and due to its prolific nature, hound's tongue is classified as a noxious weed in many of the Western States, Colorado included.  But we'll let it stay on the farm, especially for the bees and butterflies that relish its nectar.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Decline of Wildness

During the early history of our species, we humans were intimately tied to natural ecosystems, playing the role of both predator and prey.  Once we established permanent settlements and began to cultivate crops and domesticate animals (about 10,000 years ago), that relationship was lost and human activity has since threatened the welfare of those ecosystems.  Industrialization greatly accelerated this diversion and, today, most humans fail to acknowledge our direct connection to the natural world.

During my recent road trip to Montana, I was constantly reminded of this fact.  Despite the fabulous landscape, the effects of human activity were impossible to ignore: fences, trailers, houses, barns, signs, roadways, livestock and discarded material were part of every scene.  Indeed, it was often difficult to take photos without including products of human culture.  In Yellowstone National Park, a place we associate with wilderness and wildlife, the pressure of human activity was even more difficult to deny; placid elk and bison (though potentially dangerous) were oblivious of the throngs that shared their domain.  Auto parades clogged many of the roadways and humans swarmed about the most famous features of the Park.

Of course, I was one of those invaders.  Had I the time, energy and equipment to hoof my way into the wilderness, I might have escaped the crowds but we all know that even Earth's most pristine sites are now deluged with adventurous tourists.  The sad fact is that almost all of our planet's ecosystems are becoming less wild; abused for their resources and explored for entertainment, they suffer from the impact of a species that is too often in denial of its deleterious effects and seemingly intent on expanding access wherever possible.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Hutton Lake NWR

Hutton National Wildlife Refuge lies in the Laramie Basin, SSW of Laramie, Wyoming.  This preserve, established to protect habitat for migrant waterfowl, is reached via a series of dirt-gravel roads that are easily traversed by most vehicles.  Drive southwest on Highway 230 from Laramie and proceed to mile marker 12; turn left (south) on Brubaker Lane (County Route 37), which soon crosses the Laramie River, and follow it until it curves to the east and intersects Sand Creek Road.  Turn left and proceed a few more miles to the refuge entry road, on the left.

Set amidst vast sage grasslands, the refuge also includes Hutton Lake, an adjacent marsh, a pond and a large seasonal lake that attracts migrant shorebirds.  The access road leads to an observation deck along the marsh and to a duck blind on the pond; walking trails lead from these areas for close inspection of the lakes and grassland.  Visitors will likely see an excellent variety of wildlife as they drive from Highway 230 to the refuge entrance; these include pronghorns, western meadowlarks, horned larks, vesper sparrows, a large diversity of raptors (especially northern harriers) and white-tailed prairie dogs, which are especially abundant within the refuge itself.

Today, thousands of swallows (mostly cliff) and hundreds of noisy yellow-headed blackbirds dominated the scene at Hutton Lake NWR.  Other sightings included American white pelicans, cinnamon teal, ruddy ducks, Forster's terns and, surprisingly, a small flock of ring-necked ducks.  Unfortunately, high winds and deteriorating weather cut my visit short but I'll return, perhaps in late summer or early fall.  After all, National Wildlife Refuges have long been my favorite settings for wildlife observation, offering unspoiled natural habitat, harboring an excellent diversity of species and having little appeal to the general public.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

From Yellowstone to Lander

Not wanting to backtrack along the Interstates, I decided to alter my return route to Colorado.  This morning, I headed south through the scenic Yellowstone River Valley to the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park.  Arriving early, I hoped to beat the crowds and was successful for an hour or two; though I had not visited the Park in 25 years, I chose a route that avoided the tourist hotspots and took me through areas that I had not previously seen.

Elk, bison and resident birds (especially mountain bluebirds) were common but no moose, bears or wolves were encountered (rather predictable during the daylight hours).  As the crowds continued to build, I drove southward to Grand Teton National Park and cut across its northeastern quadrant after taking in magnificent views of the Teton Range.  Exiting the Park via US 287, I climbed toward Togwotee Pass (9658 feet); to my good fortune, a group of cars and photographers along the road signaled an unusual sighting which proved to be a young grizzly sow (my first observation of a grizzly in the wild).

Beyond the Pass, the highway begins a long, southward descent through the Wind River Valley, initially hemmed in by towering summits of the Absaroka Range (and residual deep snow) but eventually winding through an arid landscape of colorful Mesozoic sediments, reminiscent of the Colorado Plateau.  A spectacular view of the Bighorn Mountains unfolded to the east and the high peaks of the Wind River Range appeared behind hills of shale and sandstone, west of the river.  Today's journey ended in Lander, Wyoming, where I will spend the night; tomorrow I plan to visit the Hutton Lake NWR, near Laramie, on my way back to Denver.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Scenic Valleys of Montana

Based on my one day excursion through southwestern Montana, the region is characterized by majestic ranges separated by wide valleys (some comparable to the parklands of Colorado).  This geography appeals to me, allowing one to admire the beauty and grandeur of the mountains without feeling hemmed in by their mass.

Leaving Livingston this morning, I headed north on US 89, passing between the Crazy Mountains to the east and the Bridger Range to the west.  Following the Shields River, I soon found myself in a broad valley of sage grasslands, speckled with ponds, lakes and marshes; a small flock of American white pelicans had settled on one of the lakes and a bald eagle soared overhead.  At US 12, I turned west and crossed the southern end of the Big Belt Mountains before dropping into the Missouri River Valley where, just north of Townsend, the river has been dammed to form a large reservoir.  Continuing westward on US 12, I entered a large basin nearly ringed by mountains; Helena, Montana's Capitol, sits at the west end of this valley.  Staying on US 12 West, I crossed the Continental Divide at MacDonald Pass (6320 feet) and descended along the Little Blackfoot River to Interstate 90.  Heading south and then eastward on this highway, I was driving through the wide Clark Fork Valley, passing the scenic Flint Creek and Anaconda Ranges to the west.  Just past Butte, I recrossed the Continental Divide and descended eastward to Cardwell; here I turned south on Route 359, fording the Jefferson River and then climbing along the east side of the spectacular Tobacco Root Mountains.

Before heading to Bozeman for the night, I visited the Missouri Headwaters State Park, just northeast of Three Forks.  There the Missouri River forms from the confluence of the Jefferson and Madison Rivers (elevation 4045 feet), joined by the Gallatin River a short distance downstream; though I had long pictured this confluence to occur within a deep, cool mountain valley, it is in the middle of a broad intermountain basin.  The inspiration offered by this historic location was embellished by an osprey that fished in the uppermost waters of the Missouri River, a spectacle no doubt witnessed by Lewis & Clark themselves.