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The Avian Spring Migration

Across central latitudes of North America, the avian spring migration extends from February through May.  During this time, summer residents are arriving from the south, winter residents are leaving for their northern (or mountain) breeding grounds and other migrants are merely passing through, on their way from wintering areas (to our south) to breeding areas (to our north).

Migrant snow geese, northern white-fronted geese and American white pelicans are among the early migrants, often heading north by February.  During March, the duck/loon/grebe migrations begin to heat up and hardy summer residents appear; the latter include American woodcocks, eastern phoebes, mountain bluebirds and tree swallows.  Early shorebirds may also turn up in March though the number and variety of shorebirds usually peaks in mid-late April.  Mid April is an interesting time for birders since the wave of summer residents begins to increase and the last of the winter residents begin to depart; among the fo…

Seasonal Firsts at South Platte Park

Those of us who have been birding for many years rarely encounter a "new species" unless we travel to a new region of the country (or of the planet).  To compensate, we generally look for birds that are "the first of the year" or "the first of the season."  Of course, these species are either migrants or season residents.

This morning, despite a gusty southwest wind, I headed down to South Platte Park, hoping to see some "seasonal firsts" and I was not disappointed.  The first of these firsts was a male yellow-headed blackbird, lounging on a beach of Eaglewatch Lake; perhaps tired from his journey, he was basking in the bright sunshine, oblivious of the strong wind.  The second was an American avocet, foraging in the residual pool of Bufflehead Lake (where the water level remains low); joined only by six green-winged teal, he is on his way to ephemeral pools of the Northern Plains.  Finally, two ospreys graced the scene, cavorting in the gusty …

A Sage Thrasher visits the Farm

On this cloudy but warm afternoon, a sage thrasher visited our Littleton farm; it is the first one I have seen on the property since we bought it, 28 years ago.  Since this small thrasher prefers dry grasslands with nearby shrubs or pinon pines, I'm not surprised that he stopped by.

Spending most of their time on the ground, sage thrashers often chase grasshoppers and other insects, climbing into shrubs to feast on berries.  They breed across the sage flats of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau, wintering on the Southern High Plains or in the Desert Southwest of the U.S. and Mexico.

Primarily migrants along the Front Range, these thrashers are identified by their yellow eyes, their relatively short and slightly down-curved bill, their dull gray upper plumage and their boldly streaked or spotted chest and abdomen.  When disturbed, as our visitor was by my close inspection today, they retreat to shrubs or thickets and repeatedly flick their tail.

Can Scientists be Religious?

The answer to this question, it seems to me, depends on how we define scientist.  Those who use scientific facts in a practical way (e.g. teachers, lab technicians, flight engineers, medical practitioners) can likely balance their scientific knowledge and their religious beliefs without facing a philosophical crisis.  Basic scientists, however, especially those delving into the mysteries of the Universe and the nature of life itself, are less likely to accept the tenets of religious faith.

Indeed, organized religion has attempted to derail the validity of science since the days of Galileo and Copernicus.  Since that time, our scientific knowledge has expanded tremendously as theories have been proven or disproven using the scientific method.  Meanwhile, religious beliefs, not subject to scientific analysis, remain unchanged, a source of pride for most true believers.

But scientists can be just as kind, just as charitable and just as committed to human rights as any of their religious…

A Muted Protest in Denver

Despite the sunshine, the turnout at Denver's March for Science was underwhelming this morning.  Those who did participate were enthusiastic but, for a city as large and liberal as Denver, the message from here was muted.

Even the number of booths was disappointing and most were devoted primarily to recruiting members; I gravitated toward those that had a philosophical edge, such as organizations promoting freedom from religion.  While there was certainly a good deal of anti-Trump sentiment during the March itself, the displays and speakers were relatively apolitical.

Having come of age in the sixties, I've participated in my fair share of protest marches.  But the anger and fervor of that period was not matched today.  Perhaps we've become immune to Trump's daily tweets and executive orders, hoping to wait out the term of his dysfunctional Administration.  Unfortunately, they are doing a great deal of damage in the meantime and we will need a revolution to change the…

March for Science

What are you doing this Saturday, April 14?  If you are alarmed by the anti-science rhetoric of the Trump Administration and the Religious Right, consider taking part in the second annual March for Science that will occur in cities throughout our country and across the globe.

More than a protest rally, March for Science also highlights the importance of science education, scientific research and evidence-based policies related to human society and our stewardship of the planet.  Unfortunately, many industries, politicians and religious leaders have taken an anti-science approach to protect their own interests.

The Earth is not flat.  The evolution of life on our planet has been unfolding for 3.6 billion years and continues today.  The health of human society is directly related to the welfare of natural ecosystems.  Global warming is real and is primarily caused by our use of fossil fuels for more than a Century.  Tobacco use is a major health hazard.  These are scientific facts; to …

Summer Crosses the Mountains

A high pressure dome over the Four Corners region, combined with low pressure over the Northern Plains, has produced strong WSW winds along the Colorado Front Range.  Warm air from the Desert Southwest is being swept across the Continental Divide and, as that air is forced to sink along the Eastern Slope, it warms up and dries out.  As a result, we reached 81 degrees F in Metro Denver this afternoon.

Working outside on our Littleton farm, the summer-like conditions were readily apparent and I had to retreat to the shade on a regular basis.  The birds were noticeably quiet on this hot afternoon but insects and arachnids were especially conspicuous, including bees, yellow-jackets, jumping spiders, cabbage white butterflies, a wide assortment of beetles and clouds of midges.  Due to the recent mild weather, the pear and crabapple trees are beginning to bloom and most of the shrubs are almost leafed out.

The warm weather is expected to continue through tomorrow but rain and/or snow is fo…

Caged Birds

On this warm, April afternoon, as I watched a flock of gulls soar above our Littleton farm, I, like most humans since the dawn of our species, wished that I could join them.  While a small minority of humans have a pilot's license and an even smaller percentage are capable of using some form of a glider, we will never match the experience that birds enjoy on a daily basis.

It is thus especially sad to encounter a caged bird, capable of soaring above the countryside but trapped behind bars for the amusement or "education" of humans.  As a child, I enjoyed the banter of my grandmother's parakeet and took part in its care; too young to understand the deprivation that I was witnessing, that caged bird may have actually played a role in my early development as a naturalist, interested as I was in its vocalizations and behavior.

Is there a more cruel sentence that humans impose on wildlife?  Certainly the physical abuse of animals and trophy hunting come to mind but to ca…

Creativity & Substance Abuse

History is replete with authors, painters and musicians who used (and often abused) alcohol and/or illicit drugs.  One might question the reason for this association.

First of all, it seems that creativity is associated with manic-depressive tendencies.  It is for this reason that writers, artists and musicians often experience prolific periods that alternate with episodes of inertia (e.g. writer's block).  As a result, they may resort to the use of stimulants to augment their productivity or rely on alcohol to assuage their depression.  On the other hand, alcohol and certain drugs tend to diminish our inhibitions and may enhance creativity; one might argue that the secondary honesty or unique perspective may play a significant role in the success of the work.

Of course, there is a fine line between use and abuse and history is also replete with creative artists who died young due to their dependence on drugs and/or alcohol.  In some cases, the pressures associated with celebrity…

The Perching Tree

When we bought our Littleton, Colorado, farm in 1990, we noticed that a weeping mulberry tree, less than 10 feet from our picture window, was partly obstructing our view of the South Platte Valley and of the High Plains Escarpment to the southeast.  There was some discussion as to whether we should cut it down but, fortunately, it still stands.

During the warmer months, its dense clusters of curved branches are festooned with rich green foliage and, in early summer, it provides a copious supply of sweet red mulberries, enjoyed by humans and wildlife alike.  If one lives in the semiarid climate of the Front Range, anything that is green and provides tasty fruit is best left alone.

But it is during the colder months that I most appreciate this "ugly" tree.  It is then that a wide variety of birds perch on or within its net of barren branches.  Bathed in sunshine from dawn to dusk, the weeping mulberry attracts small songbirds such as juncos, finches, sparrows and bushtits but…