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Showing posts from June, 2015

Religion & Individual Rights

When national laws or rulings assert individual rights (access to birth control, abortion, gay rights) that clash with their beliefs, religious leaders claim that there is a "war on faith" in America.  Of course, conservative politicians, conscious of the large evangelical voting block, tend to side with that argument.

In fact, there is no effort to abolish or diminish religious freedom; members of any given church are free to live in accordance with the teachings of their faith.  What they cannot do, on the other hand, is force their beliefs on the rest of society; indeed, the Constitution, while granting religious freedom, also guarantees freedom from religion.  We are not a homogenous Christian nation nor are we all religious.

Recent surveys have demonstrated that organized religions are losing support and membership, especially among younger, well-educated Americans.  The reason for this is that the antiquated doctrines of traditional religions have not changed in concer…

Our Cottontail Colony

Over the years of writing this blog, I have related the saga of cottontails on our Littleton, Colorado, farm.  During the first two decades of owning the property, we did not observe any rabbits on the lawns and pastures; the reason, of course, was that red fox were denning beneath our barn.  Once the fox were extirpated by coyotes (which we later managed to dislodge as well), cottontails began to appear.

Three years ago, a pair spent the winter on our farm and, during the next spring and summer, produced at least two litters of bunnies.  Two years later, we have dozens of cottontails on the property; having colonized the farm in our presence, they are oblivious of our activity, often lounging on the driveway or beneath the shade of a tree.  Active throughout the day, the cottontails are ever present; we can't look out a window without seeing two or three of them.

Of course, sooner or later, a fox, hawk or owl will take notice of their abundance and their population will begin to …

Justice & Enlightenment

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry throughout the United States.  Decades late in coming, this decision demonstrates that, in time, social justice will prevail and that, over time, humans have the capacity for enlightenment.

Of course, opposition to this ruling comes primarily from religious conservatives who live their lives (and judge others) based on the teachings of ancient Scripture.  Ignoring scientific evidence that homosexuality is a genetic trait, no less a choice than one's height or eye color, they insist that it is a sinful lifestyle, not worthy of rights enjoyed by the heterosexual community.  Declaring that marriage is a sacred bond, sanctioned by God between a man and a woman, many of these zealots have surely been unfaithful in their own marriage, have been married and divorced multiple times or, in some cases, have expressed their anti-gay views to hide their own homosexuality.

Thanks to today's ruling (which, sad…

Ladybirds in the Thistle

The "crop" of bull thistle on our Littleton, Colorado farm is exceptional this year, no doubt fueled by the wet spring.  While guide books and websites suggest that this thorny wildflower may grow to 6 feet in height, we have one stand that exceeds 8 feet.

Considered a weed by most suburbanites and ranchers, bull thistle does attract a wide variety of wildlife.  The numerous pink-purple flowers are magnets for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds while the abundant seeds are eaten by finches, field mice and meadow voles; even the spiny foliage is consumed by deer and cottontails.  Of special interest this year is a large number of ladybird beetles in one of the thistle stands; close observation revealed colonies of aphids and scale insects that have attracted these predatory beetles.  I also observed tiny clusters of yellow eggs on the leaves; voracious ladybird larvae will hatch from these eggs, feast on the invasive insects, molt several times and then pupate before emerging…

Supercell over Denver

Though we enjoyed a warm, sunny day in Metro Denver, a stationary front stretched across northeastern Colorado, adding instability to the atmosphere.  As the daytime heating peaked in late afternoon, thunderstorms began to form above the Front Range, drifting eastward across the urban corridor.

About 4:30 PM, one of these storms suddenly intensified.  Drawing in heat and moisture from the surrounding Piedmont, it rapidly grew into a massive supercell, rising to an altitude of 50,000 feet.  Soon, torrential rain, hail, 60 mph winds and intense lightning ravaged the northern 2/3 of the Metro area.  Moving slowly to the ESE, the storm dropped two inches of rain in 30 minutes, triggering flash floods.  While radar and the observation of weather spotters indicated the presence of a tornado, no evidence of a touchdown (i.e. surface damage) has yet to be documented.

Within an hour, the storm was moving off across the Eastern Plains and had lost some of its intensity.  Here on our Littleton f…

Yellow Goat's Beard

By June, yellow goat's beard (yellow salsify) is blooming on our Littleton, Colorado, farm and will continue to do so for the next month or so.  Native to Europe, this tall, showy wildflower was introduced to North America and is now found throughout most of the U.S. (except the extreme Southeast) and southern Canada.

A member of the aster family, yellow goat's beard favors fields, roadsides and disturbed areas; along the Colorado Front Range, it has colonized open areas of the plains, piedmont and foothills.  The plant is easily identified by its erect, hollow stem (up to 4 feet tall) and large yellow flowers with both inner and outer rays; the latter open on sunny mornings and close by noon (hence the folk name: Noon Flower).  The globular, brownish seed heads, four inches across, mimic those of dandelions.  Meadow salsify, also known as meadow goat's beard, is shorter in height (up to 2 feet) and is characterized by curved stems and leaves; this European species also ad…

An Unexpected Gift

Just after 7:30 this morning, strong northeast winds raked Metro Denver, dropping the temperature by ten degrees (F) or more.  In the midst of our early summer heatwave, the chilly air is more than welcome.

The cause for this sudden change is an atmospheric trough, a dip in the jet stream that has been separating hot air to its south from cool air to its north.  High pressure over Montana has temporarily won out over the hot, high pressure ridge of the Desert Southwest.  In concert, our warm, southwesterly winds have temporarily shifted from the northeast, producing an upslope flow along the northern Front Range; while the temperature in Denver is in the 60s F this morning, it is 82 degrees in Colorado Springs (south of the Palmer Divide).

Our chilly atmospheric respite is expected to be brief and hot air is forecast to return by tomorrow.  Then again, this morning's rapid change was unexpected and the whimsical nature of the jet stream is hard to predict.  In the meantime, we'…

Fathers & Sons

Today, Americans celebrate Fathers Day, honoring those who have stayed involved in the care and nurturing of their children.  While it is yet another Hallmark Holiday, associated with a host of commercialized events and special retail offers, it highlights the fact that fathers are an endangered member of the family in some segments of society.  Indeed, as occurs in many animal species, some human fathers are nothing more than sperm donors, playing a transient role in the lives of their offspring.

Many factors account for the dwindling role of fathers in modern society.  A growing acceptance of divorce, even when not triggered by domestic violence, is a leading factor and the choice of single motherhood, spawned by career-oriented women is an increasing trend.  Of course, teenage pregnancy and a culture of unwed motherhood continue to plague some segments of human society.

Unfortunately, this trend, however natural it may be (see Marriage: an Unnatural Union), continues to produce neg…

The Prairie Owl

Burrowing owls are summer residents of the Western U.S., from the High Plains through the Intermountain West; they are also permanent residents of Florida and the Desert Southwest.  Come fall, northern residents migrate to the Desert Southwest or Mexico.

Favoring open grasslands and deserts, burrowing owls are named for their use of underground burrows for roosting and nesting; while some dig their own cavity, most use the abandoned burrows of prairie dogs, badgers, ground squirrels or armadillos.  These small, long-legged owls are active day and night and are best observed at dawn or dusk when they often stand near their burrow, ready to pounce on a grasshopper, lizard or mouse.  Attempting to draw beetles and other insects within close range, these opportunistic raptors are known to place cattle, horse or bison dung near the opening of their burrow.  Seldom observed in flight, burrowing owls prefer to hunt on foot; however, they occasionally perch on fenceposts to survey the area, g…

Front Range Heat Wave

After six weeks of intermittent rain and heavy thunderstorms, sunny, hot weather is forecast to invade the Front Range over the next five days; afternoon highs are expected to be in the 90s F, with overnight lows in the lower 60s.  The culprit will be a high pressure ridge, moving up from the Desert Southwest, which will divert Pacific storms to the north and produce a downsloping air flow east of the Continental Divide.

While this hot, sunny period will surely dry out the soggy landscape, it may actually exacerbate flooding along the South Platte and its tributaries.  A heavy snowpack persists in the higher mountains and snowmelt will accelerate in the mild air (even though afternoon temperatures on the alpine tundra are, on average, some twenty degrees cooler than those along the urban corridor).

Having griped about cloudy, cool, rainy weather for much of the spring, we are now free to rant about oppressive summer heat, at least for the next five days.  We humans love to complain ab…

Popes & Climate Change: Round 2

Pope Francis' proclamation that global warming is real and that humans are primarily responsible is causing indigestion for Catholic Republican Presidential Candidates.  As for myself, I will defer to my post from July of 2008: The Pope and Global Warming.

Illness & Guilt

Having practiced medicine for almost forty years, I am well aware that persons diagnosed with a serious illness must also deal with guilt.  While some of that guilt may arise from the comments of family, friends or health care providers, most of it is self-imposed.

Facing the emotional, physical and financial trials of their illness, many patients blame themselves for poor lifestyle choices or a lack of preventive health care that might have contributed to their plight.  They also regret the inconvenience, stress and economic hardships that family members, friends and employers must endure.  Some even feel guilty about the costs and work assumed by their insurance company, physicians, therapists and other health care workers.

After all, we humans often attribute illness to personal weakness.  In reality, it is the result of a complex mix of genetic, behavioral and environmental factors; bad luck plays a significant role in most cases.  The commitment to undertake what is often a diffi…

Geology of the Baraboos

An elongated ring of hills and ridges rise in south-central Wisconsin.  Known as the Baraboos, they represent outcrops of ancient Precambrian quartzite, 1.5 billion years old.  Folded downward by tectonic forces and buried by younger Paleozoic sediments, erosion has since exposed the edges of this geologic syncline; due to the tilt of this quartzite basin, its southern rim is far more prominent than its northern edge.  The primary axis of the range, 30 miles in length, is oriented west to east; the shorter north-south axis is about 10 miles in length at the center of the Baraboos.

Between the north and south ridges is the Baraboo River Valley; flowing west to east (where it joins the Wisconsin River), the Baraboo and its tributaries have sculpted a landscape of hills and buttes from the Paleozoic sediments that filled the inner gap of the syncline.  The river also passes through gorges (the Upper and Lower Narrows) in the northern Baraboo Ridge; geologists believe that the Wisconsin R…

A Rim of Storms

A dome of high pressure over the Southeastern U.S. is causing two interconnected weather problems.  Beneath the dome, air is sinking and heating up, producing hot and humid conditions; afternoon highs have been in the mid to upper 90s F with heat indexes above 100.  Along the outer rim of the dome, winds are moving clockwise, drawing Gulf of Mexico moisture northward through the Heartland, eastward across the southern Great Lakes and then southeastward to the Mid-Atlantic Region.

This rim of moisture, caught between the hot central dome and the cooler air to its north and west, is feeding bands of thunderstorms, some of which have spawned tornadoes.  Training over the same swath, the storms are also dropping heavy rain and producing regional floods; last evening, the worst of the conditions were affecting Greater Chicago and no doubt sending travel disruptions across the country.

Today, moisture from Tropical Storm Bill in the western Gulf will add fuel to the fire.  Pulled inland alo…

Genetics, Gender & Sexuality

From a purely anatomic point of view, one's gender is determined at conception; if the mother's egg is fertilized by a sperm with a Y chromosome the fetus is genetically male (XY) while a sperm with an X chromosome will produce a female fetus (XX).  Anatomic differentiation of the fetus' genitalia is evident by 6 weeks and secondary sexual characteristics develop at puberty; however, a variety of chromosomal, hormonal and genetic abnormalities may interfere with this process, leading to ambiguous genitalia in approximately 1 of 4500 births.

Increasing scientific evidence suggests that an individual's sexual orientation and gender identity are also genetically determined, involving genes that are distinct from those directly related to anatomic gender.  Recent DNA studies involving identical twins indicate that genes on Chromosomes X and 8 may play a role in homosexuality while studies in animal models have demonstrated the presence of many hormone-sensitive genes that …

Magpie Invasion

Black-billed magpies are common residents along the Colorado Front Range and we often observe pairs or small flocks on our Littleton farm.  Yesterday, however, we had a full-fledged magpie invasion, consisting of thirty or more birds.  All were adult in size and their feeding activity was erratic; indeed, they spent most of the afternoon noisily moving about the property.

Breeding magpie pairs are thought to be monogamous (at least for several seasons) and pair off by late winter to build their nest.  Using the same territory each year, they generally produce six young which fledge by late summer.  Local non-breeding birds, most of which are yearlings, account for about half of the magpie population and wander about in flocks, a behavior that improves their chance of survival and their opportunity to secure a breeding partner; such flocks also include older magpies that are widowed or were displaced from a previous partner.  Magpies are also known to congregate at the site of a dead m…

Woodhouse's Toad

On my many hikes at South Platte Park, I occasionally run across a Woodhouse's toad, especially during their breeding season of April through June.  This medium sized toad inhabits Central and Western regions of North America, from the Great Plains through the Intermountain West and from the Canadian border to Mexico; four subspecies have been recognized.

Like most toads, they prefer riparian corridors where vegetation provides cover and attracts insects and where seasonal pools and ponds are available for breeding.  Primarily nocturnal, Woodhouse's toad is best identified by the sheep-like bleating of the males and is best observed at dawn or dusk.  During the day, these amphibians burrow into loose soil or leaf litter to escape the drying effects of the intense western sun; deeper burrows are utilized for winter hibernation.

In Colorado, Woodhouse's toads inhabit stream channels across the Plains, riparian corridors of the Piedmont and foothill canyons to an elevation of…

Climate Change & Human Migration

We humans evolved about 130,000 years ago in East Africa; at that time, the last of the Pleistocene's warm interglacial periods was underway.  As a result, for the first 50,000 years of our history, humans were confined to Sub-Saharan Africa, hemmed in by vast deserts to the north and deep seas to the east, south and west.

Then, about 80,000 years ago, the climate started to cool and the Wisconsin Glaciation began.  As the Continental and mountain glaciers enlarged, sea levels fell and a cool, wet climate caused vegetation and active streams to appear across the deserts.  In concert, humans spread from Africa, moving along the southern coast of Asia and into the Middle East; Pleistocene land bridges opened as sea levels fell, providing access to southern Indonesia, Japan and the Americas.  By the peak of the Wisconsin Glaciation, some 20,000 years ago, man had colonized all Continents except Antarctica.

From that nadir of the global climate a steady warming occurred, glaciers retr…

A Three-pronged Attack

Two days ago, just after noon, a blue jay began to shriek from a treeline behind our Littleton house.  He was soon joined by three other jays and I assumed that their frantic cries were triggered by an owl, a hawk or a cat.  Indeed, blue jays are the watchdogs for many neighborhoods across the country, aggressively chasing raptors and other predators from their territory.

In this case, the jays were soon joined by a pair of robins and a few broad-tailed hummingbirds; the whistling calls of the latter tiny birds, while well-intended, were a bit comical.  Unable to see the agent of their distress, I walked past the corner of the house to get a better look.  Suddenly, a sharp-shinned hawk bolted from a stand of lilacs, no victim in his talons.  As he made a beeline for one of our larger Siberian elms, the jays, robins and hummingbirds joined in pursuit, calling as they trailed the accipiter.

After perching in the elm for a few minutes, tormented by his noisy pursuers, the sharpie flew be…

The Blanca Monsoon

Blanca, initially a hurricane off the coast of the Baja Peninsula, has moved into the Desert Southwest as a Tropical Depression, bringing copious moisture to Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico.  In many ways, this moisture flow mimics the annual Southwest Monsoon, which generally begins by mid summer and brings flooding rains to the Southwestern Deserts and Four Corners region; by late July or August, the monsoon moisture reaches the Colorado Front Range, igniting late afternoon thunderstorms.

Blanca's moisture will reach Colorado as well, interacting with an atmospheric trough that is dropping through the High Plains; as a result, cloudy, cool and rainy weather is forecast for later this week.  Fortunately, the disruption of sunshine will be brief; unfortunately, Blanca's remnants will aggravate flooding across the Platte River watershed.

Though moisture from Blanca will produce limited benefits in California, where an intense drought persists, it is not unusual for …

High Water on the Great Plains

Returning to Colorado yesterday, I crossed the Missouri River west of Columbia.  Racing along, the river waters were lapping at trees on the banks while other trees and logs, swept from the floodplain farther upstream, tumbled in the powerful current.

Farther west, primary and secondary tributaries of the Missouri were swollen as well, reflecting weeks of excessive rain across the Great Plains; these included the Lamine River in west-central Missouri, the Kansas River (which I crossed at both Kansas City and Lawrence), the Smoky Hill River in Junction City and the Solomon and Saline Rivers in central Kansas.  In addition to the bank-full rivers and streams, I observed standing water in many fields and noted that farm ponds, nearly dry for the past few years, are now filled to the brim.

Here in Metro Denver, the South Platte is raging through its channel, the highest I have seen that river during my thirty-three years along the Front Range; the North Platte River (which merges with the…

Common, Beautiful & Unrecognized

Indigo buntings are sparrow-sized birds that breed across the Central and Eastern U.S. and in parts of the Desert Southwest.  While the female does not stand out from a host of small, brown avian species, the brilliant blue male is hard not to notice; indeed, he makes himself especially conspicuous, singing incessantly from the top of a sapling or hedgerow.

Indigo buntings favor the border of fields and woodlands, where they feast on a wide variety of seeds and insects.  In this respect, like northern cardinals, they have benefited from human settlements, where forests have been opened for agriculture and residential development; indeed, indigo buntings have been spreading northward and westward in recent decades.  Come winter, they migrate to warmer climes; those in the Eastern U.S. head to the Bahamas and other Caribbean islands while those in the Central and Western U.S. winter in Central America.

Unfortunately, most non-birders are unfamiliar with this common and widespread summer…

Death in the Backyard

We have all witnessed death in our yards.  Robins yank worms from the soil, accipiters snare unwary songbirds, snakes feast on nestlings or mice and, overhead, squadrons of swifts and nighthawks knife through clouds of hapless insects.  Few of these events, however, match the drama that I witnessed yesterday.

Clearing vines and dead wood in our backyard, I was startled by a sudden thump and shriek in a shrubline behind the house. Emerging from the vegetation, one of our local feral cats was dragging the carcass of a fox squirrel.  Sauntering off with his meal, the victim dangling from his upturned jaws, the cat resembled his large African cousins as they transport gazelles or young wildebeest back to the waiting pride.

Feral cats generally subsist on mice, moles, young cottontails and songbirds.  For one to attack an adult fox squirrel is, in my experience, highly unusual.  If nothing else, the killing attests to the skill and cunning of these wild felines.

Procreation on the Deck

New experiences, however carnal they might be, are worth reporting and yesterday's spectacle deserves a post.  It began early in the afternoon when I awoke from a nap on our back deck, a common consequence of outdoor reading (or indoor reading for that matter).

Glancing down from my chair, I saw a large garter snake inching across the planks.  Assuming it was hunting for insects, I remained still, hoping to observe a strike on a moth or beetle.  Within a minute or so, however, the scene changed dramatically as two smaller snakes raced onto the deck, intertwining themselves with the larger serpent.

I was observing the mini version of a "mating ball," commonly seen in garter snakes.  In spring, female garters, larger than their male counterparts, release pheromones that attract males in the area; the frenzied suitors, jockeying for position, curl about the female, hoping to become a parent.  Once the mating activity ends, the female stores the sperm until late summer, when…

A Peaceful Morning at Eagle Bluffs

A gray overcast stretched above the Missouri River floodplain yesterday morning and seemed to induce a peaceful calm at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area.  The still waters of the lakes and pools were broken only by the heads of aquatic turtles and the surfacing of double crested cormorants; great blue herons stood like sentries along the marshy shores or atop the wood duck boxes while a trio of American white pelicans lounged on a sandbar.

The silhouettes of bald eagles, turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks graced the woodlands, flocks of mourning doves and red-winged blackbirds foraged along the roadways and a few green herons stalked the flooded timber where belted kingfishers awaited a higher sun.  White-tailed deer and eastern cottontails were abundant and conspicuous in the filtered morning light.

Some human visitors might describe the scene as dull, especially in comparison with the vibrant activity at Eagle Bluffs during the spring and fall migrations.  But, amidst the relative c…

The Republican Circus

As the number of Republican Presidential Candidates approaches the census of many American towns, it seems appropriate to look at their agendas.  In general, these Conservative politicians appear to fall into three main groups.

The first, known as Social Conservatives, are determined to protect the rights of white, American-born, Christian, heterosexual men; of course, they are also committed to the rights of the unborn and un-conceived as well.  The second group, which I would call Militarists, endorse peace through intimidation; preferring to direct all Federal funds to the Pentagon, they plan to foster American democracy across the globe by annihilating those who resist or oppose it.  Finally, Fiscal Conservatives are determined to improve the lives of the middle class by revoking Obamacare (and other forms of socialism), rolling back environmental regulations, granting tax breaks to corporations and opposing efforts to raise the minimum wage (which, they stress, would eliminate jo…