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Showing posts from 2016

Music & Memories

Music has played an important role in human civilization since the dawn of our species.  For those of us who have lived in the age of mass media, it also marks the emotional roller-coaster of our lives.

During childhood, jingles and holiday songs invade our innocent minds, tied to the seasons and their cultural highlights; as we mature, we are exposed to musical genres that reflect both our upbringing and our personal experience.  Associated with strong emotion from life events or close relationships, certain songs trigger memories until death or dementia intervene.

Music seems to be especially potent in this regard.  As a writer, I try to provoke thought and elicit passion in readers but my success pales in comparison to those who write or perform music.  When lyrics are tied to a beautiful or stirring melody, they resonate in both our mind and our soul and their link to our past is forever sealed.

Autumn Rewind

Patches of snow may cover the ground and the ponds may be frozen over but it feels like early autumn along the Colorado Front Range today.  After a few weeks of wintry weather, autumn has returned, courtesy of downsloping, southwest winds.

Our afternoon high in Littleton is approaching 70 degrees F, some 25 degrees above normal for the date.  But winter "normals" along the Front Range urban corridor are merely numerical averages and it is not unusual to experience temperature swings of forty degrees or more in the course of 24 hours.  Indeed, periods of warm winter weather are rather common in this region and often follow an outbreak of Arctic air; in other cases, the warmth portends a coming change as southwesterly winds intensify ahead of an approaching cold front.

Such is the case this week.  While we bid adieu to 2016 amidst sunny, autumn-like weather, 2017 will be ushered in by the next winter storm.  Within a few days, snow will return to the Front Range, afternoon hig…

Sparrows in the Rabbitbrush

Rabbitbrush is a common shrub in semiarid regions of the American West.  For much of the year, it likely goes unnoticed by hikers and casual naturalists but, in autumn, its canopy of pungent, bright yellow flowers attracts everyone's attention.

By early winter, the flowers have faded to dull-colored seed heads and dense stands of rabbitbrush attract a variety of wintering songbirds, especially sparrows.  The abundant seeds offer a plentiful source of food and the shrub's dome-like structure "shades" the ground from snowfall, providing open forage areas and refuge from predators.  Here along the Colorado Front Range, white-crowned sparrows are often abundant in these stands in late autumn, replaced during the colder months by American tree sparrows, song sparrows and, on occasion, Harris' sparrows; spotted towhees, dark-eyed juncos, house finches and goldfinches (both American and lesser) also feed on or beneath the rabbitbrush.

Birders who visit South Platte Park…

Christmas Morning Solitude

On this mild Christmas morning along the Colorado Front Range, I decided to take a walk at South Platte Park.  Along my two mile circuit I encountered only a few humans and they offered but a brief greeting.

Indeed, the wildlife was respectfully quiet as well; the only sounds that broke the silence were the crunch of snow and gravel beneath by boots and the distant, soft roar from highway traffic.  It was a peaceful stroll through bright sunshine and cool, fresh air.

I suppose I could have gone to Christmas services, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the faithful while singing songs of joy and peace.  But nature has been my church for many years; she offers solitude and tranquility without reference to a loving but vindictive deity.

Avian Ranges and Human Activity

As lesser goldfinches continue to hang out on our Littleton farm, almost three months after their usual migration to the south, I have considered how human activity affects the natural range of bird species.  In the case of these finches, suburban landscaping and feeder handouts augment natural food sources and likely diminish migration pressure as winter settles in.

Perhaps the best example of human impact on North American bird ranges is the settlement of the Great Plains.  As towns and cities appeared along the primary rivers, which flow from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi Valley, the ranges of various Eastern bird species (northern cardinals, eastern bluebirds, eastern phoebes, indigo buntings and others) have been spreading westward.  While some woodlands have always lined these rivers, human settlements greatly increase the diversity of vegetation; reservoirs along the streams also spawn the development of backwater wetlands and other riparian ecosystems which attract bi…

Humans, Liberalism & Conservation

Humans are social creatures and early man depended on his cohorts to obtain food, construct shelters and protect the clan from predators.  The importance of each individual was surely recognized and, despite their limited resources, I suspect our ancestors acknowledged their dependence on fellow humans and on their natural environment.

Throughout most of our early history, survival was the primary focus and there was little to distract humans from that imperative.  Eventually, spawned by our creativity and imagination, mysticism entered our world and, much later, we engaged in domestication and agriculture.  Finally, the industrial and technologic revolutions molded human society, bringing both advantages and threats to the welfare of our planet.

Over time, we humans created a civilization in which consumption, greed, zealotry, intolerance and discrimination have played an increasing role.  Liberalism, which characterized early human society, has become a target of the rich and powerf…

Wandering with Teale

At the beginning of each season, I pull out one of Edwin Way Teale's books from the American Seasons Series.  Born in Joliet, Illinois, in 1899, Teale is a famous naturalist who wrote four travel books (among others) that documented his journeys through the seasons.  North with the Spring, his first, was researched on a trip in 1947, followed by Autumn Across America in 1952, Journey into Summer in 1957 and Wandering through Winter in the winter of 1961-1962.  Teale died in 1980.

More than travelogues, these books offer intimate descriptions of the landscapes and ecosystems through which he and his wife traveled.  While he visited well-known parks and nature preserves along the way, Teale had a curiosity that made every byway interesting and he taught me, as a reader, that we can learn a great deal from what, at first glance, might appear to be rather mundane habitat.  Indeed, it was this trait that attracted me to his books and why I included North with the Spring as one of the F…

Longest Night, Shortest Day

The winter solstice of the Northern Hemisphere arrived at 3:44 AM, Mountain Time.  Last night was the longest of the year (about 15 hours at Denver's latitude) and today will bring the shortest period of daylight (about 9 hours).  From now until the summer solstice (on or about June 21), our days will gradually lengthen.

The variable daylight results from the tilt of Earth's axis.  On our annual journey around the sun, any given area on the planet receives more or less solar radiation as it leans toward or away from the sun.  At the winter solstice of the Northern Hemisphere, the sun is shining directly on the Tropic of Capricorn while, at our summer solstice, maximum radiation reaches the Tropic of Cancer.  Those who live near the Equator experience minimal variation in daylight throughout the year while polar regions go dark over two months surrounding their winter solstice and receive perpetual light for a month on either side of their summer solstice.  In effect, the varia…

Concentrated Flocks

After two Arctic blasts scoured the Front Range, most small lakes and ponds have frozen over.  Some of the larger lakes and reservoirs retain pools of open water and the South Platte River continues to flow past its icy banks.

Waterfowl that winter along the Front Range thus concentrate on these open waters, producing a congregation of species that, before the storms, were scattered throughout the valley.  This morning, at South Platte Park, relatively small pools harbored gadwall, coot, hooded mergansers, redheads, common goldeneyes, buffleheads and northern shovelers; mallards, as usual, favored the river, joined in some areas by Canada geese and small flocks of other wintering ducks.

For birders, these winter congregations offer convenient viewing and allow close comparison of the various species.  For natural predators, such as bald eagles and peregrine falcons, the ice concentrates their prey, making hunts more efficient and effective.  Our current warm spell (60 degrees F today)…

Death & Remembrance

We humans become aware of death at age 5 or so; from that point on, our concept of death is molded by our family, our friends and our education.  Across the globe, different cultures instill their unique beliefs and, upon death, conduct specific rites.

Those who live under the influence of mythology (i.e. religion) generally anticipate some form of afterlife and their death is accompanied by ceremonies designed to insure that the transition is successful.  In such cultures, funerals tend to place more emphasis on that transition than on remembrance and attention is turned to traditional prayers and rituals.

Those of us who reject mysticism prefer to focus on remembrance, acknowledging the virtues, influence and accomplishments of the deceased.  We want to celebrate their life, not dwell on their fate after death.  For us, death is life's final act and whatever rewards they might have hoped for have already been received.

Big Oil & Big Tobacco

For many decades, the American tobacco industry dodged evidence that their products were linked to cancer and cardiovascular disease.  That effort was enhanced by pseudo-scientists whom they hired to debunk the conclusions of the medical community.  Eventually, they were forced to acknowledge the risks of using their products and to discontinue advertising in the public media.  Nevertheless, tobacco use persists in the U.S. and the export of their products has exploded across the globe.

In like manner, Big Oil has managed to resist scientific evidence that fossil fuel consumption is primarily responsible for global warming.  While their own studies confirmed that evidence, they have used "experts" to argue against the link between climate change and the Industrial Revolution.  No doubt, the shift from coal to natural gas is beneficial but to deny their contribution to global warming by engaging in a disinformation campaign is a dangerous ruse.

Of course, unlike tobacco, we a…

Frigid Air & Global Warming

When Arctic air invades the U.S., as it has twice in the past two weeks, climate change deniers begin to resurface, crowing that record lows negate the argument for global warming.  Focused on their own interests, they are quick to claim that severe winter weather is more evidence that concerns over climate change are unwarranted.  Perhaps they should spend some time in Florida where coastal flooding has become a major problem.

Indeed, meteorologists point out that Arctic air invasions are often due to high pressure domes over northern latitudes, an atmospheric condition that is increasing as the climate warms.  Forcing westerly winds to veer northward, these blocking highs end up displacing polar air to the south, invading southern Canada and the U.S.  Of course, similar patterns occur across the globe, producing warm weather in some northern regions and bringing frigid air to more southern latitudes.  While the global climate and transient weather patterns are not always related, th…

A Tribute to Mom

My mother died today after a long, steady decline.  Having raised eight children and nurtured twenty-one grandchildren, she also came to know six great grandsons.  She was a mom's mom who loved children and we are all better for her devotion.

I, of course, owe my existence to her desire for children and I never had reason to doubt her commitment to my welfare.  Though she was religious, mom was a kind and tolerant person and, though her interests focused primarily on her family, she was a wise mentor and one of the best listeners I have ever known.  In my 66 years on this planet, she was always there when I needed her support and advice.

The world would be a better place if more parents shared my mother's warmth and compassion.  My grief is tempered by a lifetime of fond memories but I will miss her always.  Thanks, mom; I will do my best to reflect the gifts you bestowed.

Between Two Storms

Granted a few mild days between potent winter storms, I headed down to South Platte Park this morning to see what winter had brought to the valley.  The shallow ponds and wetlands were frozen but Eaglewatch Lake remained open, attracting many waterfowl that were forced south by the recent Arctic front.

Canada geese have finally reached their typical winter population and the usual winter ducks are now all represented.  Redheads have finally arrived and lesser scaup, hooded mergansers and ring-necked ducks are far more numerous than they were a week ago.  We are still almost two weeks short of the winter solstice but the season of ice and snow has arrived with a vengeance, sending overnight lows near zero (F) before this brief thaw.  Woodland songbirds seemed to appreciate the warm respite as well and were more conspicuous than on my recent visits to the Park; of note, a lone ruby-crowned kinglet joined the resident insectivores, seemingly unaffected by this week's frigid temperatu…

Tulare Lake

The Tulare Basin occupies the southern portion of California's Great Central Valley.  Prior to the late 19th Century, the basin contained several lakes and a vast wetland, home to a fabulous diversity of wildlife and a magnet for massive flocks of migrant waterfowl.

The largest of the basin lakes was Tulare Lake, once the largest American freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes.  Fed by four rivers that drain the west flank of the southern Sierra Nevada Range (the Kings, Kaweah, Tule and Kern Rivers, north to south), the depth and surface area of Tulare Lake varied throughout the year, receiving maximum inflows during the spring snowmelt.

Unfortunately, in the 1880s, sections of the basin marsh were drained for agriculture and, soon thereafter, the above rivers were dammed and diverted for irrigation purposes.  By the early 20th Century, Tulare Lake had become a dry bed, filling only during years of heavy snowmelt (i.e. when the levees and canals cannot handle the runoff).  In the…

Above the Smoky Hill River

As I flew from St. Louis to Denver this afternoon, the latest winter storm had spread dense cloud cover across the Midwest and Great Plains; my views were thus very limited.  Then, about halfway to Denver, there was a break in the overcast and I saw a river meandering eastward across flat terrain.

Of course, most rivers of the Great Plains flow west to east and meander through relatively soft sediments (Cretaceous and Tertiary in age); the tight curves are often bordered by abandoned meanders and oxbow lakes.  Not sure what route we were taking, the river could have been the Platte, the Republican, the Solomon, the Saline or the Smoky Hill River, not to mention any of their major tributaries.

The mystery was solved as a relatively large city came into view; the river flowed along its eastern edge and a large abandoned meander encircled much of the city.  Considering the size of the city and the fact that we were about halfway between St. Louis and Denver, I realized that the city was …

A Flood of Arctic Air

A massive pool of Arctic air is plunging south through the Great Plains.  Triggered by a broad dip in the jet stream (an atmospheric trough), the dense, frigid air is sliding down along the Front Range and will soon encompass much of the Central and Eastern U.S., from the Northern Plains to North Texas and from the Rockies to New England.

Dropping afternoon highs into the teens or single digits (F) and overnight lows below zero, the Arctic dome will produce snow (and regional blizzards) along its leading edge as it interacts with warmer, more humid air to its south and east.  After an exceptionally warm autumn across most of the country, the frigid air will feel even colder and offer a blunt reminder that weather patterns can shift dramatically; though our climate is clearly warming, the seasons continue to unfold.

While these Arctic fronts often produce an upslope flow along the Colorado Front Range, resulting in snow and very low temperatures, the dense air tends to slide toward low…

More Tardy Migrants

Following the recent excitement on our Littleton farm after I discovered a chestnut-sided warbler here in mid November (see Late for the Tropics), four lesser goldfinches visited the property yesterday, gathering at the thistle feeder.  Common residents along the Colorado Front Range during the warmer months, these small songbirds have nested on the farm in the past but generally head for the Desert Southwest or Mexico by mid October at the latest.

Yesterday's visitors were thus a pleasant surprise and, of course, I filed a report with eBird.  Unlike the warbler, which is an insectivore, lesser goldfinches eat small seeds (primarily from thistle and various sunflowers) and are thus more likely to survive periods of cold weather.  Nevertheless, they are not usually found this far north in early December and I suspect that the mild autumn temperatures are (once again) responsible for their late departure.

Such rare discoveries, especially on one's own property, fuel the exciteme…

Leftovers

Late yesterday afternoon, as dusk enveloped the Front Range, I noticed a sharp-shinned hawk in one of our pinyon pines.  Struggling to balance his prey as he fed on its carcass, he finally lost grip and his meal fell to the ground.  Dropping to tear off another morsel, he flew to a barren fruit tree and consumed that piece within minutes.  While I thought he would return to the victim before darkness set in, he flew off in the twilight.

I, in turn, went out to inspect the scene and found that his victim was a Eurasian collared dove.  Half eaten, I assumed that a fox would grab the leftovers during the night; after all, most of our local predators are opportunists and would not be averse to consuming fresh carrion.  With winter beginning to intensify, easy pickings would be more than welcome and a bit of dove might be appealing on a frigid night.

As it turned out, the carcass went unnoticed by nocturnal predators and, at dawn, the sharp-shinned hawk had returned to his kill, feasting o…

Childhood and Adult Behavior

Spending a good deal of time with my new grandson, I cannot help but appreciate his innocence and his total dependence on those who care for him.  Fortunately, he has been born to parents who love him and into an family that has the means to provide for all his needs.  He will receive a good education, benefit from the emotional support of his parents and extended family and, no doubt, be well prepared to face the challenges of his adult life.

Unfortunately, a significant percentage of human children do not experience such a loving and caring environment as they mature.  Many are exposed to the ravages of poverty and some are subjected to emotional and/or physical abuse.  Even those who appear unscathed by a troubled childhood retain scars that impact future relationships with friends, marital partners, employers and their own children.

Too often, those who benefitted from a "normal" childhood fail to recognize the impact that early childhood deficiencies (emotional, nutriti…

Cold Sunshine in the Valley

Brilliant sunshine bathed the South Platte Valley this morning but the overnight chill was slow to dissipate.  Ice coated the wetlands and shallow inlets while the lakes remained open, attracting an increasing number and diversity of waterfowl.

Lesser scaup had arrived, joining our other winter residents: mallards, gadwalls, American wigeons, green-winged teal, common and hooded mergansers, buffleheads, common goldeneyes and American coot.  Ring-necked ducks were not encountered this morning, nor were the white-winged scoters that were recently reported.  Canada geese, on the other hand, have been increasing in number over the past two weeks (later than usual) but have yet to reach their typical winter population.

Once again, songbirds were rather sparse, primarily represented by house finches, black-capped chickadees, northern flickers and white-crowned sparrows, joined by a few American tree sparrows.  Perhaps they were waiting for the intense Colorado sun to thaw the landscape befo…

Worry: A Human Scourge

We humans tend to worry.  Of course, some of us worry more than others and those with depression or anxiety disorders are most subject to this human scourge.

We worry about our finances, our health, the welfare of our children, the risks of travel and many other issues; the list could go on for pages and the prospect of a Trump Presidency only augments our concerns.  Our large brains constantly sift through past experiences and tragedies or mishaps often rise to the surface; these may be personal in nature, arise from witnessed events or merely reflect upsetting news that bombards our life 24/7 (aggravated, of course, by social media and cable news networks).

How to minimize our tendency to worry?  There seems to be no easy answer.  Attempting to reason with ourselves is often futile.  Perhaps our best approach is to live in the present and to accept the fact that we have limited control over events in our lives.  To borrow a phrase from several popular songs, it's best to just &q…

Fox at High Noon

On yet another trip to the compost pile, I encountered a red fox, sniffing his way along the west edge of our property.  Spooked by my approach, he scurried over a six foot fence and disappeared.

Common visitors and former residents on our Littleton farm, red fox are most often seen at dawn or dusk, completing or beginning a night of hunting; to see one at noon is a bit unusual.  I suspect our current cold snap has extended his period of activity, a subconscious reminder that he may be facing a long, harsh winter.  Calories are vital during this season of frigid nights and heavy snows and our large populations of voles and cottontails will provide easy targets for this agile hunter.

Extirpated from the farm by coyotes several years ago, red fox are making a comeback since their larger cousins have been discouraged from settling in (see Unwelcome Squatters); unlike coyotes, we welcome the fox, attractive and nonthreatening agents of rodent control.  Hopefully, they'll begin to den …

Western Snow, Eastern Rain

A potent winter storm system has entered the Western U.S., bringing snow from the mountains of the Pacific Northwest to the Colorado Rockies and from the Four Corners region to the Northern Plains.  Triggered by a deep atmospheric trough (a broad dip in the jet stream), the system's leading edge will also ignite thunderstorms across the Great Plains.

Over the next few days, the storm will slowly progress to the Great Lakes and Northeast and its trailing cold front is expected to produce tornadic thunderstorms along the northern Gulf Coast.  On the other hand, it will also bring much needed rains to the Southeastern U.S., offering some relief to the drought-plagued areas of Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.

We can only hope that this shift in the weather pattern persists through the winter, augmenting the Western snowpack and putting an end to the Southeastern drought.  If the current atmospheric ridge over the the eastern Pacific remains in place, that scenario could …

Yellow Jackets in November

Yesterday, will taking our Thanksgiving scraps to the compost bin, I stirred up a colony of yellow jackets, a type of wasp.  Their presence took me by surprise since we have had several hard freezes along the Colorado Front Range.

In the Temperate zone of North America, yellow jackets are primarily of the eastern or German species; the latter is more aggressive, often stinging humans and other animals that come close to their nest site.  The latter is placed in a cavity or underground chamber; there, the queen constructs the initial cells (using wood fibers) and begins to lay eggs.  Male offspring are drones, remaining in the nest cavity, caring for the queen and fertilizing her; males die after mating.  Female offspring are workers, scouring the regional environment for sugars, protein (insects, carrion, garbage) and wood fibers to enlarge the nest; protein is fed to the larvae while sugars are consumed by the workers, drones and the queen.  At the peak of summer activity, the colony…

A Thanks to the Obamas

On this American holiday of Thanksgiving, it seems appropriate to thank President Obama and the First Lady for their inspiration and leadership over the past eight years.  Sandwiched between the militarism of the Bush Administration and the upcoming tenure of a narcissist, their time in the White House will likely be remembered for its dedication to the welfare of humanity.

Though stymied by a Republican Congress, President Obama was able to push through his healthcare program, guide our country from a financial crisis, sign an International accord to deal with climate change and make steady progress against ISIS and other terror organizations.  Most of all, he and Michele (who worked to eliminate childhood obesity) have been superb representatives of our country, dedicated to human rights and conservation across the globe.  Even those who disagree with their policies must admit that they radiated warmth, kindness and tolerance, traits that President-elect Trump seemed to ridicule dur…

Waterfowl at Dusk

During the colder months, when a large number of waterfowl gather in the South Platte Valley, a spectacle develops as dusk envelops the Front Range.  In the darkening sky, flocks of wintering ducks begin to appear, streaming above our Littleton farm.

After spending the day feeding on the river and its adjacent wetlands, they are heading for several lakes and reservoirs to our northwest; there they can safely spend the night, protected from fox and coyotes that prowl the shores.  Some are easy to identify in the gathering dusk; tight, rapid flocks of green-winged teal and squadrons of large, torpedo-shaped common mergansers are perhaps easiest to pick out.  But identification is only important for the compulsive birder; the sight of the numerous flocks, joined by noisy V's of Canada geese is inspiring enough for most of us.

Indeed, though our property is surrounded by suburban neighborhoods, the waves of waterfowl offer reassurance that wildness thrives along the urban corridor, ju…

A Beautiful Gray Day

Those of us who live along the Colorado Front Range are used to sunny days; indeed, sunshine bathes the urban corridor on more than 300 days each year.  But following a prolonged period of warm, sunny and dry weather, today's mix of rain and snow is more than welcome.

After pulling out of the Four Corners region and dropping heavy snow across the San Juans and Central Colorado Mountains, the latest winter storm moved onto the High Plains overnight, producing an upslope flow along the Front Range.  Cool air, a low gray overcast and steady, light precipitation might not create postcard scenery but the sloppy conditions are beautiful in the eyes of drought-weary homeowners.

The mountain snowpack, vital to our Metro-Denver water supply, is well behind schedule this year; this storm system offers some hope that weather patterns are changing.  Time will tell if that optimism is warranted but, for now, we'll relish a day without sunshine.

Tigers at the Aquarium

Yesterday, my wife and I took two of our grandsons to the Downtown Denver Aquarium.  Initially founded as Colorado's Ocean Journey in 1999, the facility is now owned and operated by Landry's Restaurants, Inc.

The well-organized aquarium is composed of an excellent variety of exhibits that house a wide diversity of freshwater and marine life; our grandsons were especially impressed with the giant shark tank and the chance to view those predators at close range.  Unfortunately, in an effort to round-out their Asian ecosystem, the Aquarium also houses Bengal tigers in a "naturalized" indoor cage of rocky terrain, waterfalls and pools.  A big hit with visitors and pictured on most of their brochures, the imprisoned tigers (I only saw one) ruined the experience for me and, I suspect, for any naturalist who might visit the Aquarium.

While this facility, like most zoos and aquariums, takes pride in educating the public and promoting conservation, the willingness to treat ti…

The Edge of Winter

After two balmy days in Cincinnati, I flew back to Denver last evening.  As we left Ohio, where the late afternoon temperature was still in the mid seventies (F), a wall of thunderstorms loomed to the west, providing a spectacular light show for those of us in flight.  Skirting the storms, we flew southwestward to Louisville, Kentucky, and then WNW, passing over St. Louis and Kansas City on our way to Colorado.

The relatively narrow band of thunderstorms was the leading edge of our first blast of winter, a broad atmospheric trough that ended an unusually warm autumn.  The potent storm system dropped a modest amount of snow along the Colorado Front Range but produced blizzard conditions across the Northern Plains.  Of more significance, the plunge of polar air announced the arrival of winter, bringing a hard freeze to most of the country and limited relief to some drought-plagued regions.  Moving eastward, the system will produce lake-effect snows in the Upper Midwest before moving off…

Familiar Landscape from Above

Flying from Denver to Cincinnati yesterday afternoon, I selected a window seat, cherishing the opportunity to see familiar terrain from 30,000 feet.  The weather cooperated as we flew east across the dry, brown plains of Eastern Colorado but several cloud layers obscured my view once we entered Kansas.

Every ten minutes or so, we would cross a hole in the overcast, providing a brief glimpse of the landscape below.  If irrigation circles were present, I knew we were still above the High Plains while river and creek patterns gave some clues to our location.  At one point, I saw a river entering the west end of a reservoir (Waconda Lake?) and, farther east, the heavily dissected terrain (with tree lined stream beds) indicated we were passing above the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas.

Fortunately, the sky cleared as we reached the Missouri River Valley (just north of Kansas City) and I was able to see a number of my favorite birding haunts as we crossed the State: Smithville Lake, Swan Lake…

Ten Years of Blogging

Ten years ago today, I watched from my office window as cold, crisp autumn air swept into central Missouri behind a potent storm system.  Having kept nature journals in the past, I decided to start an online nature blog and After the Storm became its first entry.

Nature's Blog now harbors more than 3000 posts, covering topics from wildlife, landscape and geology to natural history and human nature.  As I implied in The Nature of Blogs and The Nature of Writers, the experience has been educational, rewarding and absolutely vital to my personal welfare.  Honored by the interest of readers from across the globe, many of whom have provided kind comments and valuable feedback, nature blogging has become a cherished part of my life.

While the opportunity to document my experiences and to share my passion with others was the initial motivation for this blog, I have come to realize that its potential influence on teens and young adults has been the most rewarding aspect of Nature's Blo…

Rare Birds beget Birders

This morning, while walking up our driveway, I spotted a small bird flitting about one of our Siberian elms.  To my delight, it was the chestnut-sided warbler that I first encountered four days ago (see
Late for the Tropics).  The warm weather and the elm leaves persist, apparently keeping the tardy insectivore on our farm.

As a devoted member of eBird, I reported the sighting once again and, by mid afternoon, had attracted several avid birders to our property.  Equipped with powerful binoculars and telescopic cameras, they are scouring the farm as I write this post.  While they are more than welcome to search for the warbler, I (like nature) offer no guarantees; as veteran birder's know, our quarry is often fickle.

The visitors, like most hardcore birders, likely chase rare sightings across the State and, perhaps, across the country.  Though my interest in birds is less intense (and more related to their place in natural ecosystems), I am privileged to own this plot of heaven and …

Subdued Songbirds

On this warm, sunny morning at South Platte Park, the number and diversity of winter ducks was beginning to increase.  In particular, northern shovelers and ring-necked ducks were more abundant than on previous visits.

By contrast, songbirds were remarkably quiet and inconspicuous.  Of those encountered (black-capped chickadees, song sparrows, downy woodpeckers, northern flickers, white-crowned sparrows, house finches, a spotted towhee and an American tree sparrow), none totaled more than a half dozen individuals.  No doubt, the exceptionally warm air and bright sun kept them in their shady retreats.

Novice birders often assume that warm, sunny days will be most productive when it comes to finding a large number and diversity of species.  In reality, cool, cloudy days are often best, triggering activity and feeding behavior.  This morning's adventure seemed to prove the point.

Smoke in the Southeast

On this cool, cloudy morning along the Colorado Front Range, geese and ducks streaming over the farm, a faint scent of wood smoke hung in the air.  While this natural smell is appealing to most humans, its current presence in the Southeastern U.S. is far from welcome.

Following a prolonged drought, wildfires have erupted across the Blue Ridge Mountains, from eastern Tennessee through southwestern North Carolina to north Georgia and the ridges of northwestern South Carolina.  Fueled by shifting winds and dry timber, the fires have spread plumes of smoke throughout the region, creating unhealthy air in many urban centers, especially those in river valleys.

While drought has been severe in the Tennessee-North Carolina-Georgia Tristate, low levels of precipitation have plagued much of the country as domes of high pressure have deflected Pacific storms across Canada and prevented Gulf moisture from moving northward.  Ski season has been delayed in the West (except at high elevation resorts…

Late for the Tropics

Look up chestnut-sided warblers in most field guides and the illustrated breeding range will encompass southeastern Canada, the northern Midwest, the Northeastern States and the Appalachian Mountains.  However, over the past two decades, this attractive songbird has also been nesting along the Colorado Front Range.

Yesterday morning, while making my daily survey of our Littleton farm, I spotted a warbler flitting about one of our large Siberian elms; due to our persistent mild weather, the tree still retains most of its leaves.  After following the bird with my binos for a minute or so, I was able to identify it as a chestnut-sided warbler in fall plumage; its bright olive cap, greenish wingbars, white eye rings and white, unstreaked breast and abdomen led to the identification.  These insectivores typically snare insects from the underside of leaves, favoring open, second-growth woodlands.

After a summer in the U.S. or Canada, they head for the Tropics, usually to Central America or…

Kudos for Wild North

A few days ago, while taking care of two grandsons, I searched Netflix for a program that we all might enjoy.  Fortunately, I came across Wild North, a three episode series on the landscape, seasons and wildlife of Norway.

Narrated in English, the program covers the Coastal, Forest and Mountain ecosystems of that far northern country, offering gorgeous scenery and close-up video of the region's many wild residents.  Unlike some modern documentaries, Wild North does not humanize or sanitize nature, providing a balanced overview of her complex web of life.

In many ways, the coverage of life in polar or sub-polar ecosystems is especially inspiring.  Creatures that inhabit those life zones must deal with challenges that go well beyond the typical predator-prey relationships.  Wild North highlights that fact and is recommended for young and veteran naturalists alike.

Kinglet Chatter

When it's mid November in the Heartland and you hear the staccato chatter of a house wren coming from the woods, it is likely the call of a ruby-crowned kinglet.  These tiny insectivores breed in coniferous forest across Alaska and Canada and southward through the Western Mountains; come fall, they head for woodlands across the southern half of the U.S. and frequently turn up in suburban parks and neighborhoods.

Ruby-crowned kinglets are energetic birds that move about constantly as they feed.  They are best identified by their small size, white eye ring, white wing bars and their habit of fluttering their wings when they land on a branch; their ruby-colored crest is usually not evident.  Primarily insectivores, these "cute" visitors may consume berries as well.

Over the past week, I have encountered several ruby-crowned kinglets at South Platte Park and on our Littleton farm.  Usually found alone during migrations (as opposed to traveling in flocks), they nevertheless f…

Victory to the Nationalists

Donald Trump's resounding victory reflects a shift toward nationalism in the U.S. and across the globe.  Anti-immigrant fervor, tinged with racism, is part of the motivation, as are the negative impacts of technology and globalization on a large segment of society.

While Trump has yet to offer details regarding the sweeping change that he proposes, it is clear that he will attempt to role back environmental regulations; after all, he has been one of the leading climate change deniers.  Expressing anti-science rhetoric and ridiculing the importance of international cooperation, Trump and his legions may ruin the planet before they have a chance to establish their utopia.

Most unsettling, America, the acclaimed leader of the free world, has elected a narcissist to run the country; subject to speaking, tweeting or acting before he thinks, Trump's tenure will likely be an extension of his entertainment career.  While I respect individuals who do not share my personal politics (soc…

South Platte Reservoir

Occupying the southwest corner of South Platte Park, in southwest Metro Denver, the South Platte Reservoir was created from an abandoned gravel pit and was completed in 2007.  Siphoning water from several drainage ditches in the area, the reservoir was designed to retain water for Highlands Ranch, a large suburban development on the south edge of the city.

Since it is used for water supply, South Platte Reservoir is not directly accessible to human visitors.  However, a graveled road runs atop the dam and its southern portion is open for walking and bird watching.  Attracting most diving waterfowl that visit the Front Range, the reservoir is known as a magnet for rare or uncommon species such as scoters, loons and long-tailed ducks; the latter have been wintering on this man-made lake in recent years.  Of course, the reservoir is also a good place to observe bald eagles and other raptors and its curving dam attracts a wide variety of open-country songbirds.

On this morning's visit…

The November Flycatcher

Say's phoebe, a handsome flycatcher of the American West, breeds from Alaska to Mexico; indeed, it nests much farther north than any other flycatcher in North America.  In addition, unlike most other flycatchers, this phoebe favors dry, open country, where it places its nest on protected rock ledges, under bridges, in tree cavities or beneath the eaves of barns and other outbuildings.

This morning, while making my usual circuit at South Platte Park, I encountered a Say's phoebe, perched on a fencepost near the reservoir dam.  Though it was a cool, sunny morning, many insects remain active along the Colorado Front Range; the mild, snowless weather persists and only a few nights have produced lows near or below freezing.

While other flycatchers have departed for southern climes (many as early as late summer), Say's phoebes are hardy insectivores, arriving early in spring and departing late in autumn.  Today's visitor is a bit later than usual and may be one that nested i…

The Lone Survivor

A thin, young fox squirrel has been foraging along the edge of my feeding area this past week.  Ever vigilant of the adult squirrels that chase him from the handouts, this juvenile is probably the lone survivor of a late season litter, his siblings having succumbed to disease or fallen prey to hawks, owls, fox or coyotes.

Our mild autumn weather has certainly favored his survival to date but his thin frame portends trouble when the cold and snow arrive.  No doubt, he has also been evicted from the nest of his parents, perhaps seeking shelter in dense clumps of junipers during our chilly Colorado nights.

While there is plenty of natural food on the farm, his chance of surviving the winter seems slim.  Competing with numerous adult squirrels and other wild residents for sustenance, he must also escape the attention of the many predators that visit our property.  In contrast to the happy outcomes so common on nature programming, his short life will likely end before spring; indeed, natur…

A Robin led Invasion

On this cool, sunny morning along the Front Range, birds were abundant on our Littleton farm.  Large, noisy flocks of American robins apparently led the invasion, feasting on berries in our juniper trees; their activity seemed to draw in the other species.

The most numerous of the cohorts were house finches, joined by a fair number of cedar waxwings, black-capped chickadees and dark-eyed juncos.  Other visitors included black-billed magpies, American crows, red-breasted nuthatches, Eurasian collared doves, blue jays, northern flickers, downy woodpeckers, our lone Townsend's solitaire and, of note, four yellow-rumped warblers.

According to eBird, the latter insectivores are rare for this region on November 1; while I question that designation, I was certain about the identification, their bright yellow rumps reflecting the morning sun.  My thanks to the robins for attracting such a fine diversity of avian visitors; surprisingly, neither Cooper's nor sharp-shinned hawks turned u…

Restoring the South Platte

Over the past few years, crews have been "restoring" the South Platte River in southwest Metro Denver.  The stretch north of Chatfield Reservoir had become braided, producing unstable cliffs and lacking a persistent deep channel.  Apparently, the latter was considered a threat to native fish species (and thus an inconvenience to fishermen), spawning the restoration efforts.

Two years into the project, spring floods destroyed much of their handiwork earlier this year but the efforts continue.  Now that the river is low, its ugly channelization is evident, giving it an artificial appearance bordered by gently sloping terrain.  Its human-produced neatness may be appealing to many but it is unsettling to the eyes of a naturalist.

Rising along the east face of the Continental Divide and then cutting through the foothills via rock-walled canyons, the South Platte has always had an irregular flow, high during the annual snowmelt or after heavy monsoon thunderstorms and low for much…

Confrontation on the Farm

Last evening, as dusk enveloped our Littleton farm, a flock of magpies began to squawk from the northwest corner of the property.  Checking on the cause for their alarm, I observed a great horned owl, perched on a limb of an aspen tree.

Oblivious of the confrontation, the stoic raptor gazed out across the pasture as if to apologize for the disturbance.  The magpies continued their vocal onslaught for ten minutes or so but finally gave up and dispersed; the owl, on the other hand, held his ground until darkness obscured his presence.

Fortunately, our two grandsons were visiting last evening and were able to observe this classic confrontation.  Having never seen an owl in the wild, they got a close look at the nocturnal predator and certainly developed an appreciation for the battles that all wildlife endure.  A discussion of the owl's diet and behavior ensued and I have no doubt that the experience will long live in their memories; hopefully, it will also fuel a lifelong interest i…

Welcome Back Harly!

A large Harlan's hawk has wintered on or near our Littleton, Colorado, farm over the past decade and returned again today.  This dark subspecies of the red-tailed hawk breeds in Alaska and western Canada; come autumn, they migrate to the southern High Plains, primarily from Colorado to West Texas.

Like all red-tailed hawks, this buteo feeds on small mammals, hunting from a perch or soaring above fields and open grasslands.  Usually seen alone during the colder months, Harlan's hawks are bulky in appearance (partly due to their dark plumage) and may be mistaken for golden eagles.

I welcome "Harly's" return to the farm.  Our large population of cottontails and meadow voles should keep him around for most of the season; besides, he loves to perch in our large, old catalpa tree, which commands a broad view of the pastures and "lawns."

Summer in October

Summer-like heat has enveloped the Front Range urban corridor and is expected to persist for the coming week.  A high pressure dome, centered over the Four Corners Region, is deflecting Pacific cold fronts to our north and producing downslope air flow east of the Continental Divide; these atmospheric and topographic phenomena combine to heat up and dry out the air as it drops toward the Colorado Piedmont.

Here in Metro Denver, our afternoon high is approaching 80 degrees F.  Though the October sun is lower in the sky, the intense sunshine, dry air and thin atmosphere deliver plenty of heat at the surface.  On the other hand, cloudless skies, low humidity and a high elevation combine to augment radiation cooling at night and our early morning and late evening temperatures are distinctly un-summer-like (falling into the low fifties after sunset and near 40 degrees F by sunrise).

Despite the warm afternoon weather, the autumn colors are past peak, the first winter songbirds have arrived …

Return of the Solitaire

On this sunny, warm October day, our resident solitaire has returned from the mountains.  While it may not be the same individual who winters on the farm each year, it is usually a single Townsend's solitaire, mingling with robins and waxwings in our western junipers.

Having summered and bred in the mountain forests, from ponderosa parklands to timberline spruce, these streamlined thrushes head for the lower foothills and adjacent Piedmont during the colder months of the year.  There they are often inconspicuous except when calling from the top of a conifer; rather possessive of their juniper berry crop, they seem to tolerate other species but chase fellow solitaires from the grove.

Our winter tenant will remain on the farm until mid April or so, oblivious of the frigid nights and heavy snowstorms.  He is, of course, a welcome visitor, especially when his high-pitched call rings through the cold, dry winter air.

Vole Control

Early this afternoon, while watching songbirds at the feeding area on our Littleton farm, I noticed several meadow voles, scurrying between a rocky border and the seed-covered ground.  More than willing to share the handouts with our resident mammals (even fox squirrels), I was entertained by the frequent roundtrips of those low-profile rodents.

Of course, meadow voles are prolific breeders and, if it were not for the coyotes, fox, owls and hawks that patrol our farm, I might be less sanguine about their presence.  Indeed, late this afternoon, I observed a sharp-shinned hawk huddled on the ground near the feeding area.  Though songbirds account for the great majority of their prey, sharpies feed on mice and voles as well; sure enough, he had a meadow vole in his talons and soon flew off to enjoy his meal on the comfort of a tree limb.

In forty years of birding, this was my first encounter with a sharp-shinned hawk that was feeding on a rodent.  All others have been strafing grasslands…

Humans to the Rescue

Driving into Metro Denver last week, I heard on a radio program that most wildlife rescue centers have closed along the Front Range.  Lack of funding, an overwhelming influx of wildlife "victims" and conflicts with rules established by the Department of Natural Resources were all given as reasons for the closures.

Unfortunately, responding to humanized nature programming and with limited understanding of natural ecosystems, many citizens have taken it upon themselves to rescue stranded, abandoned or injured animals, especially small, cute babies.  Though well intentioned, their action overwhelms rescue center resources and disrupts nature's web of life.  While human activity is no doubt responsible for increasing the incidence of injury to wildlife, we compound the problem by creating an unnatural system of care and re-release, often merely delaying the death of the animal.

In my opinion, we should concentrate on protecting as much natural habitat and open space as we ca…

First Juncos

The first dark-eyed juncos of the season arrived on our Littleton, Colorado, farm this morning.  These small songbirds breed across northern latitudes or in mountainous areas, descending to lower elevations or more southern climes during the winter months.

Today's visitors were of the slate-gray race and will soon be joined by members of the Oregon and gray-headed clans; while those of the white-winged race winter in Colorado as well, I have rarely observed them on our Littleton farm.  Foraging on the ground, juncos feast on a wide variety of small seeds and often gather beneath feeders to search for fallen milo, thistle or sunflower kernels.  Indeed, their arrival this morning prompted my first handouts of the season, attracting black-capped chickadees, collared doves, blue jays, house finches and a red-breasted nuthatch as well (not to mention the fox squirrels).

Small but hardy, juncos adapt well to Colorado's regular snowstorms, finding sustenance beneath evergreens or den…

Season of the Hunter

Before dawn this morning, the waning Hunter's Moon glowed just to the west of Orion, The Hunter.  Later in the morning, that large moon hovered above the Front Range, soon to disappear behind the lofty peaks.

By contrast, down at South Platte Park the avian hunters were noticeably absent, represented only by a lone sharp-shinned hawk.  The autumn waterfowl count continues to increase as large numbers of gadwall and American wigeon have arrived at the refuge, joined by the resident mallards, a modest number of northern shovelers, a pair of hooded mergansers and an increasing number of coot and pied-billed grebes.  The number of bald eagles should soon increase along the South Platte River, joining resident red-tailed hawks, Cooper's hawks, American kestrels, golden eagles, prairie falcons, great horned owls and a host of winter visitors.  Since most mammalian carnivores (mountain lions, black bear, coyotes, fox, otter) are nocturnal, none were encountered on this sunny but cool…

October at South Platte Park

On this bright, crisp October morning, I returned to South Platte Park in southwest Metro Denver.  Though the weather was glorious, the birding was fair at best; no doubt, the recent warm weather in the West has, once again, slowed the autumn migration.

A modest number of American wigeon, American coot and pied-billed grebes were observed on the lakes and ponds, joining`the resident mallards.  No raptors were encountered on my two mile walk, though I did see a small flock of white-crowned sparrows, two belted kingfishers and the usual mix of woodland residents.  Only a few double-crested cormorants were present, contrasting with dozens in late summer and no herons, snowy egrets or American white pelicans were seen.

Despite the lackluster birding, it was a pleasant visit (as always) and an invigorating walk before another summer-like day along the Colorado Front Range.  The autumn colors are near peak and the summer songbirds have fled to the south but the winter waterfowl will be unde…

Watching for Cranes

Heading back to Colorado today, I watched for migrant sandhill cranes in western Kansas.  Most of the western flock of sandhills, which breed across the Arctic of Alaska and Canada, funnel southward across the High Plains, headed for wintering areas in New Mexico, West Texas and Mexico.  In my experience along Interstate 70, their flights are generally best observed between Goodland and Wakeeney and usually occur from mid October into early November.

Alas, my hope of encountering these bugling migrants was not realized today.  My journey was a bit early in the season and late in the day to offer a good chance of seeing them and a strong south wind, pushing the afternoon high near 80 degrees F, likely discouraged any southward migration.

While searching for the cranes, I did observe a fair number of northern harriers (all male), ring-necked pheasants and a few tardy Swainson's hawks, not yet headed for their winter in Argentina.  Perhaps my return trip, likely in November, will be …

Pelicans, Ibis and a Peregrine

After encountering a series of foggy mornings at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, I was greeted today by sunshine and cool autumn air.  Within minutes of entering the refuge, I could see flocks of American white pelicans in the distance, flapping and gliding above the floodplain; at least 350 graced the preserve, always a welcome sight during their seasonal migrations.

Waterfowl travelers have definitely picked up in central Missouri, dominated this morning by northern shovelers, gadwalls and American coot.  Shorebirds are still moving through the Missouri Valley as well and were accompanied today by five white-faced ibis, heading south from their breeding grounds on the Northern Plains.

But raptors stole the show on this bright, October morning.  An adult bald eagle chased an immature eagle from his hunting grounds, a Cooper's hawk strafed a flock of blackbirds, a red-tail called from the Perche Creek woodlands, a red-shouldered hawk perched above a marshy shore, American kestrels…

Integrity & Politics

Integrity is the willingness of an individual to stand by their moral convictions regardless of the consequences that he/she might have to endure.  This week, in response to the release of Donald Trump's vulgar tape describing his abuse of women, many Republicans are withdrawing their endorsement of Trump as their party's Presidential Candidate.

Some might applaud their integrity, potentially risking the loss of support from Trump's core constituency and financial support from Conservative PACs.  Others might see their reaction as pure political theater, distancing themselves from the "down-ticket" damage that Trump might inflict; after all, they seemed to condone Trump's racism, sexism and narcissism throughout the Republican Primary.

Indeed, it is the rare statesman who demonstrates political integrity, foregoing party tribalism and supporting candidates purely on the basis of their character and qualifications.  Unfortunately, the words politician and inte…

Fog, Birding & Life

When I arrived at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area this morning, dense fog covered the Missouri River floodplain.  Chilly October air had settled in the valley overnight, interacting with the warm, moist ground to produce saturated air at the surface.  Entering the preserve, I found that the visibility was no more than ten yards and I pulled over to wait for the rising sun to warm the air and "burn off" the mist.  Though I could hear the distant clamor of blackbirds and the occasional shriek of a heron, there was nothing to see through the haze of moisture.

A half-hour later the fog began to lift and my patience was rewarded.  Large, mixed flocks of great egrets, great blue herons, American coot and pied-billed grebes filled the shallows while American white pelicans, double-crested cormorants and belted kingfishers fed in the deeper pools.  Bald eagles flapped above the wetlands, spooking flocks of wood ducks and blue-winged teal, and a female northern harrier patrolled the c…

Limited Gene Pool Theory

My wife has long been familiar with my "limited gene pool theory," a concept that I bring up repeatedly.  Spawned by my experience that many (if not most) humans have a close resemblance to others on the planet and by the knowledge that there must be a limited number of genome combinations in the human population, the theory usually surfaces when we encounter someone who reminds us of an individual from our collective past.

This morning, while supervising my grandsons at a large playground in Columbia, evidence of the theory's validity was readily apparent.  I saw my oldest daughter at age 3, one of my nieces and a boy who was a close friend in grade school.  Of interest, the physical resemblance is often accompanied by behavior and mannerisms that reinforce the link, suggesting that our body features influence our activity and social interactions (or vice versa).

As someone who has often been mistaken for others, perhaps I am especially sensitive to such similarities.  …

Hooting at the Thunder

When I arrived at Eagle Bluffs this morning, the Missouri River floodplain was shrouded by a dense overcast; showers moved across the valley and lightning flashed to the southwest.  A striped skunk ambled along the entry road, not yet finished with his nocturnal hunting, and turkey vultures huddled on a power-line tower, waiting for the sun.

The recent flocks of American white pelicans had departed for the south, leaving the fish for cormorants, great egrets, bald eagles, belted kingfishers and great blue herons.  Blue-winged teal graced a few of the ponds and an increasing number of American coot foraged in the marshy shallows.  Bird sightings were otherwise limited though one raptor was heard rather than seen.

At the south tip of the refuge, where Perche Creek enters the Missouri River, the hoots of a great horned owl echoed from the woodlands, seemingly in response to claps of thunder that rumbled through the valley.  Seldom heard during the warmer months, great horned owls are now…

Hurricane Matthew heads North

Almost seven years after a devastating earthquake destroyed much of Haiti, Hurricane Matthew was raking that impoverished nation this morning.  The massive, Category 4 storm, 700 miles in diameter, pounded Haiti with high winds and torrential rain; tropical force winds extend 200 miles from the hurricane's central eye.

Heading north, Hurricane Matthew will cross eastern Cuba before passing through the Bahamas, likely maintaining its strength.  Beyond the islands, the storm is expected to parallel the coast of northeast Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.  The specific track remains uncertain and coastal damage will depend on its proximity to the shoreline.  If the storm does not make landfall (and rapidly diminish in strength), Matthew may impact the coastal regions of the the Mid Atlantic States and New England as well.

While September is the peak of the Atlantic Hurricane Season, October offers its fair share of storms.  By mid November, tropical waters are cooling and upper lev…

Greater Cincinnati's New Museum

Returning to my home town for a few days, I learned that Greater Cincinnati has a new museum.  Billboards advertising The Creation Museum began to appear near Indianapolis and rose at intervals along Interstate 74; illustrated with cartoonish dinosaurs (no doubt designed to attract the attention of children), the signs indicated that the facility is on Interstate 275.  Indeed, the Museum, which opened in late May, is in Northern Kentucky, west of the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport.

While I will not have time to visit the Museum (and have no interest in doing so), I understand that it presents a Genesis-based history of life on Earth, spanning some 6000 years.  According to their literal interpretation of the Bible, early humans and dinosaurs coexisted; ignoring scientific evidence that dinosaurs inhabited our planet from 225 to 65 million years ago and that humans have walked the Earth for at least 130,000 years, the museum curators prefer to rely on clues from Scr…

Morning Spectacles at Eagle Bluffs

Arriving at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area before dawn, my friend and I were struck by the serenity.  For the first mile or so, not a single bird or mammal was seen or heard; then, the clamor of red-winged blackbirds began to echo across the refuge.  Before long, these blackbirds, one of the most abundant species in North American, rose from shrub lines and groves of trees, streaming above the floodplain in massive, undulating flocks.  Heading for fields and wetlands, they would consume tons of grain and insects before the day was done.

Near the south end of the refuge, another spectacle would unfold.  A large flock of American white pelicans (300 or more) had gathered to fish in a shallow pool.  Joined by two dozen cormorants, the pelicans were surrounded by great egrets and great blue herons that patrolled the edge of the pond.  As we stopped to observe this early morning feast, the pelicans began to rise in waves, noisily skipping across the water and then climbing into the cool ai…

October Chill

As if on cue, autumn chill has enveloped central Missouri on this first day of October.  Though a gray overcast defies the season and few colors paint the woodlands, the date and the air signal that the hot, muggy days of summer are unlikely to return until mid May or so.

Naturalists and birders anticipate migrant waterfowl in the coming weeks while almost everyone looks forward to the colorful foliage and pumpkin harvest.  Mild, sunny days and crisp, clear nights are the rule during October (especially here in the Midwest) and its name evokes memories of outdoor adventure for all but the most dedicated couch potatoes.

Though I favor the Temperate Zone, where four distinct seasons unfold, I'd take six months of October without complaint.  It's easily my favorite time of the year and I'm in no hurry to face the Holidays.  The cool, invigorating air of October is enough to cheer my soul.

Migration Uptick at Eagle Bluffs

On this cool, sunny morning, the teal hunters had left Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area and so had the blue-winged teal.  On the other hand, a large flock of American white pelicans (175 by my count) had stopped by to rest and feed in the Missouri Valley, joined by the first flocks of American coot, a dozen or so cormorants and a fair number of pied-billed grebes.  Great egrets, seemingly spooked away by the hunters, have returned in large numbers, soon to head for southern climes.

Having passed the fall equinox and on the doorstep of October, we can expect an increasing number and diversity of migrant waterfowl through November.  Though global warming seems to have slowed the parade in recent years, birders and hunters hope for a good turnout by late autumn, perhaps including rare vagrants that often mingle with the common species.

Also anticipating those travelers are avian predators.  Four immature bald eagles surveyed the refuge this morning and a lone peregrine falcon streaked abov…

Cedar River Flooding

As of this morning, it appears that the Cedar River of eastern Iowa has crested at 22 feet in Cedar Rapids and should begin falling within 24 hours, sparing the city the widespread destruction that occurred in 2008.  If the levees hold through tomorrow, residents of Cedar Rapids can relax a bit, at least for this round of storms.

Following heaving precipitation across the Upper Midwest in August, the region received copious rain over the past week as storms trained from eastern Nebraska to central Wisconsin; the highest rainfall totals, reaching almost a foot, occurred along the Minnesota-Iowa border.  The Cedar River rises in southern Minnesota and flows 338 miles to the SSE through eastern Iowa, entering the Iowa River before the latter enters the Mississippi; Waterloo and Cedar Rapids are the major cities along its course.

Except for flash flooding, which often occurs on small tributaries, major river flooding most often occurs in cities far downstream from the headwaters (below mo…

Mute Swans in the U.S.

During our visit to Indiana Dunes National Seashore (on Lake Michigan), we stayed in a hotel along a small lake.  Opening the curtain one morning, we were surprised to find six mute swans (four adults and two gray-brown juveniles) lounging on its grassy shore; by later in the day, the swans were gone.

Native to Eurasia, mute swans were introduced to the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s, utilized to adorn parks, zoos, private estates and golf courses.  Since that time, many have escaped captivity and feral flocks are found across northern latitudes of the country.  The largest congregations of mute swans inhabit the Northeast Coast (from southern New England to the Chesapeake Bay), the Great Lakes region and the Pacific Northwest.  They tolerate both fresh and saltwater habitats and feed primarily on aquatic vegetation; most do not migrate if open water is available.

Unfortunately, these large swans are very aggressive, often chasing native waterfowl from their nesting and feedin…

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Arriving in northern Indiana (see yesterday's post), we exited onto State Route 49 from I-94 and stopped at the Visitor Center for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, just north of the Interstate.  The Center provides maps of the preserve and introduces visitors to its natural history, component habitats and native wildlife.

During our visit, we hiked across wooded dunes that offered spectacular views of Lake Michigan, walked along the scenic beach and toured the marshes, bogs and fens that lie between the sandy ridges.  A diverse understory of ferns, shrubs and wildflowers covers the dunes but a fabulous variety of mushrooms, bracket fungi and other fungal forms was a special highlight.  Avian residents included the usual mix of eastern forest birds, joined by great egrets, great blue herons, Canada geese, wood ducks, pied-billed grebes, belted kingfishers and eastern phoebes on the wetlands; along the shore, sightings were limited to ring-billed gulls, herring gulls and a few …

Northeast to the Dunes

Facing a three-day weekend with no plans and encouraged by a decent weather forecast, my wife and I opted for a trip to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the boyhood home of Edwin Way Teale, one of America's most famous naturalists (see Four Books).  Leaving Columbia (Missouri) just before dawn, we drove northeastward across the Glaciated Plain of Missouri and Illinois, crossing the Mississippi, Illinois, Kankakee and Des Plaines Rivers en route to Indiana's portion of Lake Michigan's coast.

Created by glacial erosion during the Pleistocene and molded by wind and waves since the ice sheets retreated, the dune fields along the southern shore of Lake Michigan have gradually moved northward as the Great Lakes diminished in size (when drainage opened through the St. Lawrence Seaway).  The shore's mosaic of beaches, wooded dunes, wetlands and oak savannas was threatened by industrial development in the early 20th Century, prompting the establishment of Indiana Dunes State P…

A Grosbeak to the Rescue

Since summer heat has re-enveloped central Missouri, activity at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area was below par this morning.  While red-winged blackbirds were abundant (as always) most other species were less common (or less conspicuous) than usual; exceptions included eastern phoebes, red-bellied woodpeckers, belted kingfishers and Carolina wrens.

Just before I left the refuge, however, I encountered a female rose-breasted grosbeak, the first I have seen at Eagle Bluffs.  Feeding in a grove of trees with phoebes, downy woodpeckers and cardinals, she was easily identified by her prominent white "eyebrows", her heavy, conical bill and her streaked breast.  Omnivorous, rose-breasted grosbeaks consume insects, berries, buds and seeds.

These attractive birds breed across the Midwest, Northeast, southern Canada and down through the Appalachians; Columbia (Missouri) lies along the southern edge of their summer range and they are uncommon in our region.  By late summer, they begin t…

September Heat

Just when the mild, glorious days of autumn seemed to be settling in across the Heartland, intense summer heat has returned to Missouri, courtesy of a high pressure dome across the central and southeastern U.S.  Blocking the progress of Pacific and Canadian cold fronts, this dome of heat is especially oppressive in the lower Mississippi Valley, where humid air is streaming north from the Gulf of Mexico.  As I write this post (at 7PM Central Time), it is still 86 degrees F in Columbia and the dew point hovers in the seventies; tonight's low is expected to be 71 degrees F.

While golds and purples paint the grasslands, flocks of migrant nighthawks fill the evening sky, blue-winged teal dodge their determined hunters and broad-winged hawks circle toward the tropics, the weather has set back the seasonal clock, bringing an unwelcome dose of summer to the beloved month of September.  Snow may dust the western peaks and the annual aspen display should unfold within a week but here in the…

Migrating Broad-winged Hawks

While far less spectacular than their congregations near Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (in Pennsylvania) and other viewing sites in eastern North America, a small flock of broad-winged hawks circled above Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area this morning, headed for Central or South America.  Mingling with a large flock of turkey vultures, these small buteos could have easily been missed.

After summering in deciduous or mixed forest in the eastern U.S. and southern Canada, where they are often solitary and inconspicuous, broad-wings gather in large flocks for their autumn migration, funneling southward along coastlines or isolated ridges where updrafts aid their journey.

When I arrived at Eagle Bluffs this morning, the air was calm and patchy fog covered the Missouri River Valley.  Teal hunters huddled near their decoys and an osprey flapped above the pools where great blue herons and great egrets fished the shallows.  By mid morning a southwest breeze raked the floodplain, forcing air to rise al…

Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument

Lost amidst the political shenanigans of the Presidential campaign was the news that President Obama signed off on the creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod.  The preserve, the first National Marine Sanctuary in the western Atlantic, stretches across more than 4900 square miles at the edge of the Continental Shelf.

Characterized by deep canyons, oceanic mountain ranges and seamounts, the area encompasses vital feeding grounds for whales, a wide diversity of marine fish and a host of sea birds, including wintering flocks of Atlantic puffins.  The highly dissected topography, in which ocean depths range from 200 to more than 4000 meters, produces upwelling of deep sea nutrients, fueling a spectacular web of marine life.

Commercial fishing, mining and oil drilling will be excluded from the Monument though shellfish harvesting will be phased out over the next seven years.  Just the latest addition to our National Park and…

A Comma of Storms

Late this afternoon, a potent upper level low is spinning above western Minnesota, its cold front buldging across southern Canada and the Great Lakes region and then curving to the southwest, crossing the Upper Mississippi Valley, passing through Missouri and ending in West Texas.

Counterclockwise winds spin around the low, dragging down cool air from Canada to its west; in concert, ahead of the front, warm, moist air is pulled up from the Gulf of Mexico.  Along and just behind the cold front showers and thunderstorms (some tornadic) are dropping a swath of rain, showing up as a giant comma on the national radar.  The precipitation has been especially heavy here in Missouri as the storms "train" northeastward along the front.

Severe weather is most likely to occur along the southern tip of the comma (in central and west Texas) or east of the low pressure in northeast Minnesota.  As the system drifts east, skies will gradually clear and autumn-like air will invade the Heartla…

Caspian Terns at Eagle Bluffs

Early this morning, while birding at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River floodplain, I saw what appeared to be two large gulls, backlit by the rising sun.  On closer inspection (and with the sun at my back), I realized that they were Caspian terns, identified by their large size, stocky frame, black cap, modestly forked tail and thick, red-orange bill.

Found across the globe, Caspian terns nest in colonies, favoring coastal beaches or those along islands in large lakes and rivers; in North America, their breeding grounds include both coasts, southern Alaska, Canada, the Pacific Northwest, California, the Intermountain West and the Great Lakes.  Up to five eggs (usually two or three) are laid in a nest scraped from the sand and coated with dry vegetation.  Their young are slow to mature and often remain with their parents through the first winter, begging for fish that the adults snare from the surface.

By late summer, Caspian terns that breed in the north begin to mov…

Patriotism & Human Rights

The current "scandal" of athletes not standing for the National Anthem is especially poignant in the United States where symbolism and tradition have long garnered strong emotions.  The flag and the anthem are closely tied to our identity as "leader of the free world" and those who tarnish or disrespect them are, in the eyes of many Americans, engaging in treasonous behavior.

Unfortunately, the freedoms represented by those symbols are not evenly distributed and the abuse of minority groups, by police and others, has long been a component of American society.  Convinced that little change will occur without major shifts in the public's perspective, a group of athletes have used their high visibility to force the white majority out of their comfort zone.  Not standing for the National Anthem, as the flag of freedom waves nearby, seemed to be a good first-step and, to date, has received plenty of attention.

Derided as unpatriotic, the demonstrators have been ridi…

Decoys at the Refuge

Arriving at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area early this morning, activity on the pools was subdued except for scattered groups of great egrets, great blue herons and double-crested cormorants.  The reason was clear when I spotted a flock of decoys near a marshy shore and saw duck-wing pinwheels along the channel.  Pickups and flatboats in the parking lots also provided evidence that teal hunters were hiding in the marsh grass.

Before long, a series of shotgun blasts echoed through the valley as tight flocks of blue-winged teal bolted from the wetlands and raced above the Missouri River floodplain.  Ignoring this activity, a pair of bald eagles surveyed the refuge from a large, dead tree, a northern harrier skimmed the crop stubble and a lone osprey circled above the larger pools, hunting for fish.  High water and flooded fields (likely produced to attract more teal) negated shorebird sightings and I turned my attention to the woodlands along Perche Creek where blue jays, Carolina wrens …

An Online Visit to Uruguay

For a variety of reasons, many of us must explore our planet through the eyes and ears of fellow naturalists, tuning into National Geographic and other nature programming or subscribing to nature blogs and journals.  Even if one has the opportunity to travel to a distant Continent, he/she may not get the chance to visit its remote preserves and ecosystems.

Fortunately, I was recently introduced to Despues de la Tormenta (After the Storm), a blog from Uruguay.  The author visits nature preserves across Uruguay and bordering countries, discussing their role in protecting endangered species and illustrating the region with magnificent photos of the landscape and wildlife.  I highly recommend this website and will be checking it myself on a regular basis.

One of the many joys of writing Nature's Blog is hearing from individuals across the globe who share my devotion to conserving natural ecosystems.  Their contribution is vital to the welfare of our planet and I am honored to draw att…