Monday, July 24, 2017

A Reinvigorated Floodplain

Two days after torrents of rain lashed the Missouri River Valley, life on the floodplain has been reinvigorated; this morning, noticeably cooler and drier air enveloped Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area.  The greenery was more vibrant, floral colors were more intense and the resident wildlife were far more active.

Water within the pools and channels had returned to near normal levels and shallows covered low swaths in the fields.  Indigo buntings, dickcissels and common yellowthroats were especially vocal, energized by the milder conditions; butterflies were numerous along the roadways, moving among the shrubs and wildflowers.  By contrast, waders and shorebirds had spread out across the recovering refuge and were less conspicuous than they were before the rains.

A lone bald eagle and two Cooper's hawks patrolled the peaceful scene, minks raced across the levees and a host of swallows skimmed the inviting pools, no longer stagnant and shrinking.  No doubt, hot, humid weather will return to central Missouri but, for now, an early taste of autumn is certainly welcome in the Valley.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Mark Twain Cave

Yesterday, facing another afternoon near 100 degrees F, we opted to take our grandsons to Mark Twain Cave in the Mississippi River Valley, just south of Hannibal, Missouri.  Renowned for its part in Mark Twain's novels and for its role as a refuge for Jesse James, the cave was discovered in the mid 19th Century and began to attract tourists soon thereafter.  Festooned with autographs from the 1800s, this limestone cave (which has about 3 miles of passageways) remains a popular escape from the summer heat and tours start every 15 minutes or so.

Having visited caves across the country, Mark Twain Cave is far from the most spectacular but was plenty interesting for our grandsons.  The narrow passageways are artificially lit and, like most commercialized caves, many of its formations are named.  Unlike most limestone caverns, "water features" such as stalactites, stalagmites and flowstones are very limited and only a few small pools were encountered.  Due to the steady influx of humans, few bats inhabit the cave.

Despite its popularity and artificial features, Mark Twain Cave was interesting from a historical point of view and our guide was both informative and personable.  Of course, an hour or so out of the oppressive summer heat was especially welcome (the cave temperature is 52 degrees F, year round).

Friday, July 21, 2017

Birding in the Cicada Din

On these hot, summer days, many of us prefer to bird during the evening hours when at least a touch of coolness is in the air.  Hampered by a dense woodland canopy to which songbirds often retreat, we rely on their songs or calls to zero in on their location.

Unfortunately, in the middle of a Midwestern summer, the annual cicadas are reaching their peak level of activity and their loud chorus drowns out the birdsong, making our avian quarry difficult to locate.  Focusing on birds that feed on lawns (robins, grackles) or in the open sky (chimney swifts, common nighthawks), we hope to catch sight of other species as they dart between shrubs and tree lines or race across the darkening landscape.

Frustrated by the cicadas, some of us head in early while others, myself included, grab a lawn chair and cede the evening to our noisy neighbors.  After all, their brief adult lives will soon end and, having spent two years underground, they deserve their time in the sun.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Eagle Bluffs on Simmer

Persistent, oppressive heat, an ongoing drought and diminished flow from the Missouri River has left Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area simmering in the midst of a Midwestern summer.  Many of the pools are either dry or coated with algae and the central channel is rapidly evaporating, stranding many fish (especially Asian carp) in the warm, oxygen-poor shallows.

Taking advantage of these conditions, great blue herons and great egrets were abundant this morning, joined by a large number of killdeer that noisily patrolled the expanding mudflats.  Vultures have yet to descend on the hapless victims but small, mixed flocks of shorebirds gathered along the shrinking pools.  Wood ducks were rather numerous and a few double-crested cormorants dove for fish in the deeper areas of the channel.  Other sightings included four bald eagles, a Cooper's hawk, red-headed woodpeckers, indigo buntings, yellow-billed cuckoos, dickcissels and lark sparrows, among other common residents.

Waiting on heavy thunderstorms or late summer cold fronts, this floodplain ecosystem must endure the hot, dry weather.  Many songbirds will retreat to the shade of riparian woodlands while some mammals will estivate until conditions improve.  In the meantime, waders, swallows, shorebirds and turkey vultures will be the primary beneficiaries of the heat and drought.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Back in the Soup

Back in central Missouri for a couple of weeks, I have returned to the hot, humid air of a Midwestern summer.  Unable to cool off, even in the shade, I must retreat at intervals to our air-conditioned home and primarily limit my outdoor activity to the morning and evening hours.

This evening, a cold front is slowly dropping through the Mississippi Valley, promising showers and thunderstorms for those in its path and cool, dry air for those behind the front.  Unfortunately, the latter is not expected to enter our region and, while any rain will be welcomed, it will, in the end, merely add to the humidity.  Afternoon highs are expected to approach 100 degrees F by late in the week.

Of course, the landscape is lush compared to the Front Range, reflecting annual precipitation that is almost double that on the Colorado Piedmont; thick, hot, humid summer air is part of the price for that greenery.  On the positive side, fireflies flicker in the gathering dusk and colorful cardinals, among the last songbirds to bed down, flash among the woodlands.  Natural diversity is good for the soul.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Family Massacre

Early this morning, as I was headed east from Denver, I encountered a tragedy on Interstate 70.  A mother raccoon and her four kits lie splattered across the highway, likely nocturnal victims of a tractor trailer.

Raccoons can be a nuisance to homeowners but even the most hard-hearted suburbanite would be moved by this sight.  The mother, whether escorting her first or tenth litter, was purely following instinct and the youngsters, new to this dangerous world, had but a month or two to explore their surroundings before tragedy struck.

I could shift the discussion toward humans and our impact on natural ecosystems but the scene was too wrenching and the raccoons deserve better.  As fellow mammals, we empathize with their plight and, as intelligent creatures, we acknowledge the risk of sudden and random death.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Trumpet Vine

The orange-red flowers of trumpet vine have been blooming on our Littleton farm over the past few weeks.  Among the most recognizable of plants, this species is native to the Southeastern U.S. but has been widely cultivated and is now naturalized in Temperate and Subtropical latitudes across the globe, including semiarid regions of the American West.

The trumpet vine at our farm was planted at the southeastern corner of the house and, if left alone, would probably cover at least two sides of the building by now.  Drought tolerant, the vine thrives in poor soil and essentially takes care of itself; one need only prune the vine to keep its rapid expansion in check.  Since the flowers form on new growth, pruning is best performed in autumn or early spring.

Of course, this deciduous, woody vine is planted for its showy flowers which attract hummingbirds; our resident broad-tailed hummingbirds visit the trumpets as do a host of bees.  The aggressive vine spreads by both seed and suckering and its "aerial roots" may damage homes, barns and fencing on which it grows; it may also smother shrubs and small trees if not kept in check.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Fishermen and Litter

With all due respect to the large number of fishermen (especially fly-fishermen) who respect the environment and clean up after their activities, a significant percentage of their colleagues seem to be oblivious of the mess that they create and the environmental damage that it may cause.

Discarded beer cans, lunch debris, cut lines and an assortment of floats, weights and empty containers often litter their abandoned fishing site.  Just this morning, I came across such a scene of desecration at South Platte Park, an otherwise pristine nature preserve.

Unlike hunters, who generally seem to connect with the ecosystem in which they seek their quarry, many fishermen are present solely for the recreation, bringing along their folding chairs, music and sustenance.  I doubt that many of them can identify the birds and mammals that share the lake or river and might be endangered by the garbage that they leave behind.  In my personal opinion, fishing should be restricted (if not eliminated) within sensitive natural areas; pelicans, cormorants, diving ducks, mink and other native wildlife will keep the fish population under control.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Monsoon Preview

While the peak of the Southwest Monsoon is likely several weeks away, a preview has arrived this evening.  Patchy showers are moving northeastward across the Front Range urban corridor and a sizable zone of precipitation zeroed in on our farm, bringing a welcome reprieve from our hot, dry weather.

Triggered by high pressure over the Southern Plains and low pressure over the Desert Southwest, the monsoon pumps Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of California moisture across the Four Corners region.  Consulting the radar this evening, one finds a clear dome over West Texas and Oklahoma while patches of rain extend across northern Mexico and then northward through Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado.

Heavy rain is not expected in our region and the cool, wet respite will likely be brief.  But in a semiarid ecosystem such as ours, any precipitation (rain or snow) is always welcome.


Sunday, July 9, 2017

Cottontail Forms

As I reported two years ago (see Our Cottontail Colony), the cottontail population on our Littleton farm has exploded since red fox and coyotes stopped denning on the property.  No doubt, visiting predators (including owls, hawks, fox and coyotes) take a limited toll on their numbers but our resident cottontails remain active and conspicuous, night and day.

Fortunately, the rabbits nibble primarily on the various grasses, weeds and ground-cover plants that cloak our fields and "lawns" and have not significantly damaged the other vegetation; rather, their major impact has resulted from their digging.  While cottontails use the abandoned dens of other mammals and may nest in woodpiles our outbuildings, they do not construct their own underground tunnels and chambers.  However, they are fond of scooping out "forms," shallow depressions in which they rest or place their nests; they also may dig up roots or tubers that suite their fancy.

As a result, our property is pock-marked with cottontail forms and, since the soil is dry and sandy, vegetation is slow to recover.  Add a burgeoning cottontail population and their habit of nesting at least four times each year and we have ourselves a problem.  Despite the cute appearance and docile nature of our cottontails, I'm beginning to root for the predators.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Rattlesnake Alert

This afternoon, just after the latest thunderstorm failed to deliver its nourishing rains to our parched, Littleton farm, I was called to the backyard to see a rattlesnake.  My five year-old grandson wanted me to pick it up so he could feel its back.

Not surprisingly, the rattlesnake turned out to be a rather large garter snake, its mid-section swollen from a recent meal.  We watched as he slithered into the nearby shrubs and I pointed out a few features that excluded his initial identification.

Such teaching opportunities come along on a regular basis here on the farm and I relish the chance to instill both knowledge and natural etiquette during these encounters.  Today, I was able to teach him about garter snakes (including their physical traits, diet and behavior) while also encouraging him to watch the reptile from a safe and non-threatening distance.  He'll surely remember the experience and, hopefully, retain a healthy respect for our wild neighbors.

Friday, July 7, 2017

A Plant-Based Diet

My sister recently recommended that I watch Forks Over Knives, a documentary available on Netflix and elsewhere on the internet.  The film makes a convincing case for adhering to a plant-based diet, especially in relation to the prevention and treatment of disease but also as a means of reducing our impact on the environment.  Of course, it also highlights the political ramifications, including the reluctance of the Federal Government to loosen its bonds with the Meat and Dairy Industries.

I suspect most physicians would agree with the basic points made in the documentary, especially as it relates to the importance of nutrition, weight control and exercise.  Of course, some controversy still exists within the healthcare industry and the implication that diet alone will negate the need for medications will not be well received by those in the pharmaceutical realm.  Nevertheless, impressive evidence links cultural dietary habits and the incidence of both cardiovascular disease and malignancies.  Surely, a combination of diet and drug management might often be in order and, in some cases, a plant-based diet may prove to be sufficient.

Those of us who are already quasi-vegans may be pushed toward a pure plant-based diet by this fine documentary and those of us who already avoid meat, fish and dairy products for humanitarian and/or ecologic reasons will have more ammunition for that choice.  On the other hand, Forks Over Knives is more than a documentary; a quick check of the internet reveals that it has morphed into a mini-industry.  Whether that impacts one's response to the film will be a personal matter but I still highly recommend watching it.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Bees in the Basswood

The large basswood tree on our Littleton farm is now full of fragrant, yellow flowers, attracting hordes of honeybees.  Also known as lindens or lime trees, these trees are represented by at least thirty species across North America and Eurasia.

Long-lived, basswoods are renowned for the honey produced from their nectar and for their soft, light, finely-grained wood, used to construct musical instruments.  The flowers are also used to brew herbal teas which are claimed to have a variety of medicinal properties.  While basswoods attract aphids and the ants that "farm" them for their "honey dew," neither appears to affect the health of the tree.

We'll just enjoy the beauty of our basswood, its fragrant flowers and the shade that its dense canopy offers during the hot days of summer.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Counting on the Courts

A federal appeals court has temporarily blocked the Trump Administration's attempt to role back the clean air standards enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama.  Following the hesitancy of courts to fully impose Trump's immigration restrictions, this is a hopeful sign that the judicial system will slow if not block the current assault on human rights and natural ecosystems.

One would think that moderate Republicans would join Democrats to derail Trump's agenda but statesmanship is sorely lacking among modern politicians.  Their willingness to ignore or justify the President's twitter rants, no matter how disturbing, is the most obvious sign of their party loyalty.

We must therefore count on the courts to protect the rights of women, the poor, the handicapped and the displaced and to defend our planet's environment from the greed of wealthy industrialists.  Until Congress develops a backbone, the courts may be our only hope; on this National Holiday of Freedom, that is a sad conclusion indeed.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Lamb's Ear

Late last summer, a rosette of velvety leaves appeared near the edge of a field on our Littleton farm.  Covered with silver-white hairs, the leaves persisted through the winter and, within the past few days, the plant has sent up stalks with small purple flowers.

Our newcomer is lamb's ear, native to Turkey and Iran.  Often planted as an ornamental in flower gardens, this herb can become naturalized in sunny, dry regions, explaining its sudden appearance on our Front Range property.  Long used for a variety of medicinal purposes, lamb's ear is easily maintained; it tolerates poor soil and does best with full sun exposure.  Since it is drought tolerant and attracts butterflies, it is a welcome addition to our farm.

One of the joys of owning a piece of land, however small, is the discovery of flora and fauna never before encountered.  Of course, shunning the use of pesticides and herbicides and foregoing artificial irrigation will greatly increase such opportunities.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Above the Chalk Lands

Flying back to Denver yesterday, clouds obscured the landscape of Missouri and eastern Kansas.  When that curtain was finally removed, near WaKeeney, I was looking down on the flat terrain of west-central Kansas, where irregular, white formations broke the squares of cropland.  Most of these stretched west to east just south of a river that meandered across the Great Plains.

What I saw were outcrops of Cretaceous chalk, deposited in a vast sea that covered this region some 100 million years ago.  While most of the chalk is buried beneath younger Tertiary sediments, eroded from the Rockies, escarpments of white rock are exposed by rivers and their tributaries that sculpt the landscape, carrying away the overlying deposits.  In this case, the Saline River has eroded the Plains, providing the aerial spectacle that I encountered.

On my many road trips across the Great Plains, I would rarely see such outcrops of chalk unless I made side excursions to sites such as Castle Rock, south of Quinter.  Air travel, on the other had, offers a grander view of nature's handiwork (clear skies permitting) and yesterday's route was perfect for observing the chalk lands of Kansas.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Donating to the Postal Service

As a naturalist, a conservationist and a social liberal, I have long donated to a variety of organizations that share my philosophy and serve to protect the human rights and natural resources that I hope to defend.  In concert with that effort, I attempt to limit my personal consumption, recycle what I can and limit correspondence to online communication (i.e. I go paperless whenever possible).

Nevertheless, the very organizations that I support, including several well-respected conservation organizations, deluge my home with monthly (if not weekly) mailed solicitations.  Of course, some also send along free gifts to fuel my commitment, seemingly oblivious of the financial and environmental costs associated with their generosity.

I often wonder what percentage of my donations are used for solicitation purposes.  Indeed, I sometimes question whether my contributions fund the Postal Service more than the groups I hope to support.  No doubt, most readers share my experience and frustration but I can only rant for myself!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

An Evening at Eagle Bluffs

Of my hundreds of trips to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain, the great majority have occurred in the morning.  Yesterday, enticed by mild, sunny weather, a fellow birder and I opted for an evening visit.

Rewarded with serene vistas and the mellow tones of evening light, we saw a large number of great blue herons and great egrets, concentrated by the drying summer landscape.  They were joined by a lone black-crowned night heron, killdeer, spotted sandpipers and a few wood duck families.  Indigo buntings were abundant in the open woodlands and a trio of bald eagles patrolled the refuge.  White-tailed deer were especially common in the waning daylight and restless flocks of red-winged blackbirds swirled above the darkening floodplain.  Other sightings included yellow-billed cuckoos, Baltimore and orchard orioles, dickcissels and lark sparrows.

Not a morning person by nature, I thoroughly enjoyed our evening visit to Eagle Bluffs.  Indeed, it reminded me of my early birding years when, after a day at the hospital, I would escape to local parks and nature preserves to hone my skills and to decompress.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Swallow-tailed Kites

Leaving Longboat Key this morning, we drove north on Interstate 75, dodging thunderstorms all the way to southern Georgia.  Between episodes of torrential rain, the sky would clear and, on several occasions, a swallow-tailed kite would appear, dipping and soaring above the roadside woodlands.

Among the most exotic and beautiful birds in North America, these fork-tailed raptors once inhabited riverine and coastal wetlands throughout the Southeastern U.S. and northward along the Mississippi River Valley (when extensive swamp forests covered the river's floodplain).  Today, they are still common summer residents in Florida and smaller populations are found along the Southeast Coast and the northern Gulf Coast; come autumn, all head to swamp forests and wooded marshlands of South America.

Aloft for most of the day, swallow-tailed kites feed primarily on flying insects but also snare lizards, tree frogs and snakes from the forest canopy.  Unlike most raptors, they nest in colonies and even tolerate the presence of non-breeding kites.  Encountering these graceful hunters today was certainly the highlight of our stormy journey.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Chuck-Will's-Widow

While making one last visit to the seawall this evening, I heard the distinctive call of a chuck-will's-widow echoing from a mangrove island in Sarasota Bay.  Often heard on Longboat Key during the summer months, these nocturnal birds feed on flying insects, snaring them in their large, gaping mouth; on occasion, they also grab small songbirds and bats.

Largest of the North American nightjars, chuck-will's-widows (named for their call), breed throughout the Southeastern U.S. and are permanent residents in southernmost Florida.  Nests are placed directly on the ground, usually in open woodlands of oak or pine.  Not often observed unless accidentally flushed, they strafe the treetops at dawn and dusk and may be caught in your headlights along country roads; on the other hand, these hunters are frequently heard on summer nights, delivering their endless, repetitive call.

Come autumn, most chuck will's widows head for the Caribbean, Central America or northern South America.  There they become less territorial, gathering in tropical forests or wooded marshlands for the winter.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Manatees in the Boat Canal

Over the past couple of days, two pair of manatees have been feeding and lolling about in the boat canal of our condo complex on Longboat Key.  Likely females with their calves, they are among the 6600 Florida manatees that inhabit coastal waters, bays and estuaries of the Southeastern U.S., from the Carolinas to Texas.  During the winter months, most retreat to Florida while, in summer, they have turned up as far north as Cape Cod.

Listed as endangered in 1967, when their wild population was estimated to be 600, Florida manatees have recently been downgraded to "threatened" by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  While increased awareness of their plight and stricter boating restrictions have allowed their population to rebound, these large aquatic herbivores remain susceptible to coastal water pollution and careless boaters.

Known as "sea cows" since they graze on a wide assortment of marine and tidewater plants, manatees are actually more closely related to elephants (see Sea Elephants).  Florida manatees are rather solitary creatures for most of the year and are able to breed by age four; nevertheless, most females do not mate until they are seven or older and calves (usually single) often stay with their mother for two years.  Common in Sarasota Bay (especially during the colder months), their appearance always commands attention and their calm, peaceful demeanor seems to infect those of us who watch them.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

East of Cindy

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Mystery on the Beach

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

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

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

Tern Attack on Whitney Beach

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

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

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

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Downside of Photography

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

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

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

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Loggerhead Sea Turtles

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

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

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

Friday, June 16, 2017

Back in the Subtropics

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Disappointment at Chincoteague

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

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

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

Monday, June 12, 2017

Human Evolution Revisited

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

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

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

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Medicine Bow Range

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

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

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

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Lost Creek Wilderness

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

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

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

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Scourge of Mysticism

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Hawthorn in Bloom

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

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

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

Monday, June 5, 2017

Evolution of Bats

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

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

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

Friday, June 2, 2017

Doves in the Deluge

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

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

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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

America First, Environment Last

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

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

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

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Miller Time

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

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

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

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Hound's Tongue

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

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

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

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Decline of Wildness

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

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

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

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Hutton Lake NWR

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

From Yellowstone to Lander

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Scenic Valleys of Montana

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

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

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

Monday, May 22, 2017

Rivers and Ranges

Leaving Denver at sunrise this morning, I headed north on Interstate 25, passing the snowy peaks of the Front Range and undulating across the Piedmont, dipping to cross tributaries of the South Platte River.  Approaching the Wyoming line, the highway climbs onto the Gangplank, leaving the watershed of the South Platte and then gradually dropping into the North Platte Basin.  After descending through the Chugwater River Canyon, lined with flat-topped escarpments, I-25 passes Wheatland, where the traveler enjoys a spectacular view of the Laramie Mountains to the west, dominated by Laramie Peak; a few miles north of that city, the highway crosses the Laramie River, a major tributary of the North Platte (which is eventually crossed at Orin, at Douglas and at Casper).

Angling westward at Douglas, I-25 parallels the North Platte (as it flows eastward) and curves along the north end of the Laramie Mountains.  At Casper, it leaves the river and leads north; halfway to Buffalo, the highway crosses a low divide, leaving the North Platte watershed and entering the Powder River Basin.  Here the greenery increases dramatically and herds of sheep join native pronghorn on the lush hillsides.  Nearing Kaycee, the southern end of the Bighorn Range looms west of the Interstate, which crosses the three upper forks of the Powder River; farther along, I-25 also crosses forks of the Crazy Woman River.  Low clouds and heavy rain limited views of the Bighorn Range between Buffalo and Sheridan but the sun returned as I reached the Montana line and the north end of the Bighorns towered to the west.  Before reaching Billings, the highway (now I-90) crosses both the historically famous Little Bighorn and the Bighorn Rivers, both tributaries of the Yellowstone River.

At Billings, I drove westward on I-90 through the Yellowstone River Valley.  Before long, the Absaroka Range appeared to the WSW and the Crazy Mountains gleamed from the WNW; the highway eventually passes between these scenic massifs, following the Yellowstone to Livingston, where the river flows down from Yellowstone National Park.  I'll spend the night in that town before making my circuit through southwestern Montana.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

North to Montana

In my 40-plus years of road trips, I have visited all but one of the Lower 48 States; that single exception is North Dakota, which I hope to visit this coming fall.  A close second is Montana, which I drove into for several miles during a family trip to Yellowstone National Park back in the early nineties.  Over the next few days, I will extend my exploration of Montana, circling through the southwestern part of that State.

Like most road trips, I know my intended route but have no idea whether plans will change based on a whole host of potential unforeseen circumstances.  Right now, I intend to head for Billings, then zigzag to Helena before looping back through Deer Lodge, Butte and Bozeman.  Rather than retracing my route from Billings to Casper (along I-25), I plan to drive south through the Bighorn Valley (west of the Bighorn Range) before angling east to Casper.

While I certainly hope to see a wide variety of wildlife on my journey, I will be most interested in the landscape and am especially looking forward to seeing the headwaters of the Missouri, northeast of Three Forks.  There, the Madison, Jefferson and Gallatin Rivers merge to form the Missouri, a river that I have come to know well and one that played a major role in the exploration of the West (see Up River with Lewis & Clark and following posts).

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Morning After

On this cold, cloudy morning along the Colorado Front Range, the snowstorm had moved on but large patches of heavy, wet snow still covered most of our Littleton farm.  Cottontails were everywhere, taking advantage of the prolonged darkness and nibbling at the greenery that emerged from the retreating snow; at least half were young bunnies, likely the second litter group of the season.

As the potent Colorado sun took a toll on the gray overcast, birds began to emerge and the cottontails retreated to the protection of the shrub lines.  House finches and American robins dominated the morning bird population, joined by downy woodpeckers, house wrens, chickadees, doves and an amorous pair of cedar waxwings, huddled in a large western juniper.  Two Cooper's hawks zigzagged across the property, hoping to snare an unwary songbird, while Canada geese, mallards and a lone great blue heron cruised overhead.

The highlight on this chilly, May morning was an olive-sided flycatcher, perched at the top of a large Siberian elm.  Among the last summer residents to arrive, this large flycatcher is one of the few avian species to nest near timberline; no doubt, he was not intimidated by the cold air and spring snow.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A May Snowstorm

One of the joys or drawbacks of living along the Colorado Front Range (depending on one's point of view) is that snow may fall from early September through early June.  Today's snowstorm is thus not unusual; indeed, following a mild winter and a nearly snowless March, we were due for snow in April and May (and certainly in need of its moisture).

The current storm is the product of a deep atmospheric trough that, yesterday, brought cold temperatures as far south as Northern Arizona and the mountains of New Mexico.  As the trough pushed eastward across Colorado, it produced heavy snow in the mountains and ignited thunderstorms along the Front Range urban corridor last evening.  By this morning, the rain had changed to snow as upslope winds developed on the backside of the storm system.  Large, wet flakes pummeled our Littleton farm, leaving three inches of snow within a few hours and weighing down the shrubs and small trees (most of which are fully leafed-out).

As I write this post, the storm is centered over the southeast corner of Colorado (usually an ideal location to produce an upslope snowstorm in Metro Denver) and periods of heavy snow continue, occasionally mixed with rain.  The temperature sits just above freezing and is forecast to remain stable through the night.  Meanwhile, on the eastern edge of the system, severe thunderstorms and tornadoes are expected to rake the High Plains.  See also: Upslope Slop in Colorado and Denver's Upslope Snowstorms.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Storksbill

Read any wildflower manual and you will learn that storksbill favors sunny, dry areas and is most often found in sandy soil, in sparsely vegetated fields or in overgrazed pastures.  This explains why storksbill is abundant in the "lawn areas" of our Littleton, Colorado, farm.

Indeed, the numerous pink-purple flowers, reddish stems and fern-like leaves of this mat-producing wildflower currently adorn the farm.  Native to Eurasia and first introduced by Spanish explorers in the Desert Southwest., this plant (often classified as a weed) can be found in all States except Florida and is hardy enough to colonize parts of Alaska, Canada and Greenland.  Named for its needle-like seed pods, storksbill is also known as cranesbill or heronbill in some regions.  Small flies and bees pollinate the showy, five-petaled flowers, cottontails and various herbivores (including livestock) graze on its foliage and both songbirds and small rodents feed on its abundant crop of seeds.

Fortunately, storksbill fills in the numerous gaps in our "lawns" and adds both greenery and floral color to the semiarid landscape (no watering needed!).  It may be a "weed" but the residents of our farm, myself included, appreciate its presence.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Black-chinned Hummingbirds

On my visit to South Platte Park this morning, I encountered 30 species of birds.  Yellow warblers were especially common, joined by a fair number of yellow-breasted chats, gray catbirds and spotted towhees.  But the highlight of my visit was provided by two black-chinned hummingbirds.

Summer residents throughout most of the Western U.S., these hummingbirds are best identified by their black throat (fringed by an iridescent purple swath along its lower edge), a white upper chest band, a white spot behind each eye, an emerald back and dusky flanks speckled with green.  Like many other hummingbirds, they tend to perch on a dead snag between feeding forays.  Unlike the broad-tailed hummingbird, which is a common summer resident along the Front Range, their wings produce a low pitched and rather subdued sound as it zooms about.

Black-chinned hummingbirds favor semi-arid pine-juniper woodlands on their breeding grounds but often visit open riparian woodlands during migrations.  Here along the Front Range, they are primarily migrants, stopping to feed on nectar and insects before heading for breeding areas in Western Colorado and across the Intermountain West.  Come September, most head for Mexico though an increasing number have been wintering along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Longevity can be Overrated

Most humans would likely agree with the following points: 1. They hope to live a long life but do not wish to live beyond the point at which they lose the mental and/or physical ability to care for themselves and 2. That end of life decisions should be left to the patient (or their designated surrogate) in consultation with their physician(s).

Unfortunately, unexpected circumstances often intervene and the wishes of the aging, ill or injured party are often never fully expressed and discussed beforehand.  As a result, many individuals are "kept alive" long beyond their functional endpoint and many end up dying in hospitals after months or years of nursing home care and repeated hospitalizations.  The financial consequences are often a significant burden for their family and for society as a whole.

Throughout my career as an Internal Medicine Hospitalist, I encountered very few cases where the patient or their family chose to forego therapy that would have prolonged a functional life; in almost all of these cases, treatment was declined for religious reasons.  On the other hand, I witnessed hundreds if not thousands of cases in which futile treatment merely prolonged the death of the afflicted individual, often at great psychological and financial expense to the patient and their love ones.  Living longer should not always be the primary goal.  (see also: Natural Death and Thoughts on Assisted Suicide).

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Global Big Day on the Farm

Today was eBird's annual Global Big Day, an effort to receive as many reports as possible from across the globe and thereby assess the health and distribution of avian populations.  Though I participated in the breeding bird survey at South Platte Park this morning, I decided to submit my Global Big Day list from our Littleton farm.

My report period stretched from 4PM to 7:30PM and included all birds seen on or above our three acre property.  In the end, 24 species were observed, none of which was unusual for the date and location.  The highlight, one that occurs each year in mid May, was the appearance of western tanagers, colorful birds that stop on the farm to rest and feed before heading to the upper foothills and mountains to nest and raise their young.  Other sightings included a Swainson's hawk, lesser goldfinches and a spotted towhee among more common and widespread species.

Though my contribution to Global Big Day was modest at best, it is rewarding to provide input for the annual census.  After all, our avian neighbors are constantly challenged by natural predators and also face the effects of human activity, including pollution, habitat loss and climate change.  Now that the Trump Administration is in charge, they need all the attention and assistance that we can offer.  Documenting their status is but the first step.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Riverscapes from Above

Returning to Colorado today, I opted to fly, weary of my repeated drives across the Great Plains.  My flight, which began in Columbia, Missouri, connected in Dallas and clear skies were the rule, offering spectacular riverscapes along the way.

Of course, we first crossed the swollen Missouri, west of Jefferson City, still high from the recent heavy rains. A second break in the clouds occurred near Ft. Smith, Arkansas, where the Arkansas River came into view, winding past its many oxbow lakes and abandoned channels.  Approaching DFW, the greenway along the Trinity River curved past downtown Dallas, a pleasing sight amidst the maze of highways.

On the second flight, from Dallas to Denver, we flew northwest, soon following the winding course of the Brazos River.  Once we reached the higher, drier terrain of North Texas, the upper tributaries of the Red River produced a magnificent scene, snaking eastward across the desolate redlands.  Northeast of Amarillo, we crossed the Canadian River just east of Lake Meredith and soon encountered the basalt flows atop the Raton Mesa, drained at its eastern end by the Cimarron River.  On the north side of the Mesa, in Colorado, the Purgatoire River dropped northeastward to join the Arkansas near Las Animas.  Farther north, beyond the pine covered Palmer Divide, we left the watershed of the Arkansas River and followed tributaries of the South Platte northward across the dry plains of Eastern Colorado, looping over the river's main channel on our final approach to DIA.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Time for Terns

On this cool, cloudy morning in central Missouri, terns dominated the scene as I entered Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River floodplain.  Flocks of black terns moved northward through the valley while a large, noisy flock of Forster's terns circled overhead; they were all on their way to breeding grounds across the Northern Plains.

The terns were certainly the highlight of my visit but many other interesting sightings occurred as well.  Among these were a barred owl, a pileated woodpecker, a snowy egret, a white-faced ibis, a peregrine falcon, a fair number of soras, a dozen Wilson's phalaropes and the largest congregation of shorebirds that I have encountered all spring.  The latter included greater and lesser yellowlegs, pectoral sandpipers and assorted "peeps," too distant to identify without a spotting scope.  Summer residents, including indigo buntings, dickcissels, common yellowthroats and orioles (both Baltimore and orchard) were all more abundant and conspicuous. Mammal sightings included white-tailed deer, a striped skunk, muskrats and a mink.

Since I'm heading back to Colorado, this will be my final spring visit to Eagle Bluffs.  But this fabulous refuge, among other factors, will draw me back to Missouri on a regular basis.  Any naturalist or birder who lives in the State likely shares my sentiments and others who travel through the region are strongly advised to explore this spectacular preserve.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Visitor on the Deck

This morning, I was sitting on our back deck in Columbia, Missouri, listening to the calls and songs of unseen birds echo from the dense May canopy.  The air was warm and humid, destined to fuel showers and thunderstorms later in the day.

Suddenly, a small, colorful bird darted from the woods and landed on the chair next to me; the attractive visitor was a yellow-throated warbler, perhaps planning to search for spiders and insects in crevices of our house and deck.  Among the first warblers to arrive in the spring, yellow-throated warblers breed across the southeastern quadrant of North America, from the southern Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic region to the Gulf Coast.  They favor open pine woodlands, cypress swamps and riparian groves; in the northern part of their range, they are most often found in stands of sycamore along streams and lake shores.  Like black and white warblers, these insectivores often creep along limbs in the manner of nuthatches, searching for prey in the knots and bark crevices.  Nests are usually placed high in trees and two broods are generally raised during the spring-summer breeding season.  Come autumn, these warblers head for Florida, Mexico or the Caribbean islands.

Similar events have surely been experienced by all veteran birdwatchers.  Had I set out with the purpose of finding a yellow-throated warbler this morning, I would likely have spent many frustrating hours and, in the end, been unsuccessful; after all, they are not among the more common avian species in most parts of their range.  This morning's sighting was pure luck, a matter of being in the right place at the right time.  Nevertheless, the warbler's unexpected visit was both exciting and appreciated.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Fields of Gold

On our journey back to Missouri today, bright fields of golden flowers adorned the landscape, providing the only colorful relief from the expanding greenery of May.  Covering fields from the Appalachian Plateau of Northeast Ohio to the floodplains of the Mississippi Valley, the flowers surely caught the eye of every traveler.

This wildflower is butterweed, a member of the aster family that propagates from windblown seed.  The seeds germinate in the winter and form small rosettes in open fields; in late April or early May, a central stalk develops, topped by clusters of bright yellow flowers.  The latter are pollinated by a variety of insects (bees, flies, butterflies and moths) and fluffy seed heads appear by late spring.

Butterweed grows in full sun or partial shade and is especially fond of moist soil, explaining its widespread abundance during this wet spring.  It is native to North America and can be found from the Atlantic Coast to the Great Plains; unfortunately, these attractive wildflowers are toxic to many mammals and can be fatal to livestock if consumed in large amounts.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Cuyahoga Gorge Trail

The Cuyahoga River rises on the Glaciated Appalachian Plateau of northeastern Geauga County, in northeast Ohio.  Though its headwaters are within 30 miles of Lake Erie, the river tumbles southwestward, passing through Portage County before reaching Akron, in Summit County.  There it curves westward through northern Akron where it has carved a scenic gorge in the Carboniferous bedrock; Cuyahogo Falls once graced this gorge but now lies beneath a lake created when a hydroelectric dam was completed in 1912.  Beyond its gorge, the Cuyahoga flows northward through its broad, deep valley where it is protected within a National Park before reaching Cleveland and Lake Erie.

Gorge Metropark offers a fine trail network on the north wall of the Cuyahoga Gorge.  Its upper limb leads along massive cliffs of Sharon Sandstone and Conglomerate (Pennsylvanian in age), sitting atop Meadville Shale (deposited during the Mississippian Period); in several areas, the softer shale has eroded away beneath the sandstone and conglomerate, creating spectacular recessed caves.  Beneath these sheer rock cliffs, a rich, mixed forest spreads down to the whitewater stretch of the Cuyahoga beneath the dam.  The lower section of the Gorge Trail loop, snakes above the turbulent River, providing overlooks along the way.

The natural beauty of the Cuyahoga Gorge, now accessed by a well-constructed trail network is marred only by the hydroelectric dam and its man-made falls.  Though a source of clean energy, the dam has long changed the ecology of the River and the tranquility of its magnificent chasm.

Addendum:  Shortly after completing this post, I learned from my brother-in-law (a native of Northeastern Ohio) that the Gorge dam will soon be demolished.  Great news for all who care about the health of our rivers and the latest major step in the rebirth of the Cuyahoga!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Ohio's Headwaters Trail

In researching yesterday's blog post, I came across a reference to The Headwaters Trail in northeast Ohio.  Following the abandoned path of the Cleveland-Mahoning Railroad, which provided passenger and freight service between Youngstown and Cleveland until the mid 1970's, the current hike-bike trail stretches eight miles, from Garretsville to Mantua; plans to extend the trail both eastward and westward have not yet been realized.

Named for the numerous lakes and wetlands in the area that feed upper tributaries of several Ohio rivers, the trail crosses the Ohio Divide (see yesterday's post), connecting the watersheds of the Upper Cuyahoga and Mahoning Rivers.  Most of the route passes through scenic, rural landscape and several sections of the Headwaters Trail are also used by the Buckeye Trail, which circles through the entire State.

This afternoon, my wife and I stopped by Mantua, where the Trail crosses the Cuyahoga and then runs above the Marsh Wetlands State Nature Preserve, a rich emergent marsh which has been recognized as a National Natural Landmark since 1976.  While we did not have time to explore the entire route today, this section of the Headwaters Trail is highly recommended for anyone interested in a bird's eye view of a magnificent wetland ecosystem.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Ohio Divide

The relentless rain across northern Ohio and yesterday's visit to the West Branch of the Mahoning River, prompted me to look once again at Ohio's portion of the Eastern Continental Divide.  That line of "high ground," separating rivers that flow to the Atlantic from those that flow toward the Gulf of Mexico, enters western Ohio just north of Grand Lake; the divide then makes a curve to the south, cutting across that lake and dipping toward Lake Loramie, following the southern margin of the Maumee River watershed (and the northern edge of the Great Miami watershed).

From this area, the Ohio Divide makes an irregular, staircase-like march to the northeast corner of the State.  En route, it separates the watersheds of the Maumee, Sandusky, Huron, Vermillion, Black, Rocky, Cuyahoga, Grand and Ashtabula Rivers to its north from those of the Great Miami, Scioto, Muskingum, Mahoning and Shenango Rivers to its south (west to east).

The Ohio Divide, rather subtle in most areas, reflects the effect of the Wisconsin Glaciation (the last of the Pleistocene, 70-10 thousand years ago) on the landscape of the Great Lakes Region, including northern Ohio.  While the Wisconsin Ice Sheet pushed farther south than the current divide (especially in western Ohio), it sculpted the landscape by scouring the bedrock, spreading glacial till, depositing moraines, producing meltwater lakes, calving chunks of ice (see Kettle Lakes) and eroding post-glacial stream beds with torrents of meltwater.  In addition, as the glaciers retreated into Canada, the land rebounded from their weight and the St. Lawrence Seaway opened, draining the swollen ancestors of today's Great Lakes.  Of course, erosion continues today and the route of Ohio's Divide will shift over time.

Friday, May 5, 2017

West Branch State Park

The primary branch of the Mahoning River rises on the Glaciated Appalachian Plateau near Alliance, Ohio.  Flowing NNE, the river passes through the Berlin and Milton Reservoirs before merging with its West Branch just east of Newton Falls.  The Mahoning then flows eastward, passing through Warren and Youngstown before crossing into western Pennsylvania.  There it joins the Shenango River to form the Beaver River which flows south to enter the Ohio River; in effect, the northeastward and eastward flowing Mahoning, a major river of northeast Ohio, is part of the Ohio River Watershed (and thus part of the Mississippi's vast watershed).

The West Branch of the Mahoning, which rises near Ravenna, Ohio, was dammed to form the Michael Kirwan Reservoir in 1966.  Covering 2650 acres, this lake is now surrounded by West Branch State Park, almost 5400 acres of beech-maple forest, upland meadows and post glacial bogs; the latter harbor skunk cabbage, buttonbush and swamp oak among other bog plants.  On our visit today, hiking and birding were hampered by a steady rain and soggy trails; nevertheless, we saw bald eagles, white-tailed deer and a decent variety of songbirds, including a rather large number of great crested flycatchers.  I also spotted a large flock of small gulls far out on the reservoir (likely Bonaparte gulls) that were too distant to accurately identify.

Our journey to West Branch State Park was prompted by its number one ranking for Portage County birding sites on eBird.  In the end, the visit offered limited bird sightings (primarily due to the weather) but stimulated my interest in the Mahoning River and its watershed.  As a naturalist, I am interested in the flora and fauna of any given landscape but it is the topography and hydrology that always grabs my attention (and most often prompts further investigation).

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Kent Bog State Nature Preserve

Dedicated in 1987 and named for Tom Cooperrider, Emeritus Professor of Biology at Kent State University and a renowned Ohio Botanist, the Kent Bog State Nature Preserve protects a 45 acre bog meadow that developed from a kettle lake as the Pleistocene gave way to the Holocene.  Surrounded by boreal forest, the lake gradually filled with peat as vegetative debris, aquatic plants and sphagnum moss invaded from the shoreline, a process that began about 12,000 years ago and continues today.

Accessed by a half-mile boardwalk loop, the bog is famous for its glacial-relic vegetation, including gray birch trees and tamaracks; the later deciduous conifers, now primarily found across northern Canada and Alaska, survive in cool, post-glacial valleys and depressions where Pleistocene glaciers once scoured the landscape and Kent Bog harbors one of the largest and most southern groves of these trees.  Among other vegetation at the bog are highbush blueberry, winterberry, leatherleaf, various ferns and, of course, sphagnum mosses.

As one might expect, this nature preserve attracts a wide variety of woodland songbirds, dominated this morning by a noisy assembly of gray catbirds.  The bog is also home to a diverse group of amphibians and reptiles, including the endangered spotted turtle.  The entrance to this fascinating refuge is off Meloy Road, a short distance west of Route 43 (south of downtown Kent and north of Interstate 76).

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Birding along Sandy Lake

Sandy Lake is a kettle lake in Portage County, Ohio, a few miles southeast of Kent.  Those who own property along the shores of Sandy Lake have access to a beach, which borders its northern edge, and to a well-maintained trail that winds through woodlands and past meadows southeast, south and west of the lake.

On this chilly, gray morning, I hiked around the lake and, of course, took my binoculars.  Eighteen double-crested cormorants dove for fish on the calm waters, an osprey circled overhead and great blue herons stalked the marshy shallows; a few spotted sandpipers foraged on the beaches and swallows (tree, northern rough-winged, barn and purple martins) were abundant, hunting insects above the lake or resting in trees or on nest boxes along the shore.  Despite the weather, the woods and meadows were alive with songbirds (representing at lease forty species by my count); highlights included a large number of yellow-rumped warblers, a few palm warblers, a Baltimore oriole, a rose-breasted grosbeak and a Swainson's thrush.  Joining the avian residents and visitors were a few white-tailed deer, black tree squirrels and numerous eastern chipmunks.

Since we will be spending a week at Sandy Lake, more local excursions will surely follow and I intend to visit several other nature preserves in Portage County.  Both eBird and readers of this blog will be kept informed of my sightings.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Crossing Flooded Terrain

We left Columbia, Missouri, yesterday morning, driving east on Interstate 70.  At Indianapolis, we angled southeast on Interstate 74 and spent the night in Cincinnati after visiting with family members.  This morning, we headed northeast on Interstate 71, passing through Columbus, and continuing on toward Cleveland, eventually turning east along Interstate 76 to Kent, Ohio.  There we will spend the next week in a family cottage along Sandy Lake, southeast of Kent.

Throughout our journey, the rivers and creeks of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio were bank full and many had spilled across their floodplains.  The recent storm system had dropped torrential rains across the region and the effects were widespread; while even the largest rivers (the Mississippi, the Wabash, the White, the Whitewater, the Great Miami and the Scioto) were markedly swollen, some of the most dramatic flooding had occurred along smaller streams, including Hurricane Creek in east-central Illinois and Big Walnut Creek in west-central Indiana.

While evidence of the deluge diminished northeast of Columbus, cool, wet, cloudy weather enveloped most of the Midwest and is still plaguing northeast Ohio this evening.  In fact, such conditions are forecast for much of the coming week but we'll make the most of our stay in this lake-studded corner of the State.  Indeed, I plan to file my first eBird report from Sandy Lake tomorrow.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Firehose from the Gulf

Yesterday, as a potent storm system approached from the west, a massive plume of Gulf moisture was pumped northward.  Interacting with a stationary front that stretched from northeast Texas to the mid Ohio Valley, the warm, humid air unleashed heavy rain, especially from southwest Missouri to southern Illinois; here in Columbia, Missouri, we received nearly five inches of rain, an impressive amount but only half that which fell in parts of southern Missouri and southwest Illinois.

Flash flood warnings were common throughout the southeastern half of Missouri and much of the State remains under a flood watch today as intermittent rain and thunderstorms continue to move across the region.  Fortunately, the center of the storm's circulation has moved eastward (currently near Wichita, Kansas) and the firehose of Gulf moisture is now directed through the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys.  Unfortunately, the leading edge of the system has been igniting severe thunderstorms (some of which were tornadic in eastern Texas); today, that risk has shifted to the Gulf Coast States.

Such extensive flooding is most often produced by potent but slow-moving storm systems; in this scenario, heavy rain continues to fall over the same swath of landscape, saturating the soil and then spilling into the streams and rivers.  Though a massive amount of moisture is taken up by leafing trees and growing plants during the spring season, that process cannot keep up with the sudden deluge.  Hopefully, sunshine and drier air will settle in before the next spring storm system arrives from the Great Plains.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Morning of the Swallows

Despite the chilly air, low overcast and intermittent thunderstorms, I opted for one last visit to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area before we head to Ohio.  As it turned out, my decision was rewarded with one of the annual avian spectacles in the Missouri River Valley.

As I drove slowly through the flooded landscape, thousands of swallows wheeled above the refuge, strafed the pools or rested atop cattails that rise from the shallows.  Barn swallows were by far the most numerous species, joined by large flocks of cliff and tree swallows and a smaller number of northern rough-winged swallows.  Just back from South America, the barn swallows will soon disperse across the Missouri River watershed, favoring open country with man-made structures in which to nest.  Other highlights on this gray, wet morning were marsh wrens, soras, green herons, great egrets, a trio of Forster's terns, a northern waterthrush and, of course, bald eagles with their growing youngsters.

As spring gives way to summer, we will hardly notice the swallows that grace our parks and farmlands, thankful for their insect consumption and admiring their agility but taking these common summer residents for granted.  But when they first appear in massive clouds, having journeyed from the Tropics to raise their young in the American Heartland, they certainly get our attention and command our respect.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Songbird Heaven

Taking advantage of a break in our spring rain, I headed over to the Columbia Audubon Nature Sanctuary, which connects with the adjacent Bonnie View Nature Preserve, in western Columbia.  After all, late April is a great time to look for migrant and summer songbirds and there is no better habitat in central Missouri for observing those species.

Despite the cool, cloudy weather and a soggy landscape, my visit was rewarded.  While robins and cardinals were most abundant and conspicuous, I encountered an excellent diversity of songbirds in the forest, among the open woodlands and on the scenic meadows.  These included indigo buntings, gray catbirds, Nashville, yellow and Tennessee warblers, blue-gray gnatcatchers, ruby-crowned kinglets, eastern phoebes and a great crested flycatcher, joined by many common permanent residents.  Other highlights included two fuzzy, great-horned owlets, a barred owl and a sedge wren.

Veteran birders know that the spring songbird season peaks in late April as summer songbirds arrive, a few winter songbirds have yet to depart and migrant songbirds (especially warblers) are passing through, greatly augmenting the avian diversity in our parks, neighborhoods and nature preserves.  This morning's cool, cloudy weather and wet landscape may not be favored by birders but it certainly did not dampen the bird activity.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Before the Storms

Now that I live primarily in the semiarid climate of Colorado, I sometimes miss the balmy air of a Midwestern spring, especially the warm, humid air that flows northward ahead of a cold front.  Last evening, as storms approached from the west, I sat on our deck in Columbia, Missouri, and enjoyed a dose of that fresh spring air.

Turkey vultures drifted overhead, just clearing the treetops, while squadrons of chimney swifts strafed the cloudy sky, feasting on invisible prey.  Birdsong, primarily provided by cardinals and robins, was especially intense, perhaps an indication that they sensed a coming change.  Carried on a south breeze, the balmy air, unlike the oppressive humidity of a Midwest summer, was scented by the varied blossoms of spring; enveloped in its soothing embrace, I was reluctant to leave the deck and remained outdoors until dusk faded to night.

Checking the radar when I came inside, I saw a swath of rain with imbedded thunderstorms from Minnesota to Oklahoma, the leading edge of an atmospheric trough that dipped across the Great Plains.  The storms reached central Missouri by 2 AM and our high temperature today will be twenty degrees (F) cooler than yesterday.  That balmy air is gone for now but it will return many times before summer's stagnant heat grips the Heartland.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Distant Surprise

Facing limited time in central Missouri and a forecast with several days of rain, I decided another visit to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area was in order on this mild but cloudy morning.  I especially hoped to see some of the summer residents before I visit Ohio and then return to Colorado.

Fortunately, I did encounter a couple yellow warblers, yellow-breasted chats, orchard orioles and indigo buntings, joining the usual mix of permanent residents.  The number of blue-winged teal, American coot and lesser yellowlegs had fallen significantly but the diversity of birdlife was excellent, as usual, totaling 43 species during my two hour visit.  The resident bald eagles were especially active this morning, feeding their hungry offspring and reinforcing their massive nests.

Just before starting my return trip through the refuge, I made one final scan of the large southern lake and noticed a small flock of white birds with black wingtips wheeling above the distant shore; to my aging eyes (aided of course by binoculars), they seemed to have a pinkish or rusty tinge to their head and neck and they were clearly some species of large shorebird.  After watching them intently for a minute or so, it became clear that they were American avocets, uncommon but regular spring migrants through the Missouri River Valley.  Indeed, almost one year ago to the day, I wrote Avocets at Eagle Bluffs in response to a dozen of those graceful visitors.  A lesson for fellow birders: a final look is often rewarded!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Lesser Yellowlegs at Eagle Bluffs

In April, blue-winged teal, American coot and lesser yellowlegs are generally the most common wetland birds at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, on the Missouri River floodplain.  Today was no exception.

Lesser yellowlegs (mid-sized shorebirds) were foraging along every pool and on most of the flooded fields, joined by smaller numbers of pectoral sandpipers, greater yellowlegs, solitary sandpipers and killdeer.  Very active feeders, lesser yellowlegs prefer shallow water through which they wade to snare aquatic invertebrates, larvae and small fish.  This morning's visitors are on their way to boreal woodlands across Northern Canada and Alaska where they will nest and raise their young.  By August, most will be heading for wintering grounds along our southern coasts or in Central and South America; there they may be found in both fresh and saltwater habitats.

Though they were outnumbered by blue-winged teal, at least 200 lesser yellowlegs graced the floodplain refuge on this sunny, cool morning.  I wish them well on their journey to the north and look forward to their return during the waning days of summer.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

In Support of Science

On this Earth Day, hundreds of marches across the globe demonstrated support for the scientific method, an investigative process that has led to the technologic evolution of human civilization and has greatly expanded our understanding of natural ecosystems, natural laws and the Universe itself.

Prompted by anti-science rhetoric within the Trump Administration, especially as it pertains to the science of climate change, the demonstrations were but the latest salvo in the long war between proponents of mysticism (and their industrial co-conspirators) and the scientific community.  While scientific progress relies on evidence-based facts, the enemies of science attempt to undermine this data when it threatens their religious beliefs, political agenda or corporate profits.

Science has both improved the lives of humans and unleashed industrial processes that threaten the health of our environment; we cannot accept the benefits without also acknowledging the consequences.  Unfortunately, many humans are selective in their approach to science, hailing the accomplishments of modern health care and technology while denying the legitimacy of climate science, ignoring the effects of industrial pollution or shunning the implications of astrophysics.  But the scientific method is universal and it is our only path to uncovering truth.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Late April at Roxborough

This morning, I joined my wife, daughter and grandson for a hike at Roxborough State Park, southwest of Metro Denver.  Adorned with spectacular rock formations from the Cretaceous, Permian and Pennsylvanian Periods, it is one of the most scenic preserves in Colorado.

Though rain was threatening, we completed a two mile loop through the Park.  Mule deer, often abundant at Roxborough, were represented by a single, small herd; birding, on the other hand, was rewarding as always and I spotted a fair number of scrub jays, canyon wrens,  broad-tailed hummingbirds, Say's phoebes and spotted towhees along the trail.  A lone golden eagle circled above the Park, kestrels hunted from the sandstone ridges and the season's first flocks of white-throated swifts and violet-green swallows strafed the open meadows.  Signs of coyotes and fox were evident but those nocturnal hunters remained out of sight, as did the black bears and mountain lions that may be encountered at this fabulous refuge.

As we completed our hike, light rain began to fall, soon mixing with sleet.  The fickle weather of a Colorado spring had taken another turn and we retreated to the warm, dry confines of our vehicle.  No doubt, we'll return to this natural wonderland many times in the coming year.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Tiny Travelers

This week, three small summer species have arrived on our Littleton farm.  I mentioned the house wrens at South Platte Park several days ago and, on the following day, one had settled down on the farm, singing from and moving among brushpiles in our composting area; he will soon be preparing nests to impress the trailing females.

On that same day, three chipping sparrows arrived.  These small, handsome sparrows winter in Mexico, the southern Desert Southwest and in Florida; those that return to the Colorado Front Range generally settle in the foothills where they favor open ponderosa parklands.  Our three visitors have yet to depart and spend most of the day searching for seed beneath the feeders.  Today, another tiny traveler arrived; the first broad-tailed hummingbird of the season is zooming about the property, his wing tips producing a loud, high-pitched trill as he engages in aerial loops.  Like the chipping sparrows, most of these hummingbirds, having wintered in Mexico or Central America, will summer in the foothills or mountains, favoring wooded meadows with plenty of wildflowers; however, a fair number stay down on the Piedmont and we host a nesting pair on the farm each year.

The tenacity and determination of long-distance migrants is always inspiring, especially when the travelers are so small.  I am honored by their presence each spring, whether they stay to nest or move on to other summer quarters.