Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Out of the Gloom

After several days of a low, gray overcast, chilly air and intermittent showers, the clouds have pulled away from the Front Range this morning, revealing the first thick blanket of snow across the higher peaks.  Down here on the Piedmont, the sunshine and mild temperatures were inviting after the gloomy period and the precipitation had softened the landscape.

Surveying the farm this morning, I encountered the usual mix of avian residents but also came across a rock wren, foraging on one of the woodpiles; he was the first I have seen on the property since we purchased it in 1990.  Of course, his presence only added to the joy that the pleasant weather had brought.

The atmospheric trough that produced our cool, rainy conditions is pushing eastward across the Great Plains and warmer, drier air will soon move in from the Southwest.  On the backside of the trough, those air masses will clash and thunderstorms are forecast for tomorrow afternoon.  By the weekend, however, we expect sunny skies and highs in the seventies (F). 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Leadership by Bullhorn

Donald Trump has little respect for anyone but himself.  Wallowing in his pool of self importance, he sends out tweets deriding his staff, fellow Republicans, foreign leaders, civil rights advocates and, this week, professional athletes.  Still campaigning in regions of the country that adore his in-your-face style, Trump attacks critics and opponents with zeal, shunning the decorum expected of American Presidents.

This leadership by bullhorn is both divisive and ineffective, as evidenced by his near total lack of achievements to date.  Limited to signing executive orders, Trump remains at the mercy of the Legislative and Judicial Branches which, hopefully, will keep this bombastic narcissist from destroying America's image across the globe.  Why the Republican leadership has not been more vocal in criticizing this wayward President is almost as disturbing as Trump's behavior itself.

Of course, The Donald could care less what the rest of us think.  He is all about himself and speaks only to his poorly educated, provincially-minded, racist base.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Chill Alarm

The first chilly weather of late summer or early autumn certainly catches the attention of humans and wildlife alike.  After months of hot weather, it is a welcome reprieve for both but it is of more significance to our wild neighbors.

Though animal behavior is most closely tied to the daylight cycle, the cool weather is an instinctive alarm that the harsh months of winter lie ahead and that harvesting is now especially important.  That may mean putting on a layer of fat for hibernation, fueling up for migration or storing food in dens or natural cavities for the lean months.  In response to this seasonal alarm, wildlife species become more active and conspicuous, delighting many humans who are also invigorated by the chill.

Last night, our low temperature dropped into the mid forties (F), kicking on the furnace for the first time since April; the first prolonged run of chilly weather is expected to arrive by this weekend.  This morning, I toured the farm, taking in the cool fresh air and watching our resident birds and mammals as they began their initial preparations for winter.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Hurricanes send a Message

After enduring widespread destruction from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, North Americans and residents of the Caribbean now face Hurricane Maria, churning toward the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.  Just upgraded to a category 5 storm, Maria has become the third major hurricane to threaten the region within the past month.

While much of our focus has centered on evacuation and recovery, the elephant in the room is global warming which may not increase the frequency of hurricanes but will surely augment their intensity.  Tropical storms and hurricanes are heat machines, fueled by warm ocean waters and the hot, humid air into which they move.  Global warming will increase all three factors as sea temperatures rise and a warming atmosphere retains more water vapor.

Unfortunately, while many industrialists and politicians appreciate the technology that predicts the path and intensity of hurricanes, they reject the science of climate change.  Few cities are planning for a warmer climate and politicians continue to fight over funding for infrastructure.  The message sent by these powerful storms should resonate across the globe; few if any regions of the planet will be immune to the effects of a warming climate. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Apache Jumping Spiders

Sitting on a railroad tie along one of our flower beds, I looked down to see a small group of jumping spiders in the dry, weedy grass.  Yellow-orange patches on their cephalothorax and abdomen indicated that they were female Apache jumping spiders, a species common across central latitudes of the U.S.

Like all jumping spiders, they have excellent vision, provided by four pair of eyes (including a large, dominant pair).  Foraging in the bright sunshine, they search for a wide variety of small insects and will return to their den if clouds role in.  Unlike many spiders, jumping spiders do not spin webs but do use silk to create a nest for their young or a cozy retreat for themselves; the nest is typically placed in a protected crevice among rocks or logs.  The life span of these small, active arachnids is generally about one year; Apache jumping spiders overwinter in their immature stage.

It is always interesting to come across small creatures that, if not for sheer luck, might otherwise go unnoticed.  Some landscapes, such as our weedy, dry "lawns", would not seem attractive to many species of wildlife; but, if we stop and look, we are often surprised to discover an amazing diversity of fascinating creatures.  Backyard safaris are often rewarding.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Borrowing Genes

All life forms on this planet, from fruit flies to humans, borrow genes that determine their physical and behavioral traits.  Having received half of their genome from each parent via sexual reproduction (or all of it in lower forms that are asexual), the genes are a blueprint for our structure and the biochemical processes that sustain life.  Many human genes date back to ancestral primates, having persisted through natural selection during 60 million years of evolution.

Unfortunately, some genes are harmful or corrupted, producing disease or failing to block disease processes; most of these bad genes were inherited while some mutated from good genes during our lives.  We have long used medication and surgery to deal with the effects of this "malware" in our chromosomes and are just now beginning to use gene therapy to correct the defects in our genome.

In the course of our lives, we may pass along some of our genes to biologic children, including some that may threaten their health.  As the saying goes, "we cannot choose our parents" and we are subject to any deleterious genes that we inherit.  Finally, upon our death, a sizable fragment of our genome persists in our biologic children; the rest is removed from the genome of our species, never to be returned.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Engaging North Korea

Despite the saber-rattling and bombastic threats from the two narcissistic leaders, neither North Korea nor the United States has anything to gain from a military confrontation.  Though some war hawks in Congress are pushing for a tough stance, diplomatic engagement is the best answer in the long run.

It may be difficult to demonstrate respect for a dictator who brain washes and oppresses his citizens but we cannot encourage change by isolating and ridiculing Kim Jong Un.  Efforts to bring North Korea into the world economy will produce opportunities to shine light on the inequities that exist in that country and better introduce its population to the freedoms enjoyed in Western Society.

If Kim Jong Un is granted a more significant role on the world stage and if other major players initiate diplomatic relations with North Korea, we should be able to avoid military conflict and eventually bring that country into the international community.  Warfare, on the other hand, will lead to the death of thousands (if not millions) of innocent civilians.  See also War and Speech.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Second Coming of Man

Earth formed about 4.6 billion years ago, some 9 billion years after the Big Bang.  Life would appear on our planet a billion years later but would not emerge from the sea until 440 million years ago.  Primates evolved about 60 million years ago and the first hominins appeared about 5 million years ago; finally, modern man graced the scene about 150,000 years ago.

While our species had a limited effect on natural ecosystems for most of our history, we began to significantly pollute the planet over the last few centuries.  Fouling the air, water and soil, we have also altered the climate through our widespread use of fossil fuels.  There is a reasonable probability that Earth may become uninhabitable within a few more centuries unless we make major strides in the areas of population control and pollution curtailment.  Of course, supervolcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes and nuclear war could also play a role in our extinction.

Many humans envision that we will escape to other planets or other solar systems before our species is annihilated.  More likely, it seems to me, we will fall victim to our lack of stewardship, perhaps aggravated by natural catastrophe, and, in our absence, nature will heal herself.  Hundreds of millions of years later, assuming the sun has not yet begun to die, we may re-evolve from "lower species" that managed to survive the turmoil on Earth.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Irma's Fury becomes Personal

As I write this post, Hurricane Irma is still meandering WNW along the northern coast of Cuba.  The most recent computer models suggest that it will soon turn north, slamming the Florida Keys, hugging the west coast of Florida and sparing Metro Miami.  In concert, celebrity reporters and weathermen are racing across the peninsula to be close to the action.

Anyone who has read this blog, even on a casual basis, likely knows that my wife and I own a condo on Longboat Key, off Sarasota.  It now appears that it will incur significant damage but we are fortunate that we have other homes and that none of our family members are currently using that property.  Since purchasing the condo, in 2003, we and our relatives have repeatedly enjoyed Longboat Key with nothing more serious than chilly weather to taint our vacations.

Of course, we always knew that the purchase was a risk and have never believed that public funds should be used to bail out those who choose to occupy barrier islands, river floodplains, volcanic slopes or other high risk zones.  Nature is not cruel but neither is she sentimental; if we do not respect her power or acknowledge the processes that culminated in her beautiful landscapes, we cannot complain when we suffer the consequences.  And when it comes to hurricanes, human-induced global warming will likely make them more frequent and more powerful.


Friday, September 8, 2017

Mexico's Subduction Quake

While the attention of most North Americans has been focused on Hurricane Irma, about to unleash her fury on Florida, a strong earthquake struck off the Pacific Coast of southern Mexico yesterday.  The magnitude 8.2 quake occurred along a subduction zone, where the Cocos Plate (a remnant of the massive Farallon Plate) is dipping beneath the North American Plate; unfortunately, at least 58 persons were killed by the earthquake.

In such subduction zones, the edge of the over-riding plate is pulled down by friction with the subducting plate.  Eventually, this edge rebounds upward, displacing a massive amount of seawater and often triggering a tsunami.  Fortunately, in this case, the latter did not develop.

As the North and South American Plates continue to drift westward in concert with the opening of the Atlantic Ocean, subduction of the Farallon remnants (the Juan de Fuca, Cocos and Nazca Plates, north to south) will continue, igniting volcanic ranges (the Cascades, Mexican volcanoes, Central American volcanoes and the Andes) as they melt and triggering earthquakes offshore that spread across the mainland.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Record-Setting Hurricane

Hurricane Irma, churning its way toward Florida, has pulverized a few Caribbean islands along the way.  Since it formed, in the tropical Atlantic, this storm has maintained a symmetrical structure and has not encountered obstacles to its development (wind shear, dry air, cold water or mountain ranges).  As a result, the massive hurricane achieved category 5 status and has retained that strength for more than twice as long as any Atlantic hurricane in recorded history.

Expected to pummel the Turks and Caicos today, the storm's center remained north of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and will likely miss Cuba as Irma continues to track to the WNW.  The Bahamas will soon feel its leading edge and a hurricane warning has now been posted for Southeast Florida and the Florida Keys.

An atmospheric trough to the north, combined with a large dome of high pressure over the mid Atlantic, will eventually steer Irma northward.  When and where it makes that turn will make all the difference to residents of Florida, southern Georgia and the Carolinas.  We should know within 48 hours. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A Pumpkin Moon

Over the last few days, as the waxing moon approached its full stage, our lone natural satellite has taken on an orange hue here in Metro Denver.  Looking like a giant pumpkin, it has hovered over the Eastern Plains in early evening and loomed above the Front Range peaks at sunrise.

The cause for its beautiful yet mysterious appearance is simple.  The moonlight is shining through a smoky haze that has settled across the Colorado Piedmont.  Extensive wildfires in Idaho and Montana are the source of the smoke, which moved southward within an atmospheric trough.  While the latter brought welcome, cooler air to the urban corridor, the smoke has greatly diminished the visibility and has produced a significant health risk for those with pulmonary disease.

While the wildfires continue to burn, winds are expected to shift back to the southwest in the coming days, bringing heat back to the Front Range but clearing out the smoke.  Of course, our pumpkin moon will then lose its colorful tinge.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Scrub Jay visits the Farm

Woodhouse's scrub jays are common, permanent residents of the Mountain West, from Nevada to Mexico.  Here along the Colorado Front Range, they are primarily found on the shrublands of the lower foothills and, until yesterday, I had not observed one on our Littleton farm.

While reading at the edge of our driveway, I was startled by the jay as he wandered out from the shrub-lined "lawn," picking at the asphalt in search of food.  After a minute or so, he flew off to our grove of pinyon pines and then headed south.

Like most jays, scrub jays are noisy, aggressive and omnivorous birds; unlike some species, they are usually found alone or in pairs.  They lack the distinctive crest of blue jays (a common permanent resident on the farm) and Steller's jays (an occasional winter visitor here).  Perhaps, like red-breasted nuthatches and lesser goldfinches, they'll become new, year-round residents on our property.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Laborers in America

American laborers generally come from the lower and middle classes; their income is but a small fraction of those in the upper class.  Many laborers have more than one job and few can afford to have their spouse stay home with the kids.  They don't belong to fitness clubs and rarely eat out.

Laborers work at country clubs and resorts but cannot afford to use those facilities.  Some work at professional sports stadiums but could never afford to attend the games.  Laborers avoid toll lanes and reserved parking lots.  They often use mass transit and, while they may load your plane or cruise ship, they could not afford the journey.

Many laborers are guest workers.  They pick our crops, repair our highways, cut our lawns and build our homes.  They take on jobs that more affluent Americans would never consider.  And when they're done, we send them back.  Happy Labor Day!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

September Heat

By September, the longer nights bring chilly mornings to the Front Range cities and, in most years, afternoon highs drop into the 70s F.  In fact, the first snow of the season often dusts the urban corridor before September ends.  This year, however, summer heat is slow to abate.

A ridge of high pressure, the same that blocked Harvey from moving inland, remains in place over the American West.  Deflecting Pacific fronts across the Northern States and blocking the Southwest Monsoon that usually brings rain in August and September, this atmospheric dome is prolonging the summer season and putting the cool, crisp days of autumn on hold.

For those of us who relish the invigoration that autumn brings, this static pattern is less than welcome and may portend a seasonal change that global warming will bring.  Until the jet stream dips across our region, we'll have to rely on migrant songbirds to provide reassurance that the seasons are changing; as in recent years, the waterfowl will likely be in no hurry to come south.  We can only hope that chilly air will arrive in time to spark the glorious colors of October. 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Rock Wrens

This morning, on my regular birding walk at South Platte Park, I encountered a rock wren, foraging on a spillway.  While these small songbirds are common in canyons and on rock outcrops and boulder fields of the Front Range foothills and mountains, I rarely see them down on the Piedmont.

Found throughout western North America, from southern Canada to Mexico and from the High Plains to the West Coast Ranges, rock wrens are identified by their pale gray coloration (except for a light, rusty wash on their lower abdomen), a long, thin bill, a barred tail and short legs.  Almost always found on rocky slopes or boulder fields, they hunt for insects and spiders, bobbing over the rocks, searching the crevices with their bill or springing into the air to snare their prey.  As one might expect, these vocal birds place their nest within rock crevices, using dried vegetation, sticks and bark chips to build a shallow cup; of interest, they also construct a "patio" of pebbles at the entrance to the crevice.

Come autumn, rock wrens depart the northern half of their summer range (including Colorado), heading for the Central Valley of California, the Desert Southwest or Mexico.  I suspect this morning's visitor at South Platte Park was beginning that biannual trek.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Detour to the San Juans

Returning to Littleton from Crested Butte, I opted for a detour to the south, covering a stretch of landscape between Gunnison and Creede that I had not previously explored.  Just west of Gunnison, at the east end of the Blue Mesa Reservoir, I turned south on Colorado 149, undulating across sage grasslands that are broken by rocky outcrops.

After dipping through a few creek valleys, the highway makes a significant descent to the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River which it follows upstream.  Hemmed in by cliffs of volcanic sediments, the river rises in the northern San Juans near Lake City.  After passing through that town, Route 149 begins a climb toward Slumgullion Summit, about 11, 600 feet; en route, the road offered a spectacular view of Lake San Cristobal and, at the summit, a broad view of majestic peaks to the northwest.  Unfortunately, bark beetles have decimated the forest in this area (as in many other areas of the San Juans); dipping through pockets of dead and cleared forest, the highway crosses the Continental Divide at Spring Creek Pass (a thousand feet lower than Slumgullion Summit) and begins a winding descent toward the Rio Grand River.

Along the way, an overlook provides a magnificent view of the uppermost Rio Grand Valley, including the Rio Grande Reservoir and Pyramid Peak; the north flank of that mountain has been officially recognized as the source of the Rio Grande.  Paralleling the river just upstream from Creede, Route 149 winds eastward along the Rio Grande all the way to South Fork, Colorado, where it intersects US 160 and the river's southern fork.  Turning east on this highway, I headed toward the San Luis Valley and familiar landscape.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Up to Crested Butte

Despite numerous road trips throughout Colorado over the past thirty years, I had yet to visit Crested Butte.  Facing two days with no commitments, I decided to remedy that deficiency and set out from our Littleton farm early this morning; three hours later, I was in Gunnison, enjoying a delicious brunch.

Colorado 135 leads north from Gunnison, crossing the Gunnison River and then following it upstream to Almont, where it rises from the merger of the East and Taylor Rivers.  Before heading to Crested Butte, I drove northeastward on Route 742 through the scenic Taylor River Valley which is quilted with ranches and resorts; numerous pull-offs along the road offer access to the beautiful river, a popular stream for fly-fishing.  About 15 miles from Almont, I reached the spectacular Taylor Park Reservoir, backed by the high peaks of the Sawatch Range.  Returning to Highway 135, I then continued north through the East River Valley which is bordered on the west by the volcanic West Elk Mountains; nearing Crested Butte, the road angles northwest along the Slate River (a tributary of the East), which parallels the base of the Ruby Mountains.

The Old Town area of Crested Butte offers a mix of shops, pubs and cafes while the ski area (Mt. Crested Butte), northeast of town and on the north side of Crested Butte (12,162 feet), has the look and feel of a modern resort.  Before getting some dinner in Old Town, I drove past the ski area and continued northward on Forest Road 317 which yields broad views of the Elk Mountains and of the upper East River Valley at their base.  Throughout the day, I enjoyed the company of mountain bluebirds, Steller's jays, Clark's nutcrackers, pine siskins, magpies and, of course, those vocal subalpine residents, red squirrels.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

Science, Disaster & Denial

Just a few days ago, when Harvey was but a tropical depression in the Western Gulf of Mexico, meteorologists predicted that it would strengthen into a hurricane and then stall along the Texas Coast, causing widespread, disastrous flooding in the region.  No doubt, many in Texas and across the country ignored (and perhaps ridiculed) that forecast.  Unfortunately, the scientists were right.

This week, our anti-science, pro-coal President will likely fly over the extensive flooding; if he sticks to his script, he will express dismay over the tragedy and promise that the Federal Government will provide ongoing assistance.  Once the disaster has resolved, however, he will go back to denying climate change and other inconvenient science-based predictions.

A warming climate will surely increase the incidence of flooding events in coastal regions in addition to its other life-threatening effects across the globe.  Yet, the fossil fuel industry, based in Texas, has long denied the role of human activity (specifically oil, gas and coal consumption) in global warming, contrary to the findings of its own scientists.  No doubt, some evangelical ministers will blame the social tolerance of progressives for this divine retribution and our anti-science, pro-business EPA Director will go on slashing environmental regulations.  The scourge of mysticism will maintain its grip on a large segment of human society, imperiling all life on our planet. 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Western Heat & Texas Floods

An atmospheric ridge, characterized by a dome of high pressure, currently sits over the Southwestern U.S.  Over the past few days (and for several more to come) sinking air within the dome has pushed afternoon highs near 90 degrees F here in Metro Denver.  In concert, the stagnant high pressure has diverted Pacific storm systems to the north and has cut off the Southwest Monsoon moisture from the south.

This same atmospheric ridge will keep the remnants of Hurricane Harvey along the Texas and Louisiana Coasts, perhaps allowing it to re-strengthen.  Preventing the storm from moving northwestward into the Southern Plains, the high pressure dome will also deprive the Gulf Coast region of Pacific fronts that, under other circumstances, might pull the tropical system into the Midwest and thence to the Mid-Atlantic or New England.

Stuck in place, the remnants of Harvey will drop flooding rains from Corpus Christi to San Antonio and northeastward into Louisiana.  Meanwhile, those of us in the Southwest will have to rely on pop-up showers and thunderstorms to provide relief from the heat and drought.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Harvey Approaches Texas Coast

Just a tropical depression 36 hours ago, Hurricane Harvey rapidly strengthened over the very warm waters of the western Gulf of Mexico.  Current forecasts indicate that it will strengthen further, perhaps to a Category 3 storm, before making landfall just north of Corpus Christi.

Counter-clockwise winds of 125 mph or more will lash the coast north of the hurricane's center, producing a storm surge of 9 feet or more in some areas.  Of course, wind damage and widespread inland flooding are also expected.

Indeed, the major problem with Hurricane Harvey is that the storm is moving slowly and will not be whisked away by any approaching fronts.  Rather, the hurricane (or its remnant system) is forecast to meander along the Texas Gulf Coast for several days, dumping prodigious amounts of rain on an area that has already experienced a wet spring and summer.  Two feet of precipitation (if not more) will fall in some locations and widespread, severe flooding is almost certain to occur, perhaps as far inland as San Antonio.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Bad Habits, Good Genes

Most of us have had friends, family members or acquaintances who, despite unhealthy habits (smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, a junk-food diet and a lack of aerobic exercise) live long, disease-free lives; having practiced medicine for forty years, I encountered many such individuals.  Of course, these persons were saved by a genetic allotment that prevented the consequences of their careless behavior.

Exposure to such individuals tends to make the rest of us fate-oriented and may convince us to abandon efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle; when one's parents lived to an advanced age despite bad habits, the delusion is especially powerful.  However, we each have our own, unique set of genes and until such time that genetic screening is widely available at a reasonable cost (and completely understood by the medical community), it is wise to cut your risk by adhering to healthy life choices.  Counting on your genes to protect you is just a game of chance.

Finally, most of us will face serious health issues in the course of our lives and the effort to remain active and healthy beforehand will significantly improve our ability to survive such insults, whether they be accidents or illnesses.  We can't change our genes (at least not yet) but we can try to prevent disease by avoiding toxic behaviors, ingesting a healthy diet, engaging in regular aerobic activity and adhering to appropriate screening recommendations.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Scotts Bluff

Returning to Colorado after the solar eclipse, I angled southwestward to Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, in an effort to escape the heavy traffic.  While that plan failed miserably, I was able to view Scotts Bluff itself, protected in a National Monument since 1919.  This massive erosional remnant rises up to 800 feet above the North Platte River, which sculpted most of its broad valley over the past 5 million years.

During the Cretaceous Period, some 100 million years ago, a shallow sea covered most of the High Plains region, leaving behind shale and sandstone as the Rockies rose and the sea retreated.  In concert, the mountains eroded as fast as they rose and sheets of sediments were spread across the adjacent plains; volcanic debris also blew in from the San Juans of southwest Colorado.  Periods of uplift, especially in the Miocene and Pliocene, intensified the erosion and fed large, meandering rivers.  Today, Scotts Bluff, like the cliffs along the edge of the North Platte Valley, is a testimonial to that natural history; it is a layer-cake of sedimentary rocks deposited during the Oligocene and Miocene Periods, some 34 to 20 million years ago.

Named for Hiram Scott, a fur trapper who died in this area in 1828 (at the age of 23), Scotts Bluff has long been an important landmark, both for Native Americans and for settlers who traveled west on the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails.  I would have visited the Monument myself but I had eight hours of stop-and-go traffic ahead of me.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Totality!

As I left Denver this morning, a magenta sunrise spread across the eastern horizon; I wondered if the solar eclipse would match the beauty of that brilliant display.  Heading northeastward along Interstate 76, I crossed the rolling grasslands of the High Plains, adorned in late summer by swaths of prairie sunflowers.  Near Wiggins, the highway drops into the valley of the South Platte River, often shrouded in a dusky fog during the early morning hours.

I exited the Interstate in a pea-soup fog at Sterling, Colorado, and headed north on Route 113, climbing from the valley and re-entering the bright sunshine; wind turbines lined the crest of the escarpment, east and west of Peetz.  Farther north, I crossed Interstate 80 at Sidney, Nebraska, and continued northward on US 385, dipping through the North Platte River valley at Bridgeport, where the first eclipse-watching celebrations lined the roadway.  South of Alliance, I cut westward on a graveled road, finally escaping the parade of vehicles that had accompanied me all the way from Denver.

Choosing a location along a wooded ridge, I waited for the big event; the skies were clear except for a few high cirrus clouds.  A north wind raked the ridge and a loggerhead shrike provided company, hunting along a fence line.  About fifteen minutes before totality, a faint darkness began to envelop the landscape, suggesting the onset of dusk; the rate of darkening increased until totality occurred, when the sun's corona produced a brilliant ring around the edge of the moon's dark disc.  While the total solar eclipse was spectacular (and well worth my five hour journey), it was the sudden return of brilliant sunshine, shattering the darkness, that, for me, produced the emotional highlight of this celestial event.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

North to the Darkness

Tomorrow, I plan to head north to view the solar eclipse.  My current plan is to drive northeastward to Sterling, Colorado, then northward to Sidney, Nebraska, and then farther north to somewhere in the North Platte Valley to experience the spectacle.

While I look forward to the event and hope that clear skies enhance nature's show, I must admit that we Americans seem to be over-reacting to an astronomical convergence, one that happens somewhere on our planet every 18 months or so.  For scientists, the eclipse will provide a unique opportunity to study the sun's corona but, for most of us, it will be more of an emotional event; no doubt, some will ascribe mythical significance to this transient phenomenon.

Whether I actually reach the zone of totality or not, I'll enjoy the road trip which will take me across the stark landscape and grassland ecosystems of the High Plains.  More on the entire experience tomorrow evening.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Prickly Lettuce in Bloom

Favoring sunny areas and dry soil, prickly lettuce is one of the most abundant wildflowers (some would say weeds) along the Colorado Front Range.  This week, those on our Littleton farm are blooming, their numerous, small, pale-yellow flowers adorning the landscape.

One of many wild lettuces across the globe, this wildflower is also closely related to dandelions and, like the latter, is an introduced native of Eurasia.  Despised by gardeners, this tall plant has prickly, deeply-lobed leaves that alternate sides along the branched stems; since the leaves twist to face the sun, prickly lettuce is also known as the compass plant.  Like dandelions, the leaves and flowers of this wildflower are edible but the milky sap, used for a variety of medicinal purposes, produces a bitter taste and the foliage must be properly cleaned before consumption (not my area of expertise).

Having yanked many stalks of prickly lettuce from our flower beds and shrub lines over the years, I understand those who prefer to call it a noxious weed.  But when the plant blooms (anytime from July to October), it is an attractive wildflower in my book. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Subalpine Solitude

For a naturalist, the Colorado Front Range is a wonderful place to live; within an hour's drive of our Littleton farm, I am able to explore five life zones.  On the other hand, the region has become increasingly congested with humans and I now limit my mountain excursions to weekdays, avoiding the clogged highways and crowded trails that develop on holidays and weekends.

This morning, I set my sights on locations near Kenosha Pass (10,000 feet) that I had not yet visited.  The pass itself, on US 285, is crossed by the Colorado Trail and thus receives a fair number of hikers and backpackers throughout the week; for that reason, I chose other sites that are reached by unpaved roads and remain unknown to tourists and most Front Range residents.  There, surrounded by a subalpine forest of pine, spruce, fir and aspen, I parked my pickup and sauntered along the jeep trails.  Enjoying the cool, fresh mountain air, I was joined only by wildlife that inhabit the woods and meadows; red squirrels, Steller's jays, common ravens, mountain chickadees, gray-headed juncos and least chipmunks were most conspicuous.

Offering views of the Continental Divide, the Mt. Evans massif and the Platte River Mountains, these secluded areas may not have the notoriety of Colorado's tourist hotspots but they share the same mountain climate, topography and ecology.  Better yet, they offer solitude!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Un-American President

Having entered politics by leading the "Birther" movement, Donald Trump spent most of his Presidential campaign ridiculing his opponents, denigrating world leaders and stoking hatred for immigrants and minorities.  Nevertheless, he was elected due to a host of promises that have yet to be realized; among these were building a Wall along the Mexico border, repealing and replacing Obamacare, reigniting the coal industry and keeping jobs in America.  Supporters appreciated his straight talk and, one suspects, his racism.  The fact that he refused to reveal his personal finances and repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin, the brutal dictator of Russia, seemed to have little effect on his legions.

During his campaign, Trump denied knowing anything about David Duke and white supremacists.  Now, after the horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia, he once again has refused to directly denounce those home-grown terrorists.  Beyond his bigotry, his war-mongering, his assault on human rights and his impulsive tweets against allies and his own cabinet members, Trump denies the threat of global warming and has rolled back environmental regulations (see The Anti-Environment President).

While his dedicated believers may be willing to overlook his narcissistic behavior and his coddling of racists and dictators, the majority of Americans must reclaim the principles upon which our country was founded.  We need not wait for the next election to dethrone this wayward, self-absorbed President.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Genetic Bond

Of all human relationships, the parent-child bond is surely the strongest.  While romantic relationships are often intense for relatively short periods of time, the biologic connection between the parent and his/her child is permanent, reinforced by the genetic imperative, a force that governs life in general.

Human parents are both conscious of the physical and emotional needs of their offspring and subconsciously devoted to protecting their own genes that the child now carries.  In other words, we dearly love our children for both altruistic and selfish reasons.  No other human relationship (except perhaps that between grandparents and their grandchildren) shares this dual motivation.

Indeed, while marriages often end in divorce, very few parents divorce their children and, in such cases, some form of mental illness or emotional turmoil in the parent is usually to blame.  On the other hand, the genetic bond is unidirectional; the child may be devoted to their parents due to the nurturing that they provided and the traits that they passed along but their "genetic focus" is on their own offspring.  Above all else, life is devoted to protecting and perpetuating itself; human life is no different in this respect.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Swainson's Hawks at Dusk

This evening, as dusk enveloped our Littleton farm, a trio of Swainson's hawks soared overhead, dipping and hovering as they circled the property.  Now that their breeding season has ended, these attractive Western buteos begin to gather in flocks.  By the time they leave for Argentina, in late summer or early autumn, those flocks may be comprised of hundreds if not thousands of hawks, often mingling with other migrant raptors.

Feasting primarily on mice, voles, ground squirrels and rabbits during the breeding season, Swainson's hawks switch to an insect diet for the rest of the year, snaring dragonflies, butterflies or moths in the air or chasing grasshoppers across fields.

Our visitors appeared to be hunting insects as they cavorted in the darkening sky.  Then again, they may have just been soaring for the fun of it, energized by the cool air and preparing their flight muscles for the long migration ahead.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Back in Rainy Colorado

After three weeks in the hot, dry Midwest, an area known for frequent summer showers and thunderstorms, I have returned to the semiarid landscape of the Colorado Front Range; arriving late yesterday afternoon, I was greeted by torrential rain along the eastern and southern edge of Metro Denver.  Intermittent rain and thunderstorms continued into the evening and, after a respite this morning, they have returned this afternoon.  Indeed, rainy, cool weather has dominated the region for more than a week.

High pressure over the Great Plains, combined with a stationary front through the Rocky Mountain corridor, is funneling monsoon moisture into the region.  In concert, the same dome of high pressure has cut off the flow Gulf of Mexico moisture to the Heartland and has been shunting Pacific storm systems across the northern U.S., depriving the Plains and Midwest of any prolonged rain events.

When weather patterns become stagnant, copious precipitation may drench normally dry regions while rain and humidity fail to reach reliably wet areas (e.g.. the Corn Belt).  Here in Littleton, our farm has regained its spring-like greenery, a dramatic change from the dry, browning property that I left behind three weeks ago.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Sand Wasps

While sitting on the beach at Sandy Lake yesterday, I noticed a large number of plump "bees" burrowing into the sand.  These were female sand wasps which lay eggs within the burrows and provide paralyzed insects for the larvae to feast on once they hatch.

Male sand wasps neither dig burrows nor feed the larvae; like many human males, their parental activity is limited to sperm donation.  While the adult females spend much of their time hunting for insects to feed the larvae, they, like the adult males, feed primarily on nectar, thereby pollinating a variety of flowers.

Sand wasps are found across the globe, utilizing the sandy soil of beaches, floodplains, deserts and prairies.  Since they are colonial nesters, these wasps are often overlooked until one comes across their nesting site (or until the wasps start digging near your beach chair).

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Return to Sandy Lake

This week, we have returned to Sandy Lake, in Portage County, Ohio, where my wife and her siblings own a lakeside cottage.  We have brought along two of our grandsons, ensuring more entertainment and less relaxation.

Like most of the Temperate Zone, this glacial lake in northeastern Ohio is in its summer doldrums.  A few ospreys and double-crested cormorants visit the lake each day and a noisy flock of purple martins have re-established residence in their man-made complex at the end of our dock.  Otherwise, the bird population has been relatively inconspicuous, represented by house sparrows, blue jays and a changing assortment of common summer residents.  Frogs and aquatic turtles grab the attention of our grandsons and, to the delight of the oldest, the bluegills have been biting.

Fortunately, the temperature has been relatively mild and the air pleasantly dry.  Rain is forecast to move in by tomorrow but the moisture is needed in this area and we'll get in our swimming and kayak excursions between the showers.  After all, keeping the grandsons entertained is a vital priority! 

Friday, July 28, 2017

Senator McCain and Healthcare

This week, Senator John McCain of Arizona, having just undergone surgery for an aggressive form of brain cancer, returned to Washington, DC, to participate in the ongoing healthcare debate.  As an individual who has long served our country in both the military and the government, Senator McCain has access to the best healthcare that is available in the U.S.; nevertheless, his current medical condition will likely be fatal, perhaps within the next year.

Last night, Senator McCain, a Republican, cast the deciding vote to shut down his Party's dysfunctional efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare).  No doubt, his own healthcare crisis played a major role in the Senator's decision to take a compassionate stance, thereby preventing Congress from stripping healthcare coverage from millions of Americans.

Receiving the diagnosis of a fatal illness focuses the mind.  One tends to become more empathetic and less judgmental.  Faced with mortality and the complications that illness can bring, we more easily appreciate the hardships that others endure, many of them already dealing with the ravages of poverty.  McCain's willingness to stand up to the folly of his colleagues was surely fueled by both his innate courage and his personal tribulations.

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.