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Showing posts from May, 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 tre…

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.

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…

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 …

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 …

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, Mont…

Rivers and Ranges

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

Angling westward at Douglas, I-25 parallels the North Platte (as it flows eastward) and curves along the north end of the Laramie Mountains.  At Casper, it leaves the river and leads north; halfway to Buffalo, the highway cro…

North to Montana

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

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

While I certainly hope to see a wide variety of wildlife on my journey, I will be most interested in the landscape and…

The Morning After

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

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

The highlight on this chilly, May morning was an olive-sided flycatcher, perched at t…

A May Snowstorm

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

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

As I write this …

Storksbill

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

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

Fortunately, …

Black-chinned Hummingbirds

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

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

Black-chinned hummingbirds favor semi-arid pine-juniper woodlands on their breeding grounds but often visit open riparian woodlands during migrations.  Here along …

Longevity can be Overrated

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

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

Throughout my career as an Internal Medicine Hospitalist, I encountered very few cases where the patient or their family chose to forego therapy that would have prolonged a functio…

Global Big Day on the Farm

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

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

Though my contribution to Global Big Day was modest at best, it is rewarding to provide input f…

Riverscapes from Above

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

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

On the second flight, from Dallas to Denver, we flew northwest, soon following the winding course of the Brazos River.  Once we reached the higher, drier terrain of North Texas, the upper tributaries of the Red River produced a magnificent scene, snaking eastward across the desolate redlands.  Northeast of Amarillo, we crossed the Canadian River …

A Time for Terns

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

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

Visitor on the Deck

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

Suddenly, a small, colorful bird darted from the woods and landed on the chair next to me; the attractive visitor was a yellow-throated warbler, perhaps planning to search for spiders and insects in crevices of our house and deck.  Among the first warblers to arrive in the spring, yellow-throated warblers breed across the southeastern quadrant of North America, from the southern Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic region to the Gulf Coast.  They favor open pine woodlands, cypress swamps and riparian groves; in the northern part of their range, they are most often found in stands of sycamore along streams and lake shores.  Like black and white warblers, these insectivores often creep along limbs in the manner of nuthatches, searching for prey in the knots an…

Fields of Gold

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

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

Butterweed grows in full sun or partial shade and is especially fond of moist soil, explaining its widespread abundance during this wet spring.  It is native to North America and can be found from the Atlantic Coast to the Great Plains; unfortunately, these attractiv…

The Cuyahoga Gorge Trail

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

Gorge Metropark offers a fine trail network on the north wall of the Cuyahoga Gorge.  Its upper limb leads along massive cliffs of Sharon Sandstone and Conglomerate (Pennsylvanian in age), sitting atop Meadville Shale (deposited during the Mississippian Period); in several areas, the softer shale has eroded away beneath th…

Ohio's Headwaters Trail

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

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

This afternoon, my wife and I stopped by Mantua, where the Trail crosses the Cuyahoga and then runs above the Marsh Wetlands State Nature Pre…

The Ohio Divide

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

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

The Ohio Divide, rather subtle in most area…

West Branch State Park

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

The West Branch of the Mahoning, which rises near Ravenna, Ohio, was dammed to form the Michael Kirwan Reservoir in 1966.  Covering 2650 acres, this lake is now surrounded by West Branch State Park, almost 5400 acres of beech-maple forest, upland meadows and post glacial bogs; the latter harbor skunk cabbage, buttonbush and swamp oak among other bog pl…

Kent Bog State Nature Preserve

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

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

Birding along Sandy Lake

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

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

Crossing Flooded Terrain

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

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