April 29, 2016

Drought Monitor, April 28, 2016

Here is the drought picture as of yesterday, which does not show the current storm in eastern Colorado and along the Eastern Slope of the southern Rockies. Wet snow has been falling at my house in the morning of the 28th and is now beginning to stick, eight to ten inches so far, as the temperature hangs just above the freezing point.

Visit this page for broad-brush temperature and precipitation forecasts for the next two weeks.

April 24, 2016

The Unknown Truth about Prairie Dogs

When I read several well-attested accounts of squirrels seizing songbirds that had been stunned from window collisions, I was a bit surprised.

Now it's bloodthirsty prairie dogs.
For six years, [biologist John] Hoogland, his colleague Charles Brown, and a small army of students sat in towers at the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado, watching prairie dogs go about their business—foraging for food, rearing their young, and butchering ground squirrels for sport. For further proof that nature is relentlessly brutal, this behavior seems to give prairie dogs an evolutionary advantage.

April 21, 2016

Volcanos and the End of Our Civilization


Well, no, not quite yet.

Popocatepatl erupted last month. You probably did not hear about that in the American news media.

But that is nothing. You want lying-awake-at-night material, think about the Yellowstone caldera.

If that blows, I will post one last message saying, "Thanks for all the fish."

This about all the End of Civilization as We Know It material That I can handle at one time. I promise no more for a while.

Unless, of course. . . . Yellowstone.

April 13, 2016

Swift Fox in an Apishapa Getaway

video

Our neighbors the wildlife rehabilitators had been caring for this swift fox (Vulpes velox) for months, and in mid-March Colorado Parks & Wildlife decided it could go free along the Apishapa River in the prairie-and-canyon country east of Walsenburg.

Sometimes all you get with wildlife releases is a phone video, as with Fortuna the bear, but this one was done by Jacob Way, a district wildlife manager with more photographic skill, so thanks, Jacob.

For more on swift fox conservation efforts — in other words, trying to forestall a federal "threatened" listing with the complications that would bring — read about Colorado Parks & Wildlife's Swift Fox Conservation Team. You will find information on range, habitat, and so on, including the answer to the vital question, "What's the difference between swift foxes and kit foxes"?

Vulpes velox — is that a cool scientific name or what? As for the river, most people say ah-PISH-pa or ah-PISH-uh-pa. It is supposed to come from a Ute name meaning "stinking (stagnant) water," since its flow usually slows down to almost nothing in after the spring runoff.

April 10, 2016

Why the Comanches Feared the Infantry, and Other Stereotype-Busting from a 1870s Cavalry Sergeant

1870s cavalry trooper
1870s cavalry trooper
At the end of the Civil War, H. H. McConnell had served in a Union volunteer regiment (i.e., not Regular Army) — he does not say which one — but he had not had enough soldiering.

So he re-enlists in the Regulars, trains at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, and after a few weeks boards a steamboat for Galveston, Texas, with a new draft of troopers for the 6th Cavalry, stationed on the northern Texas frontier at Fort Richardson.

Being already experienced, literate, and probably not a raging alcoholic, he is quickly promoted to first sergeant of his company.

In 1889, having settled in nearby Jacksboro and served a time as its mayor, he publishes a memoir, Five Years A Cavalryman Or, Sketches Of Regular Army Life On The Texas Frontier, 1866-1871 — my copy was reprinted by the U. of Oklahoma Press in 1996.

This is not a book about campaigns and generals,  but it is filled with social history — the inside story of how things worked. Is there one less Spencer carbine in the company inventory than there should be? Have the company "affidavit man" swear that the last deserter certainly took it with him.

Just a few highlights:

• For the first years, the troopers spend less time patroling and more time building or re-building posts abandoned at the start of the war, or altogether new. "Armed laborers," McConnell calls them.

Nevertheless, the top brass announce that the Comanches and Kiowas are no longer a menace to the settlers. The surviving settlers beg to differ. Government policy vacillates between a military solution to the "Indian problem" and the "win them over with love" approach of certain Quaker Indian agents. It's too much like Vietnam or the current campaign against the Islamic state.

• Not just officers but enlisted men, even privates,  are addressed as "Sir" in a very 18th-century style.  "Who gave you permission to go fishing last Sunday, sir?" Sgt. McConnell is angrily asked by the colonel in one incident.

• They seem to have enough weapons, but not enough horses. When the whole regiment is transferred, at least a third of the troopers march on foot.

"Buffalo soldier" reenactor, probably at Fort Sill (US Army photo).
• For the first time in his life, he encounters "colored soldiers," but he is less impressed by the "buffalo soldiers" of the 10th Cavalry at Fort Sill than by the black 38th Infantry stationed for a time at Fort Richardson. Of the latter, he writes, "Many of them were exceedingly clean and neat as soldiers and were often selected as 'orderlies' for the officer of the day," whereas the "buffalo soldiers" of the 10th he dismisses as "unsolderlike and slovenly." (Don't tell the reenactors!)

Yet since most of the black soldiers are illiterate, having been born as slaves, their white officers are unable to delegate paperwork  in the way that McConnell handles much of his own company's.
The company officers of white regiments have very little of the detail of their companies to bother them — competent Sergeants and clerks are always to be had, who relieve them of such duties. Not so with the colored troops; every detail of duty, looking after their sanitary interests, performing the clerical work, the books, papers, and the thousand and one things that go to make up the routine of life in the service, all must be attended to by the officers themselves. [Because they thus gain practical knowledge and carry more responsibility, this] accounts for the marked efficiency I have noticed among them as a class.
• Heretical as it may sound coming from a cavalryman, he writes that the infantry could often function better in the field against the Indians:
I should observe here that the Indians greatly preferred to fight cavalry, or mounted citizens, to fighting infantry, for the obvious reason that, owing to their superior and, in fact, unequaled horsemanship, they had their enemies at a very great disadvantage  . . . It took our people a long time to find out that a dozen infantrymen with "long toms" [rifles that out-ranged the cavalry carbines], riding in a six-mule government wagon, were more dreaded by the Indian than a whole squadron of cavalry or [Texas] rangers; but in the last days of Indian fighting or scouting this became the usual mode of arming and equipping parties of soldiers.
• Oh yes, the fabled Texas Rangers. McConnell's considered opinion:
These Rangers were tolerable Indian fighters, but most of their time was occupied in terrorizing the citizens and "taking in the town." Shooting scrapes and rows between citizens, soldiers, and Rangers in this year (1874) were so frequent [that Jacksboro voted to incorporate in order to have government and a city marshall]
• One stereotype that he supports is the predominance of Irish immigrants in the Army: "Nearly all the old soldiers in my time were Irishmen (by old soldiers I mean those of fifteen or twenty years service)" and he calls the Irishman "the best soldier in our army."

Other nationalities were represented too — many Germans and some French, among others. The Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71 was echoed in the barracks by brawls between the nationalities. The French were "few in number [but] they made up for it in an excess of patriotism."
But the Germans had the best of it; the majority of the [regimental] band was from the "Fatherland," and the "Wacht am Rhine" and other of their national airs were played morning, noon and night, to the disgust of the "enemy." 
 After further brawling, the officers "prohibited the playing of the aggravating tunes for the time being."

April 09, 2016

The Hard Work of Writing


That is to say, writing your name over and over again.

Helen Macdonald, author of H Is for Hawk, a memoir about death, nature, falconry, T. H. White, and becoming feral and then human again, which has won all sorts of prizes, labors at signing her name on dozens of shelf copies for the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver last Thursday night.

"I get absolutely off my face on Sharpie fumes," she said. "It's how I get my kicks these days."

Her column for the New York Times has ended, so I will be removing it from the blogrolls, but she explained further at dinner after the signing that she will be writing longer nature-and-culture essays for the paper.

April 06, 2016

The National Monument that I Avoided for No Reason

Colorado National Monument's Window Rock with Grand Junction sprawl in the background.
I have not been everywhere, but I have visited many of the famous spots of the Colorado Plateau, from Mesa Verde and Hovenweep to Wupatki and Chaco, to Monument Valley, Valley of the Gods and Comb Ridge, Goosenecks State Park and the San Juan River, Canyonlands, Moab, Arches, and Natural Bridges.

I once performed emergency repairs on a '69 VW bus after chocking its wheels with rocks partway up the Moki Dugway.

But never Colorado National Monument. Superstition? I would be driving on I-70 or riding the California Zephyr, look south as I left Grand Junction, westward bound, and think "Oh yeah, got to go there some time."

Maybe it's my uneasy relationship with Grand Junction. It's twenty miles across and one story tall, all highways and arterial roads so that least you can get through it quickly.  A once-small town has spread like a quart of oil spilled on the garage floor.

It's a place where I occasionally rent a motel room — once  M. and I, younger and poorer, rented a room in a now-vanished SRO hotel — probably the only overnight guests they had had in a long time — and someone coughed himself to death all night in the adjoining room.

I was covering some off-road race for a start-up car-racing mag (The Whitewater 200? Something like that.) and had an expense account of about $20. The magazine folded. Now "off-road race" is more likely to refer to a contest of Spandex-clad bro-cyclists.

And there is a the family angle. I can walk down Main Street and see where my maternal grandfather and his brother ran variously a furniture store, a rod-and-gun shop, and the Personal Loan Company. The house on North 7th Street where my grandparents lived until their divorce still stands.

(In addition, one of my older sisters was born in GJ, and the other lived here for some time when first married.)

So maybe it is my feeling of estrangement from that older side of the family (with a couple of exceptions) that makes me feel twice a stranger here, where I sit typing in a tiny studio apartment rented on Airbnb.com. At times I keep imagining that the Jeep has an out-of-state license plate, which is a sort of cognitive hallucination. It's been years since Colorado stopped coding license plates to county of issuance. You can't tell who is local and who is not from their plates anymore.

We have spent two days hiking in Colorado National Monument — back to red sandstone, screaming flocks of scrub jays, and the bitter, resiny taste of ephedra leaves in my mouth — self-medication for spring allergies. Gambel's quail dart along the road and bighorn ewes and lambs cause "critter jams" on Rim Rock Drive.

Back on the Colorado Plateau, and why didn't we come here sooner? Spring is the best time.

April 05, 2016

Bear or Buffalo: You Decide


"Look at the bear rock," says M. from across the canyon. But is it? The commenter offering the best rationale for his or her position wins a giant invisible prize.

Photo taken at Colorado National Monument.

April 04, 2016

Christo Wraps Rail Cars?

Zee artiste Christo, currently thwarted by legal challenges from commencing his huge project of draping plastic sheets across the Arkansas River, had apparently chosen to work on a smaller scale, "wrapping" (one of his signature techniques) antique narrow-guage rail cars at the Cimarron Canyon Rail Exhibit on US 50 in western Colorado.

March 29, 2016

Western Snowpack March 28, 2016

Here in southern Colorado, we are seeing the result of several storms that went north. My area got six inches of wet snow on Saturday the 26th, which was nice, but now it's dry and windy again.

March 28, 2016

Read the Secret Code of Buck Knives

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is/was giving out Buck Bantam drop-point midsize folding knives as a donation thank-you gift.

I said yes to the gift this time, because you can always use another knife, whereas M. and I are swimming in tote bags, have plenty of coffee mugs, and don't need more daypacks, baseball caps, shoulder bags, or fleece vests.

My normal-carry knife is a little hardware-store two-blade folder, dainty by today's standards ("Is that a real knife"? asked the fire chief, grinning.). It's good enough for opening packages and cutting string — maybe not for cutting three-inch hose, but when would I have to do that?

I don't understand people who load up their pockets. ("My normal pocket-carry pistol is a Model 1911, and I forget it's there!") I hate to have stuff thumping against my legs when I walk around. If it weren't too hot for vests five months of the year, I would wear one every day. (If there is any truth to the cliche of the vest-wearing cowboy, well, try reaching into your front jeans pocket when you're on horseback. Or driving a car.)

So, knife in hand, I decided to research it a little, and came across this: You can date your Buck knife by the symbol next to the model number. My new knife was made in 2015.

Maybe everyone who owns one already knows this. The symbols remind me of one of the old esoteric alphabets, like "Passing the River." Is the company sending a message, one letter per year?

March 26, 2016

Juncos Get Smart, Get Fat?

Dark-eyed juncos working on a suet cake.
This is the winter that the juncos got smart, and as a result, my bird-food costs are rising.

Along with the feeders offering sunflower seeds and niger thistle, a/k/a black gold, I usually have a couple of holders for suet cakes. The box for the current offering lists its ingredients thus: rendered beef suet, milo, millet, sunflower seeds, wheat, corn.

These suet cakes generally attract omnivorous and agile birds: jays and chickadees, plus nuthatches, who like to hang upside down and peck at them — and woodpeckers of course, which for us means mostly downies.

Meanwhile, the dark-eyed juncos, in their dozens, are on the ground under the sunflower feeders, or sometimes up in them, sometimes on the thistle feeders too, but predominately on the ground.

Until this year. It's like they suddenly figured out the suet cakes and figured, what the heck, a little beef fat won't hurt us in cold weather. Yum, beef fat!

One year, as part of Cornell University's Project Feeder Watch, which M. and I have been participating in since the mid-1990s, some bird-seed company asked us to study the preferences of different species for different seeds.

We put out samples of, for instance, milo (grain sorghun), millet, and sunflower seeds on paper plates and then were supposed to count how many and what species came to them for a span of time.

Milo and millet bulk up many of the wild bird seed mixes that you see as "attracting many species" and such, but the fact is that they are second and third choices for the birds — except for juncos, doves, and maybe pheasants — but we don't see pheasants here, and the wild turkeys rarely come into the yard.

Finches, in my experience, tend to high-grade the sunflower seeds and ignore the rest.

So now the question is, are the juncos going for the fat, or are they picking the milo out of it because they like the stuff?

March 13, 2016

Does Wildfire Threaten Your Town? Check the Map

This interactive map shows communities threatened by wildfire. The baseline is "one or more 100+ acre wildfires within 10 mile of town from 2000 through 2014." It seems to cover the Lower 48 only.

Right off, I can see that my little village is not listed, even though we had four or five fires that qualify easily. Grumble grumble. We're bigger than Springview, Nebraska, pop. 227. We have a post office.

But play with it and see what you think.

March 12, 2016

Gopher Graffiti


We have been here all winter, under the snow. Now we are waiting for you to plant tasty treats in the garden.

March 11, 2016

Don't Panic!, Mountain Biking Mecca, and Other Shorts


Outdoor Survival - Chapter 4 - Controlling Panic from Colorado Parks & Wildlife on Vimeo.

•  People outside of Fremont County, Colo., are learning that there is great mountain biking, almost year-around, on the Bureau of Land Management land north of town. Rock climbers already knew that.

• Talks are underway about extending the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument from New Mexico into southern Colorado. (Article may be partly paywalled.) 

Site of the Rough Riders reunion
• The Southwest is dotted with former Harvey House hotels and restaurants. Fred Harvey's enterprizes crosscut much late 19th and early 20th-century history:
From the manhunt for the escaped “Billy the Kid” in 1881 (a local celebrity in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where Fred had two restaurants and two hotels, which Billy sometimes patronized), to the Oklahoma Land Rush in 1889 (which left from the Arkansas City, Kansas Harvey House and Santa Fe depot), to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 (for which Fred helped cater the biggest lunch in American history for the opening ceremonies and parade).
There’s also the Rough Riders reunion in 1899 (held at the new Fred Harvey resort hotel, La Castañeda, in Las Vegas), and the development of the Grand Canyon as an international tourist attraction (Fred’s son Ford ran all the hotels at the canyon, and was a major player in the development of the national park system).