June 30, 2006

When grouse attack

Yesterday on the North Taylor Creek Trail in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, M. and I encountered a hen blue grouse. (Photo: Colorado Division of Wildlife)

Did she fly away? No, she actually bluff-charged us.

She had chicks--or a chick--with her. I saw just the one, scooting through the undergrowth.

Ma Grouse, meanwhile, fanned her tail and marched down the trail at us, clucking noisily.

Then she flew at M.'s head. Yikes, it's raptor grouse! At the last moment, she veered to one side and alighted in a sapling fir, then flew down to the ground.

At that point, we were between her and chick(s), but maybe that was the plan. Carefully, we walked up the trail. I gripped my hiking stick, ready to fend off the vicious bird, until we were safely away.

I have met blue grouse with chicks before, but never such a bellicose individual. Life is tough at 10,000 feet.

The aspens in that drainage are heavily infested with forest tent caterpillars. Most of the larger trees were stripped of leaves, but the grass was thick and green beneath them. The elk should be happy.

June 29, 2006

The bird on the porch

There is something about the vulnerability of a bird on her eggs that gets your attention. Margaret Soltan, a blogger normally concerned with university governance, found herself anxiously watching a wren's nest during heavy rains.

Cordilleran flycatcherLast year, a Cordilleran flycatcher (Epidonax occidentalis) hatched a brood in a nest on a beam on our front porch, even as the Mason Gulch Fire raged, the firefighters tromped up and down the porch steps moving all the furniture into the garage while we were gone, and all the rest of the commotion. It was a paradox in more ways than one. (Photo linked from this site.)

Four eggs hatched, but one hatchling perished. The remaining three grew up standing on the desiccated body of their sibling.

She--or one of her offspring--is back. For a couple of weeks, she and her mate flitted around the house. She would fly up under the eaves or try unsuccessfully to land on the conical top of the back-door porch light.

We went away for a few days, and on our return, there was the nest, in the exact same spot as in 2005, with one egg in it.

She didn't seem to sit on the egg much. (We wondered if she was just out hitting the bird bars.) Then there was another egg. Realistically, she must have to eat a lot of insects to get the nutrients for each egg, which is as big as her head.

Now there are four. She is on the nest more of the time--but right now, at dusk, she is gone.

I hear the male's two-note call in the oak brush, but there is nothing for him to do right now but eat. He will help to feed the young once they hatch.

Ornithologist George A. Clark, Jr., writing in the weighty Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior says, "Many Epidonax flycatchers use a nest only once." Reusing an old nest saves work, but old nests sometimes harbor parasites.

So by clearing away the old nest with the dead baby bird in it, did I encourage her to return--assuming it's the same bird?

June 27, 2006

Eurasian collared doves in Colorado

This summer we have been hearing Eurasian collared doves along the Arkansas River, so they have arrived in south-central Colorado. The call is a "coo-COO-cup" (or so David Sibley transliterates it), distinct from the mourning doves' calling.

I noticed them last May in Magdalena, New Mexico, where Steve Bodio said they had arrived a few years earlier on their transcontinental progress from the Bahamas, where they were accidentally introduced. Sibley's recent guide to Western birds had them in the very SE corner of Colorado, perhaps Baca, Prowers, and Las Animas counties.

Now they are higher up the Arkansas: Florence and Salida.

On hunting, the Colorado Division of Wildlife splits the difference. Whereas mourning doves (native) have a season and a bag limit, rock doves (a/k/a feral pigeons, introduced) have neither. Eurasian collared doves may be hunted during the September-October mourning dove season, but there is no bag or possession limit.

I thought that maybe I was just hearing them now because I had become more sensitized to doves other than mourning doves on the recent New Mexico-Arizona trip. But M. says that she never heard them down in Florence before this summer, and that she would have known had she heard them before.

White-winged doves, meanwhile, are not here in Colorado--I think. I was watching some Arizona white-winged doves when the snake bit me. So now I have a complicated set of mental associations: rattlesnakes and Stevie Nicks' Disco Era hit "Edge of Seventeen" with its chorus:

Just like the white-winged dove
Sings a song
Sounds like she's singing
whoo, baby...whoo...said whoo

Stevie Nicks grew up in Phoenix and presumably knew what a white-winged dove sounds like. Whether Lindsey Lohan, who recently covered the song, knows a white-winged dove from a bald eagle, I cannot say.

June 21, 2006

River dogs

At the FIBArk boat races you hear the pumped-up, excited voice of the announcer in full "extreme games" mode. The amplified commentary echoes off the Victorian brick buildings at riverside, down by the kayak slalom gates.

"It's Boone! Look at the power in that stroke! He's taking a strong line through the eddy!

"He's got the stick! We're seeing a good showing from the chocolate Labs this year!

"Next up, Royal Duke! Now there's a name to live up to!

Forget all the sunburned boaters in nylon and neoprene. The Crazy River Dog Contest is a real crowd-pleaser.

Kayakers think that they are cooler than rafters. River surfers think that they are cooler than kayakers playing on the same standing wave.

But no one is happier than a dog swimming with a stick.

River dogs photo by Al Delucia

June 18, 2006

M. disses trendy Colorado corporation

"Why do people want to wear such ugly shoes?" she asks.

We're in Salida, FIBArk is happening. I think that even spectators feel compelled to show up with kayaks on roof racks, just to show solidarity.

June 15, 2006

Red-flag summer fire days

"Red-flag warning," the Weather Service calls it. A hot day--100 degrees F. (38 C) in Pueblo, winds bouncing from 20 to 50 mph.

I had gone to the university and to Country Roots Farm for a veggie pick-up. Driving back west, I saw a large white plume of smoke coming off the mountains.

"Eight miles east of Westcliffe," said the KRCC announcer. I started a mental inventory of what was in the area: the old mining town of Rosita, now rebuilt as mountain homes. One of our favorite restaurants, the Letter Drop. Bear Basin Ranch. Hal & Mary Walter's' place.

More news when I got home: The Tyndall Gulch Fire was at 200 acres so far. The oddly named subdivision of "Cristo Vista" evacuated. (KRDO TV called it "Crystal Vista.") Too windy to fly the slurry bombers--at their low altitudes, I suppose a downdraft could slam the airplane into a ridge top.)

Hal, who had hosted our own fire-caused evacuation last summer, detailing his plans to load his racing burros in his trailer and just cut the barbed-wire fence holding back neighbors' cattle and horses that he cares for. That's what you do when the fire is coming: cut the fence on the downwind side and hope for the best.

Amazingly, the fire was not growing too fast last evening, for all the wind. It's in ponderosa pine and douglas fir, mixed with small meadows. But still...

A fireline was cut and/or burned along Colorado 96, said the Pueblo Chieftain. (Link may expire.)

With winds gusting between 30 and 50 mph, emergency crews dug in south around Colorado 96 and removed low-lying branches and flammable material with bulldozers and shovels, while other crews set minor burns to keep the larger fire at bay.

This morning: a smell of smoke in the air. Haze to the west. The drone of a large propeller-driven airplane somewhere also to the west.

I love summer. I look forward to summer during the cold-weather months.

UDPATE: The Gazette now puts the fire at 700 acres.

June 14, 2006

Here, kitty, kitty

I realize that this news story comes from New Jersey, not my usual Colorado and New Mexico stomping grounds, but who can resist a headline like "Jack the cat chases black bear up tree"?

Especially when my Jack (dog) once did the same thing. It was a small bear.

Michael Pollan on Wal-Mart 'Organic'

Some excerpts from Michael Pollan's thinking on what it means when Wal Mart offers "organic" food.

I don't know how long this link will last, so I am grabbing some chunks.

The vast expansion of organic farmland it will take to feed Wal-Mart's new appetite is also an unambiguous good for the world's environment, since it will result in substantially less pesticide and chemical fertilizer being applied to the land — somewhere. Whatever you think about the prospect of organic Coca-Cola, when it comes, and come it surely will, tens of thousands of acres of the world's cornfields — enough to make all that organic high-fructose corn syrup — will no longer receive an annual shower of pesticides like Atrazine. O.K., you're probably registering a flicker of cognitive dissonance at the conjunction of the words "organic" and "high-fructose corn syrup," but keep your eye for a moment on that Atrazine.

Atrazine is a powerful herbicide applied to 70 percent of America's cornfields. Traces of the chemical routinely turn up in American streams and wells and even in the rain; the F.D.A. also finds residues of Atrazine in our food.

. . . .

We have already seen what happens when the logic of the factory is applied to organic food production. The industrialization of organic agriculture, which Wal-Mart's involvement will only deepen, has already given us "organic feedlots" — two words that I never thought would find their way into the same clause. To supply the escalating demand for cheap organic milk, agribusiness companies are setting up 5,000-head dairies, often in the desert. These milking cows never touch a blade of grass, instead spending their days standing around a dry-lot "loafing area" munching organic grain — grain that takes a toll on both the animals' health (these ruminants evolved to eat grass, after all) and the nutritional value of their milk. But this is the sort of milk (deficient in beta-carotene and the "good fats" — like omega 3's and C.L.A. — that come from grazing cows on grass) we're going to see a lot more of in the supermarket as long as Wal-Mart determines to keep organic milk cheap.

We're also going to see more organic milk — and organic foods of all kinds — coming from places like New Zealand. The globalization of organic food is already well under way: at Whole Foods you can buy organic asparagus flown in from Argentina, raspberries from Mexico, grass-fed meat from New Zealand. In an era of energy scarcity, the purchase of such products does little to advance the ideal of sustainability that once upon a time animated the organic movement. These foods may contain no pesticides, but they are drenched in petroleum even so.

Emphasis added.

June 11, 2006

Ballast waifs, Frank Meyer, and other mistakes

Researching houndstongue for the previous entry, I learned a new term, "ballast waif," for plants that cross the oceans in ships' ballast. In the days of sails and muscle power, ships were ballasted with layers of big stones, stacked carefully at the lowest point of the hull.

These stones were sometimes removed to make room for cargo and were just stacked to make breakwaters, etc. Now pumps fill tanks with water for ballast, and sometimes floating seeds (and zebra mussels) are sucked in, only to be flushed out later.

Lots of undesirable plants have arrived mixed with other seeds. I think that both tumbleweeds and kolchia came in with Russian wheat. This article explains the whole spectrum of hitch-hiking plants

Then there are "science heroes" like Frank Meyer. Back in the late 19th century, agricultural scientists looked upon the American and Canadian prairies and saw that they were bad. They were not "productive." They needed "improvement."

Hence, for instance, the institution of Arbor Day, a civic semi-holiday devoted to tree-planting. Kids were taken out of class to witness tree-planting on the school grounds: I remember that at Canyon Lake School, Rapid City, South Dakota.

Frank Meyer, a Dutch immigrant, was sent to Central Asia by the US Department of Agriculture to bring back "useful" species. He collected more than 2,000, making him either a science hero or a botanical Typhoid Mary, depending on your perspective. He drowned in an accident on the Yangtze River in China--or maybe some ethnobotanist shoved him overboard.

I grew up in his arboreal landscape. Siberian ("Chinese") elms in the Rapid City shelter belts and trimmed into a hedge in Fort Collins, Colorado--Frank Meyer.

"Persian" lilacs everywhere I have lived, including here-- Frank Meyer. Russian olives planted in our yard in Lakewood, Colorado, and considered a nuisance tree along the Rio Grande in New Mexico--Frank Meyer.

Honey locusts growing wild up Ute Pass from Colorado Springs--Frank Meyer.

And soybeans. Ask Roseann Hanson about soybeans.

The crested wheat grass in every bin of "dryland pasture mix" at the feed store--Frank Meyer.

A study by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1993 of twelve species of birds endemic to the Great Plains discovered precipitous declines in their numbers over the past twenty-five years. . . . .The study blamed this decline on the conversion of grasslands to agriculture and the planting of crested wheat grass.

Richard Manning, Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie, 1995

June 06, 2006

Houndstongue and the 'noxious' dilemma

A few days ago, I was picking my way through the overgrown gully down in front of the house to inspect one of our feral apple trees.

There in front of me was a tall blooming wildflower, doubly noticeable because so few are blooming this year. It looked at first like one of the many penstemons, but the blossoms were not long enough.

I identified it in Plants of Pueblo Mountain Park, the best wildflower guidebook for these foothills: it was houndstongue (Cynoglossum officinale), an "alien from Eurasia."

It's funny how words like "alien" get tangled in human discourse. Some people can begin with plants and end up debating immigration. Well, forget that. The question was whether or not to pull it up.

I am not such a native-plant purist to take on dandelions, salsify, bindweed, alfalfa, and other introduced species that grow all around here. (Maybe bindweed if I could)

What makes a "noxious" weed truly noxious in the West is if it is detrimental to (a) livestock or (b) deer and elk. And houndstongue qualfies. Montana puts it right up there with the other bad actors: spotted knapweed, leafy spurge, and the like.

Ironically, Colorado State University lists it as a "plant rarely browsed by deer," as if they are encouraging its planting. Sounds like the horticulturalists are not talking to the wildlife-management and livestock people up in Fort Collins!

I pulled it (and there is a ferocious taproot), only to be confronted by M., who liked the red flowers. So the flowering top sits in a cut-glass cruet on the dining table.

June 02, 2006

Dry-country gardening

For years, all the organic-gardening books assumed that you lived east of the 100th meridian. You wanted raised beds for vegetables, you wanted to correct the acidity of your soil, you worried about drainage.

Gardeners in southern Colorado and other Southwestern states have a different set of issues. Our conditions are based much more on altitude, and precipitation patterns vary widely.

In recent years, more localized guides have been published, such as Lisa Rayner's Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains. Based in Flagstaff, Ariz., she assumes a volcanic soil, however, whereas we are coping with "Holderness silt loam," associated with an annual precipitation of 18 inches (45 cm)--although this year I would say that we have had half of that.

"Permeability is slow, and the available water capacity is high. The surface and subsurface layers are neutral, and the underlying material is moderately alkaline" (Soil Conservation Service, Soil Survey of Pueblo Area, Colorado, 1973)

The sun beats down, the wind blows, and daily temperatures typically vary widely, say from 45 to 85 F (10-30 C) on a summer day.

We can't even learn gardening from indigenous cultures, since they were hunter-gatherers, although the archaic "Plains Woodland" culture apparently grew some crops along stream beds on the out High Plains. But when they got horses in the 17th century, they said, "Forget the beans and squash" and became buffalo hunters.

We can learn some tricks from the sedentary Anasazi people who lived further west, however. Although we follow Ruth Stout's approach and mulch heavily with pine needles, which are only a few steps away, M. has done some mulching the Anasazi way--with pebbles. It actually works: they reflect the sun and keep the soil surface damp.

Good soil, as the Bodios point out, has to be built.

Starting small seeds under burlap sheets and camouflage netting
Another technique that Rayner also mentions is the buried plastic jug, pierced with dozens of small holes. The gallon jugs that hold vinegar work well, being thicker-walled than milk jugs.

Bury it up to its neck and set plants right next to it. Then fill the jug with a hose or bucket and funnel. "Permeability is slow," but this way your water soaks in below the surface. (The original technique involved unglazed clay pots.)

The only way to start some annual plants from seed is to cover the beds with burlap or jute sacking. In the photo, I am also using some military-surplus camouflage netting, which we also use for shadecloth in July and August.