July 31, 2012

Fighting Cheatgrass with Fungus

Whoever can stop cheatgrass deserves a Nobel prize and the thanks of a grateful continent.  A fungus holds some promise.
“Cheatgrass is a very insidious kind of biotic virus,” said Stephen Pyne, a Western fire historian at Arizona State University. “It takes over and rewrites the operating system. Because it grows earlier, it can burn earlier,” then in its regrowth “drive off all the other competitors. That makes for a complete overthrow of the system.” 

Mike Styler, head of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said simply: “It’s changed the entire ecology of the West.” 

But the black fingers of death — Pyrenophora semeniperda — may help restoration ecologists like Dr. Meyer reclaim some beachheads in the vast swath of land already conquered by cheatgrass.
I have been seeing it a lot more around here lately, thanks to two drought years in a row, which just makes me sick to contemplate.

July 30, 2012

More Photographic Oddness at Camera Trap Spring

As previously mentioned, I switched scout cameras on June 15th at Camera Trap Spring, replacing the previous bear-damaged (but productive) camera with one that was (a) heavier-built and (b) of less value.

Bottom opening lacks cover.
Today, after five and a half weeks, M. and I went to check it. It is an 80 or 90-minute round-trip hike from the house, pretty aerobic, and when the temperatures were in the mid-90s F., we just did not feel like going up there.

Tapping like a blind man with my walking stick to alert the "guardian of the spring" — the rattlesnake that was there in May and June — I approached the site.

The spring was dry — no surprise. We saw no snake.

The camera was all right  . . . no, something was missing.  The grey plastic cover of the infra-red detector was gone. I found it lying in the pine duff with an indentation that looked like a claw mark. There were faint scratches on the camera body.

Obviously a bear had given it a light tap.

I brought it home. There were something like 689 images, all recorded between June 19th and July 3rd.

Bull elk in velvet checking the spring, June 29, 2012.

There was one clear animal picture — this elk — but none of the bear.

The camera had been making a picture every one to four minutes from early afternoon until early evening, every day. Made for an interesting time-lapse slide show.

I suspect that the bear knocked the IR sensor cover off early. The cover, made of flexible plastic, has mini-fresnel lenses molded into its inner side, which would, I assume, focus infra-red radiation onto the sensor.

The camera started responding simply to heat reflecting off the forest floor on the hot afternoons and shot photo after photo until its 512 MB memory card was full. That's my hypothesis.

July 29, 2012

Blog Stew with Postal Fungus

Don't know if this is truly "the most amazing picture in fishing history," but it's a contender.

The U.S. Postal Service still delivers fungus. No packaging needed.  (Attention, Magdalena, NM 87825.)

Peregrine falcons are doing well in Boulder's open space.

July 27, 2012

So You Think It's a Dry Year?

Portion of a graphic from the New York Times.
In much of the 48 contiguous states, it is. In fact, this year's drought map looks something like 1977 and much like 1954–1955, 1934, and 1936 (in the middle of the "Dirty Thirties"). And 1901 was pretty rough too, as was 1910, the year of the "Big Blowup" in Idaho and western Montana.

Check this graphic from the New York Times science section.

The first drought year that impinged on my consciousness was 1977. Colorado snowfall was low that year—which helped me in my job, which required a lot of driving around the state. But then the next summer I saw my first-ever actual dust storm, somewhere near Fort Morgan.

On the plus side, it finally rained yesterday evening, about 0.4 inches. And more has been falling in the Mushroom Hunting Grounds.

July 24, 2012

Season Finale: Who Killed Lucinda?

Or rather, what killed Lucinda? The writers ended this season of All My Flycatchers on a dark note indeed, leaving a mystery that will never be explained.

When I went to let the dogs out (via the back door) this morning, I glanced up at her nest from inside the house, but did not see her on it. Looked down, and there she lay dead by the front door.

The late-season eggs never hatched.

Stress? Heat? Disease? We'll never know. Nor will we know why the first nest on the Official Flycatcher Nesting Ledge was abandoned in favor of one built two weeks later on the porch light — if it was the same pair of birds.

M. heard the male bird's call near the house. I suppose he will hang around until the time is right to migrate south.

I know that nature cares for species, not individuals, and that a songbird who lives to three years is an old-timer. Of the rescued birds that we have taken to the Raptor Center, for example, close to half did not survive.

But we were personally involved in this nest — we changed our routines to accommodate it — and the end of the season took us by surprise.

July 22, 2012

Major Wildfires Since 2001

Mike at Firefighter Blog has an interesting graphic of major fires in the 48 states. What's going on there in eastern North Dakota? Combines full of dust and chaff catching fire? (I saw that once a couple of years ago.) Galen? Anyone?

As a Californian, Mike is most interested in the Next Big One of the incendiary variety and shows where he thinks that it is due to hit.

July 20, 2012

Archaeology and Other Links

• Scraping builds strong muscles — a hypothesis for why Neanderthal men had powerful right arms. Either that or they were bowling with boulders.

• Multiple ancient cultures in America: the evidence from artifacts and DNA. Read more from Reid Farmer at Querencia.

• The Make-A-Wish Foundation won't let kids wish for a hunting trip.

• Bureaucratic finger-pointing keeps a sheriff's heli-tanker from fighting fires. 

July 19, 2012

Fire Trumps Fishing Trip

Yesterday I wrote that I planned to go fishing in the evening, and I was more cheerful all day with that to look forward to — until about 2 p.m. when the fire siren blew.

First reports have the fire in what I will call Something Creek Estates. SCE is a potential apocalyptic fire nightmare — scattered ridge-top homes on 35-acre plots, thick second-growth pine forest mixed with oak brush, very steep slopes.
Terrain in "Something Creek Estates," taken from a residential driveway.
It is all accessed from a single gravel road with narrow, steep driveways cherry-stemmed off from the main road.

I leave my Jeep at the fire house, which is on the way, and start out in the big, slow diesel water tender, following the 4wd brush truck, which has already started up the mountain.

The matriarch of a local ranching family (which once owned the land where SCE is now), zips around on her ATV with a two-way radio, trying to find a driveable way closer to the fire.

Our vice-president, the default incident commander because the chief is off working at the other end of the county, tells me on the radio to leave the tender lower down because the road that he is on is too steep and narrow for it. I hitch a ride with one of the volunteers following me in his own truck. We climb to the home where I took the photo above. Still can't see the fire.

Eventually the ATV leads us to the highest, farthest-back road in the subdivision, and there is the fire—across a steep valley.

Five of us are working our way through brush tangles, over rocks, and through thick timber toward it.Three are carrying five-gallon bladder packs, the others have extra tools, radios, etc.

W. stops for some nature observations: "Look, mountain lion poop with baby deer hooves in it!"
Man nearest the camera is wearing a bladder pack.

We hear chainsaws. We have spotted one of our volunteers at the fire — he walked in a different route — but the saws mean that the Forest Service-BLM crew is there.

Three sawyers are dropping dead and leaning trees on the ridge where the fire is burning. It is only about an acre in size. We start digging a fire line, fitting in between volunteers from a nearby town and the federal crew. Looking around, I can spot at least five trees with old lightning scars. Only one tree is burning — was it struck yesterday?

Just as the line is completed, the gusty winds start to blow — outflow from thunderstorm cells that bring us no rain.

The wind starts to blow.
Our people who have bladder packs scramble to the downwind side. The fire starts to gain another acre, moving into rocky terrain.

Now another federal crew is on the way. The other volunteers are leaving — we are cleared to go home too. As we start down, with the wind calmer, the air attack begins. A helicopter with a dangling "Bambi bucket" and a single-engine air tanker are overhead almost constantly, since both are able to refill relatively close by.

Single-engine air tanker drops retardant on the fire's edge.
We hike out an easier way, but the two fire trucks and various personal vehicles are now two ridges to the south in Something Creek Estates. Lots of radio chatter ensues as some of our other volunteers drive into SCE to bring down the fire apparatus and attempt to locate the other vehicles.

More chatter as we try to tell the chief where we are. "There's a water tank here and a high metal post. Is this Nearby Town's waterline road? We're south of County Road Such-and-Such. Yes, the helicopter just went right over us."

He finds us, arriving in his battered black pickup truck. Riding back the 15 miles or so to the fire house, I wonder how long it had been since I went down the highway in the back of a pickup. It's probably illegal now, technically.

So maybe I can go fishing tomorrow?

July 18, 2012

Held Prisoner by a Bird

Since I first started this blog, I have written at least one post each summer about our encounters with the Cordilleran flycatchers who like to nest on our house.

So call this All My Flycatchers, Season Eight.

In 2009, after some remodeling meant that their former favored spot on the veranda roof-support beam was not so private anymore, I built them a special flycatcher-nesting ledge, in a safe spot high on the back wall of the house.

It was a bigger success than my nest box projects.

This year they built a nest, but in the heat of June never laid any eggs. Or if they did, something got them. I never saw any.

But the flycatchers themselves were still around, calling, fluttering under the eaves.

M. and I went away for half a day a week ago, only to come back and find a new nest built on the front porch light.

Now if I had been smart, I would have removed the nest from the special flycatcher nesting ledge when I saw that they were not using it. They will not re-use a nest. Then they might have re-built and nested there. Instead, the nest is on the porch light.

Lucinda (all females are named Lucinda) has laid two eggs instead of the usual four. Must be a bit of late-season economizing, because normally the chicks would be hatched by now.

She is sitting the eggs — right by the front door! Obviously, we don't use that light.

In the summer, we use that long covered porch as an outdoor living room-dining room-work room. But walking out the door means scaring her off the eggs. Going out the back and coming up the steps means the same thing.

Dog traffic doesn't bother her, perhaps because she can look down on them. So I laughed when I saw M. crawling on hands and knees out the front door to bring in something from the porch.

Then I had to do it too—it's either that, or go out only when the bird is away from the nest.

Sure, we can go in and out the back door, but we miss eating outside.

It makes me feel more cooped up — that and having to do a lot of editorial work. So I have "penciled in" a fishing trip this evening, weather permitting.

Is this Woodland Park or Miami?

Now that the danger of the Waldo Canyon Fire has receded, residents of northern Teller County are urged to be on the lookout for a giant cat-and-small-dog-eating lizard.

Go ahead, be the first to ask the obvious question.

July 14, 2012

Army Switches Camouflage Pattern, Hunting Market to Follow

The Army is dropping its current digital camouflage (Universal Camouflage Pattern) in favor of "Multicam", which means that all that grayish-green stuff will get shuffled down to some other collaborator, the way that the Iraqi army ended up dressed in our 1980s "chocolate chip" desert camo.

There was talk of adopting the Marine Corps' Marpat pattern, but the Corps did not want to share.

Here is an illustrated article on the evolution of military (and therefore hunting) camouflage.

See also "Portraits, Cubists, and Camouflage," on how the avant-garde artists of the early 20th century helped design vehicular and ship camouflage.

Expect this change to carry over into hunting gear fairly soon. Meanwhile, I have not worn out my old Woodland pattern stuff yet. And "chocolate chip," while it was rejected after Desert Storm (unless you were an Iraqi), isn't bad for arid-country waterfowling.

But as I said before, I think that nature's digital hunting camouflage pattern is Rattlesnake Pattern. Someone is missing a marketing opportunity.

July 13, 2012

Southern Colorado Mine Lays Off Miners as Coal Use Drops

One of the last working coal mines in southern Colorado is laying off miners because they have a large stock of unsold coal.

A hundred years ago, there were coal mines all up and down what is now the I-25 corridor, from north of Longmont south to Trinidad (and into New Mexico as well).

Most of the coal was used locally, for heating and industry. The former use mostly went away, while the later shrank, leaving power plants as the main customers.

Now the trend is away from coal — natural gas produces as much electricity as coal and is trending up. Burning gas produces fewer carbon emissions, although it's still fossil fuel, of course.

I don't think that anyone wants to go back to the smoky days when every household furnace was burning coal. But when I lived in a quiet older neighborhood of Cañon City, I used to walk out on a winter night and get a quick acrid whiff of coal smoke. Some of the neighbors never had upgraded.

That part of the town often seemed stopped in time, perhaps around 1950. Example: the Italian restaurant that still displayed a large photo of President Harry Truman on its dining room wall.

July 12, 2012

Wildlife Taxi, July 11

Crappy cell-phone photo of young flammulated owl.

Time on the meter: 4 ½ hours.

Distance: 195 miles

Fare: three young flammulated owls, whose aspen-trunk nest was brought crashing down by a rural Huerfano County homeowner who said that he had been cutting trees along his power line.

Two of the owlets seemed vigorous. One stayed curled up in the nest and never moved. It may be the one that does not survive.

We brought them to the Raptor Center late in the afternoon. Since the little owls chiefly eat insects, the director was trying to locate some crickets, stat!

I will post an update in a few days if I can.

July 09, 2012

Waldo Canyon Fire Video from Colorado Springs FD

The Colorado Springs Fire Department has put together this video on what happened when the Waldo Canyon Fire entered neighborhoods on the city's northwest side.

You can see triage as it is happening—what gets defended, what does not.

You also see wildland firefighters in their lightweight clothing (Nomex or Kevlar trousers, cotton T-shirt, Nomex shirt, plastic hard hat) working next to structure fires, which meant they were really getting broiled.

By comparison typical structure-fire gear includes more insulation and often a reflective Mylar layer. It is designed to block heat, but you pay a price in weight, less mobility, and sweat.

(With thanks to Rowan M.)

July 08, 2012

Just an Average Bear on an Average Day

A scout camera shot from about 10 a.m. on June 21st, about ten minutes' walk from the house — just over the San Isabel National Forest boundary.

July 06, 2012

The Bigfoot Diet

Or "paleo" before Paleo was cool.

Australopithecus sediba, " an early relative of humans," ate leaves and bark, new research suggests.

"They were eating bark and woody substances, which is quite a unique dietary mechanism; it hasn't been reported for any other human relative before."

I reckon that the Bigfoot researchers will have an "Aha!" moment over this, because if they don't hibernate in climates like ours, what would a hypothetical giant primate be eating?

(h/t Reid Farmer at Querencia)

July 03, 2012

After the Fire, the Insurance Adjusters

Manitou Avenue — back in business

M. and I visited Manitou Springs, our former home, today. The sidewalks were full, and rain clouds hung over the Waldo Burn, as we might as well start calling it.

Later, driving south on Cresta Road, we saw these huge motor homes in the parking lot at Cheyenne Mountain High School, started to wonder what was going on, and then saw the signs: Travelers, USAA ... it was some kind of insurance claims center — an "insurance fair," M. labeled it, what with the tents set up and all the chairs.

Oh yes, they will be paying some claims.
“We do not yet have an estimate,” said Carole Walker of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.

“The Waldo Canyon Fire is certainly the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, in the sheer number of homes and the fact that most of them are in a suburban area.” 
Usually, it is hailstorms that bring out the RV's and tents.

When You Evacuate, the Predators Come Out

During the worst of the Waldo Canyon Fire a week ago, Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs evacuated neighborhoods that the fire never came anywhere near.

One part of Manitou had a limited access by a narrow, twisty road that would have been nightmarish if firefighters were going in while residents were coming out.

But I am sure that part of the big evacuation order was a risk-averse bureaucratic response of "better safe than sorry" and avoiding legal liability for failing to "do something."

Unfortunately, it sounds as though the Colorado Springs Police Department was spread too thin: "Waldo Canyon Fire Evacuees Return To Find Property Burglarized, Vandalized."

They can't guard every cul-de-sac and every access point, it seems.

Plus there were more than sixty reports of car break-ins at Colorado Springs hotels where evacuees were staying. The police response: "Take your valuables up to your room."  Probably everything in the family minivan counted as "valuable," and the predators knew it.

As the article mentioned, two fake firefighters have been arrested too, one on the High Park Fire near Fort Collins and one on the Waldo Canyon Fire.

I cannot tell if they were interested in stealing fire equipment (that has happened before) or in stealing from empty homes.

During our evacuations, the local sheriff's department has relied on members of the volunteer sheriff's posse to help with roadblocks, and I have heard of no burglaries here. I have, however, heard of "sketchy" individuals being spotted in the area, people who drove away in a hurry when approached by homeowners. Some homes are on the state highway, for example, and can't be blockaded.

I also know from experience that a hard hat, a yellow Nomex shirt, and a cheery wave will get you through some blockades, even when you are driving your own vehicle.