January 30, 2008

Trees, reviewed

Maybe with all the Last Child in the Woods stuff going on, it would be helpful to start by understanding trees:

Trees. It seems like you see them everywhere these days. But are trees viable in the long-term, or just another flash-in-the-pan fad for the under-30 crowd?

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

Solving the Hummingbird's 'Chirp'

If Anna's hummingbirds chirp with their tail feathers, would that also be true of other species whose males make similar display flights?

January 28, 2008

High Plains Snow Goose Festival

As the wheel of the year turns, so Eagle Day is followed by the High Plains Snow Goose Festival, a transparent attempt to get people to spend money in and around Lamar, Colorado in February.

Why not get people to observe the cycles of migration, rather than yet another "Pioneer Days" or "Western Days"?

The Monte Vista Crane Festival, which started in the 1980s, is the "Granddaddy of 'Em All," to borrow a phrase.

Writer Tracy Roe, who lives in Fowler, had her own misadventures at the goose fest in 2005.

Eagle Day 2008

Upper end of Pueblo Reservoir, Jan. 21, 2008. Photo by Chas S. CliftonNext Saturday is Eagle Day at Pueblo Reservoir, an unpredictable festival that depends on the vagaries of birds and weather.

You can see in this photo from January 21 that the upper end is frozen solid. I did not see any bald eagles that day, although M. spotted one in the area last week.

CSU-Pueblo student Dawn Robles experienced some of those vagaries last year.

Welcome, New Nature-Bloggers

From now into May, some of my nature-writing students at Colorado State University-Pueblo will be blogging here too, so expect some different perspectives.

January 26, 2008

Skiing: Glitz or Experience?

Today on my way to Westcliffe I passed the long-vanished Silver Hills ski area, one of Colorado's lost ski areas.

Many of them were more about real estate sale than the experience of skiing, but Silver Park was just a little family-oriented ski hill, like many of the lost Northeastern areas described in yesterday's New York Times.

In a paired article, Helen Olsson, an editor at Skiing writes about skiing for the experience, not for the glitz.

Skiing is widely known as a rich man’s sport, but flush my family was not. We ate meals from a picnic basket, skied in hand-me-downs, shopped ski swaps, and wore downhill suits sewed in the basement. Instead of paying a ski technician to set our bindings, we clicked into our skis in the living room and hurled ourselves forward while Dad stood on the tails. If we released with, say, medium effort, we figured the setting was correct.

The Times illustrated the article with a photo of Trak cross-country skis. A subtle comment or an editor's ignorance? I suspect the latter. Memo: A pair of 1960s Head skis would have been more appropriate.

One of my enduring questions: Why do Americans have to take a simple, pleasurable activity and complicate it and make it more expensive and glitzy. Skiing (for instance) is skiing, whether you eat a bowl of chile con carne or a five-course meal after your run, whether you sleep in a bunk bed or a multi-million dollar house.

M. and I, lovers of simple pleasures, put in five miles on one of our favorite cross-country trails yesterday. Skiing is a European import, and by day's end sometimes we start speaking European:

C. Did you enjoy the day sportive?

M. In effect! Where shall we go for the after-ski?

C. For the after-ski, let us visit Amicas restaurant where we may eat Pizza Roma and drink the beer locally produced.

M. Yes, that is an idea marvelous.

In slightly related news, discounts for senior skiers are drying up at Colorado resorts.


OK, it was only 3.1 on the Richter scale.

M. and I have driven through Cotopaxi about two hours before the quake. I doubt we would have felt it in the Jeep -- or we would have though it was just rough pavement on U.S. 50?

January 20, 2008

Clark's nutcracker

Clark's nutcracker tackles the suet-cake feeder.
Clark's nutcracker, showing its long bill

I mentioned on Friday that a Clark's nutcracker (named for William Clark) had showed up at our house, a little lower in altitude than we normally see them.

Unfortunately for its peace of mind, the Clark's is big enough to trigger Shelby the ninja collie's prey reflex. She will let finches and juncos walk right past her as she lies under near the bird feeder waiting for squirrels, but anything jay-sized or larger has to be chased. So she wound up behind a gate on the veranda today so the Clark's could work the the suet-cake feeder without interruption.

Feeder Birds

Cassin's and house finches mob the seed feeder. Photo by Chas S. CliftonCassin's and house finches mob the sunflower-seed feeder.

I took the photo two days ago, one of our Project Feeder Watch days. You can see two male Cassin's airborne on the left. Counting these guys is like trying to count the participants in a riot.

Even worse are the pygmy nuthatches, who move in a continual loop from the feeder to a tree branch and back again, giving a sort of "cloud of electrons" effect.

When M. and I are counting, we try to monitor two sunflower-seed feeders like the one pictured, two tube-type Niger thistle feeders, one hanging suet-cake feeder, and one small window feeder -- and check who is hanging out in the adjacent trees.

Sometimes I cheat a little with the finches. Female house finches can be told from female Cassin's, but for me, at least, that requires a little study with binoculars--hard to do during a major session of sunflower-seed looting. So I count the males and multiply by two.

It's just grunt-level science.

January 18, 2008

Blog Stew with Lynx

¶ A Colorado lynx apparently walked to Yellowstone. (Hat tip: The Goat.) Or maybe you thought I was referring to an early Web browser.

¶ The Evening Grosbeak is back. No, not the bird, the bar in Cañon City. In the 1980s, we called its similar previous incarnation a "fern bar." Now it is a "martini bar." Social historians, please note. Whatever it is, Cañon finally has one, again.

¶ Conclusion: it was a Northern pygmy-owl. (Apparently it rates a hyphen, for some dark reason known only to the American Ornithologists' Union.)

¶ Another visitor today was a Clark's nutcracker. It was a little out of place too, but only by altitude. I have never seen one down this low (6,600) feet, but there is no reason it could not come down from the higher ridges, which are 9,000-plus feet in elevation.

January 14, 2008

Blog Stew a la Velikovsky

• Did a comet wipe out Pleistocene megafauna and the Clovis culture? Folklore scholars would be a little skeptical about a 13,000-year oral tradition.

Lesbian park rangers. Probably not what you were thinking.

• Tamara protests the trend towards gaudy roadside memorials.

Now it seems like every other telephone pole and tree trunk on some of the more enjoyable back roads is festooned with enough plastic flowers, ribbons, and shiny bits to make it look like a Filipino jitney bus has crashed into a roadside shrine to Our Lady Of Guadalupe, Patron Saint of Chupacabra Victims. Driving down some stretches is like motoring through Graceland on the anniversary of Elvis' demise, except tackier.

Yeah. Some 16-year-old killed from Colorado Springs killed himself on a dirt bike near our house in 2006. His friends periodically renew the cheap plastic flowers on the white cross embellished with his name in Lowrider script. Do they wonder if my neighbors want to look out of their houses and see this memorial to some high-testosterone, low-sense kid? I doubt it. One day it will disappear.

Pikas 'Blinking Out'?

Some scientists want to use the Endangered Species Act to force action on climate change, reports the Denver Post

Their fulcrum species is the pika, a high-altitude version of the rabbit, a/k/a coney or "little haymaker." (It's not a rodent.)

Pushed by warmer weather to ever-higher elevations, the tiny pika is losing real estate at an alarming rate, according to scientists, and is disappearing rapidly from much of its historic territory in the West.

"They've been driven upslope a half mile since the end of the last ice age," said Donald Grayson, an archaeologist and paleontologist with the University of Washington who has documented the presence of pika over the past 40,000 years. . . .

The [Center for Biological Diversity] is suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the pika — along with the polar bear and the ribbon seal — as imperiled by global warming, marking a new legal approach to the Endangered Species Act.

One of my father's and my first backpacking destinations was Shelf Lake above Georgetown, Colo., where while he fished I pursued pikas with a camera.

I was maybe 13 or 14, and the camera was an old Kodak, complete with leather bellows. In fact, it had been his graduation present when he finished forestry school at Fort Collins.

Given the lens available, pikas were good quarry because I could sneak up on them in the boulder fields above the lake.

I haven't given them much thought lately -- and the Southern Rockies populations may not be as threatened -- but maybe next summer I should go looking for them in the Sangres -- with a better camera.

January 13, 2008

Pygmy Owl

Hanging out the laundry, M. noticed a collective twittering of nuthatches high up in a pine tree--and one larger bird sitting still.

Last year, on a sunny afternoon in late January, we swore we had seen a northern hawk owl, which if true would mean that it was way south of its normal range.

That time, we had a good look through binoculars and consulted field guides--but we did not have a camera with long lens ready. And then it flew away, having consumed the junco it had snatched near one of the bird feeders.

As Project Feeder Watch participants, we reported it to the Cornell ornithology lab. The response was polite but non-committal: Your report is sounds intriguing, but we would really like to see a photo. And we had no photo. So we did not rock the ornithological world.

This time, I had the new Pentax K100D digital camera and a so-so 500mm mirror lens, and I shot several pictures from the porch before the bird flew off.

After downloading and sharpening them a little in Graphic Converter (the poor man's PhotoShop), I realize that I was looking at . . . a sharp-shinned hawk. [No, see updates below.]

It was eating a pygmy nuthatch while being mobbed by other pygmy and white-breasted nuthatches--but being mobbed by nuthatches is not too scary if you're a hawk an owl.

Of course now we are wondering about our alleged hawk owl. Were we acting like newbies, getting all excited over an exotic species? Did our years of counting owls for the BLM make us too ready to see an owl rather than a hawk? Or was it really the hawk owl? If it was, I wish it would come back.

At least digital photography offers instant gratification. I do not plan to give SeEtta Moss any serious competition, however.

UPDATE: Steve Bodio votes for a pygmy owl. I was puzzled at the time by the slightly stocky body shape the bird presented, but I put that down to cold weather (feathers puffed) and to the fact that it was hunching over its prey.

UPDATE 2: SeEtta Moss (see comments) agrees that it is a pygmy owl, so I have changed the headline.

January 12, 2008

Git Yer Western Art Here

Mary Scriver delightfully dissects the house organs of the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel.

So now back to the newer ‘zines. Western Art Collector is a frank guide to the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel. Same familiar ads, same subject matter, but now more than ever like a race horse guide. What auctions are coming, what artists are promising, and -- most important -- constant attention to the prices: the estimated worth, the auction total, the rate of increase over the years of an artist’s career. Lots of “society” photos of customers and dealers partying in their fancy dress, champagne glasses in hand as they celebrate snatching a “masterpiece” from the jaws of some other white-haired matron who offered them five figure checks to give it up because it is her “heart’s desire.”

Read the whole thing. She has been doing some more critical work in the field as well: a biography/memoir of Western artist Bob Scriver, to whom she was married, and comments on the issue of artistic legacy as well.

January 08, 2008


by Mike Adams

I ski now, untracked,
into the falling snow
that falls into the trough
of hard snow left
by yesterday's travelers,
so that the going,
through the snow-bowed
pines, is easy yet new,
my skis buried, only
the tips, pushing
tiny bow waves, visible
and making the smallest
of sounds, a faint
hissing in the full silence
of the forest.

My breathing, the fixed
flowing rhythm of arms and legs,
the still woods--

The world with all
of its burdens falls away.
I think of my 57 years,
the mountains I have climbed,
nights under the wheeling stars.
All of the women I have loved
and the one I love now,
with all the fullness of my years.

And I think too, of companions gone--
men and women--carried out
of my life by death or the strong
currents of life,

And the falling untracked snow
and what lies at the heart of it all.

I read this poem in the new Mountain Gazette right after spending yesterday afternoon x-c skiing with M. near Salida. It went right through me (even though I'm not yet 57).

It's like Frost's famous snowy woods. That poem was no big deal when I was young. Now it scares the bejabbers out of me.

The Church of Animal Rights

Mary Scriver muses on the churchiness of animal-rights groups, particularly the Humane Society of the United States:

If the Humane Society of the United States were a religious institution, which it very nearly is, preaching the doctrine of compassion and the horror of cruelty, it would not be a mainstream denomination because it has no actual churches (shelters). . . . However, the minister --er, President Emeritus -- John Hoyt IS or was a Presbyterian minister who found the perks and income much nicer with HSUS.

January 06, 2008

The Odd Cry in the Night

My previous post, on how to behave around mountain lions, was prompted by something that happened last night: M. and I heard an animal sound that we could not identify.

We had gone to bed about eleven o'clock. Since the temperature outside was about 30° F., relatively warm for a winter night, she left the bedroom window open a crack.

As I was drifting off to sleep, I heard something -- a far-off fox? Then the sound came again -- a two-note cry. Shelby, sleeping at the foot of our bed, came awake and started filling the room with her sharp collie barks, like rapid pistol fire.

Then Jack, the Chessie, came out of the kennel crate where he sleeps (which doubles as my bedside table), adding his deeper woofing. You couldn't hear yourself think, let alone hear what was outside.

Shelby was running to the front door, barking to be let out. We finally got the dogs partly settled down ("Dogs! Settle down! Get in your beds!"), and a dialog ensued:

"What was that?"

"It almost sounded like a poor-will."

"It can't be a poor-will in the middle of winter."

"I know that! But it didn't sound like a fox..."

Nor did it sound like coyote nor like an owl nor like one of the neighbor dogs. The only owls calling at this time of year are great horned owls, which are mating. They can produce amazing sounds, but this sound seemed different. It was more like a saw-whet owl, if the saw-whet stopped after only two notes.

And the dogs do not normally go into paroxysms of barking over owls, but only over bears, foxes, and other predators. So we are baffled.

Hominid Behavior for Dummies

Correct mountain-lion encounter behavior as laid out by the South Dakota Division of Wildlife.

There was a time, I am sure, when everyone knew this stuff -- a couple thousand years ago.

Number 7 might be summarized as "Act like an angry ape."

January 05, 2008


The wind seeks every crevice in the house. On the high ridges of the Wet Mountains, shallow-rooted firs will be falling, their tips pointing northeast. A report comes from Westcliffe of gusts to 96 mph.

Higher still, it is snowing. When I walk the dogs up the east ridge, I can see the cloud wall to the west.

Here in the ponderosa pines, trees are less likely to fall, although a few small branches startle me with their sudden drops. The ponderosas seem more likely to snap halfway up when they do break. Big junipers never break; they fill up with birds.

No birds are moving in the woods, no one but us, and the dogs stick a little closer.

A downslope wind--a chinook--raises the temperature. The snowy ground changes to mud and ice. It may reach 60 degrees F. today in the wind, or so says the forecast. Porch furniture collects around the downwind railing.

It's hard to sit still when the wind is blowing.

January 03, 2008

Dust Pneumony

Continuing to find books for the nature-writing class, I decided to give them a selection from Timothy Egan's The Worst HardTime.

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s ("the nation's worst prolonged environmental disaster") pretty well centered on the southeast corner of Colorado. I have used some of Donald Worster's excellent Dust Bowl in class before, but Egan follows a small, memorable set of characters from the agricultural prosperity of the World War I years through the subsequent collapse of grain prices, the regional economy, and the land itself.

Is the Dust Bowl is simply disappearing from the popular consciousness? Maybe we should watch The Plow that Broke the Plains as well. Netflix has it. And then go out to the national grasslands and think about blizzards of dirt that lasted for days.

My mother's family, in Colorado Springs, was slightly removed from the worst of the Dust Bowl, although my grandfather's furniture store went bust in the late 1930s, since furniture purchases are among the first to be postponed when times are hard.

Earlier, my grandparents had run a general store in the High Plains town of Arriba, but they luckily sold out before the big collapse of prices and population.

My father, meanwhile, was growing up in Tulsa, where, he said, "There was no Depression" -- or at least that is how he remembered it from a teenaged perspective.

Reading Egan's book in bed last month, I turned out the light, lay back on my pillow, and started coughing. It was persistent cough--something irritating the airway that would not shake loose. Pretty soon I was imagining "dust pneumonia."
I got that dust pneumony, pneumony in my lung,
I got the dust pneumony, pneumony in my lung,
An' I'm a-gonna sing this dust pneumony song.