A little late, but here is a view of the sunset on Thanksgiving evening.
Hope you had a beautiful Thanksgiving, and will have a wonderful Christmas.
A little late, but here is a view of the sunset on Thanksgiving evening.
Hope you had a beautiful Thanksgiving, and will have a wonderful Christmas.
This computer simulation from NASA shows just how interconnected the world is.
The computer simulation runs from August 1 through November 1, 2017. It follows hurricanes that tracked over the Atlantic Ocean this fall, letting you see how dust from the Sahara ends up in Miami, and smoke from the wildfires in California and British Columbia migrates all the way to Europe.
The first time through, listen to the narration. It explains a lot of what you are seeing, points out the storms and how unusual they were.
The second time through, watch what’s happening in just one region. You can see storm fronts come through, then dissipate as other systems disrupt them. It looks like the planet is breathing.
Hemingway said that all true stories end in death. This, then, is a true story…
My son wanted a dog of his own. We said no. We already had two dogs. He only had two years before he went off to college. There was no point in getting him a dog that he was going to leave. I didn’t need to take care of three dogs. The question was settled. We weren’t getting my son a dog.
Then my daughter started talking about a puppy at veterinary clinic where she worked. It was adorable, she said, a little corgi with big ears and inquisitive eyes. And then she mentioned that it had been relinquished to the veterinary clinic because it had an incurable heart problem. The clinic was trying to find somebody to take it so that its last days wouldn’t be spent in a kennel at the back of the clinic.
The prognosis was not good. The puppy had patent ductus arteriosus (PDA) with reverse flow. Translated, patent ductus arteriosus means that a valve in his heart didn’t shut properly when he was born. This open valve allows oxygen-poor blood from his body to mix with oxygen-rich blood from his lungs, diluting it. Without treatment, dogs with this heart problem typically live just weeks to months.
By itself, PDA is fixable with surgery; the veterinarian would just operate and sew the valve shut. The problem is in the reverse flow. In a small percentage of PDA cases, the blood vessels in the lungs thicken and narrow, causing the flow of blood to reverse from left to right, hence the name “reverse flow.” Once the blood vessels thicken, the veterinarians can’t shut the valve without forcing too much blood through the narrowed vessels. It would be like trying to force the flow from a garden hose through a straw – the extra blood would blow out the narrowed vessels.
But my family agreed that we couldn’t let the puppy live out its life without at least being able to lie in the grass, and watch the squirrels, even if he couldn’t chase them. And so we brought the puppy home. A Welsh corgi (are there any other kinds of corgi?) needed a Welsh name. My son named him Darwin. It means “dear friend.”
A few days before we adopted Darwin, the veterinarian tried him on a new medication – Viagra, of all things. Viagra was originally designed to treat pulmonary hypertension (“high blood pressure in the lungs” – the problem causing the reverse flow). Viagra just happened to have other, more profitable, side-effects. For Darwin, the drug changed his life from one of lying on his bed watching the world, to one of being out chasing those squirrels. But we have no idea how long the improvement would last.
Darwin, of course, doesn’t know that he is dying. He’s a cheerful, active,
busybody. Every morning starts with him bouncing stiff-legged down the stairs, his ears flopping on each step. Then it’s time for a game of tug, or a ball-throwing session. If you try to ignore him, he pops his short front legs up on your lap, drops the toy-of-the-day in it, cocks his head at you and let out an insistent Yarp! This is corgi for Hey! Play with me!
Once the game is over, he supervises getting everybody out the door to school or work, and then makes sure that the birds don’t get too comfortable on the bird feeder. After that, he rootles around in the garden, or barks at the neighbor’s dogs, flaunting his toys.
And he does flaunt his goodies. He takes them to the back fence to show to the dogs in the yard behind us. Once they are nicely frenzied, he tosses the bones in the air. La la lah la la! What do I have here? A bone! Would you look at that? Don’t you wish you had one?
As everybody settles down for the evening, Darwin makes little piles of his toys, sorted by type: balls go in our room at the foot of the bed. Bones go in my son’s room by his computer, where he can step on them when he walks around in bare feet. Prized chewy things go at the top of the stairs, where Darwin can keep tabs on the other two dogs.
He’s had a busy day.
Darwin has enemies, though. Cleaning utensils are a constant threat. He has reduced the kitchen broom to a fringe of bristles sticking out at every direction. The vacuum sweeper is an angry menace, to be attacked on sight. The snow shovel has teeth marks on it where he has wrestled it away from us, saving us from some horrible fate.
Our feeling is that if Darwin has a short life span, we are going to give him every opportunity to experience the world. We take him on walks, to the dog park and on errands around town. As if trying to make up for time he won’t have, Darwin dashes toward everyone he meets, ears back and a smile on his face. He proceeds to charm people as only a puppy can. The biggest proof of this is that the grandparents no longer ask about their grandchildren. They want to know how Darwin is doing.
But in the back of everybody’s mind lurks the knowledge that he won’t last.
Grasping at straws to cure Darwin, we took him to the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital. The canine cardiologist there listened and looked and took blood. But in the end, she shook her head. She could adjust Darwin’s medications so that he had more energy. But she couldn’t cure him. He might live three to five years, seven at the most, but in the end, his body will become adapted to the Viagra, and the drug won’t work any more. And he’ll die.
The knowledge of his shortened life makes our time with Darwin more precious. And to make sure that they aren’t left out, we pay more attention to the other two dogs than we did before, too. In fact, the constant nearness of death makes us pay more attention to everything about life.
But it’s hard to stay glum about Darwin’s future when a twenty-five-pound fur ball jumps on your chest in the morning, gently placing a ball in your sleeping hand. You’re wasting the day! he yips. Toss the ball!
My son says Darwin has given him a gift. Darwin has taught my son that “Every day may be my last day. But every day may be my best day.”
Don’t worry about tomorrow. Just throw the ball!
Darwin lasted six years longer than anybody expected, living a full and happy life. Finally, though, his body adapted to the medication and his great heart gave out.
But Darwin had one last lesson to teach us: how to die with dignity. So on a cold grey September evening, we said good-bye to our dear friend.
Godspeed, Darwin. We hope there are balls to chase, where ever you are.
After seeing thousands of painted lady butterflies a couple of weeks ago, I thought they were done for the season.Painted Ladies migrate across North America!
Wrong! There are still so many migrating through the Denver area, that, when they fly a bit higher, they are visible on radar!
How cool is that?
My husband, my son, his girlfriend and I went up to my Pika Patrol (Pika Patrol, Part One) site over the weekend. After thrashing about a bit learning how to use the GPS, we found the appointed talus slope. Located on the north shore of Grand Lake just south of Rocky Mountain National Park, researchers had determined that pika had been present there in the past.
The four of us searched the talus for half an hour. We listened for pika calls — they sound like the squeaky toys they resemble. We heard sharper chipmunk calls.
We looked for piles of hay drying outside their dens. We found pine needles.
We saw the distinctive orange lichen that indicates where pika have peed. The extra nitrogen in pika urine allows this particular lichen to grow. But the lichen had a dry, flaking appearance.
After half an hour of searching every nook and crevice we could find, we had to admit that there were no longer pika there.
We weren’t the only ones to come to that conclusion. Every pika monitoring site has three teams that visit it each fall to verify each other’s results. Nobody found any current signs of pika at this site.
At about 9000 feet, the Grand Lake site is the lowest site that the Pika Patrol monitors. According to a map I got from the National Park Service, this area burned in 1879, opening up the forest canopy. Pika were able to move down, and occupy this site for a time. But as the trees grew back, the meadow where the pike foraged turned back into forests, and trees grew in the talus field itself.
If summer temperatures have gotten higher, this would have impacted the pika as well. At temperatures of 75o or above, pika must retreat to their burrows, rather than gather forage. For a site like this one, where grasses and flowering forb plants were decreasing anyway, the combination might have been too much.
It was disappointing not to find pika, but negative results are science, too.
This morning, my husband and I stepped out of our house to walk our dogs, and were mobbed by Painted Lady butterflies!
There were dozens in our yard, sipping nectar from sunflowers and oregano.
As we walked through the neighborhood, the numbers increased. They were everywhere. Delightful!
Painted ladies are on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. (Painted Lady Vanessa cardui) Like the much more famous Monarch butterflies, Painted Ladies use multi-generational migrations. They start in Mexico, and take several generations to move into Canada, then turn around and take several generations to get back to Mexico (at least I think that’s how it works…) They do the same thing in Europe, migrating to tropical Africa. Nature Nut: Have you seen the painted ladies ‘invasion’? Nobody knows how they know where to go.
They do this every year. Some years, the migration is bigger. And some years, like this year, the migration is enormous.
Happy to have seen it.
One of the things that I love about Colorado is that you can drive a few hours in any direction, and be in an entirely different environment. Normally, I spend a lot of time in the high country.
But last week my husband and I traveled to Grand Junction, in the western part of Colorado, to canoe an easy stretch of the Colorado River with a group of friends. Instead of the alpine tundra, we traveled through the high desert of the Colorado Plateau.
The Colorado River starts in the Kawunechee Valley of Rocky Mountain National Park at 10,000 feet (3048 meters), and quickly drops to the Colorado Plateau (4444 feet or 1355 meters where we put in) around Grand Junction. From there it meanders southwest through Utah to cut the incredible Grand Canyon of the Colorado in Arizona.
On our canoe trip, we expected to see bald eagles, osprey, great blue herons and other water birds, and we weren’t disappointed. The only one I got photos of, though, was a great blue heron along a shallow stretch of the river. And this late in the year, a good portion of of the River was shallow.
I am becoming a bigger and bigger fan of traveling by canoe or kayak, mostly because animals come down to the river to drink or feed, and you, traveling slowly and quietly, can approach them fairly closely. That allowed me to get close enough to the heron to get a good shot.
Unfortunately, we drifted a little too close, and he took off as we passed.
I also got shots of a lot of animals we didn’t expect to see.
At our lunch spot for the second day, some of our canoe group floated around the bend in the river. They came back very excited about seeing desert bighorn sheep. People with cameras headed back to shoot the sheep.
Desert bighorn sheep are a subspecies of their better known cousins, bighorn sheep.
Both types of bighorns love steep, rocky areas, but desert bighorns are lighter in build, and have horns that are a little more spread away from the sheep’s head.
Our second campsite was in a canyon cut into the surrounding mesa. The rocks along the entire trip were old — 250 million years old, or more. Laid down in a sandy desert of their own, they were a beautiful red that intensified in the evening light.
My brother loves to experiment with his camera, always trying new things. On this trip, he took pictures of the night sky. We lose a lot when we have street lights on every corner.
When we started our trip, we were warned to watch out for scorpions, which like to crawl into shoes and packs at night. The warnings were justified — we found a scorpion in our second camp. Seeing it made me very glad I had put my sandals on when I had to get up in the middle of the night.
As we were packing up to leave break camp the second day, we were incredibly luck to spot a family of otters playing across the river. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a family group of otters is called a “romp” (https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Arapaho/wildlife_and_habitat/northern_river_otterindex.html). How appropriate. They did indeed romp through the water, over the rocks and down the bank. Watching those guys play may have been the highlight of the trip.
We didn’t get any shots of the family of otters, but as we were pulling out of the campsite, we did see the male taking a dust bath.
River otters are on the Federal Endangered Species list. When I was researching them at the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife website for this post, I saw a notice asking that if you saw an otter, to please let CDPW know about it. I complied, happy to be a tiny part of the otter’s recovery efforts.
Further down the River, my friend started calling to me and pointing vigorously at the bank. Finally I could hear her yell “Wild turkeys!”
If you heard my interview with Colorado Public Radio (Colorado Matters Over Trail Ridge Road), you know that I get really excited about wild turkeys.
My husband did an admirable job keeping the canoe from tipping over while I took photos.
I’ve struggled for a couple of days with how to end this post. In the end, I decided that this trip affected me more than I expected it to. It made me realize, again, that although we are surrounded by a lot of ugliness in our daily lives, there’s a lot of beauty in the universe as well, if we just stop to take a look at it.
A couple of years ago, when I was giving presentations for my book, a member of the audience asked me where she could find wildflowers in the alpine tundra. I was a little nonplussed, because you can find wildflowers in the alpine tundra everywhere. But you have to change your frame of reference to do it.
Alpine wildflowers are small. There just isn’t time in the short, high-altitude summer to get big, especially when flowers cost the plant so much in terms of energy. And they are spread far apart, to ensure that they get plenty of sun and water. So you’re not going to see meadows dense with flowers blowing in the wind.
The showiest flower you’re going to see in the alpine is Old-man-on-the-mountan.
The name “old-man-on-the-mountain” refers to the dense white hairs on its leaves and stem. These hairs retain moisture and heat, while acting as a sunscreen against ultraviolet radiation that is extra strong at high altitudes.
This alpine sunflower always faces the sun. It is the only annual of the alpine tundra; it puts all its energy into it’s flower instead of the rest of the plant.
Purple fringe is another showy plant I saw in the tundra. It has such general growth requirements that it grows anywhere from the montane to the alpine.
This gorgeous plant is termed a “pioneer plant”, because it grows on disturbed soils like you see in the photo. If it had it’s way, it would be a weed — growing everywhere. But other plants come in after it, and are able push it out, which is why you don’t see it often.
Alpine avens is one of the most common flowers you’ll see in the alpine tundra. If I’d come a little earlier, I would have seen all these heads in bloom.
Alpine avens is in the rose family. Pika enjoy eating the plant.
Although I would call this plant white, I think it is a Western yellow paintbrush. Even it has a covering of hairs. It must be a strategy that works for alpine plants.
Mountain dryad is also in the rose family. The leathery leaves help it hold moisture. It is a favorite food of Ptarmigan.
The wispy seed heads of mountain dryad have been said to “resemble white-haired waifs, waiting to be carried away to distant lands.” Who said scientists were all hard facts?
Whiplash Saxifrage is one of the first tundra plants on disturbed ground, like a rock slide, or where pocket gophers have burrowed just beneath the surface. It moves in quickly by putting out runners, or whiplashes, like a strawberry plant does.
The sunflower (or Composite) family is huge, and notoriously hard to figure out. Botony students have a name for sunflowers they can’t identify: A DYC (Darn Yellow Composite). I don’t know exactly what it is, but it too has a covering of short white hairs over its long leaves.
What do you do when you are forced out of your home? How do you find another place to live, when the sites you need are already full?
American Pika, small rodent-like rabbit relatives who live in the alpine tundra of the Rocky Mountains, are facing this problem as warmer temperatures force them ever higher. The problem is that there is only so much “up” that pika can go.
I spent Saturday in the alpine tundra on Loveland Pass (elevation 11,990 feet, or 3655 m), west of Denver, with scientists from the Denver Zoo and researchers from CU Boulder, learning how to measure pika habitat.
Pika are exquisitely adapted for life in the alpine tundra, where winter temperatures are often 0o F (-18o C), and winds average 50 mph (80 kph). Storms bring blows of 100 mph (160 kph) or more, and drop to -40o F (-40o C). Only a very few animals stay in the tundra through conditions like that: Bighorn sheep, mountain goats, ptarmigan, marmots — and pika. And what’s more pika are active all winter long.
How do pika survive these extreme conditions? In a sense, they don’t; they avoid them. Pika live beneath six feet (2 meters) or more of snow. At these depths, the temperature is about 28o F (-1 C) and dead calm. The little critters run through tunnels among the talus rocks to graze on leftover alpine plants. But there aren’t enough of these low-growing plants nearby for pika to survive the winter. So during the fall, the animals gather vegetation and stash it in rock crevasses to build haystacks. They then eat the haystacks throughout the long winter.
Here’s the problem for pika: their body temperature is about 104o F (40o C), and they have dense fur to hold this heat in. While this helps them stay warm through the winter, it means they are vulnerable to overheating when temperatures hit 70o F (21o C) in the summer. They can survive short warm spells by descending into the passages beneath the talus. But if pika are chillin’ in the rocks, they aren’t gathering forage to make hay for the winter. As global temperatures rise, pika can overheat, or they can starve. Tough choice.
The one thing pika can’t do is move. Their habitat is limited to the tops of mountains above tree line. If it is suitable for a pika, one already lives there. There isn’t any more.
Scientists at the Denver Zoo want to know how pika are responding as global temperatures rise. So they called for volunteers to come learn how to measure pika habitat. Over forty people showed up at the top of Loveland Pass Saturday morning. After leading us up the alpine trail for a couple of hundred feet, we all sat in a learning circle.
We were a bunch of strangers — retired biologists, teachers, a family who wanted to do something together, longtime hikers — but all were passionate about pikas, or Citizen Science. People came prepared, and asked good questions: How big is a pika’s territory? What makes good territory? How did the zoo pick the sites?
Biologists have a couple of ways to study animals in the field. They can watch them, which takes a lot of time and yields limited information. They can catch them, which is stressful for everybody involved. Or they can study bits of the animal that are left behind — hair, feathers, and even more exciting — animal feces. As a matter of fact, biologists tend to get a little fixated on scat. The animal has no further use for it, and it can tell a scientist a lot.
So we learned how to look for scat, recognize that it was fresh, gather it, and send it to the researchers.
The researchers can break the little pellets apart and see what the pika are eating. Flowers are higher in protein for growth, while grasses are higher in carbohydrates that provide energy. Another thing that pika scientists can measure is the amount of stress hormones in the scat. If the animals are stressed, they are probably having a harder time surviving. The big reward, though, may be the DNA gathered in the scat. DNA can tell scientists who is moving where, and who doesn’t survive.
As the morning progressed, I and the other volunteers put what we had learned to the test. We measured, we crumbled pika poop between our fingers. When we found a hay stack on our own, we whooped with excitement. I had a wonderful day at 12,000 feet, looking for pika with total strangers.
But the funny thing is, they didn’t feel like strangers. As I looked around at the people who were passionate enough about this Citizen Science project to volunteer to spend the day learning how to find pika poop, I saw that they people were just as enthralled with science as I was. I thought “This is my tribe. These are my people.”
So now that I’m trained, it’s time for me to go monitor some pika habitat. I’ll probably wait until September, so that the pika have a chance to gather some hay, and I’ll have a better chance of finding them. But I can hardly wait.
Many people collect images of hearts in nature. I found this prairie coneflower as I was looking for prairie falcons this morning. (Focus on What’s at Hand)
This is what prairie coneflower normally looks like.
Prairie coneflower is in the sunflower family. You can see it if you mentally flatten the cone down a bit. Each of the brown stubs on the cone is a separate flower, as it true of all sunflowers.
Still not seeing prairie falcons. There is the possibility that they didn’t nest here this year.