Spring Blizzard

We are in the middle of a big Spring storm that we have really needed. It’s been a very dry Winter, and we can use all the moisture we can get. We have about six inches of snow right now and it’s predicted to snow through the night.

As usual, this kind of weather has driven a bunch of locals to our feeders, like this downy woodpecker.
And this house finch and white-crowned sparrow.

Douglas B-18

Over the Holidays, I made a visit to our local aviation museum, Wings Over the Rockies. The museum is in suburban Denver and located in one of the remaining hangars from Lowry Air Force Base, which closed in 1994. The majority of the exhibits are military aircraft and date from the Cold War. I’ll cover the Cold War exhibits in another post as I wanted to focus on perhaps the museum’s rarest aircraft, a Douglas B-18 “Bolo” .

If you read the Wikipedia link on the plane, you’ll see it was the US Army Air Corps’ first-line medium bomber in the late 1930s. Only five are known to exist, none in flyable condition.
From today’s perspective, when we’re flying 40+ year-old B-52s, it’s almost amazing to think that this plane entered service in 1936 and was considered obsolete when the US entered WWII in 1941. It was widely deployed at the beginning of the war, and the majority of the bombers destroyed by Japanese bombing on 7 and 8 December 1941 in Hawaii and the Philippines were B-18s.
The remaining B-18s were mostly reassigned to coastal patrolling and replaced by the B-25s and B-26s that bore the brunt of war service. Coastal patrolling was soon taken over by PBY Catalinas and B-24 variants. B-18s spent most of the war as training aircraft or were converted to transports. During the war, Lowry was a center for bombardier training, and this picture shows B-18s on the flight line there with a group of cadets.
Another very cool exhibit at the museum was this Norden bombsight. This was a technical marvel and closely guarded secret at the beginning of the war. I have been reading about these for ages, and this is the first I have seen. It occurred to me that this was the same type bombsight used by Steve’s father who was a bombardier in B-17s over Europe during the war.

Web Miscellany

The NY Times has an interesting piece on Texas rattlesnake roundups. Fascinating that they actually put it in the sports section.

Get your Simon Bolivar action figures!

Nederland, Colorado just hosted the 2009 edition of Frozen Dead Guy Days. I need to get up there next year to give you all a first-hand account.

And speaking of dead folk, here’s a profile of Dr. Bill Bass and his famous Body Farm. I mentioned in a post some time back that I worked with Dr. Bass on an excavation project in Tennessee in the 1970s. He really did expect us to go straight for the burials and ignore all the other archaeological remains.

Homeowners in Perth may get to pay their water bill by the flush.

A couple of “Web Miscellanies” back I had a link to a piece on a coyote trapper in the Los Angeles area. Here’s a profile of one of his colleagues in Colorado.

And here’s a piece on alternative methods of wild animal birth control.

The Roman Catholic Church has a long history of incorporating other cultural phenomena into its ritual (Christmas trees, anyone?). It goes for it again by issuing a prayer book for use with the Latino custom of quinceaneras.

Click through to some wonderful pictures of “armored” beetles in a piece on Nature’s arms race.

Get in touch with your inner Captain Kirk by owning a USS Enterprise captain’s chair. Beam me up, Scotty!


On Saturday, Jim and I encountered a ferruginous hawk busy with nest-building. The nest we saw being constructed is located amid sea of sagebrush atop a rock outcrop adjacent to a highway. Unfortunately, it is just inside the highway fenceline, and a road upgrade project will reach it in the coming days. The nest is doomed, but the good news is that there are plenty of better nest sites nearby, and it’s early enough that there has been no incubation involved. When we checked again yesterday, there were three ferrgs on the bluffs near the nest. I’m hopeful the female will frown upon the current home construction project and will make her selected mate pick a better location. Ferrgs typically build several alternative nests.

The buck stops here

After a busy morning of computer work, the other day I went for a walk in the afternoon with livestock guard dogs Rena and Rant, and herding dog Abe. It was about 40 degrees and we went up on the Mesa, watching the two bald eagles sitting on our fenceposts behind the house. There are prairie dogs out and chattering, bothering the dogs. Abe and Rena chased a jackrabbit. I could hear a bluebird singing. A couple of young pronghorn bucks were playing, shoving each other back and forth.

As I walked, I was getting ready to step over a burrow in the ground, and I suddenly heard this deep-throated growl that sounds like what I imagine a grizzly bear would sound like, but it was coming from a hole in the ground. I screamed and sprinted away, but within about three steps started laughing out loud as I realized I had heard myself scream, and indeed “I scream like a girl.” Of course it was a badger not happy to have me walking atop its hole. Actually Rena had just snooped around the hole, so the growl was probably meant for her.

No hen could resist this

Grouse leks are traditional breeding grounds that are fairly large open areas surrounded by sagebrush. Generation after generation of grouse use these traditional sites.

This morning, I went to what is usually a very large sage grouse lek to find only about 60 birds on the vast breeding ground. Last year there were a few hundred birds, and about two weeks ago, we flushed about 400 birds from the area. But since then, there was a snowstorm that dumped a lot of snow, and the lek is back under snow. I’m a few weeks early for peak lek activity, and breeding will take place through April.

It was cold this morning (just below zero) when I arrived, and parked away from the lek. I planned to walk in to photo range, but the snow was too deep, and when I tried, the snow crunched, making my tip-toeing sound like elephant stomps. Fearing I would disturb the birds in already energy-draining situation, I gave up and went back to the truck to watch and listen to the birds from afar. As the sun started to rise, I could see that as the grouse puffed the air sacks in their chests, they also released little clouds of steam from their beaks. First time I’ve seen that, so I really started to pay attention.

As I turned to leave, I noticed there were more grouse out in the thermal cover provided by thick stands of sagebrush. I was driving the noisy flatbed GMC feed truck, which emits a low rumble while it idles (teenagers love it), but was trying to be quiet. I saw two male grouse next to the road, and one wandered away into the brush, but the other stayed close.

I shut off the truck to watch, and the second bird started to leave. I turned the truck back on, and the noise attracted the bird, as he spun around to challenge the truck. He strutted and puffed out his air sack on his chest numerous times, making a drumming noise, tail feathers fanned out behind him. When I shut the truck off, he would calm back down and start to walk away, but if I revved the truck back up, he pranced again. Apparently the noise of the truck must be at the correct decibel level to be of interest to the bird – at least this individual bird.

I watched this male sage grouse for about an hour before leaving. The bird remained, obviously winning the battle against the GMC for breeding rights to that territory. What hen could resist something that adorable?

Here’s the handsome male grouse before he starts strutting and puffing:

The air sacks are starting to inflate:

If you click on this next one for a closer view, you’ll see the grouse’s beak is open:


Old Fashioned Good Time

A packed house for the HopKins Black Box Theater is about 70 people in folding chairs, the first row seated two feet from the stage and inescapably part of the show.

I took a seat in the back, center isle, elevated by a plywood riser above a stagehand running sound from a school desk. The house settled and the lights dimmed.

For the next ninety minutes we sat transfixed, folded into our chairs and into the story: “DNA Play,” a dramatization of the discovery of the genetic molecule. The playwright was LSU’s own Vince LiCata, our diversely talented professor of biological sciences. The young Black Box players were wonderful, each so reminiscent of a familiar actor–Neil Patrick Harris, Paul Giamatti, Tom Cavanagh–that you felt immediately comfortable in their hands and smugly certain to get your $5 worth of entertainment.

And so we did; and not only that, but now I can tell you a little about crystallography and the structure of the double helix!

How long had it been since I last saw a play? Two years, at least (that was Cocktail, also by LiCata). Before that, maybe twelve.

If the same is true for you, we’ve both been missing out. It’s hard to imagine a better entertainment value: five dollars (suggested donation!) to enjoy the result of countless hours of hand crafting by a team of talented local artists. The entire company of writer, director, actors and technicians works basically for nothing except a few nights of our pleasure and their own. It is the oldest economic system in the world, and despite the claims of stock market experts, the most complex. The most important.

As we whittle down our expectations of disposable cash–disposable anything–and ponder our creep into relative poverty, these more rich and rewarding pleasures should reemerge: little theater, live music, literature, gardening, carpentry, cooking, hunting. All in the old ways, all to the old standards of generosity and enjoyment.

Bird karma

I’ll do a bigger post about this very soon, but I spent a little time this morning on a sage grouse breeding ground, which is called a “lek.” Since I live in the sagebrush sea, and love early morning photography, I have a choice of about a half-dozen leks that are located fairly close to my house – this one actually straddles a seldom-used county road.

I arrived in the dark, shutting off the lights of the truck as I rolled into the lek, cutting the motor so I could watch and listen. The moon was full and I was hoping that I could be in a good enough position to be able to see the moon sinking over the Wyoming Range Mountains, with the grouse in the foreground. (Yes, I have strange goals in life.)

All was going well on the small lek, with grouse strutting and squabbling, posturing and prancing, and me patiently waiting as the sun began to rise and the moon began to drop.

I started taking a few photos, knowing full well there really wasn’t enough light yet for really good shots, but happy about it because I was in a prime position when we had just a little more light.

Just as that little more light was beginning to shine, the birds suddenly shot into the air, like drunken bombers, noisy wings beating the cold morning air. I frantically scanned the lek for the trouble. Ah there. Leisurely cruising about 20 feet above the ground came a rough-legged hawk. I swear that bird was buzzing the lek just for fun. I had to laugh, because the rough-legged posed little threat to these four- to seven-pound sage grouse.

I have been haunted by a rough-legged for about the past month. I think these are such beautiful birds, and absolutely cannot get a half-decent photo of one. We have one hanging out by the sheep pasture, and I see it every day. It seems to know when I have the big lens, because it takes flight before I can set the focus. When I don’t have a decent lens, the hawk sits on a fencepost and scowls at me as I drive by. I’m sure we’ve got some kind of karma happening …

Anyway, I’m off to another lek in the morning, and we’ll try this again.

Wyoming traffic jam

I had to make a run to the courthouse this morning, and met up with a traffic jam, prompting this entry. Let me provide a short etiquette lesson for cattle drive encounters. First and foremost, don’t get impatient and uptight when you see livestock being moved down a highway. Instead, get out the camera and take it easy for a few minutes to allow the herd to calmly proceed while you enjoy the glimpse of western life. These drives are not everyday occurrences, but are usually major movements to seasonal pastures.

Generally, as long what you’re seeing are not the first cattle about to cross a bridge or other hazard, keep driving, but proceed slowly and carefully through the herd. The cattle will move out of your way, but don’t pressure them too much. Be careful around the cows and cowboys on horseback because you don’t know how individual animals will react to a strange vehicle in a somewhat stressful situation. If you honk your horn, expect to be jerked out of the vehicle for the throttling you’ve earned.

Roll down the window and greet the cowboys/cowgirls/cattle kids. Ask a question, if you want. They’ll appreciate your friendliness and interest. Happy trails.

Terrierman Goes Prime Time

Our pithy Patrick Burns, the irascible Terrierman and dogged policy wonk, appeared this week on the prime-time ABC news magazine Nightline. The story by Nick Watt titled, “Best of Breed? Pedigree Dogs Face Disease” picks up on the saga of Kennel Club and Cruft’s dog shows recently put on the defensive by a BBC expose of the dog fancy and registry industries.

I say the industry was “recently” put on defensive, but readers of Terrierman’s Daily Dose know he’s been waging an almost one-man war against the fancy for years. Burns is on camera in the ABC story and on message, as ever:

“Take your own nose and pinch it, then try to breathe,” Patrick Burns said of the feeling for a Boston Terrier or Bulldog with breathing problems. Burns, who hunts in Maryland’s fields with terriers of fuzzier pedigree and longer snouts, and blogs voraciously as “Terrierman,” is scathingly critical of the dog-show world. “Most of the breeds don’t have a function,” he said. “They’re not running dogs, they’re not catching rabbits. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if their only function is to be a pet, then they have to put health first.”