Thursday, September 26, 2013


As a kid camping in the Adirondack Mountains, hoverflies (family Syrphidae) were a common sight, buzzing around the campfire. They receive their common name due to their ability to hover (really? never would have guessed that...). They are often mistaken as bees or wasps due to their mimicry coloration, but are completely harmless to humans. The most common species of Syrphidae in North America goes by the family's common name of Hoverfly (Toxomerus geminatus). Adults emerge in mid-summer to feed off of flower nectar, while the larvae actually feed on aphids, eventually pupating in the soil. Since aphids are huge pests in agricultural systems, both in America and abroad, aphidophagus (aphid consumers!!!!) hoverfly species are increasingly being recognized as potential natural biological control agents.

Hoverfly on top of Estes Cone in Rocky Mountain National Park
Photo by: Matt Brincka 

Hoverfly on top of Estes Cone in Rocky Mountain National Park
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

American bison

The American bison (Bison bison), also call buffalos (even though very... very distantly related to true buffalo), are often known as the face of the American west. They are one of the few species in North America that are both raised in captivity (not domestic) for their meat and roam in wild herds. Bison can grow to massive sizes, with wild individuals reaching 700 to 2,200 pounds and captive individuals reaching upwards to 3,800 pounds. Males tend to be slightly larger than females.

American bison in Yellowstone National Park
Photo by: Matt Brincka

The American bison roam the plains, sagebrush and lightly wooded areas of the mid-western and western North America. They are migratory, traveling between foraging sites. On average, a herd's daily routine consists of foraging and chewing cud for roughly two hours then traveling to the next site. Sometimes, this traveling can amount to around 2 miles per day. Similar to other herd animals, females live is maternal heard consisting of other females, juveniles, and sometimes elderly males. Males will often leave the materinal herds when they are around three years of age, joining other males in bachelor herds (parrrrtaaay). During the breeding season, males will gather females into a small harem for mating. These bulls will ward off other males who get too close.

American bison often use man made roads as route of easy travel... often delaying traffic.
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Bison partake in a variety of interesting behaviors. During the fall, herds usually wander into more forested areas, preparing for the winter months. at this time, bison partake in a behavior where their rub their horns against aromatic trees, saplings and even utility poles. The tree release an aroma after being horned which is connected providing a deterrent against biting insects. Bison also participate in a wallowing behavior, where they wallow, or roll, in a shallow depression of soil. There are many hypotheses as to why bison wallow, including shedding, rutting, group cohesion, play, scratching their insect bites, removing of ticks, and to keep cool.

Locking horns
Photo by: Matt Brincka

When Columbus first step foot in the New World, there were an estimated 60,000,000 (yes... 60 million) American bison that roamed in herds as far as the eye could see. Many native plain cultures based their societies around the American bison, traveling with the herds, utilizing every part of the animal. When European settlers came, all did not bode well for our friendly, roaming plain goliath. Bison hunting turned into a continent wide cull. In the 1800s, western expansion was in full swing and it has been told that men would sit on the top of trains and shoot the bison herds as they passed. The option to shoot buffalo was often provided by train companies to tourists because they wanted the herds culled. A single bison herd could delay a train for days. The main reason of the American bison decline was because the US Army actively endorsed the wholesale slaughter of the herds. Hunters would shoot hundreds of buffalo at a time, skinning them, allowing the meat to rot, then shipping the bones back east. The federal government had multiple reasons to promote the mass cull of bison, but it is said it was mainly to allow ranchers to range their cattle without competition from the herds and (the probable real reason) to weaken the North American Indian population by removing their main food source.

Wallowing in a dust hole
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Interesting Tid-Bits
  • Sometimes bison give birth to a white juvenile, which are of spiritual significance to Native American culture
  • Several American coins have featured the bison, including the "buffalo nickel" from 1913 to 1938.
  • The city of Buffalo, NY originally was called New Amsterdam and resided on Buffalo Creek.... and yes, New York City was originally named New Amsterdam by Dutch explorers. Well guess what, it was a Holland Land Company that first established the Buffalo - New Amsterdam. Residents of New Amsterdam (Buffalo) didn't like the name much, so in 1808 they renamed their town as the "Village of Buffalo". There are a few theories as to why the village was renamed Buffalo, and it is often disputed. One is it related to a story that stolen horse meat was being passed off as bison flesh, with the area then remembered as "Buffalo," however, there is great skepticism towards this. Another is that the name "Buffalo" is a horrible butchering of the French saying beau fleuve meaning "beautiful river," which was used to describe the Niagara River. Another is that the town was named after Fort Le Boeuf, translated as "Fort Buffalo," but this fort ceased operation years before the settlement of New Amsterdam. All of these theories stem from the belief that the American bison once roamed Western New York, but there are only 1 or 2 historical accounts, which aren't 100% reliable. It is also widely accepted that if bison roamed Western New York, they were extirpated years before colonists made it there. Many believe it is the legend of the American bison that fueled the naming. However, without more historical discoveries that creates an indisputable generation story, the naming of Buffalo, and Buffalo Creek, will forever be debated.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Yellowstone National Park

A few weeks ago, the Mrs and I had the wonderful opportunity to utilize a 3.5 day weekend. Our trip of choice? Yellowstone National Park. It had been over a decade since both of us had been there and is almost 9 hours by car from where we live in Colorado. Since we wanted to spend as much time as possible to check out this natural wonder, there was no way a normal weekend would work. Hurray for vacation days!

Norris Geyser Basin at sunset
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Yellowstone National Park is out of this world in almost the whole literally sense, except for... well it is mostly in Wyoming. Yellowstone National Park sits on the Yellowstone Plateau and encompasses the Yellowstone Caldera, the largest volcanic system in North America and is sometimes called a "supervolcano." The current caldera was created around 640,000 years ago with an eruption that was over 1,000 times larger than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. The eruption was so huge, it left a caldera 0.625 miles deep and 45 by 28 miles in total area. The state of Rhode Island is 37 by 48 miles in area... this volcano is almost as big as the whole state of Rhode Island!

The caldera sits over a stationary hotspot in the Earth's mantle, where liquid rock (magma) fills a chamber roughly 37 miles long, 18 miles wide, and 3 to 7 miles deep. This magma chamber supports the geysers and hydrothermal system throughout the park. Since the last super eruption, There has been a series of smaller eruptions up until around 70,000 years ago. These eruptions have formed landmarks such as the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake and the Obsidian Cliffs. From current understanding of the geological eruption history of the Yellowstone area, it is predicted that super eruptions occur every 600,000 to 800,000 years.

If you have been paying attention, the last eruption was 640,000 years ago... could the next super eruption be in our lifetime? Who knows! Just have to wait and see!

**starts digging a fall-out shelter**

Yellowstone is mostly known for two things: geothermal activity (geysers, hot springs, etc) and wildlife. One could make the argument that there are actually three things, with the third being lots and lots of tourists, but I kind of clump them in with the "wildlife" category.

Geothermal Attractions

Norris Geyser Basin at sunset
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Cliff Geyser in Black Sand Basin
Photo by: Matt Brincka

As was stated before, the hotspot that sits below the Yellowstone Caldera fuels some of the most active and most prevalent geyser and hot spring basins in the world. There are four main geyser basins - Upper, Midway, Lower and Norris - with a few other smaller geothermal areas (i.e., west thumb, biscuit, black sand). I personally don't consider West Thumb Basin a main geyser basin because a lot of it is underwater, but you might hear otherwise. There are about 10,000 geothermal attractions, with around 300 of them geysers. There is also the Mammoth Hot Springs... but we will get to that. I had to narrow down this blog post somewhere. There is no way I could ever cover every geothermal feature/basin in the park, let alone everything in the larger basins... so I will cover some big names, along with a few other cool attractions.

Here is a map for your references...

Upper Geyser Basin
Main attraction: Old Faithful
Almost everyone has heard of Old Faithful, which is why it is one of the most developed and visited areas in the park. Don't get me wrong, Old Faithful is cool and you should definitely go see it once, but twice? Probably not. We actually skipped Old Faithful because we both have seen it before. There are many other geysers in the basin that have a lot of character. Upper Basin has the highest concentration of geothermal features in the park.

Other attractions: Castle, Lion, Grand, Daisy, and Beehive geysers, Black Sand Basin, Biscuit Basin, along with other smaller geothermal attractions

Run-off at Biscuit Basin into Firehole River
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Midway Geyser Basin
Main attraction: Grand Prismatic Spring
Grand Prismatic Spring is one of the coolest features to see... from the air. From the ground? Not really. The spring is actually the largest individual hot spring in the park.

Other attractions: Excelsior Geyser (which pumps 4,000 U.S. gallons into Firehole River per minute!) and other smaller geothermal attractions

Grand Prismatic Spring
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Lower Geyser Basin
Main attraction: Fountain Paint Pots
The Fountain Paint Pots are actually mud pots, which are hot springs with boiling opaque mud made of dissolved minerals. They remind me of something magical, like a witches brew.

Lower Geyser Basin
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Other attractions: FIREHOLE LAKE DRIVE! I can't believe how many people actually skip this. Two awesome geysers are on this side road - Great Fountain Geyser and White Dome Geyser - and it saddens me that so many people miss it. White Dome Geyser erupts almost every 20 minutes. The eruption is short and relatively small, but it is still an awesome geyser. If you can see the Great Fountain Geyser erupt at sunset, do it. End of freaking story.

White Dome Geyser along Firehole Lake Drive
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Norris Geyser Basin
Main attraction: Steamboat Geyser
Steamboat is actually the tallest active geyser is the world, with major eruptions reaching up to 300 feet. The problem is, the eruption timetable is erratic, sometimes laying dormant for anywhere from a month to 10 years! The geyser actually was dormant from 1911 to 1961. The last major eruption was July 31st, 2013... good luck timing a visit for when it is erupting at full force! Minor eruptions are much more frequent, but only shoot up around 10-40 feet. Snore fest!

Other attractions: Too many to count. Norris is awesome. If you can go to Norris during a good sunset or sunrise, it is beautiful. If you can't tell, Norris is my favorite (by far).

Norris Geyser Basin at sunset
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Mammoth Hot Springs
Main attraction: Mammoth Hot Springs Complex
Mammoth Hot Springs is actually a large complex of hot springs located in the north-west corner of the park. The hot, calcium carbonate filled water actually comes from Norris, where it travels to Mammoth Hot Springs via a fault line. The water gets it calcium carbonate from the limestone it travels through. When the water surfaces at Mammoth, the calcium carbonate falls out of solution, forming the cascading feature of the complex.

Mammoth Hotspring
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Non-geothermal Attractions
There are plenty of non-geothermal attractions that I could never possibly cover. Like before, I will pick a few of the larger ones, and a few I like.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
This large canyon on the eastern side of the park is.... breath taking. There are plenty of overlooks, but to get to some of the coolest views, you will have to walk down lots of steps or switch backs. It is worth every step. Lower Falls is probably the most well-known waterfall in the park, for it has been photographed and painted more than anyone can recall. I can't really describe anything more about this, but pictures will say what words can't.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Lower Falls in Grand Canyon
of the Yellowstone
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Gibbon Falls
Gibbon Falls is cute. I use cute because nothing really compares to Lower Falls in the park. Gibbon falls is located between Madison and Norris and falls roughly 84 feet. The naming of Gibbon Falls is actually some what of a mystery. In the mid-1800s, government and commercial documents started referring to Falls of the Gibbon or Gibbon Falls. When we were there, we got to see an Osprey fish in the pools at the base of the falls.

Gibbon Falls
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Yellowstone Lake
It is a lake. Go boating. See geothermal features under water in West Thumb. The End. Need more said?

Bucktail Plateau Drive
This is actually a cool, dirt road in the northern section of the park. It goes through some short-grass and sage prairie. People usually spot pronghorn antelope here, yet alas, we say nothing. Still pretty though!

Wildlife: Fauna and Flora
Yellowstone is literally a wonderland and not only because of the geothermal formations. You can see all of those animals you only see on T.V. or read about in text books. It is one of the last places in the U.S. to see the Big-4 predators in one location: mountain lion, black bear, grizzly bear and wolf. There are also the charismatic herbivorous megafauna: elk, moose, bison, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, mule deer, white-tailed deer. It is also one of the only places to see the threatened lynx in the lower 48 states. There are 311 species of birds known to pass through Yellowstone, including extremely rare sitings of whooping cranes.

There are over 1,700 species of trees and vascular plants in the Yellowstone area, some of them only found in the park. The Yellowstone Sand Verbena is only found on the shores of Yellowstone Lake.

Even the geothermal formations are diverse ecosystems! Those bright colors in the hot springs and pool run-offs? Bacterial mats, which yes, are trillions of individual organisms who rely of the geothermal activity to survive.

American bison
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Grizzly Bear
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Yellowstone is truly a geological, biological and ecological wonderland. Enjoy it before the supervolcano explodes!... and basically covers the continental U.S. with ash.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What caused the Colorado flood?

Many people have reached out to my family about the recent flooding in Colorado. Thankfully, we live on a hill away from any stream or river, so we stayed relatively un-flooded. We were isolated for only one day, but we did venture out to view some of the flooding damage and high water marks. Many people who reached out asked questions like "don't people know to not build in an area that floods?" While these questions are innocent, they are a bit misguided, for floods like this rarely happen and could actually happen anywhere. The real question that should be asked is "how did this happen?" Though we can't pin-point a specific cause, many experts are indicating that it was probably a combination of many factors and just a spell of bad luck. Let me 'splain....

Colorado is the following: dry, many times too dry. On average, Colorado as a whole only receives 17 inches of measurable precipitation per year. "But Colorado gets so much snow!" you say. Well, part of that is correct. The mountains do get a lot of snow. The plains do not. Also, on average, 10 inches of snow (not slush) equals 1 inch of precipitation. So when the city of Denver receives an average of 30 inches of snow per year, that only accounts for about 3 inches of precipitation.

Though most of it is dry, what prevents Colorado from becoming a desert state is actually quite dramatic... the Rocky Mountains. Many locations above 10,000 feet receive 25 to sometimes 50 inches of precipitation annually. Monarch Pass, considered one of the snowiest places in Colorado, receives on average 350+ inches of snow, or roughly 35 inches of precipitation from snow per year. That means Monarch Pass receives double the average precipitation for the state in snow precipitation alone. All of this precipitation that falls in the mountains conveniently fill the plethora of reservoirs throughout Colorado and is then pumped and drained based on historical water rights (which is a whole separate disaster). Without the engineering behind those reservoirs holding the precipitation from the mountains, the major cities along the Front Range would not exist. It is simply too dry. This, in itself, is a blessing and a curse.

So, as you can see, Colorado is dry. Even with the precipitation in the mountains being held in the reservoirs, Colorado has a history of drought. For the past few years, Colorado has had drought conditions that have lead to water rationing and some of the worst wildfires on record for the state. This parched landscape was begging for water, but like all things, too much of a good thing isn't always a good thing.

Last week, Boulder experienced something it hasn't in recorded history. As of 7am on Monday, September 16th, Boulder has experienced 17.07 inches of precipitation for the month of September. The September average? Just 1.7 inches. This 17.07 inches literally crushes the previous record of 9.59 inches in May of 1995. On September 12th, Boulder received 9.08 inches of rain in a 24 hour period. This also literally smashed the single day record set on July 31st, 1919 when a measly 4.8 inches fell. So to put that simply, a lot of water fell, doubling the previous records for the area. To bring this all home, Boulder has already broken its yearly record for precipitation with over 3 months left to go. What is even worse is that Boulder got as much rain in a week as it typically gets in an entire year.

That, is a lot of rain. That is so much rain that multiple reservoirs overflowed, with some even bursting, which added to the flooding. Due to all the water, many dams are now structurally damaged and in need of drastic repair. Lyons, CO became completely cut off after a dam burst in the mountain behind it. Helicopters have been airlifting people to safety.

You may have heard on the national news that Colorado is experiencing the 100-year or 1,000 year flood, or a "flood of biblical proportion." This is very misleading, for this doesn't mean this flood actually happens every 100 or 1,000 years (and no, there is no Noah's Ark in the Rockies). What it actually means is that there is a 0.1% chance that this can happen in a year. A low pressure system literally trapped a tropical Southwest monsoon system against the Front Range and Rocky Mountains. The rain had to fall, meaning it did so in buckets. Luck be (not) with us, it just happened at a time and place where there is 1) drought conditions so the ground system was not ready, able or willing to hold that water and 2) steep valleys and creeks that are lined with solid rock walls creating a literal funnel for the water to go through.

Other things could have added to this "perfect scenario". There have been a series of tree kills because of the pine borer beetle and forest fires over the past years. These leave slopes of hills and mountain barren, increasing water run-off, which in return increase any flood or mud slide size.

Overall, it is a disaster. Entire towns are isolated and will stay isolated for months. Estes Park, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, has one road open. That road will close soon when snows in the mountains will make it impassible. Homes are destroyed and entire bridges and roads have just disappeared. Colorado will rebound, but thanks to all the rain, we are officially not in drought conditions anymore (cue in dark humor)!

If you want to read more about Colorado's drought history and how that could affect the future, check this out.

Here are some areal photos posted by the Denver Post. To see more, click here

Here is a popular photo used of an overpass flooding at CU Boulder. I currently do not have a citation source for this. If you know it, let me know.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain bluebirds (Sialia currucoides) are a member of the thrush family (also home to the American robin). Bluebirds are one of the most recognizable songbirds, and one of the most sought after. There are three bluebird species in North America. In the east, there is the eastern bluebird, and in the west, there are two species of bluebird: western and mountain bluebirds.

Male and female mountain bluebirds
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Adult males are a beautiful turquoise-blue with a lighter blue chest and belly, where females are a duller blue with grey. In the fall, females can show a slight re-orange on the throat and breast. It isn't common to see a bird that is pure blue in color in North America, making the mountain bluebird an even more attractive site. Their range spans from Mexico to the as far north as Alaska. Northern birds will migrate down to the southern reaches of the range, while birds found in Mexico are often year-long residents. They can be found in open rangelands and meadows above 5,000 feet.

Male mountain bluebird with a snack
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Mountain bluebirds were once considered threatened due to an increase in agricultural land, destroying habitats. However, thanks to an overwhelming effort by landowners in the West to provide bird boxes for these cavity nesters, their numbers have dramatic increased. Little is know about native nesting requirements, for the vast majority of couples that are studied use nest boxes.

Male mountain bluebird
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Interesting Tid-Bits
  • Usually hunts from perches, flying to the ground to catch prey. Does exhibit fly catcher behavior (hunts from perch and catches prey in the air).
  • Only females make nests. Males pretend to help, but usually either drops or just shows up with no nesting material at all.
  • Mountain bluebirds are sometimes credited with halting or slowing the advance of eastern bluebirds into the west because the out compete them for nesting sites.
  • A very slow migrator, stopping often to feed (fatty).
Sorry it took so long for an update, I've been rather busy (and Colorado has been a mess lately!) I'll be posting another 2-3 post over the next week or so to make up for it! Including a post on Yellowstone National Park and American bison!