Spring 2017 Part 2

Rocky Mountain National Park was splendid yesterday! The blue blue sky, decorated with gently drifting whipped cream clouds that only occasionally shaded the sun.

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Sprague Lake

Our goal for the day was to find bluebirds and spring wildflowers.

We always start our birding adventures in the park by stopping at the Alluvial Fan picnic area. In that one place, an open forest of aspen and Ponderosa pine at the foot of steep rocky walls, we saw and heard: ruby-crowned kinglets, robins, magpies, ravens, Stellar’s jays, yellow-rumped warblers, pygmy nuthatches, a brown creeper, broad-tailed hummingbirds, mountain chickadees and downy woodpeckers. We watched as a pair of mountain chickadees cleaned wood chips out of a newly-excavated cavity in the trunk of an aged aspen. The downy woodpeckers, who must have done the excavation, tried to fend off the chickadees with loud, scolding calls and threatening attacks, but it appeared that the chickadees won. We could have gone home completely satisfied with our birding experience at that point, but we were still on a bluebird quest.

The park was filthy with ruby-crowned kinglets though. Everywhere we stopped we heard their distinctive complex song. It starts out soft and slow then builds to an incredibly loud and rapid crescendo – quite impressive for such a tiny bird!

Elk had separated themselves in male and female herds. The males’ velvet-covered antlers were still in the growing stage, and they had not yet lost their winter hair so they looked a little ragged. The females, on the other hand, were sleek and proud-looking. We did not see any elk calves, but surely it won’t be long before they are born.

At Sprague Lake the song of the kinglet competed with the witchety, witchety, witchety, witch of the common yellowthroat. Two pair of mallards dabbled in the water of the lake and a Canada goose couple honked their presence.

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Dabbling Mallard Butts

Still no bluebirds, but hummingbirds buzzed all around us.

Finally, at Beaver Meadows – mountain bluebirds, looking, themselves, like pieces of the sky. The meadow had several large exclosures surrounded by too-high-for-elk-to-jump fencing. Perched on the top of fence posts, male and female mountain bluebirds scanned the grass below for insects. YAY!

Spring flowers were still scarce. Mountain ball cactus was blooming – a real treat – as were field chickweed (mouse-ears) and tiny bunches of sandwort and bluette, but pasque flowers were not be found.

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Mountain Ball Cactus

Trail Ridge Road was open only to Rainbow Curve since snowbanks along the roadside were still a few feet deep. We are definitely pushing the “springtime in the Rockies” envelope.

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Spring 2017

I was working in my studio, the window of which looks onto our balcony and my little birdbath, when I heard an especially loud and insistent finch song. I slowly turned my head to look at the balcony and watched a male finch trying to get the attention and approval of a female finch.

He lowered his tail and dropped his wings to reveal a bright red rump patch, while simultaneously raising the red cockade feathers on his head. The female seemed to ignore him as she drank from the birdbath. He hopped down to be close to her and she hopped three rails up and away from him. For a few seconds they continued to hop from balcony rail to balcony rail; he getting closer to her, she getting farther from him, yet giving him a coquettish fluff of her feathers. Then she flew away. He followed.

I always feel blessed when I am witness to the natural behavior of nature’s creatures. The house finches that live in my immediate neighborhood continue to thrill me, as those of you who follow my blog know by now. However, I am also hearing rufous-sided towhees as I walk to the train in the mornings, and blue jays and chickadees.

Jim and I have been to our favorite natural areas during the last month, but have not scared up any bluebirds! Our friends in Montana tell us that they have ALL the bluebirds this year – both mountain and Western – that’s why we don’t have any. We’ve seen meadowlarks, song sparrows, swallows, kingfishers, killdeer, goldfinches, and many ducks, but it’s the bluebirds that tell us it is spring. Our trip last week to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal wildlife refuge was a bust for birds and bison babies. We did see some big bulls though.IMG_1660.JPG

Lilacs have been in full bloom for weeks now; I wish you could smell the sweetness of their flowers.
IMG_1657.JPGA late snow and frost made short work of the pink and white Japanese cherry and crabapple blossoms. Tulips are blooming, many surviving the snow, and trees are leafing out.

Chokecherries scent the air.

We are off to Rocky Mountain National Park this morning. I’ll get back to you.

A Globally Warm Spring

Yesterday was the Vernal Equinox. When I looked back to my spring blog of 2016 I noted that it was 70+ degrees outside, that trees had blossomed, and daffodils and crocuses had bloomed. Well, here we are just a couple of days prior to last year’s date and temperatures and plant activity are the same.

Much of what I have learned about the habits of trees and other blooming plants has come from botany and ecology courses I’ve taken. Much more has come from careful observation and the recording of events in nature. The practice of observing and recording these natural events is called Phenology, and for as long as we’ve been together, Jim and I have kept phonologies. Admittedly, living in the urban environment has not given us as much “natural” to observe or record, but we do take note of the few things that go on around us. When we have reread our phonologies for years past, we have found that events occur at the same time every year, regardless of the weather at the time. The obvious examples are blooming trees and flowers, the return of migratory birds, and the births of baby bison and other large mammals.

During the past two weeks, Jim and I have birded three state parks and a county park, and still have not seen any bluebirds, but we have seen meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds. Although temperatures have been in the high 70s and low 80s for weeks, it is still too early for spring migrants. BUT, last year on March 29th we had bluebirds. Needless to say we will be looking for them again at the same time this year. In the meantime, we have seen white-breasted nuthatches, white-crowned sparrows, hooded mergansers, common mergansers, goldeneyes, white pelicans, downy woodpeckers, red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, and the usual suspects: crows, magpies, starlings, house sparrows, Canada geese and flickers.

Right now, its those house finches I’ve written about so often in the past that are the most observable. They are so busy now that the dark time is over. They wake us before dawn with their cheery songs and are gathering nesting material throughout the day. This year they are using the bird bath I installed for them. I find it quite thrilling to watch them take turns drinking — one bird stands sentinel while the other drinks, then they trade places.

Much of what I have learned about the habits of trees and other blooming plants has come from botany and ecology courses I’ve taken. Much more has come from careful observation and the recording of events in nature. The practice of observing and recording these natural events is called Phenology, and for as long as we’ve been together, Jim and I have kept phonologies. Admittedly, living in the urban environment has not given us as much “natural” to observe or record, but we do take note of the few things that go on around us. One of the things I learned in school and in reading textbooks is that the only force of nature that compels trees to start leaf-producing photosynthesis is light, and only light. As the days lengthen the cells within tree tissues that have been resting all winter, wake up and begin to turn sunlight and stored proteins into sugar which feeds the roots, which feed the branches, and turn buds into leaves.

This cycle of light predictability has been going on for tens of millions of years, yet in only the past two hundred years has man been able to affect these cycles by artificially warming up our planet. Biologists have noticed a shift in our seasons which is confusing the natural life cycles of plants and animals. One thing we can each do to wake up that nascent curious naturalist in each of us is to plant a tiny tree seedling and watch it every single day. Water it by hand, observe every change and write it down, draw it, talk about it, notice it, and you will see how each of us, in our own small way, can have an effect on our natural world.

only a little planet

Since “falling back” time wise, the last blush of sun fades from the sky as I disembark from the commuter train each weekday. I walk home along a street clogged, curb-to-curb with speeding drivers for about one-quarter mile where I cross the street and walk the last quarter mile home through a residential neighborhood. It’s here, where it is a bit quieter and darker, that I can observe the night sky. Last month I watched the waxing super-moon and it’s nomadic meanderings around the brilliant sparkling Venus and tiny red Mars. The night after it’s lurid fullness, it skudded off to another part of the sky and was not visible to me. The waning moon was nowhere to be seen during my evening commute.

Now, in December, a skinny paring of waxing moon appears in the low southwest, still teasing around Venus and Mars. (Since there is still a lot of ambient urban light, I am unable to see Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn, but they are probably visible to those who enjoy darker night skies.)

These brief observations have the effect of centering me; reminding me that there is a vast universe out there, beyond the speeding cars, packed trains, and lumbering buses. Beyond our own busy-ness, beyond our personal crises, our political upheaval and our global unrest.

While these celestial moments are indeed brief and pale in comparison to the bigger picture of our planet, it gives me a sense of quiet joy to be reminded that Earth is only a little planet yet how beautiful it is (said David Brower.)

My friend Lyn Dalebout, a Sidereal Astrologer, writes a fascinating blog interpreting these celestial goings-on and the impacts on our lives. Check her out at: http://www.earthwordskyword.com. She is as brilliant as Venus.

Sharon

Headwaters

I wrote this from a cozy, rustic cabin in Grand Lake, Colorado.

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Grand Lake in Autumn

We were there for a couple of days at peak leaf-turning time, which coincided nicely with the Autumn Equinox, and Jim’s 70th birthday.

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Jim at our cabin in the woods

The 8,300 foot elevation of the Grand Valley has ideal conditions for aspen groves to flourish. This is the Colorado montane life zone where several microclimates coalesce to support an amazing diversity of plant and animal species. Two of our favorites were busily caching food for winter: Stellar’s jays and Abert, or tufted-ear, squirrels.

I have never spent any time on the western slope of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, although Jim is more familiar with its beauty. It has been a most pleasant trip of discovery for me. We drove up the Kawuneeche Valley, sculpted by glaciers and by the Colorado River.

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Kawuneeche Valley

The Kawuneeche Valley (the Arapaho Indian word for valley of the coyote) is framed by the Never Summer Range, the only volcanic range in the Rocky Mountains. The road crosses over Milner Pass at the Continental Divide and peaks at the Alpine Visitor Center at 12,000 feet.

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Flaming aspens

Golden and crimson aspen trees lit up the flanks of the Never Summers, like match flames amid the dark green Douglas and subalpine firs. With the Colorado-blue sky and fluffy autumn clouds as backdrop, the scenery was pretty darn spectacular.

Jim took me to the “creek” at La Poudre Pass which was the headwaters of the Colorado River. The water was clear and cold and shallow. Hard to believe this little stream brings light and power to California, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Mexico.

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Bridge across the Colorado River

One of the reasons we both enjoy Colorado so much is the ready access to the land above the trees; the alpine tundra. The thin air, so light upon the skin, effervesces in the veins and makes one feel buoyant and lightheaded. Alpine plants, those tenacious little herbs that find purchase in the shallow rocky soil and turn the tundra into a green carpet in summer, turn the tundra red In autumn. Red pigments in the tiny leaves hold heat and store energy from the lowering sun so the plants can survive their long winter sleep. You can see the red tundra in this image.

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Red above, golden below

In 1972, Beatrice Willard and Ann Zwinger collaborated on the splendid book about the alpine environment entitled Land Above the Trees. Filled with Ann’s beautiful drawings and Herman Zwinger’s photographs, I consider it the timeless “bible” of alpine ecology.

Mountain weather is changeable if nothing else. As we reveled in the warm sunny weather in Kawuneeche Valley, a storm began to brew and by nightfall it was snowing in Grand Lake and at higher elevations.

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Rainbow before the storm, Grand Lake CO

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Morning after the storm

The next morning was invigoratingly frosty. The lake was steaming and the high peaks were white and glistening. The little getaway was great for us. Enjoy the photos.

The Birdbath

We recently discovered that a flock of finches is called a “charm of finches,” a factoid that seems completely in character for these pretty songsters. For the two years we’ve lived in this apartment, we’ve watched, and written about, the house finch population residing in the building across from us.

One observation we’ve made is that they are extremely skittish. Our balcony is visible from both my studio and our living room. If we make any move within either of those rooms while finches are on our balcony, they vamoose. So, in an attempt to encourage more, and longer, finch visits to our balcony, I became obsessed with the idea of a birdbath.

Many years ago when I lived in the mountains, I put a birdbath on my deck. It was used by mountain bluebirds, Cassin’s finches, juncoes, white-crowned sparrows and Stellar’s jays. The daily ablutions of all of these birds delighted me beyond all explanation. Although we live in the city now, I was determined to see if I could lure our neighborhood finches, or robins or crows or swallows to splash in my birdbath.

I haunted gift shops, garden centers, hardware stores, grocery stores, department stores — searching for the perfect birdbath. It had to be small, it had to be ceramic, and it had to be pretty. Other requirement were that it be shallow, and that there be a rim upon which birds could perch while drinking or fluffing their feathers after bathing.

There is a garden center about a 20-minute walk from our place. I go there every spring to buy herbs for my balcony garden. One warm morning in late May I was getting itchy to start planting and realized I needed a small, hand-held garden spade, and some herbs to plant. Car-free as we are, it is a nice walk through the neighborhoods to the garden center and whatever little plants I buy, I can easily carry home. As I cruised around the greenhouse enjoying the earthy smell and tempting flowering plants, I found myself in the yard ornament department and there it was… the perfect birdbath. It met all the requirements: small, shallow, ceramic, pretty, had a rim, and it was a good price. It didn’t seem very heavy and the bowl and pedestal were separate so I felt I could carry it home.

The BirdbathI paid the cashier, put my little spade and plants in the bowl, and braced it with one hand. The other hand, I wrapped around the pedestal base and started walking home. During my visit to the garden center, the air temperature had climbed to a sunny 85 degrees. It was high noon and as I put one foot in front of the other, the birdbath got heavier with every step I took. I had to stop frequently to put down my burden and rest. After a 20-minute walk turned into what felt like a forced march, I finally made it home, sweaty, thirsty and HOT.

Jim took one look at me and what I had done and just shook his head. But I had a birdbath and as exhausted as I was, I was happy. I filled the birdbath with water and positioned it in the corner of the balcony, up close to the railing where birds could perch just before diving in, and waited.

Truth be told, I have witnessed a bird in the bath only once, but I know they use it when I’m not watching. I find bird droppings on the railing and an occasional feather in the water so I know. The birds are just shy and don’t want to be watched so they bathe or drink quietly. Sometimes a male finch will sing his beautiful song while perched on the railing above the birdbath. I like to think he is telling his flock-mates all about how nice it is to have a spa in the neighborhood. I’m sure of it.

Six Years

Six years ago today, Jim and I declared our independence from middle class life and drove out of Idaho headed for Colorado. Ten days later, we rode out of Colorado on bicycles loaded with clothes, food and camping gear, and began our journey across America. (You can read the story on this site.)

We returned to Colorado in August of 2011 and settled into a small apartment in the heart of Denver. After our 25 years of living in Wyoming and Idaho, with Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in our backyard, we were now urban dwellers. No longer do the howls of coyotes  and wolves, the hooting of owls or bugling of elk fill our nights; now sirens, train whistles and klaxon horns interrupted our sleep.

No longer can we step out of our door and enter a wilderness to hike or ski or canoe or bird or botanize. Now we step out of our door onto a concrete sidewalk, a traffic-swollen street, and wildlife visible only spilling out of the bars on Broadway.

We sorely miss the wildness of the places we’ve lived, but we have learned, over time, how to find the less-tamed places in our city. Birds and wildflowers, and sometimes coyotes and deer, have surprised us in the old neighborhoods and parks of front range Colorado. We’ve learned that the animals we share our planet with don’t adhere to the human constructed borders and boundaries that define our cities, towns and urban greenways. Birds nest wherever the conditions provide enough food and shelter to raise a nest-full of youngsters. Prairie dogs colonize any flat, dry, sandy-soiled field where they can construct a burrow community and provide an unobstructed view of possible predators.

Coyotes prowl the edges of backyards, prairie dog towns, parks and waterways, searching for food — be it dog kibble, young prairie dogs, squirrels, or duck and goose eggs. Opportunistic skunks, raccoons and squirrels make pests of themselves scavenging trash bins, birdseed and pet food. Nocturnal Western cottontail rabbits munch on the grass and flowers of suburban gardens. Deer quietly browse shrubs in parks and greenways. Once, a long-tailed weasel flashed across the Highline Canal bikeway in front of us.

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Geraniums on the balcony

This morning we sat on our balcony sipping our first espressos of the day and watched a wild bee maraud the flowers of our bright red geranium. This bee was relentless in stuffing its pollen baskets and mining nectar from every single blossom’s flower. Round and round the plant it flew, hovering over each blossom for only a nanosecond, testing the air for the electrical currents generated by pollen. According to scientists, as bees fly around flowers, their own positively charged bodies attract negatively charged pollen grains that fasten themselves to the bee’s body. We watched that bee through two rounds of espresso and breakfast, and still it returned time and time again.

This morning we also noticed that young crows have fledged and their parents are working hard at teaching them to fly with more confidence and accuracy. A murder of crows landed on a low roof and concrete wall below our balcony, squawking and calling repeatedly to each other and their parents. They are such intelligent birds, they surely must have been communicating their fears and accomplishments to one another. After a raucous few minutes, they all flew off to continue their conversation elsewhere.

The charm of finches inhabiting the fretwork of the balconies on the building across from us seems to be raising a second brood. We can hear the urgent peeping of nestlings as the adults fly off to gather food for them. From our balcony we have watched agile sharp-shinned hawks swoop in silently, talons out, aiming for those very same finches. Cooper’s hawks have discovered the bounty of pigeons scavenging the dumpsters behind the nearby grocery store. Cormorants, white pelicans and Canada geese fly by our building as they move between Denver’s lakes and ponds. Red-tailed hawks soar high above the 100-foot Ponderosa pines in our view, and an occasional bald eagle graces our neighborhood skies.

So here we are — living the suburban life and finding bits of nature to feed our souls in unlikely places. If you have read previous blog installments here, you will know all about the house finch population that entertains us year round. You may also have read about our walks and bike rides along the Highline Canal where more that two dozen bird species have delighted us with their songs and birds activities. Stay tuned for more.