A-aapril…come she will…

Colorado is blessed with five national parks, six national wildlife refuges, eight national monuments, and many other designated natural areas and historical places. Something we often forget living in urban Denver as we do. Yesterday promised to be a warm, windless spring day so Jim and I ventured out on a field trip. This time to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge; a 15,000-acre expanse of short grass prairie in the middle of Denver. Last year at this time we spotted “little red puppies” (as a good friend of ours from Jackson Hole describes bison calves) among the herd of bison that live on the refuge, as well as a group of coyotes hunting rodents at the moist edge of meadow. This year was a waterfowl cornucopia.

The air was a warm, gentle caress, the sky, bluebird blue, and the temperature 70 degrees. A perfect day be outside. We started off at the visitor center where starlings were singing a medley of bird songs, and a pair of Say’s phoebes called to each other from the tops of tall posts. The runoff from mountain snowmelt hadn’t reached the prairie yet, so plants were still dry and crisp. The vast population of cottonwoods still bore bare branches, but the water was open. Pairs of Northern shovelers dabbled in all of the ponds and lakes, their beautiful plumage in full courtship brilliance. Here is our list: blue-winged teal, common goldeneye, ruddy ducks, common mergansers, hooded mergansers, buffleheads, gadwalls, mallards, greater scaups, coots, redheads, and Canada geese. Magpies, meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds and song sparrows were in attendance, although in small numbers just now. We learned that by the end of April, our list of spring migratory birds could be quite long.

We spotted only five bull bison – no babies, a small herd of white-tailed deer, and four mule deer. To our delight, the ever-present prairie dogs whistled and scampered everywhere. As we were leaving the refuge we spotted a great-horned owl feeding her two owlets, nestled in a hollow-cottonwood-limb nest. We thought this was a great end to our day until we pulled into a parking area adjacent to a small slough and saw a pair of avocets feeding in the shallow water. Avocets are so beautiful – I wish I had a photo to include here, but they were too far away to photograph. We drove away from this slough and stopped at another slough where a second pair of avocets plied the muddy water for food. It was a great birding day, and only 40 minutes

Bluebirds are back!

We are waking to birdsong. Although my neighbors, the house finches, start singing before the sky is even awake, I am delighted. They are the most vociferous in the morning, perhaps organizing the foraging expeditions they will undertake as the day warms. Jim and I took a little field trip last week to Bear Creek Lake Park nestled in the foothills of the Morrison Formation (geologically speaking), and only a short drive from our home. We were in search of mountain bluebirds.

As we paid our entrance fee at the gate, a Western meadowlark warbled it’s bubbling call. We were very excited — if meadowlarks were back, surely bluebirds would be as well. We drove by the lake, now completely ice free, but noticed only a few ducks on the water. Then,  climbing up a little hill to a picnic site, there they were! Mountain bluebirds, like pieces of the sky, were flitting from shrub to shrub all around us, whispering their sweet song. Meadowlarks, too, their yellow breasts glowing especially bright to attract the attention of prospective mates. We noticed that each meadowlark had a slightly different arrangement of their call and at one point, one of the birds broke into a lively song. We were virtually surrounded by bluebirds and meadowlarks — such an incredible blessing.

Big, raucous magpies began to move into the area, so bluebirds and meadowlarks moved out. We found them again near the shore of the lake and this time there were a couple of Western  (or possibly Eastern) bluebirds in the mix. Spring is really here. Of course, since then we’ve had a major blizzard and are expecting a winter storm over the next couple of days.

Mountain bluebirds are cavity nesters, historically depending on tree trunk holes excavated by woodpeckers. Today, many bluebirds nest in specifically designed nest boxes situated on the edge of open grasslands. Insects are the largest part of their diet, although they will eat seeds and berries when they are available. Bluebirds hunt from a perch and then pounce on their prey,  or from the air, masterfully hovering and then diving to ground like an arrow to seize a beetle.

Western meadowlarks are ground-nesters. They build a well-concealed grass nest in a suitable depression in the soil. They forage for their food, gleaning seeds, berries, and insects that have fallen to the ground.

Those noisy house finches are nesting in the cement fretwork of the balconies on the building across from us. I have spotted only one bird feeder and they are specifically plant material eaters — seeds, berries, buds, and nuts, so they have to go farther afield to find food. House finches have red heads and throats, and the degree of redness is determined by the amount of red pigment their food contains.

This coming weekend we will look for other returning spring migratory birds.

 

Spring Equinox 2016

House finches chirp merrily from the top rail of our balcony. One would think that spring is here, last Sunday being equinox and all. The 70+ degrees of yesterday and today are only teasers. Tomorrow we can expect 2-4 inches of snow! Nevertheless, cherry trees and crabapple trees are budding, aspens bear catkins, crocuses have poked their heads up and forsythia and daffodils are blooming.

IMG_1249

Daffodils

We spent three days in Rocky Mountain National Park recently. It was a perfect long weekend getaway. Our rustic little cabin on Fall River had a fireplace and a view of the river splashing over and around rocks. Jim lazily watched trout rise in tail water below a big boulder while I continued reading the epic tale of The Count of Monte Cristo. Weather was cloudy and fabulously windy, but day two brightened and warmed so we hiked across Little Horseshoe Park, a very special place to me.

My very first backpacking experience was a week-long Alpine Ecology class through the Rocky Mountain Nature Association in 1980. We base camped in Little Horseshoe Park and hiked every day from dawn to dark, exploring the magnificent alpine tundra at 10,000 feet of elevation.

We were a group of eight, each with our own tent and camping gear. We rose before dawn to the sound of Svea stoves starting up as each of us made coffee or tea and ate whatever we had brought with us for breakfast. Our backpacks were heavy with all the clothing we might need for a day in the field with ever-changing weather: water, sunscreen, blister kits, snacks, lunch, text book and field guides. We studied ecology, geology, botany and ornithology and observed mammals, large and small, throughout the park.

From this experience, words like solifluction, sublimation, sexual dimorphism and sub-adult insinuated themselves into my vocabulary. Here, I witnessed the result of uplift, glaciation, subduction, and fault. I learned to identify the tiniest alpine mosses and lichens, the nailwort, and the apple green.

lichen

Alpine Lichens

I began to name the alpine flowers that carpeted the tundra: bright yellow rydbergia whose head followed the sun on its journey across the alpine meadows; tiny blue chiming bells and forget-me-nots nestled behind rocks; the pink alpine penstemon, Parry’s primrose, moss campion; white sandwort, snowlover, and chickweed.

I delighted at the songs of the water pipits, white-crowned sparrows, horned larks and rosy finches that made the rarified air of the alpine ecosystem their home. It was here I first heard the whistles of marmots and picas, and learned how silently elk and deer and bighorn sheep can move across the land. Here I learned how to sit quietly and allow the peace of wilderness settle in my bones. This class set the course of my life long dedication to the observation and study of wild nature.

bubble poemAs an urban dweller, it is challenging to keep wild nature in mind. The house finches that nest in the fretwork of the balconies on the building across from us helps — watching their nest-building activity, being wakened before dawn by their singing, and watching their constant flitting about. Morning meditation walks along the Highline Canal, as I wrote about in my last blog, help, too. As humans I believe we know how important wildness is to our well-being. This is why we have gardens, and houseplants, crowd our balconies with flowers and hang hummingbird feeders from our eaves. These things may not be “wild” in the true sense of the word, but they are make us feel closer to nature.

 

Intrinsic Wildness

(According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, Intrinsic is an adjective defined as belonging to the essential nature of a thing : occurring as a natural part of something.)

Three crows sit on the branch of a cottonwood tree alongside the Highline Canal. They are there most mornings when I do my three-mile walk on the pedestrian/bicycle path that follows the man-made canal.

I walk at the same time every day. The same route. It is a walking meditation.

Listening for bird song, I ignore the sound of the highway to the north and east of me. I focus my eyes on generations-old cottonwood trees hoping to glimpse movement that may indicate a flitting bird. If the sky is bright blue and cloudless, black-capped chickadees, Eastern bluejays, Northern flickers, black-billed magpies, and American robins swoop and call and crash around in the bare and brittle branches. Rufous-sided towhees call drink your tea, tea, tea from low shrubs. Other birds have made occasional appearances: downy woodpeckers, red-napes sapsuckers, red-breasted nuthatches, brown creepers, red-tail hawks, Northern harriers. Near a herd of several hundred Canada geese, a bald eagle perched in the top of a Ponderosa pine one morning. The low murmuring of the geese implied their discomfort with the situation. Before long though, a handful of crows harassed the eagle sufficiently to drive her off.

On days where the sky is cloud-shrouded, I see and hear very few birds. They apparently like the sunshine as much as I do. Mallard ducks dabble in what little water may be in the canal no matter the weather. Usually there are seven: four males and three females. They are always absolutely silent.

The half-way point of my walk is a tunnel underneath the very busy Interstate 25. Here, the sound of traffic is so fabulously loud, that I turn around. On my return I remind myself that these trees, these birds, the water, the squirrels that acrobat from branch to branch and perform their high-wire act, the cottontail rabbits that scoot through leaf litter, have been thriving in this somewhat urban environment for decades. Some of the cottonwood trunks are so huge they can be encircled only by multiple people with outstretched arms. Woodpeckers and flickers, squirrels and robins, even hummingbirds, make their nests amid branches and in hollowed out holes in the trunks of these wonderful old trees. Ponderosa pines reach 80-100 feet in height; warmed by the sun, the vanilla scent of their bark permeates the air. Oak, elm, ash, chokecherry, wild rose, and huge old junipers have set their roots into the soil along the canal.

These walking meditations are essential to my soul. My connection to our natural world informs my painting and my writing. The Highline Canal Trail is what passes for the “natural world” here in urban/suburban Denver. The term “natural world” is a human construct. It implies the hand of man has not sullied a particular place. The Highline Canal Trail where I walk is bordered by homes and yards on one side — the narrow riparian ribbon of the canal is on the other. Even this ribbon backs up to more homes and yards, leaving only the ten-foot-wide canal to provide water and refuge for birds and plants.

Yet, as artificial as this “natural” place may be, birds still hunt for food, build nests, reproduce. and forage for seeds, rose hips, beetles and bugs. Trees energize juicy new leaf buds and grow to loftier heights and girths. Squirrels store Ponderosa pine seeds and acorns from oaks.

I will continue my walks throughout the year, relishing the changes the seasons bring, nourishing my soul with the knowledge that life, in all its forms, will find a place to thrive — to continue the cycle. As I must.

Afield in January

I’ve been nearly five weeks in one of those orthopedic boots given to one when one has a fractured bone in one’s foot. IMG_1162Allegedly one can walk in these boots, but let me tell you, one really don’t want to walk very much! It’s heavy and awkward and you end up with hip pain, lower back pain and knee pain because you are essentially hauling around a big rock and walking unnaturally. It has definitely clipped my wings and that has not been easy for me. I’ve done a lot of sitting around looking out the window.

Jim’s brother to the rescue! He lent us his pickup truck for 10 days which enabled me to temp for a week without having to gimp to the train and the bus, and best of all, to go on a little field trip to Cherry Creek State Park.

It was a beautiful 48-degree day, with a light breeze blowing around a few wisps of clouds. It’s been quite cold in Denver this past month so the lakes and ponds in the park were nearly frozen shut, but a couple of open leads were filled with ducks: common mergansers, hooded mergansers, common goldeneyes, coots,and a few mallards. Bald eagles stood at the edges of open pools, their white heads lit by the sun. We spotted three adults and four or five immature eagles, all of them just standing on the ice and waiting.

A prairie falcon perched in a bare cottonwood giving us a rare opportunity to observe her for quite a long time. We had our spotting scope with us so we got a good look at her. Redtail hawks are common at Cherry Creek in the winter, and we saw a few of them in trees and soaring high above us. An uncommon winter visitor to the area was a Swainson’s hawk – perched on a branch in easy view of our binoculars and scope.

While picnicking on the edge of the lake, magpies flew in, appearing to wait for a bit of food to fall from our hands. They perched in the trees around us calling and vocalizing with one another in a most conversational way. Song sparrows flitted among shrubs and scooted their feet in the soil – a little back and forth motion that probably brought some edible seeds or insects to the surface. It’s delightful to watch them do this. Crows and starlings are ubiquitous at the park, but a belted kingfisher surprised us near the marina at the lake.

The day was not without a few mammal sightings: coyote, mule deer, and prairie dogs were apparently enjoying the warm sun as much as we were.

It was a lovely day and so good to out in it. Twelve more days and I can burn the boot!

For the Love of Crows

December 14, 2015

In a week’s time, winter solstice will be upon us and, although we begin to gain minutes of daylight every day, winter temperatures and snow will prevail for the next three months.

Songbirds have flown to warmer climes where more food sources are available, but crows and magpies remain behind for the winter.

Crows and magpies are members of the crow family of birds. Latin nomenclature labels them the Corvidae, or corvids. There are 103 species of these crow-like birds, but only 40 of them are true crows and bear the genus Corvus: crows, jackdaws, rooks and ravens. Magpies and Jays are another branch of the Corvidae tree. Corvids populate all of the world except for Antarctica.

Living on the edge of suburbia as we do, crows are the most common bird I see and I have grown a great affection for them. Looking out of our apartment window we have watched adult crows demonstrate the art of flying to their fledglings. When the youngsters get too big for the nest and are sporting their first flight feathers, their parents begin flying lessons. The adults have lined them up, between four and six of them, on the roofline of the garage across from our balcony. The adult birds will fly off aways and then repeatedly call to their offspring to come over here, come over here. Meanwhile, the fledglings are cawing and cawing and cawing, begging to be fed and not wanting to take that giant leap of faith. This has gone on for quite some time as the adults cajole the young birds with food and crow-words of encouragement. The youngsters, already as large as their parents but with slightly shorter tails, still show a reluctance to take off.

However, when one young bird dares to leave their rooftop perch, one by one the other fledglings take the leap. Mostly they fly a short distance and land on the ground where they proudly strut and announce their success. At that point, serious cawing and flying attempts ensue. Congratulatory caws and food rewards from the parent birds continue, until the young birds are stunt-flying from roof to roof and tree to tree. It is absolutely mesmerizing to watch this all transpire each summer.

While their call is loud and raucous, they can be quite stealthy and very quiet when necessary. Their black color, the ability to swoop soundlessly from perch to ground, their flocking behavior, as well as their practice of scavenging dumpsters and sidewalk litter, make them seems despicable and illicit derogatory responses in people like, “I hate crows; they scare me.”

Corvids have earned their dark bandit reputation by the practice of raiding farmers’ crops, harassing livestock, raiding other birds’ nests of eggs and young, and their raucously unmusical calls. These behaviors are testament to crows’ exceptional ability to adapt to their surroundings, and to changes in those surroundings. Research has shown that crows cannot only use tools, but can devise tools from found objects. They can mimic sounds around them including that of barking dogs. Where the acquisition of food is the objective, they learn the nuances of human behavior in order to seize any morsel of food accidentally dropped.

Crows are considered among the most intelligent creatures on our planet. They are very social, live in tight family groups and mate for life. With more than 250 different calls, they are in constant communication with each other. They will share good locations for food, warn each other of danger, coo to their nestlings, and whisper to one another while courting. Scientists find them endlessly fascinating and invent methods to test and evaluate their intelligence regularly.

It’s all well and good to read about the amazing discoveries science has made regarding how smart crows are, but I just find them beautiful: the way their black feathers glisten in the sun, their graceful gliding and flying abilities, their devotion to family and yes, even their raspy voices.

 

An Autumn Retreat

Denver’s trees are dressed in their vibrant autumn colors. The sky, a perfect clear blue is a splendid backdrop. Daytime temperatures are in the 70s and 80s and the autumn air is softly caressing. Halloween is two weeks away, after which we enter the dark time. As lovely as autumn is, I always have a sense of foreboding about the shrinking hours of daylight.

Last week, Jim and I celebrated his birthday and our wedding anniversary by spending a couple of days in our beloved Rocky Mountain National Park. Snow had not yet closed Trail Ridge Road, aspen leaves were golden, and it was elk bugling time.

We booked a rustic room at an inn on Fall River for two nights, intending to settle in for a couple of lazy days. We got up late, had leisurely breakfasts in our room and watched dippers hunting for juicy, larval tidbits in the rocky eddies of Fall River. Dippers are such extraordinary birds. They are always found near clear, fast-moving streams with rocky bottoms. Standing on exposed rocks, they gaze into the water, all the while bobbing up and down in order to catch sight of an unsuspecting bug beneath the surface. They may poke their head into the water to grab a meal, or they may dive right into fast-moving water, completely submerging themselves and swim for their food. Hopping back onto a rock, water beads up on their feathers and rolls down their backs leaving them totally dry. The dipper’s song is a sweet, complex warble that sounds to me exactly like water bubbling over rocks. The name “dipper” comes from the bobbing action they use while food shopping.

In the afternoons we meandered into the Park to see what we could see. Mule deer grazed the forest edges — big males with polished antlers and females with their young-of-the-year. About seven bighorn sheep males settled amid the rocks high on a rocky slope; their curled horns glinting in the late afternoon sun.

On our first day, as dusk crept into the valley, whistles and grunts of bugling elk began to fill the air. This is what we have come for.

With our binoculars, we spied several bull elk across a willow-encircled meadow. One especially large male gathered up his harem of a dozen females, stiffing their rumps to determine their readiness to mate. Slowly, five other males emerged from the willows, posturing, whistling and grunting their intent to challenge this male’s dominance. What could only be called “a bugle-off” ensued, with all the bulls ardently exerting bugling prowess and virility. They strutted around in circles, showing off their antlers, stretching to their full height and girth, urinating on their own legs to enhance their musky smell. The big bull’s harem never strayed too far from him. Seriously, how could they resist this show of masculinity!

(This male-dominance show brought to mind the latest Republican debates; all the male candidates puffed up with testosterone, polishing their antlers and vying for dominance, while the one antler-less female tried to muster up some testosterone of her own.)

It was growing darker and visibility was quite low as the biggest of the elk males began to herd his harem across the meadow in our direction. One of the other males moved along behind the big male, urging him farther across the meadow toward us and the road. Our binoculars were beyond their light-gathering capacity and we strained our vision to watch this drama play out. At this point we were surrounded by bugling elk, some close by, others far away. We drove back to our room feeling extremely lucky to have witnessed this primal animal display and to have heard these wildest of animal sounds.

I’m attaching a photo of aspen trees that have been girdled by elk. Elk chew the bark off of the aspen trunks

Aspens with scarred trunks

Aspens with scarred trunks

and rub their antlers on the trunks to polish off the velvet.