Colorado’s Jays

What is in a name? Nomenclature does not necessarily follow the rules of logic. Common names of animals might or might not be related to scientific names, and might or might not be intuitive. Let’s explore the names of five different jays that occur in Colorado. Members of the corvid family (Corvidae), they are among the smartest birds, and, I think, among the most handsome and entertaining.

The Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), is a recent resident of Colorado, having expanded its range from the eastern United States only in the last one to two decades. Cyanocitta cristata can be translated as blue-crested chattering bird (kyáneos: Greek for blue, kitta: Greek for chattering bird, crista: Latin for crest). Chattering is an understatement, as it often announces its presence unabashedly and vociferously, with a clarion call, though its extensive repertoire also includes a lovely fluting melody. It is a great vocal mimic and seems to particularly enjoy posing as a Red-tailed Hawk, confusing other birds and birders. Its name is somewhat unfortunate, as there are a number of blue jays that are not Blue Jays.

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)/Blauhäher

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)/Blauhäher

The Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri ) is dressed in darker shades of blue and black, and was first described by German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709-1746), after whom the Steller’s Sea Cow and Steller’s Sea Eagle were also named. It, too, has a crest, which is more conspicuous than the Blue Jay’s, so I think that Cyanocitta cristata would be a more apt appellation than Cyanocitta stelleri, but I am afraid that I am a few centuries too late to submit a proposal to the naming committee.

Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)/Diademhäher

Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)/Diademhäher

The Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii), also clad in blue, is a resident of dry scrub oak-juniper habitat. It was designated a separate species from the California Scrub Jay and the Island Scrub Jay only in 2016, all three of them having formerly been lumped together as Western Scrub Jays. Its scientific name pays tribute to Samuel Washington Woodhouse (1821-1904), American surgeon, explorer, and naturalist, and emphasizes the fact that it has simple hair, or simple feathers (in Greek, apheles means simple, and coma hair), because their feathers lack stripes or bands.

Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii)/Woodhouse Buschhäher

Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii))/Woodhouse Buschhäher

Completing the Colorado blue quartet, the Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus) loves pinyon pine forests, and is the most gregarious among the bunch, occurring predominantly in noisy flocks. Its scientific name should trigger some neurons. We already know that kyaneos means blue in Greek, and can derive that kephalus means head, from words like encephalitis (an inflammation of the encephalon: the organ inside the head). Gymnorhinus tells us that it has a naked nose (gymnós: Greek for naked, rhinus: Greek for nose), as the base of its beak is featherless. This makes it singularly suited to probe pine cones heavy with pitch, which would mess up the feathers present on the beaks of other jays.

Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus)/Nacktschnabelhäher

Last, but not least: the Canada Jay. Not blue! After being known as Gray Jay for many years, despite its scientific name Perisoreus canadensis, its common name was brought in line only in the summer of 2018. Other fun designations hint at its rascally behavior and include Whisky Jack and, very aptly, camp robber. No sooner do we stop for a picnic in the mountains than a few appear like gray ghosts seemingly out of nowhere. They are known to rummage through camps in search of edibles. The genus name is likely derived from the Greek perisōreuō (to bury underneath, or to heap up), and highlights the fact that they cache their food, which helps them survive the harsh winter months in their year-round high-elevation or northern boreal forest habitats, where they also lay eggs in freezing temperatures.

Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)/Meisenhäher

Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)/Meisenhäher

Blue or gray, flat-headed or topped with a crown, shy or companionable, I love all our jays and delight in observing them at the feeder, or out in the wild.

Autumn In The High Country

I wrote these lines almost exactly three years ago following a backpacking trip, and I am publishing them now with slight modifications.

During a trip to the San Juan Mountains in September, my husband and I are reminded of the splendor of different regions of our state, and of the grandeur of Colorado’s high country. Perfect conditions prevail. Cool nights alternate with sunny, warm days. Unlike during the more temperamental summer season, we have little reason to fear violent afternoon storms.

Our three day backpacking trek takes us through different life zones, from the montane to the alpine. At the start of our journey, we are surrounded by our favorite trees, aspen, dressed in their autumn finest. Golden and orange leaves quiver in the occasional breeze and create an impressionistic painting, and a lovely symphony. Wide-open basins and tundra habitat greet us above timberline. At this time of year only a few lone blossoms remain of what a few months back must have been a sea of wildflowers, but the fall foliage with its muted hues of greens and reds holds its own appeal.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover the cursor over it.

Burbling sounds and still-luscious green ribbons in the otherwise withering meadow alert us to the presence of flowing creeks. We try in vain to determine their source, all of last winter’s snow having melted, and they seem to pour forth directly from the mountain. As we take a rest near one of the brooks, we are reminded that humans are not alone in relishing creature comforts. Yellow-bellied marmots, year-round denizens of these elevated regions, stretch across boulders, basking in the sun as we do. Soon they will retreat to their burrows for many months of hibernation. Picas, always on the move, scamper among the boulders. They alert their brethren of our presence with piercing calls while they watch us warily. I assure them that they have nothing to fear.

With increasing elevation we emerge from the cirques and our views expand. Row upon row of peaks appear, their façades a polychromic palette of grey, ocher, green, and red, extending from one mountain to the next, as though an artist has wielded her whimsical brush across the flanks of this rocky world. Along the horizons we marvel at the seeming de novo genesis of clouds. One moment the celestial sphere is entirely clear, the next a fluffy array of vapor appears, and soon the Columbine-colored skies are dotted with towering layers of condensation. The cloudscape inspires us to let our imagination run free, and to discern forever-changing shapes drifting above us.

The higher our steps take us, the smaller we feel, but also the more exalted. We are thankful to live in majestic Colorado, where we have access to incredible land- and mountainscapes that engage all our senses, and that make us feel particularly alive. The challenge lies in preserving and sustaining our sense of wonder and el(ev)ation once we return to our mundane routines.

Click here for the German version/bitte hier für die deutsche Version klicken:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/10/09/herbst-im-hochgebirge/

Flying Jewels-Part 2

Who doesn’t like butterflies?! Lissome and lithe, their shiny, sparkling, shimmering bodies float from one nectar-filled goblet to the next on gossamer wings, sipping of the sweet life-sustaining syrup. Their habitat ranges from the mountains to the valleys, their sizes and shades cover a wide spectrum, and their metamorphosis from tiny egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupa (chrysalis) to adult is almost too fantastic to believe. While I am one of many butterfly fans, I do not know much about these lovely insects, a shortcoming I hope to remedy.

One person who knows A LOT about these winged wonders is one of America’s foremost lepidopterists and conservationists, Robert Michael Pyle. I first learned about him by happenstance when I came across The Thunder Tree at a bookstore in Moab, Utah, in 2011. A memoir of his childhood in a still-wild suburb of Denver before it ballooned into the behemoth that supplanted vast, vibrant stretches of prairie with dead deserts of concrete, it elaborates on his burgeoning passion for butterflies. His style and passion for nature compelled me to buy Mariposa Road, the story of his Butterfly Big Year, but, alas, my good intentions were sidetracked by lesser pursuits, and his 550 page oeuvre has been staring at me accusingly from the shelf for the last seven years.

To avoid a similar scenario, when I recently noticed an advertisement for his latest publication, I did not waste any time, and devoured Magdalena Mountain, his first novel, in a few days. Set in Colorado and full of alluring descriptions of its high country and denizens, the narrative revolves around the amazing life cycle of the Magdalena Alpine butterfly (Erebia magdalena). Natural history is interspersed and contrasted with an account of the political, religious, and social changes that influenced this state and country, and the author’s affirmation of life and love (sexual descriptions are not limited to butterflies) runs through the suspenseful, lyrical narrative like a common thread. One of many possible conclusions I carried away: Only when we cease to look at life in an anthropocentric way will humankind have a chance to survive, and to leave behind a livable earth.

Inspired, I pulled the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies off the shelf where it had collected dust for even longer than Mariposa Road. My husband’s handwritten dedication indicated that this was a birthday present to me in 1998! It seems impossible that two decades have passed so swiftly, but I was equally as surprised to see that this tome was authored by none other than Robert Michael Pyle. Having come full circle, I finally leafed through its glossy pages and tried to identify some of the Colorado butterflies whose pictures I have taken throughout the years, Magdalena not (yet) among them. If I have erred, please correct me. I look forward to understanding more about these creatures who have been at the center of Mr. Pyle’s life, and long and luminous career.

Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)/Gemeiner Bläuling

Sulfur (Colias ?)/Gelbling

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui )/Amerikanischer Distelfalter

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui )/Amerikanischer Distelfalter

Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus)/Westlicher Tigerschwalbenschwanz

Anise Swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon)/Anis-Schwalbenschwanz

Phoebus Parnassian (Parnassius phoebus)/Alpenapollo

Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)/Trauermantel

Western White (Pontia occidentalis)/? Westlicher Weißling

Callippe Fritillary, female (Speyeria callippe)/? Perlmutterfalter, weiblich

Callippe Fritillary, male (Speyeria callippe)/? Perlmutterfalter, männlich

Weidemeyer’s Admiral (Limenitis weidermeyerii)/? W. Admiral

Click here for Flying Jewels-Part 1, my post about hummingbirds.

Click here for my post Monarchs and Milkweed, which shows the amazing life cycle of the butterfly shown in the topmost photo, and the many perils it faces.

Squirrel Talk

If we squirrels spoke human, we might have a lot to say. We chatter all the time, and if you don’t understand squirrelese, that’s your problem. But to foster interspecies communication, here are some possible interpretations of our profound thoughts.

“We squirrels are gourmands by nature. We love to eat. That’s a dilemma on a frigid January morning, when we might have to resort to stripping bark from trees to fill our tummies. So it comes as a very welcome surprise to receive donations from you kind two-legged creatures. We like sunflower seeds, and they sate our appetites for a while. Thank you kindly.”

Wenn wir Eichhörnchen die Menschensprache sprächen, hätten wir viel zu sagen. Wir schwatzen die ganze Zeit, und wenn Ihr uns nicht versteht, ist das Euer Problem. Aber um artenübergreifende Kommunikation zu fördern, gibt es hier einige mögliche Interpretationen unserer tiefgehenden Gedanken.

“Wir Eichhörnchen sind von Natur aus Feinschmecker. Wir lieben es, zu futtern. An einem kalten Januartag kann das zu einem Dilemma führen, wenn wir uns dazu herablassen müssen, unsere Bäuche mit trockener Baumrinde zu füllen. Deshalb akzeptieren wir liebend gerne eine kleine Gabe von Euch netten Zweibeinern. Wir mögen Sonnenblumenkörner, und sie stillen unseren Appetit eine Weile lang. Herzlichen Dank dafür”.

At times we, too, get in a slight huff.

“I found this peanut, and I dare you to try to get it back!”

“What are you looking at? Just because my coat is slightly darker, I am still a squirrel!”

Manchmal ereifern auch wir uns ein wenig.

“Ich habe diese Erdnuss gefunden. Untersteh Dich, sie mir wieder abzunehmen”!

“Was glotzt Du nur so blöd? Auch wenn mein Fell etwas dunkler ist, bin ich immer noch ein Eichhörnchen”!

Did we mention we were gourmands?

“I simply love baguette. Crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside. I think it makes my tail look elegant and fluffy. Don’t you agree?”

Habe ich schon erwähnt, daß wir Feinschmecker sind?

“Ich liebe Baguette. Außen knusprig, innen weich. Ich bin davon überzeugt, daß es meinen Schwanz elegant und flauschig aussehen lässt. Stimmst Du mir nicht zu”?

At times we overindulge.

“I don’t feel so good. My tummy is sooo full. I think I am getting sick.”

Manchmal übertreiben wir es etwas.

“Mir geht es nicht so gut. Mein Bauch is sooo voll. Ich glaube mir wird schlecht”.

We are highly adaptable. We even use other creatures’ homes.

“I think I will go for a walk. Wait! Someone seems to be watching me. Better not leave the house yet. Maybe if I sit still and don’t move, she won’t see me.”

Wir sind sehr anpassungsfähig. Wir benutzen sogar die Wohnung anderer Wesen.

“Ich glaube, ich mache jetzt einen Spaziergang. Moment mal! Jemand scheint mich im Visier zu haben. Ich warte besser noch eine Weile. Vielleicht wird sie mich nicht sehen, wenn ich mich nicht bewege, sondern mich ganz ruhig verhalte”.

We know that rest and relaxation is good for our health.

“The unbearable lightness of being a squirrel.”

Wir wissen, daß Erholung und Entspannung gut für die Gesundheit ist.

“Die unerträgliche Leichtigkeit des Eichhörnchenseins”.

Aiken Canyon Preserve

About eighteen miles south of downtown Colorado Springs lies a unique sanctuary, designated as a nature preserve in 1993, when the Nature Conservancy signed a 99 year conservation lease for 1,100 acres of public land with the State of Colorado. The subsequent purchase of additional private land expanded the total acreage of Aiken Canyon Preserve to 1,600. It was named in honor of Charles Edward Howard Aiken (1850-1936), who grew up in Vermont and Chicago. After Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871, he relocated to Colorado with his family, where they ran a sheep ranch a few miles south of the future preserve. Charles, a bird collector since a young age, had been apprenticed to a taxidermist in Chicago, and continued this profession in Colorado. As was common in the days before widespread photography and use of binoculars, the sad method to learn about birds was to shoot and stuff them. Aiken became a taxidermy expert and operated his own shop in Colorado Springs. He contributed greatly to the knowledge of the avifauna of Colorado, and through his travels, of neighboring states.

As Aiken Canyon’s water is supplied only by an intermittent creek, it never saw any significant settlement, logging or grazing, and still harbors an intact, original Rocky Mountain foothill ecosystem attractive to a varied fauna. Mammals include raccoons, black bears, deer, elk, and mountain lions, though I have only seen squirrels and rabbits during my repeated forays. At least 142 avian species have been documented, according to eBird. Bees and butterflies join the birds in the warmer months, as do other insects, lizards, and snakes. It was here that my husband and I had our encounter with a Prairie Rattlesnake, stretched out across the trail one July day. Luckily, it simply slithered across and curled up behind a rock for a siesta. We parted peacefully, but with an increased awareness on our part of the potential of reptilian appearances.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover the cursor over it.

In 1996 a field station was constructed, with walls fashioned out of a straw core, and a stucco surface the color of the surrounding soil. For two decades, volunteer staff provided information about the land, its history, and its denizens. Because of fungal contamination in the straw, it was torn down in the autumn of 2016, much to the chagrin of helpers and visitors alike. The space sat empty until the completion of a covered pavilion with picnic tables in the spring of 2018.

Access to this pristine parcel is afforded via an easy to moderate four mile trail that bars pets, bikes, and motorized vehicles. The first portion of the narrow path meanders through a grassy meadow and a dry creek bed that carries the warning to seek higher ground during flash floods. The greatest challenge is trying to decide whether to hike the steepening loop in a clockwise, or counterclockwise direction. There is much for the eye to gaze at. The red ground is littered with leaves, pine needles and cones, and sprinkled with cactus, yucca, and additional wildflowers. Scrub oak and mountain mahogany make up the tangled understory, medium-height junipers and pinyons are dwarfed by tall Ponderosa Pines. Islands of whimsical sandstone formations jut out of the verdant canopy and tickle one’s fancy. A short side trail leads to a promontory with views of the expansive plains in the east, the Wet Mountains in the west, and the Spanish Peaks in the south.

A three-quarter mile spur veers off the main loop and leads to the ruins of a log cabin that owed its existence to a local natural spring. The dwelling was likely built in the 1920s or 30s, but has long since collapsed. A seeming contradiction to the statement that the canyon was never settled, it left such a small footprint that it did not significantly change the geology or biology of its environment.

This site, surrounded by trees 50 feet tall, never fails to stimulate my imagination. Remnants of the wooden building, its metal roof and pipes lie scattered next to timeworn utensils – a tattered bedspring, threadbare shoe soles, glittering glass shards, rusting cans. Just beyond this former domicile, a tall rock provided the side wall of a small corral for domestic animals. Spikey leaves reminiscent of iris suggest the tender care of an erstwhile gardener. While I have never seen them in flower, my mind is tantalized by the potential and prospect of luminous blooms in this sheltered vale. Who once called this spot home, far away from town, with bears and mountain lions as neighbors, when the promise of colorful spring blossoms brightened the long, dark, cold winter nights?

A Late Summer Getaway

As we hoist our heavy packs onto our backs, the last vestiges of clouds dissipate. The sky gradually returns to its proverbial azure hue, after being obscured by smoke and haze. The presence or threat of wildfires in the American West, and the bans on open fires and flames that characterized much of our Colorado summer, have been lifted, and we jump at the chance to escape for a short stint. Rain at our planned destination delayed our departure by two days, but now we thank those showers for having cleared the air, and for having created the piney, fresh fragrance that envelops us in the forest.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover the cursor over it.

Our goal is to reach the Lakes of the Clouds in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. After driving 100 miles southwest from Colorado Springs, we reach our trail, where wind whooshes through conifer boughs, and aspen leaves dance in the breeze. Most are still green, but a few are turning, harbingers of approaching autumn. The rocky path takes us higher and higher, to three alpine lakes nestled in a wide mountain basin, at an elevation of approximately 11,600 feet. After five miles and roughly 2,500 elevation gain, we set up our tent.

     We have longed for Colorado’s tundra, famous for its wildflowers. Our years-long drought has lessened their bounty, and we are here late in the season, but some colorful blossoms still enliven the scenery. The lichens and shrubs that cling to the rocky slopes are already assuming their autumnal, rust-colored sheen, and drape the mountainsides in velveteen blankets.

Even though this is wilderness, animals are habituated to human visitors, as the lakes are popular not only among hikers, but also anglers. A female deer appears out of nowhere and munches grasses close to our tent, seemingly unafraid; a well-fed ground squirrel watches us filter water from a lake; chipmunks forage through our camp, in search of dropped morsels of food. We listen to the chatter of squirrels in the trees, and to the high-pitched calls of marmots and pikas in the surrounding rocky crags.

Few people have made the trek this week in late August, and the campsites are scattered enough to enjoy a sense of solitude. The languid hum of insects and the chirping of birds accompany us through the daytime and complement the constant background music provided by a waterfall cascading down a cliff face within earshot of our site. At night, we see the pinpricks of myriad stars, fewer when the moon vies for attention, more once it goes to sleep. Other than short excursions into our environs, we laze – read, write, follow the arc of the sun across the firmament. Stretched out on our backs we observe the celestial dance of the clouds: tendrils of vapor approaching, linking hands, letting go, drifting apart. Like high-altitude lizards we luxuriate in the warmth, and revel in the colors of late summer, grateful for glimpses of nature’s benevolent face.

Click here for the German version/bitte hier für die deutsche Version klicken:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/09/11/ein-ausflug-im-spatsommer/

A Sea Of Smiling Suns

It is the time of year when my eyes espy yellow blossoms everywhere. They might have been here for a while, but as other blooms are fading and giving way to seed heads, sunflowers still shine. They seem to have served as solar collectors all summer long, and are now returning the stored sunshine as golden smiles. Enamored of their cheerful faces, I simply cannot pass them without pausing to take their portrait. I, in turn, leave a grateful nod and try to store their good cheer and brilliance for the coming days of waning warmth and brightness.

This is my quilt of thankfulness, dedicated to the ever-smiling sunflower.

Es ist die Jahreszeit, in der meine Blicke überall auf gelbe Blumen treffen. Sie mögen bereits eine Zeit lang da gewesen sein, doch während andere Blüten verblassen und ihre Fruchtstände entwickeln, glänzen die Sonnenblumen noch immer. Sie scheinen den ganzen Sommer lang als Solarkollektoren gedient zu haben, und geben jetzt die gespeicherten Sonnenstrahlen in Form eines goldenen Lächelns zurück. Verliebt in ihre fröhlichen Gesichter kann ich nicht einfach an ihnen vorbeilaufen, ohne ihr Porträt festzuhalten. Im Gegenzug nicke ich ihnen dankbar zu und versuche, ihre gute Laune und ihr Leuchten für die kommenden, weniger warmen und hellen Tage zu speichern.

Hier ist meine den immer lächelnden Sonnenblumen gewidmete Collage der Dankbarkeit.