A Few of my Favorite Things

     In early June, I attended the annual Colorado Field Ornithologists’ Convention in Steamboat Springs, in northwest Colorado. The CFO has hosted these yearly gatherings since the 1960s, but it was my first. I enjoyed meeting birders from various corners of our state, and joining field trips to a number of counties on three consecutive days, each guided by a different leader with a unique style. I bird on my own most of the time, yet a group provides more eyes, ears, and experience to help me detect and learn about species I am unlikely to spot on my own.

Birding destination in Routt County

…and in neighboring Jackson County

     I tagged on a few days at the front and tail ends of the convention to engage in another favorite activity: camping. Before the conference, I stayed at Stagecoach Reservoir State Park, approximately 20 miles south of Steamboat Springs, a destination known to me from a previous journey. One of the “primitive” loops (no water, only pit latrines) offers camp sites for $10 per night. Because I was there during the week, I did not need a reservation, whereas on the weekend, I neither would have found a single unoccupied site, nor would I have wanted one. What would be the point of being in a tent encircled by an RV city?

My campsite at Stagecoach Lake State Park

View of Stagecoach Reservoir from my campsite

Immature Trumpeter Swan, encountered on my 11 mile stroll around the reservoir

Common Loon, also a rare visitor at the reservoir at this time of year

     I love to sleep in a tent. I might have been made to sleep in a tent. I have vivid childhood memories of carrying blankets and towels into the back yard and attaching them to a patio umbrella with clothespins, thereby fashioning my own. It provided a favorite play area where my friends and I were obscured from scrutiny by our parents (not that we needed scrutiny, well- behaved as we were). Occasionally, my dad pitched a genuine tent. Made from heavy canvas, its central portion looked and opened like an umbrella with a very pointed top, and the walls were attached to the roof with a zipper. To me it looked like a Bedouin shelter which facilitated flights of fancy. It doubtlessly served as the model for my improvised umbrella-cum-cover construction. Even though my friends and I overnighted in those tents every once in a while, my family never took actual camping vacations. Fortunately for me, I married a man who introduced me to tent camping during road and backpacking excursions. Now I might be more fond of it than my teacher (he disagrees).

     I love being separated from the outside by a mere layer of fabric. If the weather is clement enough to leave off the fly, or to keep the vestibule open, I position my sleeping pad in a way that enables me to follow the trajectory of the moon and the stars. Besides, it allows me to listen to nature’s sounds. The howling of coyotes, no matter how cliché, reassures me that some wilderness remains. Then there is birdsong. My favorite locales teem with feathered creatures that wake me long before sunrise. I delight in setting out with binoculars and camera for a few hours early in the morning, before returning to the campsite to heat water for a cup of tea or coffee on our trusted camp stove. Or, when we travel together, to have my husband surprise me with it!

Sharing the place with Wild Horses

     While it is highly unlikely not to have neighbors at a state park during the summer, I saw no other humans when I camped among the Wild Horses at Sand Wash Basin in Moffat County after the conclusion of the birding conference, which did not conclude my birding. Sand Wash provides a home not only for equines, but also for avians, including some of my favorites. As soon as I turned from the paved highway onto the gravel road, I was greeted by Western Meadowlarks and Northern Mockingbirds, both superlative songsters. I became better acquainted with the varied and cheerful repertoire of Sage Thrashers, and with a new life bird, the Sagebrush Sparrow. In a landscape where the dwellings of prairie dogs are marked by earthen mounds, Burrowing Owls are always a potential presence, and my hope in that regard was not disappointed either.

Sage Thrasher, carrying food

Sagebrush Sparrow

Prairie Dogs

Burrowing Owl

     Far away from human cacophony, the evening and morning chorus of the avifauna was complemented not solely by coyote music, but by the neighing of wild horses. Maybe sleeping in a tent reminds me of my own, wild self.

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24 Hours Among Wild Horses

Horsemeat — the potential fate of wild mustangs? When I read about this scenario in the newspaper, I feel the overwhelming desire to spend some time with them. This is facilitated by my attendance at a birding convention in Steamboat Springs in northwest Colorado in early June. Some 70 miles beyond this gem on the Yampa River lies the range of one of our state’s four wild horse herds. Ever since a brief trip with my husband a few years back, I have cherished the hope to return.

When I enter Moffat County’s Sand Wash basin, my burning question is whether or not I will see wild equines. Because they range freely, they are not always near the gravel road. I scan my surroundings with binoculars. Piles of fresh horse apples suggest the animals’ proximity, but I have to exercise patience for several miles before a single suggestive silhouette on the northern horizon allows me to breathe a sigh of relief. To my utter joy, this is only the first of many long-tailed, shaggy-maned creatures, especially once I happen upon one of their watering holes, where I witness their hustle and bustle.

The visitors range from loners to groups of a few dozen. Bands of testosterone-laden teenagers wrangle for dominance. Most of their bickering appears playful, but scarred hides suggest more serious horseplay.

Harems of mares with colts are herded by alpha studs who bare their teeth and nip or kick at potential rivals too close for comfort. I am unaware that horses live in traditional family units, but one particular clan convinces me otherwise. It consists of the putative father, the mother, a foal likely born this spring, who is her steady shadow, and a yearling. Even though it seems physiologically improbable, she appears pregnant again, judging by her belly bulge. Those four stick together closely, and he makes sure to keep intruders at leg’s length.

The horses’ routines are dominated by foraging for food and water. Frequent water breaks are essential on this 80 plus-degree day. Each adult requires 10 to 12 gallons daily, nursing mares twice as much. The region’s 7 to 12 inches of annual precipitation, insufficient to meet demand, are supplemented by human hands.

In a landscape devoid of trees, the animals are entirely at the mercy of the elements — scorching sun in summer, cutting cold in winter. Pesky flies cause torment. Hefty breezes create constant clouds of dust. My car and everything in it, myself included, wears a veneer of desiccated earth. During my sojourn I wait out a violent storm in the vehicle. The horses have no shelter from the impressive claps of thunder, intimidating flashes of lightning, and inundating squalls of rain. I imagine them huddled together, with the little ones protected in the center as best as possible.

I relish my twenty-four hours at Sand Wash, where the air is scented by sage each time I brush against the silvery shrubs. I hear only the whistling of the wind and the birds, the whinnying of the mustangs, and the wailing of coyotes at night. But my observations make me question some of my presuppositions. Life for the horses, though free, comes at a price. Certainly it is no picnic. Most herds live in a desert-like environment. Do they enjoy their existence? Would they be better off not having to fend for themselves? Do we keep them wild to support our own romantic notions? Wild steeds in the Wild West?

This question remains relevant in light of a perpetual quandary. Since the passing of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act by Congress in 1971, the Bureau for Land Management (BLM) manages and protects the equines named therein. The program has always been controversial. The horses breed too successfully for their own good. Without predators, their count doubles every four years, necessitating the regular thinning of herds. Sand Wash can sustain about 300 horses, but is shouldered with 600. Captured animals are sold to private buyers promising their humane treatment, but many linger on feedlots, and some die. The practice of darting mares with contraceptives has been hampered by logistics and cost. Cattlemen have opposed the program from the beginning, because of competition for grazing land. Now the current US government wants to reduce spending by at least 10 million dollars, by allowing the horses’ sale to organizations which could resell them to neighboring countries where butchering is legal.

Population densities exceeding available habitat results in disease, starvation, and death. The corpse I see stretched out among the sparse vegetation is a sobering sign. Without question, something must be done. I understand the arbitrariness of considering some animals suitable for human consumption, and of excluding others. For my sensibilities, horsemeat need not, should not be the answer. Birth control and adoption ought to continue and broaden, with the understanding that the adoptees will be treated well.

The 2005 memoir, The Pastures of Beyond, by writer and conservationist, Dayton O. Hyde (born 1925), shows that the present dilemma is not new, but also suggests an alternative approach. In 1988 he used his experience as a cowboy, ranch owner, and horse lover to purchase land and establish the Black Hills Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota for supernumerary BLM quadrupeds. Kudos to him for translating his passion into a dream come true — for him, and for the animals. On page 243 of the first hardcover edition he reflects, “High on the ridges above the Cheyenne River, I see wild horses running in pure joy…I have been able to give the wild horses over ten thousand horse years of freedom, but what is really important is this. There are still some of us who care.“

I admire his dedication and wish for more dreamers and visionaries who care, and who will follow in his (horse)tracks.

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Great Blue Hunter

The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is North America’s largest and most ubiquitous heron. This long-legged and long-necked slate gray and blue wading bird is hard to miss.

Tall, slender, elegant, it often stands motionless, statuesque, at the water’s edge, seemingly at ease.

But appearances are deceptive. With the speed of lightning it thrusts its head and neck under water and impales or grabs its prey with its dagger-like bill.


The bulge in the neck is caused by the food bolus.

Ready to look for the next meal.


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The Original South Park

     What is now Colorado was once the domain of the Utes. According to their tradition, they always lived in this region, in contrast with American Indian groups who were pushed westward while trying to stay ahead of the incessant march of white newcomers. Also known as The Mountain People, their homeland stretched from the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains all the way to present-day Utah, hence that state’s name.

     From Colorado Springs, US Highway 24 travels through Ute Pass, one of the main natural corridors into the high country. Local bands of Utes overwintered in the milder climate at the foot of Pikes Peak, then migrated along the pass to their hunting grounds at South Park in the summer. By all accounts, this was teeming with bison, pronghorn, deer, and elk. Along the South Platte River which courses like an emerald ribbon through this otherwise semi-arid habitat countless beaver also abounded.

     The modern-day visitor enjoys a jaw-dropping view of that somewhat unexpected landscape from the top of 9504 foot-tall Wilkerson Pass, 60 miles west of Colorado Springs (see featured image above). From the Pass, one drives down into the flat and open expanse of South Park.

Driving from Wilkerson Pass into South Park

One of three so-called parks in Colorado’s topography, along with Middle and North Parks, the name was derived from “parc”, a designation by French trappers for mountain basins rich in game. They were among the early exploiters of nature’s wealth.

     In the vastness of South Park, I try to envision the area without fences, houses, roads, and cars, when it was crisscrossed only by paths wide enough for animals and people on horseback. Surrounded by snow-covered peaks, one feels reduced in size — a speck of sand on this dusty soil which was nonetheless replete with prairie grasses, fragrant sagebrush, and further forage nutritious enough to sustain large numbers of herbivores.

     Conjuring images of tens of thousands of buffalo is challenging. Their bounty is long gone. In typical, short-sighted European fashion, most of these humpbacked, shaggy ungulates were hunted to the brink of extinction. The near-erasure of the animal iconic of the American West is a sad story. Even sadder is the subsequent loss of the homeland of the Utes, who had coexisted with and whose livelihood depended on those beasts since time immemorial. They were driven from their territory, to reservations in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah which could not sustain their way of life.

     But there is hope for the natural balance of South Park. Descendants of the North American Bison were successfully reintroduced and can be seen munching on what, to our eyes, appears sparse sustenance. Their comeback to the environment to which they were perfectly adapted has been slow but steady, even though their numbers are minimal compared to those heady days.

American Bison (Bison bison) in South Park

The next generation

The same is true for the fastest land animal of the Western Hemisphere which formerly had to outsprint the now-extinct American Cheetah.

North American Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), female on the left, male on the right

     Many generations have come and gone since Manifest Destiny stood as an unquestioned conviction, and we have tried to remedy some, though not all of our misguided beliefs. Just as bison have been returned to South Park, might the same be possible for the Utes, whose existence once was inextricably linked with them? In southwest Colorado, the Sleeping Ute Mountain dominates the scenery. According to Ute legend, one day the chief will rise from his slumber, and with him his people.

Sleeping Ute Mountain

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One year ago today, I published my first post. Thank you for following my blog.

Operation Bunny Rescue

     Rabbit populations undergo ten-year cycles of ups and downs, and according to local biologists, their numbers peaked two years ago. We had a first inkling of this in 2015, when hordes of small critters overran the yard, and sprinted from the car’s headlights left and right at dusk and dawn. A more immediate reminder was the unexpected presence of a tiny ball of gray in the window well of our downstairs bedroom which we detected after a rustling sound reached our half-awake ears through the window. To say we were surprised to find a rabbit in the hole is an understatement. Was this a dream, and would Alice follow?

     We did not know if it had fallen down 4 feet from ground level, or crawled through a French drain (if it had, it did not want to leave again that way), but we were relieved to detect no obvious injuries. The velvety baby simply sat there, twitching its teeny nose, tilting its delicate ears this way and that.

     How to rescue this little creature? When we slid open the window and removed the screen, the cottontail vanished into the drain, only to reappear a few minutes later. It stayed close to this escape hatch, and availed itself of it each time we tried to catch it. After what amounted to at least one hour, it finally hopped far enough away for us to cover the hole and to capture it in a blanket. We carried it outside, where it scurried underneath a juniper bush and sat nonchalantly, as if nothing had happened.

     When nighttime noises emerged from the window well last May, we looked at one another in disbelief. We closed the window and waited till daybreak, but otherwise repeated the same procedure as before. In the course of the summer, we had to perform this ritual twice more, and successfully released bunnies number two, three, and four. We suspected them of playing a game of dare: Who gets to keep us busy the longest?

     According to scientific predictions, rabbit numbers were supposed to be trending downward, and we were hoping for an uneventful season. But 2017 did not disappoint and brought no change to their tendency to disrupt our slumber. To our knowledge, this house had not seen an animal rescue in almost thirty years, but now we are three for three. Apparently they are not interested in statistics.

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