Among my favorite rodents are Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, previously highlighted in at least two posts (see here and here). Native to the American West, they reside mainly in coniferous and mixed forests, but may occupy habitat ranging from sagebrush country to areas above timberline, and are, therefore, frequently seen. As I have to resist the impulse to take one home with me, I comfort myself by taking too many pictures of these extremely photogenic creatures whenever the occasion arises. It did during a recent camping trip not too far from Colorado Springs, when I had two memorable chance meetings of the charming and cuddly kind.

In the first, I made the acquaintance of Peekaboo. As I was taking a stroll through the forest, I watched one squirrel disappear into a burrow. Stopping in my tracks for several minutes, my hopes for its reappearance were not disappointed. Very slowly, inch by inch, it showed itself: nose first, followed by ears and front paws, until it emerged in its entire elegance.

The next fellow’s name undoubtedly was Feed Me. When it showed up ON my picnic table at my campsite while I was enjoying a snack, I knew I was in trouble. I don’t usually feed wildlife, other than birds in our back yard (which invariably means that some neighborhood rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, and skunks benefit from the seeds that drop to the ground). When stared at intently by a pair of beautifully shaped and outlined eyes, is it any crime that my usually adamant stance first weakened, then collapsed?

I quickly resolved that a carrot stick would not be detrimental to an animal likely exposed to junk food at the campground most of the time; rather, it might even counteract some of the ill effects of such a diet. So I tossed one in its direction, and witnessed how Feed Me whittled it down by daintily holding and rotating it with its front paws. As I kept watching, photographing, and grinning, I rationalized that my provitamin A donation contributed to the ocular health of at least one of these cuties whose gaze melts my heart each time.

Soul Time

One of my favorite destinations in neighboring Teller County had been beckoning for several months until I could wait no longer. Arriving at Manitou Lake at 7 AM on a weekday in early June, I shared the parking lot with only a few other early risers, most of them here to fish.

My goal was to get away for the day, to this marvelous setting, where Pikes Peak’s north face looms large, to allow my soul to “dangle its legs,” in accordance with the lovely German saying “die Seele baumeln lassen.” After an extended stroll around the lake and the adjoining woods, both replete with animal encounters, I searched for a solitary spot where I could read and write.

As the sun moved across the sky, so did I across the earth. Different picnic tables served me for a while, as did a soft spot on the ground covered with pine needles, next to a flat slab of rock, which became my writing desk. Eventually I found my refuge at the far end of the recreation area, away from the growing crowds which included not only anglers, but also kayakers, and a large group of people who preferred to listen to music, instead of the birds and the wind in the tree branches.

Canopied by Ponderosa Pines that were bearing their sexual organs without shame, and pollinated by a yellow powder each time a breeze breathed on their boughs, I listened to the whistling of Red-winged Blackbirds, the humming of myriad insects, and the buzzing of hummingbirds, while the man-made noises receded into the background.

On a bench in the shade of the venerable pines that provided respite from heat unseasonable and folks unreasonable, I was able to let my actual and proverbial legs dangle.

My Name Is Prickly

My name is Prickly.

Glad to make your acquaintance.

People throughout the ages have mistaken me for a pig, with spines attached, as my name, in several languages, attests. In German, it is “Stachelschwein” (Schwein = pig, Stachel = spine/quill), in French “porc-épic” (porc = pig, épic = spine/quill), and my English common name, porcupine, is thought to be derived from French.

I am here to tell you that I am not a pig, but a rodent! My scientific name, Erethizon dorsatum, is more ominous than quill-pig, as it translates into “one who rises in anger,” or “one with an irritating back.” Let me put one thing straight. I am NOT one who angers easily, but when provoked or threatened, I might lash out at you with my tail. My quills, though entirely soft and pliable when I am born, harden within thirty minutes of my beholding the light of the world. They are only loosely attached to me, but when slapped onto your skin, will embed themselves with the help of tiny barbs – a painful ordeal.

I did not think this up, so please, don’t blame me! But – if you or your canine companion corner me, I have no choice but to deploy this weapon.

If left alone – and I prefer to be solitary most of my life – I am busy eating my vegetables (my mother would be proud of me): fresh greens in summer, dry bark in winter. As a matter of convenience, my grocery store and bedroom are often identical. You might call me lazy, because I move very slowly, but I get ample exercise climbing up and down trees.

As I am nocturnal, I am active mostly at night, so you might not spot me often. I suspect that you notice me predominantly during the day, when I rest from the night’s labors. Since I am a good climber, and not afraid of heights, I often seek shelter high up on a branch, where you might see me snoozing. One so handsome as I needs plenty of beauty sleep.

I prefer to stay out of your way, so PLEASE stay out of mine, and admire my impossibly cute face from afar.


Dedicated to our pooch, who did not get Prickly’s memo, and who once suffered the consequences of his spiny encounter. RIP, Teddy, and stay away from those barbed beings in doggie heaven.


Colorado’s Prairie

“Colorado” evokes tall mountains, alpine activities, winter wonderlands. While our fifty-three 14ers are magnificent landmarks, at least one third of our state consists of prairie and forms part of the High Plains. On a map, these predominantly eastern areas are customarily depicted in white, suggestive of emptiness. Most travelers who spend long hours traversing these vast stretches in their cars might share this impression, which was the case for my husband and me, until we decided to explore this seemingly “empty” portion of our state during repeated excursions.

The plains landscape is no less impressive than the remainder of the state, if only at closer inspection. While today’s prairie differs from its one-time state, and while agricultural fields and livestock pastures predominate, shortgrass islands survive, or have been restored. Woven of wild grasses and wild flowers, they thrive on little annual precipitation. Sundry spring and summer blooms are outlasted by enduring sunflowers whose yellow petals enliven the fetching, if muted, fall attire. During periods of drought, the hues might be subdued year-round. I see parallels between the prairie and Colorado’s upper elevations. Splendid cottonwoods along waterways are equivalent to the aspen trees of the montane zone and, like them, turn a luminous gold in autumn. The wide-open grassland is not unlike the tundra above treeline.

This predominantly flat world whose altitude gradually and imperceptibly drops from about 6,000 feet in Colorado Springs to 3,400 feet at the Kansas border seems to consist solely of two elements: earth and sky. The latter might be as blue and friendly as the cornflowers that line the roadsides in summer, or assume a threatening gray. Thunder, lightning, and the potential for tornadoes are fearsome reminders of nature’s less benignant powers. Breezes, common if not constant companions, contribute to an ever-changing cloudscape that seems to arise out of the blue. They also propel ubiquitous windmills to pump ground water into holding tanks for domestic and feral visitors. Emerald ribbons on the capacious canvas indicate streams. Rivers, like the Arkansas and South Platte, with their tributaries, equal life. Without water, there would be no reservoirs, no successful settlement, no farming, no animals.

In fact, the fauna is plentiful and varied. Pronghorn browse on nourishing forbs, always with a suspicious eye on humans who nearly blasted them into oblivion before their numbers recovered. These fastest land mammals in the western hemisphere supposedly developed their speed to outrun the now extinct American Cheetah. The estimated sixty million bison that once roamed these reaches were less fortunate, and if and where reintroduced, are confined by fences. Pointed ears among the grasses might belong to a Swift Fox, or a jackrabbit. Black-tailed Prairie Dogs linger near the entrances to their burrows, which are frequently shared with Burrowing Owls. What might appear to be “a flying dog” will, at closer inspection, prove to be a an owl with lengthy limbs and expressive eyes.

Thanks to low population density and little light pollution, glimpses into the Milky Way and more distant galaxies are afforded the stargazer. We love to camp, and the thin fabric of a tent allows greater awareness of nighttime sounds. Quivering leaves resemble falling rain when stirred by a breath of air. The nocturnal silence is punctuated by the hooting of owls, the croaking of frogs, the multifarious vocalizations of coyotes. Few creatures epitomize the West like these wild cousins of our beloved domestic animals, and few creatures polarize as much – esteemed by some, despised by others.

One of the main motivations for most of our journeys nowadays is my desire to acquaint myself with inhabitants of the avian kind. Because eastern Colorado is part of the Central Flyway, numerous species pass through it. Thanks to its high numbers in this environment, the Lark Bunting was chosen as Colorado’s state bird. Flocks flutter alongside the car, similar to Horned Larks who risk their lives, darting in front of speeding vehicles. Orchard and Bullock’s Orioles, Brown Thrashers, and various sparrows abound, similar to Western and Eastern Kingbirds who owe their common names to their regal appearance, and their scientific name, Tyrannus, to their aggressive territorial behavior. The Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos (literally many-tongued mimic), likewise lives up to its reputation and impresses with a repertoire of musical scales copied from any number of feathered fellows.

Since those first encounters a few years back, I have discovered almost every one of these species in eastern El Paso County’s own prairie habitat, much nearer to our doorstep, in corroboration of the old adage that one only notices what one knows. Far away or close to home, the Western Meadowlark is among my favorites. To assert that one is never out of earshot between the edge of our town, and the edge of our state, is no exaggeration. Its full-throated melody brings cheer to my heart every single time and reminds me that Colorado’s prairie, rather than being empty, is filled with lovely sounds and sights.

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