A continual chant pouring forth from the beaks of Western Meadowlarks. The occasional twitter of Horned Larks. Near-constant chirping of curious yet cautious Black-tailed Prairie Dogs. A sporadic appearance of Pronghorn. Last but not least, sweeping views of Pikes Peak, our local fourteener, and its lower Front Range neighbors.
These are some of the delights that await in eastern El Paso County, only a few miles beyond the city margins of Colorado Springs and Fountain. As I have mentioned before, more than half of Colorado sits on the Great Plains. Before my interest in birds and nature, the prairie environment that presented itself during cross-country trips between Colorado and neighboring states to the East appeared somewhat monotonous and tiresome, but since my eyes have been opened to its incredible richness and variety, I love spending time in it.
Alas, much of the land is private and fenced-in and can only be admired from afar. A number of public county parks make the prairie accessible on foot and enable more intimate experiences, such as those extolled in my introductory paragraph. Among these parks is Bluestem Prairie Open Space. It surrounds the centrally located Big Johnson Reservoir, one of many man-made water storage pools without which no city would exist in the arid American West. The existence of the reservoir also ensures the presence of waterfowl and shorebirds. The combination of this watery world and its adjoining grasslands makes this area one of El Paso County’s top birding hotspots, with 262 species reported thus far.
The last few months found me strolling across the rolling scenery at the Bluestem Prairie on two occasions. My first foray on March 18 happened after a light snowfall, reflected by the white powder on our foothills and Pikes Peak. That day coincided with the migration of a small flock of Mountain Bluebirds. To my utter elation (you might recall my fondness for them), their flight path paralleled my trajectory. Hovering between and landing on top of the posts of the fence that keeps humans on the trail and away from the water, they seemed to travel alongside me. The mellifluous melodies of meadowlarks only added to the day’s wonders.
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If you are used to more verdant prospects, you might wonder at the beige and tan vegetation. This is the normal color of the attire the prairie dons in winter, but the earthen tones are likely more pronounced and prolonged because of the decades-spanning drought that has parched the soil.
My second visit in early April didn’t yet show much floral progression and most of the snow had disappeared, save on Pikes Peak. My hope of seeing my first Burrowing Owl of the year wasn’t fulfilled, but the prairie dogs, permanent residents of the burrows which they will soon share with the ground-dwelling owls, were out in full force on this warm, sunny morning and kept informing one another of my progress and activities. It’s inconceivable to me that these intelligent and inquisitive rodents with an elaborate language of their own have lost—and continue to lose—their lives in depressing numbers to ever-expanding human dwellings. What my photos don’t show are the residential developments that have sprung up on three sides of the open space in the last several decades, nor the roads that line it along each edge and generate an almost incessant hum, if not roar, of engines.
But at least the population of this prairie dog town is safe, and I look forward to visiting my furry friends again soon and learning who else—besides the Burrowing Owls—will take up residence near them for the summer months.