Southeast Colorado

In addition to constant Snow Goose sightings, the High Plains Snow Goose Festival in Lamar last month offered many memorable moments. Colorado is known chiefly for its Rocky Mountains, but over a third of our state occupies the Great Plains. Despite a dearth of peaks and a landscape that appears monotonous and barren at first glance, the plains scenery is variable and punctuated by unexpected rises and falls, as we festival participants experienced during field trips to both public and private properties.

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The plains are windy places, and not a single day passed without a breeze at best, gale-force gusts at worst. During the three-day event, we enjoyed only a few calm hours. On a single-digit morning, we braved a biting wind, before it blew us back into our vehicle. At times, we hid behind the bus or a building in order to steady our binoculars and cameras. Native Americans and homesteaders had to be a hardy lot to survive in this challenging climate, with freezer- and furnace-like conditions alternating in the course of the year. Petroglyphs and smoke-darkened caves bespeak long-term human activity in the region, and ruined homes and artifacts tell of those hopeful settlers who arrived, but could not make a go of things.

Lamar exists because the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail traversed the southeastern portion of Colorado. From 1821 until 1880, the legendary trade route connected the US with Santa Fe, which was part of Mexico until 1848, when it was appropriated by the US. The arrival of the railroad consigned the trail to history books, until the 1987 creation of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail by the National Park Service. A series of historical markers, which we encountered on several occasions, recall its historic significance.

Lamar Mural

Lamar Mural

While Coloradans have reason to celebrate some past events, we still try to come to terms with others. Southeast Colorado has borne witness to, and bears the scars of, several inglorious acts. It saw the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, in which Colorado militia attacked a group of peaceable Arapahoe and Southern Cheyenne, camped under express US government protection. Close to 200 persons perished, among them women and children. The area also witnessed the construction of Camp Amache, one of ten internment camps that imprisoned American citizens of Japanese descent from 1942 until 1945, in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II.

Wherever I am, experiencing the beauty and order of the natural world while being reminded of some of the inhuman acts perpetrated by humans on one another is a source of never-ending sadness and outrage. I continue to struggle with negativity and cynicism about humankind, but I don’t want to give up hope that we can yet find a way to make this earth a welcoming home for all people, as well as for all our fellow creatures.

White As Snow

During January’s excursion to seek out the Pink-footed Goose, a rare European visitor in North America, I also beheld a handful of Snow Geese, mixed in with gaggles of Canada and Cackling Geese. In February, my attendance at Lamar’s 17th Annual (my first) High Plains Snow Goose Festival in Colorado’s southeastern corner, exposed me not only to a handful, but to a multitude of Snow Geese on their late winter northward migration. During various festival-associated field trips, we saw and heard Snow Geese nearly incessantly—feeding on fields, flying in formation, or floating on lakes—in numbers that ranged from single birds to thousands.

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We birders good-naturedly ridicule ourselves for willingly forsaking sleep to catch the early bird, so to speak. On the event’s final day, a sunrise trip was offered to a reservoir, where Snow Geese are known to roost. Seven of us gathered at the meeting place at 5:15 AM, before we climbed onto the school bus that carried us to our destination in utter darkness. Once there, our driver turned off the engine, and we were greeted by countless bird voices, even before we could discern the whitish ribbon of their mass at the water’s edge in the graying morning light.

According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife ranger who accompanied us, we were looking at 15,000 geese. The day before, he had counted 40,000. As the sun slowly bathed the scene in an auburn glow, one vociferous skein after another arrived, carrying an estimated 10,000 additional birds. They gathered along the far shore of the lake, and I was unable to capture a single close-up. Fortunately, I had no trouble approaching the migrant geese winging their way through a beautiful mural in downtown Lamar, and they are depicted in the topmost photo.

One of the reasons the birds kept their distance—hunting. They were wary of humans. Like many nature lovers, I have mixed emotions about this activity. Not a hunter myself, I am nonetheless aware of the necessity of controlling certain animal populations. Snow Geese winter in the US or Mexico and migrate all the way to the Canadian and far-northern Alaskan tundra for the breeding season. Global warming and civilization have benefited their species. Earlier snow melts in the Arctic prolong the breeding season, and the availability of man-made reservoirs and agricultural crops in what was once wild prairie, improve survival during their twice-yearly journey. They have, however, been too successful, and depletion of their precious Arctic habitat is of concern not only for themselves, but also for other animals.

Even though it saddens me to visualize people shooting at these beauties with guns instead of with cameras, my rational self knows this is a necessary and beneficial intervention. We no longer live in Eden, where nature can balance itself. It is easy to criticize hunters, but in many instances their fees help protect crucial animal habitat, and their actions help maintain healthy populations. Instead of disparaging one another, we need to collaborate to tackle today’s challenges. “We’re all in this together,” as Red Green has long been telling us.

Lost?

To look for one bird in a flock of thousands is like trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack. When I arrive at Milavec Reservoir in Frederick, about 100 miles north of Colorado Springs, on this early January day and am greeted by the resounding calls of countless Canada and Cackling Geese, I know that my chances of finding my hoped-for goose are slim. Ever since the report a few weeks ago of the first-ever Colorado appearance of a Pink-footed Goose, which typically breeds in Greenland and Iceland, and overwinters in Northern Europe, a great buzz has energized the regional birding community. Occasional sightings in Canada or the East Coast have occurred, but this species’ presence in our state is sensational.

I am not the only one with binoculars on this frosty morning—two fellow bird enthusiasts are scanning the lake with their optics, and I make their acquaintance. Joe, who has already seen the bird twice, has brought his brother, Steve, to show him this rarity. As on so many previous occasions, I benefit from the heart-warming kindness of strangers, because Joe’s subsequent discovery of the goose allows me a brief glimpse—just long enough to capture two photographs—before I lose it in the ceaseless ebb and flow of myriad geese. I clearly notice its short beak, responsible for its scientific name, Anser brachyrhynchos (Anser is Latin for goose, and brachyrhynchos is Greek for short-billed). Interestingly, the German common name, “Kurzschnabelgans,” reflects the short beak, whereas the English focuses on another prominent feature, the birds’ feet, described by Joe as “bubble-gum pink.”

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Alas, I never see the goose’s legs, but I do not mind terribly, especially when I realize that other seekers, who arrive a little later, do not get to observe any part of the bird. I indulge in the enjoyment of other geese, whose visits to Colorado are limited to wintertime.

This Pink-footed Goose makes my birding heart beat happily, and even though it is far off-course, reminds me of the amazing miracle of bird migration that spans our one-of-a-kind globe, of the interconnectedness of all living beings, and of the desperate need to get our act together, so that our fellow creatures may continue their age-old movements across continents, which have inspired humans since the dawn of consciousness.

Winter Isn’t Over

In the arid American Southwest, made more arid by recurring drought, any form of moisture is welcome. Few forms are more fabulous than frozen flakes falling from the firmament, as was the case last week. After two days of watching a snowfall through the window from my desk, my body and mind yearned to dive into the late winter wonderland, before it would dissipate like a dream.

Any place is transformed by snow, and beautiful places become more beautiful. This was the case at Garden of the Gods on the morning after the storm. The park’s inherent splendor was rendered more splendid, its innate majesty more majestic, by a moderate sprinkling of powdered sugar. Many place names exaggerate, embellish, but in my mind, Garden of the Gods’ designation is no hyperbole.

As wind and sun slowly but steadily transubstantiated shimmering, frozen crystals back into their translucent, liquid state, ravens were squawking overhead, robins were breaking their fast on frosty juniper berries, the lovely melody of Townsend’s Solitaires floated down from their elevated perches, and this human soul was filled to its brim.

Im trockenen, durch wiederholte Dürreperioden noch ausgetrockneteren Südwesten der USA, ist jeglicher Niederschlag willkommen. Wenige Formen sind fabelhafter als gefrorene Flocken, die aus dem Firmament fallen, wie das vergangene Woche der Fall war. Nachdem ich zwei Tage lang von meinem Schreibtisch aus den Schneefall beobachtet hatte, sehnten sich mein Körper und Geist danach, in die späte Winterwunderlandschaft einzutauchen, bevor alles wie ein Traum erscheinen würde.

Jeder Ort wird durch Schnee verwandelt, und herrliche Orte werden noch herrlicher. Das war am Morgen nach dem Sturm auch im Garden of the Gods der Fall. Eine mittelschwere Puderzuckerschicht unterstrich die dem Park innewohnende Pracht. Manche Ortsnamen sind übertrieben, aber Garden of the Gods verdient meiner Meinung nach seinen Titel.

Während Wind und Sonne die glitzernden Eiskristalle langsam aber sicher wieder in ihren durchsichtigen, flüssigen Zustand verwandelten, krächzten Raben am Himmel, stopften sich Wanderdrosseln zum Frühstück ihre Mägen mit frostigen Wacholderbeeren, schwebte die liebliche Melodie weiterer Vögel durch die Lüfte, und war diese menschliche Seele bis zum Bersten gefüllt.

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Mural Magic

While I have never stayed as an overnight guest at our local 5-star Broadmoor Hotel, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2018, I occasionally treat myself to coffee and cake in one of its cafés. This pretext enables me to walk the tastefully-landscaped grounds, to enjoy views of nearby Cheyenne Mountain, and to admire a graceful pair of Mute Swans in the property’s central lake. The establishment is known for the artwork that adorns the interior and ambling through its corridors is like walking through a museum. Paintings and statues celebrate the history of the American West and make it easy to while away hours.

Obwohl ich noch nie in unserem hiesigen Fünfsternehotel “Broadmoor”, das 2018 sein 100-jähriges Jubiläum feierte, übernachtet habe, verwöhne ich mich gelegentlich mit Kaffee und Kuchen in einem seiner Cafés. Dieser Vorwand ermöglicht es mir, durch die geschmackvoll gestaltete Gartenanlage zu spazieren, die Sicht auf den nahegelegenen Berg, Cheyenne Mountain, zu genießen, und ein graziles Schwanenpaar auf dem zentral gelegenen See zu bewundern. Das Etablissement ist für seine Kunstsammlung bekannt, und durch seine inneren Hallen zu wandeln, ähnelt einem Besuch in einer Kunstgalerie. Gemälde und Plastiken feiern die Geschichte des amerikanischen Westens, und lassen Stunden wie im Fluge vergehen.

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I never visit without directing my steps to a cozy corner whose walls are beautified by a delightful mural. Examples of our regional flora are exquisitely and lovingly rendered, and while I feast on the colorful blossoms, a number of winged creatures do the same in their own way.

Meine Ausflüge dorthin sind ohne das Aufsuchen einer gemütlichen, von einem wunderschönen Wandgemälde verzierten Ecke nicht komplett. Vertreter unserer hiesigen Flora werden in liebevollem Detail dargestellt, und während ich mich an den farbenprächtigen Blüten auf meine Art labe, tut es mir eine Anzahl beschwingter Kreaturen auf ihre Weise gleich.

Dressed For A Wedding

Though all waterfowl are handsome in my eyes, some stand out for their hyper-handsomeness. I have yet to see Mandarin or Harlequin Ducks, among the most elegant, but the no less attractive Wood Ducks make a semi-regular appearance in Colorado. Their distribution map shows them sparingly throughout most of the American Southwest in the summer, but some migrate through, or even winter in our region.

Their common name stems from their habits: nesting in tree cavities, and perching on tree branches, made possible by their clawed feet. To distance their eggs from predators, they prefer to nest high—30 or more feet above the ground. They are unique among North America’s ducks in that they can have two annual broods. Their average clutch of 13 eggs hatches after about 30 days, and the newborns hurl themselves out of the nest and float down to join their mother on the ground when they are only a day or two young, never to return to their protected, down-lined home. They stay with Mama Duck until they are old enough to live on their own, Dad having moved on after performing his procreational duties.

Hunted to near-extinction by the turn of the 20th century, Wood Ducks have recovered, thanks to strict hunting regulations, and the provision of nesting boxes, which are readily adopted by the future parents when they meet certain criteria. Even though the birds conduct their lives in wooded swamps, nests have been found over a mile away from suitable habitat.

Woodies are also known as Carolina ducks (where they were first described), swamp ducks, or water pheasants. Coming across these typically shy creatures that are wary of humans is always a treat. In November of last year I found a cluster at a pond in Pueblo, our neighboring city to the south, where their tolerance to human presence allowed me to take several close-up portraits. It was the first time I noticed some of the finer details of their plumage. Their beautiful bodies are bejeweled with a wide-ranging palette of colors, and highlighted by white stripes, arcs, or, in the female’s case, teardrop-shaped eyeshadow. This astounding array of feathers inspired their scientific name, Aix sponsa, a combination of the Greek word Aix, for waterfowl, and the Latin term, sponsa, for betrothed, or spouse.

In short, a Duck Dressed For A Wedding.

A small group of foraging Wood Ducks (German: Brautenten)

A pair of Wood Ducks, male in the back, female in the front

Female with her stunning eyeshadow

A pair of Wood Ducks, male on the left, female on the right

Male with his multi-hued plumage

Female with never-before seen highlights