Nebraska’s Sandhills

Having previously traversed parts of Nebraska, my husband and I had read about its Sandhills (or Sand Hills), and heard them mentioned by friends as an attractive destination. In May of this year, we explored Nebraska’s panhandle, which abuts Colorado’s northeast corner and which is home to the western portion of the Sandhills. Without much research, we did not know what to expect. Would they resemble Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes, or New Mexico’s White Sands?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Rolling hills they were, but from a distance their sandy substrate was not immediately obvious. As a result of wind and time, plant seeds have been transported and deposited there, taken root, and transformed a barren aggregate of granules into a landscape of lush, green mounds and valleys. They cover an area of about 20,000 square miles and occupy an elevation that ranges from 1,800 feet in the east, to 3,600 feet in the west. Teeming with wildlife typical of the Great Plains to which the Sandhills technically belong, and being part of the Central Flyway, I encountered several birds for the first time, or, in the case of the Ring-necked Pheasant, reacquainted myself with a species that used to be common in Germany during my childhood, but whose numbers there have since declined.

Our flexible itinerary underwent adjustments when two successive days of not merely rain, but downpour, foiled some of our plans. From Oshkosh, where we had spent the night in a motel, rather than in the tent as desired, we reached Chimney Rock National Historic Site and Scott’s Bluff National Monument, both located along the North Platte River, and both significant landmarks for those traveling overland on the Mormon Pioneer, the Oregon, and the California Trails. While we learned much about those emigrant trails and their travelers at both visitor centers, we caught only wet glimpses of the outdoors, instead of hiking it as intended.

Likewise at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, where our journey took us next. Its visitor center offered information not only about local fossil finds, but also housed the impressive collection of one of the local settlers, James. H. Cook, who befriended Red Cloud, a well-known Sioux Chief. He donated many personal items to Mr. Cook that are representative of the Plains Indians culture and offer valuable insight into everyday life and native customs.

To complete our circle back to Oshkosh, I chose a route leading past Fort Robinson and Chadron, then to and through Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which promised a wealth of birdlife, as did several smaller neighboring lakes dotting the map. Unbeknownst to us, even though we had left the rain behind, the plentiful precipitation of four-plus inches in twenty-four hours, in addition to high water tables from previous rains, had resulted in the flooding of low-lying stretches of several roads. The birds loved the expanded watery realm and were thick not purely in the usual ponds, but also in the temporary bodies of water created by the rains. This windfall (or, to be exact, waterfall), afforded me close looks at a variety of waterfowl; at the elegant Upland Sandpiper, previously glimpsed only once; at an American Bittern, an elusive bird, and an addition to my life list. It pretended to be a reed, as is its wont, but did not call. For an opportunity to hear its unusual vocalization, please click on the link to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

These heady experiences came, however, at the cost of several white-knuckled, heart-skipping moments, on account of several water crossings. Our old and trusted Subaru with nearly 225,000 miles on the odometer did not let us down, and we breathed a sigh of profound relief when we realized that we did not have to wade through calf-deep water to seek help to get towed. In retrospect, it was foolish and entirely uncharacteristic for us to continue on this route, but once we had forded a couple of flooded segments, we did not want to turn around and re-live those. I was also beguiled by the avifauna which might have impaired my judgment, but my husband, a birder only by association, did not even get a similar pay-off as I, and he had to maneuver the car through the watery depths to boot.

Honey, I appreciate your never-ending support and your willingness to accompany me to locales that allow me to indulge in my favorite hobby.

Beware The Rattle

Throughout our two-plus decades of married life, my husband and I have hiked many miles in many locations. Wildlife encounters have generally enriched the experience and have, mostly, been of the harmless, and feathered or furred kind – birds, rabbits, squirrels, foxes, coyotes. Our somewhat more borderline interactions with brown bears in Alaska are a different story, but will have to wait for another time. With regard to encounters of the scaly kind, we have made the acquaintance of turtles, lizards, and snakes – the latter predominantly nonpoisonous individuals.

Even though many trailheads in Colorado’s foothills and prairie bear warning signs about poisonous rattlesnakes, it was only three or four years ago that we saw our first, when we nearly stepped on a “baby” that sunned itself in the middle of the trail. I had barely enough time to take a few photos before it shimmied away.

Baby rattlesnake. It is difficult to gauge size in this photo, but it was no longer than a foot.

Just a few weeks back, we had our second sighting (or our third, if we count one we saw through the car window during a May trip to northeast Colorado). When my husband suddenly stopped in his tracks during a hike at a local nature preserve, I nearly ran into him. He pointed to a shallow gully about fifteen feet ahead of us, which we had to cross and where we recognized an elongated albeit slightly stocky form. Even though my partner in crime is colorblind, his ability to discern patterns, especially on the ground, is better than mine, and he often notices amphibians or reptiles before I do. “Look at the triangular head,” he said. “That’s a rattlesnake.” A second glance confirmed his impression, as it revealed rattles at the distal end, and pits underneath the eyes. These house heat sensing organs and are responsible for their classification as pit vipers. We were most likely facing a Prairie Rattlesnake.

Three to four feet long, its body extended instead of coiled, and not in striking distance, it did not pose a threat. We watched it closely, as it did us. When three more hikers approached from the opposite direction, we alerted them to the snake’s presence, and they, too, paused, to catch a few glimpses. The reptilian head swiveled back and forth, between them and us, but the cold-blooded creature neither hissed nor rattled, merely flicked its bifurcated tongue from time to time (though never when I took a photo). After I made a wide arc around it to reach the other side of the gully, it, too, made up its mind to move on, though not far. It slithered behind a sun-warmed rock ten to twelve feet adjacent to the trail and curled up, seemingly ready for a siesta, perhaps to digest a recent meal.

We are convinced that we have been scrutinized by wild critters countless times, without ever knowing about it. Their usual modus operandi is avoidance of large animals, humans included. This fortunately peaceful meeting served not only as an opportunity to admire the greenish hue, white facial, and gray dorsal markings of this specimen that seemed particularly unperturbed, but also as a reminder to be aware of our surroundings. It is possible, not to say probable, that on our way back to the car, we looked behind rocks and over our shoulders slightly more frequently than usual. 🙂

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/07/11/vorsicht-rasseln/

Kindness Rocks

In a world where rudeness and verbal sparring are par for the course, all of us appreciate a friendly word or gesture by a stranger.

For the last couple of years, I have been spotting rocks, painted in bright colors or endowed with positive messages, and they always bring a smile to my face and cheer to my soul. I usually take a photograph, and leave them in place for someone else to discover and enjoy.

Last autumn, an article in our local newspaper revealed that these isolated pieces are part of a larger puzzle. The 719 Rocks Campaign (719 being our telephone area code) was initiated by a Colorado Springs resident who had come across similar stones during a visit to a different state. She subsequently learned of the Kindness Rocks Project that began at Cape Cod in 2015 and spread from there. A local Massachusetts woman, strolling along the beach while looking for signs from her deceased parents in the form of heart-shaped stones or sea glass, felt compelled to inscribe a few with sympathetic statements. When an acquaintance of hers picked one up by happenstance, and texted her that it meant the world to her, without knowing who had placed them there, it resulted in a movement. According to the  Kindness Rocks website, its stated purpose is “to cultivate connections and lift others up through simple acts of kindness.”

I am grateful to all artists, old and young, who take time and effort to create comical, cheerful, or considerate rocks to share with perfect strangers. Finding one of these care packages is a reminder of our common humanity, and of our collective need for a smile, encouragement, inspiration. Each is a tiny token of the positive power of the human heart that can overcome the bad, and a subtle suggestion to pay forward the kindness we receive.

Peekaboo

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.

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/06/06/colorados-prarie/