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.

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/

The Lowly Sparrow

House Sparrows might be among the most successful bird species. Originating in Europe and Asia, they were introduced to North America in 1851 by Eugene Schieffelin in an attempt to combat a caterpillar-caused tree infestation in New York City. According to lore, he was also responsible for the release of 100 European Starlings in Central Park in the early 1890s as part of the romantic effort to introduce all Shakespearean birds to the New World. Both species took one look around, and decided to stay. It is estimated that today there might be as many as 500 million house sparrows, and 200 million starlings in North America. Ironically, their declining numbers in parts of Europe have been cause for concern.

From New York City, the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) conquered the majority of the North American continent, except for Alaska and parts of northern Canada. It has also spread to portions of South America, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. A gregarious, garrulous bird, it nearly always flocks with its confrères and consoeurs. Many dislike the sparrow, consider it a pest, a rival of native species with whom it competes for food and nesting places. I am of the opinion that non-native animals and plants have always followed in the wake of human movement, and that to try to fight this reality is a battle predestined to fail.

Male House Sparrow

Female House Sparrow

I find it hard not to be cheered by this lively, inquisitive, and intrepid little bird that weighs no more than an ounce (30 grams). Despite a limited color spectrum, its white, gray, black, and brown to reddish feathers are arranged in an attractive pattern. What its voice lacks in melodiousness, it makes up for with nearly incessant chattering and chirping. The resourceful species has thrived in many an environment, but as the name suggests, it has a tendency to stay close to human habitation. Its natural diet consists chiefly of seeds, supplemented by insects, but in reality it is an omnivore, and I worry slightly about its appetite for human junk food. Whether at backyard feeders, in city plazas, at train stations (or airports), where there is chow, sparrows abound.

Not so long ago I experienced – and enjoyed – a personal reminder of their ubiquity. While awaiting my departure from Denver International Airport last November, my husband and I were surrounded by sparrows, in the dining area, inside the terminal! They kept a close eye on the goings-on and were quick to swoop down for any sign of dropped or discarded food, fluttering from roof to floor, from floor to chair, from chair to table, from table to roof, where they must have found openings that allow in- and egress. Despite all the valid and valuable arguments against this type of scenario, I simply smiled, and clicked away with my camera.

Cheers to the omnipresent, adaptable, and always-in-a-good-mood house sparrows who have made my day more than once!

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/05/16/der-bescheidene-spatz/

Lessons Of Nature

The morning hours of May 1 have been among the best so far this month. I passed them at a favorite local park, al fresco, with avian and other critters, away from humans. Birds do not make rude remarks, cut or flip me off in traffic. Squirrels do not show me the cold shoulder because I don’t share their religious or political convictions. Prairie dogs do not snub me on account of my eye, hair, or skin color, inadequate attire, awkward accent.

My need to be outdoors is inversely proportional to my level of frustration with (wo)mankind. Whenever it reaches a high (or low) point, as happens increasingly frequently, nothing helps restore my equilibrium, or at least inch me toward that elusive state, as simply being present in nature: seeing the sun rise, hearing the birds greet the new day with crystal-clear voices, watching the flowers open their faces to the light (or close them, as is the case with the dazzling night-blooming evening primrose whose petals curl and turn pink in the morning).

Monumental mountains grounded since times immemorial, trees rooted deeply in the earth, banks of condensing and dissipating clouds, the sun’s arc across the sky. They recall to me the big picture, put things in perspective. They help ground me, remind me that nature is cyclical, human nature included. That my own existence is ephemeral, that my real or perceived grievances are insignificant. We are here one moment, gone the next.

All I can do is savor the NOW, let go of matters vexatious, appreciate all that is good and beautiful: the cycles of the cosmos, the loveliness of the land, the verdant veil that finally adorns arbors after a long winter, the bright blossoms that beckon bees and butterflies, the birds that never fail to gladden the heart.

Fire Head

Red birds are uncommon in North America. Residents of the eastern half of the Unites States enjoy Northern Cardinals as their perennial neighbors. Seasonally, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers add their cheerful color. In Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico Summer and Hepatic Tanagers brighten the summer months. Here in Colorado, we mostly see reddish patches on House Finches and American Robins (I suggest clicking on the embedded links for photographs of these birds).

A stray surprise will occasionally cross state borders and occur far from its usual hunting grounds, causing much excitement in the world of bird lovers. Such was the case in eastern El Paso County in early April, when an astute observer detected a dash of scarlet in the middle of the Colorado prairie. According to the distribution map, this winged wonder occurs in Mexico year-round, with summer sojourns in the three southwestern states mentioned above. The guide book describes it as being locally common near streams and ponds. Hanover Fire Station, where it was sighted, is hundreds of miles north of its typical range, and not close to any significant body of water. To learn where it came from, and why it ended up so far from its customary habitat would be elucidating, but not knowing in no way distracts from one’s delight in this rare visitor, aptly called Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus, literally “ruby-colored fire head”). If any avian ever lived up to its name, it is the male of this species.

When my birding friends shared their knowledge of this colorful Easter Sunday present, it was inconvenient for me to make the 30 mile trip late in the afternoon. As these cameos are often brief, I feared I might no longer find it when I arrived at the site the following morning. A small cluster of fellow birders whose binoculars and cameras were pointed at a tree sustained my hope. As soon as I climbed out of the car, a brilliant blush on a branch made my heart skip and my step bounce. Instead of avoiding attention, this individual was not intimidated by our appearance at his stage and he put on a pleasing performance, dashing back and forth between trees, cholla cactus, and fence, in search of his preferred food, flies, as his name implies.

Contrary to expectation, he remained in the same location for at least three or four days, and was subsequently observed in a private yard nearby, allowing many to witness his presence. Whither he has sallied I do not know, but I am grateful to have glimpsed one of nature’s unexpected gifts.

Stuttgart’s Green Sides-Part 3

A stroll in the fresh air amid scenic views rarely fails to lift one’s spirits. Following my exploration of Stuttgart’s Schlossgarten and Max-Eyth-Lake under blue skies, a journey to the elevated outskirts of Stuttgart-West helped elevate our moods on this overcast day, when my aunt and uncle kindly offered to take me sightseeing to another popular destination.

Schloss Solitude (Solitude Palace)

Hazy view of the road connecting Solitude to the Palace in Ludwigsburg

Many years earlier, I had biked to Schloss Solitude (Solitude Palace) on Stuttgart’s extensive multi-use trails through the widespread forest, but I appreciated the opportunity to re-visit this picturesque Rococo palace, commissioned by Duke Carl Eugen of Württemberg, and constructed between 1763 and 1769. On a weekday in late November, no tours were offered and we could only admire the edifice’s elegant exterior, but we also enjoyed the vistas from the palace’s prominent perch. A straight road was built to connect this hunting retreat with the duke’s residence at the Palace of Ludwigsburg 8 miles to the north, which he preferred to the New Palace in downtown Stuttgart. This avenue still exists today and bears the apt appellation “Solitudeallee” (Solitude Boulevard).

Bärenschlössle (Bear Chateau)

The namesake bear

Bärensee (Bear Lake)

Not far from the ducal domicile, we proceeded to another popular locale, the Bärenschlössle (Bear Chateau) and Bärensee (Bear Lake), in an area known as Glemswald (Glems Forest). It is home to additional lakes and several game preserves, but these will have to wait for a future trip. As we ambled through the woods where most trees had already shed the bulk of their leafy canopy, growths of a different nature were evident.

A movement in the green grass of a meadow attracted our attention and, its excellent camouflage notwithstanding, we were rewarded with the discovery of a beautiful bird that appeared to have no objections to prolonged scrutiny by my binoculars and protracted photography by my camera. The perfect avian icing on the perfect autumnal cake.

European Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis)

The red crown is well seen

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/04/21/stuttgarts-grune-seiten-teil-3/

Stuttgart’s Green Sides-Part 2

During last fall’s sojourn in Stuttgart, I enjoyed re-visiting some cherished corners of Baden-Württemberg’s capital. Upon completion of my stroll through the Schlossgarten, I directed my steps along the Neckar River. A few miles farther north, another beautiful, man-made oasis appealed not only to this human, but also to her favorite feathered friends.

Strolling along the Neckar River

Great Cormorant in the river

A message of love

Max-Eyth-Lake is bordered to the west by the Neckar River, whose steep slopes are covered with award-winning vineyards, and to the north and east by a hill burdened with high-rises. A suspension bridge (aka Max-Eyth-Steg) leads across the river, and a foot path encircles the lake. In summer, boat rentals afford an additional experience. Cafés and restaurants invite the weary walker for a culinary pause. The body of water was created in the 1930s at the location of a former sand and gravel quarry, and became a nature preserve in the 1960s.

Max-Eyth-Lake with bridge and surroundings (the featured panoramic photo above was taken in the previous year, about three weeks earlier in the fall)

Lovely willow

Late fall colors

Site of a heron rookery, I found large numbers of these long-legged, long-necked, long-billed wading birds. Flocks of garrulous Graylag Geese inched their way across stretches of lawn that served both as buffet and lavatory. Here, too, mallards, coots, and moorhen were right at home. I was thrilled to once again observe an elegant black swan. Was it identical to the one I had encountered  the previous year?

Gorgeous Gray Heron

Grazing Graylag Geese

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Swan

European Robin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Following a period of rain, this day’s sunshine did not succeed entirely in evaporating the moisture in the air and on the paths, and as soon as the sun approached the horizon, the humidity consolidated into a layer of mist that hovered over the water’s surface. As the solar body took its leave, I reluctantly followed, but not before vowing to return.

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/04/09/stuttgarts-grune-seiten-teil-2/