Aiken Canyon Preserve

About eighteen miles south of downtown Colorado Springs lies a unique sanctuary, designated as a nature preserve in 1993, when the Nature Conservancy signed a 99 year conservation lease for 1,100 acres of public land with the State of Colorado. The subsequent purchase of additional private land expanded the total acreage of Aiken Canyon Preserve to 1,600. It was named in honor of Charles Edward Howard Aiken (1850-1936), who grew up in Vermont and Chicago. After Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871, he relocated to Colorado with his family, where they ran a sheep ranch a few miles south of the future preserve. Charles, a bird collector since a young age, had been apprenticed to a taxidermist in Chicago, and continued this profession in Colorado. As was common in the days before widespread photography and use of binoculars, the sad method to learn about birds was to shoot and stuff them. Aiken became a taxidermy expert and operated his own shop in Colorado Springs. He contributed greatly to the knowledge of the avifauna of Colorado, and through his travels, of neighboring states.

As Aiken Canyon’s water is supplied only by an intermittent creek, it never saw any significant settlement, logging or grazing, and still harbors an intact, original Rocky Mountain foothill ecosystem attractive to a varied fauna. Mammals include raccoons, black bears, deer, elk, and mountain lions, though I have only seen squirrels and rabbits during my repeated forays. At least 142 avian species have been documented, according to eBird. Bees and butterflies join the birds in the warmer months, as do other insects, lizards, and snakes. It was here that my husband and I had our encounter with a Prairie Rattlesnake, stretched out across the trail one July day. Luckily, it simply slithered across and curled up behind a rock for a siesta. We parted peacefully, but with an increased awareness on our part of the potential of reptilian appearances.

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In 1996 a field station was constructed, with walls fashioned out of a straw core, and a stucco surface the color of the surrounding soil. For two decades, volunteer staff provided information about the land, its history, and its denizens. Because of fungal contamination in the straw, it was torn down in the autumn of 2016, much to the chagrin of helpers and visitors alike. The space sat empty until the completion of a covered pavilion with picnic tables in the spring of 2018.

Access to this pristine parcel is afforded via an easy to moderate four mile trail that bars pets, bikes, and motorized vehicles. The first portion of the narrow path meanders through a grassy meadow and a dry creek bed that carries the warning to seek higher ground during flash floods. The greatest challenge is trying to decide whether to hike the steepening loop in a clockwise, or counterclockwise direction. There is much for the eye to gaze at. The red ground is littered with leaves, pine needles and cones, and sprinkled with cactus, yucca, and additional wildflowers. Scrub oak and mountain mahogany make up the tangled understory, medium-height junipers and pinyons are dwarfed by tall Ponderosa Pines. Islands of whimsical sandstone formations jut out of the verdant canopy and tickle one’s fancy. A short side trail leads to a promontory with views of the expansive plains in the east, the Wet Mountains in the west, and the Spanish Peaks in the south.

A three-quarter mile spur veers off the main loop and leads to the ruins of a log cabin that owed its existence to a local natural spring. The dwelling was likely built in the 1920s or 30s, but has long since collapsed. A seeming contradiction to the statement that the canyon was never settled, it left such a small footprint that it did not significantly change the geology or biology of its environment.

This site, surrounded by trees 50 feet tall, never fails to stimulate my imagination. Remnants of the wooden building, its metal roof and pipes lie scattered next to timeworn utensils – a tattered bedspring, threadbare shoe soles, glittering glass shards, rusting cans. Just beyond this former domicile, a tall rock provided the side wall of a small corral for domestic animals. Spikey leaves reminiscent of iris suggest the tender care of an erstwhile gardener. While I have never seen them in flower, my mind is tantalized by the potential and prospect of luminous blooms in this sheltered vale. Who once called this spot home, far away from town, with bears and mountain lions as neighbors, when the promise of colorful spring blossoms brightened the long, dark, cold winter nights?

A Tranquil and Treasured Place

Ever since my inadvertent discovery of Colorado’s Roxborough State Park more than five years ago, I have harbored the wish to introduce it to my husband. Its location near Denver, about 65 miles north of Colorado Springs, had been a slight deterrent because of the attendant drive and traffic, but we finally made the journey in mid-July.

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We are enthusiastic devotees of Colorado’s State Parks and, for years, have happily invested the $70 fee for an annual pass that allows access to all forty-two parks, save one. A mere ten visits per year amortize the investment, and we typically far exceed that number. As the parks are scattered throughout the state, those that remain to be explored outnumber the ones we are familiar with, among them our nearby favorites, Cheyenne Mountain and Castlewood Canyon.

Roxborough State Park, fringed by the plains in the east and the Rocky Mountain foothills in the west, is one of the least developed parks. It is open only during daytime, does not offer picnic or camping facilities, and only allows human foot traffic. If this sounds restrictive, it is done in the noble attempt to limit visitation and minimize impact on its fauna, which includes 181 recorded bird species, plus multiple mammals, among them deer, elk, fox, black bears, bobcats, and mountain lions. When I recently published a post about our rare encounter with a rattlesnake, little did I know that soon afterward, we would run into another – at Roxborough. Again, this individual was not aggressive, and slithered away into the tall grass lining the trail. Shortly thereafter, we nearly stepped on another snake, and were jolted to attention when it hissed and curled. Fortunately, the bullsnake, albeit of impressive size, is not poisonous, and merely wanted to alert us of its presence.

Roxborough’s most outstanding features are geologic. Slanting red sandstone slabs form several parallel ridges along the park’s north-south axis, like the spinal columns of so many slumbering dinosaurs. The rocks are representative of the Fountain Formation. These oblique rubicund walls are even more remarkable when one comprehends that they originated as the bottom of an ancient inland ocean before its uplift some 300 million years ago. This is where my comprehension ends. As much as I hate to admit it, my geologic grasp is miniscule. Each time I read about rocks and minerals and millions and billions of years, my eyes glaze over, despite repeated attempts to remedy my ignorance. Ignorance does not equal inattention or inappreciation, but not everybody can be a rock hound.

Contrasting and complementing verdure, stimulated by several streams, creates a far lusher appearance than we are accustomed to from the otherwise geologically similar Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. The versatile flora comprises tallgrass species and wildflowers, but our nearly decade-long regional drought has temporarily suppressed the number of flowering plants. The entire American West hopes for more summer rains.

This exquisite jewel of a refuge has attracted humans for eons. Evidence of local activity dates back nearly 12,000 years, and those Paleo-Indians were followed more recently by Utes, and, to a lesser extent, by Arapahoe. The locale owes its name to Henry Persse, a New York transplant. In 1903, he built a stone house on the north end of the valley, originally called Washington Park, before he rechristened it after an ancestral Scottish location. He intended to transform the area around his summer home into a resort, replete with hotel, golf course, and guest cottages. Mercifully, this plan never materialized, and his and some surrounding property amounting to a total of about 3,300 acres came into the possession of the state of Colorado, and was opened as a park in 1987.

Despite its proximity to the greater Denver metropolitan area with its three-plus million inhabitants, and despite the doubling of the annual visitation from 75 to 150 thousand in the last four years, when managing to avoid weekends and holidays, it is still possible to experience transformative tranquil time at this treasure trove.

Flying Jewels

One of the perks of living in North America is the yearly visitation by winged creatures so fabulous, they might have flown out of the pages of a fairytale. Named for the hum or trill created by the wings of some of the world’s 340 species, hummingbirds’ amazing appendages beat 50 to 60 times per SECOND, but brief bursts exceeding this frequency are possible. With an average lifespan of 4 years, and a maximum of 12, as one banded individual attested, this amounts from 7 BILLION wingbeats in shorter-lived birds, to about 21 BILLION in “longevitous” individuals. Their capability to propel themselves forward, backward, sideways, up, and down, and to hover in place, must be every flight engineer’s envy.

These fairy-like beings are among the most wonderful of avian wonders. Compared to Cuba’s Bee Hummingbird that weighs under 0.1 ounce (0.07, to be exact), and measures 2.4 inches in length, the Giant Hummingbird of the Andes tips the scale at a ponderous 0.8 ounce, and reaches 9 inches between tip of beak and tip of tail, though most species are from 3 to 6 inches long. To support the pumping wings and pumping heart which contracts 250 times per minute when resting, up to 1200 plus times when active, their metabolism, the highest of any homoeothermic animal, is about 100 times that of an elephant. In an attempt to conserve energy at nighttime and during cold spells, they enter a state of torpor not unlike hibernation, during which their core temperature and heart rate plummet. Even though not all species equal the Rufous Hummingbird’s twice yearly migration from Mexico to Alaska, and back, approaching a round-trip of 10,000 miles, most easily qualify for the frequent flyer club.

Apart from catching protein-rich aerial insects, hummingbirds are predominantly nectarivorous and frequent flowers whose blossoms accommodate their long, needle-like beaks from which they lap up the liquid with their long tongues, but they are amenable to man-made nectar proffered in feeders. Because many gravitate to shades of red, commercial feeding stations usually incorporate this color. The recommended mixture of four parts water and one part sugar sounds sweet enough, but I have a friend who uses both parts equally. His saccharine liquid is the stuff of hummingbird legend.

Sexually dimorphic, females tend to be slightly larger and may be surprisingly plain and easily confused, whereas males are typically more colorful. Iridescent hues are the result not of pigment, but of feather structure. The throats of adult males may seem black in dim light, but when hit by sunshine, suddenly shimmer and shine in shades borrowed from the rainbow. These resplendent patches are called gorgets, from the French word gorge, meaning throat, but might be derived from their gorgeous appearance as well. Paradisiacal in look only, their behavior is anything but. Territorial and aggressive, they regularly chase one another from food sources, leading to a paradoxical waste of energy.

The male performs J-, U-, or O-shaped courtship dives, accompanied by vibrant buzzing of his wings. Once his bravado behavior and sparkly plumes dazzle a girl, he performs his evolutionary duty, then takes off for other pursuits. Females build nests the size of walnuts, and lay eggs the size of beans. The typical clutch of two is tended to by the mother alone, until the young ones are ready to fledge after three weeks.

Of the three hundred-plus hummingbird species that solely exist in the Americas, 24 spend part or all of their lives in North America, and 4 of them occur regularly in our corner of Colorado. Their appearance in mid- to late April, often while a late blizzard blows and blankets burgeoning blossoms in white, is a longed-for and cherished sight, and the beginning of their all-too brief sojourn in our latitudes. My heart, still gladdened by their presence, is saddened by the knowledge that these precious creatures will soon move on.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus), male, breeds at elevations of up to 10,500 feet, where nighttime temperatures often drop below freezing. Männlicher Breitschwanzkolibri, kann auf Höhen bis zu 3,200 Metern brüten, wo es nachts oft gefriert.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus), male, with pink gorget clearly visible. Männlicher Breitschwanzkolibri, dessen pinkfarbenes Halsband gut sichtbar ist.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird, female (Selasphorus platycercus), with protruding tongue. Weiblicher Breitschwanzkolibri, mit sichtbarer Zunge.

Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), male, the “bully of bullies” at the feeder. Männlicher Zimtkolibri, oder Rotrücken-Zimtelfe, einer der aggressivsten Kolibris.

Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), male, whose flame-red gorget appears golden in the sunlight. Männlicher Zimtkolibri, dessen feuerrotes Halsband im Sonnenlicht goldfarben erscheint.

Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), female. Weiblicher Zimtkolibri.

Calliope Hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope), male, the smallest bird in the United States (it weighs 0.1 ounce). Männliche Sternelfe, der kleinste Kolibri in den USA (er wiegt 2,7d Gramm).

Calliope Hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope), male. Männliche Sternelfe.

Calliope Hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope), male, with magenta throat stripes. Männliche Sternelfe mit pink-violettfarbenen Halsstreifen.

Calliope Hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope), female. Weibliche Sternelfe.

Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri), male. The black chin is not seen, and the gorget does not appear purple, as it might in the sun. Schwarzkinnkolibri. Das schwarze Kinn ist nicht sichtbar, und die lila Kehle nur andeutungsmäßig.

Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri), female. Appears slender, long-billed, and does not have reddish flanks. Schwarzkinnkolibri, weiblich. Erscheint schlank, langschnäbelig und hat keine Rottöne.

Seeing stunning hummingbird photos by many capable photographers reminds me of my woeful state of photographic ineptitude, but I hope I still captured the charisma of these magnificent marvels.

A Fire Lookout

If my office sat atop a 9,748 foot rocky perch and offered panoramic views of Colorado’s mountains and plains, I, too, would happily climb 143 steep steps each morning to get to work. I would not frown upon the employer-provided domicile, or upon having to use an outhouse. Rather, I would relish residing remotely each summer, 1.5 miles from, and 939 feet above, the nearest trailhead.

Unfortunately, this lofty office, built in 1951, whose elevated raison d’etre is the early detection of wildfires, does not have any openings, as the role of fire lookout has been filled by the same person since 1984. Mr. Bill Ellis, a U. S. Forest Service employee, was in his mid-50s when he jumped at the chance to take on the full-time seasonal position, moving to the cabin with his wife and, to begin with, their four children, each fire season, with the exception of only a few years. In his mid 80s now, he has become a living legend. His is a dying profession, because modern fire monitoring technologies are supplanting the human eye.

As residents of Colorado Springs, we enjoy occasional newspaper articles about the renowned fire tower lookout at Devil’s Head, a rocky promontory reportedly resembling Satan’s noggin from a few vantage points. This destination had long lingered and languished on our wish list until late June, when we finally saw it for ourselves. Though located less than 45 miles from the city as the crow flies, the trailhead lies off the rough and gravelly Rampart Range Road, and it took us nearly two hours to drive there. Out-of-the-way as it might be, its popularity has been growing exponentially, in lockstep with Colorado’s population, and the parking lot, albeit not full, contained many vehicles on the morning of our weekday visit.

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The 1.5 mile, tree-lined, narrow footpath sparkled with wildflowers, glittered with butterflies partaking of their sweet nectar, and resounded with birdsong, the melancholy tune of the Hermit Thrush audible above other voices. When we reached the flat area where Douglas Fir spread their verdant boughs over the couple’s home benignantly, we did not see the second famous local resident, Mrs. Margaret Ellis, but the towels drying on a clothesline in our low-humidity air bespoke her presence.

Huffing and puffing up 143 stairs rewarded us with 360 degree views from the tower, balanced like a raptor’s nest on the uppermost point. Its door was wide open, and inside the well-known lookout, binoculars at the ready, went about his business – the early espying of anything that resembles flickering flames or spiraling smoke, in order to activate a network of firefighters intent on preventing a potentially disastrous spread in our region suffering from a near decade-long drought. Despite an almost constant trickle of hikers, whose numbers approximate 40,000 annually, he greeted each party individually, and seemed more than willing to answer questions, and to pose for a photo.

I never tire of elevated places and bird’s eye views and suspect Mr. Ellis shares this sentiment. Despite the physical challenges of living at high altitude, off the grid, and without indoor plumbing for months at a time, and despite the daily demanding trek to his high post, he seemed completely in his element. May his quiet dignity and competence continue to be part of our local landscape and lore for as long as befits him and his wife, and may their future paths be smooth, sunny, and smoke-free.

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/08/15/ein-beruhmter-brandbeobachter/

Nebraska’s Ocean

Until the final two days of our May trip, we were not aware that Nebraska, a landlocked state, has its own ocean. Confused? So were we. If we had been blindfolded and dropped in this location, we might indeed have deemed ourselves at the beach of a vast sea, stretching from horizon to horizon. With our toes digging into fine sand and touching the edge of an immense body of water, we were able to relate to “Nebraska’s Ocean,” one of Lake McConaughy’s playful monikers (another is Big Mac), even after we learned that it is “only” the state’s largest reservoir, twenty-two miles long and four miles across at its widest point. Created by impounding the North Platte River behind Kingsley Dam which was constructed between 1936 and 1941, the reservoir provides and controls the water supply for agricultural use, and generates energy via a hydroelectric power plant.

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The lake has become a major destination for vacationers as it offers boating, fishing, hunting, and camping. With numerous campgrounds, particularly along its northern shore, the main difficulty for us in choosing a campsite would have been an embarrassment of riches. Instead, by following the suggestion of the friendly receptionist at the visitor center, we enjoyed the smaller and less busy Lake Ogallala campground at the foot of Kingsley Dam. A stiff breeze was blowing all afternoon on the day of our arrival, and an impressive storm illuminated the surrounding night sky, but only touched us with brief lightning, claps of thunder, and a few heavy droplets. In the wake of this unsettled front followed two calm nights and days.

    Our daytime hours were filled with birding, reading, writing, and simply hanging out to enjoy the scenery. As we traveled during the week before Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial beginning of the summer season, we knew we would have to deal with increasing numbers of campers, but we were fortunate to have considerate neighbors, so that all we heard at night were the hoots of owls and the shrieks of grebes. As Nebraska’s feathered denizens differ from Colorado’s, I relished the opportunity to familiarize myself with more Midwestern species.

My most memorable avian encounter happened not at Lake Ogallala, but at “Big Mac.” As one of the few inland breeding sites of a rare species, portions of the beach are off limits to human use during the summer months, but the birds in question occasionally venture outside. On our second evening, we took a couple hours to explore stretches of the north shoreline, where several had been sighted. After two or three unsuccessful stops, I made one last effort and strolled down to the water’s edge. Wishful thinking sometimes makes us see things that are not there, which was the first thought that crossed my mind when I saw a diminutive bird chase away a Killdeer, nearly twice its size. My heart skipped a beat when, staring through my binoculars, I grasped that I was, indeed, looking at a Piping Plover, one of an estimated 8,400 individuals worldwide, all of which live in the Americas. Of the two existing populations, one breeds at the Atlantic seaboard in the Northeast; another prefers lakeshores and rivers of the Great Lakes and the Great Plains. In the Great Lakes region, they are considered threatened; in the other two endangered. Adding this little lifer was a big deal, and, according to my husband, my formerly tenuous mood improved immediately. I hate it when he is right!

To avoid the weekend crowd, we slowly packed up on Friday morning, then bid Nebraska goodbye, grateful for a week packed with many new impressions and much food for thought.

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 a number of 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 multiple 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 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.

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.