Highway Of Miracles

It doesn’t take much for my equanimity to be disturbed, sad to say. During my return from a birding trip to New Mexico in late April, where I had been caught unawares when the thermometer climbed above 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius), I was taken equally by surprise by a gathering bank of clouds that eventually spanned the entire firmament from Albuquerque to the state line, before it released squalls of rain and billowing clouds of fog. Associated gusts of wind and an unpropitious weather forecast for the coming night made me choose a motel in southern Colorado over a cold, wet night in the tent. Big mistake!

After a week of camping, I underestimated the horror of replacing a billowy tent with an enclosed room, a constant flow of fresh air with sealed windows, the nocturnal hooting of owls with the constant drone of trucks on the nearby interstate, my firm sleeping pad with an overly soft mattress. I tossed and turned during each expensive hour and could not wait to hit the road again by 6 AM.

I was still squabbling with myself for having overpaid for my uninviting accommodations, and berating myself for being a fair-weather camper, not quite sure how to get over myself. Leave it to southern Colorado’s Highway Of Legends to put me to shame, and pull me out of my foul, sleep-deprived mood by gently but insistently reminding me of nature’s beauty and grace, in a way that even my curmudgeonly self could not ignore.

Early into the 82 mile (132 kilometer) route between the towns of Trinidad and Walsenburg, one of the West’s most striking woodpeckers, a Lewis’s, which I had not seen in ages, clang to a utility pole right next to the road, but my brain registered its presence only after I had already passed it. A quick glance in the rearview mirror revealed no cars. I engaged the brakes, shifted into reverse, then pulled over to take a few photos, unable to prevent a smile.

Not long after my woodpecker surprise, complemented by additional animal appearances, I happened upon a herd of at least 100 elk crossing the highway. Seemingly without effort, they leapt across the fences that lined both sides of the road. Most of them threw me wary glances while they kept trotting, but one bull stopped to show himself in his regal stance. I alone witnessed their move from a wintry meadow to one clad in vernal apparel.

My rainy day in New Mexico had translated into a brief burst of winter in this part of Colorado, as I experienced mile after scenic mile on my way to Cuchara Pass at nearly 10,000 feet (3000 meters). By then, my real or imagined grievances were forgotten and I realized that the timing of the day’s encounters only worked out because of where and when I had started out that morning. I was entirely enchanted and utterly happy to be present right there and then, on my Highway of Miracles.

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I will take a break from blogging for at least three weeks as I will be traveling abroad. My apologies if I won’t get around to reading and liking your posts. Thank you for your understanding and Happy May to all of us!

Earth Still Spins

Some destinations exert a magnetic force, compelling us to return time and again. New Mexico’s Villanueva State Park is one such destination for me. Reachable only by a little-traveled county road, it is situated at the end of a fertile valley first frequented by Paleo-Indians and farmed in more recent centuries by Hispanic settlers, with water provided gratis by an early stretch of Pecos River, between its origin in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and its eventual destiny in Texas—the mighty Rio Grande.

During my most recent visit in late April, not only do I travel a distance of nearly 300 miles (480 kilometers) south, I also journey into a more advanced stage of spring, with budding or blossoming trees and shrubs, a few blooming wildflowers, and pleasing temperatures, conducive to sleeping in a tent. The park’s campground is hemmed in by towering walls of sandstone carved by the stream and clad with the juniper-pinyon community typical of vast expanses of the arid Southwest. Rocky trails lead to various overlooks with views that touch infinity. The rushing river, swelled by snowmelt in the highlands, provides constant background music, to which resident and early migratory birds add their joyful voices.

It is a place permeated by a sense of timelessness, even though I am swept up in its daily arc far more than at home: Up and down with the sun, active early in the morning and late in the afternoon, with decreased activity during the heat of the day, like many fellow critters. The more egregious and topsy-turvy the man-made world, the more I long to be reassured that the earth is still spinning around its axis, that flora and fauna still follow their age-old rhythms. We would do well to heed Mother Nature’s mostly patient and persistent, but recently more urgent, pointers that to ignore those rhythms is to do so at our peril and to our detriment.

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Time To Say Goodbye

…to our winter waterfowl. Most overwintering species have taken off in the last several weeks for their breeding grounds in more northern latitudes, even though a few stragglers are still lingering, and some will not leave at all.

Es ist an der Zeit, auf Wiedersehen zu unseren Winterwassergästen zu sagen. Die meisten hier überwinternden Entenarten haben sich in den vergangenen Wochen in nördlichere Gefilde zu ihren Brutstätten aufgemacht, obwohl einige noch hinterherhinken, und manche uns überhaupt nicht verlassen werden.

Time not only to say goodbye, but thank you. When many birds fly south and leave a gaping void in autumn, this void is filled, at least partly, by the arrival of an assortment of ducks, whose presence brightens the short, dark days of my least favorite season.

Es ist nicht nur an der Zeit, auf Wiedersehen zu sagen, sondern auch Dankeschön. Denn wenn viele unserer Vögel im Herbst gen Süden fliegen, und eine gähnende Leere hinterlassen, wird diese Leere wenigstens teilweise von einer Auswahl an Enten gefüllt, deren Präsenz die kurzen, dunklen Tage meiner unbeliebtesten Jahreszeit erhellen.

I will not provide details about life cycles or migratory routes of the individuals presented here, which are available in any printed or online birding guide, other than to say that most ducks who spend the winter here, arrive between September and November, and leave again between February and April, when they point their beaks north, some as far north as the Canadian or Alaskan Arctic, where they will mate, incubate their eggs, and care for their young.

Ich beschränke mich auf wenige Details der Lebenszyklen und Wanderrouten der hier vorgestellten Individuen, die in jedem gedruckten oder computerbasierten Vogelführer zu finden sind. Die meisten Entenvögel, die hier den Winter verbringen, kommen zwischen September und November an, und verlassen uns zwischen Februar und April. Dann richten sie ihre Schnäbel gen Norden, teilweise bis ins arktische Kanada oder Alaska, wo sie sich paaren, ihre Gelege hüten, und ihren Nachwuchs aufziehen.

Without having conducted any scientific research or consulted any statistical data, my impression is that Mallards are the most common ducks not only in El Paso County, but possibly in the country. They are year-round residents, but I include them in my review because the males’ conspicuous colors and the females’ conspicuous quacks are a joy to behold any time of the year.

Ohne wissenschaftliche Studien betrieben oder statistische Tabellen konsultiert zu haben, sind Stockenten wahrscheinlich die häufigsten Enten nicht nur hier im Bezirk, sondern im ganzen Land. Sie gehören zu unseren Standvögeln, aber ich erwähne sie trotzdem, weil die bunten Farben des Erpels und das auffällige Quaken seiner Dame zu jeglicher Jahreszeit Freude bereiten.

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Zum Vergrößern, das Bild bitte anklicken. Um den Titel zu lesen, mit der Maus darüber schweben.

 Gadwall might be the least distinctive of all our ducks, but I like their understated style.

Schnatterenten zählen vielleicht zu den unauffälligsten Enten, aber mir gefällt ihr dezenter Stil.

American Wigeons always put me in a good mood. The males have a gorgeous green eye patch and white crown, a feature responsible for their old name, “baldpate.” Their whistling calls enliven any winter lake.

Nordamerikanische Pfeifenten machen immer gute Laune. Die Männchen haben einen großartigen grünen Augenstreif und eine weiße Krone, die für ihren alten Namen, Kahlkopf, verantwortlich war. Ihr Pfeifen belebt jeden winterlichen See.

Any bird with a head this color will automatically become a favorite: Meet the Redhead.

Jeglicher Vogel mit einer solchen Kopffärbung ist automatisch beliebt. Darf ich vorstellen: Die Rotkopfente.

Canvasbacks resemble Redheads, but note the different shape of the head. I think they look particularly graceful.

Riesentafelenten ähneln Rotkopfenten, doch ist die Kopfform unterschiedlich. Ich finde sie besonders graziös.

Ruddy Ducks are only ruddy during the breeding season when the male is nearly red (see first photo) with a blue beak (see second photo).

Schwarzkopf-Ruderenten sind nur während der Brutsaison rot (siehe erstes Photo), und das Männchen bekommt einen blauen Schnabel (siehe zweites Photo).

Lesser Scaup are quite common and can be confused with their cousin, Greater Scaup. I have trouble telling them apart. I think these are Lesser Scaup. 🙂

Kleine Bergenten sind häufig zu sehen und können mit (Großen) Bergenten verwechselt werden. Ich glaube, hier handelt es sich um kleine. 🙂

Ring-necked Ducks are similarly patterned as Lesser Scaup, but notice the white vertical crescent along the flank of the male. They should really be called Ring-billed Ducks, as the ring around the neck can only be seen when the bird is dead, and the ring around the beak when the bird is alive.

Halsringenten ähneln kleinen Bergenten, aber die Männchen haben einen weißen vertikalen Halbmond an der Flanke. Ringschnabelente wäre eine bessere Bezeichnung, denn der Ring am Hals ist nur an toten Enten zu sehen, doch der Ring am Schnabel, an lebendigen.

Common Goldeneye do their name justice.

Schellenten machen ihrem Namen im Englischen Ehre (Goldaugen). Ich weiß nicht, worauf sich der deutsche Name bezieht. 

Bufflehead are so called because the massive bulbous head of the male reminded someone of buffalo. They are great divers and seem to spend more time under the water than on top.

Büffelkopfenten erinnerten die ersten Beschreiber an Büffel. Sie sind gute Taucher und scheinen mehr Zeit unter Wasser zu verbringen als obendrauf.

Common Mergansers are anything but common. The classy appearance of the three males gliding through the featured photo above, as well as the females’ headdress should convince you, too.

Gänsesäger sind bemerkenswert, wie die klassischen Klamotten der Herren ganz oben im Bild und der fantastische Kopfputz der Damen beweisen.

Hooded Mergansers also wear great hairdos and are a beautiful adornment to any body of water.

Auch Kappensäger haben faszinierende Frisuren und sind Zierde eines jeglichen Gewässers.

Green-winged Teals are our smallest ducks, but this can only be appreciated when seen next to other waterfowl.

Amerikanische Krickenten sind unsere kleinsten Enten, aber das sieht man eigentlich nur im Vergleich mit anderen Wasservögeln.

Northern Pintails are elegance personified. Enough said.

Spießenten sind von erlesener Eleganz. Mehr ist dazu nicht zu sagen.

Last, but not least, Northern Shovelers. The size of their bills is astounding. They often go round and round in circles while dabbling in the water, which has led me to call them the “Whirling Dervishes.”

Zu guter Letzt: Löffelenten. Ihre Schnäbel sind frappant. Sie drehen sich so oft im Kreis während sie gründeln, daß ich sie tanzende Derwische getauft habe.

Spring migration, while it promises the arrival of those feathered friends that left us last fall, also means the departure of our darling ducks. It’s time not only to say goodbye and thank you, but also good luck. Good luck with all the challenges that await you. I hope with all my heart to welcome you and your offspring again later this year.

Auch wenn der Frühjahrszug die Ankunft der gefiederten Freunde verheißt, die uns vergangenen Herbst verlassen haben, bedeutet er auch die Abreise unserer entzückenden Enten. Es ist nicht nur an der Zeit, auf Wiedersehen und Dankeschön zu sagen, sondern auch viel Glück. Viel Glück mit all den Herausforderungen, die auf Euch warten. Ich hoffe von ganzem Herzen, Euch und Euren Nachwuchs später im Jahr wieder willkommen zu heißen.

Thus Endeth March

I should be accustomed to Colorado’s idiosyncratic climate by now, but it still takes me by surprise. The last week of March was a case in point. Maybe the month had lost track of time, or wanted to prove that it, too, can be as moody as changeling April. Monday started mild, with seasonal temperatures and friendly weather, but by Thursday, we approached near record-breaking 70 + degrees Fahrenheit and a risk of prairie fires in parts of the state because of associated winds. While most of us gratefully swiveled our faces toward the warm sun like the blossoms of the few blooming flowers, we were forewarned to gird ourselves against the vicissitudes of the season.

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Sure enough, Friday brought clouds and a chill, driving everybody back indoors. A thunderclap announced more impending changes. Small (thank goodness) kernels of hail, and a tornado that touched down about 25 miles east of here, were the first harbingers of unsettled spring conditions, but were followed by a reminder that winter is not yet willing to give up its rule entirely, when a few hours later, wet, heavy flakes dropped from a low, gray sky. Frosty Saturday did not bring a single glimpse of the sun. On Sunday, the last day of March, it managed to burn a window into the clouds for a few hours, before a somber veil was once again pulled across the sky, which released intermittent squalls of snow.

Is it any wonder that one’s emotions follow the ups and downs of this meteorologic roller-coaster ride? Spring at the fringe of the Rocky Mountains seems a long time coming. Nightly frosts retard the growth of plants, and winter’s desiccated vegetation still dominates the scenery. There are hopeful hues of greening grass, and the hyacinths and daffodils in front of the house have unfurled their pretty petals—only to have their noses bitten by frost, as is the case each year. The wildflowers know better, and are not fooled by wrong promises.

Spring migration, always a balm for the soul, has not yet fully started. Each new avian arrival is greeted with a happy heart, but the number of new birds does not yet equal or surpass that of the birds that have left us, or soon will leave us, for their summer breeding grounds.

This transitional time is a time for sad goodbyes and impatient restlessness, but also for hopeful expectations and cautious optimism. Hope springs eternal.

Moving toward spring?/Dem Frühling entgegen?

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.