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.

Dressed For A Wedding

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

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

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

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

In short, a Duck Dressed For A Wedding.

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

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

Female with her stunning eyeshadow

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

Male with his multi-hued plumage

Female with never-before seen highlights

Rosy

I awake on the morning of December 24, Christmas Eve, thinking of Rosy Finches – what else?! A number of birders have reported a flock of these handsome little birds near a reservoir in the mountains, about 20 miles west of Colorado Springs. Snow in the forecast later in the week persuades me to set out to look for them today. I arrive at the trailhead shortly before eight in the morning, and begin the chilly two-mile trek on the snow-covered path through the forest before the sun has reached the tree tops. Part of my path parallels a creek that will eventually empty itself into the reservoir. Not unexpectedly, but nonetheless surprisingly, it has been transformed into the fascinating ribbon of ice art portrayed in last week’s post.

By the time I reach the reservoir, severely diminished by our ongoing drought, the solar rays peek across the trees and I find a sunny spot on the beach to take in the tranquil scenery. Not a ripple stirs the surface of the lake, not a breeze bends the boughs of the bare aspens and verdant conifers. Two fisherman, the only other humans visible, leave after a few minutes, and I am alone. It is perfectly quiet.

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Too quiet. I hear not a single bird, much less a gathering of two hundred. I do not remember when they were sighted on previous days, but when nothing happens after thirty minutes, I retrace my steps to a bridge that crosses to the opposite side of the creek and reservoir. I choose another spot in the sun and wait, scanning my surroundings. Patience is not one of my virtues, and after another half hour, I “resign” myself to a morning of outdoor exercise and winter beauty. As I stomp back through the snow toward the main trail, I raise my binoculars to my eyes one last time to survey the scene. My heart accelerates when I behold what, in summer, could be a swarm of insects. But not now. It is my hoped-for flock. The only problem: it is flying away from me. I run back to my previous viewing spot and plop down on the ground, trying to blend in, cautiously hopeful.

All of a sudden a trembling of wings is audible above my head. Remarkably, for an estimated 200 birds, their vocalizations are very soft. After circling a few times, they land on the beach – behind me, backlit by the sun. I can barely make out their shapes in the bright glare, but take a few photographs, hoping to be able to modify them sufficiently afterward. They are hyperactive little creatures, and the entire assembly rises repeatedly, only to settle again not far away.

I have nothing to lose, and decide to try to get between them and the sun. Gingerly I take a few steps. The flock takes off, but lands again. After a few repeats, I get the impression that their movements are not in response to my presence, but to some inherent rhythm unknown and unknowable to me. They keep their distance, but I can get in a better position to admire their delightful plumage which shows varying degrees of pink (my favorite color), depending on the species. What makes this charm of finches special is that it contains three different species that have congregated for the winter, whereas they occupy different ranges in summer.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches/Graukopf-Schneegimpel (Leucosticte tephrocotis)

Brown-capped Rosy-Finches/Braunkopf-Schneegimpel ( Leucosticte australis) in the foreground

Black Rosy-Finch/Schwarz-Schneegimpel (Leucosticte atrata) in right lower quadrant

As I marvel at these winged wonders in the solitude of this serene setting, I gratefully realize that I have already received my Christmas present.

Y’ Owl

2018 could have been our “Y’attler” (Year of the Rattler), as my husband and I had three separate encounters with said reptiles (click here to read about one of them). Because most humans (save herpetologists) prefer feathery to scaly animals, myself included, and because I also made the acquaintance of three new owl species, I designate 2018 my “Y’Owl,” my Year of the Owl, instead, and will show you portraits of owls, instead of rattlesnakes. You are welcome.

Of 216 global owl species, 20 typically occur in North America, and 14 in Colorado. Until a few months ago, I had only happened across six of them: Great-horned Owls, Long-eared Owls, Short-eared Owls, Barn Owls, Burrowing Owls, and Flammulated Owls. In the US, Elf Owls are the smallest, with a height of 5.75” (14.6 cm), Great Gray Owls the largest, standing 27” (68.6 cm) tall. Little or big, I find all owls equally charismatic. Their vision and hearing are superb, and their expressive eyes cast a spell over me. Attractive facial disks help channel sound waves to their ears, which are asymmetrically placed to help localize prey (the prominent feathery tufts on their heads are not ears). Their special feathers enable them to fly and approach their quarry nearly noiselessly. Mostly nocturnal, solitary, and stealthy, they have been ascribed traits that range from divine to devilish.

Great-horned Owls are, by far, the most widespread representatives in Colorado, and I am fortunate to see and photograph them regularly. The featured photo above and the second-to-last photo in the following series show adults on a nest, one on top of a tree, the other inside a tree cavity, where, a few months later, the owlet in the last picture made an appearance.

Great Horned Owl / Virginia-Uhu (Bubu virginianus)

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In the spring of 2018, I tried in vain to find a screech owl observed by many birders in El Paso County, but, discouraged, gave up after seven unsuccessful attempts. I did not actively pursue owling throughout most of the year, but when, in late November, I learned of an Eastern Screech-Owl in a park in one of Denver’s suburbs, I braved our capital city’s traffic and, thanks to the assistance of a local resident, who knew of its daytime roost, was able to find it. It was love at first sight. Superbly camouflaged, this little owl, with feathers fluffed, was snoozing after the previous night’s hunt, while soaking up sunshine on this cold morning, not the least disturbed by a nearby noisy weed whacker, and by four admirers, clicking away with our cameras.

Eastern Screech-Owl/ Ost-Kreischeule (Megascops asio)

Two days later, a similar scenario: a cool morning, an owl enjoying creature comforts by absorbing the warming rays of the sun. Again, the kindness of a stranger. When a passerby saw my husband and me scanning every single tree along a trail in Cañon City, where a Western Screech-Owl had been reported a few days earlier, he pointed it out to us. Even though we had an idea of the location of its perch, it blended in so well with the background that we might have overlooked it. I was elated to have beheld both species of screech owls within days of one another, but experienced an encore in December, when I caught a glimpse of possibly the same owl that had eluded me in the spring, in the very same tree where it had then been seen.

Western Screech-Owl/ West-Kreischeule (Megascops kenicottii)

Last, but not least – temporally speaking, it actually rang in the trio of novel encounters of the owlish kind – was an unplanned, unforeseen meeting with a Northern Pygmy Owl at the end of September during a hike at one of our local parks. Mobbed by a jay, it alighted for a brief moment not far from the trail, and afforded a brief side view only, before it disappeared back into the impenetrable forest whence it had emerged.

Northern Pygmy-Owl/ Gnomenkauz (Glaucidium gnoma)

 

Nine Colorado owls down, at least five to go. Maybe in 2019, maybe later, maybe never. Last year’s hits and misses reminded me that we can’t always get what we want (as the Rolling Stones figured out long ago), or when we want it, but that each year holds unexpected surprises. My wish for 2019: May the new year reveal new treasures to all of us.

 

PS: With thanks to my husband, who coined both “Y’attler” and “Y’Owl.”

Back To Nature

Wherever we gaze, natural habitat is vanishing. All of us are aware of the tragic destruction of rain forest, which not only creates, but also compounds global warming, as earth’s green lung is no longer available to inhale thermogenic carbon dioxide in the wonderful process of photosynthesis, which happens to exhale oxygen as an afterthought, in a way. Wetlands, on which countless animals and plants depend, are a second crucial environment that is disappearing at a dizzying pace. In the face of these losses, resignation, if not despair, is an understandable reaction. Fortunately, any restoration of life-giving spheres also restores a little glimmer of hope.

I have been heartened to learn of the success of several such projects during my previous sojourns in Germany. My roots lie in Rheinhessen, a region dominated by the Rhine River, as the name implies. Not far from the Rohrwiesen near the small town of Rheindürkheim (the topic of a previous post) lies a second sanctuary, called Eich-Gimbsheimer Altrhein (literally Old Rhine). A meandering stream for millennia, the Rhine was straightened in the 1820s, which left most of its loops to their own devices. Many dried up, but some, like the body of water in question, received sufficient quantities of water from the ground or skies, aided by occasional flooding of the stream. These inundations were subsequently prevented by the construction of a dam, and the marshes were drained and converted into arable land. The ground water level dropped further when wells were drilled to extract drinking water.

Happily, multi-pronged efforts in recent decades transformed the Old Rhine arm into a lake, and resurrected the adjacent wetlands. The 667 hectare area of this nature preserve forms part of the Natura 2000 network, an EU initiative that has as its goal the protection of threatened habitat, with its attendant plant and animal species. While it represents but a minuscule sliver of the surface of the earth, it has resulted in the flourishing of the local flora and fauna, and the provision of a way station for migratory birds. A 3.7 mile loop with several observation huts and towers circles and transects the parcel and affords glimpses of the Altrheinsee (Old Rhine Lake), of several water-filled gravel pits, of wetlands, of small pockets of swamp forest, and of the surrounding agricultural fields.

Because all my visits have happened in late autumn, I have yet to witness the full spectrum of vibrant life, and look forward to experiencing it in springtime. As modest as this haven might be, it nevertheless serves as an example of how we can save our planet, one baby step at a time.

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2018/12/11/zuruck-zur-natur/