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/

A Haven In Peril

It was only in May of this year that I made the acquaintance of Cross Creek Regional Park in Fountain, a small town about 10 miles south of our home in Colorado Springs. The park’s main feature is a reservoir with surrounding wetlands, but it also borders on prairie. In an area where this combination of habitats is getting increasingly scarce, it acts as a magnet not only for waterfowl and shorebirds, but also for grassland birds, and a variety of additional species.

The views are lovely. Looking west, water dominates the foreground, a row of multi-hued houses reminiscent of some coastal fishing town line the middle, and the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains rules the background, with Pikes Peak presiding over its neighbors. In the east, open meadows still fill the spaces between private lots.

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Even though a well-trodden trail circles the pond, a soccer field and playground occupy one boundary, and houses encroach on the park from multiple directions, it has been the site of many wildlife encounters for me, with feathered friends first and foremost, but not exclusively. As the sky brightens into day, or darkens into night, the dawn and dusk avian chorus swells, in which my favorite Western Meadowlarks not infrequently play the first violin.

There are rumors that major changes are ahead for this vibrant oasis, and while the declared goal is to enlarge the existing body of water to enhance recreation, it is not clear how this will affect the adjacent wetlands, which might be wiped out, at least in the short run. More trails will attract more people, with more dogs, that far too often run off leash and harass wild critters. If boats were allowed on the lake, it would completely change the character of this location. Where would all the animals go that call the pond, the reeds and the sedges, the nearby trees and bushes, the adjacent fields home? I am fearful that we will lose another wildlife refuge to so-called progress and unchecked population growth. I hope my fears will be proven wrong, but a part of me already mourns the possible modifications looming in the future.

Colorado’s Jays

What is in a name? Nomenclature does not necessarily follow the rules of logic. Common names of animals might or might not be related to scientific names, and might or might not be intuitive. Let’s explore the names of five different jays that occur in Colorado. Members of the corvid family (Corvidae), they are among the smartest birds, and, I think, among the most handsome and entertaining.

The Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), is a recent resident of Colorado, having expanded its range from the eastern United States only in the last one to two decades. Cyanocitta cristata can be translated as blue-crested chattering bird (kyáneos: Greek for blue, kitta: Greek for chattering bird, crista: Latin for crest). Chattering is an understatement, as it often announces its presence unabashedly and vociferously, with a clarion call, though its extensive repertoire also includes a lovely fluting melody. It is a great vocal mimic and seems to particularly enjoy posing as a Red-tailed Hawk, confusing other birds and birders. Its name is somewhat unfortunate, as there are a number of blue jays that are not Blue Jays.

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)/Blauhäher

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)/Blauhäher

The Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri ) is dressed in darker shades of blue and black, and was first described by German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709-1746), after whom the Steller’s Sea Cow and Steller’s Sea Eagle were also named. It, too, has a crest, which is more conspicuous than the Blue Jay’s, so I think that Cyanocitta cristata would be a more apt appellation than Cyanocitta stelleri, but I am afraid that I am a few centuries too late to submit a proposal to the naming committee.

Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)/Diademhäher

Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)/Diademhäher

The Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii), also clad in blue, is a resident of dry scrub oak-juniper habitat. It was designated a separate species from the California Scrub Jay and the Island Scrub Jay only in 2016, all three of them having formerly been lumped together as Western Scrub Jays. Its scientific name pays tribute to Samuel Washington Woodhouse (1821-1904), American surgeon, explorer, and naturalist, and emphasizes the fact that it has simple hair, or simple feathers (in Greek, apheles means simple, and coma hair), because their feathers lack stripes or bands.

Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii)/Woodhouse Buschhäher

Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii))/Woodhouse Buschhäher

Completing the Colorado blue quartet, the Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus) loves pinyon pine forests, and is the most gregarious among the bunch, occurring predominantly in noisy flocks. Its scientific name should trigger some neurons. We already know that kyaneos means blue in Greek, and can derive that kephalus means head, from words like encephalitis (an inflammation of the encephalon: the organ inside the head). Gymnorhinus tells us that it has a naked nose (gymnós: Greek for naked, rhinus: Greek for nose), as the base of its beak is featherless. This makes it singularly suited to probe pine cones heavy with pitch, which would mess up the feathers present on the beaks of other jays.

Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus)/Nacktschnabelhäher

Last, but not least: the Canada Jay. Not blue! After being known as Gray Jay for many years, despite its scientific name Perisoreus canadensis, its common name was brought in line only in the summer of 2018. Other fun designations hint at its rascally behavior and include Whisky Jack and, very aptly, camp robber. No sooner do we stop for a picnic in the mountains than a few appear like gray ghosts seemingly out of nowhere. They are known to rummage through camps in search of edibles. The genus name is likely derived from the Greek perisōreuō (to bury underneath, or to heap up), and highlights the fact that they cache their food, which helps them survive the harsh winter months in their year-round high-elevation or northern boreal forest habitats, where they also lay eggs in freezing temperatures.

Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)/Meisenhäher

Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)/Meisenhäher

Blue or gray, flat-headed or topped with a crown, shy or companionable, I love all our jays and delight in observing them at the feeder, or out in the wild.

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.