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.

Meet Ice Artist, Winter River

Not many artists work in ice. The material is too unpredictable, unreliable, tricky to handle, cold to touch, evanescent. There is no guarantee that it will keep its shape. But when it does, it represents pure perfection.

Winter River is one of the few artists who not only works in ice, he does so masterfully. He creates instantaneously, rushes into it headlong. Effortlessly he applies a basic coat to his canvas, then touches his whimsical brush where he pleases. He sprinkles additional layers here and there, sprays the branches of some adjacent trees, dips others repeatedly until they are wholly glazed.

Winter River works tirelessly night and day. Though not dependent on the sun, when the two cooperate, the river’s masterwork luminesces with a light on loan from the heavens.

Ice artist, Winter River, knows that the less commonplace his designs, the better they are liked. He does not hold back when he creates, but like many fickle artists, might be here one day and gone the next, which is why now is the time to watch him paint.

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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)

To enlarge a photo, click on it.

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.”

Wintry Impressions

Winter solstice is rapidly approaching, the meteorologic beginning of the fourth season. While the attendant cold, muted colors, and reduced avian activity render this time of year less attractive to many, in one respect winter’s beauty is unrivaled.

Die Wintersonnenwende nähert sich mit rasenden Schritten, und mit ihr der meteorologische Beginn der vierten Jahreszeit. Auch wenn der Winter wegen kälterer Temperaturen, blasser Farben, und verminderter Vogelaktivität bei vielen unbeliebt ist, ist seine Schönheit in einer Hinsicht unübertroffen.

Is there any visible substance in nature more marvelously magical than snow? Smart brains have long unraveled the mysteries of the astounding transmutation of water into hexagonal crystals, but physical explanations do not lessen the magic.

Gibt es eine sichtbare Substanz in der Natur, die mysteriöser ist als Schnee? Kluge Köpfe haben schon vor langem das Geheimnis der schier unglaublichen Transmutation von Wasser in hexagonale Krystalle gelöst, aber physikalische Erklärungen vermindern nicht den Zauber.

The magic of translucent structures that appear white when they fall gently from the sky, that cover the dull grays and browns with a snowy comforter, that shine, shimmer, and scintillate in the sun.

The magic of utter silence during a snowfall.

The magic of awakening to a world blanketed in purity, all its stains temporarily concealed.

Den Zauber durchsichtiger Strukturen, die als weiße Flocken vom Himmel fallen, die das stumpfe Grau und Braun mit einem Federbett bedecken, die in der Sonne glänzen, glitzern und glimmern.

Den Zauber völliger Stille während eines Schneefalls.

Den Zauber, des Morgens aufzuwachen, und eine reine Welt vor Augen zu haben, deren dunkle Flecken zeitweise verborgen sind.

In the wake of two November snowfalls, I captured a few snowy scenes. Along the Front Range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, where we make our home, an intense sun usually melts most of the white splendor within days, unlike in the mountains.

Im November habe ich nach zwei Schneefällen einige verschneite Szenen festgehalten. Im Vorgebirge der Colorado Rocky Mountains, wo wir leben, schmilzt eine intensive Sonne die weiße Pracht meist innerhalb von Tagen, anders als in den Bergen.

This second collage contains wintry impressions from Germany. My dad and I have long hiked a trail that skirts the Donnersberg (literally Thunder Mountain), the Palatinate region’s highest mountain at 2,254 feet. On an early December day one year ago, we were greeted by a frosty wonderland.

Die zweite Kollage enthält winterliche Impressionen aus Deutschland. Mein Vater und ich lieben seit langem einen Wanderpfad entlang der Flanke des Donnersbergs, dem mit 687 Metern höchsten Berg der Nordpfalz. An einem frühen Dezembertag vor einem Jahr wurden wir von einer frostigen Wunderlandschaft begrüßt.

To us Northern hemisphere dwellers I wish a joyful winter, and a happy summer to our southern counterparts.

Ich wünsche uns Bewohnern der nördlichen Hemisphäre einen frohen Winter, und unseren Pendants auf der südlichen Halbkugel einen schönen Sommer.

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.

Hornbek Homestead

No less striking than the buildings that line the road a few miles south of Colorado’s mountain town Florissant, is the picture of their former owner. Taking into account that photographers in the 19th century asked their subjects not to smile, the portrait of Adeline Hornbek, née Warfield (1833-1905), had always inspired respect, even before I knew about her personal challenges and accomplishments.

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This was no ordinary woman, as her biography attests. Hailing from Massachusetts, she came to Colorado in 1861 with her husband, Simon Harker, and two young children, to seek a cure for his medical ills, presumably tuberculosis. They settled and farmed near the newly-founded Denver, where Adeline became a widow in 1864, not long after the birth of their third child. As a single mother, she raised and provided for her three offspring, purchased her own homestead in 1866, married once again, then bore a fourth child in 1870. Five years later, Elliott Hornbek disappeared, possibly to return to a previous wife back east, whom he had failed to mention to Adeline.

Little is known about the family’s fortunes in the following years, but in 1878, Adeline bought land in the picturesque Florissant Valley, about 35 miles west of Colorado Springs, and became a successful rancher and businesswoman. Instead of a simple dwelling, she commissioned a two-story house from a master craftsman, and added several outbuildings, as well as a root cellar across a meadow, where foodstuffs were kept cool. The proximity of a creek and digging of a well ensured a steady water supply, and the family raised chickens and cattle, and most certainly owned horses for work and transportation. To supplement her income, Adeline worked in the nearby Florissant Mercantile.

The Hornbek parlor was a popular gathering place for friends and neighbors, and Adeline was active on the local school board. At age of 66, she married a third time, Frederick Sticksel, a German immigrant, but did not change her name again. She died at age 72 from probable stroke (“paralysis”).

The Hornbek Homestead was preserved for posterity once the National Park Service acquired the land that is now part of the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Adeline’s handsome, restored residence, and several outbuildings that were typical of the era but once stood in different locations, beckon for a visit each time we make the journey up to Florissant. This summer, we first learned about Adeline’s final resting place at Four Mile Cemetery, about five miles from her former home, and paid homage to her by visiting her grave.

Adeline Hornbek, as her photograph suggests, was indeed a formidable woman. Her grit and determination have my full admiration.

‘Tis The Season

‘Tis The Season… /Es ist die Zeit…

… for the days to shorten, and the nights to lengthen…

… für kürzere Tage und längere Nächte

… for the summer heat to be replaced by cool days and even cooler nights…

… in der die Hitze des Sommers mit kühlen Tagen und noch kühleren Nächten ersetzt wird

… for a last burst of color, before the plants shed their habiliments and show their equally attractive skeletons…

… für die letzte Farbexplosion der Pflanzen, bevor sie ihre Kostüme abwerfen, und uns ihre ebenso attraktiven Skelette zeigen

… for the decaying vegetation to transform itself into fertilizer and a rotten perfume that is nonetheless pleasing to the olfactory cortex…

… in der die Vegetation verrottet und sich in Dünger verwandelt, und trotzdem ein dem Riechhirn angenehmes Parfüm versprüht

… for the ripening of fruits and seeds that help nourish animals and humans alike…

… der reifenden Früchte und Samen, die Tiere und Menschen gleichermaßen nähren

… to mourn the disappearance of migratory birds, but to warmly welcome our winter guests…

… um das Verschwinden der Zugvögel zu betrauern, doch gleichzeitig unsere Wintergäste mit offenen Armen zu begrüßen

… to remember Colorado Springs resident and farmer, Nick Venetucci (1911-2004), aka “The Pumpkin Man,” who derived great pleasure from giving away thousands of these most iconic symbols of fall to local children each year, and who was commemorated with a beautiful monument adjacent to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum…

… Herrn Nick Venetucci (1911-2004) zu gedenken, der auch als „der Kürbisherr“ bekannt war, und dem es großes Gefallen bereitete, jahrelang diese ikonischen Herbstsymbole tausendfach an Kinder zu verschenken, und der mit einem wunderschönen Denkmal neben dem Colorado Springs Heimatmuseum geehrt wurde

… to wish happy autumn to us all…

uns allen einen schönen Herbst zu wünschen…