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.

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.

Mural Magic

While I have never stayed as an overnight guest at our local 5-star Broadmoor Hotel, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2018, I occasionally treat myself to coffee and cake in one of its cafés. This pretext enables me to walk the tastefully-landscaped grounds, to enjoy views of nearby Cheyenne Mountain, and to admire a graceful pair of Mute Swans in the property’s central lake. The establishment is known for the artwork that adorns the interior and ambling through its corridors is like walking through a museum. Paintings and statues celebrate the history of the American West and make it easy to while away hours.

Obwohl ich noch nie in unserem hiesigen Fünfsternehotel “Broadmoor”, das 2018 sein 100-jähriges Jubiläum feierte, übernachtet habe, verwöhne ich mich gelegentlich mit Kaffee und Kuchen in einem seiner Cafés. Dieser Vorwand ermöglicht es mir, durch die geschmackvoll gestaltete Gartenanlage zu spazieren, die Sicht auf den nahegelegenen Berg, Cheyenne Mountain, zu genießen, und ein graziles Schwanenpaar auf dem zentral gelegenen See zu bewundern. Das Etablissement ist für seine Kunstsammlung bekannt, und durch seine inneren Hallen zu wandeln, ähnelt einem Besuch in einer Kunstgalerie. Gemälde und Plastiken feiern die Geschichte des amerikanischen Westens, und lassen Stunden wie im Fluge vergehen.

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

I never visit without directing my steps to a cozy corner whose walls are beautified by a delightful mural. Examples of our regional flora are exquisitely and lovingly rendered, and while I feast on the colorful blossoms, a number of winged creatures do the same in their own way.

Meine Ausflüge dorthin sind ohne das Aufsuchen einer gemütlichen, von einem wunderschönen Wandgemälde verzierten Ecke nicht komplett. Vertreter unserer hiesigen Flora werden in liebevollem Detail dargestellt, und während ich mich an den farbenprächtigen Blüten auf meine Art labe, tut es mir eine Anzahl beschwingter Kreaturen auf ihre Weise gleich.

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

Winter Fun

Colorado’s Rockies are home to our favorite winter getaway – Snow Mountain Ranch. Owned and operated by the YMCA of the Rockies, the retreat welcomes members and nonmembers alike. Among the too-numerous-to-list activities are snowshoe hikes, dog sled tours, and horse-drawn sleigh rides, but our 75 main reasons to visit are as many miles of fabulous Nordic ski trails that are carved into the snow during most “normal” winters, owing to the property’s elevation of 8,750 feet, or higher.

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Its 2,800 acres have been set aside from development thanks to a conservation easement, and provide a home to many non-human denizens. We regularly see birds, and sporadically squirrels, foxes, or even weasels. In an almost-total transformation, the latter replace their brown summer with a snow-colored winter coat, to blend in nearly seamlessly into the background, were it not for their black tail tips. Unfortunately, I have never been able to capture one on “film.” On occasion, we happen across big, boisterous ungulates. During a trip earlier this month, while huffing up the final hill to the Nordic Center, I notice three tall, dark shapes out of the corner of my eye. I dash to the car to grab my camera, but soon realize that my worry is superfluous, as the three male moose, recognizable by their antlers, are in no hurry. They are sparring – clanging their shovel-like head projections against one another – in what appears a playful manner, as it is not mating season, and there is no need to edge out competitors.

Often described as ungainly, I find moose handsome. Their physique is adapted to surviving in winter, as they have long, slender legs, and heavy, and heavily insulated, bodies. Once our trio’s scuffling ends, we watch those legs in action as they stalk through knee-deep snow. The animals’ destination is a cluster of willows, where they browse with their impressive muzzles. In summer their diet consists of willow buds and leaves, in addition to aquatic vegetation, but in winter they have to fill their tummies with woody twigs and conifer needles – a frugal, little nutritious fare that annually results in weight loss. The pendulous appendage dangling from the chin is known as bell, or dewlap, whose purpose remains unknown. Antlers, unlike the permanent horns of other animals, are temporary bony growths that sprout from the moose’s skulls in spring and summer, before they are shed during the winter. At least one of the bulls has already lost one antler, and the ones that remain are naked, their fuzzy covering, known as velvet, having long been sloughed off.

Three sparring male moose

Meanwhile, a crowd has gathered in front of the Nordic Center, and everybody is clicking away with camera or cell phone. As it is late in the afternoon, and a cloud cover compounds the short winter day, we watch the three companions work their way toward a stand of trees, where they might bed down for the night, which will be cold, long, and foodless. My husband and I pack up our gear and drive to our lodge, where we will find warmth, light, and plenty of food to fill our tummies.

Moonstruck

As high and low tides are the earth’s oceans’ response to the moon’s gravity on a large scale, so are women’s menstrual cycles on a smaller scale. Whether we are greatly or hardly affected by our close (relatively speaking) cosmic neighbor, whether it depresses or impresses us, it has inspired humankind since we have had the capacity to observe its wanderings across the sky. Long before we understood that it revolves around the earth, as the earth does around the sun, we tried to explain its regular appearances and disappearances.

In ancient Greek mythology, the moon was thought to represent the Goddess Selene riding her silver chariot across the firmament at night, just as her brother, Sun God Helios, moved across the day sky in his golden chariot. The scientific terms selenology and selenography (the astronomical study of the moon, and the study of the physical features of the moon, respectively), still commemorate that divine lady of the night.

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Our ancestors prayed or sacrificed to it, or joined wild canines in howling at it. January’s first full moon is known as Wolf Moon, named after the hungry wolves that vocally lament scarce food offerings in the midst of the coldest and darkest month of the year. Its monthly waxing and waning are obvious to anybody who takes the time to gaze at the heavens, and special celestial events, such as eclipses, have always brought out admirers, just as it did a few days ago, when a Wolf Moon, which was simultaneously a Super Moon (a full moon that appeared larger and brighter, as its orbit reached the perigee, the shortest possible distance from the earth), was involved in a total lunar eclipse, thereby being transformed into a Blood Moon (in which the fully eclipsed moon took on a reddish color).

I am not one to set my alarm at 3 o’clock in the morning to witness most astronomical happenings, but I like to be aware of the lunar cycles. Even before I learned about this month’s planetary spectacle, I had sorted through some of my old moon photographs to prepare a blog post. As the sky in Colorado Springs was clear on January 20, and I did not have to set my alarm for the middle of the night, I was able to add a few additional lunar impressions to share with my follow moon lovers.

Complete lunar eclipse and Blood Moon (as “blood-red” as it gets with my limited technical skills)

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.