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.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover the cursor over it.

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.

An Ode to Fountain Creek Regional Park

In recent years, the need to immerse myself in nature has become paramount. I feel fortunate that, despite Colorado’s growing population with its attendant problems, I still have access to spaces which promise solitude and an escape from continually calamitous news. One such refuge is Fountain Creek Regional Park, about eight miles south of our Colorado Springs home. It assumes a central role in my life and hardly a week goes by without a visit.

Starting as a county park in 1985, it has grown to its current size through gradual additions. The Fountain Creek Nature Center was completed in 1992, and expanded in 2014. Run by the devoted Nancy Bernard, a gaggle of paid staff, and a flock of volunteers, it fosters curiosity about the environment with its engaging exhibits, year-round youth programs, and an inviting trail system. Its incredibly scenic window and porch afford sweeping sights of our fourteener, Pikes Peak, and of its lower neighbors. Located at the boundary of the Great Plains and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the area benefits from the vital presence of water because it straddles our region’s largest stream, Fountain Creek. This provides live-giving liquid to a string of ponds with surrounding wetlands, and to copses of cottonwood trees with a dense understory, thereby creating a variety of habitats. Springtime with its lengthening days and warming temperatures engenders an eruption of greenery, fragrant bushes, and animal activity.

View of Pikes Peak from one of the ponds in the Cattail Marsh

The park is among El Paso County’s prime birding sites, and the number of reported species stands at 266 (according to ebird). Alas, I haven’t witnessed even half of that count, and some that were sighted decades ago likely won’t return during my lifetime. I make a game of assigning one signature bird to my favorite spots, and here, Red-winged Blackbirds rule the roost. Theirs are typically the first and most vociferous voices heard upon opening the car door in the nature center’s parking lot, because of the proximity of their realm, cattail marshes. The male’s squeaking and squealing sounds conspire with his curious comportment to garner attention. While balancing on top of a reed, he projects his head, pumps his arms, and fans his tail, communicating his earsplitting invitation to his companions.

Red-winged Blackbird, aka Superman in his cape

Blackbirds are not the exclusive exuberant and effusive members of the avifauna presently engaged in singing, feeding, mating, nest-building, or rearing their young, and with spring migration only ratcheting up, they will soon be joined by many more. Instead of attempting to enumerate all the uncommonly handsome callers, I will let a few photos speak for themselves.

Cooper’s Hawk

Belted Kingfisher: quite the hairdo

Great Horned Owl

White-faced Ibis

Great Blue Heron: a dude with a ‘tude

Plumed creatures are not the only tenants of this territory. Even though muskrats are theoretically nocturnal like their cousins, the beavers, they are diurnal enough to show their fuzzy faces in full daylight frequently. On warm days, turtles scramble onto exposed rocks. Available space is at a premium, and late-comers slide back into the pond to seek a sunny spot elsewhere. White-tailed Deer graze stretches of grassland but, to my surprise, even sample algae in shallow pools. Much squirrely commotion results in more photogenic moments. Rabbits browse in the underbrush and, no doubt, support the raptor population. Monarchs, and the park’s inspirational role in their preservation and propagation, were the topic of a previous post. A variety of butterflies and bees flutter and fly from blossom to perfumed blossom, filling the air with the faint flipping of their wondrous wings while performing the essential task of pollination.

Muskrat

Sunning turtles

White-tailed deer after an aquatic snack

Squirrel, also catching some rays

Doubtless, all this vibrancy is one of the reasons I crave this cherished sanctuary, where I can daily experience nature’s life-affirming powers which, in turn, make me feel more alive and hopeful.

Dedicated to my late mother-in-law, Hilda J. Britton (1928-2017), who loved Fountain Creek and Bear Creek Regional Parks so much, that she flew with the flock of volunteers for a number of years.

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/eine-ode-an-fountain-creek-regional-park

Milkweed and Monarchs

“The difference between a flower and a weed is a judgment.” Unknown

Imagine yourself as a beautiful orange and black Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), fluttering around the North American continent east of the Rocky Mountains. Come autumn, you embark on an incredible journey, traversing up to 3000 miles to the mountains of Mexico where, for eons, millions of your ancestors have congregated in oyamel fir trees for the winter. If you find enough trees to gather, plus nearby nectar to nourish you, and you survive until February or March, you mate and begin the return trip, but owing to your limited life span, will not complete it. If female, you lay eggs and pass into butterfly heaven, having fulfilled your life’s purpose.

Imagine yourself next as one of those eggs. Within four days, you hatch into a larva, or caterpillar, and feed ravenously, provided you were deposited on milkweed, whose leaves are your sole source of sustenance. You are oblivious to the fact that its sap is poisonous to many animals, but confers protection to yourself, by turning you into a toxic morsel.

Two weeks long you graze and grow, before your oblong, striated body transforms into an ephemeral, gem-like cylinder called chrysalis, translatable as golden pupa.

Following ten more days in this seemingly suspended state, you emerge as a wonderful winged being. By pumping bodily fluids into your crumpled wings they harden, and will lift you into the air.

After two repetitions of these developmental steps, occurring along a northbound route, the fourth generation of your kind will again end up where last year’s voyage started. This 4 x 4 life cycle, with four annual generations, each of which goes through four stages of metamorphosis, is as intricate as it is intriguing. It is possible because the fourth generation survives an astonishing 6 to 8 months, compared with 2 to 6 weeks for the previous three, enabling it to complete the odyssey back to the wintering grounds, and to commence the return flight the following spring.

Each phase of this cycle depends on the balance of countless factors. Sadly, global environmental degradation, deforestation in Mexico, and a paucity of food along the migratory path have caused the butterfly population to plummet. Milkweed is the lone plant which sustains larvae, but many locations show a glaring absence of that necessary nourishment because it has become the victim of personal and industrial herbicide use. In an unnatural twist, food crops have been genetically modified to become resistant to those herbicides, but milkweed has not, resulting in the eradication of the Monarchs’ crucial food source from immense stretches of agricultural areas. For further reading about the butterflies’ present-day dilemma of dwindling habitat, fare, and ranks, I recommend the Center of Food Safety’s Monarchs in Peril, and Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 wake-up-call, environmentally conscious novel, Flight Behavior.

Instead of despairing about our powerlessness to influence the big picture, each of us can play a positive part in this drama. With regard to milk ”weed”, more than 2000 species exist globally, and Colorado has at least six. Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is perhaps the best-known along the Front Range, but Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) also thrives. Colorful and showy, both are stunning to behold. Fountain Creek Nature Center has a meadow brimming with Common Milkweed, and if you have ever seen it in bloom in late summer, you know it is anything but common.

The nature center staff has, for years, offered glimpses into the transfiguration of Monarchs in a special display case. As a participant in and waystation of Monarch Watch, which monitors the annual migration, they tag the emerging butterfly with a sticker so light it doesn’t interfere with its flight.

They have, also for years, encouraged us gardeners to allow this precious “weed” into our gardens, where it will beautify our outlook and, it is hoped, invite some wandering Monarch to pause, or even to start a new circle of life, allowing our small gesture to make a big difference.

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/03/29/seidenpflanzen-und-schmetterlinge/

Where Do Babies Come From?

The dark point circling in the sky assumes shape, size, and color with diminishing distance, and soon I recognize a large white bird with long red legs and beak. Its head points straight forward, its white wings and black trailing feathers beat measuredly up and down. I am not the only one who anticipates its return. Before me, inside a stick nest on top of a tall pole, two nestlings flap their wings impatiently. Once the adult alights and regurgitates food, the offspring commence to devour it hungrily, while the regal elder surveys the surroundings. Luckily, at a distance of 100 yards I pose no threat, for all three ignore me.

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After five minutes, the adult takes off again and leaves the young ones to their own devices. Until the next visitation by mother or father, who are not easily distinguished at first glance (the males tend to have thicker and longer bills), the youths fill their time inside their nursery by sitting, pacing or pumping their wings in preparation for the day in the not too distant future when they will fledge. They observe their environs and a cock crowing nearby captures their attention. Their heads turn in synchrony toward that sound, rendering their black beaks obvious, a contrast to the adults’ bright red ones.

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I know of this White Stork nest in the southern portion of Hessen in West-Central Germany from a previous visit. In June 2015 I reach it by first ferrying across the Rhine River from my childhood home in Rheinhessen, and by riding 5 miles on my bike. I am thrilled to find it occupied again, and elated to observe clusters of storks in the sky overhead. Ten individuals suddenly descend, land behind a tractor, and follow its wake, where they pierce whatever scuttles underneath their beaks.

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Culinarily not choosy, their menu includes earthworms, insects, fish, frogs, snakes and small rodents. Nearby, in the town of Biebesheim, I find the explanation for their abundance when I happen across an animal refuge which is home to a stork colony. The air is filled with the sounds and sights of storks. They are coming and going, feeding, and clattering their elegant bills. This latter activity translates as klappern and is responsible for one of many common German names of this beloved creature, Klapperstorch.

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White Storks typically lay three to four eggs, and in times of abundance as many as seven, but only two to three hatchlings survive into adulthood. After 33 days they emerge from the eggs and the nestlings mature for two months before they take flight. Called European White Storks, their distribution is not limited to that continent. Breeding also occurs in Asia Minor and the various flocks migrate to their wintering grounds in Africa. This happens in two distinct patterns. From Western Europe they fly across the Straits of Gibraltar to West Africa, whereas eastern groups follow a route across Turkey, the Bosporus Strait, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Gulf of Suez to reach East and South Africa. The flight path across the Mediterranean Sea, albeit much shorter, is not feasible because it lacks the required thermal uplifts which are only generated where soil is heated by sun.

Growing up in Germany forty years ago I never encountered wild storks. This did not prevent me from following a folk custom related to me by my grandparents. To encourage the birds to bring me a sibling, I placed many a sugar cube on the windowsill. Sadly, it didn’t work. In school in the 1980s, I learned that these magnificent avians were threatened by extinction and their future appeared dire. All the more welcome the news that their numbers have not only stabilized, but have grown in the last decades, in Western even more than in Eastern Europe.

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This recovery of their ranks is at least partially attributable to changing migratory patterns (many of the storks overwinter on the Iberian peninsula where they find enough food, instead of undertaking the treacherous trip south), but human preservation efforts also play a role in the storks’ success story. Provision and caretaking of breeding spaces on tall poles or rooftops, restoration of wetlands and meandering streams, decreased use of pesticides, and insulation of high-power utility lines to lessen the risk of electrocution contribute to attracting breeding pairs, and to promoting the survival of their offspring.

In this day and age when we are overwhelmed by sad tidings about the demise of so many species, the example of the White Stork reminds and admonishes us that we humans are, indeed, able to protect and share habitat through concerted efforts. I am happy that the legendary storks which populate German nursery rhymes, songs and myths once again populate the German landscape.

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/02/08/er-hat-ein-schwarz-weis-rockchen-an

Birding in Germany

It is a stroke of good fortune that my father’s residence is located a mere 3 miles from one of Germany’s 30 so-called “hotspots of natural variety”, islands of re-naturalized habitat wrested from the surrounding agricultural and industrial landscape. They are living proof that nature, given the opportunity, will reclaim its own. Since the regional branch of the country’s largest conservation group (Naturschutzbund, aka NaBu) completed this particular site in Rhineland-Palatinate in 2011, called Rohrwiesen am Seegraben, which could loosely be translated as “reed meadows near the creek bed”, a minimum of 160 bird species have re-populated this oasis, along with additional animals and plants.

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Pond seen from viewing platform

It is formed by a creek, called Seebach, a tributary of the Rhine River, one of Europe’s major shipping arteries. In order to facilitate nautical traffic and to prevent flooding prevalent throughout many centuries, the large stream and its side channels were straightened, resulting in loss of habitat. Once the creek in question was allowed to again leave its prescribed bed and to flood fields, it created ponds and wetlands in the process which attracted numerous resident and migratory birds. A viewing platform and an observation hut invite the nature lover to linger and observe the environs.

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Observation hut in the morning sun

One of my regrets is my non-interest in birding when I grew up in Germany. Except for our frequent feathered denizens, I did not know most by name. I also was not aware of birding enthusiasts, or of dedicated groups, like the one I belong to in Colorado which meets weekly. In another bit of luck, my visit in Germany this past fall coincided with Euro Birdwatch, a continent-wide bird count each October. So when I had the chance to set out with four experienced local birders for this European event at this very hotspot, I jumped at it, benefited from a higher number of avian sightings than I could have reached on my own, and expanded my German vocabulary. Among the rarities I surely would have missed were Dunlins, Little Stints, Spotted Redshanks, and Common Greenshanks. Just thinking of shorebirds characteristically puts me into a state of complete confusion.

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Mute Swan, juvenile

After count day I continued to frequent this serene enclave. One morning, I happened upon a pair of Mute Swans, one adult and one juvenile, still asleep in a pond, seemingly without a worry in the world. Only when approached by Eurasian Coots and Common Moorhen did they pull their elegant necks from under their wings, survey their watery realm regally, and commence their morning toilette.

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Mute Swans, adult and juvenile

A flock of Graylag Geese interrupted the silence as they circled noisily, before landing in a lake where they continued their garrulous chatter.

I typically encountered Great Egrets, Gray Herons, Little Grebes, Mallards, Eurasian Green-winged Teals, Tufted Ducks, Gadwall, and a lone Common Shelduck. Common Buzzards were, indeed, common, but on a few lucky occasions I saw Red Kites and Eurasian Marsh Harriers.

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Northern Lapwing

Cormorants, Common Kingfisher, Common Snipe, and Northern Lapwing also counted among the regulars, and some of the smaller callers were Eurasian Wrens, European Stonechats, Common Reed Buntings, Northern Wheatear, and Great Tits. The latter are among Europe’s most abundant and gregarious little birds, as cheerful to behold as the related chickadees in North America.

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Great Tit

Sunrise and sunset painted the boggy, reedy scenery in warm auburn hues and the air was filled with the waxing or waning of bird calls. I immersed myself in this sanctuary as often as possible. During a previous trip I had learned about the increasing numbers of the White Stork population in Western Europe. This thriving ecological niche was a further encouraging example of what can be accomplished when humans put hearts, heads, and hands together.

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/01/11/auf-vogelsuche-in-deutschland/