Can you complete the phrase of John Denver’s song? Simply reading the words, “country roads, take me home” makes me want to sing the rest of John Denver’s joyful melody “to the place I belong….” In my case, the place I belong is not West Virginia; it’s Colorado.
Awakening early today, July 5th, I have decided to seek the gentle music of quaking aspen leaves and meandering streams, in contrast to last night’s booming fireworks. A narrow country road leads me into the San Juan Mountains north of Creede, an old mining town.
An overnight rain has soaked everything, and the dirt road is soft and muddy in spots. I slowly drive to an elevation of 10,000 feet and park the car to walk in the cool mountain air. Right away, I am treated to the ethereal sound I was hoping to hear – the song of a Hermit Thrush. Its song is so beautiful that I stop and close my eyes to listen. Its flute-like song creates a perfect moment that connects a longing for the past with hopes for the future.
I observe that the Hermit Thrush is singing in a forest in transition. The once dominant spruce trees are still standing tall, but they are no longer evergreen—they are gray and dead, victims of an insect-caused disease. Interspersed among the skeleton spruces are vibrant, bright green aspen trees, their leaves shimmering in the breeze. The thriving aspen are already providing shade where new spruce trees are beginning to grow. Eventually, the spruce forest will again blanket these mountains in “evergreen.”
The country road beckons and I walk further to discover Summer’s gift of wildflowers. However, it is still Spring at 10,000 feet. Wild Iris buds look like bright blue skyrockets and delicate Chiming Bells harbor raindrops from last night’s showers. As the early morning shadows give way to July’s warm sunshine, I retrace my way back down the country road.
Visit this website to hear the sound of the Hermit Thrush:
Photos: All photos by author Melissa Walker
In mid-August, the late afternoon sun cast long shadows across our neighborhood as I walked to our nearby park. I appreciated the cool dampness in the light breeze, a welcome change from 2012 and 2013 when smoke from forest fires often filled the air. The wet summer has nourished a “crop” of mushrooms. The round white mushrooms, half hidden in the green grass, looked like golf balls scattered about the park.
Stopping at the edge of the cottonwood-willow grove at the west boundary of the park, I saw two fledgling Cooper’s hawks. They and two other fledglings left their nest almost two weeks ago, but have stayed close by while they practice their hunting techniques and receive occasional meals from their parents. I observed one hunting method of Cooper’s hawks—ambushing songbirds. The adult hawk perched motionlessly until it saw a songbird in an adjacent tree. Then, it streaked into the branches to grasp the unsuspecting songbird in its sharp talons. Mealtime for the fledglings.
Earlier in the day, I had seen a majestic mule deer buck, with its antlers in velvet, walk through our neighbor’s yard, followed by two more bucks. They are part of a “bachelor herd” that grazes through our neighborhood several times a week, sampling everyone’s landscaping and flowers. Only the male deer, the bucks, grow antlers. The antlers are made of solid bone and shed every year. While growing, the antlers are covered by a furry skin, called “velvet,” that contains blood vessels and protects the tender antlers. When the antlers have attained their annual growth, the deer rubs off the velvet just in time for the fall breeding season.
Seeing wildlife—hawks, year-round and migratory songbirds, mule deer, bobcats, red fox and occasional black bears—adds drama, beauty and surprises to everyday life on the Westside of Colorado Springs. Originally a high prairie where only native grasses grew, our city is now enveloped by an urban forest cultivated by almost 150 years of tree planting and irrigation. An abundance of wildlife thrives due to the city’s proximity to the mountains and the large regional parks that connect the city’s habitats with the natural open spaces of Pikes Peak and the National Forest. The city’s drainages and creeks provide pathways for wildlife to move between the neighborhoods and the open spaces.
With twilight approaching, I walked back home. Just before heading inside, a hummingbird suddenly appeared overhead and paused mid-air. Its wings were beating so fast that they were almost invisible. It was a male broad-tailed hummingbird, its iridescent feathers glimmering in the sun’s last rays.
Photo Credit: Both photos by Les Goss
Excerpts from my Colorado Springs Nature Journal, April – May 2014
April 4 – On this April day, Winter and Spring are playing a game of hide and seek. At one moment the winds are calm and the sun shines brilliantly between the clouds. In another moment, the winds rush down the mountainsides, filling the air with horizontal snow flurries that block the sun. Neither Winter nor Spring wins the game today, with each season seeking one minute and hiding the next.
April 8 – I watched a Fox Squirrel carry its baby for about 50 yards from one tree to another. It had to stop and rest every few feet because of the weight of its baby. Somehow, the squirrel summoned the strength to climb up the tree trunk to carry its baby to a new nest.
April 18 – I first looked for Pasque flowers in March, but these delicate purple flowers bloomed later than usual this spring. Today, my friend and I found them growing underneath the scrub oak trees at the top of the meadow at Bear Creek Nature Center. A Mourning Cloak butterfly fluttered ahead of us on our hike back down the trail.
April 20 – The American Robins are singing at 5:30am before dawn. This is the beginning of the “Dawn Chorus” that will last until about mid-July. Many species of birds sing throughout their breeding season, then are mostly quiet for the rest of the year. When the sun comes up, I observe the robins in our backyard. The feathers on the head of the male robin are velvety black, in contrast to the feathers on the head of the female robin that remain gray year-round.
May 3 – At the stoplight at Mesa Road and Fillmore Street, I heard a Western Meadowlark singing its cheery song from the top of a fence post nearby.
May 9 – A Great Blue Heron landed between the kitchen window and the pond. It was so close that I could see its long scaly toes that are very reptile-like. Later, the heron waded into the pond to hunt for fish, but took off before catching anything.
May 12 – It’s “raining” migratory birds! Between 9:30 – 10am, a hermit thrush and an orange-crowned warbler landed in our yard and gleaned insects from the ground and cinquefoil bushes. In the afternoon, a flock of chipping sparrows and yellow-rumped warblers foraged for insects. The warblers, highlighted by bright yellow on their heads and rumps, particularly liked our small evergreen trees, disappearing behind the green needles to find food.
May 28 – From 4:30 – 6pm, I watched the Prairie Falcon’s nest in Garden of the Gods with other park volunteers and visitors who strolled down the Perkins Central Garden Trail. Although the falcon only appeared at the side of the nest for about 5 minutes, we also trained the spotting scope on a Red-tailed Hawk that was on the very top of Gray Rock. The White-throated Swifts were twittering high overhead, and some visitors from New York were excited to see a Scrub Jay and a Black-billed Magpie for the first time.
May 30 – The Scrub Oak trees have totally leafed out. They are usually the last native tree to do so, and rarely suffer “frostbite” to their new green leaves. Their leaf shapes are especially beautiful against the red rocks of the Garden of the Gods.
May 31 – I hear the music of the ice cream truck in the neighborhood. Summer is here!
Photo Credits: Pasque Flowers and Great Blue Heron photos by Les Goss; Scrub Oak photo by author Melissa Walker
The temperature plunged last night, taking us from a winter thaw to an arctic freeze. Our backyard pond, free of ice yesterday afternoon, was frozen over this morning—a common event during a Colorado winter. But the frozen surface of our pond today looked completely different than I’ve ever seen it before. The ice was inscribed with a maze of concentric circles and arcs.
The patterns in the ice were partially covered by a sprinkling of sugary snow, except where high winds had blown away the snow near the pond’s edges. That’s where the interlocking icy arcs transformed our pond into a mysterious work of art.
What could have caused these curved lines on the pond ice? When I went outside to investigate, I discovered that all the arcs and circles were actually etched into the ice about one-third inch deep. Could they have been caused by last summer’s flower stalks bending in the wind and sweeping across the pond as it froze, engraving the patterns? No, the patterns were too extensive and were out of reach of the stalks.
Could the patterns have been caused by someone throwing pebbles? The circular patterns certainly looked like ripples that had frozen as they receded from pebbles tossed into the pond. But no one had been tossing pebbles last night as the cold front blew through with its zero-degree wind chill.
Looking for a plausible explanation, I called my brother Winston in Steamboat Springs. As a biologist, he is a very thoughtful observer of Colorado’s flora and fauna, and has spent more time ice fishing and fly fishing on Colorado’s lakes and rivers than anyone else I know. After reviewing the photos I sent him, Winston deduced that gas bubbles rising to the pond’s surface had created ripples that froze in the action of receding. I hadn’t put our de-icer into the pond before the cold front, so maybe that’s why I had never seen these patterns before. Without the de-icer, the ripples couldn’t dissipate, and instead pushed up against other ripples that were in the process of freezing.
The exchange of oxygen and other gases between our pond and the air is usually invisible to us. But last night’s perfect conditions for flash freezing revealed wondrous shapes caused by this dynamic phenomenon. And because of the wondrous shapes, I now realize that our backyard pond is a canvas—a canvas where nature paints in shadows, reflections, leaves, tracks, wind and ice. The artwork is ephemeral, yet continual and ever changing.
Photos by author Melissa Walker
In the late afternoon from 3pm – 5pm on November 13, a mother bobcat and her two half-grown kittens spent time in our Colorado Springs backyard. While the mother bobcat napped in a sunny spot in the tall grasses, the kittens played and explored. Here’s a glimpse into the daily lives of two bobcat kittens, at least for those two hours.
(Photo credits: bobcat kitten photos by author Melissa Walker, and mother bobcat photos by Les Goss, Melissa’s husband.)
(Photo credits: All photos by author Melissa Walker)
Our suburban backyard aspen grove, only 40 feet by 50 feet, is now quiet and mostly still. Summer’s songbirds have migrated south and nighttime’s cold air lingers until noon. Some mornings, the only motions I detect are the falling aspen leaves—spiraling and catching the sun’s rays like summer’s butterflies.
I have been captivated by butterflies this year. The book Chasing Monarchs by Robert Michael Pyle inspired my renewed interest in observing these eye-catching insects. The author encourages everyone to pay more attention to butterflies and to help these flying works of art to thrive. All that butterflies need to survive are habitats of native flowers, shrubs and trees that are pesticide-free. Even a window box of native flowers may attract and nourish a butterfly that needs nectar, especially since so many plants in our natural lands have been devastated by drought, wildfires and floods.
My observations began on March 14 when I spotted my first butterfly of 2013, a Mourning Cloak. With its velvety dark wings etched in bright yellow, the butterfly was a welcome sign of Spring. It fluttered over our small pond and into the aspen trees. I noted that the temperature on this early Spring afternoon had reached 60 degrees, the minimum flight temperature for butterflies.
All summer long, yellow Tiger Swallowtails decorated the air and flowers. I could never predict their flight path, when they would alight on a flower or disappear over the fence. The Swallowtails leisurely visited our purple coneflowers, sucking nectar through their hollow, straw-like tongues. They are well named with black stripes on their broad yellow wings.
It was mid-summer, July 18, when I first saw a Monarch butterfly, its wings boldly patterned in bright orange and black. Monarchs appeared occasionally from July through October, pausing to gather nectar on the coneflowers and butterfly weed, or alighting on the milkweed plants. The milkweeds are essential to the survival of Monarch butterflies because Monarchs lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed plants, and their caterpillars eat only milkweed leaves.
I didn’t expect to see many butterflies after the month of September, but I was wrong. On October 3rd, a Monarch and a Mourning Cloak fluttered through our aspen grove and dozens of light yellow butterflies nectared on dandelions. On October 10th, a Checkered White, with black checker-like squares on its wings, found nectar in purple asters that were still blooming in a sunny spot on the south side of our yard.
On October 21st when I stopped by the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center, I noticed a golden Rabbitbrush shrub that was covered with insects. As one of the last plants in bloom this fall, the Rabbitbrush was a magnet for scores of butterflies, moths, honeybees, flies and beetles. The butterfly that caught my eye was a Painted Lady, strikingly patterned in colors of orange, yellow and black.
I have seen at least a few butterflies everyday I’ve looked for them for all of October. Even this afternoon, November 2nd, as I walked through Rock Ledge Ranch, I saw one tiny yellow butterfly. It landed on the ground to gather the sun’s warmth, then took off through the split-rail fence and out of sight.
All of the butterflies will get through the coming winter in different ways. Some will lay eggs, then die, yet their offspring will emerge next year in the warmth of Spring. Some will survive the winter as a pupa inside its chrysalis, and remarkably, some will overwinter as adults in sheltered places. Most remarkable of all, the Monarchs will migrate all the way to southern Mexico, an almost impossible journey.
It is time to say goodbye to the butterflies as Autumn gives way to colder days. Clouds hide Pikes Peak, then clear to reveal winter’s snowy signature. Very soon, all the butterflies will disappear from our view…waiting to re-emerge on a warm afternoon next year.
When I was a young girl and first vacationed in Colorado with my family, I was astonished by the vast blue-sky views, the towering snow-capped peaks and the rushing streams. But what surprised me the most were the stars. Like every child, I sang the rhyme “twinkle, twinkle little star… up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky.” Now the song made sense. Here, the sky looked as if it were filled with glittering diamonds. I could even see the sheen of billions of stars in the Milky Way. Back in my hometown in Louisiana, the few stars I could see were more like pale pearls, and I had never seen the Milky Way.
About ten summers after my first encounter with Colorado, I worked as a riding counselor at Cheley Camps on the east border of Rocky Mountain National Park. Almost every evening was spent outside around a campfire, and I led weekly overnight camping trips via horseback. My horse that summer was named Stardust, a well-trained quarter horse the color of dark red bricks. Stardust had such an energetic walking gait that I had to rein her in often or we’d quickly leave the other riders far behind.
During the overnight camping trips, the stars were sometimes so vivid that the campers and I would find patterns in the stars and name our own constellations. The constellation I found looked like a horse galloping above the southern horizon, its head held high as it raced eastward. I named it Stardust.
Eventually, I consulted the star charts in H. A. Rey’s guidebook The Stars and learned that most of the stars in “my” constellation were part of the official constellation of Sagittarius, the Archer. Those who originally named Sagittarius had perceived a different pattern of stars in their own imaginations.
The clear nights of September are a great time to scan the sky for constellations and planets. During and after twilight, you will see brilliant Venus above the western horizon. About 9 p.m., you will be able to see Sagittarius and Scorpio just above the southern horizon, the Big Dipper and Little Dipper in the northern sky, and many other constellations.
I still think of Sagittarius as Stardust, and it is my favorite constellation. If it has been awhile since you’ve gazed at the night sky to look for patterns and shapes in the stars with just your imagination, the next clear night will be your chance. All you have to do is look up.
At first, I saw only expanses of sage and dry washes. No fences, no barns, no stables—none of the trappings associated with the horses I grew up with. But the horses out here are different. They’re wild.
“Out here” is the northwestern corner of Colorado. Last week, I went on a long-awaited field trip to look for wild horses with my brother Winston, who has observed them for several years. About 75 miles west of Steamboat Springs, we left Highway 40 and the bright green Yampa River valley and turned north onto Road 318, where a sign read, “Next Services 120 Miles” and the colors of the landscape faded. In about 15 more miles, we turned onto a dirt road at the south edge of vast BLM lands where the wild horses roam. The light sandy soils, low rocky outcrops and pale green sage reflected the morning’s bright sunlight and the sun’s rays began to intensify.
We lurched slowly along in the pickup, scanning the landscape. Suddenly, Winston called out, “There are the ponies!” Four sleek horses were knee deep in a muddy pond, pawing the water, the backlit splashes framing them in sunlight. We watched from a distance, taking care not to disturb them.
Winston had observed, photographed and named this equine family last year, in June 2012. With their distinctive colors and patterns, the horses were easy to identify. He had named the yearling with the bright white splotches Speckle Paint, the stallion Big Red, and the black mare with three white socks Three Socks. And, there was a new colt with them. Right away, I was ready to name it Blaze.
After splashing for about five minutes, the horse family left the pond, found a dry spot to lie down, rolled vigorously in the sandy soil, then got up and shook off the sand. They walked into the low sagebrush, slowly browsing on new shoots of grass growing near the base of the shrubs.
I was surprised that the wild horses looked as healthy as domestic horses. Their coats gleamed and they appeared strong and well nourished. Clearly adapted to the dry wide-open spaces, these wild horses are able to range far enough to find adequate grasses and water and somehow endure the bitterly cold winters.
By late morning, a relentless wind began to blow. For three more hours, we searched the treeless territory and spotted several more widely scattered bands of horses in groups of three to ten. We saw palominos, pintos, paints, roans, grays, bays, reds, black and white horses. Some were only 200 yards away, others barely visible with binoculars. Other wildlife along the way included horned larks and pronghorns—signature bird and mammal species of expansive grasslands.
An approaching storm cloud ended our day’s excursion into the harsh lands of Sand Wash Basin. As we made our way back south, four horses began to gallop near our truck, their tails held high, as they seemed to relish and race the wind.
Photo credits: With appreciation to my brother Winston Walker for all four photos.
For more information, visit the BLM website:
During this winter’s recent cold snap, the surface of our backyard pond froze, except for a small circle of open water surrounding the pond de-icer. The circular opening in the ice is beneficial to life below and above the frozen pond. Underneath, the fish and other organisms need the exchange of oxygen and other gases that the open water provides. Above the ice, many different animals make their way across the frozen pond to drink from the small circle.
An overnight dusting of snow reveals the tracks of several nocturnal visitors. In the early morning light, the aspen trees cast long shadows that seem to point the way to the circle of water. Before the sun’s warming rays can melt the evidence, I find the snowy tracks of a fox squirrel, a neighborhood cat and a raccoon. The raccoon’s tail, or maybe its foot, grazed the snow as it walked over the ice, creating drag marks.
Then, investigating the front yard, I discover one of my favorite tracks—a cottontail rabbit. As the rabbit hops forward, its large hind feet land in front of its smaller front feet, so its hind feet seem to lead, conjuring a confusing image. Other tracks reveal that sometime during the night or early morning, the cottontail crossed paths with a striped skunk, and the neighborhood cat crisscrossed its own path.
In the distance, I hear crows cawing, a northern flicker calling and house finches singing a hint of their spring song that will debut in a few weeks. They remind me that the Earth is continuing its circle around the sun and that the vernal equinox is only three weeks away. Soon, the possibility of finding snowy tracks will melt away and it will be time to put away the pond de-icer.
Photo Credit: All photos by author Melissa Walker
Note: Melissa recommends the book Scats and Tracks of the Rocky Mountains by James C. Halfpenny, PhD.
When a longtime friend gave me a Red Lion Amaryllis bulb in December, little did I know what an explosion of color it would bring to our home in January. Soon after I watered the bulb and placed it near a sunny window, the bright green leaves began to sprout. It took only three weeks for the flower stalk to grow 21 inches tall.
Then the Amaryllis began to bloom, unfolding its showy 6-inch flowers and bringing to life Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “The earth laughs in flowers.” The portrait of the Amaryllis speaks louder than words. Enjoy.
Photo Credits: Author Melissa Walker took the first 7 photos; Les Goss captured the last 2 photos of the Red Lion Amaryllis.