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.
As the last day of 2012 dawns, I am reflecting upon the many gifts and surprises of Nature. Fortunately, I recorded some of these in writing or with my camera. Others were so fleeting that, as Ann Zwinger wrote, they stayed “only long enough to be remembered.”
Almost three years ago, I chose the following quote by Ann Zwinger to be the theme of my blog – always something new to discover. In her book Beyond the Aspen Grove, Ann observed, “There will always be something new to discover: a minute moss never found before, a rabbit eating birdseed with the birds on a hungry November day, a bittern that stays only long enough to be remembered.”
Nature surprised me many times this year. I’ve selected four of my favorite discoveries to share today as 2012 draws to a close.
Red Fox Pups (as described in my blog on June 10, 2012)
In the afternoon, I spotted three fox pups just by driving down a shady street in an old Colorado Springs neighborhood. The juvenile foxes were fending for themselves, at least for a while, as no adult foxes were in sight. The adults were probably away from the den hunting for food for their fast-growing pups. One pup was lounging in the cool grass, while the other two reminded me of periscopes as they poked their heads out of two different holes in a broken sidewalk. A space under an old sidewalk had become a home for this family of red foxes.
The Volunteer Peach Tree
One mid-summer morning, I noticed a soft orange globe in the middle of our backyard aspen grove. From my kitchen-window vantage point, I was too far away to clearly see the object. Going outside to investigate, I laughed out loud as I discovered a beautiful, velvety peach growing on a very spindly tree. A squirrel must have taken a peach pit from our compost and dropped it in the shady aspen grove, not an ideal place for a peach tree to grow. But grow it did. My husband and I waited for the peach to ripen for about ten days, then plucked it for an afternoon snack. Yum!
A Great Blue Heron
September is the month for prospecting for the shimmering gold of autumn aspen leaves. Less showy, but also beautiful, are the russet and orange colors of the cattails, grasses and willows. While hiking north of Woodland Park between a meadow of tawny grasses and a ponderosa forest near Manitou Lake, a pale blue shape in a pine tree caught my eye. Perched on a branch of a ponderosa was a Great Blue Heron! The long-legged heron looked so out-of-place, yet it really wasn’t, as the lake was nearby. I simply had never seen a Great Blue Heron in a ponderosa before.
An Early Valentine
Yesterday, my husband and I took advantage of a partly cloudy Sunday afternoon to look for waterfowl and white-tailed deer at Fountain Creek Regional Park. The ponds had already frozen over, so we didn’t see the ducks and geese we’d expected. We did see a small herd of white-tailed deer, instead of the mule deer that we usually see on hikes in Colorado’s foothills and mountains. As we circled around one of the snow-covered ponds, a heart shape appeared at the pond’s edge. Someone had brushed away the snow to create an unexpected Valentine – a symbol of love that seemed to embrace the end of this year, and the beginning of a new one.
Photo Credits: All four photos by Melissa Walker
With this year’s warm fall weather, the yellow-gold leaves of the Plains Cottonwood trees clung to their branches well into November. On a bright, breezy morning, I took a walk on a cottonwood-lined trail that parallels Fountain Creek. Soon enveloped by a huge cottonwood, I paused to look up through its golden, heart-shaped leaves. The tree seemed to capture autumn’s blue sky in its upper branches. Then, when the wind blew, the blue-sky pattern would change, reminding me of a kaleidoscope, a wonder-filled toy of my childhood. Later that day, thinking of kaleidoscopes, I decided to find its literal meaning. In Greek, kaleidoscope means pretty (kalos) shapes (eidos). Perfect.
The patterns of leaves against the sky are not the only “pretty shapes” that the cottonwoods create. In the book The Thunder Tree, author Robert Michael Pyle describes another unexpected shape:
“There are stars in the cottonwoods. If you grasp a cottonwood twig, neither too green nor too rotten, and snap it at a wrinkled growth node, a perfect five-pointed star may be revealed on the broken ends. The star is the darker heartwood contrasting with the paler sapwood and new growth.”
Earlier this year in June, I also noticed an unexpected shape when the cottonwoods’ developing seeds, called catkins, were hanging from the branches. The reddish-pink catkins looked like jellyfish undulating on waves of air instead of water.
The huge Plains Cottonwoods are known as the giants of Colorado’s lowland rivers. One of the cottonwoods along the trail near Fountain Creek Nature Center measures 22 feet in circumference. These towering trees are in the willow family and grow only where there is a river, stream, spring or water near the surface of the ground. For the first inhabitants and travelers in this part of North America, the sight of cottonwood trees in the distance signaled “Water!” Wood for a fire, shade and drinking water were all available in a cottonwood grove.
Tall cottonwoods provide shelter and food for a wide variety of birds, mammals and other animals along Colorado’s low-altitude waterways. In the summer, warblers look for insects among the cottonwoods’ highest branches, orioles hang their woven nests in the middle branches, and muskrats burrow under the roots in the streambank. In the fall, migrating hawks perch near the treetops; in the winter, magpies soak up the sun’s warming rays on the east-facing branches; and in the spring, owls may nest in the hollows of the tree trunks. Cottonwoods—living kaleidoscopes, full of life.
Photo Credits: all photos by naturenarratives author Melissa Walker
A light breeze stirs the golden leaves of our backyard aspen grove, creating flickering shadows on the forest floor. Seated on our weathered wooden glider, I slowly rock back and forth long enough to feel in sync with the sights and sounds of autumn. I am taking somewhat of a risk by sitting here at this time of year with scores of ripe apples dangling just above my head. Gravity could win the tug-of-war any moment.
Scattered at my feet are bright yellow aspen leaves and faded red apples decaying in the sun’s warm rays. The buzz of honeybees and wasps, the “knack-knack-knack” of a white-breasted nuthatch and the “dee-dee-dee” of black-capped chickadees join the sounds of our suburban Colorado Springs neighborhood. A few blocks away, a house is getting a new roof, the steady pounding of nails adding percussion to the sounds of nature on this mid-October afternoon.
An unexpected sound suddenly draws my attention. I step up onto a rock to peer over our fence to see a four-point mule deer buck sparring with a smaller buck. The clacking of their antlers is very brief, as the younger buck backs down quickly, conceding the skirmish. Then, both bucks nibble at, and then devour several apples, their conflict seemingly forgotten. Harmony is restored to the golden afternoon and I reluctantly leave the aspen grove. The empty glider now looks lonesome, but ready to catch some falling apples.
Photo Credits: All three photos by author Melissa Walker
In mid-September while hiking at 10,000 feet in the Weminuche Wilderness Area, I stopped to observe a large hawk, a Northern Harrier, as it spiraled upward in the clear autumn air, buoyed by the rising morning thermals. About the same time, I saw a butterfly that I usually associate with springtime. It was a Mourning Cloak, lazily tracing figure-eights around the pale trunks of aspen trees. The bright yellow border of the butterfly was the same color as the shimmering aspens, as if the color rubbed off when the butterfly flew too close to the brilliant leaves.
This Mourning Cloak probably began its cycle of life in early spring after two overwintering butterflies mated and the female laid eggs. After hatching, the Mourning Cloak caterpillar feasted on the leaves of willows and aspens before pupating. By early summer, it completed its metamorphosis and emerged as an adult butterfly, feeding on tree sap for several weeks. Then the Mourning Cloak estivated, spending the rest of the summer in a dormant state. When I saw the butterfly, it had awakened from estivation to feed intensely during the warm days of autumn.
The morning was so still that only the hawk and the butterfly seemed to be moving. It was as if the Earth paused on this warm September day to mark the colorful climax of another year. Soon, the butterfly will hibernate and the hawk will migrate to lower elevations as the Earth continues it seasonal circle around the sun.
Photo Credits: Aspen Trees by Melissa Walker; Mourning Cloak via Wikipedia
The sun rises in silence in August. The dawn chorus has concluded for this year, and I miss the birdsongs that accompanied each sunrise in May, June and July. Fortunately, the sun manages to rise without the birds’ exuberant encouragement, and its bright rays illuminate summer’s bounty. The tiny spring flowers of the chokecherry have changed into shiny purple berries that seem to drip from the burdened branches. The now-quiet robins, squirrels and an occasional wandering black bear find the ripe berries irresistible. A close look at the shrubs along the foothills streams of Bear Creek, Cheyenne Creek and Camp Creek reveal that many of the berries have already been consumed.
As the sun’s rays cast long shadows near the close of late summer days, I often go to Garden of the Gods to watch the summer evening drama of the White-throated Swifts. About an hour before sunset, hundreds of the black and white birds swirl through the air, circumscribing huge circles around North Gateway Rock and Gray Rock. The birds are preying on high-flying insects before night falls. All of a sudden, as the sun nears the western horizon, the Swifts rush to perpendicular cracks in the towering red sandstone cliffs, then disappear into their rocky communal roosts. It is a summer phenomenon that only lasts until late September when the Swifts disappear from Colorado Springs, flying totally away—southward—on their migration journey. The Swifts are another of nature’s many wonders that make each day seem so much more than simply a date on a calendar.
Chokecherry berries by Les Goss; other two photos by author Melissa Walker
Driving north over Poncha Pass between the San Luis Valley and the upper Arkansas River near Salida, Colorado, my husband and I saw a gray wildcat run across Highway 285. I immediately realized that I was looking at a mammal that I’d never seen before in my life. The wildcat was only about 50 yards in front of our car, and we watched it for several seconds before it disappeared down a ravine. The cat was medium gray in color, not as tall as a bobcat, and had a long tail. I had no doubt that it was in the cat family, but it ran with a clunky gait on relatively short legs and had a squarish head. I suspected that it was a Jaguarundi, a wildcat that I’d only seen in field guides. I checked the car’s clock – it was 11:10 a.m., June 18, 2012.
Upon consulting the Jaguarundi page in my Peterson’s Field Guide to Mammals of North America, the photo and information exactly matched the wildcat we had seen on Poncha Pass. According the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s website, the Jaguarundi’s short legs, elongated body and long tail resembles an otter, so the animals are sometimes called “otter cats.” The wildcats mainly hunt during the day, with peak activity at midday. Sightings of Jaguarundis have been confirmed in Florida and southern Texas.
Jaguarundis are primarily wildcats of South and Central America, and are considered very rare north of Mexico. However, between Colorado’s San Luis Valley, southern Texas and Mexico, natural lands dominate the landscape, with few cities or towns. Could Jaguarundis be extending their range northward during recent years of mild winter weather?
I called the Colorado Division of Wildlife and talked with John Koshak, a wildlife expert. He checked with the state’s wildlife biologists, but neither John nor the biologists had ever heard of any sightings of a Jaguarundi in Colorado. John suggested the possibility that a Jaguarundi could have been brought to Colorado and released. We’ll never know.
I didn’t have enough time to take a photo of the Jaguarundi, so it can’t be listed as an official sighting, but I’m hoping that someone else in the Poncha Pass area will see the wildcat and report it. Seeing a brand new mammal species in the wild is an unforgettable moment. For my readers traveling or hiking in southern Colorado, keep an eye out!
One recent afternoon, I spotted three fox pups just by driving down a shady street in an old Colorado Springs neighborhood. The juvenile foxes were fending for themselves, at least for awhile, as no adult foxes were in sight.
The adults were probably away from the den hunting for food for their fast-growing pups. One pup was lounging in the cool grass, while the other two reminded me of periscopes as they poked their heads out of two different holes in a broken sidewalk. A space under an old sidewalk had become a home for this family of red foxes.
Red foxes live throughout most of the United States and Canada and are usually solitary. Quite common in Colorado Springs, this fox species is often seen in broad daylight, running through a neighborhood or park with its long, bushy tail streaming straight out.
The red fox is fairly small, weighing only 10 to 15 pounds, and has thick reddish-orange fur, a bushy white-tipped tail, and black legs and feet. Like coyotes, red foxes are omnivorous and eat rodents, ground-nesting birds, berries and insects. However, mice are their main prey, and a grown male fox may eat as many as 100 mice in one week!
Red foxes tend to live alone except during the spring breeding season. After the birth of the young, the male brings food to the female for several days as she stays in the den to nurse the pups. Soon, the pups require the hunting skills of both parents to provide enough food. In midsummer, the parents teach the young foxes how to hunt for themselves, and in autumn, the young members of the fox family will go their separate ways.
Photo Credit: All three photos by author Melissa Walker
Most alpine forget-me-nots are blue, but some are white. Most scarlet tanagers are red, but a few are orange. Most ponderosa pines have three needles in a bunch, except the ones that have two.
My Nature Narratives are usually about Colorado, except for today, when I’ve decided to post this evocative photo taken in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. My son took the photo on a camping trip shortly after his college graduation. It so perfectly matches what he wrote years ago as a 10-year-old, that I find I can no longer resist posting them together.
So, here’s my homage to exceptions – they are often beautiful surprises.
“The fire in the sky reflects in the shimmering mirror below. The silhouetted tree slips into burning coals. When the fire dies, wind sweeps up the ashes into the sky to hang for the rest of the night.”
The above quote was written by Paul Goss, during a 5th grade writing assignment.