Spring Diary

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.

Delicate Pasque Flowers

Delicate Pasque Flowers

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.

Great Blue Heron takes off

Great Blue Heron takes off

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.

Scrub Oak leaves against red rocks

Scrub Oak leaves against red rocks

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

 

An Icy Canvas

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.

 

Icy arcs etched into frozen pond

Icy arcs etched into frozen pond

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.

PondIceArc2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photos by author Melissa Walker

Backyard Bobcats – A Very Short Tale

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.)

Bobcat kittens listen intently to sounds in the aspen grove

Bobcat kittens listen intently to sounds in the aspen grove

and check out what else is going on

and check out what else is going on

Bobcat2013-3

and watch the fish in the pond

and strip bark from the Russian Olive tree to chew.

and strip bark from the Russian Olive tree to chew.

Mother Bobcat awakens from her nap and strides across the edge of the yard

Mother Bobcat awakens from her nap and strides across the edge of the yard

until she

until she

disappears.

disappears.

Three Seasons of Butterflies

(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.

 

Tiger Swallowtail and Purple Coneflowers

Tiger Swallowtail and Purple Coneflowers

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.

Monarch Butterfly on Butterfly Weed

Monarch Butterfly on Butterfly Weed

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.

 

Checkered White Butterfly on Purple Aster

Checkered White Butterfly on Purple Aster

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.

 

Painted Lady on golden Rabbitbrush

Painted Lady on golden Rabbitbrush

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.

 

Starry Nights

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.

Sagittarius, Corona Australis & Scorpius

Sagittarius, Corona Australis & Scorpius (Photo credit: Cristóbal Alvarado Minic)

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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.

The Wild Horses of Sand Wash Basin

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.

Wild Horse Family

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.

Wild Horses splashing in pond

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.

Sleek Wild Horses of Sand Wash Basin

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.

Wild Horses and distant storm clouds

Photo credits: With appreciation to my brother Winston Walker for all four photos.

For more information, visit the BLM website:

http://www.blm.gov/co/st/en/fo/lsfo/programs/wild_horse.html

Snowy Tracks

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.

Aspen Trees Cast Long Shadows

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.

Raccoon Tracks in the Snow

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.

Tracks of a rabbit hopping forward (up) intersect with the tracks of a striped skunk

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.

Portrait of an Amaryllis

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.

Nature’s Gifts and Surprises

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.

Red Fox Pup

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!

Ripening Peach

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.

Great Blue Heron perched in a Ponderosa

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.

Snowy Valentine on icy pond

Photo Credits: All four photos by Melissa Walker

Cottonwood Kaleidoscope

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.

Blue-sky patterns amidst cottonwood branches

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.”

Star shapes inside broken cottonwood twig

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.

Cottonwood Catkins

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.

Heart-shaped cottonwood leaves

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