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.
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
This is one of those autumns when the beauty of the aspen trees is unforgettable. The aspen look like ribbons of gold hemming the steep mountain slopes, tracing the streams that meander down to the valleys. Or, like shining quilts blanketing the hillsides. My favorite description of autumn aspen is by naturalist Ann Zwinger who writes:
Fall comes at its own pace in this grove. Protected by surrounding ridges, these trees may not turn until the first week in October. All in a few days they become fired with blazing light, a torch holding back the winter frosts.
On a Thursday they are still green; on a Sunday, they are golden. The leaves range from citron to copper, saffron to gilt, glowing with light.
They shower down with each gust of coming winter, buttering the still-blooming lupine, catching the purple asters and the last black-eyed Susans. The mahogany-red rose bushes snag them. The juniper waylays them in needled branches, holding them upright in a card file of autumn….
The sweet musty smell of fall is…a fragrance of aspen dust and honey and sunshine. The silence is soft and warm and full, between intermittent rustlings of gold tissue-paper, wrapping up the glow of summer.
By Ann Zwinger, from Chapter 5 of her book Beyond the Aspen Grove
Photos by Melissa J. Walker
Recently I read The River in Winter, a collection of essays by Stanley Crawford. The author describes the rhythms of life and seasonal changes on his northern New Mexico farm and in the natural land bordering his cultivated fields. He observes how people absorb knowledge of their natural world without even trying. Even if they don’t know the names of trees, birds or flowers, they will know which trees leaf out first, where a hawk likes to perch, where the first flower of spring will bloom.
I have found this to be true. Even as a little girl growing up in north Louisiana, I knew when to look for ripe blackberries, that one bird sang only at night, and I recognized the songs of many birds even though the birds remained nameless to me for a long time. Over the years, though, I began to pay more attention to the natural world and came to expect to be surprised by nature on almost every venture outside. Just yesterday in my Colorado Springs neighborhood, I saw a Merlin, a small falcon with dark plumage, for the first time in my life. It was perched in one of the tall cottonwood trees right across the street. And in our backyard, I noticed the faint green color of chlorophyll that shades the bark of aspen trees, and heard the two-note whistle of the Black-capped Chickadee, reminding me that the first day of spring is only 23 days away.
Photo Credit: Bark of Aspen Trees by Melissa Walker; Black-capped Chickadee from Wikipedia
A scrabbling sound was the first indication of unusual activity in our backyard. I rushed to the window just in time to see the blurred motion of a red fox jumping up our fence, then turning 180 degrees to jump down and run in the opposite direction. Almost within reach of the fox’s tail were two bobcats! They pursued the fox for about 50 feet, and then abruptly stopped when the fox jumped out of our yard. Then the bobcats leisurely stretched out on the grass, yawned and were joined by a third bobcat. The fox was lucky that the bobcats gave up the chase, at least for today.
The bobcats relaxed in the sunny part of our yard for about two hours, then roused themselves to drink from our backyard pond and to play in our pond’s filter tank. They looked liked overgrown housecats as they tussled in the tank. Then, one of the bobcats began scratching on an aspen tree, stretching upward 34 inches (I measured the next day), and dragging its claws down the soft bark. According to Timothy Mallow in his article Bobcat Ecology, “the vertical scratches made by the bobcat’s claws leave a visual marker and also leave a scent on the tree that originates from sweat glands in bobcat’s paws. Bobcats maintain and defend their ranges with the use of territorial markers, such as tree scratches. The home range of a female bobcat averages 2900 acres.” That is more than twice as large as Garden of the Gods Park (1367 acres).
The backyard bobcat drama lasted all day. By mid-afternoon, I noticed a fox squirrel at the tiptop of an aspen tree, anxiously flicking its tail and chattering. Half way up the same tree was one of the bobcats! When the squirrel jumped into the top of an adjacent aspen, the bobcat slowly backed down the tree trunk, then turned and jumped to the ground. I thought the hunt was over. But no, the bobcat looked up, located the squirrel and proceeded to climb the second tree. Then I observed that a second bobcat was patrolling the top of our back fence, near the squirrel’s tree.
At this point, I guessed that the squirrel would outlast the bobcats in patience and would remain at the very top of the tree until the bobcats left the neighborhood. I decided to check back in 5 minutes, but by then, I had missed the action. There was the bobcat strolling through the backyard with the lifeless squirrel in its mouth.
As the successful predator settled down to eat its prey, the other two bobcats watched neighborhood birds from the vantage point of our deck and took another nap. The three bobcats finally left our backyard in the late afternoon.
The bobcats are probably three of the four kittens that were born in our neighbor’s yard last spring. Although the mother bobcat and her four kittens left their den in early July, neighbors occasionally saw one or more of the bobcats during the fall. Just last week, in mid-January, one neighbor saw all five bobcats – presumably the mother and the almost-grown kittens – parade across her deck in single file following the lead bobcat that held a dead squirrel in its mouth. The bobcats will soon deplete the easy prey in our neighborhood and move on to another part of their home range. Sometime between now and May, when the kittens are almost a year old, the mother will “evict her kittens from her home range.” Until then, we fortunate neighbors may glimpse the “wild kingdom” in our own Westside Colorado Springs neighborhoods.
Photo Credits: All photos were taken by author Melissa Walker.
Ten months ago in one of my first blogs, I used a quote from my favorite nature writer Ann Zwinger. The year 2010 marked the 40th anniversary of her classic natural history book, Beyond the Aspen Grove, still my favorite. I chose my nature blog’s tagline “always something new to discover” from Ann’s words:
Beginning to know these mountain acres has been to discover a puzzle with a million pieces already set out on a table. Occasionally a few pieces fit together and we gain another awareness of the land’s total pattern of existence, of its intricate interdependencies, enhanced by knowing that the puzzle will never be completed. There will always be something new to discover… (From Chapter 1, Beyond the Aspen Grove)
As I write today, a snowstorm has settled over Colorado Springs and every shape outside my window is now etched in white. With 2010 drawing to a close, I am reflecting on the turning seasons of this year and thought I’d share a few of my favorite Colorado discoveries with you, with homage to Ann Zwinger.
Sandhill Cranes and Sunset, Sangre de Cristo Mountains, late winter
Snow-covered Backyard with pond, aspen trees and tall stalks of teasel, early winter
Happy New Year!
Photo Credits: Cranes, Bobcats, Wildflowers, Aspen and Pond by Melissa Walker; Flicker by Les Goss
Morning rays of sunlight filter through our backyard aspen trees and the woodbine vine that decorates my window. The backlit red and gold leaves of the woodbine transform the window into stained glass. The woodbine (also called Virginia creeper) is at the peak of its autumn glory.
The brilliant fall colors lure me outside for a short walk. The air is brisk and I zip up my jacket. Almost everywhere I look, garlands of red woodbine encircle the trees and shrubs of the neighborhood.
During this year’s warm summer, the sun-seeking woodbine vine used our house as a trellis and quickly grew toward the light. The vine’s tendrils attached to vertical walls and window glass and soon the east side of our house looked like an arbor, covered with green leaves and tiny green berries. One afternoon I discovered a tenacious vine that had crept toward the south side of the house and had clasped our windchime with its tendrils. I quickly released the “captured” chime.
Although woodbine isn’t native to Colorado, it has adapted well to the forested and irrigated urban landscapes of the Front Range. Many native birds now use woodbine for food and shelter. Robins build nests in the vine’s leafy bower and Northern Flicker woodpeckers devour the ripe blue berries.
Returning home from my autumn walk with the day now warming up, I open the vine-covered window. I hear the staccato drums of the Coronado High School Marching Band practicing on the football field about a half-mile away. Now my window sounds like autumn, too.
Photo Credits: All three photos by Melissa Walker
This summer, my husband and I took our traditional July hike on one of our favorite trails south of Creede, Colorado. As we hiked the familiar Ivy Creek Trail, we saw many fir and pine trees that were dead, and many that had been cut and pushed off the trail. Then, after hiking 3 miles, our way was blocked. Blocked by fallen trees that looked like giant toothpicks interlocked in a chaotic jumble.
This summer, the forests near Creede were noticeably changing. From a distance, the evergreen forest had a reddish tinge, the first obvious sign that trees are dying from the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation. Some forest landscapes were totally gray, indicating that the needles, hence the trees, were already dead. All the infected trees will eventually die, lose their needles, and then fall over. The San Juan Mountains are now experiencing the outbreak of diseased trees that other areas of Colorado, including Summit County and Steamboat Springs, have been dealing with for almost a decade.
It is difficult for me to see breathtaking Colorado mountain views now marred by dying forests. But that’s the reality. Eventually, the evergreen forests will regenerate as sun-loving aspen trees will flourish and then provide a microclimate where spruce, fir and pines will thrive again.
So, our hike was bittersweet, and I didn’t even want to write about it for awhile. We saw such beauty on the shady path – shade-loving wildflowers of Red Columbine and light blue Jacob’s Ladder growing along the creek. Will they be there when their shade is gone?
Photo Credit: All three photos by Les Goss
At this time of year, I am ready for snow showers to become rain showers. With rain forecast for this weekend, I opened my nature diaries to find the dates of the first rains in my Colorado Springs neighborhood for the last several years. In 2006, the first rain was on March 18, and I recorded snow, thunder and lightning on March 19. In 2007, it rained on March 9; in 2008, there was a dawn thunderstorm on May 7. Last year, the first real rain of the season was on April 27 with almost one-half inch overnight. Although we’ve had a few sprinkles this year, I’m still awaiting the first real rain. Perhaps tonight?
I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day,
a fresh try,
one more start,
with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning.
By J.B. Priestley
When I was growing up in Louisiana, I assumed that birds sang all year round. The sounds of cooing Mourning Doves and raucous Blue Jays are inseparable from my childhood memories. Then, when I was in my twenties and began birding with the Audubon Society, I observed the unsettling fact that most birds only sing for about three months. April, May and June – the height of the breeding season – is the time to listen to the amazing variety of birdsongs. By the second week of July, most of the birds are silent. The “dawn chorus” has disbanded until another spring.
This year, 2010, I am writing down the date that I first hear the song of each bird species.
As spring progresses and migratory birds make their way to Colorado, I will listen for many more birds to add to my birdsong list.
Several of the year-round birds in my westside Colorado Springs neighborhood began “practicing” a few notes of their songs in January, February and March. I heard a Northern Flicker make its first “wicka-wicka-wicka” call on January 26. Three weeks later on February 16, a House Finch sang part of its melody. On March 16, I heard the repeated trilling “tow, tow, tow, heeee” of a Spotted Towhee and also the plaintive two-note whistle of a Black-capped Chickadee. Just two nights ago on March 22, I was serenaded at twilight by several American Robins, each singing from a different area of the neighborhood. Their songs were like a lullaby at 7:40 pm, then each bird faded from the chorus as twilight gave way to nightfall. Continue Reading »