A Tale of Two Springs

Dry, dry, dry and windy sums up the weather in Colorado Springs for the last two months. During March and April, we usually have over a foot of snow. This year, we have had only a dusting. I went on a short hike last week at Bear Creek Nature Center to look for my favorite spring wildflower – the Pasque flower. The trails showed few signs of spring – it has been so dry. Finally, I found two pale Pasque flowers beginning to bloom on a shady slope. They had pushed through a brittle layer of last year’s scrub oak leaves.

Pasque Flowers and Oak Leaves

Later that day, my brother called from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to describe how migrating birds are beginning to arrive in his snow-filled part of the state. He sent a photo of a Sandhill Crane struggling to walk on snow and of a Mountain Bluebird perched on snow. The birds are having a difficult time finding any bare ground. He described Steamboat Springs’ weather for the last two months as “snow, snow, snow and more snow.” This week, the Steamboat Springs Pilot newspaper reports that the area still has 15 feet of snow on nearby Buffalo Pass and over 9 feet on Rabbit Ears Pass. My brother reports that he has over two feet of snow in his yard in town.

Sandhill Crane Walking through Snow

Mountain Bluebird Perched in Snow

How could our weather be so different? Colorado Springs is in a rain shadow, a phenomenon of mountain weather patterns. Colorado Springs is on the east slope of Colorado’s mountains, and Steamboat Springs is nestled against the northwest side of the mountains. When the moisture-laden Pacific storms reach Colorado’s northwestern mountains, the winds push the storms up the crest of the mountains, where the moisture condenses in the cold air and falls as snow.

By the time the storms blow to the east side of the mountains 100 miles away, the clouds have often released all their moisture, leaving Colorado’s Front Range cities and eastern prairies “high and dry.” Also, this spring’s weather is a continuation of the La Niña pattern where most of the snowstorms are tracking across Colorado’s northern mountains (according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service).

Fortunately, as of this week, rain showers are finally bringing some moisture to Colorado Springs. And eventually, warmer days will bring an end to Steamboat Springs’ snow – at least for this year.

Photo Credits:

Thanks to my brother Winston Walker for his photos of the Sandhill Crane and Mountain Bluebird

Pasque Flowers by author Melissa Walker

April Birding in Garden of the Gods Park

Location: Southeastern Colorado Birding Trail: Pikes Peak Region
Garden of the Gods Park
1805 N. Street, Colorado Springs, CO  80904

Description of April 27, 2009 Bird Walk:
It was a perfect Colorado day for a morning bird walk in Garden of the Gods Park. The week’s rain showers had left the air fresh, the sky cobalt blue and Pikes Peak glistening white under a new blanket of snow. My friends and I decided to begin our birding at the east Rock Ledge Ranch entrance of the park so that we could walk through a variety of habitats from the Ranch to the towering rocks in the heart of the park.

Sandstone pinnacles in the heart of the park

As we neared the Ranch pond, we saw our first migrant, a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s), flitting among the willow branches. We then watched as a female American Robin, its beak packed with insects, furtively made its way to its nest in a tall White Fir tree. In contrast, a male Red-winged Blackbird broadcast its presence with its piercing call and showy red wing patches.

The tranquility of the pond was broken by two male Mallard Ducks fighting over one female. The two drakes fought in the middle of the pond, biting each other’s heads as they whirled in circles, loudly splashing the water. Meanwhile, the female climbed out of the pond and disappeared into the willows, and eventually, one of the drakes gave up the fight and flew away. Continue Reading »

Migration Drama of the Swifts

Rediscovering The Sunset Ritual and Migration Drama
of the
White-throated Swifts in Garden of the Gods Park

Swifts and the National Natural Landmark Designation
Throughout 2009, the Centennial Celebration of Garden of the Gods Park in Colorado Springs gave us the opportunity to reflect upon the Park’s “magnificence as a common treasure” and to learn more about its natural and cultural history. One of the highlights of the celebration was Dr. Richard Beidleman’s Centennial Lecture about our Park’s National Natural Landmark designation. Dr. Beidleman is a renowned ecologist and Colorado College Professor Emeritus of Biology. In 1969, after years of field study, Dr. Beidleman wrote and submitted our Park’s application to the Department of Interior. Two years later in 1971, the Garden was officially designated as a National Natural Landmark (NNL).

Gateway Rocks of Garden of the Gods Park and Pikes Peak

During Dr. Beidleman’s Centennial Lecture, he described how the Garden, with its outstanding geologic formations and scenic grandeur, met the official NNL criteria. However, one of the criteria for becoming a NNL is not as well known: a seasonal haven for the concentrations of native animals, or a vantage point for observing concentrated populations, such as a constricted migration route. The NNL documents state: “The Garden of the Gods affords one of the best habitats in Colorado for White-throated Swifts. One of the largest summer and migratory roosting sites for the White-throated Swifts along the Rocky Mountain Front Range is located at Gateway Rocks. It is a concentration point during fall and spring migration for the Swifts.” Continue Reading »