Milkweed and Monarchs

“The difference between a flower and a weed is a judgment.” Unknown

Imagine yourself as a beautiful orange and black Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), fluttering around the North American continent east of the Rocky Mountains. Come autumn, you embark on an incredible journey, traversing up to 3000 miles to the mountains of Mexico where, for eons, millions of your ancestors have congregated in oyamel fir trees for the winter. If you find enough trees to gather, plus nearby nectar to nourish you, and you survive until February or March, you mate and begin the return trip, but owing to your limited life span, will not complete it. If female, you lay eggs and pass into butterfly heaven, having fulfilled your life’s purpose.

Imagine yourself next as one of those eggs. Within four days, you hatch into a larva, or caterpillar, and feed ravenously, provided you were deposited on milkweed, whose leaves are your sole source of sustenance. You are oblivious to the fact that its sap is poisonous to many animals, but confers protection to yourself, by turning you into a toxic morsel.

Two weeks long you graze and grow, before your oblong, striated body transforms into an ephemeral, gem-like cylinder called chrysalis, translatable as golden pupa.

Following ten more days in this seemingly suspended state, you emerge as a wonderful winged being. By pumping bodily fluids into your crumpled wings they harden, and will lift you into the air.

After two repetitions of these developmental steps, occurring along a northbound route, the fourth generation of your kind will again end up where last year’s voyage started. This 4 x 4 life cycle, with four annual generations, each of which goes through four stages of metamorphosis, is as intricate as it is intriguing. It is possible because the fourth generation survives an astonishing 6 to 8 months, compared with 2 to 6 weeks for the previous three, enabling it to complete the odyssey back to the wintering grounds, and to commence the return flight the following spring.

Each phase of this cycle depends on the balance of countless factors. Sadly, global environmental degradation, deforestation in Mexico, and a paucity of food along the migratory path have caused the butterfly population to plummet. Milkweed is the lone plant which sustains larvae, but many locations show a glaring absence of that necessary nourishment because it has become the victim of personal and industrial herbicide use. In an unnatural twist, food crops have been genetically modified to become resistant to those herbicides, but milkweed has not, resulting in the eradication of the Monarchs’ crucial food source from immense stretches of agricultural areas. For further reading about the butterflies’ present-day dilemma of dwindling habitat, fare, and ranks, I recommend the Center of Food Safety’s Monarchs in Peril, and Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 wake-up-call, environmentally conscious novel, Flight Behavior.

Instead of despairing about our powerlessness to influence the big picture, each of us can play a positive part in this drama. With regard to milk ”weed”, more than 2000 species exist globally, and Colorado has at least six. Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is perhaps the best-known along the Front Range, but Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) also thrives. Colorful and showy, both are stunning to behold. Fountain Creek Nature Center has a meadow brimming with Common Milkweed, and if you have ever seen it in bloom in late summer, you know it is anything but common.

The nature center staff has, for years, offered glimpses into the transfiguration of Monarchs in a special display case. As a participant in and waystation of Monarch Watch, which monitors the annual migration, they tag the emerging butterfly with a sticker so light it doesn’t interfere with its flight.

They have, also for years, encouraged us gardeners to allow this precious “weed” into our gardens, where it will beautify our outlook and, it is hoped, invite some wandering Monarch to pause, or even to start a new circle of life, allowing our small gesture to make a big difference.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/03/29/seidenpflanzen-und-schmetterlinge/

Serendipity

     In my writing, as in person, I return to Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs time and again. An amusing anecdote about the wonderful name of this wonderful spot recounts how two early local residents and co-founders of Old Colorado City, Melancthon S. Beach and Rufus E. Cable, were surveying the area in the late 1850s. When the former suggested it would be a good location for a beer garden, the latter replied indignantly, “A beer garden. This is a place fit for the gods”. Fact or fiction, the name is fitting. Luckily for us, the park is fit for mortals, too, and this mortal usually makes exciting discoveries there, at times more serendipitous than at others.

     This past week, the “Garden” was the destination for my weekly birding group, since it attracts feathered beings as well. We counted 20 species, among them a pair of mating Prairie Falcons. On the following day, I came back with high hopes for sighting a Northern Saw-whet Owl previously spotted by other observers. Having transitioned to Daylight Savings Time two days prior, I arrived at 7 o’clock in human time, corresponding to 6 o’clock in owl time. Early for me, but apparently too late for the nocturnal creature, which was neither seen nor heard.

      As is often the case when one plan is foiled, its substitution might be as good or better. Not only did I experience a moonset behind Pikes Peak, and a near-simultaneous sunrise which painted mountains, rock formations and vegetation in soft shades of pink and orange, these celestial phenomena were accompanied by a terrestrial symphony. Among the multitude of musicians, American Robins, Spotted Towhees, Scrub Jays, and House Finches sang the leading parts.

American Robin feasting on juniper berries

Spotted Towhee in its beloved leaf litter

Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay

Their melodies were complemented by courting behavior and nest-building, as well as aerial acrobatics of White-throated Swift, only recently returned to their summer habitat from the South. The temperature in the high 40s was at least 15 degrees more comfortable than on the previous day, enlivening not only me, but also some of the smaller birds, including chickadees and juncos. I was well entertained for an hour and a half which seemed like the blink of an eye. Content with the morning, and ready to return to the car, my gaze fell on two other visitors, at which point I did a double-take.

     The couple was evidently enjoying the climbing and vocal skills of a hyperactive little Canyon Wren.

Canyon Wren

Binoculars draped around their necks, and the woman’s camera with a long lens (I was admittedly envious) gave them away as fellow birders. I recognized her from a photo I had seen on her blog the day before. It was only my second or third visit to her site, in response to a comment she left on mine. My post “Dippered Out” appealed to her because they, too, had searched for American Dippers at Elevenmile Canyon. From her blog I knew that she and her husband were on a one-week excursion to Colorado from Texas. We had never met in person but when I approached her and asked, “Are you Shannon?”, she nodded, and replied, “You must be Tanja.” Despite their itinerary ranging up and down Colorado, we ran into one another at this singular spot. What are the odds?

The Central Garden

     After shaking our heads in disbelief, we chatted and admired birds and scenery together for nearly an hour. Alas, another get-together was precluded during this trip. Shannon and Scott, it was an immense pleasure to meet you both. I wish you continued Happy Birding wherever you are, and hope our flight paths will cross once again.

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https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/03/22/ein-glucklicher-zufall/

An Elevated Place

     If not for visionaries like Wyman E. Mueller and his wife Eleanor, Colorado might have only 41, instead of 42 State Parks. Thanks to their long view and interest in conservation, the 12,103 acres of the Mueller Ranch, an agglomeration of property acquired by the family bit by bit from previous owners, came under the aegis of the Nature Conservancy in the late 1970s. Slightly more than half of the property, 6,982 acres, was sold to the Colorado Division of Wildlife and is operated as the Dome Rock Wildlife Area which allows seasonal hunting. The remaining 5,121 acres opened to the public in 1991 as Mueller State Park.

Mueller State Park Visitor Center

     The Visitor Center, which commenced operation in 1997, houses informative exhibits about the local history, both natural and manmade. After the area’s seasonal use by the Ute Indians throughout centuries, in the 1800s it attracted trappers, homesteaders, ranchers, farmers, and was furthermore mined for gold and timber. In the early 20th century, some of its meadows brought forth Pikes Peak lettuce which was shipped as far east as Chicago and New York City, in boxcars cooled by blocks of ice from local ponds. Twelve historic buildings in various stages of decay still dot the landscape and give fodder to our imagination.

Former Cheesman Ranch

     From Colorado Springs, the park in Teller County lies about an hour’s drive west, between the towns of Divide and Cripple Creek, just off Colorado Highway 67. Nestled on the back side of Pikes Peak at an elevation of 9,600 feet, it affords fabulous vistas of Colorado’s western Sangre de Cristo and Sawatch Mountain ranges.

View of the western mountains from Grouse Mountain Overlook

We have explored its extensive and varied terrain during successive day trips, either by hiking or snowshoeing on the trails which amount to roughly 50 miles. A few years ago, we spent two chilly fall nights in one of two tent-only campground loops with walk-in sites. The park is extremely popular among RV users and offers 132 electrical sites. A third type of accommodation is also available, but until this month, we had only cast curious glances at the three cabins of Mueller. Since we enjoy practical presents, I gifted my husband two nights at the smallest, Pine Cabin, knowing full well that it wasn’t entirely altruistic.

Pine Cabin

When I called for the reservation in late November, I was given a code to the door. Months later, we were relieved when it yielded to our punched-in numbers and we inspected the well-appointed log structure with delight. The kitchen/dining room came with all necessary appliances and utensils, the small living room with a gas fireplace, the bathroom with towels, and the two bedrooms with beds fully made. High use notwithstanding, everything was refreshingly spic and span.

Kitchen and dining room

     In planning our trip for early March, I was hoping for enough white cover to snowshoe, but because this winter has been mild and dry, we tramped around in hiking boots, rather than snowshoes. The weather was sunny and clear, albeit windy, with the temperature ranging from the mid 30s to the mid 50s.

Elk Meadow, with view of back side of Pikes Peak

The park is famous for its wildlife, including bugling elk in the autumn, but, maybe not surprisingly for this transitional period, we only encountered a small group of Mule Deer, a number of Common Ravens and American Crows, a lone Clark’s Nutcracker, numerous chipper Mountain Chickadees, a few soaring Red-tailed Hawks, and two hungry Gray Jays (aren’t they always?).

Mule Deer resting

Gray Jay, aka Whisky Jack, aka Camp Robber

Content to walk for a few hours each day, we spent the remainder of our waking hours with reading, writing, and lounging in front of the cozy fireplace.

     We are grateful to the Mueller family for preserving a substantial parcel of land with a relatively intact ecosystem. It provides respite from the hustle and bustle of the ever-expanding Front Range population, and we look forward to returning to this elevated topography in different seasons of its and our lives.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/03/16/ein-erhabener-ort/

Dippered Out

On this late December day, I enjoy the wintry brilliance of Elevenmile Canyon for the first time. Knowing it hitherto only in its summer apparel, today I participate in a birding and photography field trip offered by the Colorado Springs Aiken Audubon Society. Only three people signed up, but we benefit from having our leader to ourselves and are even chauffeured in her new car, aptly named Mountain Bluebird. It flies across the 40 miles on Highway 24 in under an hour. In Woodland Park, which lives up to its moniker, City Above the Clouds, we emerge from a veil of mist enveloping Colorado’s Front Range. Farther west in Lake George, we turn south onto Park County Road 96 and reach the entrance booth to the canyon at 9 AM where we pay the $6 fee. Administered by the USDA Forest Service, this site is popular among fisher(wo)men year-round, and on many summer days, the three campgrounds are filled to the hilt.

The gravel road parallels the course of the South Platte River and ends after roughly 11 miles at the foot of the 1932 dam which created Elevenmile Reservoir. The route occupies the former bed of the Colorado Midland Railroad, the first standard gauge railway in the state which primarily targeted the silver wealth of Leadville. Two narrow gauge lines already connected to this boom town, including General Palmer’s Denver and Rio Grande, but only by circuitous paths. The main engine behind the Midland, industrialist John J. Hagerman, came to the West for its vaunted healthful climate, like many tuberculosis sufferers. His railroad originated in Colorado Springs in 1886, groaned up steep Ute Pass, and by the following year traversed what was then known as Granite Canyon.

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On the morning of our excursion, our drive through three surviving railroad tunnels reminds us of this earlier chapter in the history of what is now Elevenmile Canyon. The temperature climbs from 10 to 43 degrees Fahrenheit, and with warmth increasing, so does our time outside the car. Our leader, having faced conditions as low as minus 19 degrees in years past, thinks us a mollycoddled bunch, but even she lingers in sun-flooded patches which feel downright balmy by the end of the morning. Sun and blue skies are a congenial combination, rendered more so by the presence of snow. Frozen crystals glitter on granite and ground, icy art sparkles on stream and shrubbery.

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Among this inanimate splendor, the fluorescent feathers of winged beings flash flamboyantly, drawing our attention to their presence. This area is known to harbor Bald and Golden Eagles and we are fortunate to see both. A young, male Baldy allows us glimpses from nearby, but Goldy is circling high in the sky, close enough for identification, but too far for satisfactory photography.

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Where the river remains free of ice, it provides paddling room for Canada Geese, Mallards, Common Goldeneyes. Unexpectedly, we happen across an active American Pipit. Corvids caw in the calm, and the contented chatter of chickadees and nuthatches permeates the air.

Our most popular motifs, however, are American Dippers (Cinclus mexicanus), also called water ouzels. They are usually found here in winter, but we are surprised to see one after nearly every bend in the river and count at least 20 individuals. What they lack in conspicuous colors, they make up with curious behavior. This includes the ability to dive, swim, and even walk under water, with the goal of capturing aquatic insects. When not submerged, they bob nearly constantly.

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They are solitary and territorial birds and defend their watery realm from neighboring rivals. For the first time in my life I hear their lovely vocalizations, not unlike the tinkling cadence of the element in which they conduct their lives. We have ample opportunity to take pictures, and each of us captures dozens, if not hundreds. But even birders with a long attention span tire. After 3 wonderful hours we nonetheless declare ourselves “dippered out” and leave Elevenmile Canyon in its gorgeous winter raiments behind us, for the time being.

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https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/03/09/ausgeamselt/

A Natural Enclave

     In a recent post, I commented on the ubiquity of castles in Germany. Besides these rather massive medieval monuments, more delicate and recent palaces abound, a reflection of the country’s division into myriad principalities until not-so-long-ago, each of which flaunted its status with its own stately domicile. One such palace graces Herrnsheim, an incorporated suburb of the city of Worms.

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The edifice’s current incarnation rose out of the ruins of late Middle Age and Baroque precursors. In the early 19th century, it was erected in the eminent Empire style, named after Emperor Napoleon. The surrounding estate, designed as an English landscape garden in the 18th century, has been maintained in the same style up to the present.

     As Herrnsheim was the hometown of my best friend, and near our mutual high school, I frequented the location throughout the years. It took on added significance when my now husband and I strolled around its grounds, newly in love, in an attempt to walk off nervous energy, before he met my parents for the first time. All these sentimental reasons combine and I find myself irresistibly attracted each time I am in its vicinity. Last year was no different and I returned to it on more than one occasion, finding its timeless beauty augmented by its autumnal attire.

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     The principal building can be toured once a month, or by special request, and the adjacent orangery now houses a café, but I did not make use of either, since the destination’s main appeal lay in its outdoor scenery.

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A gravel path led me past stretches of lawn complemented by groves of deciduous trees, to a lake with a central island, covered by canopy of fall foliage. Even though a gazebo, bridge, and diverse statuary were clearly fashioned and placed by human hands, the harmony between manmade and seemingly natural structures was very appealing.

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I don’t recall the first time a striking statue of what appears to be an African woman materialized at the edge of the isle in the middle of the pond, but I have sat opposite her many a time and pondered her meaning.

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The forest and water have always attracted a variety of creatures, among them waterfowl and raptors. All enhanced the impression of a wild place, with a slight reminder that even wilderness needs to be organized.

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Only in Germany: Birdhouses with numbers :=)

     In typical fall fashion, the weather was changeable and alternated between sunshine, overcast skies, and gentle showers. I opened and closed my umbrella repeatedly, which happened to share the color of the leaves.

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One memorable moment, I stood agape, admiring a golden “leaffall”, brought on by a hefty gust of wind. Not many people were out and about, and despite the relative smallness of the park and a nearby busy road with its muffled engine noise, I had the sense of being far away from the crowds. I regularly seek solitude wherever I go, and even small enclaves of nature have the power to restore in me a sense of well-being and belonging. This colorful gem in the old country, though exceptional, is no exception.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/03/02/eine-naturliche-oase/