An Ode to Fountain Creek Regional Park

In recent years, the need to immerse myself in nature has become paramount. I feel fortunate that, despite Colorado’s growing population with its attendant problems, I still have access to spaces which promise solitude and an escape from continually calamitous news. One such refuge is Fountain Creek Regional Park, about eight miles south of our Colorado Springs home. It assumes a central role in my life and hardly a week goes by without a visit.

Starting as a county park in 1985, it has grown to its current size through gradual additions. The Fountain Creek Nature Center was completed in 1992, and expanded in 2014. Run by the devoted Nancy Bernard, a gaggle of paid staff, and a flock of volunteers, it fosters curiosity about the environment with its engaging exhibits, year-round youth programs, and an inviting trail system. Its incredibly scenic window and porch afford sweeping sights of our fourteener, Pikes Peak, and of its lower neighbors. Located at the boundary of the Great Plains and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the area benefits from the vital presence of water because it straddles our region’s largest stream, Fountain Creek. This provides live-giving liquid to a string of ponds with surrounding wetlands, and to copses of cottonwood trees with a dense understory, thereby creating a variety of habitats. Springtime with its lengthening days and warming temperatures engenders an eruption of greenery, fragrant bushes, and animal activity.

View of Pikes Peak from one of the ponds in the Cattail Marsh

The park is among El Paso County’s prime birding sites, and the number of reported species stands at 266 (according to ebird). Alas, I haven’t witnessed even half of that count, and some that were sighted decades ago likely won’t return during my lifetime. I make a game of assigning one signature bird to my favorite spots, and here, Red-winged Blackbirds rule the roost. Theirs are typically the first and most vociferous voices heard upon opening the car door in the nature center’s parking lot, because of the proximity of their realm, cattail marshes. The male’s squeaking and squealing sounds conspire with his curious comportment to garner attention. While balancing on top of a reed, he projects his head, pumps his arms, and fans his tail, communicating his earsplitting invitation to his companions.

Red-winged Blackbird, aka Superman in his cape

Blackbirds are not the exclusive exuberant and effusive members of the avifauna presently engaged in singing, feeding, mating, nest-building, or rearing their young, and with spring migration only ratcheting up, they will soon be joined by many more. Instead of attempting to enumerate all the uncommonly handsome callers, I will let a few photos speak for themselves.

Cooper’s Hawk

Belted Kingfisher: quite the hairdo

Great Horned Owl

White-faced Ibis

Great Blue Heron: a dude with a ‘tude

Plumed creatures are not the only tenants of this territory. Even though muskrats are theoretically nocturnal like their cousins, the beavers, they are diurnal enough to show their fuzzy faces in full daylight frequently. On warm days, turtles scramble onto exposed rocks. Available space is at a premium, and late-comers slide back into the pond to seek a sunny spot elsewhere. White-tailed Deer graze stretches of grassland but, to my surprise, even sample algae in shallow pools. Much squirrely commotion results in more photogenic moments. Rabbits browse in the underbrush and, no doubt, support the raptor population. Monarchs, and the park’s inspirational role in their preservation and propagation, were the topic of a previous post. A variety of butterflies and bees flutter and fly from blossom to perfumed blossom, filling the air with the faint flipping of their wondrous wings while performing the essential task of pollination.

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Sunning turtles

White-tailed deer after an aquatic snack

Squirrel, also catching some rays

Doubtless, all this vibrancy is one of the reasons I crave this cherished sanctuary, where I can daily experience nature’s life-affirming powers which, in turn, make me feel more alive and hopeful.

Dedicated to my late mother-in-law, Hilda J. Britton (1928-2017), who loved Fountain Creek and Bear Creek Regional Parks so much, that she flew with the flock of volunteers for a number of years.

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/eine-ode-an-fountain-creek-regional-park

From Egg to Fluffball

     About a month ago, I happened across a downy Canada Goose nest faithfully tended by the mother-to-be. It falls to the female to sit on the nest for the 25 to 28 days it takes their one yearly clutch of two to eight eggs to develop.

While the science behind the formation of eggs, and the number of days each bird species incubates them can be studied and understood intellectually, the process which takes place inside this precious package, and the end result can’t be grasped entirely with a scientific mind. When a tiny beak finally breaks the shell, and a new being emerges, it is a wondrous occurrence.

     Even though I wasn’t present during the actual hatching of this new generation of Canada Geese, I saw this family of seven when the five goslings were only a day or two old.

Their cuteness and bright baby down were irresistible, and I took my time enjoying their antics. The adults were protective, but not hyper-vigilant, and the gander hissed at me only when I stepped across an invisible line. They herded their brood slowly along a stretch of fresh grass which served as a buffet for the young ones. So early in their lives, they were still a bit shaky on their legs and had to sit and rest on the ground regularly, which was immediately turned into an occasion for grooming their fluffy fuzz.

A nap was encouraged, and even though Mama Goose tucked her head under her wings, and Daddy kept careful watch, the young ones did not remain still for long. There was too much to explore in this wonderful new world that had become theirs.

      I was relieved when I found the family again two days later, still counting seven. Already, the babies were turning into mischievous toddlers, and were wrangling with one another.

Many hazards await them, and nobody knows what the future holds. But for now, I am happy for this gift of new life, and I am rooting for them.

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/05/04/vom-ei-zum-flaum/

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.

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

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.

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

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

Where Do Babies Come From?

The dark point circling in the sky assumes shape, size, and color with diminishing distance, and soon I recognize a large white bird with long red legs and beak. Its head points straight forward, its white wings and black trailing feathers beat measuredly up and down. I am not the only one who anticipates its return. Before me, inside a stick nest on top of a tall pole, two nestlings flap their wings impatiently. Once the adult alights and regurgitates food, the offspring commence to devour it hungrily, while the regal elder surveys the surroundings. Luckily, at a distance of 100 yards I pose no threat, for all three ignore me.

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After five minutes, the adult takes off again and leaves the young ones to their own devices. Until the next visitation by mother or father, who are not easily distinguished at first glance (the males tend to have thicker and longer bills), the youths fill their time inside their nursery by sitting, pacing or pumping their wings in preparation for the day in the not too distant future when they will fledge. They observe their environs and a cock crowing nearby captures their attention. Their heads turn in synchrony toward that sound, rendering their black beaks obvious, a contrast to the adults’ bright red ones.

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I know of this White Stork nest in the southern portion of Hessen in West-Central Germany from a previous visit. In June 2015 I reach it by first ferrying across the Rhine River from my childhood home in Rheinhessen, and by riding 5 miles on my bike. I am thrilled to find it occupied again, and elated to observe clusters of storks in the sky overhead. Ten individuals suddenly descend, land behind a tractor, and follow its wake, where they pierce whatever scuttles underneath their beaks.

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Culinarily not choosy, their menu includes earthworms, insects, fish, frogs, snakes and small rodents. Nearby, in the town of Biebesheim, I find the explanation for their abundance when I happen across an animal refuge which is home to a stork colony. The air is filled with the sounds and sights of storks. They are coming and going, feeding, and clattering their elegant bills. This latter activity translates as klappern and is responsible for one of many common German names of this beloved creature, Klapperstorch.

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White Storks typically lay three to four eggs, and in times of abundance as many as seven, but only two to three hatchlings survive into adulthood. After 33 days they emerge from the eggs and the nestlings mature for two months before they take flight. Called European White Storks, their distribution is not limited to that continent. Breeding also occurs in Asia Minor and the various flocks migrate to their wintering grounds in Africa. This happens in two distinct patterns. From Western Europe they fly across the Straits of Gibraltar to West Africa, whereas eastern groups follow a route across Turkey, the Bosporus Strait, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Gulf of Suez to reach East and South Africa. The flight path across the Mediterranean Sea, albeit much shorter, is not feasible because it lacks the required thermal uplifts which are only generated where soil is heated by sun.

Growing up in Germany forty years ago I never encountered wild storks. This did not prevent me from following a folk custom related to me by my grandparents. To encourage the birds to bring me a sibling, I placed many a sugar cube on the windowsill. Sadly, it didn’t work. In school in the 1980s, I learned that these magnificent avians were threatened by extinction and their future appeared dire. All the more welcome the news that their numbers have not only stabilized, but have grown in the last decades, in Western even more than in Eastern Europe.

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This recovery of their ranks is at least partially attributable to changing migratory patterns (many of the storks overwinter on the Iberian peninsula where they find enough food, instead of undertaking the treacherous trip south), but human preservation efforts also play a role in the storks’ success story. Provision and caretaking of breeding spaces on tall poles or rooftops, restoration of wetlands and meandering streams, decreased use of pesticides, and insulation of high-power utility lines to lessen the risk of electrocution contribute to attracting breeding pairs, and to promoting the survival of their offspring.

In this day and age when we are overwhelmed by sad tidings about the demise of so many species, the example of the White Stork reminds and admonishes us that we humans are, indeed, able to protect and share habitat through concerted efforts. I am happy that the legendary storks which populate German nursery rhymes, songs and myths once again populate the German landscape.

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/02/08/er-hat-ein-schwarz-weis-rockchen-an

Birding in Germany

It is a stroke of good fortune that my father’s residence is located a mere 3 miles from one of Germany’s 30 so-called “hotspots of natural variety”, islands of re-naturalized habitat wrested from the surrounding agricultural and industrial landscape. They are living proof that nature, given the opportunity, will reclaim its own. Since the regional branch of the country’s largest conservation group (Naturschutzbund, aka NaBu) completed this particular site in Rhineland-Palatinate in 2011, called Rohrwiesen am Seegraben, which could loosely be translated as “reed meadows near the creek bed”, a minimum of 160 bird species have re-populated this oasis, along with additional animals and plants.

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Pond seen from viewing platform

It is formed by a creek, called Seebach, a tributary of the Rhine River, one of Europe’s major shipping arteries. In order to facilitate nautical traffic and to prevent flooding prevalent throughout many centuries, the large stream and its side channels were straightened, resulting in loss of habitat. Once the creek in question was allowed to again leave its prescribed bed and to flood fields, it created ponds and wetlands in the process which attracted numerous resident and migratory birds. A viewing platform and an observation hut invite the nature lover to linger and observe the environs.

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Observation hut in the morning sun

One of my regrets is my non-interest in birding when I grew up in Germany. Except for our frequent feathered denizens, I did not know most by name. I also was not aware of birding enthusiasts, or of dedicated groups, like the one I belong to in Colorado which meets weekly. In another bit of luck, my visit in Germany this past fall coincided with Euro Birdwatch, a continent-wide bird count each October. So when I had the chance to set out with four experienced local birders for this European event at this very hotspot, I jumped at it, benefited from a higher number of avian sightings than I could have reached on my own, and expanded my German vocabulary. Among the rarities I surely would have missed were Dunlins, Little Stints, Spotted Redshanks, and Common Greenshanks. Just thinking of shorebirds characteristically puts me into a state of complete confusion.

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Mute Swan, juvenile

After count day I continued to frequent this serene enclave. One morning, I happened upon a pair of Mute Swans, one adult and one juvenile, still asleep in a pond, seemingly without a worry in the world. Only when approached by Eurasian Coots and Common Moorhen did they pull their elegant necks from under their wings, survey their watery realm regally, and commence their morning toilette.

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Mute Swans, adult and juvenile

A flock of Graylag Geese interrupted the silence as they circled noisily, before landing in a lake where they continued their garrulous chatter.

I typically encountered Great Egrets, Gray Herons, Little Grebes, Mallards, Eurasian Green-winged Teals, Tufted Ducks, Gadwall, and a lone Common Shelduck. Common Buzzards were, indeed, common, but on a few lucky occasions I saw Red Kites and Eurasian Marsh Harriers.

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Northern Lapwing

Cormorants, Common Kingfisher, Common Snipe, and Northern Lapwing also counted among the regulars, and some of the smaller callers were Eurasian Wrens, European Stonechats, Common Reed Buntings, Northern Wheatear, and Great Tits. The latter are among Europe’s most abundant and gregarious little birds, as cheerful to behold as the related chickadees in North America.

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Great Tit

Sunrise and sunset painted the boggy, reedy scenery in warm auburn hues and the air was filled with the waxing or waning of bird calls. I immersed myself in this sanctuary as often as possible. During a previous trip I had learned about the increasing numbers of the White Stork population in Western Europe. This thriving ecological niche was a further encouraging example of what can be accomplished when humans put hearts, heads, and hands together.

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/01/11/auf-vogelsuche-in-deutschland/