A Silver Ring

To observe birds in their natural setting is one of my favorite pastimes. Binoculars are generally indispensable to properly identify a species from a distance, because most will not tolerate being encroached upon. Seeing wild birds from close-up is a rare privilege. Banding stations offer such views. One I am familiar with and have visited repeatedly is located not too far from Colorado Springs at Chico Basin Ranch, in the eastern reaches of El Paso County.

In addition to being an environmentally-conscious, conservation-oriented, active cattle ranch, Chico Basin is the number one birding hotspot in El Paso County as its terrain lies along a migratory route. For that reason, the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, under the auspices of the US Department of the Interior, organizes a four-week banding event staffed by master banders each spring and fall. Nets are erected in densely vegetated areas, and avians that get entangled in the fine mesh are carefully extracted. To keep them calm and protected until their evaluation, they are enclosed in hand-sewn cotton bags corresponding to their various sizes, and hung on a numbered rack according to the nets where they were found.

Chico Basin Ranch Banding Station, with seating for school classes and other interested observers

When it is the bird’s turn, it is pored over painstakingly. Its feathers are examined, fat stores assessed, wingspan and tail length measured. Age and sex is determined with the help of additional parameters, such as state of plumage, degree of skull ossification, and stage of molting. When a captive’s identity is still uncertain, beak and other, more arcane measurements are in order. Banding stations are repositories of the tools of the trade, and of relevant ornithological literature. A copy of the Bible of banders, Peter Pyle’s Identification of North American Birds is mandatory, as is the tabular version which enumerates numerous pertinent details about distinguishing features of each species. Nobody knows everything, but every bander knows where to look up information. And fast, to limit the amount of handling time and stress.

A light, numbered aluminum band, that does not interfere with flight, is then selected from a neatly organized tackle box, and fastened to one leg, based on that extremity’s thickness. Experienced banders know which diameter to choose, but a nifty gauge, or one of many lists can assist in the selection. Its unique serial number allows tracking of avian movements over vast distances. Recapture at the site of original banding to which individuals may return during future migrations occurs not infrequently. I was surprised to learn that the likelihood is only 1 in 10,000 in a different location. Very recently, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology published an online article about a Yellow Warbler being banded in northern Colombia, before it was re-captured in New York State 2 months and 2300 miles later, no small sensation.

The final step consists of establishing the bird’s weight by placing it head first in a tube large enough to hold it, while immobilizing it sufficiently to prevent injuries. That accomplished, it either wriggles out on its own once the cylinder is held horizontally, or, more typically, the bander extricates it, cups it between two hands, then slowly lifts the uppermost. After this ordeal, the feathered creatures fly off into the adjacent trees, a few immediately, others following a moment of reorientation.

The Yellow-breasted Chat from the photo above is being weighed

While all this measuring is going on, the information needs to be recorded as well.

The differing reactions to their capture are equally fascinating. Some individuals seem silent and subdued, others anxious and agitated. A few appear utterly indignant at their confinement and express their displeasure vocally and voluminously.

White-eyed Vireo, a rare visitor in El Paso County

Spotted Towhees occur more frequently

Blue Jays are among the most vocal captives…

…as are Brown Thrashers…

Raptors, like this Cooper’s Hawk, are feisty and fierce (and seldom founds in the nets)

Banders in action are reminiscent of dancers in an artfully choreographed performance. Birds, the beguiling ballerinas, are gently but assuredly lifted, repeatedly rotated, and finally released. As I watch these winged wonders vanish into the foliage, I wish them smooth sailing. May they gain enough weight during their layover to carry them securely to their wintering grounds, find sufficient habitat and nourishment there, and bless us with their presence again come spring.

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https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/10/19/ein-silberner-ring/

Change

For weeks the unmistakable signs of approaching autumn have advertised the change in seasons, yet they coexist with vestiges of estival exuberance.

Still, butterflies drink deeply of the sweet nectar of friendly flowers whose vital force continues to pulsate.

Still, the sun warms the air and lights the days, though they are growing shorter. Birds wing southward to milder climes, and while one swallow does not a summer make, the absence of their multitudes signals summer’s end.

Barn swallows at the height of summer. Now they are gone.

The transformation of green foliage into hues of yellow, orange, and red, and of colorful blossoms into seed-bearing vessels is the most obvious harbinger of the earth’s ever-increasing distance from our solar orb. It is accompanied by a chill that rides on Aeolus’s wings, by leaves that tumble in his wake, and by the smell of composting vegetation on his breath.

It is a time of endings. The ending of vibrancy. The ending of the earth’s most productive period.

     A time of wistfulness.

     A time to reflect on goals unfinished.

     A time of regrets.

It is also a time of beginnings. The beginning of dormancy. The beginning of the earth’s most conservative period.

     A time of gratitude.

     A time to celebrate accomplishments.

     A time of hope.

Hope, that life will continue, that we will have another chance, that spring will once again spring.

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https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/10/05/wandel/

Serenity Lake

Certain locations exert strong powers over our imagination. One such charmed destination for me is Manitou Lake in neighboring Teller County. I think of it as “Serenity Lake” which captures its character perfectly, as I was reminded during an excursion in late July/early August. The lake is nestled in an idyllic broad mountain valley which offers superb views of Pikes Peak’s north face, and a home to a wide array of attractive denizens.

Pikes Peak with a halo early in the morning

Pikes Peak with its own cloudscape later in the day

Because Manitou Lake is Teller County’s top birding “hotspot”, according to ebird, it has accommodated my birding group’s annual picnic repeatedly. This year’s get-together was the impetus behind the visit, but I tagged on a few days. Once we had engaged in ornithological observations and culinary excesses, and my fellow birders (about whom I will write more in the future) had flown away, I continued to engage in my favorite pastime. Without enumerating every avian sighting, one that regularly recurred was a Spotted Sandpiper. It proved very cooperative and photogenic, gladdening this hopeless watcher’s heart because it is one of the few shorebirds I can somewhat reliably – well, occasionally – correctly identify.

I am even more hopeless when it comes to insects, but in that regard am content to admire their myriad shapes, shades, and sizes, and grateful when one poses long enough to get my camera into gear.

I do recognize the ubiquitous, curious, and impossibly cute Golden-mantled ground squirrels. Next to providing additional enchanting and entertaining wildlife encounters, they totally stole my heart.

While Manitou Lake is now an exclusive day-use area, camping is possible at three nearby Forest Service campgrounds. I chose South Meadows, about two miles away, to pitch my shelter for two nights. My stay coincided with a string of sunny days sandwiched between a row of rainy ones, precipitation being the predominant pattern in previous weeks, compliments of our “monsoons”. Long-term regional residents did not used to refer to Colorado’s summer rains this way, but contemporary meteorologists seem compelled to apply this tropical term to our decidedly non-tropical climate.

Monsoons or not, the rains have clearly contributed to a state of botanical exuberance in a state famed for its wildflowers, but not necessarily for its lushness. In the mixed conifer-aspen forest, in the verdant meadows, and in the saturated wetlands surrounding Manitou Lake, colorful blossoms brightened each hike and served as floral reminders of the preciousness of the period, and of the enthusiastic energy of our earth.

At 7,700 feet elevation, daytime temperatures in the high 60s to low 70s were very comfortable and my sleeping bag kept me sufficiently warm when they dropped into the 40s at night. A starry firmament followed partly sunny skies. The waxing moon peeked through my open tent fly before it dipped behind the western horizon. In retrospect, I could have dispensed with this external shell, as the heavens held back the buckets until about an hour after I had taken down my temporary domicile. We Coloradans are spoiled by sunshine and grow grouchy when it stays away for extended periods. I benefitted doubly from my brief getaway at this serene site: by experiencing one of the few dry windows in our recent wet weather, and by witnessing several sunrises and sunsets, as well as nature’s incessant, indefatigable goings-on.

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https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/08/17/stiller-see/

Summer Sorrow

     At the height of summer, after an evening of sustained rains, Fountain Creek is a ruddy river. The mountains remain shrouded in layers of clouds. Instead of paths there are puddles, the air is pregnant with moisture, and the vegetation with dewy droplets. Slightly sluggish avian and insect activity accelerates with the rising sun. Alas, mosquitoes are not among those handicapped by the high humidity. On trails bordered by wet grasses my shoes and socks become soaked.

     The flora is in full bloom or has gone to seed. I am greeted by the golden smiles of manifold sunflowers. Despite a bounty of milkweed, I see a lone Monarch butterfly. Grasshoppers disperse before my approach, one group to the right, the other to the left.

Baby birds are everywhere, growing up fast. The avian mood differs from the urgent wooing and coupling of spring. Now is a time for family joys and challenges, with hungry infants, toddlers, or teenagers constantly begging for food and attention. Is it my imagination, or do the parents show exasperation? Their biologic goal fulfilled, they don’t have as many reasons to sing. Other than the squealing in the nurseries, it is relatively quiet. Adult robins’ plumage is past its prime, but the juveniles’ appears adorned with brilliant beads. Swallows sail on shiny wings, forever the aerial acrobats. While hyperactive wrens work their way through the woods, velvety waxwings gorge themselves on berries, goldfinches on thistle seed.

     There is loveliness wherever I gaze. I sate my soul with this life-affirming commotion. But interlaced with my joy is melancholy. Why am I sad? Is it because of the knowledge that natural habitats are diminishing? Because this enclave teeming with energy is encircled by development, and there are not nearly enough similar refuges? Because many animals will sally south soon? Because summer will be followed by fall and winter, by dormancy, if not death? Because of (wo)mankind’s inability to coexist peacefully, with fellow humans, and with other species? Because our exquisite, unequalled earth seems on the verge of the abyss? Because of love and loved ones lost?

     I am not alone in my wistfulness. “In the midst of life we are in death,” is a saying dating to medieval times, but reflecting a sentiment likely as old as humanity. Perhaps I am feeling it so acutely because nature’s vitality has peaked? Sad as I might be, it is comforting to know that the earth, for now, will continue in its orbit around the sun, and life in its inexorable, heart-rending beauty.

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https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/08/10/sommerschmerz/

Breeding Bird Survey

I was in a deep sleep when the alarm jolted me awake at 2:30 AM. The wind billowing the curtains and rattling the windows, the neighbors’ dogs barking, and fear of oversleeping had not been conducive to restful slumber. When a friend had asked me to help her with a Breeding Bird Survey, I had agreed, eager for this novel experience. In order to reach the starting point of her assigned area near Olney Springs in Crowley County, about 80 miles away, by the official start time of 4:59, we had to depart Colorado Springs by 3:30. I met Diana and another friend, Rose, at a parking lot, where we piled ourselves and our bags into one car and set out.

The early rising did not make for a good night, but it allowed us to witness a spectacular sunrise. Diana and Rose had done a survey in another locale a few days before, but I still needed to be initiated. “Breeding bird survey” had invoked images of stealthily searching for occupied nests in my mind. Instead, we got out of the car every half mile and recorded all the birds seen or heard within 3 minutes. Covering a distance of 25 miles, this meant a total of 50 stops. As soon as Diana identified birds, she called out their names. As one of two scribes, I kept a checklist with species and numbers. Rose, as the other, monitored and jotted down GPS coordinates and associated landmarks to assist future surveyors. This long-term monitoring event of North American bird populations has been organized and overseen by the United States Geologic Survey (USGS) and the Canadian Wildlife Service since 1966.

In this Colorado terrain carpeted by shortgrass prairie and dotted with cholla cactus, the most frequent feathered denizens and enthusiastic singers were Western Meadowlarks, Northern Mockingbirds, Horned Larks, Lark Buntings, Mourning Doves, and Cassin’s Sparrows, and they serenaded us throughout the morning hours. Red-tailed, Swainson’s, and Ferruginous Hawks soared in the cloudless sky. Our species count in this relatively homogeneous habitat was 35.

At our first few stops, we wore long sleeves, but the rising sun quickly made us peel off layers. Besides feathered we saw furred creatures: fox, coyote, pronghorn, and jackrabbits. And two turtles that traversed our path. When I transferred one from the middle of the road, I was promptly reminded that numerous animals relax their bladders when stressed. My rescue was probably unnecessary, because we encountered a mere four vehicles in five hours.

Shortly before the conclusion of our survey at about 10 AM, we happened across a prairie dog town. Luckily, the endearing rodents shared space with Burrowing Owls, always a treat. One of them perched on a post next to the car, and its stare seemed to suggest it was time for us to leave. We obliged.

Scattered ranches represented human activity on this challenging land, some active, some in ruins. We were particularly impressed by a sturdily-built structure with a stone foundation. Who had resided there, in somewhat grand style? What human stories happened under its now defunct roof?

Similar to previous sojourns in Colorado’s prairie, my appreciation for the human, animal, and plant life adapted to an austere environment only deepened.

Thank you for inviting me along, Diana.

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https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/07/06/eine-studie-der-brutvogel/

A Few of my Favorite Things

     In early June, I attended the annual Colorado Field Ornithologists’ Convention in Steamboat Springs, in northwest Colorado. The CFO has hosted these yearly gatherings since the 1960s, but it was my first. I enjoyed meeting birders from various corners of our state, and joining field trips to a number of counties on three consecutive days, each guided by a different leader with a unique style. I bird on my own most of the time, yet a group provides more eyes, ears, and experience to help me detect and learn about species I am unlikely to spot on my own.

Birding destination in Routt County

…and in neighboring Jackson County

     I tagged on a few days at the front and tail ends of the convention to engage in another favorite activity: camping. Before the conference, I stayed at Stagecoach Reservoir State Park, approximately 20 miles south of Steamboat Springs, a destination known to me from a previous journey. One of the “primitive” loops (no water, only pit latrines) offers camp sites for $10 per night. Because I was there during the week, I did not need a reservation, whereas on the weekend, I neither would have found a single unoccupied site, nor would I have wanted one. What would be the point of being in a tent encircled by an RV city?

My campsite at Stagecoach Lake State Park

View of Stagecoach Reservoir from my campsite

Immature Trumpeter Swan, encountered on my 11 mile stroll around the reservoir

Common Loon, also a rare visitor at the reservoir at this time of year

     I love to sleep in a tent. I might have been made to sleep in a tent. I have vivid childhood memories of carrying blankets and towels into the back yard and attaching them to a patio umbrella with clothespins, thereby fashioning my own. It provided a favorite play area where my friends and I were obscured from scrutiny by our parents (not that we needed scrutiny, well- behaved as we were). Occasionally, my dad pitched a genuine tent. Made from heavy canvas, its central portion looked and opened like an umbrella with a very pointed top, and the walls were attached to the roof with a zipper. To me it looked like a Bedouin shelter which facilitated flights of fancy. It doubtlessly served as the model for my improvised umbrella-cum-cover construction. Even though my friends and I overnighted in those tents every once in a while, my family never took actual camping vacations. Fortunately for me, I married a man who introduced me to tent camping during road and backpacking excursions. Now I might be more fond of it than my teacher (he disagrees).

     I love being separated from the outside by a mere layer of fabric. If the weather is clement enough to leave off the fly, or to keep the vestibule open, I position my sleeping pad in a way that enables me to follow the trajectory of the moon and the stars. Besides, it allows me to listen to nature’s sounds. The howling of coyotes, no matter how cliché, reassures me that some wilderness remains. Then there is birdsong. My favorite locales teem with feathered creatures that wake me long before sunrise. I delight in setting out with binoculars and camera for a few hours early in the morning, before returning to the campsite to heat water for a cup of tea or coffee on our trusted camp stove. Or, when we travel together, to have my husband surprise me with it!

Sharing the place with Wild Horses

     While it is highly unlikely not to have neighbors at a state park during the summer, I saw no other humans when I camped among the Wild Horses at Sand Wash Basin in Moffat County after the conclusion of the birding conference, which did not conclude my birding. Sand Wash provides a home not only for equines, but also for avians, including some of my favorites. As soon as I turned from the paved highway onto the gravel road, I was greeted by Western Meadowlarks and Northern Mockingbirds, both superlative songsters. I became better acquainted with the varied and cheerful repertoire of Sage Thrashers, and with a new life bird, the Sagebrush Sparrow. In a landscape where the dwellings of prairie dogs are marked by earthen mounds, Burrowing Owls are always a potential presence, and my hope in that regard was not disappointed either.

Sage Thrasher, carrying food

Sagebrush Sparrow

Prairie Dogs

Burrowing Owl

     Far away from human cacophony, the evening and morning chorus of the avifauna was complemented not solely by coyote music, but by the neighing of wild horses. Maybe sleeping in a tent reminds me of my own, wild self.

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https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/06/29/raus-in-die-natur/

Great Blue Hunter

The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is North America’s largest and most ubiquitous heron. This long-legged and long-necked slate gray and blue wading bird is hard to miss.

Tall, slender, elegant, it often stands motionless, statuesque, at the water’s edge, seemingly at ease.

But appearances are deceptive. With the speed of lightning it thrusts its head and neck under water and impales or grabs its prey with its dagger-like bill.

Success.

The bulge in the neck is caused by the food bolus.

Ready to look for the next meal.

 

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https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/06/15/amerikanischer-graujager/