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.

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

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.

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

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/

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.

Muskrat

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/