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/

A World in Pastel

     Getting out of Colorado Springs is the greatest challenge of our day. At seven o’clock in the morning, the traffic is already maddening. Luckily for us, a Western Meadowlark’s cheerful song emerges above the noise of the cars and instantly puts us in a better mood. It is an emblematic bird of the prairie which surrounds us as soon as we turn onto Highway 24. For the second year in succession, my husband and I travel 40 miles to our destination near Calhan, on occasion of my April birthday. This year our friend, Susanne, here on a whirlwind visit from Germany, accompanies us to the eastern reaches of El Paso County where the fantastic geology of the Paint Mines greets us amid the undulating landscape of Colorado’s High Plains. The tooth of time has gnawed spires, cones, and further fanciful forms out of the clay which constitutes the chief component of the mines. Their colors range from a near-blinding white to ocher and pink, but constantly vary as a result of the prevailing light.

Pyramidal formation

Our guest in front of the Paint Mines. We really enjoyed your visit, Susanne!

The flora, still attired in muted beige and ruddy winter tones is punctuated by perennially green yuccas, but nascent wildflowers and verdant grasses suggest vernal awakening, despite a few remnants of snow that survive in shaded crevices.

     Four to five miles of hiking trails afford far-off and close-up views of the Paint Mines. The perceivable shades and shapes are limited only by our imagination. From a distance, the structures appear like solid rock, but to touch they are friable, and leave a chalky residue on our fingers. The area has attracted humans for at least 9000 years. Indigenous North Americans hunted for prey and multi-hued clays for pottery, ceremonial paint, and additional purposes. In the late 1800s, settlers of European ancestry fashioned bricks from the natural building substrate.

Paint Mines with Pikes Peak in the background

Whenever I am here, I imagine the transformation of the panorama in the intervening millennia. Pikes Peak looms on the western horizon as it has since times immemorial, but roads and houses are relatively recent introductions, and the forest of modern-day windmills near the Paint Mines is the latest, and most controversial addition: at best affecting the scenery, at worst the health of residents, and the survival of birds.

Turbine trees

     On this mid-week morning, we share the space with few other humans, but enjoy the furred and feathered fauna. Cottontails and jackrabbits disperse at our approach, then stop and eye us from a safe distance. A Thirteen-striped Ground Squirrel makes an unexpected appearance, its coat bearing a prominent pattern.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel, unfortunately not showing its face

We see pronghorn and deer, but foxes and coyotes remain hidden, as do reptiles, especially the rattling kind, much to our relief. Many winged beings call this place home, year-round or temporarily. Rock Wrens’ melodies reverberate in the maze of the mines, Northern Mockingbirds impress with their repertoire, and the fluting of Western Meadowlarks continues to delight.

Rock Wren

The squawking, tweeting, and chattering sounds surrounding us confirm that many creatures conduct their lives in this seemingly sparse environment.

A so-called hoodoo

One of the most iconic structures

     Taking our leave, we carry away indelible impressions of the whimsical, vibrant formations, and of its denizens, and we feel connected to visitors throughout the ages who were similarly charmed and captivated by the Paint Mines.

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https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/04/27/paint-mines/

Just Another City Park

One of the oldest “parks” in Colorado Springs is North Cheyenne Cañon. Ever since the founding of the city by General William Jackson Palmer in 1871, this local landmark has enjoyed great popularity among residents and visitors alike. The official park originated in 1885, when the city purchased 640 acres from Colorado College, and reached its current size of 1600 acres through a land donation by General Palmer in 1907, as well as later additions.

Starsmore Center

The park’s entrance is graced by the Starsmore Discovery Center. This massive stone house formerly served as the residence of the Starsmore family and stood a couple of miles east, at the corner of S. Nevada Avenue and Cheyenne Road, the location of a present day fast food chain. In a spectacular action, the entire 200 ton building was moved to its new home on a trailer in April 1990, and opened as the park’s main visitor center two years later, which was also when the Friends of Cheyenne Cañon nonprofit organization was created. This year, it celebrates its 25th anniversary — Happy Birthday, Friends!

North Cheyenne Cañon Road

A serpentine, newly re-paved road lined by giant Ponderosa Pines and Douglas Firs winds up the narrow canyon for nearly 3 miles, paralleling the course of North Cheyenne Creek to the foot of Helen Hunt Falls. These are named in honor of a famous writer who relocated from the East to Colorado Springs for its purported beneficial climate. More about this remarkable woman in a future post. Adjacent to the falls sits a log cabin, in operation as a second visitor center since 2013. It replaced a dilapidated predecessor, known as The Cub. This structure was associated with the nearby Bruin Inn, a retreat originally owned by Colorado College that has long since burned.

Helen Hunt Falls (in the background on the left) and Visitor Center

A small distance beyond this site, the pavement ends at the junction of the Gold Camp Road and High Drive, now a parking lot. The former was built as the railroad bed for the so-called Short Line, to transport gold mined in Cripple Creek at the back side of Pikes Peak, and destined for the processing mills in Old Colorado City. Once mineral extraction ceased to be profitable, the rails were removed and the gravel route became available to car traffic.

Junction of High Drive and Lower Gold Camp Road

Parking lot, often filled to capacity

Following the collapse of one of the railroad tunnels, the affected portion of the road was barred to cars, and reserved for horses, pedestrians, and bikers. When flooding washed out stretches of the High Drive, it, too, opened only for travelers on hoof, foot, or spokes. Owing to this rich past, North Cheyenne Cañon Park received special distinction in 2009, by being included on the National Register of Historic Places.

The attractive scenery is a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts. Miles of spurs branching off the Gold Camp Road and High Drive, combined with hiking opportunities in the canyon itself, result in a near-endless web of trails covering this mountainous margin of Colorado Springs. My husband and I have walked many of them, but keep gravitating to the Columbine Trail which begins at the lower trailhead west of the Starsmore Center, at an elevation of 6250 feet, and reaches the upper trailhead at an altitude of 7300 feet, after four miles. Southern exposure makes it one of the earliest, snow-free paths. Meandering in and out of copses of conifers and clusters of scrub oak, it affords glimpses of the Helen Hunt and Silver Cascade Falls, of the rock formations which rim the ravine, and of the vast expanse of the Great Plains to the east.

Columbine Trail

View of Silver Cascade Falls from the Columbine Trail

Looking east

Depending on the day, week, or month, the park may be crowded, and since we seek solitude, we avoid weekends, and other busy times. While breaking a sweat and feeling the blood course through our veins, we delight in the warm caresses of sunbeams, the rushing sounds of the creek, and the joyful songs of feathered tenants. Chickadees, nuthatches, jays, and towhees flit in and out of the trees, ravens and raptors soar overhead.

For years past, North Cheyenne Cañon has provided pleasures to seekers from near and far. This seeker hopes to find them there for many more in the future.

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

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/04/13/noch-so-ein-stadtpark/

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.

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

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