Earlier this week, we saw a female broad-tailed hummingbird feeding on the last of a neighbor’s Rose-of-Sharon flowers.
Then we had three more forest fires start in the mountains to the west. It’s October! It is time to cool off.
But this morning we woke to cold temperatures and even a little sleet on the ground. And that brought in the birds. House and goldfinches, a northern flicker, chickadees and a couple of red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches.
But among these frequent fliers, I saw two dark-eyed juncos.
Dark-eyed juncos have between four and five different color schemes — ornithologists have changed how they classify them. They used to all be called different forms of Oregon juncos, now just some are called Oregon-form juncos, along with slate-colored, white-winged and pink-sided. Very confusing. https://amylaw.blog/2018/03/31/hawk-nest-monitoring-begins/
But as we were enjoying the all little birdies, we noticed one we couldn’t quite place.
A finch that was striped all over, not just on her chest. After a flurry of thumbing throw bird books, we decided a female or juvenile Cassin’s finch — they look the same until the males molt. The clincher was the white ring around her eye. Cassin’s finches are usually found in the foothills or lower mountains. I have no idea why she decided to come visit us. But she is welcome anytime.
In late August, my husband and I went up into the mountains of the Front Range to monitor pika as volunteers for the Front Range Pika Project in conjunction with the Denver Zoo. At that time, we were shocked at how dry the high country was. Last week, we went on Pika Patrol for a second time this year, this time to a spot in the Sawatch Range. It was a beautiful day for a hike — clear skies and temperatures in the 60s.
Pika habitat is always high in the mountains — right at or above tree line. This site is in the bare rocks within the trees in the center of the picture. There was an avalanche chute to the right. This wasn’t the steepest chute we’d ever seen, but when we turned around we saw the results of an avalanche that had roared down it in the recent past.
This is the scene 180 degrees from the the photo above. You can see the downed trees in the background — all had been snapped off. The trees in the center of the photo were lucky to survive, but they had a lot of damage from the debris the avalanche carried. The trees at their bases were broken when they hit the survivors.
In spite of the irrational feeling of unease that the avalanche chute created — there was no snow anywhere around us — my husband and I decided the easiest way to get to the site would be to hike up it, then cut across to the site. As we made our way up the chute, my husband pointed out some trees that had been somewhat protected from the avalanche by a small outcrop of rock.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a good picture of another tree 100 feet down slope of these that was snapped off at about the same height. That suggests that the avalanche was moving fast enough at this point that it didn’t drop very much in the next 100 feet.
At about this point, we turned to the left and headed into the trees to get to the talus slope within them. This small area of broken rocks in the forest didn’t seem very promising as pika habitat, but it wasn’t long before we heard the squeaky-toy call of a pika.
This little guy scampered over the rocks around us.
I wonder if it had been tagged by researchers at some point, because it had a hole in one ear.
The pika stayed about twenty feet away from us as we made our measurements of its habitat. It was respectful of us a big creatures, but it never really seemed too afraid of us.
One of the measurements we are supposed to make as part of the Pika Patrol is whether or not the pika have made their signature “haystacks” (Pika Patrol, Part One). It concerned me that we didn’t see any as we were scrambling over the talus where we saw the pika. But as we made our way down the treacherous rocks, we literally fell onto one. It was very small — evidently it had just been started. And there were plants around (like the grasses in the foreground) that the pika could harvest and dry. But it didn’t seem like much for as late in the year as we visited.
A month ago I was alarmed by the dry conditions we found on Berthoud Pass (2020 Pika Patrol) . This site looked in better shape, but it had several things going for it — it was surrounded by trees that would raise the humidity, and we had that freak snowstorm in early September that dropped a fair amount of moisture. But it was still a warm day in the subalpine, and there wasn’t much evidence of foraging for the winter.
Colorado went from 93o on Monday September 7 to 32o Tuesday September 8, 2020 — a change of sixty-one degrees in 24 hours. Prior to that, On September 6, Denver reached 101o making it our latest 100o day. That gave us a 48 hour change of 68o.
This weather whiplash was a result of the fact that fast-moving cold weather fronts push in behind slow-moving warm weather fronts, compressing the warm air and making it even warmer. When the cold front finally arrives, the temperature drop is dramatic. Few are as dramatic as what we saw yesterday — this was almost a record-breaker for Denver (the record being a change of 63o).
The temperature drop gave us much needed moisture, first as rain, then as snow. Although we are all glad to be out of the forest fire smoke that has plagued us for a month, it has been hard on the birds.
Before the storm hit, my husband and I made sure to fill the bird feeders. The little cheepies appreciated it this morning.
The hummingbirds, almost totally dependent on flower nectar for food, were particularly hard hit. Hummingbirds rely on their incredibly fast metabolism to keep warm. If the night is too cold, they can literally starve to death.
But we had a plan! I have a hummingbird feeder that sticks to the sliding glass door, and so is under the house eaves and would remain snow-free. The little birds completely ignore if there is any other food source available. But this morning, nothing else was clear of snow.
The picture above was taken with natural light, because I didn’t want to startle the starving bird and scare it off it’s energy sources. But for some reason, my camera used the flash for the picture below.
The resulting photo shows off the bird’s iridescent feathers. Bird feathers create color not with pigment, but with prisms in the feathers themselves, and so change depending on the angle of the light.http://Hummer colors
Over the weekend, my husband and I went up to the mountains for the first time this summer. We’ve been trying to isolate ourselves, and the mountain trails have been busy with people trying to get out of their houses while being safe.
We headed up to do our annual Pika Patrol for the Denver Zoo and the Front Range Pika Project. (Pika Patrol, 2019 Edition) We both really enjoy these trips because they force us to get out away from cell phones and cars and the internet, and just be.
It was smokey as we stepped out of the car at the trail head. Colorado is in a drought, and we have four major forest fires burning in the mountains right now. There was a forest fire just west on the other side of the mountain — literally. It produced clouds of smoke that plagued us the entire hike.
But the hike started out well, in spite of the smoke. We were delighted to see these white columbines in the rocks at the side of the parking area. My trusty plant books say that white columbines are a normal, if rare, variation on our more common Colorado columbine.
We walked a few paces and found a nice group of beautiful traditional blue and white Colorado Columbines as well.
The trail up to the site we that we monitor is off of US 40 near Berthoud Pass. Starting at 10,500 feet, the trail is steep — a 50% grade, which means that for every 2 steps forward, we took one up. We did this for about two hours. Every year, I tell my husband, this is it. This is the last time we do this site.
This year, the hike was even harder due to smoke polluting the thin air.
After plodding up the mountain, we reached the meadow that is the beginning of the pika observation site. Last year, as we approached, we could hear the pika’s squeaky-ball chirps. We did this year, too. But instead of a chorus, there only were a few isolated calls.
Instead, we saw chipmunks on the alpine tundra, something I have only rarely seen before.
We took a few minutes to dig out our data sheet, and start recording our observations. It was hot for the alpine — 75o — and so dry the plants crunched beneath our boots.
As we puttered around, we began to see a few pika dashing over the rocks. They went out to the nearby meadow, and came back with a mouthful of forage. But we didn’t find any hay piles yet. It may be too early — they still have a month or so before the snow usually falls.
We found a few places where the pika had left their scat, and collected some for DNA analysis by FRPP.
But compared to last year, there just weren’t many of the little critters around. We speculated on why there were not as many pika as there were last year. We came up with several possibilities:
We came up a month earlier this year. The pikas may not be very active gathering forage for their hay piles yet.
We came up a month earlier, and it was too warm for the pikas. While we were in the alpine, it was 75o, the upper limit of the temperature range that pikas can operate in.
It was just too hot for them, and they had died.
We are hoping that it is either possibilities one or two, or both. But it was hot, and dry. Alpine plants are not tall, but they are usually green and lush. This year, they have taken a beating with the drought, and that will probably impact how much forage the pika can gather.
Even before we became concerned about the conditions we found at the pika site, we had planned to visit another pika site in the Upper Arkansas Valley (that hopefully won’t be so much of a death march). We’ll go up a month from now, when it is hopefully cooler. And we’ll hopefully see plenty of pika building plenty of hay piles for the winter.
I had to zoom out to get an idea of what’s going on with the smoke situation, but it looks like we are being smoked by a fire on the Utah-Colorado border.
It took me a little while to figure out their key: Circles are permanent air quality monitors, triangles are temporary air quality monitors. Green means good air quality, yellow not so good, and orange really horrible. The little flames, of course are the fires.
It is interesting to note that the air quality along the Front Range has got a lot of yellow circles, and one red triangle. Our air quality, 200 hundred miles away and across a mountain range 10,000 feet high, is worse than it is in Grand Junction, 30 miles away.
When I look at the Fire and Smoke Map (above) as well as the InciWeb site https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/, I can see that the Pine Gulch Fire is about 21,000 acres, and at 7% contained, is still growing. We could be in for a smokey couple of days.
The other fires north of the Pine Gulch Fire have been contained. They won’t be declared “out”, however, until the first snow falls, and puts out the last smoldering roots underground.
We have just about every type of bird feeder in our backyard — tube feeders, sock feeders, platform feeders, house feeders, hummer feeders. The one that the birds don’t really pay much attention to are the suet feeders. I have spent a lot of time trying to get them interested, but no luck.
So I have taken to stuffing the hair I get from grooming the dogs into the suet feeders. That, the smaller birds pay attention to. They use it to build their nests.
Last week, it was a female lesser goldfinch who came to fill her beak with as much hair as would fit into it.
Goldfinches are some of the last birds to nest. That makes sense — they have to get the eggs laid, hatched, and the nestlings fledged, all while there are enough late-blooming sunflowers to feed them.
Gathering the hair often involved some contortions. It didn’t bother the goldfinch, though, they are used to hanging upside down to get seeds from sunflowers, and similar plants. Goldfinches at lunch
But it didn’t take her long to get enough to fill her bill, and she flew off. She made a lot of trips to the suet feeder/dog hair dispenser, so I’m hopeful that she nested. I can hardly wait to see the fledglings!
Usually, butterflies are hard to photograph. They are wary creatures, and when you turn the big eye of your camera at them, they take off, flying erratically away.
But this week, I’ve been lucky to get some photos of butterflies I’ve never shot before — in some cases, I’ve never heard of before.
Case in point is the Weidemeyer’s Admirial. I’ve probably seen it before, but never actually identified it. Turns out that Admirals are an entire group of butterflies.
Weidemeyer’s Admirals like stream habitats, which is exactly where I found this one. It fits, then, that they eat stream side plants like willows, aspen, serviceberry, chokecherry, and cottonwoods.
Western Tiger Swallowtails also like streams, but also venture into open grasslands. Their caterpillars eat the leaves of trees and shrubs like cottonwood, birch alder, chokecherry, willows and wild plum. The adults, like many butterflies, drink nectar. https://amylaw.blog/2018/07/18/swallowtail-butterflies/
Finally, this is a waved sphinx moth that landed on our porch. You know it’s a moth and not a butterfly because the wings are held horizontal, not vertical as butterflies do most of the time. The white dot on it’s wing helps identify it as a waved sphinx. It’s caterpillar eats the leaves of tress, but the adult doesn’t eat at all. It lives to mate, and lay eggs.
I went for a hike today — perhaps not the best choice, because a lot of people have the day off due to corona virus, and a lot of people have the day off due to Independence Day tomorrow. By the time I arrived at the trail head at 7:45, the parking lot was full. It was like rush hour with people, bicycles and dogs going up and down the trail. I’m glad that people are enjoying the outdoors in this stressful time, but there were lots of us on the trail.
But everybody was polite, and happy to be outside. We all huffed and puffed our way up the trail, pulling our masks up to cover our faces, even though we were outside. It was good to be on the trail.
As always, I had my trusty camera along, and found a number of interesting thing to photograph. One of the things I found was a beautiful spider’s web, with the spider sitting outside the entrance to the den. Very cool.
Trigger Warning: If you don’t like spiders, you may want to just skip the rest of the blog post, because the photos may be a little creepy.
While I was getting my camera out, I realized that the spider was right in the entrance to it’s lair.
I looked through my viewfinder, and realized that the spider was moving like lightning to the outer portion of the web. There was a wasp caught in it!
The spider ran out and tapped the wasp. But the wasp’s stinger is point towards the spider.
The wasp was able to avoid getting caught by the spider, but was still tangled in the web.
The spider danced around the wasp faster than the camera could catch the images. I assume that, although the wasp was snagged in the web, it could still sting the spider.
The spider lunged for the wasp as the wasp finally makes its escape.
The spider was left with nothing.
And so it went back to waiting patiently at the opening of it’s den.
For years, my husband and I have nurtured milkweed in the lost corners of our yard. “Remember the Monarchs!” we chant, as we carefully work around the tall milk-sap plants.
While Monarch butterflies eat nectar from a bunch of different plants, the caterpillars eat only milkweed as they grow. The milky sap of Milkweeds is toxic to most animals, but not to Monarchs. In fact, in’s all that Monarch caterpillars eat. What’s more, the Monarch caterpillars incorporate the toxins into their own bodies, and use it as a chemical deterrent against predators.
In spite of this incredibly cool adaptation, Monarch populations have been declining for decades — between 50-90% loss since 1991. Habitat loss has been a major problem in the United States, especially with the introduction of herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans so that herbicides can be sprayed on them to get rid of milkweed growing between the rows. In Mexico, where they overwinter in just a few select spots in upland forests, they are vulnerable to illegal logging operations, cold snaps and hurricanes. Car strikes are also a surprising big killer of Monarchs in Mexico — up to 200,000 killed in just two locations near their over-wintering spots! Monarch Butterfly Migration
There’s not a lot we can do to alleviate these problems. But we can grow milkweed to give as many Monarchs as possible a good start in life. Through the years, we’d been rewarded with a few Monarch butterflies. But no caterpillars.
And lately, we’ve become aware that the decision to grow milkweed is itself a trade-off — native milkweed is attractive to European honeybees, but it can be a deadly trap for them, too. Bees and Butterflies.
Bees are already having a hard time from colony collapse disorder, where the bees just disappear. After years of research, nobody knows why. It’s a major problem with honey bees, one that’s not getting better. I was beginning to feel that if the Monarchs weren’t using the milkweed, we should rip out the it and replace it with something more bee-friendly.
And then, for a real treat …
… my husband found two tiny yellow, white and black caterpillars happily gnawing on our milkweed.