We’ve had lots of charming visitors to our birdfeeders over the winter, including both red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches.
This is a male red-breasted nuthatch. As with just about every bird species, the males are more distinct in their plumage. Actually in nuthatches, the difference is not so dramatic — his head is capped with black feathers, while females are capped with grey, and their bellies are less red. Learn more about red-breasted nuthatches here: https://amylaw.blog/2016/02/23/nuthatches-pairing-up/.
As with all nuthatches, he is very comfortable tapping his way down a tree headfirst, looking for insects that live beneath the bark. Often I will hear their “tap tap tap” before I see them.
I’ve been hearing a lot of their bleating calls recently, seeming more than normal. As always, I wonder if I’m really hearing more birds, or just noticing them more.
Red-breasted nuthatches prefer spruce-fir forests across North America. This confused me for a little bit, because I don’t normally think of the Front Range as “spruce-fir forest”. But we are up at about 6000 feet, and just about every yard in our neighborhood has a blue spruce in it, so I guess it fits the bill.
Interestingly, this tree that I photographed him in is a green ash. I’m not complaining, because I would never have seen him in a blue spruce. And there are three mature blue spruce growing within a hundred feet of it to keep him happy.
The next day, I heard “tap tap tap” and came out to see a white-breasted nuthatch moving down the trunk of the same green ash tree. This makes more sense — white-breasted nuthatches prefer broadleafed forests across North America.
White-breasted nuthatches don’t have distinct breeding/non-breeding territories. Instead pairs live in the same territory all year round.
Their honking calls “are longer and less nasal” than those of the red-breasted. Okaaaay. I’ll have to listen closer, because all honks have sounded alike to this point.
Again, this is a male, because of his dark head; again females have grey heads.
Both white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches eat a variety of seeds and insects that they find under the bark. The difference in their niches seems to be the type of forests that they prefer. Which makes our mix of blue spruce and ornamental broad-leafed trees a happy combination to be home to both species!
I went out to the garden yesterday to see when I could start taking my frustrations out on it planting my spring vegetables in it. As I walked up to the garden, though, I saw movement in one of the trees on the edge of it.
This little gourd birdhouse blew out of the tree during a storm over the winter. We picked it up out of the snow, and re-hung it on the nearest branch. Now, a black-capped chickadee has decided to check it out. The mate sat in the branches nearby.
The gourd seems like a good fit for the little birds. But there is a problem — it is too close to our garden. I think the disruption of us working in the garden will drive them off.
So once the chickadee flitted out of the gourd for a moment, I moved the birdhouse a little further away from the garden. I hated to do it, because the chickadees might not come to it’s new spot. But hopefully this way they have a little time to get used to the new location.
I hope they come back. We’d love to have them as neighbors.
It has been a long cold hard winter along the Front Range of Colorado. We have gotten enough snow in February to wipe out the incipient drought we were headed into, which is a good thing. But it came at the cost of a snowstorm every couple of days. That was hard.
We’re not out of winter yet — March and April are typically our snowiest months in Colorado.
But as the dogs and I went for our morning walk, we also found the first signs that spring is on the way.
As we walked, we heard the “eh-eh-eh-eh-eh” call of a male Northern Flicker trying out his mating call.
Further on, we found a Spotted Towhee by his “cha-cha-chaaa” call. Like the flicker, his calls right now are just warm-ups. He quickly dropped down to the snow to hunt for seeds.
Hearing these guys practice their mating calls cheered me up. And as we walked home through the cold, the sun broke through the clouds, promising a sunny day.
Did you know dogs can hug? I don’t mean when they jump up an put their forelegs on you — but emotionally?
It doesn’t look like what you’d expect. A dog gives you a hug when they squint their eyes at you, with their mouths open and relaxed. And it doesn’t last long — just a moment. Dogs consider looking directly at you for more than a few second to be rude.
Look at how relaxed Zoe is. Her mouth is open and the corners of her mouth are pulled up. But it’s her eyes that are “huggy”.
Tegan isn’t usually a huggy dog. Here, she was walking with my daughter in a 5 k run/walk event, and was surprised to see me on the sidelines taking pictures.
We met Misty when we went to Denali last summer. She loved everybody, and showed it with her relaxed posture and soft, half-closed eyes. Her mouth was closed so she could nuzzle me.
Not all dogs give hugs; some show their affection in other ways. But when you get a squinty-eye look from a dog, with their mouths open, know that it is a really special emotion they are sharing with you.
As we were cooking Thanksgiving dinner this noon, my husband happened to look out our kitchen window at the bird feeders in our back yard. “We have bushtits!”
These gregarious little birds move around the neighborhood in a small flock. You know they are passing by their flitting flight, and their cheeping “contact” calls.
Bushtits normally eat insects — scale bug, mostly, but spiders, caterpillars, wasps, ants, beetles — anything that crawls. After the 18 inches of snow dumped on the Front Range, though, insects were in short supply.
And so they resorted to our feeders.
In the summertime, bushtits need to eat 80% of their body weight to keep from losing weight. That adds up to a lot of scale bugs.
But in winter they have to eat more. They are probably less choosy about how they get their calories. And are thankful for whatever they find.
I think I’ll make sure I’ve got plenty of mealworm suet for them, in any case.
My life has been busy, hectic and stressful for the last few months. One of my problems has been that I haven’t had time to go find interesting things in nature to share.
But a wonderful thing about nature is that if you are patient, and observant, sometimes it comes to you.
The dogs were going berserk at something in the backyard yesterday morning. Usually, this is just a person next door. We try to quiet the dogs down and bring them in, because nobody likes to be the subject of a barking frenzy.
But when I looked out the back door, I saw what they were barking at.
It was a small family of mule deer who have been living in the neighborhood this fall. We’ve had deer in the backyards before, but it surprises me that they are in backyards this early in the season.
As the dogs continued their mad barking, I saw that there were a doe and a yearling in the next-door yard, as well.
The dogs refused to quiet down. I was going to go shoo them inside, but at this point, the buck turned to look at the dogs, his head lowered a little.
Very deliberately, the young buck walked up to the fence to consider the dogs. This concerned me, because I know that deer can be aggressive when they feel threatened. What puzzled me was that the buck shouldn’t feel threatened, because he could walk away at any time, and the dogs couldn’t follow. And he knew it.
At this point, the dogs barking changed a little, and I noticed Tegan doing play bows. This was predictable. Tegan loves to play. She does play bows to the vacuum sweeper. Because she was bouncing around behind lots of yard stuff, I wasn’t able to get a shot of her doing this.
With the fence safely between them, the buck watched the dogs, unsure of what to make of them.
Three young animals of two different species that are normally antagonistic to each other considered each other for a few minutes.
But the buck decided he had seen enough, and ambled back to the doe and yearling.
And then, he effortlessly jumped the chest-high fence and moved on.
Nature redeems, once again.
I can go back to dealing with my problems, a little less frustrated.
We’ve had some windy days lately. Two days ago (October 20, 2019) we had gusts up to 40 mph (miles per hour) — it was hard to walk in that wind!
As we battled the blustery weather while walking the dogs, I happened to look to the west, where I saw lens-shaped clouds hovering over the tops of the mountains.
Once inside, I decided to clean up some photos on the computer. I happened across this shot of Longs Peak from near Estes Park from fifteen years ago.
North Face of Longs Peak, October 2006
What caught my eye initially was the odd shaped cloud over the east face of the mountain top — just like what I’d seen while walking the dogs. This is called a ‘lenticular cloud’, meaning lens-shaped. Lenticular clouds indicate that the wind is really ripping, pulling relatively moister air up to the top of the mountain, where it forms a cloud as it crosses over. Although these clouds seem to stand still, in reality, they are constantly forming on the near side, then evaporating on the far.
Notice the snow blowing off the ridge to the right (west) and dropping into the basin below the summit. This extra snow helps build glaciers.
According to the Rocky Mountain National Park Service Wind page, in the winter, the average daily wind speeds on Longs Peak are 65 mph, so the average is higher than our peak wind speed on Sunday. It often blows at over 100 mph, and the maximum wind speed recorded was in excess of 200 mph!
Suddenly, I’m more appreciative of our relatively calm air.
Due to complications last summer, my husband and I weren’t able to volunteer with Front Range Pika Project last fall. We were determined to make it this year.
If you have been following my blog for several years, you might remember that two years ago, in 2017, my husband, my son, my son’s girlfriend and I visited a pika site near Grand Lake, on the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. We were disappointed that year to find the site abandoned.
This year, I was a little faster on the sign-up, and found a more promising site. This one was on the lower edge of the tundra, at 11,961 feet. The trail to get to the site was just 2 1/2 miles long!
What I forgot was that the parking area was at 10,440 feet. When we do the math, that’s an average grade of 14%. Hmmmm…..
By the time we’d gone 100 feet up the trail, my husband and I realized this was going to be a lot harder than it would have been twenty years ago. But we took it slow, and stopped frequently to rest. It took us two hours to go the two and a half miles, but we did it.
As we came onto the tundra, we had to skirt around a wetlands created by snowmelt draining off the surrounding peaks. The snows pile up here in winter.
We heard squeaky-toy squeaks of pika calling before we got to the talus. And once we got to the talus, pika were very obvious.
We immediately saw a little pika scampering across the rocks. It was running to a small patch of plants at the base of the talus.
Good pika habitat needs a pile of rocks jumbled together to form lots of nooks and crannies. It needs lots of plants nearby to eat, and to cut for hay. And it needs deep winter snows to protect the pika from predators, howling winds and bitterly cold temperatures. This was very good pika habitat.
What I hadn’t expected is that the pika had two speeds: still, and running. There was no walking between tasks. They hustled.
Pika gather the plants and dry them, turning them into hay. They then eat the hay through the winter. That means that pika have to gather enough plants to feed themselves for 8-9 months of the year.
It takes about 62 pounds (28 kg) of forage to feed a pika through the winter. That translates to 14,000 trips to gather this much hay. No wonder they hustle.
What these little guys can’t take are temperatures over 75o. They are climate-change indicators. If their world warms too much, they will not survive.
I had always wondered how the dinosaurs died out. I couldn’t understand how just getting hit by an asteroid, or having volcanoes spew out ash could wipe them all out. Then I heard about some research that pinpoints the moment the asteroid hit. That seemed like a promising place to start my research.
Scientists still debate the specifics of what happened, but it probably went something like this…
The dinosaurs are dead.
They died sixty-six million years ago when an asteroid the size of the island of Manhattan slammed into the ocean off the coast of Yucatan, Mexico. The asteroid punched a crater 112 miles wide and a dent one mile deep into the Earth’s surface. It caused a magnitude 11 earthquake – one of the biggest ever – to shake the Earth’s crust.
The intense heat generated by the crash vaporized the asteroid, as well as granite in the Earth’s crust. The silica in the granite turned into molten glass.
The crust rebounded like a trampoline after the asteroid hit it. A cloud of superheated air shot into the sky at twice the speed of sound. The cloud carried the melted particles of glass into the upper layers of the atmosphere.
Within minutes after impact, the larger globs of red-hot glass began to pelt from the sky. The burning rain lasted for several hours. It started fires that burned all over the world. We can still see a layer of ash from these fires in the rocks today.
Shock waves from the impact went through the core of the planet at over ten times the speed of sound. They reached the other side of the Earth in an hour-and-a-half. The energy from these waves punched pulverized rock up twelve feet off the coast of Australia. Volcanoes in nearby India had been erupting for some time, but now their eruptions became extreme. More poisonous gasses and dust spewed into the darkening sky.
In North America, the shock waves hit the shallow, narrow gulf that stretched to the Arctic. Waves of water higher than a thirty-story building flooded the nearby land. Close on the heels of the floods, gale-force winds knocked down trees, and the molten glass began to rain onto the devastated land. Stranded fish sucked some of these glowing sand-sized particles into their gills as they gasped for breath in shallow puddles. The flood waters finally crested, then reversed course. The water rushed back, covering the dying trees, fish, and animals with mud.
An almost-mile-high tsunami raced away from the impact crater at nearly ninety miles per hour. The waves spread to every ocean in the world. They threw fish and sediments onto land. Any animals in their path were drowned.
In the next few days, the vaporized rock and volcanic ash blanketed the globe in acidic soot and dust. The toxic clouds completely blocked out the sun. Plants couldn’t photosynthesize, and died. Global temperatures dropped.
The finer dust particles remained in the atmosphere for a decade. Rain finally deposited the acidic dust into the sea. The oceans became more acidic. The acids killed most animals that required hard shells, from ammonites down to plankton. The ocean ecosystems collapsed, as well.
Seventy-five percent of all life — plant and animal — died as a result of the impact. That was the end of the dinosaurs.
Or maybe not.
The burning winds, earthquakes, floods and fires left a few survivors scattered across the globe. But these survivors had to deal with great hardships.
The Earth was a cold, dark, hungry place in the first years following the impact. Without sunshine, plant life, including forests, died. Animals that needed trees for part of their life-cycles died, too.
The fires and darkness left little to eat – rotting trees, fungus, insects, seeds. And of course, survivors had to be able to find the food in the dark. At first, meat-eaters feasted on dead and dying animals. But soon they suffered, too, as their prey died off. Only smaller animals made it through the hungry times of the long cold night.
A decade after the asteroid hit, the skies cleared enough for shade-tolerant ferns to grow again. Eventually other plants and trees sprouted, too. The few animals who made it through the impact and years of starvation and cold finally had something to eat besides fungus, decaying trees and a dwindling number of ten-year-old seeds.
Sea life was impacted least. Creatures who lived deeper in the oceans suffered less than those closer to the surface.
On land, survival was more random. Those who made it through had two common traits — they were small, and they lived on the ground. This included some frogs, turtles, crocodiles, snakes and lizards. These cold-blooded animals probably survived in the tropics. It was warmer there, even in the dark.
Almost as many mammals died in the extinction as dinosaurs. Mammals evolved at the same time as the dinosaurs. But mammals had always been mouse-like creatures. They never grew to the enormous sizes of the dinosaurs.
Their small size meant that mammals required fewer calories. Being small helped them live through the hungry time. And they were used to eating more different foods than most dinosaurs, including seeds, and maybe fungi.
Early mammals lived in many different environments. The mammals that lived in trees died out when the asteroid hit. But a few scurried through the plant litter on the ground, retreating to burrows in times of danger.
As they evolved, many mammals came out in the cool night, when the cold-blooded reptiles slowed. This gave the mammals several adaptations that helped them stay alive when the asteroid hit. They had bigger eyes to see in the dark. Warm blood let them stay active in the cooler hours, and fur insulated their bodies to retain body heat. After the asteroid, their fur also may have protected the mammals from the razor-sharp edges of shattered volcanic glass that littered the ground.
As plant life slowly returned, mammals rebounded quickly. They adapted and filled the empty niches left by the extinction of so many other animals.
Mammals were joined in the empty landscape by a few other creatures. One tiny group of dinosaurs was able to solve the same problems that plagued mammals. Some of these creatures were ground-dwellers, so they survived the loss of trees. They learned to lay their eggs in protected areas such as rocky ledges or hidden depressions in the soil. They had fingernail-like beaks instead of skin-covered muzzles. The hard beaks may have helped them to find seeds in the razor-sharp layer of ash laid down by the explosion.
In many ways, these animals were like mammals. They were warm-blooded. They became smaller. They made it through the decades long cold spell with a layer of insulation — feathers — that had evolved before the asteroid.
Yes, birds are dinosaurs, the only group of dinosaurs to survive the asteroid extinction. Dinosaurs didn’t die out, after all.
What we’ve learned from the asteroid extinction is both reassuring and terrifying. Life can survive huge changes that happen in an instant. But there is no way of predicting who will make it through. And the life that survives won’t be the same as it was before.
The asteroid impact was the fifth global extinction the Earth has seen. We are entering the sixth, carbon dioxide global extinction. If we take action now, we can limit the loss of species, and prevent global ecosystem collapse.
But we must take action now. We must do everything we can to limit carbon dioxide production. And it must be all of us, together.