Alpine Flowers

A couple of years ago, when I was giving presentations for my book, a member of the audience asked me where she could find wildflowers in the alpine tundra. I was a little nonplussed, because you can find wildflowers in the alpine tundra everywhere. But you have to change your frame of reference to do it.

Alpine wildflowers are small. There just isn’t time in the short, high-altitude summer to get big, especially when flowers cost the plant so much in terms of energy. And they are spread far apart, to ensure that they get plenty of sun and water. So you’re not going to see meadows dense with flowers blowing in the wind.

The showiest flower you’re going to see in the alpine is Old-man-on-the-mountan.



The name “old-man-on-the-mountain” refers to the dense white hairs on its leaves and stem. These hairs retain moisture and heat, while acting as a sunscreen against ultraviolet radiation that is extra strong at high altitudes.



This alpine sunflower always faces the sun. It is the only annual of the alpine tundra; it puts all its energy into it’s flower instead of the rest of the plant.

purple fringe, gravelly hillsides, montane to alpine

purple fringe

Purple fringe is another showy plant I saw in the tundra. It has such general growth requirements that it grows anywhere from the montane to the alpine.

purple fringe, gravelly hillsides, montane to alpine

purple fringe, gravelly hillsides, montane to alpine

This gorgeous plant is termed a “pioneer plant”, because it grows on disturbed soils like you see in the photo.  If it had it’s way, it would be a weed — growing everywhere. But other plants come in after it, and are able push it out, which is why you don’t see it often.

alpine avens

Alpine avens is one of the most common flowers you’ll see in the alpine tundra. If I’d come a little earlier, I would have seen all these heads in bloom.

alpine avens
alpine avens

Alpine avens is in the rose family. Pika enjoy eating the plant.


Alpine paintbrushAlthough I would call this plant white, I think it is a Western yellow paintbrush. Even it has a covering of hairs. It must be a strategy that works for alpine plants.

Mountain dryad

Mountain dryad

Mountain dryad is also in the rose family. The leathery leaves help it hold moisture. It is a favorite food of Ptarmigan.

mountain dryad going to seed

Mountain dryad going to seed

The wispy seed heads of mountain dryad have been said to “resemble white-haired waifs, waiting to be carried away to distant lands.” Who said scientists were all hard facts?

whiplash saxifrage

Whiplash saxifrage

Whiplash Saxifrage is one of the first tundra plants on disturbed ground, like a rock slide, or where pocket gophers have burrowed just beneath the surface. It moves in quickly by putting out runners, or whiplashes, like a strawberry plant does.

Gold flowerThe sunflower (or Composite) family is huge, and notoriously hard to figure out. Botony students have a name for sunflowers they can’t identify: A DYC (Darn Yellow Composite). I don’t know exactly what it is, but it too has a covering of short white hairs over its long leaves.



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Pika Patrol, Part One

What do you do when you are forced out of your home? How do you find another place to live, when the sites you need are already full?

American Pika, small rodent-like rabbit relatives who live in the alpine tundra of the Rocky Mountains, are facing this problem as warmer temperatures force them ever higher. The problem is that there is only so much “up” that pika can go.


Pika are small critters most closely related to rabbits. They have been called “unmercifully cute”, which is probably an understatement.

I spent Saturday in the alpine tundra on Loveland Pass (elevation 11,990 feet, or 3655 m), west of Denver, with scientists from the Denver Zoo and researchers from CU Boulder, learning how to measure pika habitat.

Pika are exquisitely adapted for life in the alpine tundra, where winter temperatures are often 0o F (-18o C), and winds average 50 mph (80 kph).  Storms bring blows of 100 mph (160 kph) or more, and drop to -40o F (-40o C). Only a very few animals stay in the tundra through conditions like that: Bighorn sheep, mountain goats, ptarmigan, marmots — and pika. And what’s more pika are active all winter long.

Loveland Pass Pika-3

Master of all it surveys — a territory of about 12 meters, or 36 square feet.

How do pika survive these extreme conditions? In a sense, they don’t; they avoid them. Pika live beneath six feet (2 meters) or more of snow. At these depths, the temperature is about 28o F (-1 C) and dead calm. The little critters run through tunnels among the talus rocks to graze on leftover alpine plants. But there aren’t enough of these low-growing plants nearby for pika to survive the winter. So during the fall, the animals gather vegetation and stash it in rock crevasses to build haystacks. They then eat the haystacks throughout the long winter.

Loveland Pass Pika-4

A pika gathering forage for it’s hay stack.

Pika nests-09

The beginnings of a pika hay stack. The Zoo people tell us that by the time the pika is finished, this little crevice will be overflowing with a bushels-worth of hay — about 62 pounds (28 kg) of forage! It takes pika 14,000 trips to gather this much hay.

Here’s the problem for pika: their body temperature is about 104o F (40o C), and they have dense fur to hold this heat in. While this helps them stay warm through the winter, it means they are vulnerable to overheating when temperatures hit 70o F (21o C) in the summer. They can survive short warm spells by descending into the passages beneath the talus. But if pika are chillin’ in the rocks, they aren’t gathering forage to make hay for the winter. As global temperatures rise, pika can overheat, or they can starve. Tough choice.

Loveland Pass Pika-1

You can get a sense of how dense pika fur is in this photo.

The one thing pika can’t do is move. Their habitat is limited to the tops of  mountains above tree line. If it is suitable for a pika, one already lives there. There isn’t any more.

Scientists at the Denver Zoo want to know how pika are responding as global temperatures rise. So they called for volunteers to come learn how to measure pika habitat. Over forty people showed up at the top of Loveland Pass Saturday morning. After leading us up the alpine trail for a couple of hundred feet, we all sat in a learning circle.

Loveland Pass Pika

A Denver Zoo staff person explains how the survey works.

We were a bunch of strangers — retired biologists, teachers, a family who wanted to do something together, longtime hikers — but all were passionate about pikas, or Citizen Science. People came prepared, and asked good questions: How big is a pika’s territory? What makes good territory? How did the zoo pick the sites?

Erika Garrotte Pika Project

We get answers to our questions.

Biologists have a couple of ways to study animals in the field. They can watch them, which takes a lot of time and yields limited information. They can catch them, which is stressful for everybody involved. Or they can study bits of the animal that are left behind — hair, feathers, and even more exciting — animal feces. As a matter of fact, biologists tend to get a little fixated on scat. The animal has no further use for it, and it can tell a scientist a lot.

So we learned how to look for scat, recognize that it was fresh, gather it, and send it to the researchers.

Pika nests-3

The orange lichen on the foreground rocks is a type that needs more nitrogen. It thrives where pika pee, which makes it a good indicator of pika dens. In the center of the photo is a small pile of pika scat, waiting to be collected by Citizen Scientists.

The researchers can break the little pellets apart and see what the pika are eating. Flowers are higher in protein for growth, while grasses are higher in carbohydrates that provide energy. Another thing that pika scientists can measure is the amount of stress hormones in the scat. If the animals are stressed, they are probably having a harder time surviving. The big reward, though, may be the DNA gathered in the scat. DNA can tell scientists who is moving where, and who doesn’t survive.

Pika nests-7

Pika fecal pellets glued to the top of a rock with urine.  See? I’m fixating.

As the morning progressed, I and the other volunteers put what we had learned to the test. We measured, we crumbled pika poop between our fingers. When we found a hay stack on our own, we whooped with excitement. I had a wonderful day at 12,000 feet, looking for pika with total strangers.

But the funny thing is, they didn’t feel like strangers. As I looked around at the people who were passionate enough about this Citizen Science project to volunteer to spend the day learning how to find pika poop, I saw that they people were just as enthralled with science as I was. I thought “This is my tribe. These are my people.”

So now that I’m trained, it’s time for me to go monitor some pika habitat. I’ll probably wait until September, so that the pika have a chance to gather some hay, and I’ll have a better chance of finding them. But I can hardly wait.

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Hearts in Nature

Many people collect images of hearts in nature. I found this prairie coneflower as I was looking for prairie falcons this morning. (Focus on What’s at Hand)R columnifera heart-2


This is what prairie coneflower normally looks like.

Ratidiba columnifera-3

Prairie coneflower is in the sunflower family. You can see it if you mentally flatten the cone down a bit. Each of the brown stubs on the cone is a separate flower, as it true of all sunflowers.

Still not seeing prairie falcons. There is the possibility that they didn’t nest here this year.

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Focus on What’s at Hand

It may not have been the best idea for a plant person to volunteer to monitor birds of prey. I mean, sure, I take lots of photos of birds. Some of them are even fair to decent.

But mostly, the bird photos kinda happen to me — I’m sitting at the kitchen table and an interesting bird drops by. Or I’m taking a hike and I hear a different bird call, and make it a point to find the bird and take it’s picture. I’ve never just sat for a couple of hours watching for a particular bird to show up.

And yet, that’s what I found myself doing yesterday morning — waiting for a prairie falcon, that may or may not have a nest in the nearby cliffs.

Even at 9:00 am, it was hot sitting in the direct sun. The only birds I saw were meadowlarks, which I love, admittedly, and swallows flitting along the cliff face where the prairie falcon was supposed to have a nest. Surely swallows wouldn’t nest in the same section of cliff where a falcon lives?

I checked my watch five times in half an hour. My mind wandered. And what should my wandering mind notice? Plants! Lots of them! In bloom! In vivid colors!

The plants that caught my eye first were the ever-showy sunflowers.

sunflower and green metalic be-3_edited-1

But when I went to photograph one, I saw this stunning metallic green sweat bee. I’m no poet, but if I was, I’d write about this beauty, covered in pollen. But I’d probably quit when I had to describe the sunflower — after all, what rhymes with orange? Still, I’ve got a gorgeous photo to express my emotions for me.

On the hill behind my observation post, Indian paintbrush was in bloom.

Indian paintbrush

Did I mention that I got out there early, when the light was really great?

I had to stop shooting for a moment to pick cactus pines out of my knee (occupational hazard). When I turned around, there was a scarlet globemallow, aka Cowboy’s delight, waiting for it’s turn to be photographed. Spharalcea coccinea_edited-1

As you probably suspect from it’s name, this plant is in the same family as marsh mallows, from which people used to make the puffy sugar bombs, marshmallows.

Wild plants are an acquired taste. To really see their beauty, you have to get up close and personal. Spharalcea coccinea-1

But scarlet globemallow rewards you when you do.

A plant that is a bit showier is wild rose. This one was being visited by a huge bumblebee.Bombus spp-1

It turns out that Colorado has more different types of bees than most places in the country. I have no idea why.

When I walked back to my car, I noticed a plant that I had missed in my haste to get to my site — purple reedgrass. Purple reedgrass

You only see why it got its name for a very brief period of time in the early summer, when the grass is in bloom. The purple bits are the anthers — the part of the plant that produces pollen. They will soon drop off, leaving it a green stalk of developing seeds. Brief but beautiful.

The prairie falcon? Yeah, I did eventually see it for about thirty seconds at the base of the cliffs about a half mile away. Didn’t spot it’s nest, though. Maybe next time. If I can keep my mind from wandering to the plants.





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What Friends Do

We got Darwin, the pure bred, championship-quality Pembroke Welsh Corgi, as a freebie from our vet. Why? Darwin was born with an incurable heart problem that was supposed to kill him within his first few months. With a new medication, and great care from the vet, Darwin’s made it to six years old – far outliving all expectations.
For his first five years, Darwin shared the house with a chow-golden retriever mix. The bigger animal never really understood how to play with another dog.
So Darwin played with people, bringing us toys and teaching us games. For all that he had a heart problem, he was passionate about chasing a ball.
When the golden-chow died six months ago, we got a corgi-pit bull-cattle dog-Rottweiler puppy we named Tegan. Tegan is the most playful dog we’ve ever had. If you try to put on a sock, it is instantly a pull toy. If you give her a yogurt container, it provides hours of amusement. And all with a healthy puppy’s energy.
At first, Darwin didn’t know what to do with Tegen-the-whirling-fur-ball. He wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to have to deal with all that young energy.


At first, Darwin wasn’t sure he wanted to play with Tegan.

But one day about a month after we got the puppy, Darwin came out of his dog cave, looked at Tegan and gave a high-pitched growl. Tegan tentatively play-bowed and raised her paws to him. Darwin responded by yipping and running. Tegan chased him. Game on!Puppy Play
Since those first days, their games have changed. They play tug of war over a favorite pull toy. They chase each other. When Darwin comes downstairs after his afternoon nap, Tegan pesters him mercilessly, play-bowing and groveling flat on the floor – then mouthing Darwin’s feet until they are wet with slobber. She’ll grab a mouthful of the fur on his butt, and yank, pulling him off balance.


Tegan bites Darwins butt.jpg

Tegan biting Darwin’s butt.

She’ll swing her hips around and slam him with her rear end.

Hip bump

Tegan gives Darwin a hip bump while playing.


After Darwin wakes up a little, he responds in kind, biting Tegan’s cheeks and mouthing her muzzle.

Darwin mouths Tegan.jpg

Darwin will grab Tegan’s cheeks.

If you don’t keep reminding yourself that either dog could leave at any time, you’d be worried by the intensity of their play.

Tegan offers toy to Darwin

But they keep coming back for more.

Darwin’s condition began to decline just before we got Tegan. While Tegan was just a few months old, Darwin was able to hold his own against her playful assaults. But by New Year, he was having a lot of trouble. He now pants constantly, and his chest heaves as he tries to suck in enough air to keep his body going.
I took him to the vet, who took an ultrasound of his heart. While a normal heart compresses about a third of the way down each time it beats, Darwin’s heart collapses completely. The vet said, “I don’t see why this dog is alive, let alone walking.” I didn’t tell her that every evening involves a twenty minute play session with an active puppy.
That night, Darwin and Tegan played as hard as ever. But I noticed something remarkable. Tegan, at four months old, was handicapping her play — when she got too excited, she’d redirect her energy to calm things down. In the middle of wrestling with Darwin, she’d turn aside and bite the table or chair legs, or more recently, my legs. Not hard, which is remarkable given the frenzied nature of the play, but with enough pressure so I knew she could do real damage if she lost control for a moment. These redirected bites clued me in to how much Tegan the puppy is holding herself in check so she didn’t hurt her sick friend.

Darwin drags Tegan

Tegan handicaps herself by getting lower than Darwin.

Once I noticed her redirection, I could see more examples of restraint. When she gets too aggressive, she rolls on her back, or when she pulls the rope toy away from Darwin, she brings it back and offers it to him.

Tegan gives toy to Darwin

Tegan gives Darwin the toy so they can play some more.


Today, while we were playing fetch, Tegan let the dying dog get the ball, or if she happened to get to it first, she’d drop it in front of him to keep Darwin in the game.
After all, isn’t that what friends do?

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Hummers in Snowstorm

Here at the base of the Rocky Mountains, we often have late spring snow storms. In fact, these late storms are often some of our biggest and wettest of the year. Today’s snowstorm is no exception. It has been snowing hard all day, and we don’t expect it to let up until tomorrow.

Normally in these spring storms, we worry about plants that have leafed out having branches broken as the wet snow weighs them down. The good news is that the temperature has been hovering right around freezing, so that the snow that fell earlier is melting off about as fast as new snow is being layered on top.

I’ve been hearing hummingbirds zooming overhead for about a month now. I knew that they were able to survive these late spring snow storms, and I assumed that they did it by going into torpor, a sort of overnight hibernation. This is a risky strategy because if it is too cold, they might not have the energy to wake up.

But in the last couple of storms, I’ve heard hummers zipping overhead. I have no idea how they find enough flowers not covered in inches of heavy wet snow to survive. But evidently they do. To make it a bit easier on them, I made sure my hummingbird feeders were clean and full last night.

We were rewarded with a female broadtailed hummingbird making just enough of a pit stop for my daughter to snap this photo.

hummer at feeder in storm_edited-1

The hummingbird is the dark lump in the center of the photo, getting a quick drink at the feeder.

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Raven in the backyard

Raven-4_edited-1Raven-3_edited-1Raven-2_edited-1We often have ravens and crows in the neighborhood.Crows and Ravens Angry Bird’s Feathers Ruffled Last night we saw another lone raven in our back yard last night, preening on a post for about five minutes. It eventually flew away. Three minutes later we saw it come screaming back across the yard, mobbed by four crows. The crows were so close and so mad, that as the raven crossed our yard, it did a full barrel-roll, trying to fend them off.

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Science not Silence

I spent the day protesting at the March for Science rally in downtown Denver to draw attention to the political attacks on science. In doing so, I was privileged to join some incredibly creative, passionate, smart and remarkably funny people. March for Science rally draws thousands .

Marchs were held around the country and around the world. Here are some links to other stories: Washington Post– Here are some of the best signs from the March for Science in DC , New York Times — Scientists, Feeling Under Seige, March Against Trump Policies , and the BBC — March for Science: Rallies Worldwide to Protest Against Interference .

I snapped some photos of some of the signs I saw, but there so many people I couldn’t get them all.

For some, you have to be a science geek to get them:

“How do you expect me to live long and prosper under these conditions?”

“Peer review matters!”

“In Peer Review We Trust”


Sometimes it’s a little hard for scientists to convey the same sort of immediacy as other protesters.


[Peer review is what happens when you send your scientific theory out into the world. Other scientists read it and try to tear it to shreds. They question your hypothesis, your assumptions, your data, your methods, your conclusions. If your theory holds up against these assaults, then, and only then, can it take its place in the scientific canon as a working theory. And only until something better comes along.]

“Climate change denial is √-1” [the square root of -1 is an irrational number].



Enter a caption

“Small p-values, not small mindedness.” [small p-values indicate that the evidence against the null, or current, hypothisis is strong, which is a good thing because it suggests that your alternative hypothesis is correct.]


Others are more universal:

“Science is not an alternative fact.”

“Got smallpox? Me neither. Thank science.”

“The facts don’t change just because you don’t like them.”


This woman had two signs, front and back.


Her hat has a DNA pattern knit into it.

There were a lot of these: “I’m here thanks to science — cancer survivor/diabetes survivor/amputee.”

“Scientists are often wrong — but science isn’t for long.”

“I am what a scientist looks like.”

“Science Made America Great!”

“Make Science Great Again!”

“The white coats are coming! The white coats are coming!”

“I thought there would be pi.”


We had encouragement from people we inconvenienced.

My favorite, though, was one held by a young minority girl: “Forget Princess! I want to be a scientist!”

So remember to make like a proton and always be positive!




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Spectacular Starlings

In 1890 and 1891, about 100 European starlings were released into Central Park, in New York City. Beloved in Europe, they quickly became pests in North America. These aggressive birds often congregate in large flocks that can take over a feeder, leaving a mess behind. They evict native woodpeckers and bluebirds from their nests in trees trunks and take them for their own.

I could never figure out what Europeans loved about them. The birds I’ve seen  are a drab brown with speckles — nothing special.

spectacular starling-4_edited-1

This bird’s wing and tail feathers are outlined with bronze.

Until this lone starling came to our feeder this month.

spectacular starling-5_edited-1

Its back feathers are iridescent green flecked with gold.

Unfortunately, the low light and the bird’s constant movement made it hard for me to catch the brilliance of this starling’s colors while keeping the bird in focus.

spectacular starling-1_edited-1

The starling’s colors all came out when it perched in the sun for a moment.

Starlings are still hard on native tree-nesting birds. But I can finally understand why Europeans love them.

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Maui: Part Two

When my husband and I weren’t watching whales, we were tooling around the island. At one point, we found some green sea turtles.


Green sea turtles

According to the locals, they’d hauled themselves out on the beach to warm sea turtle (1)


One had encountered a shark, the only predator of adult sea turtles besides humans.

green sea turtle-3_edited-1

The pale nub on it’s flipper is the stub of bone exposed when a shark bit off the tip.

One of the things that surprised me the most about Hawai’i was the variety of volcanic rocks. I expected lots of basalt flows, created by lave running from the volcano to the sea.

rope lava-2

Rope lava from a relatively recent eruption.

But the basalt was layered with ash.

Waves on basalt.jpg

Ash layers can be identified between the basalt flows because they have eroded into the cliff a bit.

Shifting Sands Pan

Shifting Sands Trail on Haleakela

In fact, the summit of Haleakela, the most recent volcano on Maui, is made up mostly of ash.

Stand-in for Mars

Breccia — fused ash — litters the summit of Haleakela.

I can  see why NASA tested Mars rovers on Haleakela.

Road to Hana

Lower down, though, the volcanic rocks made hundreds of small pools that are one of the reasons so many people fall in love with Maui.

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