Snow in September

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.

Female hummingbird on sliding glass door feeder. The streak across the glass is not a symptom of my poor housekeeping, but rather is an ultraviolet marker designed to keep birds from flying off our many feeders and into the windows.

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

2020 Pika Patrol

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.

Traditional blue and white 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.

Looking down from the talus to the meadow where pika gather plants for hay. Smoke from a forest fire on the other side of the mountain we are on covers everything from the alpine down the to the plains.

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.

Chipmunk gathering the nutritious heads of grass-like sedges.

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.

Pika on rock in between foraging trips.

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.

Pika scat and trimmed plant stems. The leaves have been harvested to be put into hay piles.

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:

  1. We came up a month earlier this year. The pikas may not be very active gathering forage for their hay piles yet.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Forest Fire Smoke

My husband and I love to sleep with the windows open in the summer time. We enjoy the night sounds, and the cool breeze coming in.

Not last night. Last night, we had to close the windows due to really irritating smoke, either from somebody’s barbecue, or a forest fire.

This morning, I went out and found this map of smoke plumes from forest fires from the US Forest Service. https://fire.airnow.gov/?lat=39.710920000000044&lng=-105.08206999999999&zoom=12 It wasn’t a barbecue.

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.

Nesting Lesser Goldfinches

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!

Butterflies

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.

This Weidemeyer’s Admiral has seen better days.

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 Admiral on rock next to a stream.

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 Swallowtail

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/

Common wood-nymph

Common wood-nymphs are butterflies of the open country, where their caterpillars eat grasses. I didn’t know any caterpillars ate grasses! https://amylaw.blog/2018/08/08/butterflies-galore/

I would dearly love to meet an uncommon wood-nymph.

Monarch on milkweed.
Monarch with bee on milkweed.

I posted about Monarch caterpillars a few weeks ago. https://amylaw.blog/2020/06/15/monarch-caterpillers/ We never actually found the chrysalis for the caterpillars, but we may have seen the butterflies themselves. We’ve had a couple of them hanging around our milkweed patch, eating nectar and otherwise getting ready to migrate north.https://amylaw.blog/2018/07/04/monarch-butterfly-migration/

Waved Sphinx moth

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.

Websites I used to gather information about these butterflies and moths include: https://coloradofrontrangebutterflies.com/butterfly-families and https://www.insectidentification.org/insects-by-type-and-region.asp?thisState=Colorado&thisType=Butterfly%20or%20Moth

Spider catching a wasp for a meal

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.

Spider is to the far right of the photo, at the entrance to the den. The web stretches all the way across the photo.

While I was getting my camera out, I realized that the spider was right in the entrance to it’s lair.

A little blurry, but the spider is in the center of the shot, with the wasp just to the left of the long light streak. Notice that the rock is in focus — the wasp and the spider are blurry because they are moving so fast.

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.

Wasp rolls away, still caught by the web.

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.

Monarch Caterpillers!

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.

Maybe the milkweed will stay after all.

Hummer in Blue Spruce Tree

After an intense fast moving rainstorm yesterday, I happened to look out my front window to see something I’d never before seen — a female broad-tailed hummingbird zipping among the branches of our blue spruce.

Although she stopped at the end of new spruce buds momentarily, she never stayed in any one place for very long. Between the low light, and her constant movement, the photos are not the quality I usually like to put up here. But her behavior was so unusual, I decided to go ahead and post them.

The thing is, I have no idea what she was going after. At first I thought maybe she was getting some sap from the newly opened blue spruce buds.

But when I went out to confirm my hunch after she left, there wasn’t anything there — no sap, no water droplets, no tiny insects. Just newly opened blue spruce buds.

I’ll keep watching that blue spruce and see if she comes back.

New Friends

We’ve had some new friends in the yard this week!

A charming flock of chipping sparrows stopped by! I don’t remember seeing them before, but I suspect that is merely a reflection on my lack of recognition.

Their name comes from the “chip! chip!” sound they make, which is the entirety of their song.

Chipping sparrow with a rust brown head and white and black eye-brow streaks. Males and females look alike.

Imagine a dozen of these little guys bobbing around in our rather dandelion-infested back yard, looking for food. I couldn’t get a good group shot because they were so far down in the grass, except when they’d hop up for a moment. It was like avian popcorn!

Chipping sparrows eat mostly seeds, but will take insects, especially in breeding season or when feeding their chicks. My husband has vowed never to dig up another dandelion so that these little chippies always have plenty to eat. He is always looking out for wildlife.

Chipping sparrow with its beak full of dandelion seeds.

They are migrating to the mountains, where they’ll nest and raise their families in open grassy forests from the ponderosa pine to the tundra.

Once the little ones have fledged, they’ll feed up on seeds before heading back to southern Texas and Mexico.

They are welcome in our yard to eat dandelion seeds anytime.

Nectar Eaters on a Cool Spring Day

It’s a cool May day, and that has made animals cold and hungry.

White-lined sphinx moths are big, with flat triangular wings and a “white” line running from behind their heads to the corners of their wings.

My husband and I found a white-lined sphinx moth on the sidewalk as we were out walking the dogs this morning, slowly beating its wings as it tried to warm up. Once he gets airborne, he’ll be looking for nectar.

You can see a hint of pink on the body. If he were to open his wings, it would be a large pink wing patch.

And we saw our first hummingbirds! As usual, we heard their ringing zip first. Only the males make this sound. It is produced by special tail feathers. The males are heading into the high country to stake out territory before the females arrive.Spring storm brings cold, wet; hummers come to feeder

Male broadtailed hummingbirds have a red “gorget” or throat feathers. The feathers on their backs are iridescent green.

The problem for both these animals is that the very hard freeze we had a month ago killed a lot of early flowers.

We’ll have more flowers soon, but they need food NOW. I’m doing what I can to help by putting out my hummingbird feeders — 1 part sugar to 4 parts water, NO red food coloring — poured into hummingbird feeders that have been cleaned with boiling water. Hummers in Snowstorm

Hang in there nectar eaters! More flowers are on the way!