About Amy Law

Amy Law is a science geek. She feels about science the way some people feel about music, or art, or sports – a total and complete emotional connection. She thinks in science. For Amy, there’s nothing better than helping people see the beauty of science as she does. She loves to untangle a complicated subject into its parts, explaining it so that anybody can understand what’s happening. Let her show you her world...

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!

Hawk Conflict

My husband and I were working the backyard this morning, cleaning up the garden after a long, hard winter. The hacking, digging and trimming were beginning to pay off when both of us heard the unmistakable “Kreeee!” of a red-tailed hawk.

We’ve had a red-tailed hanging around the neighborhood for the last few winters https://amylaw.blog/2018/12/13/red-tailed-hawk/, which I’ve always thought was kinda odd — they are perch hunters of open spaces. But for the past five years or so, we’ve had an overabundance of cotton-tailed rabbits, a favorite prey item of red-taileds. And just this week we found a bunny in the street that had been ripped up by some sort of hawk.

But when my husband and I looked up to spot see the red-tailed, we saw not one, but two hawks careening through the trees. By the time I had grabbed my camera (always withing handy reach) and bolted out the front door, I could only see one of the hawks flying in tight circles above the house.

After snapping a few pics, the hawk began to fly out of range. I lowered my camera and my husband pointed out the other hawk, huddled in a tree across the street.

At first glance, this looked like another red-tailed hawk — speckled belly, and rusty tail feathers. But something about the eyes made me question that identification.

She didn’t like me looking at her (in my defense, I was 20 feet below her), and so she took off. And instantly, I knew she was a Swainson’s hawk.

Not having seen the original altercation, I have no idea what set off the spat between these two birds. It might have been food — Swainson’s also eat rabbits. But even more, they eat ground squirrels, and insects. Or the Swainson’s might have gotten too close to the Red-tailed’s nest.

Once she took flight, she lost no time in heading back to the open spaces she felt most comfortable in.

It will be interesting to see if she stays in the neighborhood. I’ll have to keep an eye out her.

Earth Day

Corona Virus has brought illness, death, and economic devastation.

11/16/2019 Looking east into the South Platte Valley from Green Mountain.
4/22/2020 Looking east into the South Platte Valley from Green Mountain.

Too bad that’s what it takes to show us what clean air looks like.

Maybe we can take this horrible disease and use it as a pivot point to treat the Earth a little nicer. Nature seems to respond positively when we do.

Tegan, the Aspiring Therapy Dog

This is Tegan. (https://amylaw.blog/2017/01/29/puppy-play/ , https://amylaw.blog/2017/02/19/what-went-into-this-mutt/) She loves to go up and say hello to people. Her life-long goal is to be a Pet Therapy dog, but like so many dreams, it’s been put on hold by the coronavirus.

Still, she wants people to be happy, and she knows how hard that is right now. So she and her best friend Zoe are going to demonstrate a very sophisticated technique for keeping their spirits up — playing chase.

She demonstrates basic techniques here with Zoe. Notice that Tegan lets Zoe have a nice lead before she catches her.

Tegan advises that you need to pace yourself with frequent breaks for maximum endurance.

Then, it’s Zoe’s turn to chase Tegan. Again, Tegan is careful to not get very far ahead of Zoe. Most Important Note: The game has to be fun for everybody.

Only quit when everybody has run until their tongues hang out. (Zoe never lets her tongue hang out very far. She doesn’t think it’s a good look for her.)

When everybody is tired and their stress gone, it’s time to go in and have a nap on the couch with your best buddy in the world.

Turkey vultures have returned to Front Range

Some people watch for the first robin of spring. In Capistrano, they look for the return of the swallows. I know it’s spring when the turkey vultures return to the Front Range of Colorado. (https://amylaw.blog/2013/04/08/it-must-be-spring/)

Turkey vultures are big birds — the biggest you are likely to see, with the exception of an eagle or an American white pelican.

You’re not going to mistake a vulture for a pelican. The others are a little more problematic.

They are big, dark bird with translucent (almost see-through) trailing wing feathers, and a red head.

I have the most trouble telling a turkey vulture from bald or golden eagles. Although golden eagles may hold their wings in a slight “V”, most often they hold their wings flat.

A turkey vulture soars with it’s wings in a slight “V”, often called a “dihedral”.

Turkey vultures are also “tippy” when they fly — they are so light that air drafts bounce them around. Eagles are not “tippy”. It’s beneath their dignity.

And neither a bald or nor golden eagle have the translucent trailing wing feathers.

Swainson’s hawks, or a broad-winged hawks are both tippy and fly in a V. But both these hawks have shorter, broader wings, and are smaller. They also often brownish-red and have white markings on their wings or bodies.

You might confuse it with a black vulture, but black vultures just seem smaller overall — shorter wings, much shorter tail, with a dark grey head. Plus, black vultures are limited to the southern US down into South America. I have to travel south if I want to see a black vulture.

It’s been a long, hard winter. I hope you enjoy your first signs of spring, whatever they are!

Nuthatches

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.

Birds of North America https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/rebnut/appearance says that red-breasted nuthatches have an “unmistakable nasal bleating similar to small tin horn”. Actually, I did mistake it — for almost anything other than a little bird. It sounds more goat-like than bird-like.

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!