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...

Baby Bunny Gets Nailed

Yesterday evening, I heard a hawk screaming in our front yard. When I went out to see what was going on, I saw it “mantling” over something it had caught.

You can see the fur of the bunny beneath the hawk’s sharp shins.

When I looked closer, I realized it was a baby cottontail rabbit. We have been overrun by cottontails this year. I’ve heard that it is because the most common predator to keep them in check, coyotes, have been hit hard with canine mange.

On the other hand, an early fall cold snap in New Mexico last year decimated the migrating songbird population there and in surrounding states.(https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/southwest-bird-die-caused-long-term-starvation-180976643/) We’ve had far fewer songbirds around this summer as a result.

The combination of fewer songbirds and more cottontails probably prompted this sharpie to try its hand — er — talon — at a baby bunny.

Notice that the bunny fur is almost the same size as the hawk. Remember that birds are very light for their size.

But this baby cottontail rabbit was only a little smaller than the hawk. When a family came walking down the sidewalk, they startled the hawk off its “kill”. To everyone’s astonishment, the baby bunny bounced up and scampered back under our blue spruce tree, although it did have a nasty gash on the side of its head.

The only one disappointed was the hawk.

National Nature Photography Day

Today is National Nature Photography Day! In honor of nature photography, I decided to go through my catalogue, and pull out a few of my best photos that I never had occasion to share with you before. Enjoy!

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My brother enjoys nature photography as well. But he loves taking photographs of big trees. So when I saw him looking up at the big trees while framed by a maple on a path in the Hoh Valley of Olympic National Park, I knew it was perfect for him. I call this one “Wonderland”.

Mating Coopers Hawks

I saw these Coopers hawks building a nest when I was out walking my dogs one morning in 2009. I came back as soon as I could with my camera. What so unusual is that the female is actually a juvenile. When she is an adult, her plumage will be the same as the male’s. So that actually makes the picture a little weird…

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I like to take photos of flowers looking straight down into the flower to capture their structure and symmetry. This Mariposa lily turned out really well.

In 2014, the Denver Botanic Gardens hosted an exhibit of Chihuly glass sculptures. https://www.botanicgardens.org/exhibits/chihuly I was really impressed by it, so when I went out into my garden later that summer and saw the head of this purple coneflower glowing in the evening light, I knew I had to try to capture it.

2011 was a warm summer that didn’t cool down until September. Then, we had a cold front come through that dropped a lot of rain, and at the higher altitudes, snow. Suddenly the garden was full of hummingbirds who had been lulled by the mild weather into thinking they might not have to migrate that year. Nope. They still gotta go south. But we were delighted to have them stop by for a drink.

Less air = bluer skies

We all live in a thick layer of air called the atmosphere. On average it is about fifty miles thick.

But as you go up, the atmosphere gets noticeably thinner. At the top of Mount Evans (14,130 feet or 4306.8 meters), there is 1/3 less air than at sea level. That means less air between me and the deep blue sky.

Amy on Mount Evans. Longs Peak, sixty miles away in Rocky Mountain National Park, is in the background.
Yes, the sky really was THAT blue.

Amy on Mount Evans. Longs Peak, sixty miles away in Rocky Mountain National Park, is in the background.
Yes, the sky really was THAT blue.

A Flicker and Two Hawks

My husband and I walk the dogs every morning, three quarters of a mile up the hill, then loop around and come back. It’s kept the covid pounds off, mostly.

It also provides the occasional benefit of letting us seeing some wildlife.

As we started up the hill earlier this week, I saw a funny knob on a tree just a few feet back from the sidewalk. I focused on it and realized it was a female red-shafted flicker, sticking her head out of a hole she’d pecked into a chokecherry tree.

The tree is just a few feet back from the sidewalk, and the hole is right at eye level. We are worried that there will be too much traffic for her to feel comfortable enough to raise a family. But there isn’t much we can do about her choice of nest sites except swing wide as we pass it.

As we worked our way around the neighborhood, we heard the loud, almost honking cry of a Cooper’s hawk. Contrary to what we’ve been trained by movies to expect, the only hawks that make the classic screaming sound are Red-taileds and Swainson’s. But we recognized the honking call because there have been Coopers nesting in this area for over a decade, (Coopers Hawk Misses Dinner) although I doubt the actual birds are the same. Regardless, we spotted the bird as he flew to his mate sitting on the nest.

Female Cooper’s hawk sitting on her nest.

At least we won’t have to work very hard to avoid her nest. But we will keep an eye on it, too, and see if any chicks hatch.

Speaking of screaming hawks, later that same day, I heard a hawk screaming as it landed in a neighbor’s yard. I grabbed my trusty camera and tripod and got a couple of shots.

By the time I got in position, this Swainson’s hawk was still preening and fluffing its feathers. Something really upset it. I suspect it got too close to a crows nest someplace, and they mobbed it.

Swainson’s are the same size as Red-taileds, and look somewhat similar. But they have longer wings; if you look closely, you can see that its wings extend beyond its tail as it sits on the branch. This bird is what is called a “pale morph.” You can’t see it here but its wings are white underneath, and it has a white chest. You can just make out some banding on its tail, but it is fairly light, too. But it does have the signature “chocolate bib” that all Swainson’s have.

I don’t know if it is nesting nearby. We had a Swainson’s come through the neighborhood last year too. (Hawk Conflict) I don’t think it was the same bird, but it might have been. It was as pale as this one. We’ll keep an eye out for it, anyway, and see if we can find out if it is nesting nearby.

Cold Ducks

In the last three months, we’ve had 8″ of moisture. That’s an incredible amount of water for a region that normally sees 14-16″ for the entire year. It has been a cold, wet, gloomy spring.

This morning, the dogs went berserk at something in the backyard. When we looked out, we saw a male and a female mallard duck. This is unusual, because the nearest open water is at least 2 miles away.

Here is the male mallard pushing his way through the snow towards our bird feeders. We think he was looking for grain that the other birds spill out of the feeders, but our corgi eats it up as fast as it hits the ground.

In this photo, the male is eating some grass. I don’t think it agreed with him, because he stopped after only a few mouthfuls.

This is the only shot I got of the female mallard. She is on the far side of a little fencing we have to keep the dogs from wearing a path in the grass by chasing squirrels.

My husband called them “cold ducks” — a play on them being out in the snow and the wine called “cold duck”. Get it?

I am ready for spring.

A Few Critters in Yuma, AZ

My husband and I took a quick trip to Yuma, Arizona last week. We left in a spring snowstorm that dropped three inches of wet snow on the Front Range area. We arrived in Yuma to 90 degree days.

Amy in front of a saguarro cactus in Phoenix. Notice my pasty winter skin.
Ocotilla in bloom.

We were lucky to go down in the spring, when the ocotilla were in bloom.

We only had a little time for getting out into a wetlands. But while we were there we got to see a few critters.

Snowy egret — big white wading bird with black legs and yellow feet.

This snowy egret was wading in a much diminished Colorado River just below the famous Yuma Territorial Prison Museum.

Desert spiny lizard, I think

To say that “this is a lizard I saw in Yuma, Arizona” doesn’t actually seem to narrow things down any. I haven’t studied lizards much, but a little research suggests that this is a desert spiny lizard. I think. Regardless she wasn’t very worried about us.

Roadrunner dashing away from us.

The lizard may well have been worried about this roadrunner, which we saw just a few moments later. I am particularly proud of this shot, in spite of a little blurriness, because I don’t actually remember going through the thoughts “There is a bird. It’s a roadrunner. I want to take a picture of it.” Instead, my reaction was all instinct — the shutter was clicking before I was conscious of bringing the camera up. That kind of instinct doesn’t kick in for me very often, but here, it resulted in a decent picture.

Next time, we’ll have to go down when we can spend more time in the wildlands. But for now, it was a good trip.

Snowmageddon

The Front Range got our long anticipated (some might say dreaded) monster snowstorm over the weekend. Totals for snowfall were in the 22-27″ range where I live on the west side of Denver.

Twenty-two inches.
Twenty-seven inches.

While we were all digging out, our furry friends were having problems of their own.

Don’tcha just hate it when you get drool-cicles?

Chinooks blow

The Front Range of Colorado is under a high wind warning today — we’re having a Chinook!

I’ve talked about chinook winds before at https://amylaw.blog/2014/02/15/snow-eaters-melt-the-snow/ But in the intervening six years, I’ve learned a bit more about them, as well as upgrading my graphics and getting some better photos of what I’m talking about.

Chinook winds blow when warm moist air crosses a range of mountains. As the air mass crosses the mountains, it rises; as it rises, it dries.

As it crosses the ridge of the mountains, the now warm very dry air mass is held down by a strong jet stream. The warm dry air is trapped between the ground below and the jet stream above.

Lenticular clouds above the Flatirons west of Boulder Colorado. Fohn wall is behind them, to the left.

As the air moves from cold to warm, the clouds form and evaporate.

Fohn arch.

When the now warm very dry air hits the ground, we can have winds from 30-90 mph (48-145 km per hour). Chinooks blowing at these speeds can blow over semi-trucks. In the 1970s, extremely violent chinooks hit the National Center for Atmospheric Research, just west of Boulder, and pegged their anemometer (wind meter) at 120 mph (193 km per hour).

Broader, longer Fohn arch. The mountains are behind the trees.

Chinooks can raise the air temperature 40o (4o C) in minutes. Because they are dry winds, they can evaporate and sublimate (evaporate directly from snow or ice, without melting into water) snow at an astonishing rate. This is nice for getting ice off sidewalks, but chinooks have caused us to go from having a comfortable amount of snow in the mountain snowpack to needing water restrictions within the space of a day. This is why the Blackfeet Indians of Montana call it “snow eater.”

Chinooks blow on the lee side of mountains all over the world. In Europe, they are called Fohn winds; in California, Santa Anas. Loo winds blow off the Kirthar Range in Pakistan east onto the Indo-Ganges Plains in summer, making a hot season hotter.

Dark-Eyed Juncos — Evolution in Action

Once I had a fancy camera that held bird images still so that I could figure out what I was looking at, I began to learn a lot more about LBJs — Little Brown Jobbies — little birds that are around us but we really don’t pay much attention to. And one of the first LBJ birds I learned about was the Dark-eyed Junco.https://amylaw.blog/2015/03/05/spring-is-coming-really/

If you look at a lot of bird books, the generic entry Dark-eyed juncos says that they are a type of sparrow with pink to orange bills and legs, and white edges on their tails; they winter south to Mexico, and breed from Alaska and southern Canada all the way to the arctic tundra. Colorado is lucky that they can live here year-round.

But reality is much more complex.

Slate-colored juncos are dark gray on their backs and heads, and white on their breasts. The line on their breasts between the gray and white forms an inverted ‘U’.

If you are from the Eastern US, the slate-colored junco is probably the dark-eyed junco you are most familiar with. They breed in Canada, and winter in the continental United States. I don’t have very good photos of the slate-colored because they usually show up at my feeders when it’s snowing. They flit in for some seeds then dart back into the trees. This behavior is typical enough that dark-eyed juncos are called the “snow bird”. Humans have co-opted the nickname to mean elderly folk who show up in warm climates in winter.

Slate-colored junco also called the “snow bird”.

As it turns out, Juncos were a tough species for me to use to start learning about LBJs. Dark-eyed Juncos come in a huge variety of subspecies — five subspecies with three subspecies having even smaller ‘races’ within them. And the most amazing thing about all this variety is that it seems to have developed just in the last 10,000-13,000 years — since the last Ice Age! https://www.audubon.org/news/dark-eyed-juncos-backyard-gems-come-dazzling-array-colors

eBird has this to say about juncos: “…incredible variation between populations. All have short pink bills and white outer tail feathers. Often in flocks in winter, foraging on the ground for seeds. Visits feeders. Subspecies include: Slate-colored (widespread), Oregon (West), Pink-sided (Rockies), Gray-headed (Rockies), Red-backed (central Arizona and New Mexico), and White-winged (Colorado in winter).” https://ebird.org/species/daejun

This is the classic Oregon dark-eyed junco — pink or yellow beak, black hood distinct from brown back or red sides, white breast, white edges of the tail. At first glance, it doesn’t look anything like the slate-colored dark-eyed junco, above. But it still has the pink beak and white-edged tail of a dark-eyed junco.

Oregon dark-eyed juncos have a distinct black hood.

The Oregon junco breeds in the Pacific Northwest, but they winter throughout the west and the Great Plains, which is why I get to see them.

Pink-sided dark-eyed junco.

This bird looks like a pale version of the Oregon junco above. Often pale versions are females while bright versions are males, but in this case, it’s just another sub-species of dark-eyed junco. The above bird is called a pink-sided junco because of the orangish-pink sides. This seems like a small difference to call out, especially when the big difference I see between it and the Oregon is that it has a pearly gray head.

But that the gray-headed junco is another dark-eyed junco. They do indeed have a gray head, so that works out. In fact, gray-headed dark-eyed juncos are all gray, except for a rusty patch on their backs, and the white edges on their tails.

Gray-headed juncos are gray pretty much everywhere except their backs, which are rusty red. Again, pink or yellow beak, white edge to the tail (you can just see that in this picture) make them a junco.

They are residents of the Rocky Mountains, and move up and down the mountain elevations more than north and south, so these are the juncos I’ll see in the mountains in the summer.

And these are just the birds that have come to our feeder! The white-winged, the red-backed, Guadeloupe — even more subspecies of dark-eyed junco are sprinkled around in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

WHO CARES???

Well, I do.

I care for a couple of reasons.

First, I always feel like once I can identify a bird, and know where it’s found, I know that bird a little better — it’s now a friend.

Second, it fascinates me that dark-eyed juncos are splintering into all these different forms in just 13,000 years. To give you an idea of how fast their changes are happening, dogs split off from wolves 15,000-30,000 years ago. So when these birds finally become separate species, they will be the youngest species in the world. That’s evolution in action.

And that is pretty cool.

Female Red-tailed Hawk

We’ve had a huge red-tailed hawk hanging around the neighborhood this week. I assume it is a female, because female raptors are bigger than males. And she was big.

And I knew she was a red-tailed hawk (Red-Tailed Hawk), even without seeing her tail, because 1) she was big, 2) she had a stocky body with a short tail, which meant that she was an open country “buteo” hawk, as opposed to an “accipitor” that hunts in the trees. 3) she had a “belly band” of rust colored feathers across her tummy, with a white patch above. (For more about identifying a red-tailed hawk https://amylaw.blog/2020/04/25/hawk-conflict/)

She really didn’t like me photographing her. There was another group standing a few feet away, and I never got a photo of her looking at them at all. But she glared at me — a lot.

In between glares, she was kinda fidgety. She stretched…

…scratched …

… and turned around. Did I mention that she was a red-tailed? She had the reddest tail I’ve ever seen on a red-tailed hawk.

It was a beautiful day yesterday — clear skies and 60os. It was the warm day before the storm. (For more on weather whiplash https://amylaw.blog/2020/09/09/snow-in-september/)

We’re down in the high 20s today, with six inches of snow. Not complaining, we need the moisture!