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...

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!

Chickadees checking out a home.

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.

Spring is Coming — Promise

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.

Male Northern Flicker — red-shafted variety. Only males have the red stripe on the jaw.

As we walked, we heard the “eh-eh-eh-eh-eh” call of a male Northern Flicker trying out his mating call.

Male Spotted Towhee looking for seeds in the snow.

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.

Dog Hugs

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.

Thanksgiving Bushtits

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!”

Bushtits on suet feeder.

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.

Male bushtits have dark brown irises…

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.

…while female bushtits have yellow eyes.

And so they resorted to our feeders.

I don’t know whether this is a bit of mealworm suet, or a chunk of sunflower.

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.

Either will give her energy through the cold weather.

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.

Female leaves feeder with a choice morsel.

I think I’ll make sure I’ve got plenty of mealworm suet for them, in any case.

When I could not go to nature, nature kindly came to me.

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.

Young mule, or black-tailed, deer buck.

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.

You can see Tegan, our black mutt, in the lower right corner. Zoe the Corgi is behind the bird feeders.
The buck is looking back at the doe, who is out of the picture to the left.

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.

The doe is in the upper left quadrant. The yearling is very hard to see in the branches of the background.

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.

Young mule deer buck comes to the fence.

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.

Buck taking it all in.

With the fence safely between them, the buck watched the dogs, unsure of what to make of them.

Lip-licking is a near universal sign of nervousness or uncertainty in mammals.

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.

The fence is up to the buck’s chest.
But he rises on his hind legs…
…springs…
…and tucking his hind legs beneath him …
… is over the fence.
On his way to the next yard.

Nature redeems, once again.

I can go back to dealing with my problems, a little less frustrated.