Library Goose

I love going to the library! You get the entire world at your fingertips — fiction, science, art, music, geese.

Yes, geese were at the library this morning. Colorado has become a wintering stop for vast numbers of Canada geese, who earn their keep by turning dead grass on lawns into organic fertilizer. But this small flock included this odd duck — er — goose.

The bird in the center doesn’t have a white “chin strap” as the Canada Geese do. And it has orange feet. It’s bill is blunter, and it doesn’t look as heavy as the other birds.

I think the bird in the center is an immature blue-morph Snow Goose. Snow Geese breed in the far north, on the Arctic coasts of North America. There are three populations of Snow Geese — western, mid-continent and eastern.

There are two color forms, or morphs of Snow Geese — white or blue. While the coastal Snow Geese populations are mostly the traditional white, the mid-continent populations has a high percentage of blue-morphs. And this is apparently an immature blue-morph.

I took these shots with my cell phone. Now that I know that at least one Snow Goose is hanging out with the Canada Geese at the library, I need to take my camera with me when I go, to get some better photographs of them.

Cold Weather Birds

We woke up to 12o F (-11o C) in central Colorado — we have yet to have a significant snowfall in the foothills west of Denver. It’s been a little odd to see so many different types of winter birds coming to the feeder without snow. But they are coming!

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House sparrows. House sparrows were introduced into North America in 1851 and 1852. They quickly covered the US and most of Canada and Mexico.

 

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House finches. According to Birds of North America (https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/houfin/introduction), house finches started out as a desert species of California and Mexico. They were released in New York City in 1939, and have exploded across the country.

 

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Collared doves. These birds were introduced to North America in the 1970s, and have since spread across the continent. Scientists worry that they will compete with native doves, like the mourning dove, but the verdict is still out.

 

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Black-capped chickadees. Always in motion, these guys flit from tree to feeder to bushes.

 

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Red-breasted nuthatches.  Five years ago, I rarely saw nuthatches at my feeders. Now they are fairly common. (Nuthatches paring up)

 

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Dark-eyed juncos. I rarely see dark-eyed juncos when there isn’t any snow on the ground. This year, I’ve seen a lot of them.

 

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Hairy woodpecker. People in our neighborhood trim the deadwood out of their trees pretty quickly, so it’s a treat when they stop by.

 

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Bushtit. These little guys usually fly around in a flock of 20 or so, chipping constantly to keep in contact with each other. (Sharp-shinned hawk misses flicker)

We hope your holidays are filled with as many interesting visitors as ours!

 

 

 

 

Sharp-shinned hawk misses flicker for lunch

The gregarious band of little bushtits took off in a burst of feathers and cheeping alarm calls.

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I looked up just in time to see a Northern flicker shoot out of the top of a tree, with a sharp-shinned hawk in hot pursuit. Luckily for the flicker, the hawk had made its move too soon, and given the flicker a head start the predator couldn’t overcome.

Northern flickers spend all year in the wooded areas of the Front Range of Colorado. They are in the woodpecker family, but they spend as much time on the ground as they do in trees, stabbing their big sharp beaks into the soil in search of insects.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sharp-shinned hawks are woodland predators. They, too, live year-round in Colorado woodlands, and in fact they cover most of North America.  Most of their diet comes from birds that they surprise and chase through the trees — exactly what I saw today, except that the flicker got away.notice the long notched tail and dark cap on head

Hummer colors

If you’ve read my blog for very long, you’ll know that hummingbirds make frequent appearances. I love those little guys. Even more, I’m amazed by them. How they fly, how they hover Hummers Are Back, how they eat Eyelashes and Hummingbird Tongues, the fact that they have to eat constantly when they are awake Hungry Hummer Can’t Wait. They are just generally cool.

One of the most interesting things about hummers is that the iridescent colors of their feathers aren’t created by pigments, but rather by the way the light shines through them.

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The red “gorget” on this male broad-tailed hummingbird is so intense that it is hard to believe that it isn’t a pigment.

Instead, iridescent feathers are built like prisms that only let red light through, and only from certain angles.

Here is the same bird when he turned his head:

 

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All that changed was that this guy turned his head to give me a nice profile shot. But when he did, the angle of the light changed.

When this male broad-tailed hummer turned his head, the angle of the light changed, and his gorget showed that it had no pigment in it at all! It’s all just a pigment of your imagination! (Sorry, bad joke.)

Many hummingbirds have iridescent feathers on their backs tuned to green.

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Female broad-tailed hummingbird.

The calliope hummer in Eyelashes and hummingbird tongues had a gorget of magenta, but I could never catch the light coming in the right way, so it looks like a ragged black collar.

This ability to show us colors without using pigments is a trait shared by a lot of birds. Blue then Black Magpie follows me on the trail.

Interestingly, although some dinosaurs may have iridescent (Microraptor Was A Glossy Dinosaur), no mammals ever developed the trait.

Valley of the Cranes

My husband and I went down to the San Luis Valley, in south central Colorado, last weekend. We’ve been down there to see the sandhill crane migration several times in the last few years (Minature Upslope Storm), and it is always an amazing experience.

Twenty thousand cranes pass through the San Luis Valley in late February  to mid March.

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An equal number of other water birds — Canada and snow geese, a wide variety of ducks, and great blue herons, join the cranes as they pass through the Valley in one of the last great migrations of the lower 48. All these birds come for the food produced in the Valley’s marshy wetlands. Once they’ve built up their reserves, they’ll be on their way again, north to their breeding grounds that stretch from northern Colorado, into Canada, Alaska, and for some hardy birds, Siberia.

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Two adult sandhill cranes feed in a wetland.

 

Sandhill cranes are tall birds, long legs and neck taking them to 3 1/2 feet high, with a wingspan up to 6 feet across. They are grey, with brown mottling across their wings. Adults have a red patch above their eyes.

These beautiful birds mate for life, or at least long-term. They show their attraction to their mates by dancing, jumping and bowing.

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This high jump may be intended to intimidate rivals.

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These two cranes reinforce their bond with an upright wing spread.

 

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While the bird second from left does a “ruffle bow” the bird on the far right spreads its wings.

These beautiful displays have earned cranes a place in the hearts of people from many different cultures.

For all that their visual displays are a feast for the eyes, though, I think the thing that stunned my husband and I the most was the deafening noise that 2000 cranes make when they lift-off together. The thousands of birds calling could be heard from over a mile away.

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The noise these birds made was incredibly loud from over a mile away.

 

Nuthatches pairing up

We’ve had a couple of red-breasted nuthatches coming to our bird baths up on Green Mountain this week. I’ve

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Male red-breasted nuthatch

always enjoyed nuthatches because they remind me of darts that have been thrown really hard.

After doing some research, I learned that you can tell males from females because males have black stripes on their heads, while those on a female are grey. They evidently stay in pairs all year round, but that the pairs can change at any time.

But nesting season is coming up quickly — they can start digging out holes in trees as early as the end of March, with egg-laying starting in mid-April.

These perky little birds eat bugs under the bark of trees during breeding season, and seeds any other time. You can recognize an insect-hunting

female red-breased nuthatch

Female red-breasted nuthatch

nuthatch instantly because they come down the tree trunk head first.

Red-breasted nuthatches don’t migrate, so with any luck, these guys will build a nest somewhere close by and stick around for the summer.

 

Downy Woodpecker Stops By

By and large, this winter has been notable for the lack of birds we’ve had come by. We just haven’t had many birds since the Week of Water in 2013. (Record-demolishing Storm) We still have most of our feeders up, but we are currently feeding squirrels with occasional house fiches, mourning and collared doves, and starlings dropping in for a few minutes before they dart off again for where ever they’ve been feeding lately.

We had a lovely surprise the other day, though, when a female Downy Woodpecker stopped in. Downy Woodpeckers are one of three woodpecker species that visit our backyard.

Downy Woodpeckers are small black and white birds that cling vertically to the trunks of

Female Downy Woodpecker

Female Downy Woodpecker

trees (or in this case, our suet feeder). Their beaks are short and surprisingly delicate for a bird that makes its living by pounding it into a tree. Males have a red patch on the back of their heads. Downys are common across North America, any place you have trees. They make a call that has been described as a high-pitched whinny.

 

 

 

 

 

Hairy Woodpeckers look almost identical to Downy Woodpeckers, with whom they share

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Male Hairy Woodpecker with caterpillar in his long sharp beak.

 

their range. They, too, perch vertically on tree trunks and branches while they listen for insects under the bark. But Hairy Woodpeckers are larger, and have a sturdier chisel-shaped beak almost as long as their heads. Again, male Hairys have a red patch on the back of their heads. Both sexes make a wiki-wiki-wiki call.

 

 

 

 

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Male Downy Woodpecker hunting insects. Notice red patch on base of head.

The most obvious woodpeckers that we see are the red-shafted Northern Flickers. They are medium sized birds with black ladder stripes on their brown backs and black spots on their white fronts. These birds fly with a distinctive flap flap glide method of flight. While they are flapping, they flash the orange-red feathers that give them their names. Male flickers have a red mustache drooping from the corners of their bills.

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Male Northern Flicker. You can see a touch of red on the underside of his tail

Flickers are unusual woodpeckers. While they can dig  in the bark of a tree trunk, you’ll find the most often on the ground, digging in the soil for insects.

Flickers do have a call — wick-a-wick-a-wick-a — but they often pound on the side of a house to advertise for a mate. They seem to do this in the Spring, most often on the Sunday mornings that you wanted to sleep in. That means that they ought to start pounding away in a month or so.

 

 

 

Yes, there are other colors of Northern Flickers — yellow-shafted Northern Flickers live on the eastern plains to the Atlantic. And there are non-Northern Flickers. Gilded and Cuban Flickers live — you guessed it — in the southwest and southeast respectively.

Calliope Hummingbirds

The last of the hummingbirdsare passing through my backyard this month. I happened to Calliope hummingbird & rosemar-05_edited-1get a couple of great shots of some tiny, charming female calliopes buzzing around my rosemary plants. Because the rosemary is in a planter on deck railing, the photos are looking up slightly at the hummers.

I love to watch hummingbirds (Eyelashes and Hummingbirds, Hungry Hummer Can’t Wait), and calliopes are some of my favorites.

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Calliopes breed in the Pacific Northwest, and winter in Mexico; there are no reported calliope nests in Colorado. That means that my backyard is just a pit stop in their travels.

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According to Birds of North America (Birds of North America), calliope hummingbirds are the smallest migrating birds in the world.

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Safe travels, little ones!

Over Trail Ridge Road with Nathan Heffel of Colorado Public Radio

Last week, I took Nathan Heffel of Colorado Public Radio over Trail Ridge Road. As we drove, Nathan interviewed me about my book, A Natural History of Trail Ridge Road: Rocky Mountain National Park’s Highway to the Sky. (A Natural History of Trail Ridge Road)
Our trip started with a gobble when we saw wild turkeys on Deer Ridge, where US 34 and

Wild turkey hens under ponderosa pine forest.

Wild turkey hens under ponderosa pine forest.

US 36 meet. I’ll have to update my book, because I didn’t know that turkeys had returned to Rocky. These birds were probably hens, foraging in the ponderosa pine litter for pine seeds and other edibles. (Let them eat pine nuts)
Nathan found a long striped turkey feather that one of the hens had dropped. After

Wild turkey hen.

Wild turkey hen.

inspecting it, we put it back where we found it. This is a National Park, after all, and we didn’t take anything from it except some great memories.

 
In the krummholz, we stopped at one of my favorite places on Trail Ridge Road – an ancient game drive used by Archaic and Ute peoples for thousands of years. It was difficult to get to, but worth showing to Nathan.
The cold wind blew steadily from the north as we carefully struggled our way across the

Elk trotting between walls of ancient game drive.

Elk trotting between walls of ancient game drive.

tundra to a low saddle in the ridge. Since the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago, deer and elk have made the autumn migration up and through the low spot to descend to the valley on the other side; they continue to do so today.  The ancient people knew this, and laid a trap for the animals.
The early people built dozens of small piles of stone in two converging lines. Within each

Upright of wall stone still has support stone in place. The stone supported a stick with buckskin on the top.

Upright of wall stone still has support stone in place. The stone supported a stick with buckskin on the top.

pile of rocks, they put a short stick, and at the top of the stick, they tied a piece of buckskin to flutter in the wind. Deer and elk won’t pass between these fluttering flags, and so the piles of rock form virtual “walls”.

Looking up wall from the kill area.

Looking up wall from the kill area.

The evening before the hunt, the men took their positions just over the crest of the low saddle, downwind of the path the animals would take. The men hid behind big rocks and

Hunter's blind in kill area.

Hunter’s blind in kill area.

blinds dug into the shallow soil, and spent a frigid night on the tundra. In the morning, the women, children and elderly walked up the slope, slowly driving the elk and deer before them. The animals bunched up as they passed between the two lines of rock walls. When the elk or deer reached the blinds where the hunters were hidden, the hunters sprang up and shot the animals with arrows or spears. This was a very successful way the people could get extra meat for the winter; game drives were used for thousands of years.
It is important to note that I don’t encourage people to strike out over the tundra. The reason people don’t live up here is that it is very dangerous; not even the native people spent any more time up here than they had to. At 11,000 feet, you get tired, dehydrated and disoriented far faster than you realize – both Nathan and I had problems catching our breath and tired quickly. As we came down, even though I knew exactly where I was going and what I was looking for, I had trouble finding the van.
In addition to the danger to people, walking on tundra is dangerous to the plants. Although these plants can survive tremendous wind, cold and drought, they cannot stand to be broken by hiking boots. They can be killed by an incautious footstep. Their loss takes hundreds of years to replace. (tundra fall)
After the game drive, I took Nathan to the Alpine Visitor’s Center to peer over the edge of the Fall River Cirque, where the Fall River Glacier began. The word cirque comes from the French word for circle or ring. And that is what we saw – a circle three quarters of a mile across and half a mile deep, cut into the mountain by thousands of years of ice sliding down the valley.

Fall River Cirque, 3/4 mile wide by 1/2 mile deep. The cirque was cut by the Fall River Glacier.

Fall River Cirque, 3/4 mile wide by 1/2 mile deep. The cirque was cut by the Fall River Glacier.

By now, it was evening and time for our final stop of the day, in Beaver Meadows. There, we saw, and more impressively, we heard, elk bugling.
In the fall, elk and deer migrate down from the high country to mate. The elk gather in the open meadows, or parks throughout the mountains. The parks of Rocky Mountain National Park are some of their favorite places to come.
Once in the meadows, the male or bull elk try to gather a harem of female, or cow elk. The

Harem of cow elk.

Harem of cow elk.

bull that we were watching had gathered about a dozen cows. He spent the evening running from one side of the harem to the other, head thrust out, keeping the cows in a tight bunch.

Bull elk herding his harem.

Bull elk herding his harem.

One of the cows got fed up with the bull’s bullying, and trotted through a gap in the human spectators lining the dirt road and into the meadow beyond. The bull glared at the people along the road, but he wouldn’t follow the cow because that would separate him from the rest of his harem. Finally, he let the defiant cow go, and returned to the others.
As I watched the bull trying to keep the females together, I realized that while the cows had been grazing constantly, he hadn’t had a mouthful. It is still early in the season. If he keeps up at the pace he was going, he is going to burn off all the fat he stored through the summer and go into winter in poor shape. Such is the cost of a harem.
Bull elk call the cows to them by bugling. The name is somewhat misleading, because elk bugles are actually more of a whistling call. They are mesmerizing to hear.

Bull elk bugling.

Bull elk bugling.

When I was a girl, the etiquette for listening to the elk bugle was that you stayed quietly in your car so that everyone could hear them. Few people had heard about elk bugling, and so it was a rather lonely, but tremendously rewarding pass time.
Fast forward to today: Elk bugles are so beguiling that people come from hundreds of miles away to hear them, lining Rocky Mountain National Park’s roads where ever harems are to be found. The influx of people means that what you hear today is gravel crunching under car tires, car doors slamming, people chatting, and, through all the background noise, possibly some elk bugling.
But occasionally, as the elk begin to be more active, the humans settle down to watch and listen. As they did, we heard the eerie whistling calls of the elk. Nathan had a field day recording the bulls.
Finally, though, the elk moved up into the darkening forest, and we called it a day.

To hear Nathan’s interview of me, go to Colorado Public Radio Colorado Matters (Colorado Matters). The interview will air September 29 at 10:00 am, and repeat at 7:00 pm.
My thanks to Nathan and Colorado Matters for taking the time and interest to interview me about my book. It was a wonderful experience. Merci, gracias, danke, domo arrigato – all the ways I know to say thank you.