Aspen on Mt. Evans

We love our quaking aspen in Colorado, and never more than at this time of year. They are turning now, and they won’t last long.

I took a drive up to Evergreen last week and found a little meadow ringed with quakies, some of which hadn’t turned yet.

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Aspen are in the cottonwood family. You can see this in their round -yet-pointed, saw-tooth leaf shape. Aspen leaf.jpg

But you can tell aspen from other cottonwoods because of their white bark, and the unique “eye-shaped” scar that forms when they drop a branch. As a child, I used to worry that aspen were watching me. Not paranoid, though. Not.

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I saw these trees on the way down from Mount Evans, one of my favorite places to go when I need to get to the high country (Alpine flowers on Mt. Evans, Tundra Fall).

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Now that the mountain pine beetle infestation (BioBlitz 2012 — Climate Change in the Soil) has burned itself out, aspen will have an opportunity to fill in the open spaces left by dead lodgepole pine. Aspen reproduce mostly by suckers, and so don’t have the dangers associated with being small and vulnerable for years. The slopes that were covered by rust colored dead pines will in a decade wear a mantle of pale green in the summer and gold in the fall.aspen-from-mt-evans-05

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.

Alpine flowers on Mt. Evans

I finally made it up to the tundra yesterday, not Trail Ridge Road this time, but Mt. Evans, outside of Denver.

Mt. Evans is nearly unique in the world in that it is a 14,130 foot mountain with a road essentially to the top (you have to park and walk the last thirty feet or so). It makes it an easy trip to get to my favorite biome — the alpine tundra.

I went up hoping, as always to see wildlife. But what I got an eyefull of was flowering plants.

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Summit Lake flowers — American bistort, alpine avens, and goldflower.

This view is of Summit Lake, actually a mile or so before the actual summit. Initially, I was going to just take a picture of the white American bistort in the foreground, but this was such a beautiful shot, I took it first.Goldflower (3)

Goldflower is in the sunflower family. It is one of the larger flowers in the tundra, standing several inches tall. About half of that is take up with the big flower disk.

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Fly pollinating Alpine Avens

One of the things that surprised me was the number of flies on the flowers. But then I found out that bees don’t make it up this high, and so flies are the main pollinators.

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Fly on American bistort flowers.

I don’t get repulsed by much, but it is hard for me to have kind thoughts about flies in general. But if they are pollinating flowers, I guess I need to try to think better of them.

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American bistort at 12,000 feet.

Bistorts are in the buckwheat family. This species is relatively large at several inches.

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Alpine bistort.

Most alpine flowers, though are tiny, like this alpine bistort, standing about an inch tall. To get this shot, I had to lie down on my stomach, with my camera on the ground.

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Purple fringe usually grows at lower altitudes, where it can stand upright.

Even if the plant normally grows upright, the frequent winds forces them low to the ground.

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Alpine Indian paintbrush? If so, it, too, normally grows upright.

I had a heck of a time figuring out some of these plants. I think this is alpine Indian paintbrush. If you know, let me know.

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Mountain goat blowing her winter coat. Look at how thick it is!

At the very top of Mt. Evans, I finally found some mountain goats. Mountain goats are different from Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. They are goats (duh!), with very sharp horns and a hump at their shoulder.

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Bighorn rams in the Big Thompson Canyon battle it out.

Bighorn sheep, on the other hand, have thick horns that they use to batter each other with. They have no hump at their shoulders.

 

 

Rocky Mountain National Park In 360 Degrees

I just found this cool link on National Public Radio (NPR) that will allow you to see six views of Rocky Mountain National Park in 360 degrees — all the way around.Stand at the Edge of Geologic Time. In “Hands Free” mode, you get to hear Oregon State University geologist Eric Kirby talk about how the Park was created. In “Click-and-Drag” you can scroll through six different scenes, including an awesome view from near the summit of Longs Peak. In the upper right corner is a link “Learn More About This Location”, where you can read about the common animals you might see at these places (very similar to my book A Natural History of Trail Ridge Road Book Launch at the Tattered Cover, which, of course, is in RMNP, and passes many of these spots). I think my favorite feature, though, is the sound. Each scene has a recording of what you might hear at each place.

If you can’t get to Rocky Mountain National Park, this is the next best thing.

Awesome. Awe-some.

Night Visitors

We had visitors in the night. The dogs woke me up and made me let them out to find the intruders.We’ve had a lot of raccoon lately, including one epic dog-raccoon fight last summer. Dogs and Raccoons Battle to 1-1 Draw

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Baby and momma raccoon in a 24 x 8 inch herb planter– not very big. The planter sits on the railing to our back porch. The herbs are the only thing up there.

I have no idea what they were doing up there — when I checked for damage this morning, my basil was squashed to the side, but nothing seems to have been eaten, or dug up.

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I took this photo from about three feet away. To get it, I had to open the back door so that the flash wouldn’t bounce off the glass and ruin the shot.

I was a little nervous when I took this shot, because the door was open and they were only an arm’s length away. Cute as they look, raccoons can be nasty fighters when threatened. But neither of us did anything stupid, and so I got a good photo, and the ‘coons got …whatever it was they keep coming back for.

Great Time at Superior Colorado Costco Book Signing

My Costco book signing for my book, A Natural History of Trail Ridge Road: Rocky Mountain National Park’s Highway to the Sky was good. Really all of my events have been good, just a pleasure to get out and talk to people about Trail Ridge Road.Amy at Costco.jpg

Interesting things that happened to me there: Some guy came up to me and said “Amy? It’s me, Greg!” I was pretty sure I’d never met the guy before in my life, because I don’t know ANYBODY named Greg, but I rolled with it. He asked how my son was. I asked “Where do you know my son from?” He said, “I must have you mixed up with somebody else named Amy.” We chatted anyway and had a fine time.

Then a woman looked at the book and said “I heard you on CPR! ‘The turkeys!'” With Colorado Matters Over Trail Ridge Road I think that has become my trademark comment, at least from that interview. But it was cool that she remembered my radio interview from six months ago.

Finally, as I was talking to a couple who had lived in Grand Lake for years, I heard “Oh, My God!” and looked up to see a woman my husband and I knew from college, and her husband. Nice people.

All in all, a great time at the Superior Costco.

 

 

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.

AAA EnCompass Article Includes Trail Ridge Road

Last fall, I had the pleasure of chatting about Trail Ridge Road with writer  Clay Latimer, as he gathered information on an article about six of Colorado’s most spectacular highways. The results are in his wonderful article “Colorado’s Highway History”(Colorado Highway History).

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The Road Cut on Trail Ridge Road after a September snow.

Also, check out my new website — AmyLawAuthor — where to buy my book, A Natural History of Trail Ridge Road: Rocky Mountain National Park’s Highway to the Sky, upcoming events and some of my favorite photos.