Nesting Lesser Goldfinches

We have just about every type of bird feeder in our backyard — tube feeders, sock feeders, platform feeders, house feeders, hummer feeders. The one that the birds don’t really pay much attention to are the suet feeders. I have spent a lot of time trying to get them interested, but no luck.

So I have taken to stuffing the hair I get from grooming the dogs into the suet feeders. That, the smaller birds pay attention to. They use it to build their nests.

Last week, it was a female lesser goldfinch who came to fill her beak with as much hair as would fit into it.

Goldfinches are some of the last birds to nest. That makes sense — they have to get the eggs laid, hatched, and the nestlings fledged, all while there are enough late-blooming sunflowers to feed them.

Gathering the hair often involved some contortions. It didn’t bother the goldfinch, though, they are used to hanging upside down to get seeds from sunflowers, and similar plants. Goldfinches at lunch

But it didn’t take her long to get enough to fill her bill, and she flew off. She made a lot of trips to the suet feeder/dog hair dispenser, so I’m hopeful that she nested. I can hardly wait to see the fledglings!

Butterflies

Usually, butterflies are hard to photograph. They are wary creatures, and when you turn the big eye of your camera at them, they take off, flying erratically away.

But this week, I’ve been lucky to get some photos of butterflies I’ve never shot before — in some cases, I’ve never heard of before.

This Weidemeyer’s Admiral has seen better days.

Case in point is the Weidemeyer’s Admirial. I’ve probably seen it before, but never actually identified it. Turns out that Admirals are an entire group of butterflies.

Weidemeyer’s Admiral on rock next to a stream.

Weidemeyer’s Admirals like stream habitats, which is exactly where I found this one. It fits, then, that they eat stream side plants like willows, aspen, serviceberry, chokecherry, and cottonwoods.

Western Tiger Swallowtail

Western Tiger Swallowtails also like streams, but also venture into open grasslands. Their caterpillars eat the leaves of trees and shrubs like cottonwood, birch alder, chokecherry, willows and wild plum. The adults, like many butterflies, drink nectar. https://amylaw.blog/2018/07/18/swallowtail-butterflies/

Common wood-nymph

Common wood-nymphs are butterflies of the open country, where their caterpillars eat grasses. I didn’t know any caterpillars ate grasses! https://amylaw.blog/2018/08/08/butterflies-galore/

I would dearly love to meet an uncommon wood-nymph.

Monarch on milkweed.
Monarch with bee on milkweed.

I posted about Monarch caterpillars a few weeks ago. https://amylaw.blog/2020/06/15/monarch-caterpillers/ We never actually found the chrysalis for the caterpillars, but we may have seen the butterflies themselves. We’ve had a couple of them hanging around our milkweed patch, eating nectar and otherwise getting ready to migrate north.https://amylaw.blog/2018/07/04/monarch-butterfly-migration/

Waved Sphinx moth

Finally, this is a waved sphinx moth that landed on our porch. You know it’s a moth and not a butterfly because the wings are held horizontal, not vertical as butterflies do most of the time. The white dot on it’s wing helps identify it as a waved sphinx. It’s caterpillar eats the leaves of tress, but the adult doesn’t eat at all. It lives to mate, and lay eggs.

Websites I used to gather information about these butterflies and moths include: https://coloradofrontrangebutterflies.com/butterfly-families and https://www.insectidentification.org/insects-by-type-and-region.asp?thisState=Colorado&thisType=Butterfly%20or%20Moth

Spider catching a wasp for a meal

I went for a hike today — perhaps not the best choice, because a lot of people have the day off due to corona virus, and a lot of people have the day off due to Independence Day tomorrow. By the time I arrived at the trail head at 7:45, the parking lot was full. It was like rush hour with people, bicycles and dogs going up and down the trail. I’m glad that people are enjoying the outdoors in this stressful time, but there were lots of us on the trail.

But everybody was polite, and happy to be outside. We all huffed and puffed our way up the trail, pulling our masks up to cover our faces, even though we were outside. It was good to be on the trail.

As always, I had my trusty camera along, and found a number of interesting thing to photograph. One of the things I found was a beautiful spider’s web, with the spider sitting outside the entrance to the den. Very cool.

Trigger Warning: If you don’t like spiders, you may want to just skip the rest of the blog post, because the photos may be a little creepy.

Spider is to the far right of the photo, at the entrance to the den. The web stretches all the way across the photo.

While I was getting my camera out, I realized that the spider was right in the entrance to it’s lair.

A little blurry, but the spider is in the center of the shot, with the wasp just to the left of the long light streak. Notice that the rock is in focus — the wasp and the spider are blurry because they are moving so fast.

I looked through my viewfinder, and realized that the spider was moving like lightning to the outer portion of the web. There was a wasp caught in it!

The spider ran out and tapped the wasp. But the wasp’s stinger is point towards the spider.

Wasp rolls away, still caught by the web.

The wasp was able to avoid getting caught by the spider, but was still tangled in the web.

The spider danced around the wasp faster than the camera could catch the images. I assume that, although the wasp was snagged in the web, it could still sting the spider.

The spider lunged for the wasp as the wasp finally makes its escape.

The spider was left with nothing.

And so it went back to waiting patiently at the opening of it’s den.

Monarch Caterpillers!

For years, my husband and I have nurtured milkweed in the lost corners of our yard. “Remember the Monarchs!” we chant, as we carefully work around the tall milk-sap plants.

While Monarch butterflies eat nectar from a bunch of different plants, the caterpillars eat only milkweed as they grow. The milky sap of Milkweeds is toxic to most animals, but not to Monarchs. In fact, in’s all that Monarch caterpillars eat. What’s more, the Monarch caterpillars incorporate the toxins into their own bodies, and use it as a chemical deterrent against predators.

In spite of this incredibly cool adaptation, Monarch populations have been declining for decades — between 50-90% loss since 1991. Habitat loss has been a major problem in the United States, especially with the introduction of herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans so that herbicides can be sprayed on them to get rid of milkweed growing between the rows. In Mexico, where they overwinter in just a few select spots in upland forests, they are vulnerable to illegal logging operations, cold snaps and hurricanes. Car strikes are also a surprising big killer of Monarchs in Mexico — up to 200,000 killed in just two locations near their over-wintering spots! Monarch Butterfly Migration

There’s not a lot we can do to alleviate these problems. But we can grow milkweed to give as many Monarchs as possible a good start in life. Through the years, we’d been rewarded with a few Monarch butterflies. But no caterpillars.

And lately, we’ve become aware that the decision to grow milkweed is itself a trade-off — native milkweed is attractive to European honeybees, but it can be a deadly trap for them, too. Bees and Butterflies.

Bees are already having a hard time from colony collapse disorder, where the bees just disappear. After years of research, nobody knows why. It’s a major problem with honey bees, one that’s not getting better. I was beginning to feel that if the Monarchs weren’t using the milkweed, we should rip out the it and replace it with something more bee-friendly.

And then, for a real treat …

… my husband found two tiny yellow, white and black caterpillars happily gnawing on our milkweed.

Maybe the milkweed will stay after all.

Hummer in Blue Spruce Tree

After an intense fast moving rainstorm yesterday, I happened to look out my front window to see something I’d never before seen — a female broad-tailed hummingbird zipping among the branches of our blue spruce.

Although she stopped at the end of new spruce buds momentarily, she never stayed in any one place for very long. Between the low light, and her constant movement, the photos are not the quality I usually like to put up here. But her behavior was so unusual, I decided to go ahead and post them.

The thing is, I have no idea what she was going after. At first I thought maybe she was getting some sap from the newly opened blue spruce buds.

But when I went out to confirm my hunch after she left, there wasn’t anything there — no sap, no water droplets, no tiny insects. Just newly opened blue spruce buds.

I’ll keep watching that blue spruce and see if she comes back.

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.

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!

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.

Windy Days

We’ve had some windy days lately. Two days ago (October 20, 2019) we had gusts up to 40 mph (miles per hour) — it was hard to walk in that wind!

As we battled the blustery weather while walking the dogs, I happened to look to the west, where I saw lens-shaped clouds hovering over the tops of the mountains.

Once inside, I decided to clean up some photos on the computer. I happened across this shot of Longs Peak from near Estes Park from fifteen years ago.

North Face of Longs Peak

North Face of Longs Peak, October 2006

What caught my eye initially was the odd shaped cloud over the east face of the mountain top — just like what I’d seen while walking the dogs. This is called a ‘lenticular cloud’, meaning lens-shaped. Lenticular clouds indicate that the wind is really ripping, pulling relatively moister air up to the top of the mountain, where it forms a cloud as it crosses over. Although these clouds seem to stand still, in reality, they are constantly forming on the near side, then evaporating on the far.

Estes Longs 6..JPG

Notice the snow blowing off the ridge to the right (west) and dropping into the basin below the summit. This extra snow helps build glaciers.

According to the Rocky Mountain National Park Service Wind page, in the winter, the average daily wind speeds on Longs Peak are 65 mph, so the average is higher than our peak wind speed on Sunday. It often blows at over 100 mph, and the maximum wind speed recorded was in excess of 200 mph!

Suddenly, I’m more appreciative of our relatively calm air.