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.

Pika Patrol, 2019 Edition

End of summer. It’s time for Pika Patrol!

Due to complications last summer, my husband and I weren’t able to volunteer with Front Range Pika Project last fall. We were determined to make it this year.

If you have been following my blog for several years, you might remember that two years ago, in 2017, my husband, my son, my son’s girlfriend and I visited a pika site near Grand Lake, on the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. We were disappointed that year to find the site abandoned.

This year, I was a little faster on the sign-up, and found a more promising site. This one was on the lower edge of the tundra, at 11,961 feet. The trail to get to the site was just 2 1/2 miles long!

What I forgot was that the parking area was at 10,440 feet. When we do the math, that’s an average grade of 14%. Hmmmm…..

By the time we’d gone 100 feet up the trail, my husband and I realized this was going to be a lot harder than it would have been twenty years ago. But we took it slow, and stopped frequently to rest. It took us two hours to go the two and a half miles, but we did it.

View as we left the forest and came onto the tundra. The pika site is the talus slope at the base of the mountain. In winter that area will be covered with six to ten feet of snow.

As we came onto the tundra, we had to skirt around a wetlands created by snowmelt draining off the surrounding peaks. The snows pile up here in winter.

We heard squeaky-toy squeaks of pika calling before we got to the talus. And once we got to the talus, pika were very obvious.

Pika in a rare state of not running.
The jumble of rocks it is on is called ‘talus’.

We immediately saw a little pika scampering across the rocks. It was running to a small patch of plants at the base of the talus.

The pika is cutting down plants until it has a mouthful.
You can see the trimmed tops of the plants in the foreground.

Good pika habitat needs a pile of rocks jumbled together to form lots of nooks and crannies. It needs lots of plants nearby to eat, and to cut for hay. And it needs deep winter snows to protect the pika from predators, howling winds and bitterly cold temperatures. This was very good pika habitat.

What I hadn’t expected is that the pika had two speeds: still, and running. There was no walking between tasks. They hustled.

In this shot, you can see that they are members of the rabbit family, not the rodent family.

Pika gather the plants and dry them, turning them into hay. They then eat the hay through the winter. That means that pika have to gather enough plants to feed themselves for 8-9 months of the year.

The pika brings the cut plants back to the talus, and drops them in piles outside their holes. You can see some of the plants at the entrance to a den. The plants dry into hay, which the pika eats through the winter.

It takes about 62 pounds (28 kg) of forage to feed a pika through the winter. That translates to 14,000 trips to gather this much hay. No wonder they hustle.

What these little guys can’t take are temperatures over 75o. They are climate-change indicators. If their world warms too much, they will not survive.

Glitter-glam golden dragonfly

I went out to get the mail during the heatwave last week, and saw sparkles in the air. Then I realized it was a dragonfly. I was sure some six-year-old girl must have dusted it with golden glitter. Further inspection revealed that this was an all natural glitter-glam golden dragonfly, known to scientists as a meadowhawk dragonfly, Sympetrum sp.

A meadowhawk dragonfly, Sympetrum sp.

Honestly, it was more sparkly than this — I just couldn’t capture how much this dragonfly winked with gold.

The meadowhawk dragonfly glitters in the hot July sun.

Gotta love how nature surprises and delights! I don’t know anything about dragonflies, but now, I want to learn!