Not reindeer, but…

We had a small herd of deer come into our yard this week. We’ve had deer in the neighbor’s yards before (Backyard Deer), but with our dogs, this is the first time in years that they’ve come into ours. The recent cold weather has kept the snow from recent storms on the ground longer than usual, which means that the deer had a harder time getting to the grass. Hunger made them a little bolder than usual, and prompted the visits to our garden for  leftovers. We kept the dogs inside, and were happy to share.

I hope that you get many wonderful unexpected visitors this season. Merry Christmas!

Don’t kill the snake!

Prairie Rattlesnake. Photographer Bill Iko, National Fish and Wildlife Service

Lately, as I go up to check on my Project Budburst site on Apex trail, I have met a lot of people with golf clubs. Since there are no putting greens on the trail, I have to assume that the clubs are brought along for another reason. The only reason I can think of is that they are long and have a heavy end – they are clubs – to be used in defense. I doubt that the golf clubs are to be used against other people. Nor do I think that a coyote would get within striking distance of a human with a club. A mountain lion? Maybe. But by the time a mountain lion strikes, it is too late to swing a club effectively.
The only animal on Apex trail that I can think of that could be beaten off with a club is a rattlesnake.
The foothills and plateaus of Colorado are excellent rattlesnake habitat. Rattlesnake young are born in late summer, and so there might be a lot of little snakes around. There is a rumor that little rattlesnakes produce more venom than big ones; while that is up for debate, little rattlesnakes evidently do strike more quickly and more often than their larger brethren. And being bitten by a rattler is a bad thing: it will make you sick at the least, and in rare instances, it could kill you.
But let’s keep the threat in perspective – rattlesnakes are in much more danger from you than you are from it.
Given half a chance, a rattlesnake will slither away long before you see it. There is no reason for it to stick around. It can’t eat you and you have the definite potential to kill it. People love to whack snakes. Evidently, with golf clubs.
Now, I could tell you all the reasons that you shouldn’t kill snakes – that they eat mice, rats and other small critters, that they have a place in the ecosystem, all that.
But consider this: National Public Radio recently reported that many snakes in South Dakota no longer have a rattle.  So many have been killed after people have heard the buzzing alert that only those who have lost the ability to rattle are surviving. We are selecting for rattlesnakes that no longer have the ability to warn us of their danger.
Which would you rather have: a venomous snake that politely warns you when you enter it’s comfort zone? Or one that can’t?
Don’t kill the snake.
Freeze, check to make sure that there are no snakes behind you and slowly back away.
Better yet, be aware of where you put your hands and feet, and keep your dog on a leash so that it doesn’t put it’s muzzle in the snake’s strike zone.
And everybody will live happily ever after.

Gold on the trail! Or not.

The several days of light rains in Apex Canyon have washed a lot of fool’s gold down into the erosion control dams that cross the trail. Those portions of the trail glitter!    Fool’s gold has a gold color that fooled many beginning prospectors from the ancient Greeks to the Colorado gold rush. It didn’t help that pyrite is often found in the same metamorphic rocks – like gneiss and quartz pegmatite veins – as gold. In the early days of the gold rush in Colorado, “green horns” (folks new to the west) would see a scatter of pyrite on the surface of the mud in their prospecting pans and think that they were rich. The old hands at prospecting knew better – while iron pyrite is very light, and stays on the surface of the mud, gold is very heavy and sinks to the bottom.
In fact, apart from their color, fool’s gold and true gold are about as opposite as two minerals can get. Chemists and geologists know fool’s gold as iron pyrite (FeS2). Where gold is soft, heavy and doesn’t rust (oxidize), iron pyrite is hard, light and rusts very easily. And when it rusts, it loses it’s glitterImage.

Ponderosa pine cones


Green ponderosa pine cone.

    I am always amazed at how much there is to see when hiking the same trail over and over again. I was up at my Project Budburst site yesterday, checking on the progress of my plants. The ponderosa pine that I watch is in the process of opening its cones. I’d seen small cones developing on the tree, and I’d of course seen mature cones at the base of the trees. But I had never noticed this just-about-to-open stage of growth before.
    The large woody ponderosa pine cones often remind people of a pineapple, although the two plants are about as distantly related as it is possible to get and still photosynthesize. Even at this early stage, you can see the small bristle on the end of the big scales.


Open ponderosa pine cone.

    Ponderosas produce relatively few cones every year. Because they produce only a few cones and therefore only a few seeds, ponderosas are determined to keep animals from getting the seeds. To protect their seeds, each pine cone scale has a small bristle at the end of it.
    Just a few days older, this cone has opened, and is drying out. Soon, it will fall to the ground. Eventually, the seeds will work their way out of the cone, hopefully to be one of the lucky few to slide into a protected crack in the rocks before they are gobbled up by a squirrel or jay.

Project BudBurst Begins in Jeffco

Several months ago, I responded to an add in the local papers for volunteers for Jeffco Open Space. At their open house, they had many different options — desk

Chokecherry ready to bloom. Notice that the tiny flowers are still folded up on most of the blossoms.

Chokecherry ready to bloom. Notice that the tiny flowers are still folded up on most of the blossoms.

worker, naturalist, trail maintenance. All these were possibilities, but the option I signed up for in the in was that of plant monitor for Project Budburst.
At the training session for Project Budburst, they asked us why we had chosen that particular program to volunteer with. People gave variations on the idea that they wanted to be out in nature, to enjoy the plants. When it was my turn, I told them that I signed up because I like to fill out data forms. That got a laugh, as I knew it would. But I wasn’t joking. If I want to be in nature, I grab my stuff and go for a hike. What I had been craving, the need Project BudBurst will fill was Doing Science.
The data forms are not the point, of course. It’s collecting the measurements and comparing them to other locations and other years. What could be more fun than to see how ecosystems change through time and space?

Chokecherry past flower. It took just four days for all the flowers to blossom and drop their petals.

Chokecherry past flower. It took just four days for all the flowers to blossom and drop their petals.

I’m monitoring three plants: chokecherries, ponderosa pine, and a grass called big bluestem. I visit Apex Open Space two to three times a week to see what growth stage the plants are at. This information will be used for everything from pollen alerts to trail closures as bears search for berries. And of course, through the years, it will give ground data on Global Climate Change.

This spring started off slow — too snowy for the plants to be doing anything. But a month ago — just a month! — and the snow storms tapered off. The plants exploded in growth, trying to make up for lost time. Chokecherries went from first blossom to last in just four days,  and are now working on producing fruit.

Ponderosa pine producing pollen. Notice the yellow pollen flying out after I flicked the tiny male cone with my finger.

Ponderosa pine producing pollen. You can see the yellow pollen grains flying out after I flicked the tiny male cone with my finger.

The ponderosa pine have just put out their first needles, and at about the same time, begun to produce pollen. I can tell; people around me are sneezing and sniffling with pine allergies.