We’ve had a huge red-tailed hawk hanging around the neighborhood this week. I assume it is a female, because female raptors are bigger than males. And she was big.
And I knew she was a red-tailed hawk (Red-Tailed Hawk), even without seeing her tail, because 1) she was big, 2) she had a stocky body with a short tail, which meant that she was an open country “buteo” hawk, as opposed to an “accipitor” that hunts in the trees. 3) she had a “belly band” of rust colored feathers across her tummy, with a white patch above. (For more about identifying a red-tailed hawk https://amylaw.blog/2020/04/25/hawk-conflict/)
She really didn’t like me photographing her. There was another group standing a few feet away, and I never got a photo of her looking at them at all. But she glared at me — a lot.
In between glares, she was kinda fidgety. She stretched…
… and turned around. Did I mention that she was a red-tailed? She had the reddest tail I’ve ever seen on a red-tailed hawk.
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!”
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.
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.
And so they resorted to our feeders.
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.
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.
I think I’ll make sure I’ve got plenty of mealworm suet for them, in any case.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
According to NOAA’s drought monitor (https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/), almost no place in the US is currently in drought, which, if you follow these things, is pretty amazing.
But here in Colorado, we have been really wet. How wet? Take a look at this:
100% of Normal would be an average year — we are getting all the snow we normally do. So when it says that the San Juan Mountains are at 728% of normal that means they have over SEVEN TIMES as much snow as they normally do.
In Colorado, we tend to like the extra snow in the mountains; we view it as a bank account we can draw on — more is better.
It started off with driving sleet that soaked our birds.
Both of them huddled together for about half an our — the longest I’ve seen both birds in the nest during the day.
But by 10:00 am, they were soaked.
1:03 pm Then the snow began to build up.
1:32 pm What the still photos don’t really show is how much the wind was howling, and the nest platform shaking. Denver International Airport, ten miles away from the nest, recorded 80 mile an hour gusts — hurricane force winds!
1:49 pm We kept losing power and internet, so I would go for a time without seeing the bird on the nest. When internet came back up, she’d still be there, patiently keeping her eggs warm and dry with her body.
2:11 pm She’d shake her head once in a while, but mostly she did her job — she sat on her eggs, and let the snow pile up.
4:31 pm Both eagles were back on the nest.
To all those who had to be out in this miserable storm — to keep the power on, to keep the internet up, to keep us safe, and to keep eggs warm — thank you.
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!
House sparrows. House sparrows were introduced into North America in 1851 and 1852. They quickly covered the US and most of Canada and Mexico.
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.
Black-capped chickadees. Always in motion, these guys flit from tree to feeder to bushes.
Red-breasted nuthatches. Five years ago, I rarely saw nuthatches at my feeders. Now they are fairly common. (Nuthatches paring up)
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.
Hairy woodpecker. People in our neighborhood trim the deadwood out of their trees pretty quickly, so it’s a treat when they stop by.
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!
My brother and I took a quick trip up to the top of Berthoud Pass to take some photographs of snow cornices earlier this week.
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a cornice is “the decorative top edge of a building or column”. A secondary definition, though, is “an overhanging mass of windblown snow or ice usually on a ridge“.
Cornices are overhangs of snow. This one is on the east side of Berthoud Pass, looking south.
Cornices are made when winds reaching speeds of over a hundred miles an hour pick up snow and carries it to the edge of a cliff. When the howling winds cross the cliff edge, it puts the “pack” in “snowpack”, pounding the snow into a ledge of concrete-hardness. The snow builds up on the ever-lengthening ledge and, by spring, has formed a frozen white wave on the mountain top.
This photo is of a cirque, or bowl, at the head of a now melted glacier south across the valley from Berthoud Pass. You can see how the snow blown off the slope and into the cirque would have added to the glacier.
The area bare of snow has a much different ecosystem than the one just to windward of it. The bare area has to endure screaming winds, sub-zero temperatures and little moisture. Under the cornice, it is comparatively warm, wet and still.
This bowl, on the west side of Berthoud Pass, is ringed by frozen white waves of cornices.
Where did all the snow go? Last week at this time, the Front Range was entirely blanketed in several inches of the white stuff. Today, it’s almost gone. Where did it go?
The Answer: Chinooks.
Chinooks are warm dry winds. They get their name from a Pacific Northwest Indian word for “snow eater,” because when the chinook blows, the snow goes. With gusts that blast up to 120 miles per hour, pushing the temperature up 40 degrees F in minutes, chinooks along the eastern side of the Rockies are the most violent in the world. You always suspected that, didn’t you?
What causes a chinook? Chinooks are cool air pushed down by the weight of a high pressure front above them. Squeezing the cool air warms it up, to become warm dry, air. In winter and spring, chinook winds often buffet the areas just east of the mountains from Canada all the way to Mexico.
At ground level, the now-warm dry air is no longer under pressure. Like any compressed gas, it expands when released, and rips along the surface at 50 to 120 miles per hour as a chinook, melting and evaporating snow as it goes. By definition, chinook winds are warm and dry, and they suck the moisture out of plants, soils and people as they blow.
Foehn wall hanging above the Front Range (not visible in this photo).
When a chinook blows, look toward the mountains. A bank of smooth clouds often hangs above the highest peaks. This is known as a foehn wall; it is created as the cool, wet, air crosses the mountains and is then forced down by high air pressure above that causes the chinook as well.
As the cool wet air containing the foehn wall is pushed down, it is compressed by the air above it; as it is compressed, it heats; as it heats, the amount of water it can hold increases (dew point rises) and the foehn wall cloud evaporates.
Chinooks also have the odd habit of “bouncing” over the land. They swoop down, blast some poor place with hurricane-force winds and then bounce back up, totally skipping over a locale just a few miles down the road.
In California chinooks are called Santa Aña winds, and in Europe, foehn (German for “warm”, pronounced “phone”. Actually, I heard a native German-speaker pronounce this word and it was closer to the way Peter Sellers and Steve Martin did it in the “Pink Panther” movies: “fun” as in “Your fun is ringing.”).