Spring is Coming — Promise

It has been a long cold hard winter along the Front Range of Colorado. We have gotten enough snow in February to wipe out the incipient drought we were headed into, which is a good thing. But it came at the cost of a snowstorm every couple of days. That was hard.

We’re not out of winter yet — March and April are typically our snowiest months in Colorado.

But as the dogs and I went for our morning walk, we also found the first signs that spring is on the way.

Male Northern Flicker — red-shafted variety. Only males have the red stripe on the jaw.

As we walked, we heard the “eh-eh-eh-eh-eh” call of a male Northern Flicker trying out his mating call.

Male Spotted Towhee looking for seeds in the snow.

Further on, we found a Spotted Towhee by his “cha-cha-chaaa” call. Like the flicker, his calls right now are just warm-ups. He quickly dropped down to the snow to hunt for seeds.

Hearing these guys practice their mating calls cheered me up. And as we walked home through the cold, the sun broke through the clouds, promising a sunny day.

Great Horned Owls Laying Eggs

I got up to let the dogs out around 4:00 this morning. While I was standing at the door waiting for them to finish, I heard Great Horned Owls hooting back and forth.

Great Horned Owls are laying their eggs now so their young will have hatched by the time prey like rabbits and mice are making their forays out of their nests.

Although Great Horned Owls normally hunt at night, every once in a while they are out in the day.

Broomfield CO owl

To see well at night, owls have very large eyes. In fact, owl eyes are so large that they are fixed in their sockets. This owl has turned it’s head completely around to see what’s happening behind it. Courtesy Randy Law

These large predators have the biggest range of any owl in North America, from the arctic tundra to southern deserts to semi-tropical forests, although they hunt better in semi-open areas. Their territory certainly includes my suburb in the foothills.

Owl feather depth_edited-2

Look at how far into the owl’s feathers the handler can put his finger! No wonder they can nest in the arctic. This bird is captive because its other wing is broken, and it can no longer hunt for itself.

Spring Knocking at the Door

They may be having bomb cyclones in the East.winter storm riley. They may be getting feet of snow in the West. Winter Storm Quinn Pounding the West But in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, for better or for worse, Spring is knocking at the door.

How do I know that Spring is on it’s way? As I walked the dogs this morning, the air smelled, well, spring-y — wet and peaty.

The birds are beginning to sing. I heard the “wicka wicka wicka” of northern flickers.

northern flicker-1_edited-1.JPG

And the “chi chi chi chaaa” of spotted sided towhees.Spotted towhee in Gambel oak-07_edited-1.jpg

Not to seem ungrateful, but we could use a little helping of the storms to either side of us.

It must be spring…

… the turkey vultures are back!
As large birds, turkey vultures depend on thermals to work themselves up to as high as 10,000 feet to search for carrion (dead animals). Once aloft, they fly with their wingtips splayed out finger-like for better flight control while soaring.

Turkey vultures are large dark birds. When they soar, they spread their wingtips.

Turkey vultures are large dark birds. When they soar, they spread their wingtips.

Because they need warm air to lift them, you’ll only turkey vultures from early spring through late fall.  During these seasons, you can spot turkey vultures soaring in the air everywhere in Colorado except high valleys and mountains.  They especially like piñon-juniper and mountain shrublands.
How do you know it’s a turkey vulture? TVs are very large birds which, when seen from below, are all dark, except the back edges of their wings which are translucent (allow light through).  Most commonly seen when soaring, their flight is “tippy”, with their wings in a slight “V” when you see them head on.  The head seems almost nonexistent from below.
Because they are meat-eaters, Turkey Vultures have traditionally been classified with birds of prey, but turkey vultures may be much more closely related to storks and flamingos.  They lack the razor-sharp beak and grasping talons of the hunters of the sky, and so cannot catch their own prey, or even tear into a fresh carcass.   Because of this, the Cherokee Nation calls turkey vultures “peace eagles”.
Instead, turkey vultures act as garbage disposals.  Special traits equip them for this job.  TV’s find carrion by smell, but use their excellent sight to find other TVs who have found something to eat.  Turkey vultures can digest truly toxic germs, eating rotten meat with impunity.  Once they find some dead thing, they plunge their featherless red heads in and gorge until they can barely fly.  We owe these and other scavengers a debt, for without them, we would be knee-deep in carcasses.
For a bird, Turkey Vultures are smart, gentle, sociable and, despite their public image, clean. Their Latin name, Cathartes, means “purifier”. The Spanish name for turkey vulture is zopilote (so-pee-low-tay), which is just a cool word to say.