Sunday, February 24, 2008

Expecting the Unexpected

To some extent, a foothills canyon is a familiar, known entity. Delightful to explore, but rarely yielding surprises. Or maybe I’ve just been spending too much time in the lower elevations. But last summer’s visits to a hidden gulch just 2,000 ft (610 m) higher than my usual whereabouts brought new discoveries for me, and seemed a rare treat even to the more experienced botanists I took along on future visits. Everyone got excited about this place!

First, that fern. It was everywhere here in the gulch, but I had never encountered it elsewhere. Patience for keying is never my strong suit, but this little guy fell out indisputably at the 4th fern couplet, without a hand lens. That's my kind of fern! My real botanist friends later confirmed the identification. Among Colorado’s modest fern flora it is exceptionally recognizable. The Northern Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium dryopteris) is reasonably rare in Colorado. It had been reported from one locale in my county, but never from this nearby county.

Here's a close-up, courtesy of Priscilla, of those beautiful sori that cinched the ID, if we could have been mistaken before. The fact that they are naked, lacking indusia, and not marginal, separates this from, guess what?, Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum), just in case its delicacy and grace were not enough to distinguish the two.

With a substantial surprise like that right at the start, we began to expect the unusual. Sure enough, more surprises awaited around every twist in the gulch. One after another, plants that were doing quite well here, thank you. I guessed many of these moisture lovers, including my little fern, would be more familiar to readers of eastern North America than they are to me. I may have been wrong.

Let’s start with the wintergreens, all low ground covers with attractive flowers.

Single Delight (Moneses uniflora, Pyrolaceae)
Tiny and shy, this little wintergreen is pretty well established in appropriate parts of Colorado, that is, moist subalpine forests from 8,000 to 11,800 feet (2440-3600 m). It is, however, threatened or endangered in Connecticut, Ohio, and Rhode Island, although it does better in New England and is secure in Canada. You have to make a real effort to see its flower-face, always cast downward and held barely an inch above the ground.

One-sided Pyrola (Pyrola secunda, Orthilia secunda, Pyrolaceae)
Just slightly taller than Moneses is this related species, but its flowers are clustered at the top of their stalk. Widely distributed in mountainous western Colorado from 8200 to 13,000 feet (2500-4000 m), it has been found as low as 7000 ft (2130 m) in exceptional situations. But it seems to be losing ground in the east: strong across southern Canada, as well as in New England and New York, it is threatened or endangered south of about Pennsylvania. It was historically reported as far south as Virginia.

Pink Wintergreen (Pyrola asarifolia, Pyrola rotundifolia var. asarifolia, Pyrolaceae)
Similar story here: threatened or endangered, according to some sources,* in Indiana, Iowa, New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire, secure and broadly distributed in southern Canada.

Many more of our discoveries await description: the orchids I failed to capture in photos and those that we were too late to see at all but suspect are there. All the "berries": bunchberry, baneberry, cranberry (sort of)... And of course the special lichens and mosses and liverworts. An entire post will have to be devoted to the fungi. This gulch will feed my foothills fancies for a long time.

All of these plants have a circumboreal distribution. Not in the far north (boreal or arctic), but as close to it as they can comfortably get. In effect, our hidden gulch was in a small peninsula of the Canadian forest, extending down the Rocky Mountains into and through Colorado. When we find these special plants, we recognize them as fringe species, far from home at the edge of their range, hanging on in small patches of cool, mesic habitat wherever possible. They occupy a narrow coastline in a habitat no longer characteristic of Colorado.

There’s a small picture here: this one tiny gulch, about a half-mile (1 km) long and a few hundred yards or meters wide. On this scale, our gulch seems to be a little piece of Subalpine Forest transported downslope, thanks to the cool north-facing slope and the narrowness of the shadowed defile. There was some Englemann Spruce (Picea englemannii), but the co-dominant Subalpine Fir (Abies lasiocarpa seemed to be missing. (This year, I'll search the overstory more carefully.)

But there’s also a larger picture: an image of glaciers flowing across a continent and down from mountain peaks, figuratively pushing a host of plants and animals ahead of the ice and cold. The glaciers have retreated, and the plants follow their favored habitat. The unsettled or alarmed status these plants are given in many states reflects a readjustment on a continental scale, telling us we’re no longer in the Pleistocene. A process underway for the last 10,000 years, this geographic adjustment will be only more visible, more accelerated, in the decades ahead. How much longer will we be able to find these unexpected treasures?

What one finds... will be what one takes the trouble to look for.
—Joseph Wood Krutch

This and the preceding post are submissions for the plant carnival Berry-Go-Round; edition #2 to be hosted soon at Further Thoughts.

*Explore plant distributions by typing in species names at the USDA Plants Database or at NatureServe. Note that the status categories don't always match, or exactly reflect state records, and they can also vary by subspecies.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Pocket Paradise

Most folks know that much of Colorado is dry-dry-dry… bound to get more so in coming decades, as global warming has its way with us. In fact, early explorers a couple centuries ago suggested it was unlikely any of these western lands (once dubbed the Great American Desert) were appropriate for settlement by Europeans, who are, after all, not well adapted to aridity. (Settlement happened anyway, alas, but that’s another story.)

That’s why it’s so exciting to trip across an exception, as I did last summer. Exploring a small ravine or glen in the foothills (we call them gulches here), I found myself transported into a long-forgotten environment. We’d barely left the car when I realized this spot was unusual. First, there was water running in the bottom of the gulch. Except for major streams, that itself is rare in July at the lower elevations where I live. This spot was somewhat higher, in the upper montane zone at 8,500 ft (almost 2,600 m).

As we scrambled up the gulch, over boulders and downed trees, there was more to be discovered: mosses dripped from available surfaces and leafy liverworts hugged the edges of the tiny stream; trees, big ones, leaned toward each other across the gap. A slug crept across a patch of Marchantia, liverworts studded with gemmae cups or tiny umbrellas representing fecundity. Orchids appeared around every bend.

This was, in short, the forest primeval—or as primeval as we are likely to find on the east slope of the Front Range directly west of Denver. Tucked away in a narrow cut, it had escaped attention for many decades, except for trash tossed in by mountain residents from time to time. People, like nature, seem to “abhor a vacuum.” It had, perhaps, not been changed as severely as the surrounding uplands, which are more vulnerable to logging and fire.

Our attention was captivated by the low plants and shrubs of the ground layer and understory; we scarcely noticed or examined the trees, mostly Douglas-fir or spruce, that created the overstory character and lent a “deep woods” shade to the area. Carpets of ferns were strewn at our feet. We have ferns in Colorado, of course, but few that display the full glory of their eastern kin. I knew I’d never seen these before, and that too was exciting.

That sets the stage. Why here? What secrets does this place hide? The cast of characters will be introduced tomorrow, for the most part. Lest you consider such delay unfair, here are two that, in some sense, most belong here.

The plant is Jamesia americana, waxflower, discovered by Edwin James during the Long Expedition of 1820 and named for him by Gray & Torrey 20 years later. A member of the Hydrangea Family, and a most welcome local endemic in our forests, it has flourished here for 25 million years or more, earning the title "living fossil." Enjoying its flowers is our own Admiral, the Weidemeyer's Admiral (Basilarchia weidemeyerii). This striking butterfly is found in the Rocky Mountains, but neither to the east nor the west.

The fascination of this hidden "fern gulch," its subtlety shown here from a distance, brought us back several more times through the summer. It's the first place I'll go this year, once the snows are off and there are botanical discoveries to be made.

This and the following post are submissions for the plant carnival Berry-Go-Round; edition #2 to be hosted soon at Further Thoughts.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Gray Light of Dawn

Thursday morning, Valentine's Day, we woke to snow. "Here comes the gray light," the Husband said. As every morning, we sipped tea or coffee and watched the light steal across our world. Ever so slowly, the ridge of the hogback took shape out of the gray light, but it was a tentative presence, never becoming solid. Can you see it, looming in the right distance? Its upper edge, outlined by dark junipers, eventually became a blackish line, but the lower snow-covered slopes still blended with the pale sky and air.

The softer slopes of Green Mountain behind remained hidden, visible only to a mind's eye long familiar with this view. Many mornings I've watched the light coming, in various guises but always the same process, not feeling equal to a description. Today, here goes.

But that was Valentine's Day. Those grey mornings are not so typical as a Colorado sunny day. Today, as black and grey gave way to colors beyond description, we knew this day would be bright and clear. The faintest of blues mingled with the palest of yellow from the east to create a "no-color" we've often seen before. On the northern edge of the hogback, further west, a touch of pink was added, but the camera couldn't see it. By now, the entire east face of the hogback is basking in angled sunlight, but our side remains dark. The narrow wedge of light that first touches the rocks and tree tops strikes through the gap in the hogback created by Bear Creek. When we turn, we can barely see it hitting the tops of the foothills to the west, creating a pink or orange glow there.

As the light rises and spreads through the gap, it projects an outline of the hogback onto the red rocks, leaving only their tallest tips highlighted. As the day wears on, this shadow shrinks back to outline the base of the hogback. We don't get many sunsets here; early morning is our time for the colors folks usually associate with the end of day.

I love watching the play of light, but I'm no poet. Thankfully, Eric Andersen is:

Come watch the no colors fade blazing
Into petaled sprays of violets of dawn.

Now that I get what he means, my only question is: which are the "no colors"? Those gray dawns or these indescribable tints of brighter days?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Kid in the Woods

Kids know the world because they still live in it. They don't see the world as scenery because only real places—landscapes—have meaning to them. They know where the wet places with frogs will be found; where the slippery clay banks are. I thought my idea of a normal childhood was what everyone experienced: now I appreciate how unusual it was. But at that time and in that place, spending childhood in "the woods" and in "the crick" was the way we all did it. Our backyards and neighborhoods weren't wild, really. The land had been tamed long ago. But it seemed wild to us, and that sufficed. We had no developed parks nearby. The closest thing to a park was the school playground, and we ignored that except when school was in session. We spent all our free time outdoors—exploring, imagining, and learning about our world.

What we remember about childhood, another kid in the woods tells me, is not the fun we had but the discoveries we made. We were alone, with no adults to tell us what to think about what we saw and did. We made up our own interpretations. The woods behind our house was just an old abandoned railroad right-of-way, but huge to me. We believed we could make paper or canoes from the chokecherry bark that peeled loose from the trees. A friend and I pretended we were hermits, living in the woods and rarely visiting the townsfolk. We knew where and when to find violets to pick for our moms; knew where there were bluebells in the woods at the other end of the street and knew not to pick them. They were special and rare.

Mostly I remember the creek. In those days I never knew its name and never even thought to ask whether it had one. It was "the crick." It was where the minnows were, where we'd find jewelweed pods to pop, where we'd hunt for fossils and other treasures. We'd build little temporary ponds to house the shiners and darters we caught by hand. They'd soon escape. Out behind Linda's house, a different creek was still "the crick." There we once waded knee deep trying to build a dam to stop the spring runoff—a major flood to us. Linda's creek was different, shady and mysterious and wild, not open and tamed and barren like my own at home.

The days were long; all the days I remember were summer, I guess. Each day's activity had such intense focus it left an imprint when I'd close my eyes to sleep. There they were, the biggest fattest wild strawberries peeking temptingly from under shiny green leaves. If I'd spent the day at the creek, darters and shiners and pinheads would flash by my closed eyes, luring me to catch them barehanded. That skill I managed to keep into college, much to the surprise of a classmate who challenged me. Once, memorably, I even caught a six-inch mullet with the help of a couple tin cans. I think that surprised both of us. No wonder we always came home soaking wet.

The old apple orchard we found: a wonderland in spring. Even today, the scent of apple blossoms transports me there. Near it was a secret place, an open bowl in the meadow that no sound could enter. We'd lie there wondering at silence, maybe the only place we ever knew true quiet. Planes flew overhead without a sound, even nearby birds were inaudible. On down that path was a high cutbank, a few trees clinging to its eroding edge. We'd dig plants to carry to it for stabilization, trying to fix it. Erosion was a known enemy and there were no ozone holes in those days. As far as we knew then, tropical rainforests were intact, but how we worried about that streambank!

In those days there were few organized distractions from this discovery business of childhood. There was no soccer. The boys had Little League, the girls had the opportunity to hang around watching them. The main organized activity for girls was selling cookies; I learned early in life that sales was not to be my calling. For the most part, no one scheduled our time; except for school we had few routine commitments other than bedtime. We had time but no concept of time. Summer, especially, was an endless stretch of exploration and adventure.

At 14, I was still scrambling the shale cliffs, preferably with a boyfriend, but hormones had begun to alter the picture. I was no longer as willing to feel pond mud between my toes. Being in the water all summer long began to lose its appeal. Childhood was soon over, replaced by a chronic longing, and occasional attempts, to recapture it. Now, at last, I'm old enough to.

This was originally written March 18, 1993, now rediscovered. I've posted it in connection with the ongoing discussion over at Romantic Naturalist. Tell us your own story of childhood!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Winter Escapes

The sun is bright and it’s warming through the 40s F (single digits C) already, but the north yard is locked in snow and it’s clearly still winter. My neighbors are off to the sunny beaches of Cabo San Lucas today, and that puts me in mind of our local beaches.

Even I’d agree that there’s nothing like stretching out in the warm sand on a winter or just-barely-spring day. You might think beaches are rare in Colorado, but that’s only the case if you take the modern view. For those of us who live in the past—the really distant past—sandy beaches abound.

To find them, you just have to ask a geologist instead of a surfer. Far more of the former than the latter in Colorado anyway, I suspect.

The sand of these Dakota beaches does not welcome or warm the toes, and probably isn't quite as comfortable to lie on. No sand castles will be built here: this beach was loose sand about 100 million years ago. Not only is this beach too far from the sea now, and some 6,000 ft vertical (more than 1,800 m), but it hasn't been horizontal for more than 65 million years.

Let's take a few steps back, get the trees vertical, and look at it again. The Dakota Sandstone may have provided beaches where Cretaceous dinosaurs chased each other, as evidenced locally by fossilized footprints, but it'd be a challenge to run along it these days.

More pictures of the Dakota hogback at the January 23 post. Dinosaur footprint picture at Dinosaur Ridge.

This spring hike was previously reported at Eldorado Gold.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Difference in View

What a difference a few hours can make! Sunshine brings hope of warmth... 3 hours later, 34 degrees F (1 C).

Nature Casts Her Vote

...and the verdict is: Winter! 8 inches, 20 degrees F... a gentle reminder that it's not over yet.

I didn't quite register that this was coming, though the appearance of at least three Steller's Jays yesterday should have tipped me off. Now the flocks are caucusing on the feeders and the seed tossed on the ground. I can't find any more suet, so even the Flicker is on the ground with the Juncos, Red-wings, and Scrub Jays. It's a terrible thing to be without suet on a snow day, but I can't make out any complaints. For the most part they seem to be getting by on sunflower seeds and scratch.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Adventures in Toadland, Part One

Someone reported a new location for the endangered Boreal Toad (Bufo boreas boreas), and Herp Lady and I went off to check it out. True scientist that she is, this outing was to be a bona fide scientific expedition, with a side serving of naturalist adventure. To seek out the elusive Boreal Toad? Naturally I obliged. A short hike, she assured me, not too steep… field trips are always an adventure, we just never know how much adventure!

A nice fall hike through the forest, a scramble up (and then down) a rocky ridge, a bit of bushwhacking: we followed her GPS unit for an hour before arriving at the wetland in question, a beaver pond surrounded by subalpine forest at about 10,500 feet in elevation (3200 m). We hit the creek a bit upstream and made our way back down toward the site.

We soon walked through a lush landscape, compared to the sparse understory of the drier forest we’d been passing through all morning. In this transition area, the presence of trees makes you think you’re still on solid ground. But where the rising waters of the pond meet the lower slopes of the forest, tall wetland growth obscures an uneven surface.

Fallen logs are soon covered with mosses, wildflowers, and sedge, hiding dark pockets that were delightful places for small critters, no doubt, but could trap an unwary human foot.

As we drew closer to the pond, the trees gave way to open meadow; a network of sedge hummocks laced across open mudflats and shallow pools, equally treacherous afoot. Willows were lodged in the hummocks, aerial obstacles to complicate the trek, as we criss-crossed the area with an eye and ear out for the sudden movement or splash of a toad.

I hoped my observation skills were equal to the task, but it was Herp Pal who first called “Toad!” While Herp Pal expertly caught her subject, I hastened, but gingerly, over the hummocks to watch the proceedings.

Oh the indignity of it all!, you could almost hear friend Toad complaining. Snatched up, weighed, measured—a supreme violation of his person and privacy.

But ‘twas all for the cause of science and conservation; proof positive that he (and presumably some of his fellow toads) occupy this little paradise in a remote mountain drainage. The glove, by the way, is to prevent the spread of the chytrid fungus believed to be responsible for the decline in populations of Boreal Toads.

Minutes later, our subject was released unharmed, kicking as he swam away without a backward glance, only too happy to be rid of us.

Mission accomplished, we too headed for home and an overdue lunch!

(More photos follow after this brief pause for information. Download the 97-page Boreal Toad recovery plan: or find more info at the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Boreal Toad page.)

Photos, (click to enlarge): A sapsucker excavated a distinctive pattern in the bark of one small tree. A star gentian nestled in the sedges in the wet forest above the meadow.

The close of another successful adventure left me with a touch of envy for Herp Pal's scenic subalpine "office"—we should all be so lucky! While she searched for toads with great dedication, I was distracted by the excellent beaver dam. So what else did we see that August day in 2006? Ah, that must await another post! Stay tuned.