Wednesday, December 16, 2009

News for Carnival Lovers

Carnivals in the blog world are, in my book, a much more pleasant experience than those crowded, noisy events we have in the "real" world. (Oh wait, maybe I'm thinking of circuses.)

In any case, we have two new blog carnivals to anticipate with the New Year. First is House of Herps, devoted to our favorite scaly and slimy beings, the reptiles and amphibians. The first edition will be out in... oh! This very week—on or before Friday. Good cold-blooded reading for the weekend. Why a herp carnival? Noting the lack, the founders say:

So we decided to change that. Amber of Birder’s Lounge and I (Jason of xenogere) have conspired together to kick off a celebration of all things herpetological.

The invention of House of Herps was aided and abetted by Ted of Beetles in the Bush. Now that someone's taken up the herp challenge, Ted's inspired to do the same for his favorite insects, the beetles, at An Inordinate Fondness. That carnival will launch in February.

Please note: Nature bloggers are welcome at these carnivals; they're not just for specialists!

Here at home, I haven't been entirely neglecting my nature observations. Inspired by the Geminids, I've been doing a bit of stargazing and learning a few new constellations. In the works are some Awesome Watcher-style Graphics, so we'll see. Nor have I forgotten the spider post I'm supposed to be working on. Hmmm...

I did manage to submit a post from last summer for House of Herps, and there may be hope of a new plant post before the next Berry-Go-Round rolls around. And, of course, now I'm going to have to start learning beetles! Well, come summer, that is.

Here's my entry, from back last spring, for House of Herps, which is now up at House of Herps #1.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Skywatch: Mystery Clouds

Last week, before the onslaught of dense clouds and cold weather we've been having, I kept trying to capture a Colorado "true blue" sky. My timing was never right, as the best ones occur in morning hours, off to the northwest, while south and east tend to be more washed out.

Then this unusual formation caught my eye—several broad streaks radiating from an area to the east, behind the hogback, like faint streams of sediment in an otherwise clear stream. The only explanation I can offer is contrails, spread laterally by winds aloft, or what, according to Wikipedia, would be called decaying contrails. This is suggested by comparison with the relatively coherent trail to the right.

A sky without contrails, or artificial clouds, would have been standard not so very long ago. Here's a better view of the hogback, one of my all-time-favorite geographic features, showing the west, or scarp, face of the Dakota Group sandstones that create the ridge.

Posted for Skywatch Friday, where many more skies await you.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Quick List: the Birds

After four days of cold and snow, the cats have tired of the bird channel and are getting antsy being "cooped up." Elder Cat ventured out for a few brief moments—it's all of 5 degrees F (and -15 C) out there—then was happy to return to the woodstove.

At a glance outside this frigid morning, I can see:
  • Northern Flicker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Steller's Jay
  • Western Scrub-Jay
  • Black-billed Magpie
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • European Starling
  • Spotted Towhee
  • American Tree Sparrow
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Dark-eyed Junco: all flavors, and dozens
  • Red-winged Blackbird, also numerous
  • House Finch
  • House Sparrow
(The Rosy Finch of Sunday returned yesterday, but I haven't spotted her today.)

Not bad. If I sat and watched, I'd probably do better. Oddly, only a single Starling puts its species on this list. When I fed the chickens, I found out why: All of them, an entire flock, were inside the coop. By propping the door open, ducking my head, and making for the most distant corner, I was able to shoo most of them out. In cold weather, this becomes part of the afternoon routine, but it seems like there were 200 or so this morning. I wouldn't mind them taking shelter so much (who can blame them?), but in those numbers, they intimidate the chickens, devour their food, and foul everything in range.

Today there were a few dozen who were unshooable, trying to wedge themselves in corners. This gives me the opportunity to move them by hand, and them a chance to fly directly into my face and thereby also ensure in the panic of their passing that my winter coat is ready for the laundry. Just delightful; memories of Alfred Hitchcock come to mind.

The puzzle is how did they discover this cozy spot and how did they get in there? I may never solve the first, but there's only one way in. My imagination is challenged by the thought of 200 starlings marching up a ramp and into a hatch less than a foot square!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Snowy Sunday brings Visitors

As is often the case here at FF, a snowy day means a great chance for bird watching. The feathered host was busy at the feeders early; scores of red-wings, the regular finches and juncos, a very busy place. When suddenly the view is reduced to nothing but magpies, expect to find a winged hunter somewhere about. Looking west, I was rewarded with a glimpse of the (or one of the) local Sharp-shinned Hawk. (This photo, however, is from a couple weeks ago.)

Today brought two unusual guests among the exceptionally diverse* hordes. The Husband called me to the window to figure out a cryptic visitor. Clearly a Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, but where were her companions? The only other visit we've recorded from these was a huge flock that descended from the sky during another white-out storm many years ago.

While we watched her, a female Evening Grosbeak , also solitary, dropped in again. It's only been three weeks since they last showed up, for the second time in as many decades. Kinda makes you wonder what's going on out there.

This little Rosy girl, or perhaps an immature male?, stuffed her beak with sunflower seeds as fast as she could pick them up! Hungry, a bit? When he saw this photo, Husband said, "what's wrong with her beak?" That's not beak, it's a sunflower seed in the middle... She was gulping them as fast as she could.

I'm not one to look a gift bird in the beak, though. I even managed, briefly, to catch them both in the same frame while they perched in the ash tree, though you have to use your imagination, or trust me on the ID.

More and better images of Rosy Finches, also more diagnostic, here at Google Images, as we clearly have a problem with backlighting, especially when there's snow.

*Husband also glimpsed ALL THREE Jays, Eastern, Scrub, and Steller's, in one quick view this afternoon, but the best I've done today is two.

Gray-crowned Rosy Finch: Leucosticte tephrocotis

Rockwell & Wetmore:
Flying about over the rock slides we see some plump brownish birds, with black, pink-tipped wings and tail - leucostictes, or rosy finch. Found in summer only above timberline and in winter seldom descending below 8,000 feet elevation. Four species occur in Colorado, one of which, the brown capped leucosticte, is not known outside of the state boundaries. The nest and eggs were unknown to science until a few years ago.
—from Denver Municipal Facts, Vol. 2, No. 3, March 1919

Friday, November 27, 2009

Happy Buy Nothing Day!

All day yesterday the MiL teased me about getting up early this morning to go shopping! The Black Friday hype even reached her, and she doesn't drive, rarely shops or spends money... and, happily, wouldn't go to the Maul with me if I did ask her.

I'm not sure she understood when I explained about
Buy Nothing Day
, a bright spot in the "let's-start-Christmas-before-we-get-through-Halloween" madness that is fall in our cultural milieu.* Putting Pilgrim associations far aside, Thanksgiving is a holiday that has redeeming social value and is connected to the Earth much in the way of an old pagan harvest festival. Unfortunately, as only grocery stores get much economic boost from it, this moment to stop and consider one's blessings is in danger of being overrun by the more critical need to keep the economy humming along. I'm with the folks at Adbusters, who say:

There’s only one way to avoid the collapse of this human experiment of ours on Planet Earth: we have to consume less.

*Wikipedia will fill you in on the downside of Buy Nothing Day, a holiday for the 'haves' perhaps, but where else can we find criticism of Black Friday?

As for me, I've reached that age where I have the basic stuff I need and, the Darling Husband would say, too much of most of it. I need to develop skills in "enlightenment" instead—lightening my load on the planet by finding homes for some of the "stuff" I've managed to accumulate these last 30 years or so. (A DH quote: "You don't help the environment by turning the house into a landfill.")

It's true: A victim of early Earth Day conditioning [There is no "away"], and knowing the fate of most trash, I don't throw things away like I should. (Some of it, for example, ends up on this beach in Hawai'i; photo right.) I'm convinced there must be someone out there who needs or appreciates these trinkets as much as I do—I just haven't located them yet! ( With the possible exception of my 24-year-old niece, who is at the "I want" stage, and makes a good repository for excess crockery and glassware, as well as tidbits from my yarn collection and other unfinished projects.)

I lean toward the recognition of "useful life left," even in items that are missing pieces or otherwise in need of repair. Yes, perhaps it could be taken to the thrift stores most of it came from in the first place, but some is even beyond that stage. Hesitation, resistance to disposal, also arises from reading Wendell Berry, who once remarked:

Our great fault as a people is that we do not take care of things. Our economy is such that we say we 'cannot afford' to take care of things: Labor is expensive, time is expensive, money is expensive, but materials—the stuff of creation—are so cheap that we cannot afford to take care of them.

Berry was not, of course, the first to notice this trend. In googling to find that quote again, I ran into an interesting "transhistorical and transcultural approach to trash," which contains (scroll down) a long timeline of trashy tidbits, including this one:

Our willingness to part with something before it is completely worn out is a phenomenon noticeable in no other society in history… It is soundly based on our economy of abundance. It must be further nurtured even though it runs contrary to one of the oldest inbred laws of humanity, the law of thrift.
- J. Gordon Lippincott, industrial designer, 1947

Ah, thrift... now there's a word you don't hear every day.

So, although my car is out of gas, there's an item on ebay I covet, and we're low on chicken feed, I'll be staying home today.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Out-of-Date Update: Grosbeaks

Feeling Wednesday's post on grosbeaks to be inadequate, I have delved into the matter a little further in order to bring us a more thorough look at these fascinating birds. Our five species are all members of the Fringillidae, and thus are related to sparrows, finches, and buntings in this largest family of North American birds. And the Cardinal (who knew?). All characterized by a short stout beak (hence gros-beak).

That's according to one of my semi-modern bird books (and I suspect the others concur in such a basic statement). So I consulted my two favorite local bird references for even more.

An Annotated List of the Birds of the Mountain Parks and Mount Evans region by Robert B. Rockwell and Alexander Wetmore. from Denver Municipal Facts, Vol. 2, No. 3, March 1919 (but based on a paper published in 1914)

The Birds of Denver and Mountain Parks, by Robert Niedrach and Robert B. Rockwell, Colorado Museum of Natural History, Popular Series No. 5, December 1939.

For the Black-headed Grosbeak
1919 Black-headed Grosbeak Zamelodia melanocephala
Summer resident. More common on the plains than in the mountains.

1939 Rocky Mountain Grosbeak Hedymeles melanocephalus papago Overholser.
Summer resident, common. Upper Sonoran and Transition Zones.

These fine songsters are common birds in our city parks and along shaded streams. They arrive from the south about the middle of May, nest during June, and depart for the south early in September. During the height of the breeding season they are readily observed in favorable locations; the males are in full song, and may be heard singing at all hours of the day. The nest is a flimsy structure of twigs, built usually in shrubs or low trees, and both male and female help with incubation.

For the Blue Grosbeak
1919 Western Blue Grosbeak Guiraca cerulea lazula
One record from Morrison.

1939 Western Blue Grosbeak Guiraca caerulea interfusa Dwight and Griscom.
Straggler, rare. Upper Sonoran Zone.

The only record for the Denver area is one taken by H.G. Smith east of Morrison (Cooke, 1898). Dille (1902) reported one just north of this area at Altona, Boulder County.

For the Evening Grosbeak
1919 No report

1939 Western Evening Grosbeak Hesperiphona vespertina brookei Grinnell.
Migrant, not common. Upper Sonoran through Canadian Zone.

For the Pine Grosbeak
1919 Rocky Mountain Pine Grosbeak Pinicola enucleator montana Only one record from Lookout Mountain.

1939 Rocky Mountain Pine Grosbeak. Pinicola enucleator montana Ridgway.
Resident, not common. Canadian and Hudsonian Zones in summer; rarely down to the Transition in winter.

The pine grosbeaks are birds of the evergreen forests; they are tame, and while busily feeding will pay little attention to one’s approach. Owing to the nature of their habitat, they are rarely observed during the summer. In the fall and winter, however, they gather in small flocks and occasionally may be seen, the beautiful rose-red males being especially conspicuous against the snow background. Definite records from the Denver area are very few. Rockwell and Wetmore (1914) took only one specimen, an immature male on November 7, 1909, on Lookout Mountain during twenty-three collecting trips made between March 28 and November 14.

For the Rose-breasted Grosbeak:
1919 No report.

rbgros7761939 Rose-Breasted Grosbeak Hedymeles ludovicianus (Linnaeus)
Straggler, rare. Upper Sonoran Zone.

This strikingly marked bird has a propensity to wander far from its eastern range. Bailey and Niedrach (1938f) collected a male in worn plumage (no. 18900), May 20, 1938, near Daniels Park twenty miles south of Denver. This is the only specimen encountered within the Denver area, but it has been recorded as breeding at Longmont and observed at Loveland.

From these reports we learn that scientific names can change a great deal in 25 years (though the species epithet is often a good clue to identity), and that scientific writing used to be more entertaining to read. It also seems my chance of seeing a Blue Grosbeak is, perhaps, not as remote as I thought.

Historical accounts can also raise more questions than answers at times. For the record, here's the answer to one of them, as defined by Niedrach and Rockwell (in quotes, their summary of Typical Vegetation):

Upper Sonoran Zone is 3,500 to 5,500 ft (1,067 to 1,676 m) for Colorado, that is, Denver and plains habitats (grasslands, plains riparian, and wetlands)

Transition Zone is 5,500 to 8,000 ft (1,676 to 2,438 m) here, that is foothills and lower montane ("Scrub Oak, Yellow Pine, Douglas Fir")

Canadian Zone is 8,000 to 10,000 ft (2,438 to 3,048 m), or roughly upper montane to lower subalpine ("Quaking Aspen, Lodgepole, Engelmann Spruce")

Hudsonian Zone is 10,000 to 10,500 ft (3,048 to 3,200 m), upper subalpine and timberline ("Engelmann Spruce, Balsam Fir, Foxtail Pine")

Arctic-Alpine Zone is above 10,500 ft ( m), or alpine, above timberline ("Arctic Willows, Grassy Meadows, No Trees")

Alas, I think I see more questions coming out of that answer!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Evening--and Morning--Grosbeaks

Seeing grosbeaks turns out to be pretty easy (sometimes). As easy as inviting Bee Lady and Flame over for dinner! Unfortunately the evening appearance was over by the time they arrived on Sunday, so they had to accept our report. Monday a.m. the Evening Grosbeaks returned, and I was able to document the sighting with these charmingly fuzzy photos.

Always a rare thrill to see them; this was perhaps the second time in our 28 years here. But we don't see them in any great numbers. The seven or eight that showed up this weekend were a poor flock by grosbeak standards, but it was nice to have more than a lone stray stop by. Only males sport the jaunty yellow visor above the eye, and their plumage is much more dramatic in breeding season (and in better light than this early dawn).

In contrast, my first acquaintance with these startling birds, many years ago high in Coal Creek Canyon, was of a huge flock at a friend's winter feeder. ("Partial to sunflower seeds at feeding stations" says the bird book.) Larger than the usual finches and sparrows, they were quite a sight to witness! Evenings are, like the Pine Grosbeak also of our mountains, a winter species in our area. Our more usual visitor is the Black-headed Grosbeak of summer, which apparently I haven't blogged about beyond a casual mention at the link.

So of the five species of North American grosbeaks, we've now seen three here. The Rosies, like the Black-headed, are summer birds and rare. I can hope for a Pine Grosbeak some winter, but if (when?) I see the other summer species, a Blue Grosbeak, here I will be thoroughly stunned.

Nature Moments

In other news, yesterday's trip to bank and grocery store brought a nature moment worth recording, one of those passing flashes that sticks with you. Turning onto the northbound two lanes of Kipling Parkway, I noticed a quick flutter in the gutter at the side of the road. As I rounded the corner toward it, a Kestrel rose from the concrete, dangling a fresh rodent dinner in his talons. Yummy! Groceries! (The lower Kipling corridor, with its broad margins and regularly spaced light poles, is actually an excellent spot for raptor observations. Unfortunately, I usually have my hands on a steering wheel instead of a camera at those moments.)

Evening Grosbeak Hesperiphona vespertina

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Weather Wise for Winter

"It" started yesterday, and today we wake to another world, subtle and quiet compared to the balmy fall weather of late (high 60s, fondly remembered, just a couple days ago). Now smothered in the proverbial blanket. Reminds me of another world of white not quite a year ago.

The bird channel is available for viewing, all morning, and the cats are enjoying the show.

The first bird we noticed this morning, however, was the Sharp-shinned Hawk, perhaps a descendant of Artemis, who helped launch this blog almost four years ago. This photo wasn't captured this morning, but about two weeks ago. It's not the thistle seed that attracts her to the feeder.

Although I was inside, she must have heard me; the camera doesn't catch her unaware twice. Spots mark "her" as an immature. (Guess I'm continuing the Artemis identity, can't quite consider this one a male, though that's certainly possible.) Our feeders seem to offer good training for the young of this species. We've also seen quite a few of the larger Cooper's Hawks this year, but it seems to be the Sharpies who show up on days like this.

On a more colorful note, the Husband called me to the window yesterday to see a few of these bright interlopers. The Eastern Blue Jay, of which I managed to catch only one in this photo, is moving westward into new territories, of which the Denver Urban Forest is one. Rarely do they make it across the suburbs and the treeless fringe up into our foothills forests, so it's always a momentous occasion when they do.

But I'll let the Watcher explain all about blue jays; which he does most expertly! Scroll down for his Awesome Graphic explaining their migration across the Plains.

Usually weather like this brings the Steller's Jays down from Evergreen, but we haven't spotted any yet today. We have about a foot (30 cm) so far... a little less than in the pre-Halloween storm shown here. Honest, this and the one at the top are two different pictures! Note the added cervid in this version.

The winter will unfold as it will. Perhaps it's best that we don't know what's coming.

Monday, November 02, 2009

November Notes

Berry-Go-Round, the plant carnival, comes of age this week with a rather spectacular 21st edition now available for your review at Beetles in the Bush. Thanks, Ted, for some inspiring reading!

While I was leaving a comment on someone's blog this morning, a tiny spider, possibly the smallest living thing I've ever seen with unaided eyes, dropped past my computer screen on a line. That incident reminds me to tell you that we have a spider post coming up soon here at Foothills Fancies! Inspired by Watcher's recent attention to arachnids (also here) and a lifelong admiration for these octopedal beings, I'm going to wade in with a few stories, and, most likely, a great many unanswered questions.

And the fate of this morning's spider? Before she landed, I grabbed her line to transport her somewhere less dangerous. The trouble with a half-millimeter spider is that it's tough to see where she lands, especially when she's swinging from a tether, but I always figure houseplants are a better survival opportunity than the pile of papers on my desk!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tundra Tales and Mossy Trails

The extreme fall color we encountered during last month’s visits to Summit Lake might make you think the season for wildflowers there had ended. ‘Twas not so—at least two of summer’s wildflowers were hanging on in protected nooks. An occasional Alpine Avens, whose red leaves dominated the landscapes of the previous post, still retained green leaves and full golden bloom.

Photos taken September 9 and 18, 2009.

This composite, however, was the most obvious fall wildflower, displaying spots of bright yellow that caught the eye. (Perhaps Senecio fremontii, or a species of Ligularia? Consensus among the botany buddies is for the Senecio.)

The grasses were also well headed out and more obvious, as here, then they had been most of the summer. Unlike many other nonforested ecosystems, alpine tundra is not dominated by grasses. They appear, as do other wildflowers, as decorative elements in small patches, rather than the matrix against which showy flowers are displayed. In most of this tundra, the Avens, if anything, forms the background matrix. (What looks like a grassy matrix in tundra photos is usually Kobresia myosuroides, a small sedge that dominants the snow-free wind-swept areas.)

Of them all, we were perhaps most happy to get reacquainted with the tundra’s fall wildflower of note: Arctic Gentian. [Elsewhere known scientifically as Gentiana algida, we here in Colorado are asked to call this species Gentianodes algida.*] We never see this flower in summer; when it blooms, alpine autumn has arrived, and the first snows of winter are surely on the way.

*This is due to the efforts of Colorado’s most dedicated and prolific plant taxonomist/systematist of recent decades, Dr. William A. Weber, emeritus curator of the University of Colorado Herbarium in Boulder. Dr. Weber turned 92 or 93, I believe, this month, and his accomplishments are too numerous and impressive to list. He has trained and/or inspired generations of Colorado botanists. In addition to his work on the vascular flora, he is also the state’s leading lichenologist (to the best of my knowledge) and, in 2007, ventured into yet another field with the definitive Bryophytes of Colorado.

It’s a challenge for me, a gestalt taxonomist at best, to appreciate Dr. Weber’s revisions of the Colorado vascular flora, and I suspect out-of-state botanists are also challenged. Somehow the familiar Latin names come more readily. It’s like learning another language! Perhaps I exaggerate…

plaqueBut one of the things for which I unequivocally appreciate Dr. Weber is that he is solely responsible for encouraging the National Park Service to designate Summit Lake Park as a National Natural Landmark in 1965 on the basis of its unusual flora, which he documented. The plaque reads: This site possesses exceptional value as an illustration of the National Natural Heritage and contributes to a better understanding of man’s environment.

The distribution map for this species in Colorado implies that it can be found at lower elevations than strictly tundra, even with a few plains counties apparently reporting it. Weber lists it as alpine and subalpine, and its height (or lack thereof) certainly makes it a good fit among alpine ankle-biters. Grass-like leaves enable it to hide unobtrusively among other plants all summer while they bloom profusely, then only when it has the field pretty much to itself does it show its abundant flowers.

More pictures and information on Arctic Gentian in Montana, at Southwest Wildflowers, and at the USDA Plants database. I've been macro-impaired of late, but you can find a very nice closeup at Pikes Peak Photo.

What about those Trails?

As pleasant as the gentians were, we were at Summit Lake Park to talk trails. The main trail to the Chicago Lakes Overlook is scheduled to be redone next season, so planning was in process on that. In addition, we talked about, and tried to line out a route for, a new trail closer to the lake, a major attraction for visitors. aerial close

This photo provides an overview of the area, with the main overlook trail at the left, and the parking area lower right. There is a trail from the parking lot to the lake, but visitors have also created a web of social trails in the area as they go for the views and explore the shoreline. What I’d like to point out in this photo, though, is the bare-looking area to the lower right of the lake. That’s the area we were trying to route a new trail through, to channel foot traffic and discourage wandering at will.

trail Here’s what the area looked like a little closer up. We tried to lay out a route that would avoid the perennially wet areas and impact a minimum of vegetation. But I’m a bit daft about cryptogams, and it seemed everywhere we tried to put a flag, the “bare” ground was thick with lichens and mosses. Tundra lichens are a special breed—most are species that dominate arctic ecosystems and aren’t seen down here in the lower 48 states, except at very high altitudes. So they’re special, at least to me.

Test your eye with this elk’s eye view. If this photo (Photo 1) were a vegetation quadrat (and I’m a little rusty on cover sampling), I’d say there’s no more than about 40% rock and gravel, about 20% vascular plants, and the rest is moss (almost blackish here) and soil lichens. (The green cushions, which look like moss, are actually "cushion plants," one of which—to confuse us further—is called moss campion.) Smack in the center of the above photo is a whitish wormy lichen called Thamnolia vermicularis. You’ll probably need to click to get a good look at it, or, better yet, visit it at Steve Sharnoff’s very useful site. He’s a way better lichen photographer than I am! Helpful hints for guessing cover are below, if you prefer.

Now that you’re oriented, try Photo 2. If it looks equally bare to you, consider that here I’d guess there’s only about 15% rock and gravel. The rest is ground lichens and mosses. Barely visible in the center of this photo is the brownish Solorina crocea.

Pretty cool, eh? And, to top it off, if you were a plant ecologist, you could spend 14-hour days in the field for weeks on end making these kinds of estimates!

The moral of the story, if there is one, is that there’s lots of life out there, if you look, and few good places for trails. Or, perhaps, that there’s really no way to build a trail without disturbing some little beings, especially if they are cryptogams!

p.s. I forgot to include one more photo. The dominant leaves here are those of the Netleaf Willow, Salix reticulata. This entire shrubby willow thicket, as you can see by my scale item, is not more than one inch tall (2.5 cm)... Two of the plants, northwest of the Chapstick, show opening capsules of willow fluff. In the tundra, unless you're paying close attention, you just never know what you're walking on!

Submittal to Berry-Go-Round plant carnival, edition number #21, now up at Beetles in the Bush.

Photo 1—how much rock? Photo 2—rocks are in fuchsia.

edmosaic edsmSolorina

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

High Color: Alpine Tundra in Autumn

This little photo essay is the result of trips to Summit Lake, at the base of Mt. Evans, on September 9th and 18th, 2009. Fall was well underway, and no less spectacular than the aspens at lower elevations. It is now winter there at 12,800 ft (3,900 m). The Mt. Evans road is closed for the season, and you can no longer drive even as far as Summit Lake.

Above is the main trail from the parking lot to the Chicago Lakes Overlook. Next summer it will be replaced by a new trail on a better alignment, thanks to a grant from the State Trails program. The deep red color is provided by the leaves of Alpine Avens, Acomastylis (formerly Geum) rossii, a common tundra wildflower in the Rose Family.

This old social trail was revegetated just last summer, at least up to the point where bare gravel is showing. Somewhat to my surprise, placing chunks of tundra turf in the old trail bed has been very successful in obliterating this old scar.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Blogging for Vultures: International Vulture Awareness Day

IVAD09Arizona introduced me to vultures when I was about 22 years old. In those days, Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) hadn't yet penetrated the habitats of upstate New York where I grew up, so I had to come west to make their acquaintance. Because they were new to me (as were many other living things in Arizona), they were automatically fascinating.

Parts of the desert landscape, too many parts I'm sure, were home to cows, and often some of those cows were recently deceased. Not until I reached the desert grasslands of southern Arizona, though, did I see vultures in numbers. I captured this photo back then, probably somewhere between Elgin and Fort Huachuca.

Unlike other raptors, Turkey Vultures are happy with a cold buffet, one that Nature quite regularly lays for them. Everything dies, and everything must be recycled, sooner or later, one way or another. With vultures, it's sooner. They may not always come first to the feast, but once they arrive, other feathered scavengers must move on, or be adept at dodging in for leftovers.

Unlike most birds, Turkey Vultures have a keen sense of smell as well as eyesight, quickly finding new sources of food. Their range expansion northward in recent decades has been attributed to climate changes, increases in open habitat relative to forests, protection from hunting, and, my personal favorite, opportunism as a result of our expanded highway system. More and better roads--> faster speeds--> more roadkill--> vulture habitat improvement! An ironic and unintended benefit from our continued environmental deterioration.

There's a nice article on range expansion here, as vultures return to Vermont. Turkey Vulture populations are apparently strong, unlike other vultures in other parts of the world. Thanks to the folks at IVAD, who are working to create awareness of conservation needs of these fascinating birds, without whose help we'd be hip-deep in rotting carcasses!

Check out more about vultures over at IVAD headquarters. See, especially, Tai Haku's contribution, which is loaded with excellent photos and a timely reminder of appropriate human funeral customs.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Pepperweed Adventure

We ventured forth to Bergen Park on a lethal quest, with murder in our hearts. I was to be introduced to a new weed for our area, one that was infringing on the edge of parkland. Clearly it had to go.

Happily for me, though, Perennial Pepperweed (Lepidium latifolium) was not the only plant we encountered that day. Here the pepperweed, which was not yet blooming, consorts with Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum), another exotic, in full flower.

This post doesn't qualify for Plant of the Week; perhaps I should call it a "plant of last month." Late July and most of August were absorbed, it seems, in the wink of an eye! Forgive me for taking you back to early July for this little botanical adventure.

The first few plants we uprooted seemed innocuous enough, but I latched on to one, near the base of a small ponderosa pine, that soon delivered an extensive root system. Perhaps the mother of all pepperweeds...

According to one reliable source,
"Perennial pepperweed is a highly invasive herbaceous perennial. It can invade a wide range of habitats including riparian areas, wetlands, marshes, and floodplains. It adapts readily to natural and disturbed wetlands. As it establishes and expands, the plants create large monospecific stands that displace native plants and animals."

So far so bad. The good news is that, in the course of an hour or so, the two of us seriously depredated this patch of pepperweed, leaving few, if any, survivors above ground to reproduce. The bad news is: it's perennial. As we wandered the area, looking for any surviving remnants, we noticed an odd distribution pattern: it seemed to be associated with the pines. Here it also shows a bit of a zonation pattern, with hemlock behind, pepperweed next to the pine, and smooth brome in the foreground. Lovely.

Clearly we were not in a pristine ecosystem by any means. This is a park that is rapidly gentrifying, and has been used for almost a century. We were also right next to a "park and ride" for the local bus system. In beautifying the area around their new parking lot they had, logically, planted "native" ponderosa pines from a local nursery. (Though why they didn't use the many native pine seedlings on site, I can't explain.) We speculated that the source of the infestation was the root balls of these imported trees. Upon being informed of its presence, the bus company promptly mowed the entire area. Problem solved, right? Well, maybe...

The Park Service (source above) adds:
"Application of the control plan must be repeated numerous times to obtain lasting management.... Sources of infestations should also be located and eliminated to prevent future infestations.... Mechanical control options are typically not effective. Very small patches can be controlled by hand removal if the process is repeated often for several years and plants are not allowed to mature."

Looks like we have our work cut out for us. We have a chance, with conscientious monitoring at this site, to prevent this weed from gaining a foothold that will overwhelm our ability to deal with it in the future. It's early, here, for this one. Perhaps we won a battle, but vigilance, eternal vigilance, is the key in this war. Fortunately, some of our aggressive invaders are not so intractable.

Here's the meadow at Bergen, looking back into the park (a ponderosa pine grove). The brown seedheads of a Smooth Brome monoculture are distinct, enabling its immediate recognition. Most of us live, around here, in a world of mountain meadows dominated by Smooth Brome (Bromus inermis), which was deliberately introduced to the United States and Canada in 1880 from Hungary and in 1896 from Russia. It is still being actively recommended as a pasture grass.

As we moved away from ground zero of the pepperweed infestation, thankfully, more welcome denizens of a montane meadow began to assert themselves. To my surprise, there were harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) still in bloom (long gone at my home elevation), blanket flowers (Gaillardia aristata), and more. I might have gotten more photos, but the presence of a favorite mountain grass thoroughly distracted me.

Parry Oatgrass, Danthonia parryi, is not only elegant, graceful, beautiful, and native, but distinctive and, thus, recognizable! (Always a desirable quality in grasses.) This year, with 3 more inches (7.6 cm) of rain than usual, I've been noticing it everywhere. I can only conclude I'd overlooked it before; I'd thought of it as somewhat rare, or at least unusual. I like it so much I once obliquely featured it in an article, and even put the illustration of it on my business card.

Here's what I didn't know about this intriguing grass: it is reported only from four states (MT, WY, CO, and NM) and two provinces (ALB and SASK). In other words, straight down the spine of the Rockies, primarily on the eastern side. It is secure in Alberta, according to NatureServe, and imperilled in Wyoming; other areas have not been assessed. Within Colorado, its distribution is a bit irregular, most likely due to inadequate collections. Parry Oatgrass is, for example, not reported from our county, where this site (the red triangle) is.

Although they're surrounded by Parry Oatgrass, especially this year, I suspect that few mountain residents would recognize this grass under any circumstances. Here it shares the foreground with harebells and other wildflowers, as is proper, but smooth brome lurks in the background. Even long-time mountain residents think they see pristine landscapes where, in fact, they are seeing agriculture.

Perennial pepperweed, according to the USDA Plants Database, has been introduced in about 20 states of the U.S. and six Canadian provinces. It is native to southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia and, according to the Park Service, "probably entered the U.S. prior to 1940 in a shipment of beet seed (Beta vulgaris) from Europe." In Colorado it is a "List B" exotic weed. Smooth Brome, however, is still being planted.

Submitted for edition #20 of the plant carnival, Berry-Go-Round.