Sunday, May 31, 2009

Another Spring “Berry”

smviola Berry-Go-Round #17, this month’s carnival of all things botanical, is now posted at Gravity’s Rainbow. Sarcozona has rounded up a nice selection of posts celebrating some of our favorite lifeforms—plants!

June’s edition of this carnival will be hosted here at Foothills Fancies. Please enter your favorite plant post(s), whether you wrote them or someone else did! You can email submissions to me, ffnaturalist at gmail dot com, post a link in comments, or use the handy submission form.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Honor Thy Planet

Your home, as seen from Apollo 17While we are discussing (previous post, a little bit) things you can do to help “the environment,” here’s one really simple one we can all tackle. Won’t cost anything, not more than a fraction of a second of your time, and will begin to remind us that a little respect is in order.

(Image from NASA, courtesy Wikipedia.)

Just this: Capitalize the name of your home planet. It’s Earth, sometimes Terra (Sol III if you prefer), and that’s its proper name. We all learned in grade school that proper names should be capitalized, so why don’t we all just practice it? I think it would remind us on a regular basis that we aren’t just dealing with an “it” here, we’re dealing with our home planet, that collection of astronomy and geology and biology—everything that makes up the ecosphere we all depend upon but seem to forget we need while we bounce around from the shopping mall to the grocery store in air-conditioned cars.

You’d probably like a more authoritative source than your local neighborhood blogger. Don’t take my word for it, please:

Not to get all sermon-y on you, but Lovelock (?, just read this, now have to find the source again) has a point when he says it’s hard to work up some fight against invisible gases that are destroying faraway ice caps most of us will never get to see. Hawken hits the mark too (albeit in lowercase*), when he remarks:


We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time rather than renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can't print life to bail out a planet.

So get personal with your planet. Know its proper name, use it, and learn a little bit about it. The Nature Blog Network is a great place to start exploring all the beings that make this such a miraculous place to live.

* Shouldn't really blame Hawken for this, it could have been the transcriber, or some editor.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Rainy Day Rosies

rbg775No blues around here, despite four days of rain and gray. Tough to wallow in depression when there’s company like this about. Yes, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) has made another appearance here at the fancy foothills home base! What a way to brighten the gloom! He showed up late Sunday afternoon, between downpours, and popped in again while Bee Lady and Flame were in attendance yesterday afternoon. Perfect timing!

rbgrosbkLast night he shared the feeder with two pairs of Black-headed Grosbeaks, or hovered photogenically nearby in the ash tree waiting his turn. We sat out a bit this evening, but it’s downright chilly out there now, so in it is.

(Two consecutive days is a new record. Last year’s visit was a singular occasion.)

Downpours and thunder have alternated with gentle spring sprinkles since Friday night! All 052609most welcome, not least for the weeding it affords. We  have green to rival the best of Ohio—or Ireland! After a droughty winter, it’s a wonder and joy to see the response of the plants to all this moisture. Today’s ritual photo is bright, compared to the weekend’s experience. No complaints.

Water is rising in Bear Creek, well past cafe au lait and on its way beyond dark chocolate mocha. Our Historian says the cottonwoods in Mt. Vernon Canyon, just upstream of town, are of a size to indicate flood times due, but so far, it all seems to be soaking in pretty well.

Extreme weather, they say, is what we can expect more of as nature gets even. Unusual events, too, most likely—the appearance of critters where we haven’t seen them before, and the disappearance of others as Earth seeks a new equilibrium.

As Paul Hawken, choosing to be optimistic, told a graduating class recently: “Basically, civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.” Career-wise, no problem for new graduates: “The Earth is hiring!” And there’s a lot of work to do!

Dave at Osage+Orange shared a great interview with James Lovelock, who takes a different tack on optimism. He tells us that it’s already too late, but facing the challenges ahead will cause us humans to pull together like never before. “[S]o when I think of the impending crisis now, I think in those terms. A sense of purpose - that's what people want.”

Lovelock’s advice: "Enjoy life while you can. Because if you're lucky it's going to be 20 years before it hits the fan." Heckuva legacy to give to your children.

Sarcozona, who will be hosting Berry-Go-Round this week at Gravity’s Rainbow, has a great post on Advocacy (check her links), and a suggestion about kids: “have none or fewer”… I’d add, especially if you love children! We’re leaving them a tough uphill battle, and this is a conversation we need to start having. Sustainability? There are simply too many of us.


rbgros776Meanwhile, for the time being, Earth offers wonders, daily, to each of us.  Every bird in the backyard, every flower and, yes, weed is another opportunity to share in the incredible that lies before and around us. We have only to look, and if we look, won’t we want to preserve? A parting quote from Hawken:  

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Scales and Tails

One of the things I notice about reptiles, in comparison to birds for example, is they’re so quiet! That probably contributes to the notion people have that they’re sneaking up on you, inspiring that zero at the bone sensation Emily Dickinson describes so well.

It also means we have to be more observant this time of year. I think of rattlesnakes now, every time I’m out in the field, trying to be more conscious of potential hiding places. Apparently a child was bitten last week on Morrison’s main street, so it’s officially snake season—and they can turn up anywhere.

For some reason, as I drove home Friday, I wasn’t thinking of snakes. My mind wandered, and I had to slam on the brakes near our driveway to avoid hitting a nice young 3-foot Bull Snake. Time to start carrying a stick in the car again for moments like this. I found an old stalk of yucca and spent a few minutes encouraging her to leave the right-of-way where she preferred to bask in peace. Should have just picked her up; the bite is harmless and not that painful, and she seemed mellow, but why court trouble? By the time I returned with camera a few minutes later, she had disappeared as silently as is usual. [No, I have no idea whether she was really female, but one has to choose, “it” is just impolite.]

Happily, another opportunity presented itself later in the afternoon. We were sitting in the backyard when the Husband picked up the sound we dread. Rattlesnake! Starbuck, the snake-pointer, heard it too; he went on alert, showed us the spot, and barked to let us know he was holding this intruder at bay. (He has a special bark just for unusual occasions, most often a snake. He's also turned up one box turtle and one tomato worm. Very exciting.) Husband checked, diagnosed “No, Bull Snake,” and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Once the dogs were inside, we got a closer look at my second bull snake of the year.

Bull SnakeBull Snakes (Pituophis catenifer) regularly imitate Rattlesnakes (here Crotalus viridis), and, as they look somewhat similar, many people confuse the two. To me, Rattlesnakes just look mean; something in those ridges over the eyes gives them a brooding sinister look, like crocodiles. Chris, at Coyote Crossing, has a nice picture of one of these “sweet and noble animals.” Good story, too.

I like rattlesnakes too, long as they’re not sneaking up on me! I like to know where they are. Rattlesnakes are, of course, one of the few reptiles that let you know where they are. Sometimes. I bet 90% of the rattlers I encountered when I lived in Arizona never made a sound. My theory is that rattling, these days, is behavior that can cause you to lose your head, and  thus we humans have been deliberately selecting for rattlesnakes that prefer not to rattle. That’s why it pays to keep your eyes open too. Here's a prairie rattler recording, for reference.

large Bull Snake in mid-hissBack to our visitor: What was it the Husband heard, if not a rattlesnake? Bull Snakes can mimic the rattle of their model by shaking their tails in dry weeds, but also by hissing. This was the first time I’d heard a wild bull snake make a sound so much like a rattler, so near perfect I didn’t believe DH at first but had to see for myself. As we discovered, hissing was the only “vocal” opportunity this snake had; an accident had cost him the last few inches of his tail.

As long as we can see the whole snake, or most of it, a little attention to detail increases our comfort. The overall gestalt that says Bull Snake includes a long streamlined body (as opposed to the stockier form usual in rattlesnakes), a narrow innocent-looking head blending into a neck of similar dimension (unlike the so-called “triangular” head and narrow neck of rattlesnakes), and tapering pointed tail (rattles blunt the tail tip, even in young rattlesnakes). Stocky is relative. Bull snakes are our biggest snake here in Colorado, so they can get very hefty when they reach a length of 5  or 6 feet (1.5 m or more). The girth of this one was probably 7 or 8 inches (17-20 cm). A rattlesnake that big around would be much shorter, maybe 3 to 4 ft (1 m). Of course, rattlesnakes’ eyes also have vertical pupils, unlike the round ones in the mimics, but do you really want to get face-to-face with one to check that feature?

Bull Snake, ready to strikeBehavioral cues contradict visual evidence. Wild Bull Snakes may be harmless, but they’re determined to make you believe they’re dangerous villains. They can hiss, “rattle,” coil, and strike in very aggressive fashion when cornered. Here he’s got his neck pulled back warning of a fast strike that will make you jump no matter how cool you are. Too often, such tricks get them killed, eliminating the ecosystem services they provide, such as rodent control, and, I’m told, rattlesnake control.

Most people are willing to believe any patterned snake is a rattlesnake.  This little baby Yellow-bellied Racer (Coluber constrictor mormon) was found at the local juvenile Yellow-bellied Racerelementary school. They called us at the museum: “we’ve got a baby rattlesnake, help!”
These guys are even called “pugnacious” in the guidebook, so it’s easy to believe, again, that you’re dealing with a dangerous predator. Even at 15-18 inches (+/- 40 cm), this little fellow was a handful. Jace at Nature Journals describes the rattlesnake-mimicry racers will perform. I’ve never seen them tail-buzzing myself, but then I’ve never tried to confront one in the wild as he describes in his last paragraph. For a nice collection of photos of juvenile and adult racers visit California Academy; the adults are completely different. After our photo-op, we returned this little guy to a safe place a little farther from the school.

juvenile Western RattlesnakeHere’s the real deal. A baby Western or Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) looks about the same as the adult and can vary in color from gray-brown, as here, to yellow or greenish. This baby has recently had a big meal.

Diagnostically speaking, note the narrowness of the neck compared to the head, and the black tail near the rattles.

The rattlesnake I encountered at the chicken coop last summer was a clear green. Just lovely… as long as I knew where he was. Thankfully, that one did rattle at me. To this day, I still expect to see him every time I go out there, now that it’s spring.

By the way, a good resource for Colorado reptiles and amphibians is the Colorado Herpetological Society, especially their identification guide. Extensively updated since my last visit, it’s a great site.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Live at the Bear’s Lair

mtnballOn our second trip to Lair o’ the Bear last week, we never made it to the jelly lichens, but we did get a good look at two beaver dams and dozens of wild bloomers.

A main attraction was the Mountain Ball cactus (Pediocactus simpsonii), in full bloom on a rocky bend in the trail. I think this is the best looking cactus we have in our area.

gardenThis garden-like view of wildflowers on a dry slope includes Sand Lilies (Leucocrinum montanum) in white and Oregon Grape (Mahonia repens) in bright yellow on a background of fringed sage (Artemisia frigida).  

Here’s a close-up of a Sand Lily. In these spring plants, the ovary is below ground level, so the pollen tube has a long way to go to reach it. The seeds mature underground and later get pushed out onto the surface where they can germinate. 

ashortShort’s Milkvetch (Astragalus shortianus) is about the earliest of our many milkvetches. Its two-tone flowers are distinctive, but it’s the timing of bloom that helps, with other species of milkvetch not ready this early. (This year “early” is coming a few weeks late; the sand lilies should have been gone by now.)

viola2The Lair is a riparian park, as we’ll explore more tomorrow, and shady spots near the stream are great locations for Canada Violet (Viola canadensis). Or maybe not—looks like Bill Weber now calls it V. scopulorum, V. canadensis being an eastern species. There’s also a similar species, V. rydbergii. I didn’t diagnose, so perhaps I should just call it Violet to be safe! (Other sources consider both of these subspecies of Canada Violet.)

smcorydalisGolden Smoke, Corydalis aurea, is easier, as it’s the only representative of its family we’re likely to see in our foothills. It’s related to the eastern Dutch-man’s Breeches, and to Bleeding Hearts in gardens, and has the unusual flowers typical of the Fumariaceae.


smserviceberryServiceberry, one of my favorite shrubs, is a special treat. It’s not quite as abundant, it seems to me, as others in the Rosaceae, which sometimes seems to be our dominant woody family around here. Amelanchier alnifolia, also known as Saskatoon Serviceberry, is one of many species native to and widespread in North America; we also have Utah Serviceberry, A. utahensis, which has shorter petals. It’s called serviceberry because it’s so useful—tasty fruits look a bit like blueberries and are eaten fresh or dried by most tribes, as well as anglo settlers who came later. From pemmican to pies, berries have been prized, but the wood and twigs were also used in basketry, arrow shafts, and tools or toys. This attractive shrub is serviceable in the landscape as well, and often available at nurseries.

smalderThin-leaved Alder (Alnus incana subsp. tenuifolia) is a common riparian tree at this park. Its pleated leaves were just unfolding on these twigs over Bear Creek. The female inflorescences look like tiny pine cones. They become woody with age, making the tree instantly recognizable! Here a male strobilus and several females cling to a branch where new inflorescences are just budding out. (Click to enlarge.)

I tried to capture the Pasqueflowers (Pulsatilla patens) that were everywhere in the park, but somehow failed to get a good shot of any of them. Bee Lady’s husband Dave, an excellent photographer, really focused on them, with great success. I’ll let you know when I talk him into having his own blog!

newdam  Coming soon!
  Next up, some of the critters
  we saw during this visit. Bee  
  Lady made a wonderful guide;
  she knows all the park’s
  secret places.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Morning Scold; Power of the Internet

apiebabiesYesterday I received constant scolding from the magpies when I went to feed the chickens. As I bent to fill a feeder, I heard clumsy flapping above me. No wonder it was so noisy! Three baby magpies just over my head, holding tight to the branches of their chosen security tree. Must be the first day or so out of the nest.

apie family2Same thing today… it’s bad enough to get scolded by Orioles when the hummingbird feeder runs dry, but now this! Here are 13 seconds of magpie scolding for your listening pleasure. I was lucky—my cat just looked at one of the babies strolling on the ground, and the parents chased him straight out of the yard. Parent on the right, babies hidden among branches in photo left. Can you see the 3rd one below the others?  

ababy pieBecause the babies are huge, and closely resemble the parents, you might want a couple tricks. I have two: the shorter stubby tail compared to the adult’s flowing one, the only long-tailed bird in most of the U.S.* And baby lips, nicely displayed in this portrait of baby #2. 

As far as I can tell, the parents aren’t feeding them, just keeping an eye out that they’re safe.** The babies are trying to figure out the sunflower and suet feeders.

agoldfinchIn fact, it’s a complete zoo out there. Feathers zooming around everywhere, yellow, orange, pretty amazing. Here’s a quick inventory, some of which will have to be added to the May bird list.

To be honest, some of them aren’t zooming, they’re walking around looking for whatever it is towhees and doves and such look for.

Right now, in the yard:

  • Bullock’s Oriole, 2 males, 1 female
  • Black-billed Magpie, mom, dad, 2-3 kids
  • Scrub Jays, 2
  • American Goldfinch, male
  • Spotted Towhee, 3
  • House Finch
  • Mourning Dove, 2
  • English Sparrow, male
  • Broad-tailed Hummingbird, female
  • Common Grackle, 1

Darling Husband, just back from Moab a few days ago, was just commenting on how nice it is to be back amid all our birds! (And we still have some green on the hills, too!) I guess the desert was pretty quiet compared to our yard this time of year.  

Power of the Internet

Tuesday I had a powerful reminder of how not-alone one is online. Sometimes it seems pretty quiet here in blog-land, but within hours of posting the Jelly Lichens story, two interesting things happened. First, I got an email from the lichen curator who discovered the new lichen I mentioned. Very cool of him to stop by, but I can’t figure out how he found out I mentioned him. Second, in attempting to figure out how he discovered the post, I googled “jelly lichens,” and, imagine that, my post came up #5! Right after something called and the USDA Plants profile (who knew they had lichens!), and ahead of my favorite lichen site, I’m still baffled.


So, just remember, next time you google some obscure term or phrase, you could end up at the blog of some highly authoritative fancier of the item in question!

* According to my book, if you're in Texas, you might also get to see the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher; the Fork-tailed Flycatcher occasionally visits Florida. The rest of us will have to make do with Magpies. By the way, "long" in this case means longer than the body.
** Wrong again; the parents are still feeding them. Finally witnessed it late yesterday. See what I mean, authoritative! [grin]

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

In Search of Jelly Lichens

Last week I took advantage of TWO opportunities to play hooky and go looking for jelly lichens at my favorite location. It had rained over the weekend, so I knew they’d be happily soaking in the humidity.

Bee Lady and I also reveled in springtime humidity as we enjoyed the sights along the way to the best cliff in Lair o’ the Bear. Spring is brief in Colorado, making it very important to play hooky this time of year! 

I hadn’t visited for a while, so had to check every cliff to find the right one, way out at the west end of the creekside trail that was once the main road from Morrison to Evergreen.

cliff faceMaybe this cliff, with a vertigo view from shady-mossy base to sunny exposed rocky-top?claytonia

No, lots of neat things to see, including this little spring beauty growing in a cushion of moss—but still not the right cliff!

smswallowWas it this cliff, with the Violet-green Swallows cavorting above?

smratnestNo, but at the base of it, in a crevice, Bee Lady spotted a Woodrat nest, composed (on the outside at least) mostly of pine boughs and cones.

smfiddleThis also turned out to be a good place to see the unfurling croziers (love that word!), or fiddleheads, of new ferns. I guessed brittlefern, Cystopteris fragilis, based on later specimens, but as these were too young (for me) to tell, they might also be Woodsia.

smintersectionEventually we reached the proper cliff, where we could see not only the sought-after jelly lichens, but the wonderful Sticta, and verdant masses of spikemoss, Selaginella. The jelly lichens were soft and slimy from recent rains and lingering rivulets in the cracks and crevices of the cliff. Here a large Umbilicaria (lichen) under the ring, with Selaginella to its right, and masses of true mosses surrounding.

smjelly wetBy now, my camera was acting up, so I failed to capture good examples of the very critters I’d come to see. Properly called gelatinous lichens, these guys are so named because they lack the firm texture of more typical foliose lichens and have a characteristic translucence. They remind me of the “tree ears” we sometimes encounter in Chinese restaurant dishes, but those are actual fungi. Gelatinous lichens are unstratified or only partially so, lacking the distinct algal layer, and sometimes the firm lower and/or upper cortex found in the “typical” lichen (if there is such a thing).

leptogiumThey look so different when they’re dry! This one is, I believe, a species of Leptogium, with a white tomentum visible on the lower surface. Perhaps L. saturninum, but confirmation will have to await another trip. With a hand lens. For those who prefer common names, LoNA* calls this one bearded jellyskin.** (Ugh!)

In related news, gleaned from the Nature Blog Network’s blog, President Obama now has a lichen, Caloplaca obamae, named after him. Congratulations, Mr. President! This is also a great story about the citizen scientist, Kerry Knudsen, who discovered this new lichen, proving again that dedicated people can make a real contribution, if they just pay attention to what they see!

* LoNA is Lichens of North America, the coffee table book of lichens, by Brodo, Sharnoff, and Sharnoff. Highly recommended; you can visit it online, though, at

** Jellyskin is the name used here for the entire genus of Leptogium, as opposed to the name “jelly lichen” given only, in this book, to species of Collema, another common jelly lichen. This is the only book I know that assigns common names to lichens; very few lichens have real common names.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Life is Metallic

  Life Photo Meme is a weekly challenge
  to post a photo of something alive that
  meets a certain criterion, giving us an
  opportunity to think outside our normal
  posting topics and, often, learn something new! Metallic, this week's prompt, is easier to find in beetles than in plants! I've always admired that color I call "bug green," that was popular in cars a few years back.

Today, we'll venture into birds, where metallic plumage is an accessible option. It turns out there are three basic techniques birds use to create the display colors we appreciate especially during breeding season each year: pigment-based colors, structural colors, and cosmetic colors. Among the pigments, carotenoids produce yellow, orange, and red (as they often do in butterflies, flowers, and, well, carrots); melanins produce browns, blacks, and grey, not too spectacular sometimes, but forming the background against which the showier colors are displayed.

Melanins are also critically involved in the production of structural colors, serving as layers in thin-film reflectors or to absorb incoherently backscattered light from reflective keratin and air matrices (Prum 1999, as cited in Shawkey & Hill, 2005). Nano-scale reflective tissues, they add, usually produce UV-blue, white or iridescent coloration.

I thought sure the Black-billed Magpie above would be happy to demonstrate, but he only looks blue. He/she posed in the sun this a.m., giving a little better show.

Because his/her normal magpie iridescence was not adequately displayed in these photos, I turned to a feather source nearer at hand, if less exciting: our mixed-breed flock of domestic poultry. Beaks, here, being a Black Australorp rooster, was willing, and iridescence, or metallic hues, does seem to be best displayed in black feathers. Even this close-up can't do justice to the structural colors created by the intricate design of feathers. George refused to come out from under the juniper to pose, but I wish you could see his iridescence, not confined to blue-green, but venturing into mahogany and rust.

Here's a Partridge Rock hen, capturing a little of the mahogany color George displays so well, along with the traditional iridescence, all against the melanin background feather pattern, somewhat more subdued.

For comparison, a Buff Orpington hen demonstrates complete lack of metallic iridescence. According to Shawkey & Hill, some carotenoid displays (notably in the American goldfinch), though pigment based, depend upon white structural tissue to achieve the brilliance we expect in their vivid yellow.

And cosmetics? As we might expect, they are substances (from oil glands or soil, e.g., iron oxides) externally applied by birds to their feathers, to boost their appearance and attractiveness to potential mates. Parrots and pigeons, among others, use this approach.

All these techniques for creating display colors in birds have a metabolic cost, and must also have an adaptive advantage as payback, without which our world would be less metallic and far more drab.

Shawkey, Matthew D. and Geoffrey E. Hill. 2005. Carotenoids need
structural colours to shine.
Biol. Lett. 1, 121–124; doi:10.1098/rsbl.2004.0289 Published online 16 May 2005.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Meriwether Lewis and the May Bird List

Each spring, we expect a fairly regular complement of avian arrivals and passers-by. Every now and then though, we're surprised by something vastly out of usual list of guests we've come to anticipate. Tuesday was such a day, when a bird appeared that, to my knowledge, had only visited us once before, many years ago.

There are birds that make us laugh out loud—outrageous combinations of color that somehow suggest frivolity. My first experience of a Western Tanager was like that—what can you say about a bird with so many colors?

Tuesday, I looked out to see this Lewis's Woodpecker perched above the suet feeder. He sat just long enough for me to get the camera and snap off one quick shot. Red face, glossy green-to-black back, pink sides, and a grayish-white collar. I've described him to a couple of people since, and they also seem impressed by his color, even only in description. I wish the photo did him (or her, apparently similar) justice.

I can only imagine that Meriwether Lewis was equally surprised at this bird, among the many new and surprising discoveries made on his famous trip in 1803-1806. Here's his description of this critter new to science. Originally Picus torquatus ("woodpecker with a necklace"), it is today named Melanerpes lewis, or "Lewis's black creeper."

Lewis's name also rests in a couple western wildflowers—Blue flax (Linum lewisii), and our alpine Pygmy Bitterroot (Lewisia pygmaea), a cousin of Montana's state flower of the same genus. I have a nagging suspicion there are many more plants and critters bearing his name, but they're not popping into my head. Please weigh in if you think of others!

The May Bird List (in progress)

  • Chukar (exotic, has been here more than 2 weeks)
  • American Kestrel (courting near the backyard, nesting at the neighbors')
  • Red-tailed Hawk (soaring nearby)
  • Golden Eagle (soaring over)

  • Rock Pigeon
  • Mourning Dove
  • Broad-tailed Hummingbird (just back)
  • Lewis's Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Northern Flicker
  • Western Scrub-Jay
  • Black-billed Magpie
  • American Crow

  • Violet-green Swallow
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • White-breasted Nuthatch (until last week; hoping he returns)
  • American Robin
  • European Starling
  • Green-tailed Towhee
  • Spotted Towhee

  • American Tree Sparrow
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Dark-eyed Junco: still here, as of last week, but disappearing
  • Black-headed Grosbeak (just back last week)
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Western Meadowlark
  • Bullock's Oriole (just back last week)

  • House Finch
  • Pine Siskin
  • House Sparrow

Can I count the Lazuli Buntings a neighbor saw a couple days ago? Guess not.

At any rate, that's about 30 species, thanks to some overlap in the season. I'll have a post coming soon on new birds from two visits to Lair o'the Bear this week, along with an assortment of wildflowers we saw there.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Ants Go Marching

This one's for Honor an Invertebrate Day at Life Photo Meme. A bit late, just in the nick, in fact!

Spilled coffee grounds? was my first reaction when I caught this brownish residue out of the corner of my eye one morning, walking out to feed the chickens. It didn't take long to realize the error—this was life on the move. We had one of these irruptions* inside the house late last summer, possibly the same species, in a breezeway newly converted to civilization.

* An irruption is a sudden explosion in population, or sometimes a shift in presence in a given area, so this is the wrong word, but I've yet to think of a better one. The event last fall was a bit different, a true irruption of sorts, as winged ants were attempting to strike out to colonize new areas.

It wasn't long before I realized my error—this wasn't moving out, this was spring cleaning! (You needn't be surprised that I didn't recognize the phenomenon; it's rare around here!) I did manage (being close to the house) to press the Colorado quarter into duty as a scale object this time, but you'll have to click to see subtle activity along the edge of the paver in this photo.

My guess was the ants had chosen this fine day to remove fallen comrades from the nest. A long winter had, no doubt, induced a fair complement of colony mortality, and "ceremonies," however perfunctory, were in order.

This behavior is called necrophoric (from roots for dead and carrying) and is, like most events in the life of an ant or an entire colony, mediated by chemicals. If you smell like a dead ant, you are presumed to be a corpse and can expect to be treated accordingly. In fact, according to the researchers, "It was soon established that bits of paper treated with acetone extracts of Pogonomyrmex [ harvester ant] corpses were treated just like intact corpses" by worker ants. Separation of components of the extract later revealed (again through "behavioral assay," that is the workers' response to test chemicals) that long-chain fatty acids, in particular oleic acid, were the critical substances.

According to Hölldobler and Wilson:
"The transport of dead nestmates is one of the most conspicuous and stereotyped patterns of behavior exhibited by ants. ... Thus the worker ants appear to recognize corpses on the basis of a limited array of chemical breakdown products. They are, moreover, very "narrow-minded" on the subject. Almost any object possessing an otherwise inoffensive odor is treated as a corpse when daubed with oleic acid."

Even live worker ants were carried to the refuse pile "unprotesting" after being treated with oleic acid. "After being deposited, they clean themselves and return to the nest." And the penalty for inadequate cleaning is... you guessed it! Another trip to the refuse pile. A whole new concept of the living dead. Perhaps I should have saved this post for Halloween.

Sure enough, the next morning, the pavers were littered with broken, immobile ant bodies. I failed to capture the "after" shot before morning breezes blew the departed insects away.

[Forgive my delay. The actual date of this event was April 11, 2009.]

Monday, May 11, 2009

Good Day for a Walk

What a lovely spring day! This is the kind of wet drippy days we have too few of here on the Front Range. Too bad I have to leave to report for jury duty in an hour; it's perfect for visiting the jelly lichens and beaver dam at Lair o'the Bear just up the creek.

We've had a couple of these cool days lately. The year's moisture now sits at about 4.5 inches (11 cm), and plants are finally popping. Last week's cool weather seemed to hold the wild plum in check, then a few warm days allowed them to burst forth in fragrance. We're supposed to have more warm this week, with a small prospect of another wet day or two for the weekend. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Mentor, verb

The dictionary insists it's a noun, but we often use it these days as a verb. This post is a little tribute to a mentor who made a huge difference in my life by inspiring, at a relatively early stage, an enthusiasm for field ecology: Dr. Paul D. Kilburn. I was a biology major in an upstate New York college when a friend suggested a summer field excursion to Colorado. We went, and four weeks later, though I didn't know it at the time, I was bound to become a Coloradoan.

Three of those weeks were spent learning the Colorado flora, with Paul as instructor: identification, montane ecology, and alpine ecology at one week each. In Rocky Mountain National Park! That foundation formed my career in the 1970s and '80s, and my passion in these later decades, though sometimes rarely exercised.

But this isn't a nostalgia trip, this is to tell you what Paul has accomplished now! After ten or twelve years of struggle (through the 1990s), I got busy and abandoned our joint attempt to save an important chunk of native tallgrass prairie in the northern part of our county. But the foundation was laid, and Paul persisted. Last week he made some significant headway, almost 10 million dollars worth, toward protecting and restoring what's left of an important grassland ecosystem. Here's Paul, right, with Dave Buckner, ten years ago today, in a nice chunk of prairie that was purchased by City of Boulder Open Space and is now protected. Dave's a consultant with whom we launched a 5-year grassland study—paid for by the aggregate interests—of the native warm-season grasslands at Rocky Flats.

This photo shows the Chemist, left, and Paul, right, in July 1999 with the Developer who knows his chunk of this well preserved prairie is going to be very remunerative for him, as it is situated at the intersection of two important highways, soon to be a major beltway bringing traffic to his door—if development interests prevail. (Here we bless the economic "downturn" for breathing space.)

In 2001, Paul (far right) led this field trip to the site of a proposed oil well within the boundaries of a portion of the grassland that had been placed in a "Stewardship Trust" by the State of Colorado (which owns Section 16, a state school section). One of the uses for the $10 million will be to purchase certain mineral rights in the Rocky Flats area so that other parts of this grassland won't be turned upside down in a quest for... gravel, bluestone aggregate. Happily, most of Rocky Flats, once a weapons plant, is now a wildlife refuge, so areas inside the fence are protected from pretty much everything except mineral owners and weeds.

Paul's been fighting the good fight, as well as leading groups to collect native seeds for revegetation and pull invading weeds, ever since those early days. Why does he do it? I think it's so his grand-children—and yours—can enjoy sights like this! (Tallgrass prairie in fall, looking toward the foothills.)

Fall color in "turkeyfoot," big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii), looking across Section 16 and Boulder's Jewell Mountain Open Space.