Spotlight on Parks: Lory State Park

Soldier Canyon Falls. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Soldier Canyon Falls. Photo by Jamie Simo.

In between rain storms, I recently visited Lory State Park. Not far from Fort Collins and overlooking Horsetooth Reservoir, Lory is a spectacular mixture of habitats, from lowland riparian areas to montane conifer forest. The park is named after Dr. Charles Lory, president of Colorado State University from 1909 to 1940, and was ranchland until 1967. Today, it consists of 2,591 acres dedicated to hiking, boating, fishing, biking, and more.

My trip to Lory started past the visitor’s center at the Waterfall Trail. Short and sweet at only 0.1 miles, this is a fantastic area for birding and an easy hike. Without even leaving the picnic area, I saw Bullock’s orioles, yellow warblers, house wrens, and a lazuli bunting. The culmination of the trail is Soldier Canyon Falls, a picturesque waterfall enclosed in a small canyon.

Mouse ear chickweed. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Mouse ear chickweed. Photo by Jamie Simo.

From Soldier Canyon Falls I drove down to the head of the Well Gulch Trail. Though restricted to foot traffic, Well Gulch is a great trail because it takes you through several of the habitats within the park. The trail runs parallel to a stream. In addition to the number of birds that make their home along it (particularly abundant were spotted towhees), Well Gulch is a breath-taking trail this time of year due to its amazing variety of wildflowers. From velvety white pussytoes (Antennaria parvifolia) to electric blue Nuttall’s larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum) to blazing orange wallflowers (Erysimum capitatum), the trail is an anthophile’s dream.

The blue pleasing fungus beetle (Gibbifer Californicus) feeds on fungi on aspen and Ponderosa pine. Photo by Jamie Simo.
The blue pleasing fungus beetle (Gibbifer Californicus) feeds on fungi on aspen and Ponderosa pine. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Butterflies and other insects are also abundant along the trail, including the painted lady (Vanessa cardui), the red admiral (Vanessa atalanta), and the variegated fritillary (Euptoieta claudia). At one point, I ran across an interesting blue beetle I’d never seen before. Apparently this beetle is known as the pleasing fungus beetle (Gibbifer californicus), which, as a larva, feeds on fungi mainly on aspen and Ponderosa pine. As adults, they also consume nectar and pollen.

When it warms up and dries out, consider visiting Lory State Park to see what you can see. Like all Colorado state parks, the entry fee is $7 a day or you can pay $70 for an annual park pass that will give you unlimited access. Although there are no full-service camp sites in the park, you can backcountry camp for $10 a night. Information about additional fees such as for group picnic area rentals are available on the park’s website.

Green Serenade

It’s been rainy and cloudy for much of the last two weeks here along the Front Range and, while I could use some sunshine, there are some who are loving this weather. Who are they? Amphibians, of course! Amphibians are animals that spend part of their life as an aquatic animal and part of their life as a land animal. This includes frogs, toads, and salamanders.

Being a semi-arid state, Colorado has a relatively small number of native amphibians, but this is the time of year that they really shine. One in particular is very vocal right now. If you’re passing a marshy area, you might hear its creaky call; it sounds sort of like someone flicking the tines on a plastic comb. This is the western chorus frog (Pseudacris triseriata), a little frog (growing only up to about 1.6 inches or 40 mm long) with a big voice.

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Western chorus frog with human finger for size comparison. Photo by Benny Mazur. http://www.enature.com/fieldguides/enlarged.asp?imageID=19190
Western chorus frog with human finger for size comparison. Photo by Benny Mazur. http://www.enature.com/fieldguides/enlarged.asp?imageID=19190

The western chorus frog can be found throughout most of Colorado up to about 12,000 feet in elevation, but due to its small size and habit of going quiet when potential predators approach, it’s really difficult to see. They also blend in very well with their surroundings. Chorus frogs can be greenish-grey, reddish, olive, or even brown. Three dark lines down its back and one through the eye extending from the snout all the way down to the legs are diagnostic, though the lines can sometimes be absent. The frog also has a white line along the snout.

March through May is prime breeding season for chorus frogs in Colorado. I heard my first frogs calling this season at the end of March at Sawhill Ponds in Boulder. They were still calling in Fort Collins last week. Males are the most vocal and they call to secure a mate. Mating in frogs and other amphibians is called amplexus (“embrace” in Latin). The male grabs hold of the female from behind and fertilizes her eggs as she lays them. For western chorus frogs, they may lay up to 1,500 eggs, which are generally laid in what are termed vernal pools. A vernal pool is a temporary pond and they are extremely important habitat for amphibians of all kinds. The attraction of a vernal pool is that they are too temporary and too shallow to support fish, which are a major predator of tadpoles.

Egg mass of Western Chorus Frog; RG Johnsson; 1966. http://www.nps.gov/features/yell/slidefile/fishherps/frogstoads/Page.htm
Egg mass of Western Chorus Frog;
RG Johnsson;
1966. http://www.nps.gov/features/yell/slidefile/fishherps/frogstoads/Page.htm

Have you ever seen a frog egg? Unlike bird or reptile eggs, frog eggs aren’t surrounded by a shell. Because of that, they’re vulnerable to drying out, so they’re laid in water, often attached to grass or a stick. What’s really fascinating is that you can tell the difference between a frog egg mass versus a salamander egg mass versus a toad egg mass. Unlike frog eggs, salamander eggs are contained in an outer gelatinous casing, whereas toad eggs aren’t laid in a mass at all, but rather in long strands. If you’re a herpetologist, you may be good enough to narrow down which species laid which eggs.

Since the rain may not let up for awhile, why don’t you put on your galoshes and poncho and venture out into it? Who knows what you’ll see or hear?

Gone for Good

The last couple of days I haven’t had much time to monitor the flicker box and I didn’t see either Beaky or Flick. The day before yesterday, I found out why: European starlings. I chased one out of the box on Wednesday evening and when I pulled it down I saw that, between Monday and Wednesday, they had evicted the flickers and built a nest.

The beginnings of a starling nest. Note the dried grass and greenery. Photo by Jamie Simo.
The beginnings of a starling nest. Note the dried grass and greenery. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Like some other species of birds, male starlings will build a nest to attract a mate. For example, house wrens will build several stick nests and will show a female around them to choose the one she likes best. In the starling’s case, greenery in the nest is apparently a big draw for the female. So, to add insult to injury, not only did the starlings evict the flickers, they also ravaged the plants I planted. I found bits of yarrow, coneflower, and flax in the nest I cleaned out of the box.

The floor of the bird house where the flickers had pecked out a depression for their eggs. Photo by Jamie Simo.
The floor of the bird house where the flickers had pecked out a depression for their eggs. Photo by Jamie Simo.

I think I saw Beaky once yesterday after I took the box down for good. She never came back and I haven’t seen either her or Flick since. I’m really upset because it was clear they were close to laying eggs. Not only were they trying to enlarge the nest hole, but they’d chipped out a round depression in the bottom of the house so their eggs would have some place to rest.

I may not be the landlord of baby flickers this year, but I’m not going to let this happen again next time. I plan to do some starling trapping. Stay tuned.