Spotlight on Parks: Roxborough State Park

Just southwest of Denver near Littleton, CO, lies Roxborough State Park, which contains one of Colorado’s most breathtaking sights. The park is dominated by the so-called Fountain Formation, a rippled ridge of red sandstone thrusting out of the ground like frozen plumes of lava. The formation was formed some 300 million years ago as the ancient precursor to today’s Rocky Mountains was uplifted and then eroded. These same rocks can also be seen at the nearby Red Rocks Amphitheater (named for the iron that gives the rocks their striking color) and Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs.

Thistle and mullein in bloom before the red rocks that make Roxborough State Park famous. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Thistle and mullein in bloom before the red rocks that make Roxborough State Park famous. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Like Garden of the Gods, the 3,329 acres that make up Roxborough State Park have been dedicated as a National Natural Landmark due in part to the park’s geological significance. However, Roxborough is also notable for its diversity of plant and animal communities ranging from prairie to Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine forests. Several of these communities have also contributed to the park’s designation as a National Natural Landmark.

I visited Roxborough on a hot summer Saturday. Perhaps due to its close proximity to several metropolitan areas, I was not alone. This is one of the busiest state parks I have visited here in Colorado. To avoid the crowds, it might be best to visit during less busy times of the year or during the week.

Fritillary on wild bergamot. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Fritillary on wild bergamot. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Wildflower season is currently in full bloom and I saw skippers and butterflies partaking of the bee balm, otherwise known as wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), along the Willow Creek trail where it grows alongside nodding blue harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) and the delicate puffs of yellow salsify (Tragopogon dubius) seed heads. Blue flax (Linum Lewisii) and golden banner (Thermopsis montana) popped up in the more open areas along the trail.

Aside from providing welcome shade for hikers during the summer, the trees along the Willow Creek trail also provide shelter for a multitude of birds and squirrels. Everywhere I listened I heard the raspy cry of the spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus) and the burble of house wrens (Troglodytes aedon). In total, 145 species of birds have been recorded in the park.  Perched on the overlooking rocks, I caught sight of 2 falcons, likely a mated pair of prairie falcons (Falco mexicanus) staking a claim to a nesting spot.

An agitated Macgillivray's warbler at Roxborough State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.
An agitated Macgillivray’s warbler at Roxborough State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The park is also home to a number of mammals, though I didn’t see any aside from a squirrel. These include mule deer and red fox as well as the occasional black bear or mountain lion. According to the park’s website, 11 species of reptiles and amphibians have been seen in the park of the 16 that could be expected to be found there. During my visit, I saw one, either a common or western terrestrial garter snake.

A garter snake fading into the grass at Roxborough State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A garter snake fading into the grass at Roxborough State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

My trek to the park was a short one and I only took in the Willow Creek trail and one overlook, but there is still a ton of the park to explore. When I have more time I’ll be sure to return to see what I missed.

Like all other Colorado State Parks, visitors to Roxborough can either pay the daily fee of $7 or buy an annual park pass for $70 for unlimited park visits during the year. Due to the sensitive nature of the park’s rocks and plant and animal communities, biking, rock climbing, and pets are not allowed in the park. There are also no campsites. However, there is an auditorium that can be rented out for special events.

If you’re in the neighborhood, or even if not, Roxborough State Park is an amazing destination for a day of hiking and enjoying the scenery.

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Bee-utiful Pollinators

Happy National Pollinator Week! Pollinators are animals that help fertilize plants. The honeybee is probably what first comes to mind when you think about pollinators. The honeybee is a non-native insect introduced from Europe that has naturalized in the United States, but there are other types of native bees that also help pollinate plants. According to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, there are at least 4,000 native bee species in the United States. Many of these are solitary, meaning they don’t live in a hive.

A bumble bee on a native flower in Chatfield State Park. Bumble bees can be nectar thieves, chewing through the flower's petals to gain the nectar without pollinating the plant. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A bumble bee on a native flower in Chatfield State Park. Bumble bees can be nectar thieves, chewing through the flower’s petals to gain the nectar without pollinating the plant. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Other pollinators include butterflies, moths, beetles, hummingbirds, ants, and bats. Color may play a big role in attracting some pollinators. For instance, for night-flying moths, white flowers, which reflect light best, are highly sought after. Hummingbirds seem to be attracted to the color red, though they’ll also sip nectar from other colorful plants. They favor plants with long, tubular flowers, which are designed specifically to fit the bird’s long beak and tongue. Some ants are good pollinators for plants that are low to the ground. Those plants often have an odor of decay that helps to attract them.

I’m landscaping my backyard to encourage more pollinators to come visit my yard so I’ve been thinking a lot about them lately. Did you know that 75 percent of all flowering plants are pollinated by animals? Many of those plants are the ones we eat so we have a personal stake in ensuring healthy pollinator populations. Even so, our pollinators are threatened. The loss of habitat due to human encroachment, diseases such as white nose disease in bats, and the use of pesticides and insecticides that harm not only the target species but beneficial pollinators as well, are all reasons for the decline in pollinators.

Male broad-tailed hummingbird at Chatfield State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Male broad-tailed hummingbird at Chatfield State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Another major reason for the decline in pollinators is the fact that as more land is cleared for housing, more acreage is transitioning from native plants to non-natives and lawns. I’ve spoken about non-native plants before, but the spread of lawns is also detrimental to pollinators. The typical fescue or bluegrass lawn is essentially an ecological wasteland for wildlife. That’s because fescue and bluegrass were introduced from Europe so our native wildlife, including our pollinators, didn’t co-evolve with them. That means that very few species eat or otherwise use typical lawn grasses. Lawns also tend to use a lot of water and require a lot of chemicals if you want to keep them green and weed-free.

Ant on a common blackberry flower in Acadia National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Ant on a common blackberry flower in Acadia National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

So what can you do to protect and encourage pollinators? First, stop using pesticides and insecticides or, if you must use them, make sure you investigate which ones can be harmful to pollinators and choose another option. Also, follow the directions on the label. Not only is it wasteful to spray an insecticide right before it rains, but it can wash into lakes and streams as well. Second, think about reducing the size of your lawn and choose some native plants to incorporate into your landscape. There are several nurseries across Colorado that sell native plants or you can buy native seed online and grow your own. Third, provide shelter for pollinators. Moths often bed down in dead leaves for the day so by leaving some leaves unraked, you can encourage them to come to your yard. Not deadheading grasses and flowers immediately after the spring bloom can also encourage insects to take refuge in or among the stalks. For the more dedicated, you can buy or make your own bee house for solitary bees.

Pollinators are fascinating creatures that deserve our respect and support and, with a little effort, we can make a difference and ensure that they keep on pollinating.

The Return?

If you’ve been following my blog for awhile, you’ll know that I attempted to attract northern flickers, a large speckled woodpecker, to my yard by putting up a nest box. You also know that starlings came and evicted the pair of flickers that I named Flick and Beaky, so I took down the box. Since early spring, I haven’t seen any flickers in the neighborhood, that is, until today.

A male flicker has been calling and drumming on the metal vent pipes on my neighbor’s roof today. This is behavior that I’ve only seen displayed in spring during nesting season and acts as a signal to female flickers that a male is available to mate and to warn other males away from his territory. Could he be looking to nest this late in the season? Northern flickers can and do breed as late as June, especially if they’ve lost their earlier nesting cavity to European starlings.

On a whim, I put the flicker box back up to see if it might attract this late-comer and any mate of his. I’ll let you know if anything comes of it.