Wildlife Wednesday

Juvenile yellow-breasted chat. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Juvenile yellow-breasted chat. Photo by Jamie Simo.
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Spotlight on Parks: South Platte Park

Like a superhero, South Platte Park’s origin story also starts with a disaster. On June 16, 1965, heavy rains coupled with saturated soils caused Plum Creek to rise. Eventually, the water dumped into the South Platte River causing it to overflow its banks and rush through Littleton and points beyond. The devastating aftermath of the floods, which caused millions of dollars in property damage, but miraculously took the lives of only 21 people, led to the building of the Chatfield dam. Plans by the Army Corps of Engineers to channelize the South Platte were also developed, but Littleton citizens had a different idea. What if the area around the river was preserved so that the South Platte had a safe place to flood? That innovative notion led to the creation of South Platte Park, the first floodplain park in the United States.

The South Platte River. Photo by Jamie Simo.
The South Platte River. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Part of the South Suburban Parks and Recreation department, South Platte Park consists of more than 880 acres of protected land stretching along the South Platte River in Littleton, CO. One of the prime park attractions is the extensive trailway along the river, both paved and unpaved, for biking and hiking. On my trip to the park, I could see that the trails are well-used, and by families and individuals alike. Other attractions include floating down the river in a canoe, kayak, raft, or tube. These crafts can put in at several places along the river, including the Carson Nature Center. Two rafts of river explorers floated past me on my visit to the park.

The Carson Nature Center itself is a marvel. Formerly, the building was the family home of Theo L. Carson, for whom it is named. The house was donated to the park and physically moved to its current spot where it now serves as South Platte Park’s visitor center. It’s a great first stop on any excursion to and around the park with interesting, informative displays about the park’s wildlife, geography, and history. It also plays host to nature programs, including guided tours and birthday parties. Carson Nature Center is open daily, except for Monday, from noon to 4:30 pm during the week and 9:00 am to 4:30 pm on Saturday and Sunday.

Woodhouse's toad on the banks of the South Platte River. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Woodhouse’s toad on the banks of the South Platte River. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Juvenile Coopers hawk. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Juvenile Coopers hawk. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The park also includes 5 lakes, several of which permit fishing. Like many others along the Front Range, these lakes are former gravel pits reclaimed for wildlife. These lakes and the surrounding habitat is the reason Audubon has declared the park an Important Bird Area, particularly for winter waterfowl. While summer is not the best time to see waterfowl, I did see common mergansers, mallards, a double-crested cormorant, and Canada geese. Summer is a good time for wildflowers, however. Among those blooming now are prairie coneflowers and prickly poppy. I also saw juvenile Coopers hawks, yellow warblers, blue-grey gnatcatchers, and a Woodhouse’s toad.

In these dog days of summer, South Platte Park is a welcome place to cool off. Entry to the park and nature center is free and the park is open from sunrise until sunset. So, what are you waiting for? Today is the perfect day to plan your visit to this historic park.

When the Swallows Come Back to Colorado

School’s out, the weather is warm, and we just celebrated Independence Day. Yep, summer’s back again, but above all these the one big thing I’ve begun to associate with summer here in Colorado is the return of the swallow. Colorado boasts 8 swallow species that are here throughout the summer. In the fall they migrate to South and/or Central America to spend the winter. Of those 8 species, probably the most abundant are the cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) and the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica).

An adult barn swallow. Males are more brilliantly colored than females. Photo by Jamie Simo.
An adult barn swallow. Males are more brilliantly colored than females. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Cliff swallow. https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/cliff-swallow Photo by Greg Lasley/VIREO.
Cliff swallow. https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/cliff-swallow Photo by Greg Lasley/VIREO.

The cliff swallow is a small, chubby swallow with a blue back, rusty neck, and cream-colored belly and inverted triangle above the bill. Its tail is square. The barn swallow is sleeker, but is also blue, rust, and cream. The barn swallow though has a rust-colored inverted triangle above the bill and a distinctive “forked” tail (the fork is due to longer outer tail feathers).

Both cliff swallows and barn swallows can be found all across Colorado. When you sit in your car at a stop light, you may see barn swallows flitting around the cars and large flocks of cliff swallows can often be seen skimming over waterways. In both instances, the birds are hunting for insects, snatching them out of the air while on the wing. Like all insectivorous birds, its the swallow’s diet that mandates migration because insect populations in the United States won’t sustain them through the winter.

Baby barn swallows being fed by a parent. Barn swallows often make use of parking garages for their nests. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Baby barn swallows being fed by a parent. Barn swallows often make use of parking garages for their nests. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Unlike many species, cliff and barn swallows have benefited from human settlement. Swallows originally built their nests on cliffs or canyon walls, but the increase of artificial habitats such as buildings and bridges have allowed the swallows to expand their range. These nests are largely made out of mud, which is cemented to a structure with grass, hair, or feathers packed in. In the case of cliff swallows, these nests are often termed “gourd-shaped.” Because cliff swallows are communal nesters, there can be hundreds of these nests in close proximity. Barn swallows are less communal, often nesting alone or in small groups. Their nests are more cup-shaped.

Old cliff swallow nests attached to a bridge along the Cache la Poudre River. Cliff swallows will usually return to old nesting sites. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Old cliff swallow nests attached to a bridge along the Cache la Poudre River. Cliff swallows will usually return to old nesting sites. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Watching swallows gracefully dive and swoop, chattering to each other the entire time, is an amazing and relaxing pastime and now is the optimal time to see some baby swallows just about to fledge. If you’re in the Denver Metro area you can even get up close and personal with the cliff swallows by taking a canoe trip on the St. Vrain with The River’s Path.