ID Challenge: Prairie and Peregrine Falcon

Here in Colorado there are many confusing birds of prey. The Red-tailed Hawk alone is a study in frustration when you consider its numerous color morphs. Is that a Harlan’s? A Krider’s? Or is it a western or eastern Red-tailed? Dark or light morph? It’s enough to make your head spin.

Captive Prairie Falcon at the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson, AZ. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Two of the most easily confused raptors are the Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus) and the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus). It doesn’t help that they can sometimes be found in the same habitat (both nest in cliffs). They’re also roughly the same shape and size, though the Peregrine averages slightly larger.

Rehab Peregrine Falcon from Wild Wings Environmental Education. Photo by Jamie Simo.

So how to tell them apart? One obvious way is to take a look at the overall color of the bird. The Prairie Falcon is mostly brown on the upperparts with white underparts speckled or streaked lightly with brown. The Prairie Falcon also has distinct brown “mustache” stripes on either side of the bill set off by the extensive white under the eye. Meanwhile, the Peregrine Falcon is mostly dark grey or black above with creamy underparts that are barred. The area around the eye is dark giving it a hooded appearance. Therefore, its “mustache” isn’t as apparent.

A Prairie Falcon takes flight near Nunn, CO, showing off its dark “armpits.” Photo by Jamie Simo.

All of that is easy to tell when the bird is perched for you to get a good long look, but what if, as is often the case, your only view is of the bird in flight? Characteristic of a falcon, both have pointed wings, so that’s no help. The best clue is to look at the underside of the wing where the “armpit” would be. Is the area dark? Then you have a Prairie. If the area under the wing is fairly uniformly barred instead, with no obvious contrast in color, you have a Peregrine.

Now is a great time to cruise the eastern Colorado grasslands to see some Prairie Falcons, but you’ll have to wait until spring for the Peregrines to come back. I know I can’t wait!

Let’s Hear it for the Squirrel

Did you know that today is Squirrel Appreciation Day? Neither did I until I started seeing it pop up on my Twitter feed! Held on January 21 since 2001, Squirrel Appreciation Day was created by a wildlife rehabilitator from North Carolina named Christy Hargrove.

I’ve talked before about the prairie dog, a type of ground squirrel, which is extremely important to grassland ecosystems, including those found in Colorado, but other squirrels are just as important. Aside from providing prey for predators as diverse as snakes, coyotes, and hawks, they also help disperse plant seeds. When they cache food (store it for later, especially by burying), they don’t always remember where they put it and that gives plants, particularly trees, a chance to grow. Squirrels are essentially forgetful gardeners.

Mother and baby Golden-mantled ground squirrels. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Colorado is home to a number of different squirrel species, which are generally divided into two categories: ground squirrels and tree squirrels. Not counting prairie dogs, there are six species of ground squirrel in Colorado:

  1. Thirteen-lined ground squirrel
  2. Spotted ground squirrel
  3. Golden-mantled ground squirrel
  4. Rock squirrel
  5. White-tailed antelope squirrel
  6. Wyoming ground squirrel

Ground squirrels occur across the state and they make their homes in burrows underground. Their diets mostly consist of seeds and fruits, but may also include nuts, flowers, or insects. Most hibernate during the winter. This conserves energy when food may be scarce.

The other category of squirrel is the tree squirrel. There are three species of tree squirrel in Colorado:

A pine squirrel eyes the intruder warily. Photo by Jamie Simo.
  1. Eastern fox squirrel
  2. Abert’s squirrel
  3. Pine squirrel

Tree squirrels primarily eat the seeds of trees such as acorns and pine cones. They also are active throughout the year and live in hollow trees or nests they construct in the branches of trees from sticks and leaves (called dreys).

Squirrels are amazing creatures and are fun to watch. We probably rarely think about them because of how common they are, so it’s good they have their own day to call attention to them.

It’s your day, squirrels, you do you!


Spotlight on Parks: Golden Gate Canyon State Park

This past weekend I thought I’d ring in the new year (and break in my new snow shoes) at Golden Gate Canyon State Park. About an hour west of Denver and a half hour from Golden, Golden Gate Canyon State Park offers 36 miles of trails to hike, bike, or horseback ride through and over more than 12,000 acres of forest, meadow, and rocky peak.

Snow-covered Frazer Meadow ringed by aspens. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Golden Gate Canyon has an interesting history. Back in the late 1800’s, the Homestead Act promised settlers 160 acres of frontier land if they would farm it for 5 years. Some of that land is now part of Golden Gate Canyon, including land previously owned by John Frazer, a former miner, for whom Frazer Meadow is named. His barn still stands in the park as do a handful of other old buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Golden Gate Canyon was designated in 1960 and became only the second state park in Colorado.

It’s possible to enjoy true solitude at Golden Gate Canyon. Cell phone service is unavailable in most of the park and, for the majority of my hike, I had the Mule Deer Trail all to myself. Other than the occasional hiccup-like bark of the red squirrel or chickaree (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), the creak of pines, and the buzz of small aircraft from the airports near Golden, the forest was largely quiet.

A red squirrel checks out the latest intruder in Golden Gate Canyon State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo

Though I didn’t see any of them on my trip, a number of animals call the park home, including bighorn sheep, elk, bobcat, and porcupine. The park also abounds with birds in the breeding season. In the winter, the avifauna is more limited, but I did see Steller’s Jay, Grey Jay, Mountain Chickadee, and White- and Red-breasted Nuthatch. Passing through lodgepole pine and stands of aspen, I tried to imagine what the park must look like in the full glory of spring and summer, its meadows decked out with black-eyed susan and yarrow.

A moderately difficult hike made somewhat more difficult with the snow, the Mule Deer trail makes for a good half-day excursion if that’s all the time you have. It’s a loop, but I chose to turn around and take a rain check for another, warmer time. I’ll definitely be back to finish it and experience the other trails in the park this summer though. Maybe I’ll see you there?

Like the other parks in the Colorado State Park system, entry to Golden Gate Canyon State Park costs a daily fee of $7 or you can purchase the annual park pass for $70, which grants you unlimited access to all the Colorado state parks within a calendar year. Camping in the park is a popular attraction all year round with several different types of campsites to choose from. Overnight options and picnic site rentals are available for an additional fee.