An Easter Bouquet

Happy Easter Monday, everyone! You may connect Easter with early flowering bulbs like crocuses, daffodils, and tulips, but did you know there’s a flower native to Colorado sometimes colloquially named the Easter flower?

Pulsatilla patens, otherwise known as the pasque flower from the old French for Easter, is a small, low-growing flower found in dry prairie and alpine areas within Colorado. In Colorado it is a soft blue or lavender color with yellow stamens, though there are pasque flowers in Europe and Asia that can be other colors like red or white. The leaves, stems, and sepals of the plant are covered in tiny hairs that help keep the plant from freezing and the cupped shape of its flowers also works to draw and trap heat.

The pasque flower got its name because it is one of the earliest flowering spring plants and tends to bloom during the Easter season. Because of this, it’s a valuable stopover for pollinators in the chill of early spring when few other nectar sources are available. European pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) was also used to dye Easter eggs (and textiles) before commercial dyes were developed.

I planted two pasque flowers in my backyard last spring and while neither have bloomed yet, they’ve greened up and put out new leaves. I hope they bloom later this season. Because the plant establishes via a taproot, it won’t be feasible for me to move them.


ID Challenge: White-tailed vs Mule Deer

Let’s turn now from the difficulties of distinguishing similar species of birds to a large mammal conundrum. Living on the east coast for most of my life, there was no doubt that the deer eating the flowers in my neighbor’s backyard was a white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). There simply are no other deer in Virginia. It wasn’t until I visited Yosemite National Park when I was already an adult that I saw a different type of deer for the first time, the mule deer (Odocoiileus hemionus).

A mule deer during rutting season at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Jamie Simo.

While the mule deer is typically a western species and the white-tailed deer typically an eastern species, the westward expansion of the white-tailed deer due to the replacement of grassland communities with agriculture and trees, has led to areas where the two commingle. At some point, perhaps, the white-tail, due to its greater adaptability (e.g. tendency toward twins rather than single fawns) may eventually out-compete the mule deer entirely, but, for now, both are present in eastern Colorado.

So, you’re hiking in a state park and you’ve come across a small herd of deer. They stare at you. You stare back. Who are you looking at? Is it a white-tail or a mule?

White-tailed deer. Photo by Jamie Simo.

One way people say to tell is by looking at the size of the ears. The mule deer has enormous ears, like its namesake, while the white-tail’s are smaller. I’ve never found this particularly useful though because, unless they’re right next to each other, I can’t tell whether that’s a really big or just an average-sized ear.

A better way of distinguishing the two species is by their tails. The mule deer has a rather short, white tail with a black tip and its backside is also pretty white. The white-tailed deer, however, has a longer, bushier, browner tail. Its name comes from the way it raises its tail like a flag to expose the white underneath when alarmed.

White-tailed deer unnerved by my presence in Fort Collins, CO. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A mule deer chows down on roses near an office building. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Another way to distinguish if you don’t have a good look at the back of the animal, is by the facial pattern. The mule deer has a fairly even-toned pale brown face. This often sets off a darker forehead (sometimes this looks to me like a unibrow or a toupee). The white-tailed deer, however, has a face the same tone as the rest of its coat with white rings around the muzzle and eyes.

White-tailed deer buck. Photo by Scott Bauer.

If you’re looking at a buck during antler season, you can also tell what species you have by checking to see whether the the points branch off continuously like a tree (mule) or whether they all split off a main “trunk” (white-tailed). Obviously, this only works for males and only during a part of the year though.

After learning this, I’m now confident I know who I’m looking at when I come across any deer while hiking. Hopefully you will be too!


The Dance of the Crane

This past weekend, Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in the San Luis Valley played host to more than 20,000 visitors. However, most of those visitors weren’t aware that this year marked the 33rd annual Crane Festival despite being the festival’s star attraction.

Sandhill Cranes foraging at Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) is a magnificent grey bird standing about 47 inches high with white cheeks and a red forehead. Every year in spring and fall, thousands of Sandhill Cranes descend on the San Luis Valley during migration. The valley, with its patchwork of agricultural fields and wetlands, is an ideal “staging area” for the cranes to rest and bulk up for their trek north to nesting grounds in the northern U.S. and Canada or south to wintering grounds in the southern U.S. and northern Mexico. The migration has been going on for at least 2,000 years going by a famous petroglyph inscribed in the rocks of the nearby San Juan mountains.

Thousands of Sandhill Cranes flock to Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge every spring and fall. Photo by Jamie Simo.

When I arrived at the refuge on Saturday, the air was filled with the resounding rattle of the cranes’ cries as they foraged in the fields for barley. Local farmers harvest only a portion of their crop and leave the rest for migratory birds per an agreement with refuge management. As well as ensuring a steady supply of food, this serves to keep the birds away from nearby farmers’ fields and prevent human-wildlife conflict. As I watched, wave after wave of cranes flew over my head to join the mass in front of me.

The spectacle would’ve been awe-inspiring enough, but it became even more impressive when a few thousand of the birds leapt into the air all at once to move a few yards further up the field. The roar of the birds was almost deafening and the air looked like it was rippling with the sheer amount of life in motion.

Once they were back on the ground, I watched the birds preen, feed, or “dance.” Like birds such as the Greater Prairie Chicken, American Woodcock, and other crane species, the Sandhill Crane puts on an elaborate courtship ritual to attract a mate. As part of this ritual, the cranes bow, flap their wings, and leap and twirl in the air like rhythmic gymnasts.

Sandhill Cranes flock to agricultural fields within and surrounding Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Jamie Simo

If successful in winning a mate with this strategy, the cranes will pair for life. They will then travel together to the breeding grounds where they will jointly construct a nest from sticks, aquatic grasses, and other plants. Usually the female will lay 2 eggs, which both parents will brood. Any chicks that hatch will be precocial, meaning they are mobile and able to feed themselves shortly after hatching.

For now though, the cranes will spend the next few weeks at the wildlife refuge eating and loafing in the shallow marshes alongside numerous ducks and other waterbirds. If you’re interested in seeing this amazing display, you’ll want to visit as soon as possible. The Crane Festival is scheduled each year for the peak of the migration and the birds are gone by mid-April.


Bird’s Eye View

The first stirrings of spring are here and that means the Northern Flickers will be looking to choose mates and nest very soon. Just this past week I installed my birdcam to monitor whoever decides to nest in my Flicker box. Here’s the live feed:

And here’s a selection from the past couple days. At around 7:00, a male Northern Flicker checks out the box and begins “excavating” the wood shavings. He stays for 20 minutes or so:

I hope this year is more successful than the last! Updates to follow as the season progresses.