Summer Camp

For many people, summer is a great time to celebrating the outdoors by camping.  According to the Outdoor Foundation, 38 million Americans went camping in 2012.  That’s a pretty respectable number of people!  My family wasn’t big into camping when I was a kid, but now, as an adult, I’m trying to make up for time lost.  On Labor Day weekend I plan to go camping at Great Sand Dunes National Park.  My goal is to visit all the U.S. National Parks, so this will be another stamp in my park passport.  Hopefully this time will go a little better than my last trip!

My first experience camping was a few years ago with a Boyscout leader friend of mine.  He made it easy and painless to set up the tents, get the fire going, and figure out meals.  A second camping trip with him under our belts and my fiance and I decided we were ready to undertake our first solo camping trip, which we did this past Memorial Day weekend at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. 

Sunset at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.  Photo by Jamie Simo.
Sunset at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is not a very well-known national park–I’d never heard of it until just this year–but it’s a spectacular one.  Designated a national park in 1999, it features steep, nearly black walls (the origin of its name) made of schist and gneiss carved out by the path of the Gunnison River.  Unbeknownst to us at the time, however, the park also features some of the lowest temperatures in the state of Colorado.

I knew we were in for some cooler weather than I’m used to from Memorial Day weekend, so we packed accordingly with jackets, sweatshirts, and pants.  The weather forecast also called for rain so we stopped by The Sports Authority on our way down and bought a canopy to keep our camp site mostly dry.

View of the painted wall from the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.  Photo by Jamie Simo.
View of the painted wall from the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The Black Canyon features some amazing bird life, so in-between helping my fiance set up the tents and gear, I birded.  There was an amazing number of yellow warblers flitting around and that vaguely cat-like mewing?  A green-tailed towhee; my first sighting of that bird.  Also running around were a bunch of chipmunks and golden-mantled ground squirrels.  Despite the warning stapled to the picnic table, we didn’t see any bears.  We did see a dusky grouse, however.

True to the forecast, shortly after we set up everything, it started to drizzle.  It continued to rain on and off until we woke the next morning, which turned out to be gorgeous.  It’s hard to sleep in when birds are singing and so I did more birding.  One unconcerned green-tailed towhee pecked around in the dirt by my feet as I stood completely still and snapped pictures.  A mule deer emerged from the trees as I stalked a spotted towhee for a picture near the park’s amphitheatre.  It stared for a moment, then wandered on.

Once my fiance woke up and we had breakfast, we decided to drive down East Portal Road into the canyon itself.  Unless you’re particularly fit and want to climb, the road is probably your best option for accessing the canyon itself and getting down to the river.  This was the best part of our trip. In the canyon, the weather was warmer than on the rim as partly evidenced by the sighting of a snake.  We had a picnic by the river and watched a couple beavers swimming near their lodge.  By early afternoon though, it clouded over and began to rain again.

Man fishing in the Gunnison River in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.  Photo by Jamie Simo.
Man fishing in the Gunnison River in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

When we got back to camp, our new neighbors had arrived.  Camping spaces are fairly small and close together in the park and they were excited to see each other so they were pretty loud that night.  Unable to sleep, I ended up sleeping in our car.  As the night wore on, it grew colder.  The rain turned to snow.  Around 4 or 5 in the morning, the weight of the snow on our canopy caused one of its legs to buckle.  I didn’t hear it because I was deeply asleep at the time, but the sound of the snap woke my fiance who was still in the tent.  When he decided to brave the cold and wet to check it out, he also decided to put some things in the car.  Of course, the sudden light and sound of the door opening jerked me awake and, because of all the warnings about safely stowing food, I thought a bear had somehow managed to open the car door.  I yelled in a feeble, groggy attempt to scare the “bear” away.  I wonder what our neighbors thought? 

By that time, we were both wide awake, cold, and wet.  While we’d been prepared for the cold and wet, we definitely hadn’t been prepared for it to be quite that cold and wet.  We definitely hadn’t expected snow (see above about the Black Canyon having some of the lowest temperatures in Colorado, which I only found out AFTER our trip).  I’d reserved our campsite for another night, but we decided instead to cut our losses, pack up, and drive home.  Despite the rain, it really was a beautiful drive back through the mountains.

At the time, the fact that the trip didn’t go perfectly was frustrating.  I really wanted our first solo outing to go smoothly.  Looking back at it though, I can now see the humor in the experience and it’s definitely a time I’ll remember for a long while!  It makes for some great stories too!  Next time I’ll remember to pay even more attention to the weather and climate of a campsite.

Do you have any memorable (disastrous or not) camping experiences?    

Going Batty

These last couple of weeks, my fiance and I have been taking short twilight strolls around our neighborhood. It’s been a nice way to get outside and stretch our legs once the temperature has started to cool off after a scorcher of a day. It’s also been a great way to see some neighbors who only come out at night. No, they’re not ghosts or ghouls and they don’t work the night shift; they’re bats!

Little brown bat roosting in a cave.  Photo by Jeff Gore.
Little brown bat roosting in a cave. Photo by Jeff Gore.

According to the Colorado Bat Working Group, there are 19 bat species that can be found in our state. That includes those bats that only spend their summers here and hibernate elsewhere in the winter. However, those 19 species are only a drop in the bucket of the total number of bat species worldwide. According to Bat Conservation International, there are more than 1,200 types of bats, meaning that bats make up about 1/5 of all mammalian species.

The bats we saw are probably attracted to our neighborhood because of the number of good roosting spaces near by and how close we live to a stream. Insects love water and most bats (2/3) love insects.

The little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), one species common to Colorado, has been recorded eating up to 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour! That’s much more effective and specifically targeted than a bug zapper, and you don’t have to plug a bat in either!

Other bats, mainly in tropical regions, eat fruit or nectar and are therefore important pollinators or seed dispersers. Without bats, you might find it hard to have a banana split.

Despite these benefits, bats often get a bad rap due to movies and books linking them to vampires and fears that they carry rabies. While bats can carry rabies, relatively recent research suggests only about 1 percent do so, making them no more likely to transmit the disease than other mammals like raccoons.

Bats are in trouble world-wide due to loss of habitat and the spread of the deadly fungal disease White nose syndrome. Spraying for mosquitoes with Permethrin, which many counties in Colorado do to control for West Nile Virus, also directly impacts bats by wiping out their primary food source. Check out this link to learn about some other side effects of Permethrin spraying.  

So how can you help conserve your fuzzy, flying neighbors? Well, you could do what we did and buy a bat house. Bat Conservation International has some great tips on the best types of bat house to buy and the best places to hang one. Several bats in Colorado will readily move into a bat house. Also important is to not spray your lawn with insecticides. There are plenty of other ways to prevent mosquitoes and protect against West Nile. In Boulder County, you can opt out of commercial spraying by calling or emailing one of the phone numbers or addresses on this site.

Happy bat watching!


Scents of the Season

Often when we explore the natural world, we pay most attention to what we see.  That’s normal since we developed as a primarily vision-based organism, but there are 4 other senses we can also use to broaden our understanding of the world and we shouldn’t neglect them.

I like to think of our sense of smell as our most intimate sense.  That’s because, when you smell something, you’re actually taking tiny molecules of what you’re smelling into your nose.  Your brain then “decodes” the molecules, resulting in you recognizing that you’re smelling a rose, for instance, or a skunk(!).

Spring and Summer are full of great scents.  Yesterday as I walked out my office door, a huge wash of fresh, rain-soaked air assailed my nostrils.

A rain shaft at the base of a thunderstorm Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve which is one of several reserves in the lower lower Adelaide River catchment in the Northern Territory. A thunderstorm dumps heavy rain over Fogg Dam during the Build-Up which is the lead-up to the Wet Season. Photo by Bidgee.
A rain shaft at the base of a thunderstorm
Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve which is one of several reserves in the lower lower Adelaide River catchment in the Northern Territory. A thunderstorm dumps heavy rain over Fogg Dam during the Build-Up which is the lead-up to the Wet Season. Photo by Bidgee.

There had just been a downpour and I couldn’t get enough of the smell of the rain mixed with wet pavement and greenery.  There’s even a specific word for the smell of rain after a dry spell: petrichor!

The smell of rain in the warm months is one of my favorites, but it’s actually not the water itself that causes that wonderful aroma.  That scent actually comes from bacterial spores in the soil being released.  These bacteria are called Actinomycetes and are apparently very common around the world.

Another favorite smell of mine is one I only discovered after moving to Colorado.  While on a wildflower hike back in May, I kept getting whiffs of a sweet, butterscotch scent.  At first I thought it was a fellow hiker’s body lotion, but it was actually a Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa).

U.S. Forest Service guide Steve Hirst sniffs a Ponderosa pine during a July hike in an area near Hot Shot Ranch in Coconino National Forest. Photo taken by Tom Bean.
U.S. Forest Service guide Steve Hirst sniffs a Ponderosa pine during a July hike in an area near Hot Shot Ranch in Coconino National Forest. Photo taken by Tom Bean.

Several varieties of Ponderosa pine exist, but all are native to the western United States, including Colorado, where they are usually found at high elevations.  That butterscotch odor I detected apparently comes from the pine’s sap, though it’s not certain exactly which chemical in the sap is the one responsible.

So those are 2 of my favorite natural scents.  What are a few of yours?

Spotlight on Parks: Barr Lake

There are 42 state parks in Colorado along with a host of other open spaces and recreational areas. That’s not to mention the 4 national parks the Rocky Mountain State boasts. Every month I hope to bring you a break down of one of those parks or areas, highlighting the natural diversity we’re lucky to have here in Colorado. This month’s Spotlight on Parks features Barr Lake State Park.

Barr Lake State Park is located in Brighton, not far from Denver. Map of Barr Lake The main attraction of the park is the titular lake, but the lake wasn’t always a lake. Historically, the lake was a bison wallow and watering hole for native wildlife. It wasn’t until the 1880’s that the wallow became a permanent water source due to the construction of the Burlington Canal.

Today, the lake’s cottonwood-lined banks, as well as the lake itself, provide both valuable habitat for a number of fish, birds, and mammals, as well as recreational fishing and boating opportunities.

A white pelican forages among the aquatic plants of Barr Lake. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A white pelican forages among the aquatic plants of Barr Lake. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The diversity of birds at the park also makes it an idea spot for the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory’s bird-banding headquarters.

On a hot July day, I visited Barr Lake for the first time and found myself enamored of its nature center, which is stuffed to the gills with informational displays and animal artifacts. Running my hands over a beaver pelt, I thought back to the fur trappers of the 1700 and 1800’s, and marveled at the size of a merlin in comparison with a bald eagle.

The nature center is open daily from 9-4pm and is the epicenter for many park activities, including guided hikes. In addition to the displays, the nature center has a modest book store and a large picture window where you can sit and watch the birds (and an enterprising squirrel or two!) visit the park’s bird feeders.

Heading down the Niedrach trail from the nature center, you’ll come to a fork. To the left is the part of the park designated as a wildlife refuge. This path leads to the boardwalk, which takes you along the marshy perimeter of the lake. Common grackles and Bulloch’s orioles flit in and around the aquatic plants and that popping sound you hear is a big catfish breaking the surface in search of insect prey. Arriving in late morning, I didn’t see many mammals on my visit, but birds were abundant. In fact, 350 species of birds have been recorded at the park. While I didn’t see nearly that many, I did see what appeared to be a family of American kestrels, a Swainson’s hawk being mobbed by western kingbirds, a slew of white pelicans gliding over the lake, and a juvenile Bulloch’s oriole being fed by its mother.

A mother Bulloch's oriole feeds her juvenile chick. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A mother Bulloch’s oriole feeds her juvenile chick. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Heading down the right hand portion of Niedrach trail brings you to a small picnic area overlooking a wooded, swampy area. The highlight of the park for me was by far the owl box nailed to a tree just beyond that raised picnic area. Inside the box? A pair of roosting barn owls; a first for me! Barn owls are present throughout most of the lower 48 states, but in some of those areas their numbers are declining due to habitat loss. Do these owls have chicks in that box?

Two barn owls roosting in nest box at Barr Lake State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo
Two barn owls roosting in nest box at Barr Lake State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo

After seeing the barn owls, I turned around. However, the trail continued and I think I could have spent all day exploring rather than just the few hours I did. There’s just that much to see. So if you have some extra time, check out Barr Lake State Park. The daily fee for all Colorado State Parks is $7, but you can purchase an annual pass for $70. If you can afford it, the annual pass is definitely worth every penny.


Summer Fireflies

For this 4th of July week, I’m spending some time in Delaware visiting family. Summer here means humidity, trips to the beach, and lots of fireflies. In fact, many communities in the eastern United States and around the world have firefly festivals every summer to commemorate the insects’ return.

Firefly glowing. Picture from

Fireflies, also called lightning bugs, are actually beetles rather than flies. They are also one of the most efficient producers of light because they don’t waste any energy as heat. If you picked up a firefly while it was glowing, it would still feel cool to the touch. The source of its glowing abdomen is a chemical called luciferin, which reacts with an enzyme called luciferase to make the yellow or green glow you might see in your backyard after the sun goes down. This natural glow is called bioluminescence, a trait the firefly shares with some deep sea creatures.

There are many different species of firefly. One of the most common in the eastern U.S. is Photinus pyralis, also called the big dipper firefly for the flight pattern it makes in the air that resembles the letter J. Each firefly has a different flight pattern that the male of the species uses to attract a female. The female firefly mostly stays in the grass and will respond to a male that interests her with her own flashes. Afterward, the two will mate and soon she will lay her eggs in damp soil.

One of the most spectacular displays by fireflies occurs in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the late spring and early summer.  This is when hundreds of the species Photinus carolinus begin their synchronous light show. The reason behind this synchronized flashing isn’t known, but it’s sure spectacular!

While there are fireflies in Colorado, they’re very limited in distribution and a lot of them produce only weak light or no light at all. Fireflies that don’t produce light are usually active during the day and may communicate via pheromones. The small number of fireflies in the western United States versus the east may be because fireflies need wetlands to breed and much of the west is arid or semi-arid. So far this summer, I haven’t seen any fireflies in my backyard, but I’m going to keep looking!

House Hunting for Flickers

My fiance and I moved to Colorado in February of this year and by March we were lucky enough to move into our very first house. We weren’t the only ones doing some home shopping though. One of my favorite things about spring is the mating display of the northern flicker (Colaptes auratus), a large, handsome woodpecker with a black collar and a spotted breast. In early spring, flickers descend on many suburban neighborhoods across the lower 48, particularly those with big, well-established trees.

Male red-shafted northern flicker. Photo by JoanGeeAZ, AZ, Tucson, November 2008. Red-shafted flickers are found in the western United States.
Female yellow-shafted northern flicker. Photo by Jamie Simo. Yellow-shafted flickers are found in the eastern United States.
Two male yellow-shafted northern flickers dueling. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Males fill the air with their “wicka wicka” cries as they drum their bills repeatedly against the trees in hopes of attracting a mate. To give themselves a greater edge in their wooing, some flicker males have adapted to take advantage of the metal guttering on our houses, using it like a kind of megaphone to announce their fitness even farther afield. If another male dares to challenge him, the two (or sometimes more!) males will chase each other up, down, and around tree limbs and trunks, bobbing their heads at each other and posturing.

Even before we’d unpacked all of our boxes, I decided I wanted to extend an open invitation for a flicker family to move into our yard. Northern flickers are cavity dwellers and so will readily use birdhouses. There are a number of birdhouses designed especially for northern flickers and I ended up buying one designed by Coveside. One of the cool things about that birdhouse is that it comes with a bag of wood chips. When flickers excavate a cavity, they leave wood chips in to line their nests. According to articles, such as this one by Karen Wiebe, flickers prefer south-facing nesting cavities because they’re less energetically expensive to keep eggs warm, so I hung the bird house on the back of my house.  Then I waited.

It took about a week before a male flicker came calling. He pushed some of the wood chips out of the house and would either cling to the birdhouse’s opening and drum on its front or sit in the house with his head poking out, calling out in advertisement of his posh new penthouse apartment. I never saw them together, but eventually I did see a female also show interest in the house. Unfortunately, some European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) also put a bid up on the house.

European starling in summer plumage. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Starlings, named for the star field like splotches of white they bear in the non-breeding season, were most likely first brought to North America by someone who wanted to introduce every bird mentioned by Shakespeare into the United States. As generalists, they’ve since flourished in our cities and suburbs where they often out-compete native birds due to their aggressiveness (ironically, their numbers are actually declining in their native range within the UK). In fact, despite being bigger and more powerful than the starling, there have been many reported incidences of flickers being pinned in birdhouses by starlings who then proceed to stab the woodpeckers with their dagger-like beaks. With that in mind, I watched nervously as a trio of starlings took up residence in a tree across from the flicker house.

One of the starlings would flap its wings and call loudly for a mate. Then he’d wait until the flickers were gone and fly over to the house, proceeding to nose most of the wood chips from the box. Nothing I did could deter him short of taking the house down, which I did for short periods before one of the flickers would come back, prompting me to replace the house and start the cycle all over again.

I finally decided to buy Coveside’s starling-proof flicker house. This house is slanted with a plexiglass shield covering the opening to the house. The reasoning behind this design is so the flicker can cling to the house and climb into the house under the plexiglass while the starlings would be deterred. I don’t know whether the flickers would have eventually figured out the mechanism or not. After I witnessed a short tussle between the starling and one of the flickers, I never saw them at the house again. The starling, however, cheekily managed to climb into the box, despite it being off-limits and continued to push out wood chips until I admitted defeat and took the box down for good.

I haven’t seen any flickers in the neighborhood since probably early May now. I’m guessing most of them decided to find homes elsewhere to raise their chicks, somewhere far from those bully birds. Next spring I’ll welcome them back and try again to entice them to stay awhile.

Wild Urbia and Suburbia

Crow with a baby starling it’s killed in downtown Longmont, CO. Photo by Jamie Simo. May 26, 2014.

One of the biggest debates in the environmental movement is exactly what the term “wilderness” means.  It’s an import word to define since the environmental movement is largely devoted to protecting wilderness and the plants and animals that live there.  Most people would probably have no problem pointing to our national park system as wilderness.  It’s easy to see a place largely untrammeled by people as being wild.  In this time of rapid urban sprawl and human population expansion, it’s also easy to see why wilderness should be preserved.

Okay, now think about your neighborhood.  Is that wilderness?  What about your backyard?  While it might be a stretch to call downtown Denver “wilderness,” the city and suburbs are home to a number of plants and animals and it’s these plants and animals that are often the first (and in some extreme cases, only) exposure people have to nature.  The water coming out of a culvert behind your house may not be as pristine as a glacier-fed stream somewhere in the Alps, but it’s a short walk out the back door.  That closeness, that living with nature and in nature, may be more important in fostering a love of and respect for wilderness in our children than a park that’s 5 hours away that they see once a year.

I love our State and National parks, but I also love that vacant lot where the butterflies like to feed and the corner of my yard where the robins bathe in my birdbath.  Do you have a favorite urban or suburban “wilderness”?