These are the dog days of summer and it’s still plenty hot here on the Front Range, but there are starting to be signs that Autumn isn’t too far away.
The days are already getting shorter and I’ve seen flocks of Canada geese and grackles hitting the skies. In the mountains, the hummingbirds are loading up on nectar and insects to get ready for their own southern migrations.
Broad-tailed hummingbirds are the most common hummingbird in Colorado in the summer and last weekend in Estes Park they were zipping along everywhere! The weekend before that, I was in Colorado Springs visiting the Starsmore Discovery Center and they were there too, but some of those hummers looked a little strange…
In fact, some of those “hummingbirds” weren’t birds at all! Sometimes known as a “hummingbird moth” or “hawk moth,” the white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) is a large, fuzzy brown and orange striped moth with a pink patch on the hind wing that is common across much of North America, though it is particularly abundant in desert regions. Unlike a lot of moths, the white-lined sphinx may be just as active during the day as at night and its rapid wing beats allow it to hover just like a hummingbird.
The white-lined sphinx isn’t a particularly picky eater. As an adult, it’ll sip nectar from native flowers like penstemon and columbine, as well as flowers you might have growing in your backyard garden like petunia and lilac. The larval form is fond of crops like tomatoes and grapes, which can be a problem in farming areas, as well as evening primrose, which is a host of the caterpillar. Where that flower grows in abundance, the caterpillar is also likely to appear in great numbers. This past spring at Pawnee National Grassland the road was covered with the little green and black critters.
In warmer areas, there may be 2 broods of caterpillar. When they’re ready to pupate, they disappear underground and emerge again as adult moths. Not long after emerging, the female moth will release pheromones to attract a mate. The resulting eggs can number up to 1,000. Like many insects, after breeding, the adult moths will die and the life cycle will begin all over again.
Keep an eye out for these colorful and fascinating moths when you’re on your next hike.
Near Manitou Springs, Colorado, lies Garden of the Gods, a natural wonder every bit as imposing and impressive as ancient temples like the Parthenon, or the pyramids of the Mayans and Egyptians. The red and white spires of this national natural landmark are hewn out of sandstone thrust out of the earth millions of years ago by tectonic forces.
The first people to explore Garden of the Gods were Native Americans, including the Utes who traditionally wintered in the park. In modern history, white Americans discovered the park when looking for gold in the 1800’s. It wasn’t until 1859 that the park gained its current name, having previously been known as Red Rock Corral.
During my visit, I was amazed not only by the spectacle of those sandstone spires, but also by the number of visitors to the park and the distance those visitors traveled to get there. I saw license plates from as far away as Florida. According to the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, despite being only 1,300 acres, Garden of the Gods boasts 100 times the visitation rate of Rocky Mountain National Park, an area 200 times its size!
As the sun played peek-a-boo behind the clouds, I walked the trails, watching swarms of white-throated swifts glide around the peaks. Occasionally they would dip into a narrow crevice before emerging again, as fast as their name suggests. Rock doves (aka pigeons) also make their home in the park.
They peered at me from the tops of several smaller spires as I passed. A lone cottontail rabbit rested in the shade, idly nibbling on the greenery while bushtits and scrub-jays flitted about. Although rattlesnakes also live in the park, I didn’t see any, though I kept my eyes to the ground just in case.
One of the major pastimes for visitors to the park is rock climbing. However, climbers require a permit (free at the visitor center) and proper equipment for technical climbing. Horseback riding is also permitted in the park on authorized trails as is mountain biking.
Access to the park is free to the public and open from 5am to 11pm between May 1 and October 31 and 5am from November 1 to April 30. So if you’re in the area, take some time to check out Garden of the Gods. It’s a fantastic place to take a day trip or longer.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 Photinuspyralis, 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 Photinuscarolinus 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!
On the ground info about Colorado nature and wildlife.