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”?