Spotlight on Parks: San Luis State Park

One of the items on my bucket list is to visit all of our National Parks (if you have this goal too or even if you just visit the same park a lot during the year, I highly recommend purchasing the annual National Parks pass. It pays for itself after 4 visits.) Ever since moving to Colorado I’ve been knocking them out pretty fast and furious and this past Labor Day I decided I’d go visit Great Sand Dunes National Park. That campground was full when I decided to make my reservation, so instead I reserved a site at San Luis State Park.

View of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from San Luis State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.
View of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from San Luis State Park. Photo by Jamie Simo.

San Luis lies only 15 to 20 minutes away from Great Sand Dunes. In fact, you can see the dunes from the park. It’s also fairly close to 2 national wildlife refuges: Monte Vista and Alamosa, so there’s plenty to do if you spend a long weekend there. The park consists of 2,054 acres and lies in the San Luis Valley surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

San Luis is known for its large lake where you can go boating or do some wildlife viewing. The lake is a “playa,” or dry lake, which is a shallow lake that is seasonally wet. San Luis’ lake is filled from snow melt in the mountains. However, due to the low amount of snow, the lake was dried up when we visited. We had some strong wind on the Sunday we were there and it was pretty impressive to see the dust lifting off the dry lake bed and blowing around.

Just because the lake was dried up didn’t mean that there was no wildlife to see though. Sage thrashers and Say’s phoebes flitted around the rabbit brush in the morning and barn swallows sailed around all day long. I also saw plenty of rabbits, including a black-tailed jackrabbit, only the second time I’ve seen one of them. I’m always amazed at just how big their ears are.

A black-tailed jackrabbit hightails it in the early morning light. Photo by Jamie Simo.
A black-tailed jackrabbit hightails it in the early morning light. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Because the towns around San Luis aren’t very big and are fairly spread out, the park doesn’t suffer from a lot of light pollution. That means the amount of stars you can see in the park is incredible. The highlight of my time there was watching shooting stars while listening to distant coyote howls. I also enjoyed watching the resident bats and feeling the slight breeze as they swooped past me. The park has central bathroom and shower facilities and the lights attract a lot of moths and other insects. This provides a smorgasbord for the bats and was the best place to see them.

San Luis’ campground closes on October 1 (the bathrooms are already closed for the season), but the park is open all year round, so if you’re in the area, you should check it out. The entry fee is $7 a day or you can buy an annual Colorado State Park Pass for $70, which gets you into all 42 Colorado State Parks.

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Autumn is Coming

The days are getting shorter and the nights and mornings cooler, but the cottonwood trees are only just starting to get that lime green color before they turn full-on blazing yellow and the days are still pretty warm. But autumn is coming for sure. How do I know? The animals tell me so. 

Blue Jay in flight over water with acorn. Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, Seneca Falls NY. Photo by Susan Phillips.
Blue Jay in flight over water with acorn. Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, Seneca Falls NY. Photo by Susan Phillips.

In the corner of my neighbor’s yard is an oak tree and it’s going to be a good mast year this year. “Mast” is the term used for the fruit of nut-bearing trees, which includes acorns. A mast year is when there is a prolific amount of nuts and acorns. Already the oak tree is heavy with immature green acorns and it’s become one of the hang outs of the neighborhood blue jays. After being largely inconspicuous all summer, the blue jays are out in force, squawking up a storm. You wouldn’t think it to look at them (how do they get such huge things down their beak anyway?), but acorns are one of their favorite foods. Just like squirrels and chipmunks, blue jays may either eat the acorns or stash them for later. Because they don’t have great senses of smell, some of the acorns the jays don’t retrieve grow up to be new trees, just like the forgotten acorns harvested by squirrels and chipmunks. However, blue jays can fly, meaning they can disperse those acorns much farther than either of those mammals, helping hardwood forests to spread.  

Just like the blue jays, the squirrels around here are also pigging out on acorns, but they’re also busy winterizing their homes. Just the other day I saw one run down the sidewalk with a mouth stuffed with what looked like a clump of dried leaves. Tree squirrel nests are either platforms consisting of leaves, twigs, and/or grass called “dreys,” which are used mainly in warmer months, or a den in a tree hollowed out by woodpeckers. Contrary to what you may think, tree squirrels don’t hibernate in the winter, though they are often less active. To stay cozy, several squirrels may share a drey or den. Ground squirrels, by contrast, do hibernate, though some, like the golden-mantled ground squirrel, may awaken several times during the winter to eat and urinate.

Golden mantled ground squirrel carrying a bunch of leaves. Photo by Jamie Simo.
Golden mantled ground squirrel carrying a bunch of leaves. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Just today I had some new visitors to my backyard: a pair of Wilson’s warblers gleaning insects from the trees lining my fence. Yes, it’s already migration season, and the Wilson’s warbler is just 1 type of warbler heading through Colorado on its southerly flight. It will spend the winter in Central America before flying back through Colorado in the spring on its way to northern Canada to breed. The Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory starts fall bird banding on September 16 at the Fort Collins banding station and I can’t wait to see what other birds they might catch. You can see where banding is happening in your area by visiting RMBO’s Web site.

Keep your eyes open and see if you can see other signs of autumn coming your way.

Happy Birthday To You

PartyTurtle
Party turtle by Jamie Simo.

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which was passed into law on September 3, 1964 and all around the country, communities are hosting a wide variety of celebrations. You can check out what’s happening in your neck of the woods here.

The Wilderness Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, formally defines “wilderness” as:

an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

The Act initially set aside 9.1 million acres of land as Wilderness Areas where human activity is limited to preserve the natural character of the land. Today, the National Wilderness Preservation System includes 757 Wilderness Areas comprised of over 100 million acres. Most states have designated wilderness areas, excluding Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, and Rhode Island, with the majority of those areas focused in the west.

Colorado has a pretty good chunk of wilderness with 43 Wilderness Areas totaling over 3 million acres of wild lands. Those lands are managed by some combination of the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, or the Fish and Wildlife Service. With so many wild areas to choose from, there’s sure to be one that strikes your fancy. So to celebrate this landmark anniversary in style, why don’t you take a hike…to a Wilderness Area near you?

Look-Alike

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.

Male broad-tailed hummingbird visiting a feeder at Helen Hunt Falls in Colorado Springs.  Photo by Jamie Simo.
Male broad-tailed hummingbird visiting a feeder at Helen Hunt Falls in Colorado Springs. Photo by Jamie Simo.

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…

White-lined sphinx moth enjoying the garden at Starsmore Discovery Center in Colorado Springs.  Photo by Jamie Simo
White-lined sphinx moth enjoying the garden at Starsmore Discovery Center in Colorado Springs. Photo by Jamie Simo

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. 

Larval form of the white-lined sphinx moth.  Photo by Jennifer M. Petty.
Larval form of the white-lined sphinx moth. Photo by Jennifer M. Petty.

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.

Spotlight on Parks: Garden of the Gods

Panorama of Garden of the Gods as seen from the visitor center viewing deck. Photo by Jamie Simo

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.  

Sandstone spires at Garden of the Gods.  Photo by Jamie Simo.
Sandstone spires at Garden of the Gods. Photo by Jamie Simo.

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.  

A western scrub-jay sits atop a pine in Garden of the Gods.  Photo by Jamie Simo.
A western scrub-jay sits atop a pine in Garden of the Gods. Photo by Jamie Simo.

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.

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.  http://www.cnhp.colostate.edu/teams/zoology/cbwg/batList.asp#littlebrownmyotis
Little brown bat roosting in a cave. Photo by Jeff Gore. http://www.cnhp.colostate.edu/teams/zoology/cbwg/batList.asp#littlebrownmyotis

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!