Category: Colorado

Top Ten Birds, Herps, Plants, Trips, and Photos of 2017

I did several top tens as separate blogposts last year. This year I’m going to restrict it to one somewhat longer post.  Let’s get into it, and start off with birds!  (Caution, Snakes at end)

 

Top Ten Lifer Birds of 2017

I do have three honorable mentions, a lost Cinnamon Teal (Illinois),  two American Dippers (Colorado), and one Hurricane Irma-blown Sooty Tern (Kentucky).

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#10 Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)-  I saw these both in Illinois and in Colorado this year.  The Illinois one was on an extremely fun trip, and I’m hoping to get a couple more this winter.

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#9 Whooping Crane (Grus americana), southern IL -Easily the rarest worldwide of the birds I saw this year (with 600 or so in the wild), the Whooper is North America’s tallest bird.

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#8 Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), CO- It’s a Burrowing Owl.  Need I say more?

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#7 Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus), IL, KS- Not only is it a bird with an insanely long tail, I saw several over the course of the year.

#6 Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) (no photo), IL – Sure, I didn’t get photos, but I set a county record when they flew over my apartment in Jackson County.  What better way to see  new birds?

#5 Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), IL (photo by Colin Dobson, computer destroyed quality) -A Eurasian gull that often wanders to the Northeast, this was my first mega rarity of the year, and a fun one to find.  Unfortunately I have no photo, so I borrowed this one.

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#4 Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis) central IL- The second of the two Eurasian wanderers, this one is a little more in doubt (though I’m 99% sure it’s wild).  If accepted, it will be the state’s first or second official record (though there’s plenty of unofficial records).

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#3 Red-necked Stint (Calidris ruficollis), western KY- This bird is the rarest- it’s supposed to migrate from Siberia to Australia twice yearly, and how it ended up in a flooded cornfield in western Kentucky no one knows. It did- on Eclipse Day- and I chased it at 7:00 AM.  It is probably the best bird I’ve seen this year, easily a first state record (of any kind) for Kentucky, but it isn’t my favorite, because there’s two birds just a little higher on the scale…

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#2 Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus), KY/TN/IL- I’ve spent so much time looking for these, that in November I drove 7 hours round-trip to see a few in far southwestern Kentucky/far northwestern Tennessee.  This one posed ten feet from my car.  And then, driving back home in December- a Loggerhead Shrike flies across the highway in southern Illinois.  Shrikes are unusual, rare, and charismatic birds with the tendency to impale other, smaller animals on thorns.

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#1 Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) MO/IL – My 300th US bird of the year (debatably- I’m not sure when I first saw Broad-winged Hawks) and my 100th or 101st lifer of the year (again, Broad-winged Hawk- I probably saw them in September 2015, but I can’t say for sure.)  The timing- just after finals- couldn’t have been better!  I then went on to find one in IL.

Top Ten Lifer Plants

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#10 Carolina Anemone (Anemone caroliniana), central IL- It’s pretty.

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#9  Slender Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes lacera), southern IL- It’s an orchid.

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#8  Britton’s Skullcap (Scutellaria brittonii ), CO –  Other than two following plants, this was the most interesting plant I found in Colorado.  It looked like something someone might grow in a garden, instead of on a talus slope in the Rocky Mountains.

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#7 Silvery Bladderpod (Lesquerella ludoviciana),central IL-  It only grows on one sand dune in Illinois, which I checked a couple of times until I found it in bloom.

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#6 Cherrybark Oak (Quercus pagoda)(IL state champion tree), southern IL- This is the biggest tree I’ve seen this year.  It’s absolutely massive, which you can see with my hat as a comparison.

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#5 Ozark Milkvetch (Astragalus distortus),central IL – Another rare plant in Illinois, this one I had the distinction of discovering exactly where it grew by using a website.  It’s at Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, one of my favorite spots to visit.  That’s honestly why I put it so high on the list.

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#4  Spring Coral-root Orchid (Corallorhiza wisteriana), Missouri Ozarks- This is an orchid that steals nutrients from fungi. It was a somewhat unexpected find in the Ozarks.

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#3 Spotted Coral-root Orchid (Corallorhiza maculata), CO- Even more unexpected was this orchid in Colorado, which also steals nutrients from fungi and is much prettier than its cousin.

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#2 Orange-fringed Orchid (Platanthera cillaris), northern IL – The most beautiful and rare plant I’ve found in Illinois this year, the Orange-fringed Orchid grows in a spot guarded by giant mosquitoes and hidden from the world.  In that spot, there are thousands.  It was fascinating, and I got to see it with the Fenelon, one of my close friends.  That’s not easy to top… is it?

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#1 Calypso (Calypso bulbosa var. occidentalis), CO  Evidently it is.  I got to see this with my family.  One of the most unexpected finds of the year, this unusual, somewhat rare orchid is widely praised in nearly every guide to orchids. Much of this praise is for the rarer Eastern form, but the Western form, while less rare, is still the best plant of 2017 for me.

Top Ten Best Trips of 2017

#10 Meredosia National Wildlife Refuge/Four Corners, May 31… I almost put the trip with the Illinois Golden Eagle in southwestern central Illinois on as #10, but this trip, also with V.S., had a lot of unexpected species.  I went for Red-necked Phalaropes, an oceanic vagrant, and ended up finding a state-threatened Black-billed Cuckoo.  It got me over 200 species-wise for the year.

#9 Southern IL/Riverlands, November 11- On this trip I saw my first Red-throated Loon and had a blast birding all day with Chris Smaga and Kyle Wiktor.  I’ve been to Riverlands three times between November 11 and December 15.  The last trip got me the Snowy Owl, but the first trip was probably the most fun, even if the first half of that trip was an unsuccessful Greater Prairie-Chicken search.

#8 Snake Road, September 15- This is the trip where I found the Mud Snake.

#7 Southern IL, August 17-20- When I first moved down to Southern Illinois, I got to see so many unusual plants, animals, and natural areas in that first weekend, culminating in my trip to see the Red-necked Stint and the eclipse.  It’s unforgettable- and it was really hot!

#6  Three Weekend Days in Emiquon, April 10, 16, and 23- One of these was with the Lincoln Land  Environmental Club, one was with Mom, and one was by myself.  I saw a lot of unusual species on all three days, and it was interesting to see all the changes week-to-week.

#5  Lake Carlyle Pelagic Trip, September 30- I met many birders and got to see four lifer birds, as well as the most bird species I’ve ever seen in one day (88?).

#4  Kankakee Trip  with the Fenelon, August 1- Orange-fringed Orchids!  Thousand-acre prairies! Philosophical discussions in the car!  It was perfect.

#3Snake Road, October 13-14-  I saw 80 snakes over these two days.  That’s pretty awesome.  I also got to meet a LOT of herpers.

#2 Ozarks Trip, May 17-19- The Lincoln Land Environmental Club trip- that was so much fun.  We had skinks, a nesting Eastern Phoebe, and a Luna Moth on our front porch.  The ticks were a little annoying, but everything else- weather, sightings, lodging, people- couldn’t be topped… well, I guess it could, by #1…

#1 Colorado, June 5- 14- Family vacation in Colorado.  Snow-capped mountains, family, orchids, all kinds of animals (including 30 lifer birds)- I had so much fun here. I’ve had a great year.

Top 10 Photos (Unranked)

Honorable Mention- the Yellow-billed Cuckoo is an elusive bird and I finally got one good photo:

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Inspiration Point, IL:

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Western Wood-Pewee, CO:

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Meredosia Hill Prairie Nature Preserve, IL:

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Orange-fringed Orchid and Royal Fern, IL:

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Black-necked Stilt, IL:

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Black-tailed Prairie Dog, CO:

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Rocky Mountains, CO:

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Compass Plant, IL:

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————————————CAUTION, SNAKES BELOW THIS LINE!!!——————————————

 

 

 

Black Rat Snake, IL:

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Cottonmouth, IL:

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Top Ten Lifer Herps of 2017

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#10 Broad-banded Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata), southeastern Missouri- This was an unexpected find on a fun trip to Mingo National Wildlife Refuge (that’s not an exact location).  Since Broad-banded Watersnakes are almost certainly extirpated from Illinois, Missouri is the closest I’m going to get to seeing one locally.

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#9 Bird-voiced Treefrog (Hyla avivoca), Snake Road, Illinois-  A State-Threatened species of treefrog in Illinois, the Bird-voiced has been a species I’ve wanted to find for a long time.

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#8 Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum), southern Illinois-  Another amphibian I’ve wanted to see for a long time, this salamander was even on its nest.  Bonus points to you if you find the Smallmouth Salamander (Ambystoma texanum) hiding in the photo.

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#7 Eastern Collared Lizard (Crotaphytus collaris), Missouri – My only rare lizard of the year, this was one of the highlights of one of my Missouri trips. Overcollected for the pet trade, Eastern Collared Lizards are uncommon to find.

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#6 Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos), Missouri Ozarks-  This was in a parking lot, about ten minutes after we got to the location where we found it.

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#5 Speckled Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula holbrooki), Missouri Ozarks- About fifteen minutes after finding the Eastern Hognose, this slithered across our path about three feet from my foot. Some people would freak out- I did, but exclusively from joy.

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#4 Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi), central Illinois- This is a snake I’ve always wanted to see, and I found it at a special spot to me, which I cannot state because collectors.  It was also up a tree, which I did not expect and which proved a photographic obstacle.

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#3 Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus), Snake Road, Illinois- My long-standing nemesis snake decided to randomly crawl out in front of me one fine October day. 58 snakes later, that was still the best snake of the day.

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#2 Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), southern Illinois- I’ve managed to see three of these this year in Illinois.  The photographed one was the best of the three.

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#1 Mud Snake (Farancia abacura), Snake Road, Illinois- It was a slow day at Snake Road, on September 15, the day after a nice rain… Suddenly, I spot a snake crossing the road at the first marshy spot on the north end.  I figured it was a Cottonmouth… but the red was a giveaway.  This is a snake that people at Snake Road who’ve been looking for 20 years haven’t found. (Don’t judge that sentence’s verbiage too harshly.)

Colorado 2017, Part 6- Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge- FINAL!

Part 1- Orchids (Location Not Disclosed)

Part 2- Eldorado Canyon State Park (Eldorado, Colorado)

Part 3- Mount Evans Scenic Byway

Part 4- Golden Gate Canyon State Park

Part 5- Walden Ponds (Boulder, Colorado)

Part 6- Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (Denver, Colorado)

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Colorado is often remembered for its mountains, but the eastern third of the state is in fact rolling shortgrass prairie hills.  In Europe, these rolling green hills are called steppe.  Here, we call them boring, mostly because they aren’t mountains and we just drove through about twelve hours worth of it to get to the mountains.  However, this land hides plenty of life.

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On our way to a large restored shortgrass prairie, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (whew!) , we spotted this Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) female fishing donuts out of a dumpster as we ate our own donuts nearby.  Great-tailed Grackles have learned how to use people food, and they are doing well.

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Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR used to be an old army base, much like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and several other wildlife refuges.  The Army still maintains part of the area as its own lands, owing to some toxic chemicals they’re still cleaning up, as the base was once used to manufacture chemical weapons.  However, most of the area is safe and full of wildlife, in a roughly 16,000 acre area surrounded by suburban Denver.

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What made the area into a National Wildlife Refuge was the discovery of nesting Bald Eagles on the base, in the 1980s, when Bald Eagles were an endangered species.  The reintroduction of other rare species like Bison and Black-footed Ferrets, as well as the presence of declining grassland species like Burrowing Owls and Ferruginious Hawks, makes this place a continued conservation priority.  More on the two with no F’s in their names later.

 

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The area initially appears barren and devoid of life, but little by little, small blooms appear- like this Beardtongue (Penstimon sp.) flower, in a protected garden area at the visitor’s center.

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In sheltered areas with water runoff, more species occur, including some short trees and shrubs like this New Mexico Locust (Robinia neomexicana), a relative of the Eastern species Black Locust.

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Perhaps the best thing about the place was the abundance of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus), which were in the hundreds here.  We only saw several dozen, but there was evidence of dozens more.  I could sit and watch prairie dogs for a long time.  The rest of my family cannot, so we moved on to some trails.

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Snowball Sand-verbena (Abronia fragrans) bloomed in a bare patch.

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One thing about shortgrass prairie- the horizon doesn’t end.  You can see EVERYTHING.

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…except for the cactus underfood.  This Brittle Prickly-Pear (Opuntia fragilis) is fairly common, and it has a stunning bloom. Cactuses have the second-best bloom of any wild plant at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, after…

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Blanket Flowers (Galliarda aristata), which are popular garden plants.  However, this is where they come from, believe it or not.

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At this point, a Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni) flew low overhead.  These beautiful “small” prairie hawks used to live in much of Illinois, too, but currently only a single family still live in the whole state.  I find that odd, considering how well they’ve adapted to Colorado suburbs.  All of the Swainson’s Hawks in the world migrate to Argentina every winter, travelling a narrow line along the American Cordillera (the chain of mountains stretching from Alaska to Argentina, composed of several ranges like the Rockies, Sierras, Andes, etc.), a distance of 14,000 miles!

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We then walked out onto a boardwalk with a lake.   The area has been cleaned up well enough to allow for fishing in some of the bodies of water.  These little manmade lakes probably attracted the Bald Eagles in the first place.

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Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus) browsed in the reeds along the lake.

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Suddenly, a bright-orange bird flew out of a bush and began feeding on some nearby flowers.  This is the gorgeous Bullock’s Oriole (Icterus bullockii), a white-winged flame in the brush.

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Several more, both males and drabber females, appeared over the next several minutes.  I had a lot of fun.  Unfortunately, my family had returned to the car at this point, but we all saw one later.

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In the same pond, a Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) perched on a log heronlike, waiting for a fish.  I’ve never seen one do this before.

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On the other side of the pond, a Crested Prickly-Poppy (Argemone polyanthos) bloomed.  I got back to the rest of my family and we set off on the wildlife loop. a road that circles the preserve and goes through bison pastures.  In the southeast corner of the preserve, we looked up to see this  spectacular battle taking place:

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A Swainson’s Hawk, dark morph, is attacking a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)!  Swainson’s Hawks come in a few different color morphs, and this one is still recognizable as a Swainson’s Hawk by its pointed, narrow wings, more clearly visible below:

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My guess is that the Bald Eagle got too close to the hawk’s nest, and therefore it’s getting chased off.  Hundreds of feet up in the air, the hawk would dive towards the Bald Eagle,  strike it on its back, and then wheel back up into the air for another attack.

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After watching for a bit longer, we moved on, as we had stopped on a public road to see this. By the side of the road, a little bit down, someone wanted food:

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Prairie Dogs were everywhere from this point on.  I was keeping my eyes open for the Burrowing Owl, a species that dwells in old prairie dog burrows.   I instructed my family to look for something sticking halfway out of a hole.  After getting a surprise Blue Grosbeak, we rounded the last bend in the road, the northwest corner of the wildlife loop road, and in front of us about forty feet away, a little brown lump stood atop a post:

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The last of the thirty lifer bird species I picked up in Colorado, Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) were probably the most wanted species on my entire list.  One of the cutest creatures on the planet, Burrowing Owls have the toad-like natural “grumpiness” to their face that makes them comically unhappy.  They require pre-dug holes in the ground in order to live.  In Florida, they use gopher tortoise holes, and in the West they use prairie dog burrows.

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We drove away from the Burrowing Owl once it flew away.  The Bison (Bison bison) herd seen earlier was much closer at this point.

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On the other side of the fence, one of my favorites, the Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis)  sat waiting for flies. These are getting more common in Illinois, and I am in favor of that.  Out on the open shortgrass prairie, they were one of the most common species.

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One last look at the Bison,  and then we left, going back home a few days later.  I can’t wait to go back to Colorado.  “I can’t wait to go back” is such a cliche to end a blogpost on, but it’s really true.  One new snake species, thirty new bird species, and uncountable numbers of plants later, I’m back in Illinois.  I’ll be moving to the Shawnee Hills soon, and I can’t wait to explore the most scenic part of all of Illinois. Despite Starved Rock being usually voted the most scenic spot in Illinois, it certainly isn’t.  You’ll be seeing that very soon- Inspiration Point.

 

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Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge Ebird checklist:

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37536402

 

 

 

 

 

Colorado 2017, Part 5- Walden Pond (Boulder, Colorado)/Estes Park!

Part 1- Orchids (Location Not Disclosed)

Part 2- Eldorado Canyon State Park (Eldorado, Colorado)

Part 3- Mount Evans Scenic Byway

Part 4- Golden Gate Canyon State Park

Part 5- Walden Ponds (Boulder, Colorado)

Part 6- Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (Denver, Colorado)

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A lot of what we were doing in Colorado was NOT birding or hiking, mostly because at a certain point we ran out of energy in the high altitude.  However, I did manage to persuade my family into some incidental stops along the way to other places.  One of those was Legion Park in Boulder, Colorado, where you could look out over a nearby lake with Western Grebes:

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Unfortunately, said Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) was extremely far away.  I obtained a record shot, but that was as close as I was able to get.  I was also a month late to see the mating dance of the Western Grebe, but I have a video link here that can show it.  Someday I’ll come back out here and see this, I hope.

Thankfully, Soapweed Yuccas (Yucca glauca), the default yucca species  in Eastern Colorado, were in bloom directly ahead of me.  Yuccas are often thought of as desert plants, but a number of them live in the Southeast as well as the Southwest.  This is one of the few species found in the Great Plains itself, and probably the only one north of Kansas.

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I was then dropped off at Walden Ponds, Boulder’s #1 birding hotspot on Ebird, to explore.  This place is essentially a series of ponds- a welcome sight, no doubt, in semidesert shortgrass prairie, but not particularly exciting for someone from a land with more water.

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Still, about five minutes in, an American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) appeared.

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American Avocets are large shorebirds, with upturned bills that they use to strain small organisms out of the water.   It’s quite enjoyable to watch them feed, as it is with all shorebirds.

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Striding through the water quickly, the Avocet flew back and forth every so often, never seeming satisfied with a spot.  Unfortunately, its continual motion made for a hard animal to photograph.  After several attempts, I sat there watching it and some Spotted Sandpipers for a bit, until I decided to look about and see what else might be present.

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A young Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) begged for food from an adult nearby.  I’ve never photographed this before!  Warbling Vireos can look quite different depending on where you are.

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Crested Prickly Poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) is both covered in spikes AND poisonous.  As a result, nothing eats it and it becomes something of a weed.

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Western Wood-Pewees called from nearby trees, relations of the Eastern Wood-Pewee found in my backyard.  Nearly-indistinguishable except by call, Western Wood-Pewees (Contopus sordidulus) here apparently enjoy posing for the camera while they sit and wait for flies.

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They are flycatchers, after all, so after this one was done being photographed, it flew off and caught a fly, then landed further away from me.

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A female Bullock’s Oriole flew past, just as it was time to go.  I ran back to the car, figuring that at least I got one lifer out of the day, and eager to go looking for Yellow-headed Blackbirds nearby.

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We did find some blackbirds, but they were Great-tailed Grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus).  The Yellow-headed Blackbird remains unseen by me, which annoys me as they’re rather hard to find in Illinois- the closest breeding sites are two and a half hours away.  Furthermore, they’re endangered in Illinois, as they only breed in marshes.  As for the Great-tailed Grackle, they are considerably larger in all aspects than the regular Grackle (the plain black bird with a black bill that’s almost certainly in your backyard).  They range throughout the West into Iowa and Missouri, almost to Illinois but not quite.  I’d imagine there might be a few even in Illinois, possibly near some remote cow farm in Forgottonia.  They were extremely common once we got into Kansas, and remained so all the way through Colorado until we got into the mountains.

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Speaking of the mountains, our last day in Colorado was spent driving up the highway into Estes Park, just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park.  We did this mostly for shopping, but look at the view!  I had hoped for a Mountain Bluebird on the drive, my other “big miss” from the trip.  Ironically, both Mountain Bluebirds and Yellow-headed Blackbirds are species that appear in Illinois on a regular basis, just usually in the far north of the state.

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Among the many tourist oriented shops in Estes Park was a place selling fossils.  It was part museum, and part gift store, and all in all a lot of fun, even if I don’t know very much about fossils.  One fact I do know about fossils is that they are quite expensive, as seen above.

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One of the nice features of Estes Park, that distinguishes the town from your average sprawling outdoor mall, is the Big Thompson River flowing through it.  The town of Estes Park has taken great care to give the river some room and make it a feature of the town, instead of an impediment to more shopping areas.

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The river was high and incredibly cold, but not flooding.   Past flash floods along the Big Thompson River, in 1976 and 2013, have killed several people upriver of the town and caused damage to several highway bridges and the buildings along the edge of the river in town.

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Even in the middle of what is, in fact, quite a nice shopping area that I’m probably slamming too much in this blogpost, wildlife still makes its appearance.  This Common Raven (Corvus corax) is an uncommon sight for me, if not rare here.  That giant bill is one of the main features to distinguish it from a crow, though the body size and wedge-shaped tail also help.  Ravens are one of the smartest of all birds, and they even engage in some forms of creative play, like sliding down snowbanks or using sticks to play with each other.  They can also remember the faces of people who wronged them in some way.  More on that here.  At any rare, I quite admire ravens.

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Another favorite of mine is the American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), a tiny little bird that dives into rapids for food.  I mean that literally.   This bird dives into 33°F water, through churning, flood-stage rivers, pulling out small insect larvae and fish to eat.

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In order to see underwater,  dippers use a nictitating membrane, visible as the white thing on the eye above.  Essentially, it’s an extra eyelid that act as googles for the bird.  Most birds have a nictitating membrane, but dippers, diving ducks, grebes, cormorants and loons, among other species, use theirs underwater as goggles.  To see how a Dipper swims underwater, watch the video below (I’m enjoying putting videos in this post!)

We drove down the canyon of the Big Thompson River further, spotting a lifer Bighorn Sheep on the way out.  Unfortunately, our glimpse was too brief for a photo.  We ended up back on the shortgrass praries once we were out of the canyon, and on those we will finish this trip next post.

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Ebird Checklists

Legion Park: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37519685

Walden Ponds: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37519821

Sombrero Marsh: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37519906

Estes Park: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37606769

Big Thompson Canyon: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37606822

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colorado 2017, Part 4- Golden Gate Canyon State Park / Rafting!

Part 1- Orchids (Location Not Disclosed)

Part 2- Eldorado Canyon State Park (Eldorado, Colorado)

Part 3-  Mount Evans Scenic Byway

Part 4- Golden Gate Canyon State Park

Part 5- Walden Ponds (Boulder, Colorado)

Part 6- Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (Denver, Colorado)

 

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A day or two after Mount Evans, we decided to scale back and enjoy a more relaxed state park, Golden Gate Canyon State Park.  Prior to this, at another couple of locations, we found the orchids.  I’m not saying where those are, for fear of poachers.

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However, there were still a ton of plants at a few spots in Golden Gate Canyon we visited. One of the best was Western Wallflower (Erysimum asperum), which isn’t uncommon, but the ones here were exquisite.  I believe the flowers of this species are larger and the plants are shorter than the other species of Western Wallflower (Erysimum capiatatum), which is native to Illinois.

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The roads into Golden Gate Canyon were stunning mountain roads, and thankfully well paved and maintained.  We pulled off at a picnic area beside one to have lunch.

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A bubbling creek besides us made for quite a nice picnic spot!

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After finishing an apple and some PB+J sandwiches, I went across the road to view some cliffside flowers, including a yellow one which I think is a Potentilla species.

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Canada Violets (Viola canadensis) bloomed among the picnic tables in the hundreds, and many more bloomed throughout the region.  Ironically, back home this is a state-endangered wildflower only found along the Wisconsin border areas of Illinois.

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A little Blue butterfly landed on my mothers’s shoe for a minute or so, before taking off again.

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Some sort of daisy bloomed in a dry area off to the side, above the creek.  What is it?

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So did this little white mustard, and I have no idea what either species is. Thoughts?

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Along the banks of the creek itself, a few dozen Pretty Shooting-Star (Dodecatheon pulchellum) bloomed along the creek.  I love these little plants, and am looking forwards to tracking down all three species in Illinois next spring.  Unfortunately, we don’t have this species here!

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Golden Banner (Thermopsis montana) grew throughout the area, its large yellow flowers illuminating many a path or roadside.

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We went up a nearby hiking trail, which went up through a narrow valley containing the aforementioned little stream, amid the groves of Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides).

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Several dozen plants of Pretty Shooting-Star grew along the path, living up to their name.

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A Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) flew up alongside the path, its face only a little red.  It then vanished into  the brush out of sight, and I went back to the varied plant community here, including this little charmer which I think is an Astragalus species.

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(Caution, the following 3 photos are of Snakes and Spiders)

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Just up the path, a lifer Wandering Gartersnake (Thamnophis elegans) crawled along.  This was the only lifer herp (reptile/amphibian) of the trip.

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A Crab Spider sat on the flowers of  Richardson’s Geranium (Geranium richardsonii)  These little ambush predators wait on flowers for pollinators to arrive, and then eat them.  Usually Crab Spiders try to pick flowers of the same color as their body, though…

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Over the stream across from the Crab Spider and Geranium, another Wandering Gartersnake sat basking in the sun.  These, like all Garter Snakes, are in fact mildly venomous, but not enough so to harm a person.  Ordinarily, I have no problem catching Gartersnakes, which are not prone to biting even when handled.  Since I was hiking with Mom, I refrained.

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Ponderosa Pines (Pinus ponderosa) grew further up the slope, past the Quaking Aspen forests on the lower end of the trail.   Open barrens began to form on the sides of the trail.

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We also began to pull away from the creek as we went up higher, into dryer terrain.

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The Miner’s Candle (Cryptantha virgata) bloomed along the turnaround point for us, a two-foot-tall spike of hairy leaves and white flowers that attracted many local wasps.

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After turning around, we went over to Idaho Springs to go rafting on Clear Creek, in 33 degree F water.  We wore wetsuits, and it was still a little chilly, but we all had a good time.

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Dad and I, sitting in the front of the raft, got soaked by the oncoming waves from Class II-III rapids (Easy-to-moderate rapids, basically)  It was my first time ever whitewater rafting, and it was also my first time seeing an American Dipper, which I saw between two of the rapids along the bank of the creek.  More on that amazing little bird sometime later.  In the meantime, we will take another break to show off my semi-completed goal list for this year.. as of August 1.  What finished that goal, and pushed me over the edge, will be shown. I’ll give you a hint- it’s an orange orchid.

 

Ebird Checklists:

Golden Gate Canyon

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37500511

Idaho Springs

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37500446

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colorado 2017, Part 3- Mount Evans Scenic Byway

Part 1- Orchids (Location Not Disclosed)

Part 2- Eldorado Canyon State Park (Eldorado, Colorado)

Part 3-  Mount Evans Scenic Byway

Part 4- Golden Gate Canyon State Park

Part 5- Walden Ponds (Boulder, Colorado)

Part 6- Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (Denver, Colorado)

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So, after our brutal drive and beautiful hike at Eldorado Canyon State Park, we decided to double down on both and go to Mount Evans Scenic Byway.  There were some lingering concerns about this as we drove out of Lafayette, where we were staying, on the road above.  It’s views like this, seeing the wilderness from the middle of urbanity, that I miss about Colorado.  On a side note, I once saw a Prairie Dog run across that road, but we’ll get to that later.

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We stopped at Echo Lake Park  along the way, after a nice drive up through the mountains.  Echo Lake is at 10,600 feet in elevation, which makes it 10,000 feet higher above sea level than where I live in Sangamon County, Illinois.   Denver, the Mile-High City, has an elevation of roughly 5280 feet… except for here.  Despite being 47 miles away,  Echo Lake Park is actually owned by the City of Denver, thus making it part of Denver.  I would go so far as to call it the best part of Denver, too!

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Within five minutes of stepping into the bushes around the lake, a Wilson’s Warbler, the blurry yellow bird pictured above, flew across the path only a foot in front of me, pausing in the shrubs some six feet away to clean its wings.  Wilson’s Warblers (Cardellina pusilla) are a rare sight during migration in Illinois- to be so close to such a bold specimen was a treat!

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A small flock of Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus) flew across in the nearby pine trees, another rare sight in Illinois.  Back in March, I saw what I was 99.9% sure was a Pine Siskin in my backyard on my feeder, and seeing them in the wild here only further confirmed my belief.

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This may look like a Gray Squirrel to you.  However, this is actually a gray American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), a “new” species of squirrel for me.  They are quite common in the Rockies, and I’d imagine if I checked my old photos I’d find one from a previous trip.

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A  lifer Cordillerian Flycatcher called from nearby, and then a Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) flitted out of the brush onto an old dead stump.  These are named after a fellow by the name of Thomas Lincoln, and not the Abraham Lincoln my last blog was named for.

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Echo Lake has one specific bird I was really wanting to see, and here it is:

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Barrow’s Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica) are one of the few North American ducks I hadn’t seen.  (The rest are Fulvous Whistling Duck, Eurasian Wigeon, the  four eiders, Black Scoter, and Harlequin Duck, all of which aren’t easy to find in my home state of  Illinois.  Actually, I’m sure that Steller’s and Spectacled Eiders have NEVER been found in Illinois.)   Barrow’s Goldeneyes are unusual in that they have three separate populations, an Icelandic population ( thus, islandica), a small Eastern population in far eastern Canada  and a large Western population in the Rocky Mountains, where they live in small mountain lakes during the summer and go down to wetlands and rivers in the valleys below the mountains for winter.  This male pictured above was harassing a female of the same species all around the lake. I’m assuming baby ducks were on their way.

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All around us, melting snow fueled the nearby creeks and rivers, which were about 33 degrees F.  It would be insane to go rafting down such a bitterly-cold river, right?… we’ll get to that later.  We had entered the alpine tundra, where it is too cold for trees to grow.  This ecosystem imitates the conditions of northern Canada, but with its own fun mix of plants and animals.

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Along the timber edge, just south and up of Echo Lake and beyond where we had to pay to go on the rest of the road, a forest of Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine (Pinus aristata) loomed at the the gnarled white trunks on the right side of the photo.   Bristlecone Pine trees are famous for living to be thousands of years old. These are by no means the oldest such trees in the world.  In fact, the conditions are TOO good to produce old Bristlecone Pines here at the Mount Goliath Natural Area, the spot where the road first breaks above the trees.  These trees are estimated to be “only” 1,700 years old at the most.  I’ve never actually seen them before, and I was quite impressed!

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I’ve never seen such gnarled pines before, and I could have spent more time with them.  Still, what is an hour when compared to the 1,500 years or more these trees haves spent growing here?  Assuming an age of 1500 years, it is 1/13140000 , or one hour out of more than ten million!  These trees have spent ten million hours or more growing in this spot!

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Smaller and younger, the herbaceous plants growing around the base of the bristlecone pines, among their roots and the rocks, could still be decades old.  Among them was the Sky Pilot (Polemonium viscosum) above, a relative of the wildflower and garden plant Jacob’s Ladder.

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Buttercups (Ranunculus sp.) bloomed in the middle of a nearby creek, tolerating the near-freezing water.  Plants that grow here in the alpine tundra, above or on the edge of where trees will grow, must tolerate the most extreme conditions, and yet they thrive.

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Heck, I even found Alpine Primrose (Primula angustifolia) or two, blooming its heart out just feet away from snow that must have covered it until just recently.

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Alpine Phlox (Phlox condensata?) bloomed in a few crevices here and there.

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One of the better finds here was also one of the larger plants, and by larger I mean about a foot tall.  This is the White  Marsh Marigold (Caltha leptosepala), one of a group of species I’ve always wanted to see in flower.  I missed the flowering time of the yellow-flowered Caltha palustris in Illinois back in April, so this was a nice consolation.

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The Marsh Marigolds grew at the bottom of a runoff creek, full of melted snow.  We decided to go further into the snow, to turn around at Summit Lake, just below the top. Mountain Goats had been reported here previously, and we did in fact see a few, though as we were driving it was impossible to take photos.  Speaking of impossible, unless you have nerves of steel, enjoy nearly driving off mountains on bad roads,  or are used to Colorado mountain driving, turn around at Mount Goliath after the road is initially opened.  Give it until late June or July, when there’s not runoff pouring down the road, washing it out.  Even then, the lack of guardrails makes it terrifying.  So, of course, we had my younger brother drive.  I’ve never been more proud of him than when we pulled into the parking lot at Summit… Ice?

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It was like turning the clock back to January in Illinois, except here there were mountains, Common Ravens flew overhead- quite a feat in the thin, oxygen-poor air!- and American Pipits (Anthus rubescens)  were everywhere pecking at rocks.  I’m not sure why.  This photo of one of them basically sums up the entire landscape:

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However, if you want to truly see that landscape, here it is.  Just a reminder, it’s mid-June and Denver at this time is in the low 90 degrees F.  There’s also a lake and a creek under there.

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The last five miles, to the very summit of Mount Evans, are considered difficult even by the remarkably relaxed Colorado reviewers.  We had gone far enough, so we turned around and went back, stopping at an overlook along the way.  Along this stretch of road, I spotted a Brown-capped Rosy Finch, a rare little bird pretty much only found on the mountain peaks of Colorado. Unfortunately, none were seen anywhere I could get a photo.

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We looked out over the Continental Divide- on the other side of those mountains, the water flows west to the Colorado River.  It was still a bit early for much to bloom here, but this overlook was the far end of a mile-long trail across the tundra from Mount Goliath Natural Area.

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I went a hundred feet down the trail, looking back on the road and the hundreds of rocks above.  No wonder they call it the “Rocky Mountains!” Speaking of names, Mount Evans was originally called Mount Rosa, named after the sweetheart of painter Albert Bierstadt.  However, the Colorado state legislature decided to confer upon the mountain the name of Evans,after Colorado Governor John Evans.  John Evans is one of those historical figures who slipped through the cracks of history textbooks.  Among many notable achievements, he helped to found the Illinois branch of the Republican Party, the Illinois Medical Society, and Northwestern University.  He also issued orders that led to the Sand Creek Massacre, when a group of U.S. soldiers butchered a group of peaceful Native Americans- innocents, and mostly women and children.  This genocide was so infamous, even at the time, that Evans was forced to resign by President Andrew Johnson.   The unrepentant Colorado legislature, thirty years later, named this mountain in honor of him.

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Back at Echo Lake, we stopped at the nearby lodge, where a little hummingbird feeder attracted a few Broad-tailed Hummingbirds (Selasphorus platycercus).

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Hummingbird in foreground, snowy peaks in background… not exactly an expected sight for a group of birds usually associated with the tropics, but it’s extremely enjoyable!

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We drove back down the road, my brother relieved to no longer be in the driver’s seat! Some sort of yellow mustard relative grew along the road at the pulloff along the highway near Echo Lake where we stopped to have lunch.  If anyone knows what this is, let me know.

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I’ve mentioned my brother twice in this, and that was foreshadowing of the following non-nature photo below.  My brother is as into cars as I am into the natural world, he’s even got his own car blog at this link here.   Actually, to read his version of events, all of which I witnessed, from a vehicular standpoint, read this specific entry here.  He was excited to see some car company testing out its newest model on the mountain roads while keeping the car’s identity under wraps:

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Someday, when I am feeling supremely overconfident, I will drive Mount Evans Scenic Byway again, all the way to the top, perhaps some July when the heat index in Illinois is 120 degrees F… So, right now, I guess!  (That was a joke.)  In the meantime, I’m going to take a short break from  this quite enjoyable Colorado trip over the next post or two, back to the perennial thorn in my side that is The Great Shrike Hunt.*

Ebird Checklists:

Echo Lake

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37481545

Mount Goliath Natural Area

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37481421

Summit Lake

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37481275

*(Yes, that was a reference to shrike behavior.  If you don’t get it, look up photos of shrike larders).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colorado 2017, Part 2- Arrival and Eldorado Canyon

Colorado

Part 1- Orchids (Location Not Disclosed)

Part 2- Eldorado Canyon State Park (Eldorado, Colorado)

Part 3-  Mount Evans Scenic Byway

Part 4- Golden Gate Canyon State Park

Part 5- Walden Ponds (Boulder, Colorado)

Part 6- Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge (Denver, Colorado)

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Remember when I said that my Colorado trip would come out this winter? I lied.  Sorry, but not really.  I had the time of my life there.  Our first stop was at Eldorado Canyon State Park, and that was amazing.  Well, most of it was.  The road into and out of Eldorado Canyon is the second worst road I’ve ever been on.  The first, aptly-named Forgotten Road in Fulton County, Illinois, only  beats it by virtue of the fact that it was flooded at the time.  Eldorado Canyon’s main road was barely wide enough for two cars on an inconsistent basis, and it was entirely composed of potholes.

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Now, I know what you’re thinking- “I’m from ____, and you should see OUR potholes!”  Trust me, I am a pothole (and lemonade) connoisseur.  I have been on many roads with terrible potholes.  However, I’ve yet to go on a road that is ENTIRELY surfaced in potholes.   In Eldorado Canyon, where one ended, the next began.   Add to that fact the fact that this is a dirt road, with lots of traffic,  going above a rapidly-flowing stream.  The potholes here were so bad that my dad’s back was strained and hurt temporarily.  (He’s fine now.)  I just throw that detail in to emphasize that this road is ROUGH.  The sections shown above were the easiest part, and they had people walking all along them, people who usually had dogs.  That’s a side note, by the way.  Everyone has dogs out in this part of Colorado, it seems, and they take their dogs everywhere.

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But, we’re not here to discuss dogs and dirt roads…  There are birds out in Colorado (surprise!) and I hadn’t seen them.  Above are some Broad-tailed Hummingbirds (Selasphorus platycercus).  They weren’t the first lifer birds of the trip, however, as I saw Western Kingbirds in Missouri.  Then, I saw a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Say’s Phoebe, Swainson’s Hawk, Great-tailed Grackle,   White-winged Dove, and Lark Bunting in Kansas, followed by a Black-billed Magpie in Lafayette, Colorado.  So, I was already at eight for the trip, and I got ten more here in Eldorado Canyon, listed at the end.  I had thirty for the trip, but eighteen the first three days of the trip.

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It was difficult to bird, however, as the sheer drop-offs made it impossible to back up and see into the trees from different angles.  I’m also used to birding decidous trees, and conifers make fora  far different experience.   As a result, I contented myself with this view of Eldorado Canyon’s entrance.  As you can imagine, that wasn’t hard to do!

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The cute little Least Chipmunk (Tamias minimus) decided to pose along the path, waiting for handouts.  We didn’t feed it, and it vanished back into the shrubbery.

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Possibly, the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) overhead made it vanish.  Golden Eagles nest on the nearby peaks, and after my experiences with them back in February, which you can read on my old blog here, I was hoping for a better look at one.  However, they remained far up in the sky, and I nearly walked off the cliff trying to get photos.  If you can’t tell, I’m from the flat plains of Illinois- I don’t have much experience with cliffs!

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At this point,  my brother who hates the outdoors decided he wanted to hike up a difficult trail to the ruins of an old hotel.  I’m fairly sure if he hadn’t sugested it, it wouldn’t have happened, but it did, and we went.    The trail went back and forth, climbing higher and higher with rocky piles and cliffside meadows of flowers between every bend in the trail.  Early on, we found Sedum lanceolatum, one of mayn flowers blooming along the trail.

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The canyon as a canyon became more visible as we went up.

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Bladderpods (Physaria sp.) came next along the trail.  I’m not sure what species this is, but the inflated seedpods are fascinating and new to me.

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Here’s what I presume to be the same species of bladderpod  in flower.

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What the heck?  I think it’s some kind of mite that was scrambling around on the rocks, but I’m not sure and I don’t want it to get too close.

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Britton’s Skullcap (Scutellaria brittonii)’ s huge flowers covered a small part of the meadows.

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Our view changed as we went up and up.

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The family hiked ahead while I looked at some nearby Penstemon on the cliff.

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Rock Climbers use this canyon a lot, and I took photos of some far off in the distance.

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Just to be clear how far off they were, the photo before this one was of the top of the second peak on the right.  Yup, that’s a long climb.

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A Gray-headed Junco (Junco hyemalis caniceps) called from the top of a nearby tree.  At this point, we had climbed high enough that the climate was somewhat different.  The forest was a trifle moister, I think because the mountain peaks catch more rain than the valleys.

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It’s no rainforest, and the area was still arid, but this high up in the mountains, there’s definitely more precipitation per year than the arid shortgrass plains down below.  Of course, looking out over the area between Boulder and Denver, there’s also a better view:

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On the edge of the path, some kind of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.) grew.  Given the nearby mossy, shaded forest,  this was somewhat surprising to me.

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Also up this high, alongside the trees, the birds had changed.  Down in the valley, Black-capped Chickadees lived, but up here in the dry pine stands on the edges of the canyon, lifer Mountain Chickadees (Poecile gambeli) foraged:

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Western Wallflowers (Erysimum capitatum) bloomed in the ruins of an old hotel.

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Perhaps the best find was several Western Tanagers (Piranga ludoviciana), a brilliantly colored bird only rivaled by one other bird in Colorado (to be seen in a later post!).  These birds are like a little fire in the forest. Related to cardinals, these yellow, black and red birds forage in small flocks, appearing out of the trees every so often.  Oddly, they only develop their red heads from eating certain bugs.  Evidently, the specimen below has eaten well:

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I also found this strange beetle, which I believe is attempting to resemble tree bark.

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We made our way back down to the bottom of the canyon, loosing nearly 1000 feet of elevation as we did so.  That was a bit hard on Illinois legs.  We spent the rest of the day resting, for our next day’s adventure.  Still, considering what I’ve shown above is only a fraction of what we saw, I can’t wait to go back and see it again!

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Ebird Checklist:

https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37458193

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Colorado, Part 1- Orchids? What Nonsense Is This?

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So, evidently there are orchids in Colorado.  I was somewhat aware of this, but I had zero expectations to find any on my recent visit.  They are getting a separate post from the rest of my Colorado findings, simply because I don’t want to disclose their location, and also because I’m figuring out how to do WordPress blogging.  I’m thinking there will be fewer images per post than before, simply because each image involves more work.

At any rate, the plant above and below is the Spotted Coral-root Orchid (Corallorhiza maculata).  This is one of a group of specialized, leafless plants called myco-heterotrophs that steal nutrients from soil fungi called mycorrhizae, who in turn are trading nutrients such as carbon and water with nearby plants.  Think of this Coral-root Orchid as a bandit, taking goods from a merchant (the fungi).  The merchant may have goods formerly belonging to another person (the plants in the forest), but it traded for them.  The bandit takes, without giving back.  That is basically how myco-heterotrophs work, as parasites upon the forest.

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This bandit needs certain conditions in which to hide out, preferably a gentle slope with decaying leaves/needles in an old forest at certain temperatures.  These bandits have to have a large enough population of “merchants” (mycorrhizal fungi) in order to survive, which accounts for some of the specific requirements.  Furthermore, since they have no leaves and only have flowers at certain times of year, and many of them don’t bloom every year, Coral-root Orchids aren’t easy plants to find.  I’ve found two species this year, somehow, though neither was in Illinois.   For some reason, I find  orchids far more commonly outside Illinois, even on the brief vacations I take.

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The biggest suprise was a few days later finding the plant above, the Calypso (Calypso bulbosa var. occidentalis).  This is not a common plant, though the spot I visited had several hundred of them.  Some people call this the most beautiful terrestrial orchid in North America, and as a result, they try to grow it in their gardens.

This, however, is probably the worst plant to possibly try to grow in a garden.  For one, Calypso orchids are very short-lived, on the order of about five years.  Furthermore, they simply cannot be transplanted without dying.  They require mycorrhizal fungi to survive, and very specific light, soil and water conditions.  I’ve not read of them surviving more than six months and/or blooming in captivity, at least according to sources I would consider reliable.  Nevertheless, people take them from the wild all the time to try and grow them, so I’m not saying where I found these.

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One fascinating fact about these Calypso orchids is that they bait in bees to pollinate them by pretending to have nectar, when in fact they do not.  Bees learn this over time, so Calypso orchids vary their flower patterns slightly to continue tricking the bees.

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One of the reasons I specified the variety in the scientific name (var. occidentalis) is that there are basically two different kinds, and likely two species, of Calypso orchids in North America.  The other is Calypso bulbosa var. americana, the eastern species that is extremely rare, limited to a few states bordering eastern Canada (and eastern Canada, of course).  This grows singly, and does not form clumps, unlike var. occidentalis above.  I found several dozen clumps like the one shown above.

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Perhaps the rarest find of the entire trip was this white-flowered mutation of the Calypso orchid.  It’s rare to find flowers blooming in an entirely different color than they’re supposed to, but it seems, from my very limited viewpoint, that orchids are found with these sort of mutations a bit more often.  I suspect that’s only a personal view, and not supported by the facts, but I do think it’s worth investigating, and hopefully that’s something I get to do someday.  Orchids are my favorite group of plants, and I’m glad to have found these two, likely the best two plant finds of the year.

More Colorado content is coming, as soon as I figure out how to deal with photos more effectively.  This post may remain up for a bit, I’ve got a lot to learn!