Outer Banks 2018: Birds

My wife and I have just returned from a much anticipated trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The trip was filled with beach time, fishing, family, seafood, and exploring. I’ll cover some of that (and some other nature) in a future post. Every trip is an opportunity for birding, though, so I will toss off a few keystrokes on that topic first. The Outer Banks, lying on the coast and a few hours south of home, hosts bird life a great deal different from what I’m used to. A trip there is always a good opportunity for a neophyte birder like me to expand life and year lists, and to get a little more practice identifying birds outside my usual range of experience. This year’s trip was no exception – I upped my life list by six and my year list by 39, notching 64 birds for the week.

Gulls

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A herring gull scolding a fish cleaner for not giving all the guts directly to its mouth.

I always think when planning a beach trip that I will have an opportunity to see a plethora of gull species. In all reality, during June only three species of gulls are particularly common on the Outer Banks – the laughing gull, the herring gull, and the great black-backed gull. I did see all of these (repeatedly) but didn’t spot any others. The ring-billed gull is reported on just over five percent of Dare County* checklists in June, and the lesser black-backed gull on about two percent, but all other gull species would be quite rare.

Terns

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Royal terns in the Florida Keys, Feb. 2014

By contrast, quite a few tern species are common on the Outer Banks in late spring and early summer. Ten species (lumping in the black skimmer – technically not a tern but closely related) are in the top 100 Dare County birds for June, according to ebird. Of those I saw eight on this trip – unsurprisingly the top eight: royal tern, least tern, black skimmer, common tern, Forster’s tern, Sandwich tern, gull-billed tern, and Caspian tern. Of those, the gull-billed tern was a life bird for me. The two I missed – bridled tern and black tern – would also have been lifers, but as the 91st and 99th most reported birds for the area I’m not feeling too frustrated over those misses.

Shorebirds

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Reusing an old photo of a shorebird I missed this time.

Shorebirds are another diverse group on the Outer Banks. Most of these I could nab on a closer trip to the Delmarva Peninsula, but the Outer Banks with its miles of uninterrupted beaches and Sound-side mudflats is an exceptional place to view these birds. This is probably the category where I was most disappointed in my results for this trip. I didn’t spend much time looking in the ideal spots, and when I did there were several groups I couldn’t get close enough to ID even through my scope. I did tally eight species but left a lot on the table. There are a total of 19 shorebirds at least as common as the “rarest” I tallied. Those I saw: willet, killdeer, American oystercatcher, semipalmated sandpiper, ruddy turnstone, sanderling, least sandpiper, and red knot. I suspect that some of those fuzzy groups at the edge of my sight included semipalmated plovers, short-billed dowitchers, black-bellied plovers, and dunlins but I just wasn’t quite able to say for sure.

Pelicans and Cormorants

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Pelicans from a previous OBX trip

This is quite simple: brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants are very common on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands in June, and I saw many of both.

Pelagic birds

This is where I made some real progress on this trip, notching four species of pelagic birds on one fishing trip aboard the Miss Hatteras. Previously I had only seen one: the magnificent frigatebird. Other than the few species which can commonly be observed from land, I just haven’t had many opportunities to view these birds – and this was my first chance since I started “seriously” birding around the end of 2016. First I spotted a few Wilson’s storm-petrels on our way out to sea, and soon after I saw a couple of Cory’s shearwaters. While at sea the captain noticed my interest and pointed out a great shearwater, and on the return trip I got a good look at a sooty shearwater. Of course I also missed several fairly common species, including petrels, shearwaters, storm petrels, skuas, and jaegers, but for one trip (and that not really a birding expedition at all) I was quite satisfied.

Herons and allies

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Another cheat photo – snowy egret, Florida Keys Feb. 2014

On one moderate hike at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge I recorded seven species of herons, egrets, and ibis. None was a life bird, but all seven were year birds, and the two most common I missed (great blue and green herons) are abundant near my home and therefore not huge losses. It would have been nice to finally check off the glossy ibis as well, and I am certain there were some in my general vicinity. Still, one particular spot held a mixed flock of well over 50 great egrets as well as perhaps a dozen snowy egrets and as many white ibis, plus several tricolored herons. As a side note, I thought I spotted a pair of sandhill cranes flying from the sound side to the ocean side while driving home, just south of Oregon Inlet. The birds appeared too huge to be anything else, but we were cruising along pretty fast and I can’t even reliably report if they were the right shape. I haven’t found any recent reports of these birds in that area, so they were probably just some great blue herons or brown pelicans that looked oddly huge from my vantage point.

Other notable (to me) birds

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A juvenile barn swallow on Ocracoke

I didn’t see anything rare on my trip, but I was treated to one nice surprise. In our campground on Ocracoke, when night fell, I began to hear songs from several Chuck-will’s widows scattered among the marsh bushes. This was technically a life bird for me (because I had previously only heard them before I was recording sightings) and was something I was absolutely not expecting, although it turns out they are locally common in a few spots on the Outer Banks. Other year ticks for the trip included: boat-tailed grackle, purple martin, American black duck, brown thrasher, yellow-billed cuckoo, prairie warbler, and Eurasian collared-dove. While not “notable” in any real sense, I am always surprised by the preponderance of swallows at or near the beach. I shouldn’t be – they’re quite common – but there is always something incongruous to me about their appearance with the sand and waves.

What I missed

The single most abundant bird I did not see was fitting, as it is probably also the most common eastern North American bird missing from my life list: the eastern meadowlark. It’s a point of irritation for this East-coaster that I’ve ticked the western meadowlark but not the eastern. I also didn’t see any Carolina chickadees, which was odd but not that odd given the environments I frequented. Other than the shorebirds mentioned above the only other big miss is probably the prothonotary warbler, another bugaboo for me that always seems like it should be an easy add.

 

*Note: I am using a Dare County list as a proxy, but some of this vacation was on Ocracoke Island, which is in Hyde County (whose list is similar but different).

Butterfly Garden Plant Profile: Milkweeds

I thought I would try something new, and start profiling each of the plants (or plant groups) in my butterfly garden as a complement to some of the more macro-level discussions I started with. There seems to be no better place to start than with the milkweeds (Asclepias sp.) Plants of this genus are the only hosts for North America’s most iconic butterfly, the monarch. They also attract a wide variety of other insects, for a variety of reasons. Several species are native to the mid-Atlantic, and a few others grow well here. I haven’t found any of these on lists of invasives, so I have chosen to include a sampling of both native and non-native species in my garden. I can confirm anecdotally that monarchs will readily use all as host plants and that many species will take nectar from the natives and non-natives alike.

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common milkweed

Common milkweed (A. syriaca) is a native plant with lovely spheroid clusters of white-and-pink flowers. It can grow 5-6 feet (or more?) tall in good conditions. This is one of the first plants I started in my garden for perhaps obvious reasons. I have seen it in action hosting monarchs, milkweed tiger moths, swamp milkweed leaf beetles, small and large milkweed bugs, red milkweed beetles, and more. Seemingly every pollinator will make a stop at the flowers. It is fairly easy to grow from seed, especially if cold-stratified first. It seems to handle relocation well. This plant will thrive in moist but well-drained soils, but in my experience it will tolerate most conditions. I am always nervous about cutting back plants mid-season, but because monarchs prefer young leaves and breed in Maryland later than milkweeds emerge it is good practice to do so. The milkweeds can handle it.

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swamp milkweed (amid some partridge pea)

Swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) is quite similar. As its name suggests, it does prefer things a little bit wetter. Mine hasn’t taken off quite as well as the common milkweed, but it does return each year. Its flower clusters are smaller and not the same near-spherical shape, but do tend to a brighter pink. The leaves and seed pods are narrower. Other than the wetness, the same plant care notes apply to swamp milkweed. I know it hosts monarchs and the swamp milkweed leaf beetle and I suspect the other insects mentioned above can eat it as well. It’s a great alternative to common milkweed for a wetter space.

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butterfly weed (with oleander aphid infestation)

I am still trying to establish some butterfly weed (A. tuberosa). I had read that this species can take a little longer than the others to get going, and this is proving true. Butterfly weed has bright orange flowers and clear (as opposed to milky) sap. So far none of my seedlings from previous years has survived – I don’t know if I have been choosing the wrong location, experiencing a run of bad luck, or something else, but I will keep trying. The orange would really be a nice accent to the rest of my garden’s color pallette. It’s also reportedly a great nectar plant for many pollinators, and since biodiversity is my ultimate goal any native plant that fits the host/nectar profile is a plant I want.

The Maryland Biodiversity Project lists nine additional species (plus two subspecies of swamp milkweed) as Maryland natives. Some appear to be quite rare, and others are limited to the coastal plain. The remaining few species are on my list of potentials for future plantings – clasping milkweed (A. amplexicaulis) looks particularly attractive. I’ll have to balance diversifying the milkweeds with filling other niches, though, so they may have to wait in queue for a few years.

I did mention non-natives, and thus far I have tried two of these. Last year I added some bloodflower (A. curassavica), a more southern species that nonetheless grows well here.  I couldn’t resist the striking red-and-yellow flowers or the glossier green of the stems and leaves. I have observed monarch caterpillars munching on this plant and many insects taking its nectar, so I feel vindicated in sneaking in this non-native plant for variety’s sake. This year I am similarly experimenting with “showy” milkweed (A. speciosa), which is from the western half of the continent. I’m not sure if the seedlings survived the deluge we got earlier this month, but if they did I look forward to seeing if these perform as well as the bloodflower.

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Bloodflower

I haven’t had too many problems keeping milkweeds healthy once they’re established. One exception is the occasional infestation of oleander aphids. Perhaps coincidentally they have attacked my swamp milkweed most voraciously. The point of my garden is of course exploitation by animal life, but this non-native aphid does not contribute positively to the ecosystem so I don’t tolerate them. Fortunately they seem fairly easy to control. I have found manual removal to be very effective. I simply squish them by grasping the plant stems and rubbing, then rinse the gross yellow goo with a hose.

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All in all, milkweeds are low-maintenance flowers that add a lot of visual interest to a garden. They check a lot of boxes in terms of ecological niches as well, even excluding their well-documented relationship with monarch butterflies. There’s very little not to like.

Featured Species #6: Gray Catbird

CatbirdThe gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) may seem like an odd choice as a first bird to profile. Its plumage is drab gray except for a splash of rusty orange under the tail. It isn’t one of the handful of most widely recognized backyard birds. It is not nearly as notorious as its kin, the northern mockingbird. It is, nonetheless, quite common in our area from late spring through early fall, and quite distinctive in appearance and sound.

These birds start to show up in my yard sometime around late April or early May. I instantly know they’re back from the call: a loud, nasal whine that somehow always seems directed right at me. I know I am irresponsibly anthropomorphizing here, but the “Nyaaaaaaah! Nyaaaaaaah!” seems interpretable variously as “fill up your feeder already, lazy human!” “Go away!” and “I’m here, stop ignoring me.” I mean… just listen to this nonsense. It’s an irritating sound, but I think it’s what draws me to this bird. That harsh, insistent call makes gray catbirds somehow seem more intentional in their actions than most birds. A bogus impression, to be sure, but there it is.

Dumatella carolinensis (7)One small encounter not long ago served to endear me further to the species. I happened upon one trapped in netting and was able to free it. The bird relaxed when I held it, allowing me to easily free its legs and wing. I don’t know if this is typical behavior for a bird in distress, or if it represented intelligence, intense fear, or something else, but it was a nice feeling of connection to nature.

Like other mimids (around here, that’s the northern mockingbird) the gray catbirds song is a jazz odyssey of cobbled together sounds. Both species get a bad rap for “ugly” songs, but I honestly find them quite lovely most of the time. They do tend to go on and on, though, so much so that it can be frustrating to identify birdsong with a mimid in the mix. I’m still a bit of a neophyte at this, but I can’t count the number of times an unfamiliar song has turned out to belong to a mockingbird or catbird.

Gray catbirds are ground foragers and nest in shrubs. I often find them at my feeders or taking mulberries and other small fruits. I see them anywhere there are patches of shaded understory plants, and they are often fairly abundant in neighborhood parks. I think they go overlooked because they occupy an in-between space. They don’t appear very high on trendy “most common” lists, but neither are they uncommon. So to a birder a gray catbird sighting (in range and in season, anyway) is not noteworthy, but a casual observer may not even be aware of the species at all.

Gray Catbird Links:

Wikipedia
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Maryland Biodiversity Project
Cat Predation Study

Speaking of “Mistaken”

If you’re reading this, odds are you know a butterfly garden has been a passion project of mine for several years now. It has gone well, and increasingly so each season. I have obsessed over every plant (or other feature) included, constantly asking questions like “can I get away with this non-native?” and “Do I have room for more of this, or do I need to diversify?” Each species has been meticulously chosen and cared for. I have stood among the blooms in midsummer, certain in my hubris that everything was proceeding as I had foreseen.

Then one day this summer I discovered it wasn’t. Hadn’t. Didn’t – whatever.

In one small spot beside the garden bench grow several plants with feathery leaves and clusters of white flowers. They have spread well and stayed green through the last two winters. I grew them from seeds marked “pearly everlasting.” When I bought these seeds, I searched by the scientific name Anaphalis margaritacea, because a common name is notoriously slippery thing. I marked the pots as pearly everlasting, treated the plants as pearly everlasting for garden planning and plant maintenance purposes, referred to them as pearly everlasting in this blog, offered pearly everlasting seeds to fellow gardeners, identified wild specimens of this plant as pearly everlasting… you can see where this is going.

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The “pearly everlasting” in all its glory.

Is there a worse feeling then finding out you have been confidently, defiantly wrong about a verifiable fact, and acted to perpetuate that wrongness? I’m sure there is, but this sensation always guts me when it happens. I try very hard to either be correct or admit uncertainty. It’s humbling when I am reminded that sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way.

So how did I come to discover this error? There is a second flower that has been on my to-plant list for the past couple years: common yarrow (Achillea millefolium). This spring, a couple of different factors led me to realize I already have this plant! First, I was scrolling through some local observations on iNaturalist. I came across a plant with the suggested ID “yarrow.” I thought “gee, that really looks a lot like pearly everlasting.” I was tempted to suggest this, but a quick Something image search of the scientific name made me hesitate. I left this incident believing these two plants look awfully similar. They don’t, if I’m being honest. A few days later I was researching yarrow in preparation for adding it to my garden. This finally brought me to reality. Every photo of the white-flowered variety looked exactly like my familiar plants. This time I decided to also image search pearly everlasting and compare. Nooooooooooooope!

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Thinking back, it’s stunning just how much information a pre-conceived notion can brush aside. Those seeds were labelled “Pearly Everlasting – Anaphalis margaritacea,” and plants grew from them. From that starting point, my brain steeled itself against assault from any evidence to the contrary. I remember thinking the seedlings didn’t look quite like what I’d expected, and ignoring that. I remember thinking the flowers didn’t look quite right when they bloomed, and dismissing that. I remember seeing yarrow plants for sale and wondering why they looked so much like my “pearly everlasting.” I remember squinting at photos of pearly everlasting in field guides and gardening books until they looked close enough to satisfy me.

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Blooms of a colorful variety of yarrow I added this year.

What the hell, human brain? The tricks our brains can play on us in confirming our own biases are well-known, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of catching them in the act. It invites one to surrender to radical skepticism and cease trying. That’s not particularly productive, though. Instead I will try to re-instill some basic lessons of identifying organisms.

  1. Consider as many field marks or features as are discernible.
  2. Do not reject any details, whether or not they conform to expectations.
  3. Do not make assumptions about field marks or features you can’t see.
  4. Seek additional opinions if there is any doubt – and preferably if there is no doubt.
  5. Using dichotomous keys never hurts, even if it is especially tedious for familiar species.

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I could keep going, but it boils down to keeping an open mind and replacing assumption with observation. I suppose I could call it a scientific approach. I don’t think matching observations to existing literature is properly “science.” However, the process (question, research, hypothesize, test, analyze/conclude, communicate) can and should loosely be followed. It is also not bad advice to be skeptical of one’s own conclusions.

I did end up purchasing some colorful varieties of yarrow to complement the white-flowered crop. Now I find myself in need of a plant I thought I’d had almost from the beginning. I did name my blog “Wildly Mistaken” for a reason, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it when I find out I am exactly that.

Finding Spring

This year’s transition from winter to spring has felt decidedly odd in the Washington, DC area. We’ve had eighty degree February weather, a windstorm that literally blew away the Potomac River, and alternating bouts of warmth and snow. Last Saturday I took a walk and was sleeted upon; Sunday I hiked for hours in temperatures approaching sixty degrees. Tuesday brought more sleet, which transitioned into several inches of snow on Wednesday almost all of which melted on Thursday. I’m paraphrasing my wife in saying that this March came in like a lion and went out like a second, bigger lion that ate the first lion.

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The weather, and some other obligations, have kept me from spending as much time exploring nature as I’d like in 2018. So, I made an effort last weekend to hunt spring deep into all the darkest corners where it might be hiding. Good news! Despite the weird weather patterns, it’s not really in hiding. I just needed to go outside and pay attention.

IMG_6003What did I find in my search for spring? Mostly the expected. Spring migratory birds haven’t really returned yet (although some of the earliest arrivals, like eastern bluebirds and tree swallows, are starting to pop up). I haven’t noticed any amphibian eggs. So, the signs of spring are mostly relegated to plants. The perennials in my own yard are starting to come back. Red maples are blooming abundantly now, making an odd cranberry accent to the snowfall. Skunk cabbage is up; daffodils and crocuses are emerging. Lesser celandine is blanketing the streamside woods and choking out native plants. Snowdrops are a lovely non-native that is also in bloom. Perhaps the most exciting are the nascent Virginia bluebells I found along the Northwest Branch Trail. I didn’t recognize them at this early stage, but a passing jogger remarked on them as I was lining up a photo.

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I was less than thrilled to find just how many of these early-blooming flowers and other plants are non-native. I already mentioned the lesser celandine and snowdrops, but the daffodils and crocuses are also escaped ornamentals. I also came across lenten roses (Helleborus sp.), Japanese spurge, garlic mustard, and ground ivy. I know the mile-a-minute and porcelainberry explosion is well on its way. Oh, and English ivy is a whole thing, too. It’s enough to make me want to sign up for every single invasive plant removal event, or maybe even start my own vigilante effort.

A gimmick I used to get myself going is the iNaturalist smartphone app. I had downloaded it some time ago but never really used it. It allows one to upload photographs and crowd-source the identification. You can suggest your own ID (or not) and other naturalists will weigh in. You can also explore existing photos in a given area for guidance and help others firm up their IDs. Various citizen-science (and some just-for-fun) projects are available to join. Virtually all of my observations so far have received corroboration or clarification the same day, so the community is definitely active enough to make it worthwhile.

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A patch of Japanese spurge – a plant helpfully identified by iNaturalist.

I suspect this will be a tremendous tool for expanding life lists, especially plants, as it can effectively serve as a hyper-localized field guide. It has already helped me identify species from more than twenty old photos that had been bugging me, and resulted in quicker and easier identification of some new photos. I think I have already helped others with a few, too. If naturalism is your bag, I highly recommend using this app. That recommendation is partly motivated by self interest, to be sure. The more data points I can talk others into providing, the better tool it will become for all its users.

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A nickernut tree (Guilandina bonduc) in the Everglades. iNaturalist made this identification possible for me years later.
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drooping star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum nutans), another retro-ID

In other spring news, this year’s crop of seedlings is well on its way. This process always feels a little like grabbing spring by the scruff of its neck and dragging it into place. This year I’ve got heirloom tomatoes (a line Laurel’s grandfather started in Maine), morning glories, and sunflowers. I’m also trying to start a few more perennials – various milkweeds, bee balm, goldenrod, and New York ironweed – for the butterfly garden. I cleared quite a bit more space in the fall so I am looking to fill much of it this year. I also bought a butterfly feeder (basically a stand with a bowl and a sponge for nectar). I think this year’s garden is going to be very close to the full vision I had several years ago.

Denver Trip: Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak

We closed out last year’s trip to Colorado with visits to Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak,* two geological marvels. By this time we had moved our base of operations to Mueller State Park, which was delightful in its own right. The Park offers excellent campsites with access to good facilities, hiking trails, and gorgeous landscapes. During these few days even our downtime was filled with breathtaking natural scenery.

This was all during my 2017 bird blitz, so of course I can’t talk about any part of the trip without including some birding notes. In Mueller State Park we were welcomed by turkeys and pygmy nuthatches, and harassed by uppity gray jays. It was here I saw my first Williamson’s sapsucker. We also shared the space with crows and magpies, as well as mountain chickadees and Steller’s jays. At Garden of the Gods I only tallied seven bird species, but four of them were life birds for this East Coaster. High above the rock walls flitted many white-throated swifts, and I spotted a soaring prairie falcon. Closer to the ground I was introduced to a pair each of spotted towhees and Woodhouse’s scrub-jays. My Pikes Peak list was even shorter: American pipits and Lincoln’s sparrows were the only birds I could identify.

Birds were but a small piece of the overall majesty of the area. The view from our campsite in Mueller State Park spoke of the beauty and wonder that was to come. We enjoyed a few short but lovely hikes in the park between our ventures farther afield, and all were rewarding. I would spend a few days here again, given the chance. More forested slopes, broad vistas, and sheltered beaver ponds await my return.

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The view from our campsite

A few more views from the park

It’s hard to do justice to impressive rock formations with still two-dimensional images, but Garden of the Gods is a heck of a place to try. The reddish stones loom over vast acres of fields, pockmarked with holes and crevices. Even in September, ice can be seen peeking out from some of these hideaways. A loop drive offers several access points to hike through the interior, and the access to the public is well set up and seamlessly integrated into the landscape. Pikes Peak beckons as a backdrop to the whole stunning scene.

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Pikes Peak standing behind some of the Garden’s formations

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Speaking of Pikes Peak… that was our next (and final) destination. I admit I had some reservations, fearing it to be a bit of a tourist trap. It felt like maybe it was cheating to just drive up such a tall mountain. I was wrong. I couldn’t categorize anything about Pikes Peak as disappointing. It was stunning. If you seek one of those places that makes you feel small in the face of the universe, this is a place for you.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this concept is to show you what Garden of the Gods looks like from the summit of Pikes Peak.

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Yep. It’s those few pieces of gravel there under the arrow. I don’t think I can say much more except to throw a lot of superlatives and let them run down the page, so I will close with a collection of photos from our ascent and the summit.

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This beautiful lake sits at the foot with the peak in full view

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An alternative means for ascending the mountain

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*Yes, apparently the lack of an apostrophe is correct. Huh.

 

 

Denver Trip: Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR & Florissant Fossil Beds

It’s hard to choose a favorite site from last September’s trip to Colorado. As amazing as Rocky Mountain National Park was, I perhaps equally enjoyed our time at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. This is a place with engaging natural history and fascinating human history. Once a biological weapons facility that dealt untold damage to the local ecosystem, the site is now a refuge and a shining example of conservation. There is an excellent wildlife drive and plenty of available hiking trails. It also has one of the better visitors’ centers I have seen at similar facilities.

After the mountains, there was a different but equally real sense of immensity to this place. In this habitat, one can see the whole place opening before you on approach. Despite the openness, the wildlife can be hard to spot at first. This visit was just one more time I was struck at how adept animals can be at not being seen.

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I think the first critter we spotted (and definitely the one we saw the most of) was a black-tailed prarie dog. I realize these adorable guys rate somewhere between “background presence” and “irritating pest” to the locals, but I couldn’t help but enjoy every one that scurried away or fixed me with a wary gaze. They’re so easy to anthropomorphize, with their social behavior appearing so comically playful. One imagines they are the true inspiration for the game “whack-a-mole.”

Other than the prairie dogs, the drive was largely uneventful for the first twenty minutes or so. We crawled through mostly open plains, scaring up the occasional vesper sparrow (identified by a flash of white outer tail feathers). Eventually we spotted a red-tailed hawk posing atop a telephone pole and paused for a photo.

Soon after, we began to see them: small, black dots on the horizon, yet unmistakable through my binoculars. American bison! Perhaps, like the prairie dogs, these creatures are not very exciting to anyone from the Great Plains region. I admit I would give some side-eye to anyone similarly amazed by a herd of cattle. Something about the buffalo (not this oddity of grammar) just strikes all the right chords of natural wonder. Especially once you see them up close. Clearly these beasts were the stars of the refuge.

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With the wildlife drive completed, it was time to slow things down for a closer look. We chose the Lake Ladora loop trail for our hike, and were well-rewarded for this choice. We took our lunch at a picnic table near the trail’s namesake, watching cormorants dive and California gulls circle. Then we strolled through a naturalist’s paradise. Avifauna was a theme, but the flora was stunning as well and butterflies were omnipresent. The variety of bird life really spoke to the overall productivity of the environment here. I only counted 23 species of birds on our 2-hour hike, but the varied niches they occupied were the real story. I notched three species of raptor (red-tailed hawks, a Swainson’s hawk, and an American kestrel). Great blue herons, snowy egrets, and belted kingfishers shared the lake with ducks, geese, grebes, and American coots. The fields were interspersed with vesper sparrows, song sparrows, red-winged blackbirds and western meadowlarks. I even found one rock wren along the dam. All too soon it was time for us to be going.

Our next destination was Florissant Fossil Beds. I have to admit, this place somewhat disappointed me. It just felt like their public face was dedicated to all the wrong things. There was a brief video, which did a fine job of presenting the context of the site and building anticipation. Ancient fossils of fish, insects, leaves and more! Wonders of natural science unmatched anywhere! After the video, we joined a ranger-led tour group, anticipating all manner of scientific nuggets would be revealed to us. What we got instead was mostly stale repetition of the video, plus tales of Walt Disney purchasing a petrified stump and thieves stealing pieces of petrified wood. There was a good ten minutes on why metal bands were looped around the largest stumps (an early, ill-advised effort to excavate with dynamite).

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I mean, the petrified wood was pretty cool on its own, but…

These stories of course have their place, but they were related at the expense of learning much about the actual fossils or the window into ancient life they gave us. Eventually we slipped quietly away from the group to explore several of the short hiking trails on our own. This improved the experience somewhat, allowing us to see more of the grounds and picture the modern natural landscape in juxtaposition with the ancient one.

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This mormon cricket seemed an echo of the giant insects represented in the site’s fossil record.

I think the biggest disappointment was the limited array of fossils available for viewing. Apart from the stumps there was a small room with perhaps fifty specimens on (confusingly presented) display, but absent was the staggering variety described in their video. I’m sure some of that is due for the need of research and study, but very little information seemed available about said research, except as it related to petrified wood.

The value and importance of Florissant Fossil Beds to the natural sciences is immense and unambiguous, and usually I try to write positively about such places. Here, though, something vital was missing in the presentation. Even with those shortcomings, the landscape was beautiful, and taken together with the refuge this made for a couple of great days exploring nature.