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.

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