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.
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.
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.
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.
*Yes, apparently the lack of an apostrophe is correct. Huh.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Our recent trip to the Rockies was really about people. An old college friend and his wife had moved to Denver and we’d been meaning to go visit them. Another friend’s wedding in Lincoln, Nebraska got us about two-thirds of the way there so we tacked a Rocky Mountain vacation onto those travel plans. It was a fantastic trip with great company all around. Yet for me, any trip to that part of the country without exploring nature is unthinkable.
From the moment we landed at DIA (no, not a spell dealing light holy damage… an airport) the Rockies beckoned. It’s a challenge to do justice in words or photos to the awe these mountains inspire in a Mid-Atlantic mind. They grab one’s concept of “mountain,” stuff it in a canvas bag, and swing it against a brick wall. No lens angle is wide enough to bring back the proof of this. Numbers like 12,005 and 14,115 (feet above sea level) or 35 (miles of visibility) don’t really do the job either. The photos below almost capture my earliest impressions.
Our first direct exposure to the mountains was a couple of days spent hiking and camping in Rocky Mountain National Park. It is so majestic that it was tempting to compare its eastern cousin (and one of my favorite places), Shenandoah National Park, unfavorably. Really everything about the two parks, except for the well-maintained road and facilities, is just different. Indeed I learned early on that even the seemingly familiar was subtly otherwise. On our first hike alone, before we got to a really high altitude, I picked up on a lot of this. I spotted wild geraniums, but these would prove to be the Fremont geranium (Geranium caespitosum), as opposed to the G. maculatum I am used to. The least chipmunk (Tamias minimus) is much bolder than its eastern relatives. Of course the trees at these elevations are also quite different, dominated by species like quaking aspen and ponderosa pine. White-tailed deer are present but joined by the similar mule deer.
This first hike to gem lake was a perfect introduction to hiking at altitude. It was a short, moderate-difficulty hike with a gorgeous destination. It taught us that in addition to the flora and fauna both the landscape and the very air are alien to dwellers of the coastal plain.
In the evenings, we made camp at the Lumpy Ridge Campground. Here our education on the eccentricities of our temporary new environment continued. The camp host regaled us with stories of the local black bear population. Apparently one small group learned to identify and target a specific make and model of car whose doors would pop open if a bear jumped on the roof in just the right way. For this and other reasons bear safety seems to be taken about thrice as seriously as in Shenandoah, despite Shenandoah’s higher population density of bears. We also learned that a bull moose had been spotted in the campground the previous day, and were cautioned to give him, too, a wide berth. Alas we did not get the opportunity to decide just how wide. It was also here that I started to spot the local bird species: Steller’s and gray jays, mountain chickadees, and red-breasted nuthatches.
We spent the second day driving the Trail Ridge Road and pausing for several short hikes. Eventually the alpine forests give way to tundra, and here the views are stunning. I will never forget my first time standing above the treeline looking down at it, or my first glimpse of one of the beautiful montane lakes. Nor will I forget our encounter with a pika (Ochotona princeps) – a sort of rabbit-gerbil only found at very high elevations. This part of the trip also included my first sightings of mule deer, elk, and yellow-headed blackbirds.
It’s unlike me to include so many landscapes and so few wildlife images, but it was the landscape that had me reaching for the camera in this park. I haven’t run out of things to say or images to share about Rocky Mountain National Park, so if you’d like to see more feel free to look me up on Instagram (where I am also wildlymistaken).
Good news! This is the last time you’ll have to scroll past a post about my 2017 bird blitz. To briefly recap, early this year I decided to do a personal “big year” of sorts. The goal I set was to see more species of birds in 2017 than were on my life list prior to 2017. I learned a lot about birding through this effort, and subsequently revised my life list to remove a few species I was no longer sure of (but kept the original target number). I blew past that original goal (in part because my life list was missing quite a lot of fairly common species for this region) and set a revised target of 200 species. So, how did I do?
I almost made the revised goal, and here’s the (rest of the) list:
174. Swainson’s hawk 175. California gull
176. American kestrel 177. rock wren 178. vesper sparrow 179. western meadowlark 180. pygmy nuthatch 181. Williamson’s sapsucker
182. mountain bluebird 183. white-throated swift 184. prairie falcon 185. Woodhouse’s scrub-jay 186. spotted towhee 187. American pipit 188. Lincoln’s sparrow
189. sharp-shinned hawk 190. little egret 191. spotted dove 192. Japanese tit 193. light-vented bulbul 194. common tailorbird 195. Oriental magpie-robin 196. crested myna 197. Eurasian tree sparrow
It was really the trips to Colorado (birds 165 to 188) and China (birds 190 to 197) that gave me the opportunity to expand the list. Species new to my life list are in bold above – which is all but three of the birds since my last update. Regrettably, I have very few good pictures of these species, but I’ve included what I could find.
Another birding accomplishment I pulled off this year was identifying my first hybrid: the relatively common mallard x American black duck. I actually encountered this individual several times in Wheaton Regional Park, and he is pictured in the header image from this post.
Of course, a list like this wouldn’t be complete without the misses. So, I saw 197 species of birds this year… but how many could I have seen? There are a few major rarities that occurred in my area which I didn’t get the chance to go see: a Eurasion wigeon on some private land in Poolesville and a shiny cowbird hanging out near Beach Drive in Kensington are recent examples. For a list of more common birds I just didn’t happen to spot, I turn once again to ebird.org.
With their data, I can see that there are 155 species which have been recorded in Montgomery County at least once which I didn’t see in 2017. Of course, no one could expect to cross off all those records in a single year – many are one-off vagrants or extreme rarities. I will focus instead on the most common of these. The most reported Montgomery County bird I missed is the Prothonotary warbler, occurring on 3.4% of submitted checklists. A total of 21 birds of the 155 are historically reported on at least 1% of MoCo lists. Nine of these are warblers, but also included are the hermit thrush, purple finch, red-headed woodpecker, and rusty blackbird (among others).
So what about 2018? I don’t think I will try for any specific birding goal next year, but I’d like to fill in some of those blanks and keep expanding that life list. I pushed it forward from 160 to 245 this year, so I think I can coast on that for a while.
The monarch (Danaus plexippus) is the classic poster child of butterflies, at least in North America. There are plenty of good reasons for this. It’s large and gorgeous. Its annual migratory pattern is a stunning story. Its life cycle is easy to observe and study, making it ideal for classrooms and amateur naturalists alike. The monarch is also an object lesson in conservation, as it has been endangered by a once-systematic elimination of its only host plants (milkweeds). Its lookalike, the viceroy, is the classic example of Batesian mimicry. In short, the monarch is a biology and ecology lesson all neatly wrapped in a beautiful package.
The monarch also just so happens to be the only butterfly species I have documented in my garden through all of its life stages. I have also collected its caterpillars to raise. I learned (or possibly relearned?) the term “instar” by way of the butterfly garden, and had the privilege of viewing monarch caterpillars at each of these stages. If you ask me, the caterpillars are almost as attractive as the adults. It’s pretty astonishing to watch them eat and grow so rapidly from the moment they emerge from their eggs as tiny pinheads of life.
Caterpillars, from first to fifth instar
If you want monarchs, all you need do is plant milkweeds (flowers in genus Asclepias). Several species are native and/or do well in the Mid-Atlantic region. I have common milkweed (A. syriaca), butterfly weed (A. tuberosa), swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) and bloodflower (A. curassavica) in my garden. Bloodflower is not native in Maryland, but it grows well here and the monarchs still eat it. Additional milkweeds for your area can be found here. The fact that “weed” is in the name must be what turns folks off, because it really is an attractive plant available in a variety of colors. Milkweeds support a wide variety of other native insects, as well, so they are an excellent choice for anyone desiring to plant natives.
As picky as the caterpillars are, adult monarchs seem to be pretty gregarious feeders. I have seen them take nectar from the milkweeds as a one-stop shop but also from joe-pye weed, butterfly bush, and zinnias. It seems the best strategy for helping monarchs find your milkweed is to plant a variety of perennials and annuals that flower at different times throughout the summer. With the right mix of plants you can expect to see several generations between their mass migrations. If you want to protect them from predators and watch them through a full life cycle, all you really need is a clear, ventilated box or jar, some sticks, and milkweed leaves.
I shared Part 1 of this piece back in August. To recap, by “progress” I mean “how much wildlife has my habitat garden brought to my yard?” Last time I covered the most obvious category – butterflies and moths – and today I will focus on everything else. This all comes with the same caveat as before: I have no baseline wildlife survey to compare this to. I’m really just making a self-congratulatory list of wildlife sightings in my yard. Somehow, I am OK with that!
Before I move on, I do want to briefly mention four additional lepidopterans since August: the eastern comma (Polygoniacomma), tobacco hornworm, aka Carolina sphinx moth (Manduca sexta),raspberry pyrausta moth (Pyrausta signatalis), and giant leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia).
Insects are an overwhelmingly diverse Class of animal life. I will never be able to identify to species every insect I find in my yard. There are plenty I can, though (especially with help). I’m able to put many more into the appropriate Family or Genus. Based on that, I am able to confidently list 90 insect species for my yard, including the butterflies and moths from the last post. That number doesn’t precisely represent individual insects confidently identified to species, although there is only a little fluff. “Fluff” in this case just means an insect I am very confident is a different species from any of the others included. For example, my garden was visited by a juvenile praying mantis for about a week last year. I can’t tell the difference between a Carolina and a Chinese mantis at that stage, but I can certainly say it wasn’t an ant or a caterpillar. Bees and wasps I can treat similarly: I can spot the difference between a yellowjacket and a bumblebee but am not well-versed in recognizing the individual species of each.
syrphid fly sp.
jagged ambush bug
spotted cucumber beetle
eyed click beetle
patent leather beetlw
Spiders are tough. When I get a photo to review, I am often confronted with notes like “identification to species requires dissection,” or find that I need to be able to see a very specific detail very clearly. Consequently, despite encountering certainly thousands of spiders I only have 16 species on my life list. Of those, only six have I found in my yard. They are: marbled orbweaver, basilica orbweaver, orchard orbweaver, woodlouse hunter, broad-faced sac spider, and Pholcus manueli. I can add at least four “fluff” species (a green crab spider, a jumping spider, a grass spider, and a brownish orbweaver) for a total of ten.
Isn’t that specific? As much as I hate to lump all this together it’s so much more convenient than typing up categories for each individual kind of invertebrate. I am not enough of an expert to ID many of the included creatures precisely anyway. So what do I have here? The wood tick and house centipede are present for sure. I’ve found earthworms, pill bugs, harvestmen, centipedes, and millipedes of an unknown number of species each. At least three species of slug round out the list. That’s another ten animals in total, under the most conservative of estimates.
Thanks to eBird, I have very good data on the bird species I have spotted in my yard. It comes to forty-three species, and while none of these is particularly uncommon and five or so are merely flyovers, that feels like a pretty good number. And yet… just a few blocks away in Wheaton Regional Park birders have collectively tallied over 170 species. I’ve found more than sixty there myself. I won’t likely be attracting any, say, spotted sandpipers to my yard… but there is some room for improvement.
This is a short and boring list (but try telling my dogs that!) Eastern gray squirrel, eastern fox squirrel, southern flying squirrel, eastern chipmunk, eastern cottontail, Norway rat, white-footed mouse, white-tailed deer, human, dog. Add some unidentified species of mice and bats, and it’s an even dozen. I do think the dogs somewhat cut down on the mammal population I might otherwise see here… I have after all come across groundhogs and foxes in the neighborhood and I know raccoons, possums, and skunks are about. As irritating as the rat population is, at least they’ve never made it inside.
An even shorter, but hopefully less boring, list:
Northern green frog
gray (or possibly Cope’s gray) treefrog
American toad (no one needs a picture of one of these, right?
And that’s the list! So to recap, that’s a grand total of: 90 insects, 10 spiders, 10 other invertebrates, 43 birds, 12 mammals, and 3 amphibians – 168 total animal species cataloged in my yard. All my instincts say that 168 is a big number, yet as I mentioned above more species of birds alone have been recorded in our neighborhood park.
Greetings from all one of us here at Wildly Mistaken! I’ve got a lot of content to catch up on, so apologies in advance for blowing up your feeds. Forthcoming topics include: the monarch life cycle, a trip to the Rockies, a (brief) trip to China, and more. I will be postponing the remaining “12 Months of Nature” to 2018.
Today, though, I will be talking some more about my butterfly garden. Even through the end of fall there’s a lot that can be done to move the whole thing along. When I look out the window I still see beauty there, albeit a quieter, more somber beauty.
Weeding and Perennial Upkeep
Fall is, for one thing, a great time to redouble weed control efforts. The retreating foliage tends to expose a lot of unwanted plants I’ve missed through the spring and summer months. A lot of the more agressive (and often invasive) weeds make a last effort to reestablish themselves. So step one in fall butterfly gardening is to go all scorched-earth (figuratively) on the honeysuckle, ground ivy, and garlic mustard that would like to own the yard. I mostly let the clovers, violets, and sorrel go, but remove them from anywhere they might make trouble for my other plants.
My next move is to cut back the perennials which require it and tidy up any remaining dead or dying annuals. Many of the perennials, however, require little-to-no attention. I leave the stalks of milkweeds and joe-pye weed for the bugs (and hence the birds). Alfalfa can be allowed to die back on its own and mixed in with next spring’s soil. Sunflower stalks can serve the same purpose as the milkweeds, and partridge pea has a tendency to take care of itself and can be largely left alone. I do cut back my asters, coneflowers, and bee balm. Last year my chives, pearly everlasting, and sage never went dormant through a mild winter, but I am not sure how common that is for this region. I tend to wait for spring to prune my butterfly bush, but fall pruning is also reportedly effective. Really this all mostly boils down to Googling each species and doing what more experienced gardeners tell me I should.
Expanding the Footprint
I’ve been annually expanding the garden to fill the available space, and late fall is an excellent time for this part of the process. It’s least disruptive to the existing plants, and the ground is usually damp and soft – not to mention not yet frozen. As of a couple weekends ago, all sod inside my garden fence is a thing of the past! I plopped the removed sod, grass-side down, in various other spots around the yard where I’d prefer grass and weeds not grow. I scratched in some compost until I ran out of supply, then covered with a thick layer of leaves.
Speaking of which… everyone’s favorite fall passtime is raking leaves, right? Or at least jumping in the piles like some kind of gleeful suburban stereotype? Well – preachy environmentalist alert – I’m here to tell you that the best thing you can do with dead leaves (for nature, anyway) is nothing! There have been plenty of pieces written about the environmental benefits of dead leaves and alternatives to the rake and burn approach. Frankly, I have found many of them to be ham-fisted, judgy attempts to guilt folks into what they “should” be doing. I get it. Decaying leaves return nutrients to the soil, provide breeding habitat for many insects and spiders, and offer winter shelter for amphibians as well as cover for small mammals. Burning leaves releases carbon into the atmosphere much more rapidly than natural processes. Yet, no one is here for those holier-than-thou lectures and I’m not here to provide one. I’d just like to lay out the alternatives as I understand them and describe how I manage the leaves in my own yard.
I will say this for the environmentally-friendliest approach: it is also the laziest! That’s right, doing exactly zero things to the leaves in your yard actually does the most things to support the natural environment. Who among us, though, doesn’t have at least the tiniest aesthetic preference for a leaf-free lawn? Our brains like neatness and order, and a bunch of scattered leaves is certainly not the surest way to satisfy that sense.
I don’t really know the relative environmental impacts of the other options I am about to discuss, except that they are all better than burning big piles of leaves but not as good as the do-nothing approach. I do think all are worth considering as happy mediums between the greatest offenses to either our conservationist or aesthetic sensibilities.
A popular method of dealing with leaf litter these days is to mulch them into one’s lawn with a mower. It’s not quite as lazy as doing nothing, but since most of us will be mowing our lawns anyway it isn’t too far behind. This does return some of he nutrients from the leaves to the soil and doesn’t release a ton of carbon rapidly into the atmosphere. One drawback for the perfect lawn crowd is that it can be all but impossible to really grind up all the leaves small enough that they aren’t noticeable.
Montgomery County has a leaf collection program. I am not sure how common these are, but they can be a good alternative to burning one’s own leaves. Here, the county sends vacuum trucks around to collect the leaves. All residents must do is pile them close to the street. The collected leaves become compost which is sold back to residents through retailers. I don’t know how the fuel use of the trucks compares to the carbon emissions from leaf burning, or how much more efficient the resulting compost is at returning nutrients to the soil as compared to a mulching mower. Of course, once you pile your leaves at the curb they are prone to blowing back into the yard while waiting for collection, so this alone is probably not the solution for meticulous yard freaks.
Another option is to gather your leaves for use as natural mulch. Commercial mulch, after all, is designed specifically to replicate what is accomplished by fallen leaves in wooded areas. It keeps roots of desired plants insulated during the winter, helps retain water, and prevents massive explosions of spring weeds. This approach retains most of the benefits of letting leaves sit (and arguably concentrates those benefits into a desired space). It can be a lot more labor-intensive than the other options, and of course one can’t ensure that 100% of the leaves will stay in the exact places intended. After a couple of rains, though, they do become more stationary than one might think.
I’m sure there are other possibilities I’ve not considered, some probably novel and brilliant. Because I am me, I use a combination of all the approaches I have listed. Two or three times a season I collect many of the leaves into lawn bags. Then I use them as mulch, primarily in the butterfly garden. I mulch the leaves left behind into my lawn, but since many leaves collect near the road anyway I tighten up those piles for the county to collect. The result is a yard that is mostly pretty tidy in most places, with mostly healthy grass. The butterfly garden itself, in my estimation, satisfies the aesthetic side by replicating a woodland floor.
That’s an awful lot of words to get to the point: there’s no one “right” thing we should all be doing to manage leaf litter, but it’s well worth the time to consider all these options before burning piles of dead leaves. Each approach comes with its own subset of considerations. Raking is harder work but “greener” than blowing. Various mowers use different amounts and types of fuel. Local laws or HOAs may ban or limit burning or otherwise specify standards of lawn-keeping. Whatever method you choose, as always: happy gardening!