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.

Global Big Day 2017

Yesterday, May 13th, was Global Big Day. Global Big Day is an annual event sponsored by a whole host of birding groups across the globe with the intent to get as much data as possible into eBird. This was my first year participating (and frankly, my first year aware of its existence) and I had a blast! Along with 14,000 people I’ve never met as far as I know, I helped gather and report sightings of thousands of birds. Data is still coming in but as of this writing 5,884 total bird species have been logged. I was able to nab 61 myself, which in comparison is not very many but is a huge day for me. Among those 61 species were 11 more for my year list, of which 8 were new additions to my life list. I began the day with a goal of 50 species and hopefully three or four new ones, so I am overall quite pleased with the day. Yet there are groups who managed to log nearly twice as many birds as I have on my life list in a single day… perspective.

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Canada geese may be among the most boring and irritating birds, but their young sure are adorable.

It was raining pretty steadily when I woke up, but I had steeled myself for this eventuality during the preceding week and was not about to let that stop me. So, at 6:15 AM I tromped off into Wheaton Regional Park. I focused my first efforts of the day in the area around Pine Lake and the miniature train. It began humbly enough, as most birding checklists seem to, with robins, cardinals, and mourning doves. It wasn’t long, though, before I had added several of the most common May birds I was missing for the year: first a common yellowthroat, then a pair of enthusiastically singing red-eyed vireos. Three yellow warblers and a pair of northern parulas soon followed. There are some large pines near the train station that always seem to have some kind of interesting bird activity. I paused there for a long time, straining for a good look at several warblers that were darting about. I wasn’t able to ID any of them – the flashes of black, white, and yellow I saw weren’t nearly enough nor did I recognize their songs. Before moving on, however, I did pick up a surprising veery. That was a new one for me, and it took me a lot of staring and phone-pokery, and then finding someone else’s corroborating report, for me to accept my conclusion.

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A red-winged blackbird sat still just barely long enough for a quick phone snap

My next checklist began still within Wheaton Regional Park, but this time focusing on Brookside Gardens and the Nature Center. I didn’t add any new life or year-list birds here, but I did add several of the more common birds I didn’t find around Pine Lake, including the first pileated woodpecker of the day. I also spent some time watching and listening to some Baltimore orioles and following the graceful dives and turns of several barn swallows. For boring semantic reasons I started a separate checklist when leaving the park around 10 AM to return home. Here again I mostly fleshed out the everyday birds I was almost certain to see at some point, with one notable exception. I spied what I assumed was a wood thrush, but something just didn’t seem quite right. It sang and then I knew it was a different bird, but what kind? I turned to the Merlin bird ID tool and found the most likely culprits, noting the key features. I tracked the bird back down (it fortunately had not moved far) and centered it in my binoculars. Between the smudgy white eyering and chest pattern I had it – a Swainson’s thrush, and another first for me.

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I told you goslings were cute.

I returned home for lunch and to plan out my next trip, which turned out to include the highlight of the day. It certainly helped that it had stopped raining by then and I had thrown on some fresh clothes. At about 1:15 I arrived at my next spot: Meadowside Nature Center in Rock Creek Regional Park. In general this was a surprising gem with a lot to offer – I will need to return for more than just a birding trip to explore further. I arrived to find another pileated woodpecker on the ground poking at a stump not ten feet from where I’d parked and immediately knew I had chosen well. I paused to check out their raptor cages: a red-shouldered hawk, barred owl, and bald eagle (no, I didn’t count those). I meandered through some short trails at first, where I happened upon a small group of American redstarts emphatically either welcoming me or telling me to go away. After a while of wandering I came to the Study Pond, and here was a bird-nerd’s delight. I first noticed a number of swallows (tree and bank) zipping above the surface. Then I found that what I thought were more swallows executing acrobatic U-turns were in fact cedar waxwings – fifteen or more of them. When I passed around to the far bank for a closer look, a flash of blue caught my eye. It turned out to be a blue grosbeak – another first for me. I was rewarded with two great views of this stunning and unmistakable bird. I stayed to observe all this activity through my scope for half an hour or so.

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A tree swallow with the study pond in the background

I concluded the day’s birding by making a circuit of the nearby Lake Bernard Frank. Most of the birds here were repeat sightings, and none were brand new to me, but I did manage to add a few good ones to the day’s list, notably some double-crested cormorants and a bald eagle. There were a few moments where I was nearly certain I had heard a red-headed woodpecker’s distinctive screaming “Tchurr” call but I was unable to confirm it. The eagle would be the last species tallied for the day, which was somehow fitting.

 

Favorite Bird of the Day: Blue Grosbeak
Most Surprising Bird of the Day: Veery
Most Disappointing Miss: Scarlet Tanager
Most Surprising Miss: Chimney Swift
Most Abundant Bird: American Robin
Birds Appearing on All Five Lists: Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, American Robin, Chipping Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Baltimore Oriole

Final Tally

Canada Goose (35)
Wood Duck (5)
Mallard (3)
Double-Crested Cormorant (8)
Great Blue Heron (3)
Green Heron (2)
Black Vulture (1)
Turkey Vulture (1)
Osprey (4)
Bald Eagle (1)
Solitary Sandpiper (1)
Mourning Dove (32)
Red-Bellied Woodpecker (23)
Downy Woodpecker (6)
Hairy Woodpecker (2)
Northern Flicker (5)
Pileated Woodpecker (3)
Eastern Phoebe (1)
Great Crested Flycatcher (2)
Eastern Kingbird (3)
Red-Eyed Vireo (2)
Blue Jay (13)
American Crow (17)
Fish Crow (7)
Northern Rough-Winged Swallow (7)
Tree Swallow (4)
Bank Swallow (3)
Barn Swallow (4)
Carolina Chickadee (21)
Tufted Titmouse (5)
White-Breasted Nuthatch (9)
House Wren (1)
Carolina Wren (8)
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (18)
Eastern Bluebird (6)
Veery (1)
Swainson’s Thrush (1)
Wood Thrush (16)
American Robin (58)
Gray Catbird (13)
Northern Mockingbird (2)
European Starling (7)
Cedar Waxwing (15)
Ovenbird (6)
Common Yellowthroat (1)
American Redstart (4)
Northern Parula (2)
Yellow Warbler (3)
Yellow-Rumped Warbler (3)
Chipping Sparrow (21)
White-Throated Sparrow (1)
Eastern Towhee (8)
Northern Cardinal (55)
Blue Grosbeak (1)
Red-Winged Blackbird (19)
Common Grackle (17)
Brown-Headed Cowbird (2)
Baltimore Oriole (9)
House Finch (3)
American Goldfinch (17)
House Sparrow (27)

Total Identified Birds – 561

2017 Bird Blitz Update

Oh, did I not mention I’m calling my birding goal for the year “2017 Bird Blitz”? OK then, I’m telling you now. For added context, you can check out my post from earlier in the year when I set the goal. As expected the pace of forty species in one week has slowed down, but beyond that how am I doing?

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A bald eagle at Lake Bernard Frank. There is a nesting pair calling this spot home.

First I need to do some housekeeping. After my discovery of the ebird site and app, and armed with some added bird knowledge, I decided that a few of my pre-2017 sightings were too specious to count. For example, I had listed a spot-breasted oriole in the Florida Keys in February, but found there were zero recorded sightings of that species in that area at that time of year. It’s astronomically more likely that I made a mistake than that I’m the one person to ever manage such a sighting, so that was a no-brainer. That’s the most extreme example, but four others were similarly scratched, reducing my life total through 2016 to 155. So now the question is whether to move the bar for this exercise to 156 (the spirit of the goal) or leave it at 161 (the originally stated target).

On to some analysis. Today my list for the year stands at 72, a pace which would bring me clear of the 156 mark by May 2nd. 10 of those are new to my life list (all of them waterfowl, which I find interesting). That’s also an important number, because I will need plenty of new species to balance for those I am extremely unlikely to find in 2017 (here’s looking at you, 2012 Costa Rica trip). I count somewhere between 22 and 25 such birds, so 10 in two months puts me on a similar pace. I need to be cautious in my optimism, though, because again the most common birds have been crossed off already.

Speaking of common… ebird has given me all kinds of data to play with, including the most commonly seen birds in my area which I haven’t yet recorded. For February in Montgomery County the #1 bird I’ve yet to nab is the red-tailed hawk, reported on 8.8% of checklists. The extremely frustrating part of this? As I was typing this paragraph, I caught a glimpse out my window of what may have been a red-tailed hawk. I grabbed my binocs and dashed to the door, but only saw enough to say for sure that it was a hawk and not a vulture. Not good enough. The rest of my top ten misses (fist shake): yellow-rumped warbler (7.3%), brown creeper (6.9%), canvasback (5.2%), golden-crowned kinglet (5.2%), gadwall (5.1%), brown-headed cowbird (4.5%), lesser scaup (3.5%), field sparrow (3.5%), and hermit thrush (3.4%). This is your opportunity to troll me with your gorgeous photos of these birds.

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I will diverge a bit to share and discuss this fortuitously-timed article about feral cats. I have to say that in a general sense I agree with the hunter, and as painful as it is culling feral cats is probably not a categorically wrong move. His methods are too extreme, and I have trouble fully supporting cat-killing (after all, however serious the problem it’s one we humans created). I also wonder how Mr. Wood distinguishes between a feral cat and an indoor pet who escaped for a few days… certainly one shouldn’t wantonly eliminate any cat one sees. Feral cats are hell on native birds, though, much the way the explosive deer population is hell on native plants. Rather than advocate for the mass killing of cats I’d like to say: please don’t have outdoor cats, and please spay or neuter your cats if you are not a breeder. Feral cats and outdoor pet cats aren’t good for anyone, including the cats.

Another consideration is that we should not apply methods of culling too broadly or too hastily. Non-native and invasive are not the same thing, and not every non-native species poses the same threat to the ecosystem. Mr. Wood’s systematic killing of European starlings and house sparrows, for example, seems unnecessary. Both are abundant, non-native species but I am not aware of any studies showing they have a particular negative impact on the environment in North America. It’s possible they do in a way that hasn’t been measured but that’s a tenuous basis for extreme action.

Last but not least, the 32 birds added since my last post are as follows (new additions to my life list in bold).

41. black vulture
42. pileated woodpecker
43. winter wren
44. turkey vulture
45. American coot
46. ruddy duck
47. ring-necked duck
48. great blue heron
49. belted kingfisher
50. Cooper’s hawk
51. ring-necked pheasant
52. bald eagle
53. pied-billed grebe
54. red-winged blackbird
55. common grackle
56. fish crow
57. eastern bluebird
58. red-shouldered hawk
59. snow goose
60. brown-headed nuthatch
61. herring gull
62. horned grebe
63. green-winged teal
64. red-throated loon
65. northern pintail
66. yellow-bellied sapsucker
67. wood duck
68. common goldeneye
69. barred owl
70. killdeer
71. trumpeter swan
72. common merganser

12 Months of Nature: February

Winter Beaches

Say the word “beach” and you conjure images of summer: swimming, surfing, beach volleyball, sunbathing – all enjoyed despite how uncomfortably hot it is. We’ve built a sort of cultural mysticism around beaches as a land of eternal summer. Of course this isn’t how reality works, but here’s the thing we seem to forget: In the winter, beaches don’t stop being beaches any more than mountains cease being mountains or forests cease having trees.

021-2I pitched this to Laurel as the best February option from Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year, and was met with skepticism. She gave me a certain look, grunted, and said something to the effect of “but beaches are so BORING in the winter.” She’s from Cape Cod, so this is perhaps an understandable line of thinking, but I was flummoxed. All I could think was, “What?! Not for a naturalist! All the same stuff is there but there aren’t as many people screwing with it!” Meanwhile I’m sure she was thinking, “what the heck is wrong with him? You can’t SWIM in the OCEAN in FEBRUARY.” Both of us were right. I had assumed defeat until a warm spell and a warmer forecast prompted Laurel to say on a Thursday evening “maybe we should do your beach thing this weekend.” YES!

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A horseshoe crab with slipper-shell jockeys and a “regular” crab companion.

We chose as our destination Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park, with a short side trip to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Both were new to us and each rewarded us immensely for the choice. It’s about a 2.5 hour drive for those of us in the Maryland suburbs of DC, so doable as a day trip. Dogs aren’t allowed on the beaches during the spring and summer months for ecological concerns, but they are from November to April (just one more reason to go in the winter). We arrived and after getting our bearings at the nature center we immediately hit the trails. The Seaside Nature Trail was nice but a little tough to follow, offering the opportunity for a quick side trip to the fishing pier. The Walking Dunes Trail/Saltmarsh Spur was excellent and just the right length to occupy a relaxing afternoon.

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The dogs were SO ready for this.

The 70-degree weather was certainly pleasant, but it did throw a slight monkey wrench into my winter beach plans in the form of lots of other people. Not that I’m an unrepentant misanthrope, but generally speaking the more people present the less happy the naturalists among them. I promise I didn’t begrudge anyone else their good time. Anyway, all that to say that the beaches were pretty well picked over in terms of interesting shells. That certainly didn’t stop us from finding some nature here and there. Horseshoe crabs littered the beach alongside razor clams and softshell crabs. The birding was quite good as well, as I will get to momentarily.

Along with mid-Atlantic beaches come their ecological companion, salt marshes. These, too, can be fun to explore in winter. Waterfowl who spend their springs and summers on the tundra or otherwise north of this area can often be found here, as can a number of raptors. There is always a certain serenity to the salt marsh which can be especially pleasing in winter. Cape Henlopen has acres of this habitat to explore.

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On top of all of this, we discovered the entramce to the Dharma Initiative…

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They were studying us the WHOLE TIME!

Anyway, back to nature. As I mentioned, the birding was superb. From the fishing pier I was able to pick out a horned grebe, a red-throated loon, and some buffleheads amid the gulls. In the salt marsh we spotted a couple of hawks we couldn’t quite identify in addition to a dozen or so turkey vultures, and I got to observe a flock of about 30 green-winged teals as well. At Prime Hook the bird of the day was the northern pintail, with some American black ducks and great blue herons thrown in for good measure. The pintails in particular were gorgeous birds, and a new one for me. The real treat, however, was the enormous flock of snow geese congregating by the entrance to the refuge and spotted on our way out. The flock was easily a thousand strong, and was the second one we saw on the day (the first we passed on the way out and only glimpsed briefly from the highway).

Nerd alert! It is common practice for experienced birders to scan a flock of snow geese looking for that odd-man-out, a Ross’s goose. They’re very similar to snow geese but much less common in the mid-Atlantic (though I believe there have been a few spotted in Maryland this year). Descriptions of how to distinguish the two say things like “smaller, with a more rounded head” and to look for some blue on the beak. So, were there any Ross’s geese in this flock? I have no earthly idea.

Prior months of nature:

January – Bald Eagles