Thursday, October 29, 2009

Snow storm visitors last week

I got so involved in grading papers and writing articles for the Plains Center where I volunteer that I forgot that I wanted to post this. One of the staff naturalists called me to say that a flock of from 300 to 400 sandhill cranes had landed at the center that morning. I immediately drove out there because other than one sandhill that landed their last year, we've only had them fly over. I drove out and these pictures tell the whole story. Incidentally, I created this panorama from three pictures with Photoshop Elements.

Before I got there, I guess they were bugling and calling a lot, but when I got there, they were mostly quiet with only a bird or two calling now and then. What a wonderful surprise.

We had had a snow storm the previous day and it had moved east. I suspect that the storm, which was out in Nebraska, had the birds blocked from their usual route, so they went around the story and caught a tailwind through Colorado's prairie.

Ain't Mother Nature wonderful?

October snow storm in Denver

It's the second day of our October snow storm, as the TV news folks are calling it. Why isn't it just a plain old fashioned snow storm? Why do the weather guessers have to look back into the records to see if today is going to be a record, and if a record, by how much. Why can't we just take what nature has given us and be satisfied with it? Happy with it?
Will it make it any easier to shovel snow if I know that this is a record snow? Or will it make it more difficult thinking that my father-in-law had it easy back then when they had two inches fewer? I've really enjoyed this snow. That's probably because I didn't have to get up, shovel, and go to work. I got up both mornings, had a cup of coffee, ate breakfast, checked email, and did some writing. Then, when my breakfast had settled, went out to shovel.
I've been joking with David, our neighbor across the alley, that I've joined Mother Nature's gym. For the first two days of the week, I raked and bagged leaves. Then the next two days I shoveled snow. Don't know what she's got in store for me next week. But the price is right. And it is so grand to be outdoors most of the day, no matter whether it is a record or not.
I think we had more leaves this year. Perhaps in wet years like this one, a year some people will see in tree rings a hundred years from now, the tree puts out more leaves because it can, and those leaves capture more of the sun's energy, making for a fatter growth ring that year. That sounds reasonable to me, but an arborist or biologist might find my theory amusing. But that's fine. It's my theory, and I'm stuck with it. Glad I got the leaves up, except for the back yard, before this snow storm hit.
Here's a picture of our fountain, which I've still to put away for the winter. We call her Barbara Fay, after my late mother-in-law. Note the depth of the snow around the basin.
And below is a picture of the walkway beside the garage and out the back gate. The peach tree has some branches bending low with the weight of the wet snow. Note the snow on top of the privacy wall.

The final picture, to the right, is the view to the northwest out our front door. It's hard to tell that there's even a street out there. The views of our neighborhood certainly were one of a fairy land. And to think that Halloween is this weekend.

One nice thing that happened to me this morning is that when I got out to the front sidewalk to shovel, my neighbor had run his snow blower down the sidewalk. So I didn't have to do that, just the walk from the front door to the street.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Feeding the writing muse

This past weekend and yesterday were good for my writing muse. I went to an all-day writing workshop/seminar at Denver University on Saturday. The workshop leader was Laura Pritchett, a nature and fiction writer from Laporte, CO. LaPorte is a small town on highway 287 that snakes through some beautiful country from Fort Collins to Laramie. We used to drive that route visiting Al up at UW. 
Laura is a Colorado native who grew up on a ranch in LaPorte and writes novels, non-fiction books, and non-fiction essays, usually about nature. She has also edited several books that have collected good essays on various topics, usually the environment and nature.
We brought a piece we had written to the workshop to read to the small group, six people, and get comments on it. We also did a lot of free writing about different topics and then shared those with the group. Laura encouraged me to reshape the piece I wrote for class and to work with one free writing exercise I did to get them published. She even suggested some places to send them. That really inspired me. I'll start working on them this week. They will take a lot of thinking, walking around, and chewing on to get them focused and written.
And yesterday I met finally with Mary Jo, my poetry critique partner for the first time in a couple of months — seems more like a couple of years. She has been painting and revitalizing her house. Mary Jo, as is her wont, dashed off a poem about a shawl she had received from a relative years ago and had just given to that woman's daughter on her 40th birthday. She's amazing for how quickly she can dash off a poem that works almost immediately. Mine take a bit longer. We have two different styles, hers being lighter in tone and mood than mine, usually.
I had started a poem about homeless people I've seen in Denver. I wanted to get away from my stereotypical reaction to many of these people, men in particular, and show instead their humanity. I did some free writing on the topic and came up with the start of a poem a couple of months ago. Knowing we were going to meet yesterday, I worked on it some. Got good feedback from Mary Jo and spent some time this morning revising it. I like it much better now, although I'll probably tweak it a bit before I try to publish it. Here it is:
The edges of humanity
Five derelicts, cast-offs 
of humanity, huddle 
near a fire in a barrel 
in the corner of an alley, 
tumbleweeds blown there 
with the plastic bags and rags 
of their lives. They are trapped 
by the barbed wire of fate, 
fear, alcohol, psychosis, 
by choices made years before 
with no thought of where 
they might lead. 

They laugh as they share 
a meal and stories. 
They also share
a brown paper sack, 
each drinking from it 
before passing it on.
They share their humanity
with a stray dog  
each giving the dog 
a piece of his meager meal, 
hugging the dog's neck,
talking to it, 
scratching its ears. 

Monday, October 5, 2009

Homecoming Dance Revisited

Another amazing day out on the prairie. I got to the Plains Center at 8:00 AM in fog and about 45 degrees. It was just warm enough that my jacket would keep me warm and I didn't need the gloves and wool cap I'd brought. I was going to do a critter count, a four and a half mile walk during which I count every nose and beak and bill I see. I try to do this each month to get some sort of snapshot of the health of the prairie and its inhabitants. I send the count to the Tudi, the executive director so she knows what's going on. Besides, it's a blast for me. An excuse to get out and have fun.
I walked through the fog seeing very few critters to count until about ten minutes into the walk a male northern harrier appeared like a ghost flying past in the fog. The pale bluish gray of his upper wings and the white of his underwings made him seem to appear and disappear in the fog as he flew by in front of me. Later I saw two female harriers, but their dark brown wings and the fact that the fog had lifted some didn't make them look like ghost harriers.
Soon after seeing the male harrier, I heard a large jet coming down the glide path into Buckley AFB. I could tell that the pilot had the throttles back in a final glide. Couldn't see a thing in the fog, so I followed the sound with my binoculars until a barely visible C-17 transport— a very large puppy— appeared just over the runway and landed. Pretty neat sight. Nice airmanship from the crew.
As I got about a mile into my walk, I spotted a pronghorn buck with three does. I thought it might be the same herd we had seen on our bird survey on Saturday. The herd got nervous as I approached to within a few hundred yards and trotted across the road in front of me into the large part of the area. Immediately three other bucks and then another two trotted up, making the now milling herd, six bucks and three does. I thought it looked a mite like a homecoming dance with six football players trying to hook up with three cheerleaders.
The milling went on for some time without the spectacular, racing charge I'd seen on Saturday. The bucks just kept cutting each other off as they walked and trotted among the three does who had that deer in the headlights look. Finally, the milling herd disappeared over the ridge. I remembered watching a herd of 40 or 50 cow elk in Rocky Mountain National Park being herded toward a pond by three or four large bulls. The herd got to within fifty yards of the pond when a huge bull, it looked like a fugitive from a WWF commercial, ambled from several hundred yards away toward the herd. When he got about 50 yards away, the bulls that had escorted the herd to the pond thought they heard their mother calling and trotted off. It was really humorous.
Because of the fog, the number of prairie dogs I could see was very small compared to last month's count. The only time any numbers were visible were when the sun would come out briefly. Then a bunch would pop up, look around and nibble on some vegetation close to their burrows. And here and there a pronghorn buck would show up, walking along looking for some action. Most of them managed to find it.
I saw the scene I described above repeated by another group of three bucks with a doe who were intercepted by two more bucks. Finally, as I got two-thirds of the way around, near the large pond, I saw a herd or 20 pronghorn that included, as well as I could count them because of their milling, 8 or 9 bucks, 8 or 9 does, and four fawns. The bucks were do-ce-doing with the does, and I imagined the fawns rolling their eyes as their moms acted like insecure teenagers at a square dance.
This herd of 20 animals milled and broke into smaller herds that took off over the ridge only to come back to join the larger herd again, and on and on. It is no wonder that the most dangerous time for a mature buck is right after rutting season is over. Those critters have to be totally exhausted. Later I noticed a very large buck with a beautiful set of horns that were much larger than those with the herd. He was off by himself south of the main herd. I suspect he's going to wait until the other bucks are worn out chasing each other and trying to herd unwilling does. Then he's going to walk up, like that Bull I saw in Rocky Mountain National Park and take his large harem off to a quiet spot on the prairie. With age comes wisdom. :-)
I did see five ferruginous hawks, five red-tailed hawks, a couple of kestrels, and well over a hundred red-winged blackbirds. The red-wings were migrating along the creek to the south. I got back to my car and had put my binoculars in the back seat when I noticed a large raptor circling just east of me. Got the binos back out and discovered it was an immature bald eagle, probably the same one we saw in Lone Tree on Saturday. Tough duty, but someone has to do it.
Another wonderful day. Why didn't I retire a few years sooner? Al, why?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Raptor Rapture

Once in a while on a bird survey at the Plains Center, we are totally astounded by what we see. Today was one of those times. There were the usual suspects, mourning doves, meadowlarks, horned larks, vesper sparrows, Say's phoebes, starlings, magpies, and several flocks of migrating red-winged blackbirds. But the raptors we saw were simply amazing.
Three of us were on this survey, Tudi, the center executive director, Karen, one of our regulars and a fantastic birder, and me. We usually have three or four other regulars, but they didn't show this morning. Perhaps the cold made it more fun to snuggle down in the blankies.
As we approached a large prairie dog colony, Tudi suddenly stopped the suburban and yelled, "Two ferruginous hawks on the ground." These raptors are our largest hawk and beautiful creatures. It has, when in breeding plumage, a rusty-red back and wings, a white breast and belly and tail, and white patches on its outer upper wings. And it loves prairie dogs. One of the hawks was pulling apart a dog it had caught and was busily chomping it down. The other tried to look like it didn't care, but when its sibling--these were immature hawks--didn't share, it flew off to look for its own breakfast.
We continued on to the northwest corner of the large prairie dog colony and found two burrowing owls sitting all puffed up to stay warm. They are the last of the 25 or 30 we had during the summer. I think they were this year's chicks. In the background we saw a pronghorn antelope buck who had a harem of four does. Earlier, we had seen a buck trot a few yards from the two hawks on the ground and expected them to fly. They watched the buck but just sat. Speaking of sitting, a prairie dog, probably a sibling or mate of the hawk's breakfast, sat on his burrow about five yards from the eating hawk. Amazing.
Anyway, the buck we had seen earlier suddenly appeared a few hundred yards from this small antelope herd. The harem buck perked up, stood as tall as he could to show a very large set of horns, and started a determined trot toward the interloper. The harem buck suddenly shifted into high gear and must have been doing 50 or 60 miles and hour. The interloper figured he was in the wrong part of town and turned tail, starting to accelerate. The harem buck caught him in a few seconds, and only a hard right turn kept the interloper from being a hood ornament on the other buck. The charging buck turned hard right and again caught the interloper who again turned out of the way and headed out of Dodge.
As the buck turned back for his harem, he saw that one of the does had decided to leave, so he accelerated again to top speed and caught the doe in a few seconds and herded her back to the harem. Then they all went back to eating. 
How wonderful to see something so extraordinary. Just seeing the speed of that pronghorn was amazing enough. But to see that charge and then the cowboy-on-a-cutting-horse herding of that doe back to the harem was something one sees only once in a life time.
Later, we were driving south and I noticed a large raptor in a tree we call lone tree. The bird was so large there was no doubt it was an eagle. We got out of the suburban and used Karen's scope to determine it was an immature bald eagle. Sitting on the other side of the tree were two red-tailed hawks. The size difference between the eagle and hawks was astounding. I've almost never seen the two birds that close so you could see the relative sizes. 
Then, as we drove through the final mile our outing, we stopped at a point we use for the survey and noticed six large raptors flying over a ridge to the east. They turned out to be six more ferruginous hawks. They seemed to be patrolling the ridge, probably looking for breakfast in the large prairie dog colony just west of them below the ridge. 
The prairie dogs had a relatively safe summer because the grasses were high from all the rain we had this spring and summer. But they've been busy cutting down the grass near their burrows for food, to lay on a layer of fat for the winter, and laying in seeds and stalks for winter reserves. So, now they've cut down the grass that screened them from the raptors in the area. There are now more raptors around than all summer long and the dogs are in danger. But we have way too many prairie dogs, so we look forward to the raptors thinning them for us.

It was the kind of morning that makes me look forward to getting up early on cold mornings to go out on the prairie to look at the critters who live there. Days like today really recharge my batteries, which are getting old and don't hold a charge like they used to. :-)