Friday, December 10, 2010

Coyote watches badger

I got this picture from Susan Smith who was with us on the bird count when we saw this coyote and badger. I've only seen one other badger in the wild at West Bijou and most people have never seen one. So to see one with a coyote close by, both hunting in a prairie dog colony was really a treat. Here's Susan's picture.

I think the coyote was hoping the badger would kill a prairie dog so he could harass it and perhaps eat it himself. Coyotes are critters of opportunity. But the more dangerous predator, man, was hovering around, so these two skilled predators of the prairie reluctantly headed east to safer territory. Thank you Susan for sharing such a wonderful picture. I will remember this incident in nature for a long time.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A morning watching critters on the prairie

This morning we left the Aurora site of the Plains Conservation Center and drove the 30 miles out to the West Bijou Creek site. Four of us were on our way to count birds at WB, something we try to do each month. We have fourteen points where we spend three minutes counting every bird we see or hear. The idea is to get a view of what birds are living there at each season of the month and to get a good idea of the health of the prairie ecosystem.

Well, this morning it started to look like between recent cold weather and a long dry spell, the prairie was not well. We had already observed at half the points and had only one porcupine, a starling, and one hawk so far away in a tree that we had no idea what kind it was. Oh yes, we also saw briefly a small flock of goldfinches flitting through some willows.

But all was not bleak as the porcie was kind of cute. This is a pic I took of one earlier this fall before the leaves turned. We saw about five porcupines as we drove where we could look into the cottonwoods near the creek. 

Then we saw a dozen pronghorn running quickly across the prairie to get away from us. They were joined by another ten, and by the time we were done, we saw close to 60 pronghorn in two separate groups. We weren't sure why they were so skittish until we notice a coyote also running away from us, near where the pronghorn herd was. The coyote must have been tracking the herd and when they spooked, he did also.

We pulled up to one of the last observation points and Susan Smith, the new director of education at PCC, pointed to a coyote standing in a beautiful, alert pose looking at us, probably wondering what we were doing out there. Then she noticed a prairie dog burrow start to move. Most of them don't move very much, so she focused on it with her long lens and saw a badger very near the coyote. For a while, the two predators were ambling away from us across the prairie dog colony. I can only imagine the fear in that prairie dog colony, with two four-legged predators ambling through.

I was thinking that seeing the coyote and badger at one time was the highlight of our morning. But as we came down off a ridge from our last observation point, where we saw one herd of 36 pronghorn and another coyote, Anne Bonnell, an excellent birder, pointed to a form sitting on a rock. She said it had to be a golden eagle it was so large. We made fun of her saying it was just another rock, a Cheyenne youth on a vision quest, and other such irreverent jests. Well, I stopped the truck as the shape looked more and more like an eagle, and sure enough, there was a beautiful golden eagle perched on that rock, not a quarter mile away. Another highlight. We had seen another eagle fly over earlier, but it was far off and we had difficulty making an ID on it. This one just stood there giving Susan some great pictures of it. Anne was kind enough not to say "I told you so."

So that was our miserable morning on the prairie. We only saw 60 some pronghorn, four or five coyotes, two golden eagles, half a dozen porcupines, and, of course, our resident herd of bison, which we left alone this time out. We also saw a golden eagle nest that is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Last year the nesting pair of eagles produced two chicks which successfully fledged. 

One of the joys of my life as a naturalist, of course, is seeing critters like we did this morning. But even more fun is sharing the wonder and beauty of nature with others, to help them feel the same joy I feel. I went through training at the National Association of Interpreters this past March in Casper, Wyoming, to become a certified interpreter. One of our exercises was to create something that expresses our feelings toward interpretation. Of course, I wrote a poem and read it to the class but felt it needed work.

I spent several weeks working on the poem and then sent it off to the editor of Legacy Magazine, the bimonthly publication of NAI. He accepted the poem, and it was published in the Nov/Dec issue. Here it is:

To Interpret Nature is … 

… to find again the wonder 
and joy I felt as a child 
when I turned over a rock 
and found three pill bugs, 
a cricket, and an earthworm. 

… to find again the beauty 
of a prairie sunrise or sunset, 
to recapture the soul-expanding 
feeling that grabbed my attention
and held it into poetry.

… to study and research and crawl
on hands and knees like a child
to see the beauty of wildflowers,
to touch prickly pear spines, 
to find bones and fur in an owl pellet, 
to hear the sage-scented prairie wind 
sing in the grass.

… to express these feelings, reflect them
to my students so they may recapture 
childhood memories and excitement 
and rekindle their own sense 
of wonder and joy.

… to pass on my learning and feelings
with facts and skill, enthusiasm and joy 
so those in generations behind me 
will love and nurture and protect Nature 
and themselves.

© 2010 Art Elser 

This morning on the prairie was a perfect example of why being a naturalist and sharing what we saw is so fulfilling and rewarding to me. Each instance like that helps me learn more about the prairie and its critters and help others find pleasure and satisfaction on the prairie. 

Friday, November 26, 2010

Well, it's about time you showed up!!

I've been AWOL from here and would like to be able to report that I've been climbing Everest or mushing a dog sled across the slushy north shores of Alaska or even on an extended hike in the Bighorn mountains or Cloud Peak Wilderness. I'd even like to write that I hiked from Denver to Casper to visit Al and Les, but none of that would be true. I'd write some of those things, but I'd hate for any of you to think I was a politician.

The truth is, I have not the slightest idea of where my time has gone since my last post. I think I've been busy, but I don't have much to show for that time. I did attend a two-day poetry class that was wonderful. And I've written a haiku almost every day to share with a poet friend, Chris Valentine, up in Birney, Montana. And I've gotten a few poems written and sent out for possible publication, but most of my time seems to have been eaten by the Thanksgiving turkey or the tooth fairy.

I did write one poem about the bison out at West Bijou, pictures and descriptions of which I've posted here before. I showed the poem to the director at the Plains Conservation Center, and she asked me to donate it to PCC for their use. So, I did just that. I have given them the right to publish the poem in print and electronic media any time they want. I'll include the poem in this blog to share it with my friends. I will not try to get this poem published anywhere and I'm letting PCC use it how they want. Perhaps the poem might encourage some of you to visit PCC and especially the West Bijou site that has the bison herd.

Visiting the bison herd 
I pull the wagon up a dusty ridge 
to where a herd of sixty bison graze.
Massive hulks of brown surround the truck 
and snap up cookies that we throw to them.
I hear their snorting and their tearing of 
the grasses with their teeth and thumping hooves 
that dance and pirouette to guard their turf. 
Their feints and sprints surprise me with their grace. 

The calves that just a dozen weeks ago 
were copper colored now are dusky brown,
the light absorbing brown of adulthood,
with horns that show as tiny stumps of gray. 
They frisk and play until a grouchy cow 
snorts and butts them with her massive head.
They scamper off but soon resume their play.

Further up the ridge, a quarter mile,
I see the herd's ascendant bull, grazing 
by himself. He does not pay attention  
to us or bison cookies that we throw. 
He grazes now to gather strength he lost 
in mating with so many cows and chasing 
lesser bulls who also tried to mate. 
He has to eat or die a freezing death.

I look across the valley to the ridge 
on which we found Archaic artifacts, 
arrow heads, pottery shards, and flints 
and other signs that native denizens 
long ago used that ridge to watch 
for the dark herds that covered many miles. 
Then in my mind I'm on that ridge and watch
with other hunters, pray expectantly 
to see the season's first approaching herd.  
We first see dust then feel the shaking ground, 
and now the rumbling herd comes into view. 
I feel the hunter's joy and thankfulness. 
Our shaman's dancing to Hotoa'e gods
was heard. We know tomorrow that the tribe
will celebrate a welcome bison feast, 
no longer hungry from a winter's fast. 

A cow in front of me whirls and butts 
a frisky calf and yanks me back in time.
I see again the cows, the calves, the bull.
How could the Cheyenne not admire the grace 
and power of the herds that fed their tribe, 
revere them as the spirit of the plains.

Hotoa'e (Ho to wa') – Cheyenne for bison

© 2010 Art Elser

I'll try to be more prompt with my next post, but you know how difficult it is to get a wifi signal in the Antarctica or in Tibet. 

Friday, October 8, 2010

A display of Henry Moore sculptures

The past several mornings have been cooler than previous ones, and the days about ten to fifteen degrees cooler. This morning there was evidence of some rain during the night, and there's been dew on the grass, a sign of higher relative humidities. But, other than a few haiku, my writing hasn't benefited from the changes.

But I did go to the Denver Botanic Garden's the other day--Kathy is out of town visiting our daughter and her family down in Denton, Texas. I've been trying to get Kath to go with me, but she always seems to have an excuse. So I went by myself. For the past eight or nine months, the DBG has had an exhibit of Henry Moore sculptures outside in the gardens. His sculptures are massive, and it took several cranes to get the works in place. What a wonderful show.

As you enter the gardens, this piece is the first you see. It is massive, but, as with all Moore's work, it is also light and delicate. I don't know how he did that, but the exhibit is breath taking.

Then, as you turn to follow the route depicted on the guide, you come upon another piece that is even more stylistic in nature, but equally impressive. In the literature about Moore and his work, he had the idea that his work should be displayed in gardens, outdoors, and I'd have to agree with him. The Gardens will keep this display for a year so viewers can see the work in all four seasons, with the foliage changing with the seasons. I'm going to head back over when it snows to see what that does for the pieces.

My favorite pieces are the mother and child statues. One, a small one, is displayed on a pedestal out in a pond with water lilies. It is beautiful, even if a bit far away. You can walk right up to most of them--but don't touch. I shared these pictures with a friend, and her comments say it better than I can: "beautiful   tender   sensous   sexual   full of love and life."

This reclining mother and child seems to portray all the attributes of Moore's work for me. The figures are stylized yet recognizable for what they are. The mother's love for the child is evident even though no facial features show. The relaxed pose on the mother and her child's gaze back at her say it all. This piece is huge. If mom stood up, she'd be taller than all basketball centers on pro teams. Huge piece.

Other pieces are more abstract, but very worth spending time with. Here is a piece called knife edge. And the piece below is called Hill Arches.

It is a huge piece, placed in a pond where its reflection makes it even more imposing. The fall colors in the leaves enhance the weathered copper of the piece, I think. You can get a sense of its size by the size of the benches and arches behind it.

One of my favorite of the more abstract pieces is one called "Locking Piece." It is massive, but the fact that you can see between the pieces seems to give it an airy, light feeling. At least it does for me. But then some people, including my wife and kids, think I'm weird--right Al? Note the size of the planter to the right, at the base of the piece.

So, I think I found a great way to spend a Wednesday afternoon. The Moore gallery is worth going to see and going back to see. Now if I can just get Kath to go when she gets home from Texas. After all the excitement of Denton, however, she may not be up for more excitement. ;-)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Harvest moon

Well, there must be a shortage of words in the Denver, Casper, Birney areas because not one of my favorite blogs, including mine, has been updated lately. Perhaps the very changeable weather has us all confused. Hot one day, cool the next, then back to hot, and then downright chilly. We've had some thunderboomies rattling around in Denver but no moisture to speak of. The T-storms were just enough to rattle Principessa, our bichon.

This is a picture of the princess, sitting on her Rockies blanket on her 5th birthday. Notice her cowboy bandana.

Got a new camera a couple of weeks ago, a Nikon D 90 with a 70 - 300 mm zoom lens. I wanted a longer lens for pictures of wildlife on the prairie. I've been fortunate since, with pictures of hawks, eagles, pronghorn, and a full moon. I'll start with two pics of a golden eagle that's been hanging around the Plains Center for the past couple of weeks. It is a juvenile, probably born this spring, whose parents have kicked it out of their nesting area to find its own place to hunt.

This photo is of the underside of the bird as it glided past. It shows the typical "fingers" at the ends of the wing of golden eagles, a slight white area near the wing tips, and a white band around the base of its tail. The white band is a sign of a first year golden.

And this photo shows the upper wings of the eagle as it circled. You can almost see the golden head and nape of the neck and the lighter brown mottling on the top of the wings. And you can clearly see the white tail band at the base of its tail. What a magnificent bird. He's spending time in our part of the prairie because we've got a nice banquet of prairie dogs.

And last night was the full moon known as the Harvest Moon. It is known as that because it comes during the end of summer/fall harvest. Last night the moon rose at 6:45 and the sun set at 6:55, meaning that the moon was starting to light the earth as the sun's light was decreasing. I went out to PCC last night to take part in a full moon walk, and it was wonderful with that bright moon lighting the earth. Farmers relied on those longer days, lit by the full moon, to give them more light to get in their crops.

I took a couple of pictures of the moon with my new camera a few minutes after it rose above the horizon. The tipis are replica Cheyenne tipis, circa 1837, that we use to teach kids about those who lived on the prairie, the Indian cultures and the homesteaders. Beyond the tipis, out of sight, is a sod village with two sod homes and a sod chicken coop, blacksmith shop, one-room school, and a heritage garden.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Some thoughts and poems from the prairie

I've been wandering, and at times sitting, on the prairie enjoying the last of the summer critters that are out there. This morning, for instance, we did our normal first Saturday bird survey and found an extraordinary number of burrowing owls. This summer, we've probably counted no more than 6 birds in one morning. This morning we counted 15. That's wonderful. These were all fledglings, this year's class, getting ready to head south where Mom and Dad have already gone. Neat how these little owls have figured out that they should scout the vacation scene without the kids and let them come down a couple of weeks later. Here's a haiku based on this morning's fun.

   small summertime owl
       long legs, hooked beak, yellow eyes
   brown, plush, feathered joy

And we saw several magnificent ferruginous hawks, our largest buteo and great prairie dog exterminator. They are again gathering now that their nesting season is over. We think that most of the ferruginous hawks we saw this morning are juveniles who are looking for a good food supply for the winter. We've got it for them. Here's a haiku inspired by these inspiring birds this morning.

   ferruginous hawk 
       great hunter of prairie dogs 
   magnificent bird

Last week I went out in the morning just to listen to the prairie. I recently read an article that says we don't spend enough time out in nature just listening to it. So I took my notebook and ears and walked to a place at the Plains Conservation Center where I would be least disturbed by sounds of human activity. Here's one of two poems I wrote based on that experience. The poems are very similar, but I want to send the other one out to a contest, so won't post it here.

Listening to a prairie morning

I sit at the edge of the trail,
in a patch of blue grama and buffalograss,
sun warming my face and arms.
I listen to crickets sing for mates,
a meadowlark trilling from a mullein stalk,
a grasshopper cruising past, clacking
its way above the grass. A painted lady
flutters by. I can't hear her song or wings.
I hear the low drone of traffic on the highway
a mile away, the sound of human frenzy. 

A pair of Canada geese fly over, wind
whispering in their wings.
They call to make sure the other
is still there, or just to say that I'm here.
Mourning doves fly up out of the grass,
their wings squeaking softly as they lift.
A goldfinch flies past chirping cheerily.

In a field of thistles by the creek, crickets
were so loud they drowned the crunch
of my boots, the gliding whistle of airliners
sliding into the Denver airport, the growl
of feeder planes climbing out to Pueblo,
Albuquerque, and Santa Fe.

What a cacophony of sound. I prefer
the voices of the two or three crickets
who sing softly here where I sit and
other prairie sounds that calm me,
the breeze in my ear,
its whisper in the grass,
the melody of a vesper sparrow,
the whiney call of a red-tailed hawk
high in the blue morning.

These sounds of nature feed my soul,
remind me of my need for solitude,
remind me of the need to listen 
for peace and spiritual renewal.

© 2010 Art Elser

I also went to a Garrison Keillor performance at the Denver Botanic Gardens last Sunday afternoon, and it was wonderful. We sat on a grassy, green hillside that descends into a creek lined with mature cottonwood trees. The stage was near the bottom of the hill. Keillor came out through the audience during his opening performance and again at the closing one. In between his band and Sara Watkins played and sang. It was even better than I had hoped, and I laughed more than I have in quite a while. I know Keillor's not for everybody--Kathy almost gagged when I asked her if she wanted to go--but for those of us who love his tales from Lake Woebegone, it was a great afternoon and evening.

Well that's the news from .... 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Several trips, two local and one long distance

Well, I've been kind of busy lately with Louis, my grandson, being here at music camp at Rocky Ridge in Estes Park and then taking him back home to Denton, Texas. He had a solo viola performance on Friday, August 13th and then played on the orchestral performance on Sunday, August 15th. We drove up from Denver for both performances, and they were great.
Here he is doing his solo. Note the intense concentration. That's because his pianist kept going faster and faster and got ahead of Lou. He was trying to figure out what to do next. But he was a good sport about it. Just wanted to kill the pianist, who did the same thing to several other soloists.

Then here he is in the orchestra as they got ready to play. It's tough getting good pictures in this setting because the huge windows behind the orchestra let in a lot of light. I had to do a little manipulation in Photoshop Elements to get detail in the orchestra. Did a bit in the picture of the solo also because of the lighting from the big window behind the pianist.

And here's a picture of Louie when he first got to camp. Of course the youngsters flanking him are Kath and me. And my trusty little Forester is in the background.

You can see that the camp is in a wonderful wooded setting just below Longs Peak, just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. Lou saw both elk and black bear while he was up there. Neat! I saw an elk, but no bear.

Then Louie and I drove down to Denton on Tuesday of this past week. Lou drove a bit of the way, out on deserted highways out in southeastern Colorado, as we get him ready to learn to drive. I taught his mother and uncle to drive, so I've been down this road before. Same road. Same problems. Same fun.

We drove the 13 hours to Denton straight through, but I took two days coming back. Wanted to see Palo Duro Canyon, just southeast of Amarillo and Capulin volcano just east of Raton, NM. Both were on the way back, so I didn't even have to drive out of the way. Palo Duro Canyon was formed by the, and I'm not making up this name, Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. The canyon has beautiful colored walls, mostly of reds, but also yellows, beiges, and lavender, among others. Here's a picture showing some of the colors.
I took this picture from the canyon floor as I drove through the park. The PDTF of the Red River flows east from the park and I drove across it way down near Witchita Falls. The color of that fork, as well as the Red River itself takes its color from the sediment from these rocks.

Here's a picture I took after one of four river crossings on the main road through the park. The water was about six inches deep and flowing rather quickly. Note the water depth gauge at the crossing and note the color of the water. It pretty much matches the color of the rocks in the background. And no, I did not add color in Photoshop. These pics are as I took them from the camera.

I stopped at a large parking lot at the trailhead to one of the many trails in the park and suddenly noticed a mule deer chomping on some grass near a picnic table. I took several pics of it and followed it as it went into a very shady place to join its mother and another fawn. The fawns still have their spots. And yes, I did play with this picture in Photoshop to lighten up the shadows where the deer were. This would be a picture of shadows if I hadn't done that.

I left Amarillo at 5:15 in the AM on Thursday and headed for Denver by way of Raton, NM. As I crossed out of Texas into NM, I noticed cinder cones, small volcanos, in the distance. I was headed for Capulin, the tallest of the cinder cone volcanos in that area. I kept being fooled by cinder cones as I drove, thinking each one must be Capulin. You know how it is on the way to someplace. You want to be there, not driving to it.

Finally the signs announced that Capulin wasn't far away, and then I saw it towering above the other cinder cones. There is, however, a shield volcano, Sierra Grande, from millions of years earlier that towers over Capulin. But it is several miles away, so Capulin was just fine.

I drove to the parking lot at the west edge of the crater's rim and walked the mile-long trail at the top of the rim. The views from up there are wonderful. The rim is 1,400 feet above the prairie, so the views into Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and New Mexico are spectacular. Here are some views from the rim.

The next several pictures are from the rim looking down into the crater. The first one is from the east, the highest part of the crater back to the west into it.

The next one is from the west, near the parking lot, back to the east.

And the third one is of lava rock with lichen growing on it.

And this is perhaps my favorite shot of the day. The wind was blowing about 5 to 10 miles an hour up on the rim, and to me the rock and wind shaped juniper epitomize the difficult place for things to grow on the sides of a cinder cone.

The final picture is of a lizard who ran across a rock in front of me and then stopped, almost invisible against the rock. He's hard to find, but is in the center of the picture.

So I had a great time on the trip back. The only bad part was that I had to leave Louie down there in Texas with his parents. Darn. We were having a great time in Denver.

Here's a haiku inspired by my visit to Capulin:

     On Capulin my
          eyes feast on the earth's glory.
     Wind sighs through piƱon.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Youngsters on the prairie in early August

Yesterday I went out on the prairie at the Plains Center in Aurora for my monthly critter count. I haven't been able to get out the past two months, so I was really eager to see what was going on out there. On my last trip, in May, only the prairie dog pups and great-horned owl chicks were youngsters that were visible. Now the PD pups are almost full grown and act more like adults than pups, and the owls are the size of their parents and hiding out of sight in the cottonwood trees.

The pronghorn fawns are in nursery herds with their moms and are now two months old. The fawns are about two thirds the size of their mothers and gather in groups of fawns who seem to love to frolic and chase each other. Of course, they are also learning from their mothers that they have to be alert to predators.

So they graze, look up for danger--they watched me--go back to grazing, and then burst out in a frenzy of racing the others around the nursery herd. When the herd decides to move off, the fawns gather in smaller fawn herds inside the nursery herd, sometimes off to the side, sometimes out in front, or sometimes behind the main herd. They are showing that independence that we expect of human pre-teens. I'm sure it's just as scary and maddening to their parents.

But the youngster who made my day yesterday was a coyote pup who had no idea I was watching it. Shows the difference between the predator and the prey. The coyote pup did none of the looking over the shoulder that the pronghorn fawns did. It was as blithely confident in his abilities and safety as the high school kids I see driving down the highway texting. Indestructible.

Anyway, this pup was jumping, pouncing, running, stalking, goofing off, practicing all the moves it will need later when he has to make a living on the prairie. I suspect it was stalking crickets, grasshoppers, perhaps a mouse or vole. It would stalk, listen and watch intently, ears pricked up and nose pointed at the prey, stalk a few steps, then pounce like I've seen red foxes pounce. Except it seemed always to come up empty. I never saw it eat anything.

But it did find something that made it sneeze and sneeze and sneeze and ... perhaps 20 or 30 times. And these were those leg thumping, head rattling, sinus clearing sneezes that only bless us once in a great while. What a hoot. Just about the time it would think it had had its last sneeze and put its nose back down to sniff for food, it would go off on another blast of sneezing. I got a good belly laugh out of that, almost falling into some prickly pear cactus.

But that didn't seem to reduce the enthusiasm of that coyote. I watched for a while standing, but I was having as much fun as the pup, so I sat down. I leaned elbows on knees to steady my binoculars and keep my arms from getting tired. I guess I watched that pup for 15 or 20 minutes before I decided I'd better quit acting like that pup, act more like an adult, and get back to more important things--although at this point, I'll be damned if I can think of anything more important, or fun, than watching a coyote pup enjoy itself. I need to do more of that.

     The coyote pup played,
          pounced, whirled, ran, unaware he's
     practicing to kill.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Changing permissions again

I'm going to allow anyone to view my blog again. No one has visited it--well, I shouldn't say no one, Cathie has--since I made it a by invitation only. Most of you who used to visit have missed a couple of posts, so you might want to scroll down.

Haiku for the day:

     Tiny chickadee
       sings good morning from a tree.
     Simple symphony.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Where the deer and the antelope play--and the buffalo too

We took a a dozen or so 11 to 13 year olds and their teachers out to West Bijou this past week and we had a great time. We started down the hill for into the West Bijou site, and the kids spotted a mule deer buck running down the valley we were about to climb up to visit the K/T Boundary. They were still excited about seeing that deer when two does popped up across the road. More excitement for the kids. We were off to a good start.

It's always tough to be good enough describing things like the K/T Boundary. The event that caused it happened 65 and a half million years ago, and anything that happened last year is ancient history to most kids. But when I told them that the asteroid that hit the Yucatan was a large as the city of Denver and traveling about 30,000 mph, they were impressed.

We also walked up the ravine to a spot 20,000 years after the K/T Boundary where they could pry open very soft sedimentary rocks to find leaf fossils. Lots of "wows!" "Hey, look at this," and "this is cool." Lots of pics of the leaf fossils on cell phones. We also talked about scientists finding dinosaur fossils below the K/T Boundary and none above. I think that kind of went over their heads. Luckily the mosquitoes had them ready to hike down the hill to the trailer and lunch.

After lunch, we drove over to the bison herd. The herd these days is in a pasture close to the main gate, so we didn't have to drive too far to get to them. I was disappointed not to see antelope on the way in. When we got to the herd, the critters immediately came to the wagon as the kids tossed alfalfa cookies to them.

One thing I noticed about the calves right away was that their hair is getting darker and longer and they are starting to look more like bison calves than cattle caves. Here's a pic of a calf I took about a month ago. Note how light brown its coat is. And it doesn't look much like mom in the background.

Now here's a picture I took last week of three of the same calves. Note the darker color and what looks like the start of a goatee and dark hair running down their necks. Or would that be a bisontee?

The cow with them has shed most of the winter coat that you can see on the cows in the first picture. They sure look scruffy with that winter hair. Week before last, we were out there watching some of the cows wallow in ant hills to scrub off some of the fur and get rid of the flies that seemed to love hanging onto it.

I told the students that we are looking at about 60 bison. Then I asked them to imaging a thousand times more bison as there might have been 250 years ago. I asked them to imagine hearing all of them running across the prairie and feeling the ground shaking beneath them. They seemed to respond well that that image, seeing how huge the cows were that surrounded our wagon.

After coming back from a visit to our buffalo herd, I wrote a haiku that seeing those magnificent animals inspired. I often think of the plains Indians and their relationship to the buffalo, or Tatanka.

     Bison ruled the plains,
        creatures of natural grace.
     Powerful totem.

When I'm out at West Bijou and look at the small herd of buffalo we have, I imagine what I asked the kids to imagine, a thousand times that many. And I look to one of the hills on which we've found pottery shards, flint chips, arrow heads, and other Indian artifacts from centuries ago and wonder how blessed they must have felt when they heard, felt, and saw the herd coming across the plains. Time for prayers to the buffalo spirits, hunting parties, celebrations, and food and robes for the tribe.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A wonderful day of wildlife

Yesterday I witnessed a face-off between two bison bulls, and man was that a tense couple of minutes. Can't imagine what it was like for the animals involved. I was out with several staff members from the Plains Center helping with a TV program about our beautiful 9600 acre site on West Bijou Creek. Bijou, for those not fluent in French, means jewel. And a jewel it is.

Before we got to the bison herd, we had seen an antelope fawn and doe running from an area in which we soon spotted two coyotes, we think a mom and pup. What a sight as the fawn pulled ahead of the doe as they ran across an open area. It was as if the fawn was showing its mother that it was old enough and fast enough to hang out with the gang. What graceful creatures. And their running is so effortless and fast.

We also saw a lazuli bunting, in all it's lazuli blaze of blue, sitting in the sun at the top of a cottonwood, singing equally as beautifully. Some desert cottontails, a black-tailed jackrabbit, a thermalling red-tailed hawk, and many meadowlarks, horned larks, and mourning doves. We looked for the golden eagles and great-horned owls that live out there, but didn't see them.

So, to get back to the bison. We pulled up to the herd and found that one of the men who helps manage the herd for the rancher was there. We asked about a bull, the largest in the herd, that seemed to be apart from the herd. He thought the other bulls had kicked him out of the herd. The bull is only 9 years old—they live to be around 20—so age didn't seem to be a problem. 

We watched the herd of 60 some animals as they gathered around our truck. The youngsters are starting to lose their copper-brown color and starting to turn dark brown like the adults. They are even growing goatees and have long brown hair down the front of their necks. Because the herd was already at the truck, we didn't thrown them any bison cookies, so they wandered over the ridge out of sight. The two bulls separated slightly from the herd and went on grazing and wallowing.

Soon, as we talked, I noticed the third bull wandering up from his solitary position down the ridge. He walked by about 20 yards away, eyeing us with what I'd call a baleful look. Reminded me of Moby Dick. He went over the hill, apparently in search of the other bulls. As he came up to the smaller of the two bulls, he assumed a pose I can only describe a one of challenge. He faced the smaller bull head on with his tail in a question mark shape rather than just hanging down or swishing. The other bull assumed a similar position.

I thought, oh oh, here's a fight brewing. The smaller bull, visibly much smaller, seemed to hesitate a bit, and then when the huge bull—the man who helps monitor the herd says that big bull weighs about 2200 pounds—took a few leisurely steps toward the smaller one, the smaller one backed down and started wagging his tail like a puppy. A sure sign of "I was really only kidding when I made believe I was challenging you." The third bull wandered over with his tail wagging also. Guess we all know who the boss is in that herd. The smallest bull probably weighs about 1500 pounds and the middle one about 1800. Not small but not huge like the grand poohbah. 

Then last night, I had an experience to top off a wonderful day in the wild, but this one was within a block of my house in Denver. I headed over to the market and as I pulled out of the alley and headed south on Locust Street, a pair of eyes glittered at me in the dark. I could just make out the white tip of a tail, and then as I got closer, could make out the pointy ears, shiny eyes, and bushy tail of a red fox. We have them in the neighborhood, but I only see them once a year or so. It was very exciting for me. I love to see red foxes. They are so feline in their behavior and temperament. 

Here's a haiku I wrote last night as I lay in bed trying to go to sleep but kept thinking of the fox.

     Eyes blaze in the night
     Sharp ears, bushy tail, white tip.
     The fox! The red fox!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Bureaucracy gets snakebit

Last year, the City of Aurora proposed building a dog park on Jewell Avenue across the street from the Plains Center. We have a very large prairie dog colony on our side of Jewell which extended across the street onto the area of the proposed dog park. The city asked PCC's opinion of the location, probably as a courtesy as we're across the street with a natural area. We don't allow dogs because even on a leash, dogs frighten wildlife, often with drastic results.

The director of PCC, Tudi, and a snake expert from the Denver Zoo--Bryan had done extensive research on the rattlesnake population at PCC--and I walked the proposed dog park and noted lots of PD burrows and evidence of rattlers. We suggested that they consider another spot, primarily because of the snakes, although it would also likely mean an end to the PDs. City dogs who have never been around rattlers don't mix well with them.

Guess what? The city built the dog park and now has had to close it until they can figure out how to keep dogs from mixing it up with rattlers and coming out second best. Several dogs have been bitten and owners upset. Why do bureaucrats ask for expert opinion and then proceed on their predetermined course in spite of that opinion? I guess that's why they're bureaucrats?

And why do urban and suburban folks think wildlife will just get out of their way so they can let their dogs run free? Rattlers bite when threatened. Coyotes eat meals on four legs when they are snack sized.

Several years earlier, the City of Aurora also authorized the building of an RV storage area right up against the northeastern boundary of PCC. Even though these isn't a lot of activity at the storage area, the lights and parked vehicles have disturbed the wildlife there. The burrowing owl population, which was significant across from the dog park and the RV storage area, has dropped almost to zero.

We have been worried about that for two nesting seasons now. Even the traffic on Jewell Ave didn't seem to bother them. But permanent RV parking and barking canines seemed to have caused them to leave their traditional nesting areas.

Today, on our monthly bird survey, we discovered that the owls have apparently moved to a more remote hillside on the eastern border of our 1100 acres, in a spot where nothing intrudes on their quiet. Unfortunately for wildlife watching at PCC, the birds can only be seen well with a spotting scope.

Here's a haiku I wrote after getting back home from the bird survey.

Cute burrowing owls --
you did not nest here this year.
Did we lose your trust?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

I'm restricting access to my blog

I'm would like to share my poetry now and then on this blog. That's one of the main reasons I set it up. But, if I post my poetry to an open blog, one that's not private, then the poetry is considered published and I can't submit it to contests and magazines. So, I'm making the blog private, but all of you who have been following me should be able to read it and comment on it. Right now, I have the comments set so I have to approve them. That's only to keep some of the commercial responders out.

If you can't comment on my blog, send me an email at and I'll see what I can do to fix it.

Of course, if my son Al tries to post something inappropriate or abusive to his dad, I'll cut him off at the knees and send his post out into the ether. But he'd never do anything like that. 

So, here's a poem I wrote almost in one sitting, something unusual for me. It normally takes me weeks to get the entire poem down and more weeks of revising. I spent a bit of time for about three days revising it, so it's kind of a record, other than haiku which usually only takes me a day--for three lines, seventeen syllables.

I thought about this poem for a while before setting down to the keyboard. I saw someone playing Rock, Paper, Scissors on TV and thought about it as I walked my dog. I've always been fascinated with how powerful water can be, wearing away the strongest rock and always making its way to sea level by one means or another.

Rock, paper, scissors
A game to settle disputes or 
decide who gets that only 
slice of pie or last beer.

A game kids play 
just for fun or to decide
who goes first.

Rock breaks scissors –
scissors cut paper –
paper covers rock – 

but water beats them all. 
It washes away paper 
and dissolves it over time.

Water soon rusts scissors, 
turning blades into dust,
and as for rock …

Water slowly wears  
rock away to create 
the Grand Canyon, 

the Rhine valley, 
the Teton mountains, 
isolated sea stacks … 

Water nourishes and sustains  
abundant life that takes joy 
in its artful handiwork. 
© 2010 Art Elser

We had a few nights of thunder boomies here in Denver, and I lay awake listening to the rolling thunder. The next morning the rain had settled the dust and I could smell the linden in the front yard and the roses in the back. I sat down at the computer and wrote this haiku.

Thunder and lightning 
played around our house last night. 
The morning smells sweet. 

© 2010 Art Elser

Friday, July 2, 2010

A week of fun and sadness

This has been a busy week full of both fun and sadness. Our grandson, Louis, had been at a music camp up in Estes Park for two weeks, and he's relaxed with us here since Sunday. I say relaxed. He's 15 and will get his learner's permit to drive when he goes home. I took him out into farm and ranch land east of Denver and taught him to drive, stick shift and all, on dirt county roads. He did really well, and has the rough edges rubbed off now so his moms can get him familiar with driving where there are other cars.

The death of the husband of a poet friend of mine is the sadness for the week. He had been ill for a while and passed away quietly in his sleep. But that doesn't take away any of the pain and grief that Chris is going through now. I'm hoping her poetry will help her deal with Peter's death. Writing has always been a catharsis for me, and I hope it proves so for her.

I should have my Casper friend, Cathy, write about our adventures out on the dirt roads learning to drive a stick shift. Her sense of humor would do justice to it. First, there's me trying to be calm and quiet so that Louis doesn't get too freaked out. But there's a limit to that. It was fine while we were just starting and stopping, getting down the coordination between clutch and gas. But when we had to turn around on a side road where there was a turn around, but Lou wound up in  the middle of it rather than following it around, it got a bit tricky.

There were, as there always are on country roads, ditches on both sides. Louis put it in reverse to back up and rather than ease in the gas, he was revving it. Finally got him to slow down the engine before he let out the clutch. Speaking of clutch, I was clutching the emergency brake ready to pull it up—no, I lie—I yanked it up abruptly several times when he was moving much too fast. He'd look at me like I was an alien just beamed down from another planet. I felt like one!

Then we'd start again, after he started the engine because my yanking on the brake stalled the engine. After six or so attempts, we finally got the car backed up enough to make the turn back to the road. I explained that he would have to pull the wheel through quickly to keep from going into the ditch—yank on the emergency brake and stall the engine again. "No, Louis, turn the wheel AS you're starting to move forward. Let's try it again and this time with turning the wheel."

"Yikes!! Not so much gas Lou. Ease it in and ease out the clutch." Finally, after a bit of moping, frustration, pouting, angry glances, Lou finally got the car around the turn, and we headed back down the road we'd just come up. When we got to the other end, we had a large paved entrance to a county maintenance building to turn around in.

This time, with more room, Lou did a great job backing up onto the road from the entrance. Then it was time to move forward. But, the aliens beamed down a very, very large dump truck from the maintenance yard. Of course I could see Lou's anxiety level start to peak.

He was blocking the truck, so he hurried to get out of the way. In the process, he put the transmission into 3rd rather than 1st, so he stalled the car again and again, each time getting more and more frustrated. The truck driver knew exactly what was going on—I had waved to him as good country folk do, so he was patient with us.

I thought the truck driver was going to fall out of his truck he was laughing so hard. I'm sure he'd been down the same road teaching his kids to drive. Lou, after half a dozen attempts to get moving managed to roll the car forward enough that the truck could get past us. The driver waved and laughed as he went by. Probably made his day.

I took Lou out to PCC to drop off some stuff this morning, and he practiced starting and stopping to get the coordination of clutch and gas down. Remarkably, starting in 1st rather than 3rd seemed to have solved most of his problems. We even started on a hill in one spot, and after a while, he got the hang of that too.

Last night we had planned to go to the Botanic Gardens to see an exhibition of Henry Moore sculptures but got there and found that there was a live performance there, so no way we could get in. We opted to stop at Kings to buy vanilla ice cream and root beer and have root beer floats. Yum. A good second choice.

Unfortunately, tomorrow I have to have Lou at the airport at 4:30 AM for his flight back to Denton. He and Barb and Lisa will leave for a vacation at Disneyland in California. But he'll be back in about a month for another two weeks at music camp and some time with us. And another visit from the aliens? 

Friday, June 25, 2010

My left leg isn't shorter, my spine's crooked

Just back from the orthopedic doctor with a clean bill of health for my sciatica. He suggested I start cutting the anti-inflammatory I'm taking daily in half to wean myself from them. Every other time I've tried, I get a week into the weaning process and the sciatica starts to flare up again. I'm hoping that this time it's been long enough to keep the damned thing in check. Could be I'm a weanie? Al would say yes to that, but spell it differently. :-)
Also asked him about my left leg being shorter than the right. He remembered from the spinal X-ray he took that I have a slight curvature of the spine, a spinal obliquity he called it, that makes it appear that one leg is shorter than the other. Magic in every place we look. At least both feet reach the ground. 
This afternoon I'll trundle my way up to the Rocky Ridge Music Camp in Estes Park to hear Louis play a solo on his viola. Unfortunately, we just found out about the solo yesterday, and Kath has an appointment and won't be able to go. I am looking forward to hearing Louis and the drive up there. 
Once I pass Lyons, the drive is up the canyon that holds the south fork of the Poudre River, and it is beautiful. Just have to be careful not to hit the many bicyclists who train on that long climb. I only see them going up, never down. I wonder if there is a huge pile of bikes at the top of that climb? Or do they all crash into the river on the fast ride down?
I visited a poet friend's blog yesterday and noticed that she has written a haiku for each day she posts and adds it there. I think this is an excellent way to get the poetic juices flowing and think I'll try to write a haiku every day. I'll base it on something that I see or that happens to me that day. It would probably be best to write the haiku just as I sit down to work on my poetry. 
This morning as I woke, I noticed the light coming in the bedroom had a green cast to it because sunlight reflects off the leaves of the maples in front of the house. I was thinking about the haiku when I noticed the light, and this is what followed:
Soft green sunlight through 
   the windows of the bedroom. 
A wondrous day stirs.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A beautiful day on West Bijou Creek

"Bijou" is a French word for jewel, and the Plains Conservation Center holdings along West Bijou Creek in Arapahoe and Elbert Counties is just that, a natural jewel full of wonder and surprises. Yesterday afternoon, I helped the Plains Center director take a VIP group out to the site. We piled into one of the PCC suburbans, towing a trailer, and got to the site at about 2 in the afternoon.

We first visited a geologic structure that is one of the jewels, a place where the K/T Boundary is exposed. The K/T Boundary is a thin layer of claystone that marks the boundary between the Cretaceous (K) and Tertiary (T) geologic periods. The Cretaceous period was one of huge dinosaurs and very small, furry, burrowing mammals. The Tertiary is the beginning of the age of mammals. The K/T Boundary marks the end of the age of the dinosaurs.

The K/T Boundary was formed when a meteor the size of Denver crashed into the Yucatan. The collision spewed huge clouds of ash, dust, and debris into the air, first creating a firestorm that burned much of the vegetation around the world and then led to a "nuclear" winter that cooled the planet to the point that many cold-blooded animals didn't survive. Cool to see a thin layer, about an inch thick, of clay that marks the most recent of five major extinctions on our planet.

Then we drove over to our buffalo herd and pulled up in front of the herd. I was driving, so I sat in the truck while the others in the trailer tossed buffalo cookies to the animals to draw them closer. Here's the way the herd looked when we first pulled up.

They were about a hundred yards to our south, and they slowly ambled toward us. This herd is all cows and their calves. The three bulls were off by themselves staying clear of the grouchy cows and playful calves.

Here they come, and this one and her calf seemed intent on joining me in the truck.

Man these are huge animals. And the cows are only about two thirds the size of the bulls. I suspect these cows weigh around a thousand pounds. The calves are born a copper color and then "bleach out" to this brown color.

The cows are shedding their winter fur, and really look scruffy. Big hunks of hair fall off, littering the ground. Birds pick it up, particularly ground nesters, and use it to line their nests. Nothing goes to waste in nature.

Here's a good view of the scruffy winter coat of a cow. The calf seems to be unsure if she wants to come any closer, or is playing coy with me.

And here's another calf that looked for a minute like she was going to come up into the front seat with me. Check out her scruffy mom behind her.

No, Al and Les, you can't adopt this calf and bring it home to visit with Feo, Herman, Simon, Hobbes, Boogers, Odin, Orie, and Oz. Her mom is too big to argue with.

One cow, a yearling, came right up to the window and put her nose on the door. She was so close I could have patted her head and felt her horns. Not wishing to encourage her, I just quietly asked her to go away and play with somebody else.

She did. She walked around to the other side of the suburban and jumped over the hitch between the truck and trailer, scaring everyone. The rest of the herd was well behaved and just munched on the cookies the group on the trailer pitched to them. The herd is self sufficient, eating only the grasses and forbs that nature provides, except for the few buffalo cookies they get from time to time.

The rancher who runs his buffalo herd will sell most of the calves in the fall after a roundup, leaving a couple behind. Our ultimate goal, and it will probably take ten to fifteen years, is to have the entire herd one that was born on the land. PCC is trying to reintroduce the fauna that was on the land 200 years ago.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Wyoming Writers Conference in Cody

This weekend was special because I attended the Wyoming Writers' conference in Cody. I drove from Denver to Casper, spent the night at Al's house, then on to Cody in the morning. Al told me to expect a spectacular drive through the Wind River Canyon, and he was right. What a beautiful, breathtaking drive, coming so unexpectedly after driving for hours on the high plains. And then you drop into the Big Horn Basin at Thermopolis for another beautiful drive. And the prairie is such a lush green after a wet spring.

On the drive between Casper and Shoshone, I spotted lots of antelope, including eight fawns. Then on the way back, I spotted nine fawns, almost all in pairs. Antelope usually give birth to twins. It is sad, in a way, to realize that half of those fawns probably won't make it through the fall. Coyotes and golden eagles will take many of them. But the coyotes and eagles have to make a living too.

The conference was wonderful, as it was last year. As a poet, I was particularly interested in Lea Ann Roripaugh's workshops. But also, she and her father, Robert Roripaugh, former poet laureate of Wyoming, made a wonderful presentation on Heart Mountain, the internment camp for Japanese during WW II which is 15 miles east of Cody.

Lea Ann had read all the archives of Heart Mountain, every piece of documentation available. From her research, she wrote a book of poetry, Beyond Heart Mountain, including ten poems, dramatic monologues, each reflecting differing conditions and emotions of people at Heart Mountain. Lea Ann read the monologues of female speakers and Robert read those of male speakers. It was a very powerful presentation. 

After their presentation, I talked with Lea Ann's mother, Yoshiko, who, as a child, endured the bombings in Japan during WW II. She told me how frightened she was during those bombings, not knowing what was happening but sensing how frightened her mother was. Yoshiko is a gentle, good natured woman who laughs often and who has raised a wonderful and talented daughter. Robert, Lea Ann's father, had served in the Army in Japan, where he met Yoshiko.

I heard one of the other attendees complain that she had expected a factual presentation about Heart Mountain and was disappointed in the readings. I felt the opposite; the poems for me opened a window into the daily life and emotions of those who were uprooted from their homes, businesses, and lives just because they were of Japanese descent. Ironically, many of the men from Heart Mountain were drafted and sent to Europe to fight.

Lea Ann's workshops were wonderful. She has a graceful yet energetic way of presenting material, often reading her poetry and that of others to demonstrate her points. In her first session she discussed writing dramatic monologues, which seemed particularly appropriate after listening to her and her father read those she had written about Heart Mountain.

In the second session she discussed writing collaborative poetry in which a poet writes a few lines and then passes them on to another poet who adds lines and passes it back. She suggested that the playfulness of the process often provides insights and new topics during the process. She pointed to Braided Creek by Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser, two well-known poets, as a book of collaborative poetry.

Lea Ann's third session was on the music of poetry. She pointed to how repetition, rhyme, the sound of words, the length of lines, and where the poet breaks lines contribute to the effectiveness of poetry. I have known about these techniques and use them, but Lea Ann's presentation reminded me of them and helped me better understand why they work. Great session, probably the best one for me of her three, although all three were wonderful.

I always come away from writing conferences ginned up to write more. I'm putting this on my blog as one way to continue the energy I received from the conference and the drive through beautiful Wyoming. I listened to Dvorak's New World Symphony for much of the drive, playing it several times. It seemed so appropriate to listen to that piece, inspired by Dvorak's visit to America, as I drove through the beauty of the high plains.