Spring is in full swing, flowers are blooming, animals are courting…and fierce battles for territory are being waged all around.
Yesterday, I watched a rock-em-sock-em, no-holds-barred battle in the sky! It started with a Red-tailed Hawk flying over Venetucci Farm, with what looked like nesting material in its talons. I had seen a pair in a dead tree earlier and even had one “scream” at me. All this added up to a nest somewhere nearby, probably in the top of a Cottonwood tree, in the riparian forest along Fountain Creek.
While contemplating this tranquil scene there was a sudden blur of white and black as a Swainson’s Hawk dove at the Red-tailed. The Red-tailed quickly flipped upside down, in mid-air, with talons stretched upwards towards its attacker. The aerial “dog fight” continued as after a few more dives by the Swainson’s Hawk, a second Swainson’s joined the attack. The two then took turns diving at the Red-tailed which was kept on the defensive.
After a couple of minutes of this onslaught a second Red-tailed seemed to appear out of nowhere and the Swainson’s Hawks drifted away. I finally located the stick nest atop a Cottonwood tree and this morning a hawk was sitting on it with its head barely protruding. Red-tailed or Swainson’s, that is the question.
Red-tailed Hawks have dominated the air space over Venetucci with Swainson’s Hawks only making guest day hunting appearances. Raptors are very territorial so most likely this battle was a fight for a territory in which to hunt and raise young. With at least three active raptor nests to monitor, at least two occupied by Red-taileds, it will be must see reality TV as this drama unfolds!
Every part of the country has its different sure signs of spring. Growing up in southwestern Pennsylvania, it was the return of the robin. On the west coast it might be Cliff Swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, California (though even that venerable tradition is under threat: http://www.scpr.org/news/2015/02/23/50003/san-juan-capistrano-looks-for-new-ways-lure-back-s/ ). I’ve had to re-calibrate my spring clock since moving to Colorado in 1990. Now what I look for is a combination of birds, flowers and insects.
As for birds it is another member of the Thrush family. Instead of the robin I am on the lookout for the Mountain Bluebird. Males are a spectacular sky blue and they typically travel in small flocks, heading up into the mountains as early as February and March. They somehow survive the late winter and spring snow storms and find enough to eat.
Say’s Phoebe are another bird to look for in March. These flycatchers are very tolerant of humans and are often found nesting under the eaves of houses and porches. We even had one spend the winter with us at Venetucci Farm, instead of migrating (see my Feb 3rd Blog entry https://naturethroughtheseasons.wordpress.com/2016/02/03/winter-visitors/ for more on the wintering Say’s Phoebe).
The first insect that catches my eye each spring is the Mourning Cloak. This somber named butterfly has purplish-brown wings edged with yellow and accented with blue spots. They are one of the insects that are able to survive winter as adults by seeking shelter, sometimes under tree bark, and then producing antifreeze-like chemicals that keep them from freezing.
Lastly, there is the humble Crocus Flower, sometimes known as the Prairie Flower or Pasque Flower as it shoots up around Easter. One of the first spring flowers, it hugs the ground for protection. This year, I found my first one on April 4th, a week after Easter, sheltered in a small canyon in nearby Garden of the Gods park.
As the climate continues to change these seasonal signals, also known as phenology, can also change. Check out this cool site to learn more and even participate in sharing your observations as a Citizen Scientist!
For most of my life owls have seemed mysterious, rarely sighted and solitary. To see a nesting pair was a great coup. However all of my preconceptions were thrown out the window last week as I saw 27 owls comprising 5 different species, all in two days!
To begin with, this was only possible with some expert help, a bit of luck and a quirk of some owls’ habits. Turns out, some owls, like Short-eared and Long-eared, winter together in communal roosts, clustering together in relative proximity on their wintering grounds. The fact that this happens in Colorado and I happen to have a friend who had discovered roosting spots was exceptional good fortune.
The last bit of good fortune was finding two owls at Pinello Ranch, a Western Screech Owl, first found by one of our volunteers, and the second a Great Horned Owl, a pair are nesting somewhere on the Pinello Ranch/Venetucci Farm border. In all, I saw 10 Long-eared Owls fluttering around their day roost in brushy groves of Russian Olive trees, 14 Short-eared Owls erupting from open prairie riddled with ground squirrel burrows, 1 Barn Owl also amongst Russian Olives and Cottonwood trees, 1 Screech Owl roosting in a hollow of a Siberian Elm tree and 1 Great Horned Owl swooping amongst ancient Cottonwood trees. Unfortunately, only the Long-eared Owls and Western Screech Owl were obliging photographic subjects.
The standard view of winter is of loss. Flowers, butterflies, leaves on trees, hibernating mammals and migrating birds: all gone. Winter is thus just a cold, quiet, sparse time. The most notable exception to this is the arrival of winter ducks from the north (for a discussion of them, please visit my 11/9/2015 blog post).
However, there are other winter bird visitors as well. In Colorado, some of these are altitudinal migrants moving down the mountains to lower elevations. Others come from as far north as the Arctic. To them, Colorado is their “Florida”. Then there are the strange cases of birds that for some reason don’t migrate at all, though virtually all other members of their species have done so. I have found that the more I seek out all of these various winter visitors, the more I enjoy and appreciate the season.
This winter my searches have been rewarded with Rough-legged Hawks, American Tree Sparrows, Lapland Longspurs and Rosy Finches. White-crowned Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Pine Siskins and, in some years, Harris’s Sparrow are also welcome visitors. A single Say’s Phoebe decided to go it alone and has stayed all winter at Venetucci Farm, while its fellow phoebes have all gone south. And like any good fisherman’s story, there has to be the one (or in this case several) that got away. A brief glimpse of a short-eared Owl at dusk, tantalizing reports of Snowy Owls, Snow Buntings, Redpolls and Long-eared Owls are all birds still out there to seek.
Before long the season will shift and as early as February, birds will begin to move north again. I thus find myself not dreading the long and endless winter but rather feeling how ephemeral and shortly lived this season is.
Say’s Phoebe. While other phoebes have headed south during migration, this lone individual has been at Venetucci Farm all winter.
Harris’s Sparrow. This northern visitor typically winters in the midwest, but a few visit Colorado each winter. Photo: Pinello Ranch, courtesy of Gloria Nikolai.
American Tree Sparrow. Another northern visitor, they can commonly be found in mixed flocks with White-crowned Sparrows. Photo: Pinello Ranch.
Black Rosy Finch. Along with Brown-capped and Gray-crowned Rosy Finches, these birds move to lower elevations in the winter. Photo: Victor, CO.
Lapland Longspur. These relatives of sparrows are commonly found mixed in with large flocks of Horned Lark on the prairie. Photo: near Arriba, CO.
Rough-legged Hawk. A visitor from the farthest northern reaches of North America. Photo: eastern El Paso County.
Just a couple days after winter solstice and I’m wending my way up a foothill trail on the east flank of the Chiricahua Mountains near Portal, AZ. My guide, Dodie, leads the way. We are looking for birds, but at a deeper level I am looking for immersion. To connect to a healthy landscape is healing, revitalizing.
As we hike through thick grasses, bushes and trees the landscape is animated by birds. A glossy, blue-black Phainopepla perches atop a nearby tree looking at us with crimson eyes. Pyrrhuloxia, gray cardinals with red accents, move through the landscape along with southwest sparrows like the Rufous-crowned and Black-chinned. Whispered calls clue us in to the presence of a Crissal’s Thrasher that Dodie expertly identifies before I even am aware of the sound. This is a healthy landscape for wintering birds and for those of us lucky enough to walk the trails and I relish every minute.
Back home in Colorado, my thoughts turn to Pinello Ranch and Venetucci Farm, where I work as the Education Coordinator. There are trails going through healthy landscapes there as well. With the help of a cadre of dedicated volunteers we have been exploring the wild corners of both properties for the last several years. Even on a busy farm, there are places where you can feel that same connection that I recently experienced in Portal. 2016 is going to see dramatic changes at both Venetucci and Pinello in how we share these places with the public.
For starters, at Venetucci Farm we are going to begin the process to create a self-guided birding trail where people can explore the many hidden and not so hidden areas of this 250 acre urban farm. Brown Thrashers, Blue Grosbeaks, Lazuli Buntings, Yellow-breasted Chats and Dickcissels are some of the birds singing from Coyote Willow’s thick vegetation. In the open areas, alongside fields of grain and pumpkins, Western and Eastern Kingbirds and Vesper Sparrows perch on fence lines while Red-tailed and Swainson’s Hawks patrol the skies.
Pinello Ranch is also going through dramatic changes as Colorado Springs Utilities begins a Master Planning process for this 100+ year old iconic ranch of the Pikes Peak Region. This is perhaps the most dramatic turn of events since Italian immigrant brothers Alphonso and Angelo Pinello bought the, then named, Skinner Ranch in 1912.
It is the hope of the farm and ranch staff and of our parent organization, the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, that local agriculture and wildlife conservation will be important aspects of Pinello Ranch’s future. The Master Planning process will include opportunities for public input and I will make sure that those who have visited and are interested in Pinello Ranch are kept apprised of these opportunities as the information becomes public.
We are looking forward to an exciting 2016 and hope to see you “down on the farm”. Please let me know if you would like to be added to our email list so we can keep you up to date on new outings as well as the Pinello Ranch Master Planning process.
With your help we plan on keeping wild landscapes wild for future generations to immerse themselves in.
Happy New Year,
Education Coordinator, Venetucci Farm and Pinello Ranch
For many people, winter can be a little depressing. Shorter days, trees losing their leaves and birds heading south to warmer climes. Fortunately, it’s not all loss. There are also new visitors who head south and join us during winter. I’m living in Colorado, and this means elk move down from the higher elevations and a host of birds either migrate from northern latitudes or migrate down the mountains to lower altitudes.
At Pinello Ranch, this means American Tree Sparrows, Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Harriers moving south and Dark-eyed Juncos and White Crowned Sparrows moving to lower altitudes. However, for a splash of color during winter, it is the winter ducks I look to. Most of the ducks that visit us molt into their breeding plumage by late fall and thus they are at their feathery finest when we lead guided birding hikes at Pinello Ranch.
There are a host of ducks to enjoy including: teals, mergansers, goldeneyes, ring-neckeds, redheads, scaups, wigeons, canvasbacks, shovelers etc… The list is long and for beginning birders the bonus is that they are relatively easy to see. Unlike song birds that are small, quick moving birds, hiding in trees; ducks are relatively large and move little if you give them enough space so as not to disturb them. Here are a few photos taken at Pinello Ranch of some of my favorites.