July 28, 2013

Gaining Elevation in the Rockies

In a previous post I described the Rocky Mountain foothill habitat. By gaining elevation to about 6000-9000 feet or so, the visitor generally transitions into what is known as the montane ecosystem, which features open ponderosa pine forest in drier areas, Douglas fir where there is more moisture, year-round streams, beautiful flower meadows and cooler temperatures.  Lovely groves of quaking aspen can be found in moist, previously disturbed areas. Rocky Mountain National Park and the surrounding area have many trails through this habitat and we have sampled a few wonderful ones. Here are some highlights from four of these trails.

One relatively level trail around a lake had the most incredible mid-summer flower meadows I've ever seen. Approaching the lake the hiker sees a few bits of color:

but up close the variety is just amazing:

Three of the most prominent flowers in this meadow are paintbrush (Castilleja sp), elephant heads (Pedicularis groenlandica), and American bistort (Polygonum bistortoides):

Along the streams grow beautiful Parry primroses (Primula parri):

A trail to a waterfall in the eastern part of the national park is different but equally rewarding.

Western wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) is a lovely member of the mustard family; it does grow in Ohio but in a very tiny population near the Ohio River. It is much more common in the west:

In the wet areas along this trail we found shooting stars (Dodecatheon pulchellum). We have similar shooting stars in Ohio forests but they are white instead of pink:

We love to discover orchids when we are hiking, and this spotted coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata) was well worth many photos! The inset photo is a closeup of a single tiny flower. 

This plant has no chlorophyll and is completely dependent on a complex relationship with fungi and even trees for its energy. All orchids depend to some extent on fungi but the coralroots take this to the extreme. In Ohio we have its relative, crested coralroot.

A summer visit to Colorado wouldn't be complete without seeing the state flower, Colorado blue columbine (Aquilegia coerulea). The darker yellow flower in the photo below is called golden banner (Thermopsis montana), which can occur in large colonies, and the lighter yellow one is a type of paintbrush (Castilleja sp). There are many colors of paintbrush including deep red ones and magenta ones; they hybridize and are often difficult to identify as to species.

Here is an unusual plant you won't find in Ohio--miner's candle (Cryptantha virgata). It is a member of the borage family. Its nut-like seeds provide food for songbirds throughout the winter.

A common plant in shady areas of montane woodlands is heartleaf arnica (Arnica cordifolia). It spreads underground via rhizomes, which can result in large patches of these cheery flowers:

Another wonderful hike led us into the montane habitat along a rushing stream to a roaring cascade. This shady walk featured some really beautiful and unusual flowers. This one is called rock clematis (Clematis columbiana), a vining relative of the big clematis plants that we see in Ohio gardens, often climbing up lampposts!

Here is a stunning flower, the Calypso orchid or fairy slipper (Calypso bulbosa). It is not common at all, but has a circumpolar distribution, occurring in northern areas around the globe.

Isn't that amazing? Here is a closeup of the flower:

On the last day of this year's visit to Colorado we hiked to a small lake that was partially surrounded by forest. Before entering a lovely aspen grove, the trail followed a stream up through a meadow:

A few beautiful wood lilies (Lilium philadelphicum) grew in the meadow beside the trail:

Fires are not unusual in this area, and one plant that often colonizes burned areas is aptly called fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium): 

It grows to about three feet tall and often forms large colonies.

Parry Bellflower (Campanula parryi) is a delicate plant that just has a single flower and is relatively uncommon. This species and the Parry primrose above are named for Charles Parry, a nineteenth century explorer of the west. He has been called "the king of Colorado botany"--must have been an interesting fellow!

Here is a dragonfly that was completely unfamiliar to us, called a belted whiteface, which only occurs in the west:

This yellow-bellied marmot was keeping a lookout in a meadow area on a lichen-covered rock:

So that is a very brief overview of some mid-elevation habitats in the southern Rockies. Trails that we have done in this area have all been easy to moderate in difficulty and well worth the effort!

July 16, 2013

Rocky Mountain Foothills

The big peaks seem to get all the attention in the Rockies, but the foothills can be interesting too, especially to us flatlanders! We are fortunate to have a daughter that lives in Boulder, Colorado and we have visited her each summer for the past 3 years. We always try to get up to the mid- and high-elevations as well, but more about those later. This post is about the eastern foothills, where the grasslands of the Great Plains rise up to meet the high peaks of the southern Rockies.

We usually get into Denver mid-morning, and head west to Red Rocks, which according to the website is "the only naturally-occurring, acoustically perfect amphitheater in the world." 

Here you can see the city of Denver behind the stage:

This is just an awesome place with interesting birds, flowers, geology--and just the aura of the place is so cool. Practically everyone who is anybody in the music business has performed in this space, from opera stars to the Beatles to U2, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead--basically everybody, even Pat Boone! I'd love to go to a concert here but in the meantime it is a great place to visit in the daytime.

Huge sandstone ledges have raised from the prehistoric ocean floor, and fossil dinosaur tracks occur nearby. Prairie and Peregrine Falcons nest in niches in the sandstone, and we usually are fortunate to see one or the other or both. On our most recent trip, in late June, White-throated Swifts and Violet-green Swallows swirled around us quite low, giving us great looks. 

This year brilliant blue larkspur was blooming all over the property:

There isn't much prettier than the Sego Lily, sometimes called Mariposa Lily:

I love these Prairie Coneflowers, which are sometimes called Mexican Hats:

These large white flowers are Prickly Poppies. Their leaves are so spiny that even cows won't eat them. The seeds are full of oil, making them excellent food for quail and other birds. In fact, the oil was at one time used as a fine lubricant.

Here is a typical foothill view: large erect Yucca blooms on a fairly dry slope. Yuccas are pollinated by specific types of moths, and this relationship is mutually beneficial. This is one of the more fascinating plant-pollinator relationships, and you can read about it at this link.

Finally, this plant seemed to be everywhere at both lower and mid elevations in open sunny areas. Some even occur up to 12,000 feet. It is called Sulphur Buckwheat and was used by Native Americans to treat a variety of illnesses:

Moving a bit north to Boulder, here is what the foothills look like set against a backdrop of much higher mountains:

Prairie dogs are common inhabitants of foothill open space. Although farmers deplore them, I always enjoy watching these rodents while they keep a sharp eye and ear out for predators:

Every Saturday the Boulder Wild Bird Center store offers a bird walk, typically in an area in the foothills. This is a great way to meet friendly people and learn about some really nice localities just a short drive from town. This time we climbed up a great trail near the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or NCAR. 

A lot of trails crisscross this area and it would be easy to explore for hours. Some of the birding highlights included lots of Yellow-breasted Chats, a bird that isn't common in Ohio and often is much more readily heard than seen. These birds weren't shy at all!

You won't see this bird in Ohio--it is a Black-headed Grosbeak. Its song is a bit like a robin's. Apparently they winter in Mexico and are one of the few predators able to deal with the toxic chemicals in monarch butterflies.

The western version of our Baltimore Oriole is the Bullock's Oriole. The two species hybridize where their ranges overlap so until recently they were considered to be the same species, but molecular studies have shown them to be only distantly related so now they are considered separate. The Baltimore Oriole's all-black head is much different than that of the Bullock's.

I love seeing these Black-billed Magpies--so different from any bird we have in the east. With their white wing patches and long tails they are quite visible as they fly from fenceposts and trees. Their raucous calls make certain that they won't be ignored.

Wiedemeyer's Admiral is a common butterfly in the foothills. Here it is "puddling"--getting minerals from the mud that are necessary for successful reproduction.

This is just a very brief tour of some of the plants and critters that live in the foothills of the southern Rockies. Stay tuned for more posts as we gain elevation!

July 13, 2013

The Prairies are Blooming!

Around 5000 years ago, the climate in Ohio was much dryer and warmer than it is today. This fostered the spread of western prairie plants eastward into Ohio. Many of these were very deeply rooted and benefited from occasional burning. The extensive Darby Plains of west central Ohio were covered with this habitat. As the climate moderated, prairie areas decreased in size; agricultural development over the past 200 years greatly accelerated that trend. 

As a result, there are just a few small pockets of original prairie remaining, and some have been designated as state nature preserves. These are remnant parcels that, for whatever reason, were not suitable for agriculture such as cemeteries and railroad rights of way. Interestingly, over the past two decades or so, many park managers and even private property owners have reverted former farm fields by planting seeds of prairie plants. 

Thanks to all the rainfall the past few weeks, these areas are bursting with blooms and are well worth a visit over the next few weeks. This weekend we visited a couple of original prairie remnants and the developing prairies at Battelle Darby Metro Park. All are absolutely spectacular!

Here is a look at Bigelow Pioneer Cemetery State Nature Preserve, west of Plain City in central Ohio. This half-acre parcel has never been plowed or grazed, which is quite remarkable here in Ohio. The earliest known burial dates from 1814, and the latest is 1892. Surrounded on three sides by soybean fields, it still supports a nice variety of wildflowers typical of the Darby Plains. 

Purple coneflower is familiar to a lot of people as a garden plant but it's also a characteristic plant of the tallgrass prairies. It is a valuable nectar source for a variety of insects and does indeed make a great addition to landscaped areas. 

Gray-headed coneflower is coming into bloom now and is one of the taller plants currently in bloom: 

This robust plant is prairie dock, with its huge sand papery leaves and tall flower stalk. It can get up to 10 feet in height and is one of the most obvious indicators of prairie habitat. 

This brilliant red-flowered plant is royal catchfly, so named because the flower's calyx is quite sticky. A ruby-throated hummingbird was checking out the blossoms as we walked around the path on Saturday. 

Here is a rare salmon-colored variant of the royal catchfly:

A favorite moth nectar plant is prairie monarda, which also goes by the names of beebalm and bergamot. 

These are a few of the more dominant plants blooming at the cemetery right now but soon the goldenrods and ashy sunflowers will sport their brilliant yellow blooms. 

Not far from Bigelow Cemetery is Smith Cemetery State Nature Preserve. They share many of the same plant species, and Smith is definitely worth a visit:

Friday night we took a picnic to Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park where park managers and volunteers have converted over 500 acres of formerly agriculture land into prairie. Using seeds collected from Darby Plains plants, they are recreating the habitat that Ohio pioneers removed to get to the dark fertile soils beneath. Here are two views of the restored prairie--picture hundreds of acres that are equally spectacular:

Any of these areas are well worth a visit over the next few weeks. As summer fades into fall, flocks of goldfinches will be eagerly feeding on the seeds of these prairie plants; that can be as interesting a spectacle as the blooming plants!

July 9, 2013

Clearwing Sphinx Moths (Updated)

Over the weekend we saw a couple of very cool day-flying moths that dart and hover much like hummingbirds. In fact, several years ago we got a phone call from a young neighbor asking if baby hummingbirds have antennae! These critters always create a bit of a stir among observers and I've seen several internet postings about them lately so I figure it is time for a blog post. The local TV weatherman even had a feature about them!

I wish I had shot some video but the still photos will have to do. Here is this moth coming in, proboscis unfurling, to get some nectar from this common milkweed in full bloom:

In a still picture it looks a lot like a bee, and in flight it acts like a tiny hummingbird. In fact, it is a clearwing sphinx moth, one of two species that occur here. This is probably the Snowberry Clearwing, judging by brown stripe on the sides of the thorax. The other is aptly named the Hummingbird Clearwing, and they are not all that easy to tell apart.

These moths are strictly day-flyers, and are not attracted to lights the way many moths are. Apparently the wings have scales to begin with, but lose them soon after the adult moth begins to fly, hence their transparent appearance. They are just a blur when in flight, and I've never seen one actually land on a flower. Here is another view:

Despite their furry, bumblebee-like appearance they will not sting or harm anyone in any way. They are valuable pollinators and a fun sight in any garden or meadow on a sunny day.

So watch for and enjoy these unusual moths. If you are fortunate enough to see one on milkweed, enjoy the scent and unusual form of the flowers too!

July 11, 2013

Yesterday we were out and about and saw both the Hummingbird and the Snowberry Clearwings. Here is a shot of the Hummingbird Clearwing:

There are two features that pretty easily distinguish the two, although they are hard to see while the moth is buzzing around so fast! The front pair of legs of the Hummingbird Clearwing are white and those of the Snowberry Clearwing are black. (That feature does not show in the Peterson Field Guide to the Moths of Northeastern North America.) Also the Snowberry has a dark brown streak on the dorsal side of the thorax which is absent in the Hummingbird Clearwing. Here they are side by side for comparison: