29 April 2012

Spring in Boulder

It's hard to believe that it has almost been a month since Lindsay and I were on the front range in Boulder, Colorado.  While there, we hiked the Hogback Ridge Trail with Eric, Lisa, Julia, and Kyler Fairlee.

A majestic Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa)
This ~2 mile trail begins in xeric tallgrass prairie and inclines steeply into a montane community, rising in elevation several hundred feet.

Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla patens ssp. multifida)
One of the highlights of the hike was seeing Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla patens ssp. multifida), a plant I have wanted to see since moving to Indiana. For more information on this plant and for additonal photos, check out my post at Get Your Botany On!.

Common Starlily (Leucocrinum montanum)
With large, white, six tepaled flowers and sharply contrasting yellow-orange anthers, Common Starlily (Leucocrinum montanum) will stop you dead in your tracks (at least it stopped me... several times). Found in rocky and sandy soil in prairies, deserts, and open forests throughout the western United States, Sand Lily, as it is also known, completely withers away after flowering, and the fruiting capsule becomes buried amongst its finger-like roots.

Field Chickweed (Cerastium arvense)
Although many of the chickweeds are not native to the United States, Field Chickweed (Cerastium arvense) is native, and it occurs as one of a handful of varieties in open to partially shaded areas throughout most of North America and worldwide .  In fact, I saw this species flowering in northern Indiana today.

Prairie False Dandelion (Nothocalais cuspidata)
According to Eric, one of his favorite spring wildflowers on the front range is Prairie False Dandelion (Nothocalais cuspidata).  This showy composite is known from grasslands and prairies from Canada to Texas in the central 1/3 of North America.

Western Springbeauty (Claytonia rosea)
I always enjoy finding plants in another part of the country that resemble plants we have in the Great Lakes states.  Western Springbeauty (Claytonia rosea) was no exception.  This springbeauty has a range that is restricted to Montana, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico, where it grows on montane hillsides and mesas.

Northern Idaho Biscuitroot (Lomatium orientale)
And then there are the plants that are nothing like anything we have in the Great Lakes states but that have similar common names.  The plant above, sometimes referred to as Salt and Pepper (not to be confused with Erigenia bulbosa of the eastern United States), is in the carrot family (Apiaceae) and is an early bloomer with red anthers that contrast with the white petals.

Wax Currant (Ribes cereum)
I really like the genus Ribes, and it seems that I get to see a species new to me on every botanical vacation that I take.  On this trip, we found Wax Currant (Ribes cereum), a plant of the western United States.  Wax Currant grows in shrubby areas and open forests on rocky slopes and cliffs. 

Nuttall's Violet (Viola nuttallii)
The violets are a diverse group of related plants, with flowers ranging in color from blue to white to yellow, with leaves ranging in shap from lanceolate to heart-shaped to arrowhead shaped, and with or without stems.  Nuttall's Violet, named after famed 19th century English botanist and naturalist Thomas Nuttall, is certainly unique.  It is know from Idaho to Minnesota and south to New Mexico, where it occurs in prairies, grasslands, and open woodlands.

Hogback Ridge
Thanks to Eric and Lisa for taking us on this excellent early spring hike to see a great Colorado natural area.

15 April 2012

Dumb Luck

When Linsday and I were but fledgling birders, we spent a lot of time birding with Tom Stankus.  Tom always had a saying about birding... that finding birds was "dumb luck."  As Lindsay and I got better at birding and I started to learn bird songs, we started to wonder if birding really was just dumb luck, or if there was more skill to finding birds. 

Fast forward to last week, when Lindsay and I were in Gunnison, Colorado.  On Wednesday morning, Lindsay and I left our friend Lynn Cudlip's house under cover of darkness at 5:00 AM to get to the Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site by 5:52 AM, in hopes of seeing the extremely rare Gunnison Sage Grouse (Centrocercus minimus) performing mating rituals.  This site is the location of a known Gunnison Sage Grouse lek, or a gathering of males where competitive breeding displays take place, and it is closely monitored by the group Sisk-a-dee.  There are some fairly strict guidelines for watching the Gunnison Sage Grouse lek at the Waunita site, including that you must arrive at least an hour before sunrise.  From what we were told, this was our only chance to see this ultra-rare bird conducting its breeding ritual.

So we arrived and sat silently in our chilly car as a cloudless 20 degree dawn rubbed its weary eyes.  Little by little, we were able to begin to see the fence posts that are located near the middle of the lek.  The fence posts were several hundred yards away, and it was still rather dark, but we weren't seeing any birds.  Then, at about 6:40 (ten minutes before sunrise), the volunteer at the site came to our window and asked if we'd seen the birds.  WHAT?!  They were there?!  She proceeded to tell us that she saw 14 birds for a couple of minutes before they left the area in groups of two and three.  No!  We got there that early and missed them??  Because Gunnison Sage Grouse sometimes display for up to two hours after sunrise, we kept watching, deliriously hopeful that the birds would return, or that some of them hadn't left, but sadly there no birds in the seemingly lifeless field.  The volunteer left the site at around 6:50 AM.

We still had a full day of birding ahead of us, so we decided to start driving the dusty county roads to see what we could find.  A couple of miles from the Waunita site, while driving through Mountain Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. vaseyana) habitat, I spotted a white spec 100 yards or so off the road.

A distant Wal-Mart bag?
I have a habit of finding "leafbirds," "debrisbirds," and recently even a shadow on a distant tree that I thought could be an owl before using binoculars, so I almost didn't bother stopping for the spec.  It was still early in the day, though, and we didn't have anywhere to be, so I figured I should stop and take a look.  After initially thinking that the spec would be a plastic bag or a Styrofoam cup, as I was bringing my binoculars to my eyes I thought that the spec could possibly be a Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia), one of the commonest birds that we had been seeing on our trip.  Then, as my eyes began to focus through my binoculars, I realized that the spec had a robust convex shape, and as soon as I saw this my heart started pumping more rapidly.  I told Lindsay to take a look and see what she thought, and then we saw that the object was moving.  Then I saw the tail... through dumb luck, we had found a displaying Gunnison Sage Grouse!!

Definitely not a distant Wal-Mart bag!  Click on the photos in this post to see them larger and in more detail.
Scanning the landscape, I soon found a second displaying male Gunnison Sage Grouse, even closer to the road than the first.  We sat in the car silently and admired these large chicken-like birds with spiky tails for at least 20 minutes until they vanished into the thick sagebrush cover.

We couldn't believe that we'd found one Gunnison Sage Grouse... and then we found a second.  We had happened upon a lek!
Researchers estimate that there are only ~5000 Gunnison Sage Grouse left, all known from a small area in southwestern Colorado and extreme southeastern Utah.  Until the 1970s, the species was unknown to science, as those birds found in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah were thought to be Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus).  After conducting research on the differences between Gunnison Sage Grouse and Greater Sage Grouse, the species was described in 2000.  The ranges of the two species do not overlap, and Gunnison Sage Grouse is smaller with a shorter tail and larger filoplume (the long, hairlike feathers on the back of the sage grouse's head).  In addition, the mating displays of the two species are different; the display of the Gunnison Sage Grouse includes constantly raising the filoplume, and the dispay ends with a sassy tail-shaking motion.

A handsome male Gunnison Sage Grouse struts his stuff.
Habitat loss of greater than 90% has led to rapidly declining populations of Gunnison Sage Grouse to the point that only 8 populations remain and the species is a candidate for listing under the Federal Endangered Species Act.  Within the extant populations, the number of birds is also decreasing.  This truly is an at-risk species, leading to National Audubon Society placing it on their red watchlist.

Above you can view a video that we shot of a displaying Gunnison Sage Grouse (click on the icon in the bottom right to view the video fullscreen).  Without a healthy dose of dumb luck, we never would have seen these amazing birds.  In fact, thanks to dumb luck, we were able to see them at a closer range and in better light than we would have had we seen them where we planned to at the Waunita lek.  Sure, birding takes some skill, but sometimes, like Tom used to say, all that you need is "dumb luck."

08 April 2012

Family and Flora

As we've done the past several years, Lindsay and I are hosting our families for Easter, which means that Lindsay has the daunting task of preparing food for around 20 people on Sunday morning.  This also means that our nieces are in town, so today we spent several hours at Potato Creek State Park.

Lily preparing for the egg hunt
The egg hunt at the park is split into different age groups, and Lily's group was before Chloe's.

Find those eggs!
Lily's group moved across the area in which the eggs had been hidden like a swift wave, leaving no eggs in their wake. 

After this hunt was completed, my mom and Lily came over to watch Chloe's group hunt for hidden eggs.

The look of determination
The eggs that were hidden for Chloe's group seemed to be more widely dispersed, but the hunt was over nearly as quickly as it began.

After the hunt, Chloe and Lindsay were all smiles as my dad tried to count how many eggs Chloe had found.

Shouldn't this be a TNC ad?
Lily and Chloe then tallied their eggs and checked out their prizes.

Chloe with an artist's conk
After the hunt, Chloe, Lily, my mom, Lindsay, and I walked a trail, where we found a couple of Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus), saw basking Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta), heard Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus), tried to catch Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta), admired shelf fungi, and photographed a few flowering plants.

These were the first Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) flowers I'd seen this year. For more information on Pawpaw, see my recent post at Get Your Botany On!.

Woodland Phlox
Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata ssp. laphamii) is always a welcome spring sight.  Aside from those blooming in my yard, these were the first individuals of this species I'd seen in flower this spring.

White Trillium
No matter how many photographs I have of White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), for some reason I cannot resist taking photos of the first plants I see in bloom each spring.

Prairie Trillium
I had seen Prairie Trillium (Trillium recurvatum) with buds earlier this spring, but now this trillie is in flower as well.

After Potato Creek State Park, we made our annual trip to Jimmy John's for lunch, another Easter weekend tradition.

Our wishes to you for a happy holiday!