Shift Change – 2017.02.18

Shift Change

  • Saturday, 18 February, 2017
  • Brunner Reservoir, Broomfield County, Colorado
  • Time 1711
  • Elevation – 5318’
  • 60℉, slight breeze
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Streetlights on a walkway reflect upon the water as night falls and in my mind act as landing lights for approaching waterfowl.

I break out of the house for the last hour of daylight, the last hour of the week for my project. Having been down and out with a bad cold, some kind of inspiration flows through me and I grab a jacket, two different hats, the camera, journal and walk down the street.

I  move toward Brunner Reservoir, sit on the south bank and look north over the little body of water that lies east of the community senior center. To my right is my neighborhood, behind me are ball fields, a linear open space park, condominiums and a skate park. This is classic surburbia.

Canadian Geese fly in from the west, some landing on the open water while others head to soccer fields beyond. Red Winged Blackbirds’ musical trills echo across the water emerging from cattails, brown in color, devoid of life, a better indicator of the season than the unusually warm temperatures that we have been experiencing of the last few days.

Sitting on the bare dirt, it is comfy enough. A breeze picks up from the west. People are still out and about. There is a bicycle, and in the background my ears detect the smack of skateboards, the proverbial dog barking in the distance, geese honking occasionally.

Halfway across the water, a Bufflehead, my favorite duck, dives under the water. He is back up, then gone again, repeats the cycle and drifts with the current.

A parent pedals by over on the street with a child in a trailer behind. A dog walker is out. A gull flies over, makes a loop, keeps flying.

The banks of the reservoir are comprised of large pieces of rock, big chunks too heavy to carry.  As I gaze at the east bank I notice a ring along the bank, much like you’d see in the bathtub after a crusty kid has exited. It tells me that the current level is down a good foot from whenever that high water mark was last made.

18 minutes into the hour I reflect on the previous 36 hours, most of which I have spent in bed, down and out with a bad cold. Fresh air is welcome and I am grateful to get out for the last hour of light for this week. Illness will not interrupt my hour of stillness. A fool? Perhaps. But this spot is within walking distance of my front door, a card in the deck that I can play when I need it.

Unfortunately, the Bufflehead and a buddy of his are reluctant to come close to my side of the water. Children’s voices can be heard from two parks close by; one to the west and another to the northeast.

A radiant brilliance lights up the west sky halfway through the hour and coincides with me being able to breathe deeply, if just for a few minutes, which feels so nice.

An accented adult voice moves in from my left circling the sidewalk that runs fifty yards behind me. There are three bikes and a little scooter, the scooter ahead of the bikes. A father and three boys, too far away for me to make out complete sentences, I tune in more to the pitch of voice. Dad herds the three like a good shepherd would on a mountainside, reminding me of shepherds I had met while living in Romania. “Go left, go left”, the father shouts as they move north into the neighborhood, a train of bodies on wheels heading home after time together on a wondeful, warm February Saturday evening.

Back on the water, silhouettes of ducks move closer to me, yet not close enough to photograph. They look to be either Northern Shovelers or Mallards.

Skateboards still click and clack behind me in the distance. My raspy cough breaks the quiet at my immediate spot. At 5:49 it is still 61 degrees, the sun behind the mountains to the west and there is a slight chill in the air. It is still light, the days are lengthening as February rolls by. A dog barks again and I roll my shoulders to warm up a bit as I decide to stand for the last twenty minutes of my vigil.

Moving from sitting, to crouching, to standing, I look to my left and see a muskrat 30 yards away. He must sense me and disappears under the water, later appearing as his wake gives away his direction heading for the cattails on the west side of the reservoir. One Red Winged Blackbird signals. I realize they have been largely quiet for some time.

47 minutes and tail lights from cars in distant streets become more prominent in the twilight. A number of streetlights on a bike path just north of the reservoir reflect their light back across the water.

I’m about to wrap up my time. I look at my watch, three minutes left. I’m ready to go home and eat soup, read a book and curl up. Wait! Again I am amazed at what remains in just a few minutes. To the north coyotes begin to yip and howl just as the light from the day begins to fade for good. They carry on like children getting out of school, reaching a quick crescendo. Then, behind me the honking ensues and flock upon flock of geese, numbering well into the high hundreds, too numerous to even begin to count, fly onto the small reservoir. I barely make out that geese already on the water make way for the new arrivals. It’s a flurry of activity that harnesses an intense energy completely different from the first 57 minutes of this hour.

I think about the refuge this water offers for all of these geese that are flying in from areas of the south, where they have been feeding throughout the day. As the coyotes begin to sing and carry on I think about how this world is about to change in the coming minutes, as humans seek refuge in their lighted, warm homes and in nature the night shift comes on for duty.

Aquatic Eagle Paradise – 2017.02.08

Aquatic Eagle Paradise

  • Wednesday, 8 February 2017
  • Barr Lake State Park, Adams County, Colorado
  • Time 0718
  • Elevation – 5098’
  • Soft breeze, cloudy to blue skies, 41℉
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Frozen Barr Lake is an oasis for wintering Bald Eagles. Binoculars are a must for viewing the expansive lake in order to view dozens of eagles.

I make my way to another one of the 42 state parks in Colorado. This time it is Barr Lake State Park. The park is popular for birders and fishermen and boasts of a massive lake which is encompassed by an 8.8 mile trail.

I read where the Bald Eagles are en masse at the park right now, so I decide this is a great place to come spend an hour. I park at the visitor’s center and take a very short walk out to the boardwalk that leads to a covered platform.

The forecast calls for stiff winds throughout the day but just past sunrise there is merely a light breeze. I am on the south shore of the lake gazing north. The lake was originally a natural depression and in 1908 a dam was created combining two smaller reservoirs into what is now Barr Lake. I can see the front range mountains from here on the prairie but they are partially shrouded in clouds, prohibiting a view of the Continental Divide. The sun has broken the horizon off the back of my right shoulder but my attention is on the ice.

The lake is not completely frozen and is not at its full capacity as evidenced by the rocks directly underneath the platform I am standing on. Yet, only a few more feet away there is a mix of ice and open water. Canadian geese are both on my left and off to my right. Over the next hour they fly in and out of the area like planes landing and taking off.

In a stand of trees a few hundred yards east of me an immature bald eagle roosts. He appears to be busy either eating or preening himself, but at the moment I am overwhelmed by the number of eagles on the ice. I use my 8×42 binoculars to begin to check out the majestic birds. I get so busy glassing the ice that I miss the fact that the immature baldie has vacated his perch. I mentally kick myself because my camera is not of the type to get photos of the eagles that are hundreds of yards and miles away from my viewing spot. I have missed the best opportunity for a decent photo of one of the eagles.

Before I know it, time is racing by. Already 30 minutes in, I decide to scan the lake and make a count of the eagles. Most of them are sitting on the ice, a few are in flight over an open channel of water in the middle of the lake. There are a some that are solitary on the ice far from open water. Many others congregate in groups ranging from a pair to nearly a dozen. At one spot I probably count fifteen as I scan the ice and far shore. I can see mature eagles roosting far across the lake, their white heads creating a sharp contrast as they catch the morning sun. Where there is one in the trees, there is usually a pair. Making what I hope to be an accurate count involves intense concentration and focus. It takes me five minutes to do the job and I know that I must have missed birds and perhaps misidentified others. At best I am a very amateur birder, but I tally 73 eagles. (The past weekend a photographer had counted 53 and I messaged the park after I got home and they told me that there have been counts of 75 in past years) Certainly there are dozens upon dozens of eagles. Ironically, the lake itself is home to only one nesting pair, yet many times that congregate here over winter.

I narrow my focus following a few that are in flight. One flies from right to left, soaring above the water and then moves lower, lower and is merely inches away from the softly lapping water. It lifts gently and then lands next to three buddies on the ice.  Others circle much higher overhead, diving down to the water only to pull back up and get a different vantage point as they hunt for fish. A few others put on an aerial display like fighter pilots twisting, climbing, diving and turning. Upon reflection, it seems the mature eagles fly together and the immature keep their distance in their own groups. Or perhaps that is just me thinking it is that way.

As I continue to observe their behavior, I notice that the breeze has now changed to more of a windy disposition. A sudden “crack” causes me to break away from the magnifying eyes I am looking through and brings me back to things immediately in my vicinity. Ice begins to creak and groan off the catwalk. I watch as it ever so slightly heaves and then lowers, the wind pushing the water beneath it as it takes on an almost respiratory quality. It makes me think of all the signs in my neighborhood that state “Ice is never safe!” Looking at the ice in front of me I think, “You’re darn right it isn’t safe!” and with that I make sure my camera, notebook and belongings are secure from becoming victims of Barr Lake’s waters.

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A lone mature bald eagle in a fly by

While my focus has been on the Bald Eagles, our national bird, I have also seen Buffleheads, Mallards, Gulls and many other birds that I could not identify. A birder would be busy for hours here yet my goal is to try and encapsulate this magic into one hour. It is tantalizing to be able to see so many eagles, the most I have ever seen in one single sitting and not have them just a wee bit closer. With just ninety seconds left in this hour four white capped eagles rise up and fly southwest over the water, coming closer than any others have all morning. One breaks formation and  circles northeast in front of me. I make a feeble effort at getting his photo. As he soars back over the ice he seems as though he dips his wings to me like a Navy pilot making his way back off into this aquatic eagle paradise.

The Witch’s Cauldron – 2017.02.01

 The Witch’s Cauldron

  • Wednesday, 1 February 2017
  • Winiger Ridge, Roosevelt National Forest, Boulder County, Colorado
  • Time 0825
  • Elevation – 8000’
  • Windy, 40℉
  • Distance one way  from car – 1.6 miles

 

This marks the fifth week of this project for 2017. Not until Wednesday did I get out this week and thus, I’m making my first entry for the month of February. I head to a predetermined area expecting to experience one thing; at the end of the hour I end up in a much different place.

I traverse over a mile and a half from the car. My original intent was to trek most of the day and find a spot to sit. But my work schedule changed and I need to make this a morning venture.

I arrive at  Winiger Ridge, an area I have visited many times before, but always in late summer or autumn. This is elk wintering ground and where deer live year round. On my drive in I passed by a herd of elk so I’m guessing I won’t find them on this ridge today.

The wind is strong from the west and while it is not cold I don’t want to endure an hour of the wind in my face. I find a spot at a charred, living Ponderosa Pine. I remove my glove and touch the bark. My finger picks up the charcoal and I make a note not to lean back against the tree and muss my jacket. Sitting at the top of a draw below the ridge and out of the wind, I know it is a good spot because three feet below me is a bed from an animal. The area is swept clean of debris where the ungulate created a space to rest. It’s a typical spot, high up in the draw, but below the ridge. The vantage point is a good one. 

I face south/southeast. Glancing left in the draw the area is barren, with little in the way of trees. The hillside contains cactus, a few large rocks and grasses. No snow lies on this south facing east side of the draw. Gazing down and then up the west side of the ravine the landscape is much different; completely snow covered, a nice stand of Ponderosa Pines, a smattering of Aspen trees and some shrubs. The snow is covered in elk tracks up and down the hillside. This is where they were.

Again, I have a big view. It is the season of dormancy. Nothing is growing and the birds are quieter. There is not much in the way of smell. Because of this, I tend to go for a bigger view of things, to gaze upon a grander scale.

A weather phenomenon is taking place. I drove through it, and then up and out of it when I came here, almost 3000’ higher than where I started back at my house. Today, an inversion is occurring. It’s not uncommon on the front range of Colorado. Cold dense air (24ºF this morning) becomes trapped below warmer air (about 40ºF where I sit) that reigns higher up in altitude. Fog remains trapped in a valley below, or in this case, the plains which begin to spread east from the Rocky Mountain’s front range. 

As I have driven and then climbed higher than the inversion I am now witness to the spectacle below me. I gaze toward Eldorado Canyon and see the fog and clouds fighting to climb out of the valley to the higher elevations above. Tendrils rise in and out of the ridges, allowing me to see more easily the topography and definition of the mountains to my southeast. I am able to count nine ridges between where I sit and Eldorado Mountain, the rising clouds assisting in delineating the different ridgelines.

I hear birds below me and with the aid of my field glasses I can make out a few flitting about in the pines 100 yards away to my right. My mind drifts to spring, the sounds and smells, but I discipline my mind and attention to stay in this moment, this hour, 28:20 into the winter watch.

At 32 minutes I don my lined, deerskin gloves over top of my wool gloves as the chill sets in. To the west, the sky is brilliant blue. In the east there are clouds and horizontal lines in the sky. Opposing views battle for my attention. The drama playing out in the east wins this morning.

The clouds, or rather, rising fog is mesmerizing. I feel as though I am watching a boiling witch’s cauldron. The rising and falling of the smoky steam, lifting, dropping, growing, evaporating. Over the past 40 minutes the fog has lifted slightly west and gained altitude. It moves faster and collects above the ridges, three banks merging in an attempt to collect as one unit.

My fingertips and knees grow chilled at 45 minutes. The area, so tracked up from wildlife is devoid of animals this morning. It matters little as I gaze at the fog in the valley that now appears as ocean spray. Waves curl back as the surf moves in, and repeats its cycle, then goes calm as I sit patiently for the next wave to come forth.

A train whistle blows, battling to be heard above the wind. As I close this hour, I’m grateful I walked five more minutes to gain the vantage point I currently have. Had I stopped on the east side of the ravine I would have missed the spectacle of the morning’s inversion.

These times, the hours sitting out of doors, bring about the unexpected. I ask each week, “What could I possibly see that is different in nature, from previous weeks?”

“I have so much to show you”, nature replies, “give me your time and you’ll have no regrets.”

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