Six Stories Above Sea Level -2017.03.29

Six Stories Above Sea Level

  • Wednesday, 29 March 2017
  • Wellington Environmental Preserve, Palm Beach County, Florida
  • Time 1105 EDT
  • Elevation – Sea level
  • 80F, partly cloudy, calm

The view north from the observation tower reveals a lone Great Egret looking for lunch

It is a roughly one mile walk on a beautifully maintained winding path through the Wellington Environmental Preserve out to a lone standing structure. I reach the bottom and begin to climb. Sixty steps and six stories later I am at the highest level of an observation tower, giving me a magnificent view of the 365 acre facility, surrounding Palm Beach County and the edge of the Everglades. The city of Wellington in partnership with the South Florida Water Management District, built the facility in compliance with the 1994 Everglades Forever Act, which requires rainwater to be cleansed of phosphorus before it enters the Everglades.

The first thing I notice as I step on the top platform is that it is necessary to sidestep some orange, fruity, pulpy mess. Someone or something or some bird seems to have regurgitated a large amount of fruit. And while it is colorful it’s a reminder that not all that is observed is necessarily beautiful.

I set my small pack down on the opposite side of the platform, swill some icy water and begin to think about which direction I should look. The view is expansive, and bird life is abundant in the Preserve. Less than 100 yards from the southwest corner of the tower I see an alligator in the water! For locals this would be no big deal, but for a Coloradoan it is exciting. In shallow water he moves deliberately, churning up mud in his wake.  He continues to snake his way in a southerly direction, then east. I’m reminded of any number of Disney movies, any one of sinister characters that create havoc on the peaceful creatures that live in the Preserve. He winds and wends his way around grassy sections in the water slowly moving toward two American Coots that are paddling about. As he gains on them he then stops, slowly sinking lower in the water, just his long nose above the surface. The Coots are on to his game and don’t take flight but stay a safe distance, ten yards ahead. He is looking right at the closer of the two. But there is a violent splash to the gator’s right as a fish breaks out of the water. The alligator immediately turns 90 degrees to his right swims a few yards and stops. The drama is over, the Coots move on, Mr. Gator is left to bask in the sun.

I move to the opposite side of the tower and look north. Birds and calls of birds dominate the scene. I watch a Great Egret make its way through the water, looking and fishing. Over the course of the hour I remark how the Egrets light upon vegetation in the swampy area, seeming as though they would rather not get their feet wet.

I move from side to side of the tower taking in the view, the beautiful day, the serenity of this area. To the west I notice a wake and see a second alligator moving through the waters. Over the course of the hour I see a smaller third gator and notice that the two larger ones cover a lot of area in the water and are very active, a remarkable difference in predator versus prey contrary to my previous week’s observations.

An osprey flys by at one point. Red winged blackbirds chime relentlessly overshadowing the softer coo of doves that are in the area. I spy a great blue heron off to the east, standing vigilant and at attention. To the north, I can see a woodpecker with a red spot on his head clinging to a bird box. Without my binoculars I cannot positively identify him. Also north, I seen a couple of common moorhens gliding in the water. Blue jays fly by and the area is also abundant with boat tailed grackles.

Further out in the water I see a limpkin and have decided that on this trip, the limpkin is my favorite bird. Over the past days there has been one sitting in a tree where I have been fishing at a canal. In the 1800’s European settlers found them so tame they supposedly could sometimes catch them in their nest.

At one point I am joined by a gentleman who has climbed the tower while his wife waits for him below, choosing not to ascend higher on this warm day. He tells me that on the walk in, of which he took a different route than I, they saw two juvenile alligators by the one catwalk. He tells me they still had their “stripes” indicating their age. Seeing I have a pad in my hand he asks if I am a researcher. I explain that no, I’m merely an observer of what is going on around me at the moment.

The hour comes full circle, the sun warming the day and high clouds creating enough of an effect so as to make it “not as hot”, but not really cool. The humidity of the area is refreshing compared to the 16% relative humidity Colorado has been experiencing in previous weeks. I make my way back down the steps of the high tower, a sentinel overseeing this edge of the Florida Everglades.30734816_Unknown

Walkabout – 2017.03.24

Walkabout

  • Saturday 24 March 2017
  • Forsythe Canyon, Roosevelt National Forest, Boulder County, Colorado
  • Time 1035
  • Elevation – 7,844′
  • 50F, mostly cloudy, light breeze

I find my spot on a rock after having hiked the area of Forsythe Canyon and Twin Sisters Peaks for the last few hours. Ironically I can throw a rock to my car which is parked 100′ below me as I face north overlooking County Road 68, a four wheel drive dirt road frequented by recreationalists from nearby Boulder.

When I rounded the corner earlier this morning driving to my normal parking spot I was greeted by a large herd of elk. They were too great in number to count and were on either side of the road, spread out around local residences here in the foothills. In my estimation there were 150-200. (How many can you count in the image above?) After hiking for a while I decided to venture back to where I began and observe the herd.

As I now sit looking north I see a small fraction of them bedded in an island of Ponderosa Pines, on the edge of a large meadow, in what would actually be considered someone’s front yard, except it is in the mountains. I sit on public property, but the elk are bedded down on private property, about 500 yards away.

I hear voices from the east and six cyclists pick their way down the steep dirt county road. I view them through my binoculars and I think I recognize the fifth rider as John Talley, an old friend I raced with a few years ago in front range races. I refrain from shouting at him and am always amazed how one, while just sitting still, can go unseen by humans, yet animals much farther away will tune in to me so easily and quickly, more often than not, because my scent gives me away.

The elk number about a dozen and one feeds while the others rest, all heads alert and looking south/southwest where the noise and activity comes from. Their coats are ragged like moth eaten garments, as they move from enduring the winter toward spring, a season of renewal. I’ve seen the new grasses begin to emerge which will offer key nutrients to the elk, especially the cows, as they prepare to give birth to their calves and will be supplying milk for the newborns.

The thin clouds above offer a cool day, the sun working hard to make its heat felt but never shining completely through. Two more cyclists move down the dirt road below me, their voices echoing for minutes before I ever catch sight of them.

After 25 minutes I glass to the west of the dozen and spy more elk in the trees. I see a head of one, the horizontal line of another as it lies down in the grass, just the elongated snout of one farther away mainly obscured by a pine. They have been here the whole time but when they are not moving it is much more challenging to pick them out, even as there are more than a hundred in the area.

Friends of mine often comment how surprised they are that we don’t see more wildlife when out hiking. But large mammals of the forest do not move much. Their life consists of eating, resting and procreating. Wasting precious energy means burning valuable calories, making them vulnerable to conditions and predators. For many hours of the day, especially during daylight hours, they are bedded down watching the world around them, alert to any potential dangers.

The two groups of elk now begin to converge, with some feeding toward the other group. I think I’ve missed one jumping a fence but upon closer observation I realized that there are only posts in the ground, no actual physical boundary connecting each of them.

A black billed magpie lands on the back of a feeding elk. The elk, either used to this kind of activity or oblivious to the fact that the bird is on its back, continues to feed without missing a beat. The magpie walks the length of its spine and then flies off. I’ve read that magpies will do this with mule deer, picking lice and bugs out of the hair. They must do the same with elk, who have much longer hair than their ungulate cousins. The magpie doesn’t stay long and I wonder if bugs and such would not be present yet this early in the season?

In summer and fall when I have frequented this area I have seen many deer and even moose on one occasion. But the elk only winter here, arriving in late fall when the snows and lack of feed force them down from the nearby (some 15 miles as the crow flies) Continental Divide. They migrate gathering numbers as they cover the miles on their annual journey. This makes them a “migratory” herd. (There is a herd where I sat earlier this year that never migrates, staying in one large general area on the plains. They are considered a “residential” herd.) The elk will remain here until the cows calve in May. Not long after, as the temperatures rise and snows begin to melt, they will all move back to the high country and separate out into smaller groups for the summer months until the whole process repeats itself again in the fall.

As I sit and continue to observe the elk I remark in my mind of how peaceful it is today. There are the occasional cyclists and I can hear some local residents working outside but by and large it is calm, serene and beautiful today. There is an ease about it as my hour here draws to a close. I’m grateful for the opportunity to observe this herd of elk. They have been particularly gracious as they can prove skittish, elusive and mysterious during other times of the year. I look forward to observing them in other locales during this coming year as part of this project, for they capture my soul like no other member of the deer family.

Soul Soothing -2017.03.18

Soul Soothing

  • Saturday, 18 March, 2017
  • Boulder County, Colorado
  • Time 0620
  • Elevation – 6250’
  • Calm, slightly cloudy, 35℉

Taking the last morning of the week, my journey seeking stillness comes at a good time. I’d spent the last day working on a landscape project at my house and had come to a challenging crossroad. Leaving the trailhead in the dark, the moon is waning but still large and glowing, and I opt to forego a headlamp and make my way up the wide four track trail. After ten minutes, I head off trail and go straight up the ridge. I’ve run and hiked around this ridge many times over the past five years, once even doing a hike with a group under a full moon.

I pick my way slowly over the rocks, downed trees and grassy hillside. I’m not sure when but there had been a fire here some time ago. The hillside contains low vegetation, popular with the deer in the area but the large trees are scarred ghosts from before the fire.

As I hit the ridge, I climb south and slightly higher. I have a beautiful view of the moon which plays peek a boo behind a tall soldier of a tree. I stop, having not even found my spot to sit, having not pulled out my notebook, and take my camera trying to capture this feeling. These weekly ventures have become a vitamin for my soul, a connection to the earth, to God and a world away from distaction. My mind drops right into the moment and I attempt to begin to take it all in.

A few moments later I find a nice spot on a rock, pull out my trusty pad to sit on and make a note of the time, which is 6:20. It has taken me half an hour to get here in the dark without a light for guidance.

The scene is one of being in a crows nest in a ship. Bare trees surround me acting like masts on this narrow ridge top. I have views of Boulder valley and Denver to my east. Behind me is Eldorado Canyon State Park (again) and a network of trails, open meadows, ponderosa pines and beautiful rock formations.

My notes in my little book are large because I choose to not use any artificial light and merely feel my way along. The sun begins to brighten the sky to the east and it becomes very much like a fireworks show, changing every few minutes as the light changes my world. I forego much notetaking and snap photos instead. I rotate 360 degrees for interesting light and interesting shots. It is breathtaking and emotional.

Being days away from spring it feels as though the earth is about to burst. Birds chirp and sing and there is a different tone to their song. One of hope and excitement. The cold morning air will give way to much warmer temperatures later in the day, and as I breathe in I feel the cold air in my lungs. It is refreshing, knowing that later in the day the sun, so warm so early in the year, will be an abrupt presence.

Forty minutes in  I finally take a break from capturing photographs of the scene unfolding as the sun makes it way toward the line of the horizon. Magpies call back and forth and eight of them alight in a tree about 50 yards away. They sit there roosting in the tree, a raucous bunch as if plotting out where they will go to next and raise some hell. Eventually, my movement startles one, sending it into flight and the group mentality follows, the unruly teenage types flying northeast.

Awhile later I am visited by two Steller’s Jays and they land on the branches of a tree to the south opposite of where the Magpies were. The Jays, also typically loud and obnoxious, are quiet this morning. Perhaps, maybe, they are courting, requiring more polite behaviour as love may be the motivator for them this early morning.

I pull my binoculars out over the last fifteen minutes, as there is now enough light to be able to scan the open meadows and more importantly, the edges, for this is where the deer will be located. To my southwest I spot the hind end of a deer. It moves within seconds behind some trees and then reappears a few minutes later.

My hour here draws to a close. I had solved my landscaping challenge on the way to this spot before the “work” of observing began. It’s already been a great day.

For my readers, wherever you might live, this time of year is a grand occasion. Babies will soon be born by deer, elk, bears and larger mammals. Birds will be courting. Vacationing species of feather will come back from their winter haunts to find their summer homes; a remarkable spectacle and annual event for many. I highly recommend taking a morning to venture from the covers before first light, getting to a nice spot and watching a sunrise. I don’t think you will regret it.

Four Legged Fur(r)y – 2017.03.10

Four Legged Fur(r)y

  • Saturday 10 March 2017
  • Broomfield County Commons Dog Park, Colorado
  • Time 1308
  • Elevation – 5,335’
  • 41℉, mix of large puffy white and stomy gray clouds interspersed with occasional blue sky
IMG_3825.JPG

Coada chases a new friend

I’m finding that a key to keeping this project going on a weekly basis is flexibility. I had planned on one location yesterday and my schedule didn’t allow for it. This morning I awake and as I let the dogs out in the still dark morning I see large raindrops on the back porch. Back to the proverbial drawing board.

Later in the day, without a car, I saddle up my mountain bike, grab one of my two dogs and we slowly make our way north 1.7 miles to the local dog park, my place to sit and observe for one hour. I want to sit in various public places and while it is still fairly cool today, I feel there will be some good activity at the newly redesigned dog park.

Joining me is my 6 ½-year-old spaniel/hound mix Coada (pronounced Kwah’-duh). Leaving behind my older dog Izy is a difficult choice but she doesn’t do well with hard running anymore so I sadly leave her at the house as we head out.

I find a bench, sort out my things and encourage my pup to go play. The initial ratio of dogs to people is 2:1, with about eight dogs running about. I tune in to some crows cawing and prairie dogs chirping in the background. But the main focus of my attention is confined within the fence of this park. The energy early on is building as a dog comes flying in front of Coada and me. Only after he passes do I notice that while he has front wheel drive intact he only has one leg driving in back. He moves so fast that it is easy to miss that he is only three-legged and he doesn’t seem to care one bit.

Eight minutes into our watch Coada lies down in the gravel by the bench. He is hyper alert and can’t sit still for long. Yet, he does not engage with the other dogs and begins his barking and howling, mainly at me, but sometimes at dogs that come close to us.

I throw a ball and he surprisingly loses to a cattle dog that has poached the tennis ball that I have thrown. The cattle dog is quicker, more nimble and on watch for any loose balls that are thrown. I dub him “King of the Tennis Balls.”

An adorable four month old Norwegian Elkhound saunters underneath my bench. His fur is soft and clean, and as I stroke him he caves in to my touch, clamoring for more. Coada jealously nudges him out of the way.

The mood of the park is of general good fun, people converse, the dogs breaking down the social barriers, as folks inquire about names, ages and such. I note what I hear for a few minutes. It’s banter that you would only hear if you were at a dog park or a day care center.

  • “Are you a mountain goat?”
  • “Shavano, c’mon. Good boy!”
  • “Oliver? Come here.”
  • “Shavano (in a gleeful tone), you have a runner to play with!”
  • (In a low rumbling voice by a young woman) “Hey! You’re adooooorable!”

At 30 minutes Coada has become territorial, guarding the 20 yard radius of the bench upon where I sit. He is barking more than not and basically being anti-social. I break my rule of sitting in one spot and we head about for a walk of the space. He seems a bit out of sorts without his good friend, Izy, as they are rarely separated. As we walk he does not leave my side and I have to encourage him to engage with the other dogs, but he really doesn’t want to and when he does he runs at one or a few, begins to howl and then runs back to me. He is the loudest dog in the park. A gentleman with a black labrador remarks that if a dog can’t bark at a dog park, well, where can he bark?

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There are easily now twice as many dogs as when I arrived and the energy is very high. Dog parks are mainly about posturing among the canines. If the “babysitting adults” were not in the way they would probably have an even greater time amongst themselves.

Back at the bench I notice an “outsider” walking on the outside with her human. She looks in at the dogs but is more interested in the prairie dogs that scamper about outside the chain link fence. Our little area is also very popular because I have a small water bowl that most of the dogs with long snouts drink out of. Those with broad snouts are out of luck because they can’t force the fold of the flexible bowl open in order to get at the liquid relief.

Many of the dogs come running as I take photos with the camera, seemingly hamming it up but instead are fooled because they think I have treats, especially when my hands goes in and out of my pocket. The regulars know how to work it, they were not born yesterday.

As I near the very end of the hour the whole mood has changed and somehow nearly all of the dogs have disappeared. There remain just two pointers running about that have Coada’s attention as he makes a run at one of them only to come bounding back to me. We pack up our things and make our way back to my bicycle for the slow ride home. It was good to bring a fine friend along for my venture. He’ll earn an extra scoop of kibble for his help today once we arrive home!

A Prelude to Change – 2017.03.02

A Prelude to Change

  • Thursday, 2 March, 2017
  • Roxborough State Park, Douglas County, Colorado
  • Time 0945
  • Elevation – 6,785’
  • 45℉, blue skies, light wind, sunshine
caps

Only caps remain from acorns that dropped the previous autumn from the Gambel Oaks.

It’s been years since I have been to this park and I’ve only been once, probably more than fifteen years ago. So much time has passed that I don’t remember what it was like. Having been sick for two weeks, I’m happy to be outdoors. I missed last week’s trip of sitting outside because it was too cold, too windy and I was having trouble getting healthy.

But today is sunny, it is going to top out at 50℉ and the feeling of my feet hittting a dirt trail is soothing to my soul. Heading toward Carpenter Peak I don’t have a spot in mind as much as a place of respite. I’m seeking a feeling, not a destination, and when I come to a split in the trail I opt for Elk Valley instead of Carpenter Peak, the trail showing fewer tracks in the snow versus the icy path moving higher.

I make my way to my chosen spot in the valley after having walked in from the northeast and then back out of it to the west. As I explored the upper reaches there didn’t seem to be as much “life” to the area, so I backtrack and find a spot nestled between three Ponderosa Pines.

Looking across the little valley my eyes tell me it is still winter. Thin snow covers the hillsides to the south that face north. I am on the north side of the valley that roughly runs east/west. On the large mountain behind me the terrain is dominated by Gambel Oak, mostly barren now at the end of winter. I’ve heard Gambel Oak also called “Scrub Oak”. It is more like a shrub than a tree, growing about chest high with crooked branches that reach out in all directions. It provides food and cover for black bears, wild turkey and mule deer. It has an extensive root system from which it spreads. Acorns provide food for wildlife, and birds forage on the ground beneath fallen leaves. It is so thick on the mountains in this area that if a fool were to attempt to walk through it from the bottom of the mountain to the top, he would  exhibit scratches from head to toe on exposed skin, and clothing that covered the body would likely suffer tears in the fabric.

As I close my eyes I am fooled into believing that it is spring. Bird life is abundant here as they sing, chirp and squawk. A fly buzzes by my feet, the first insect that I have seen this year in my time afield. On my right cheek I feel the cool breeze and chill of the air. Conversely, on my left cheek and shoulder the warm radiance of the sun, as winter and spring play a game of tug of war with my senses.

My ears tune in to the breeze as it builds in energy creating different sounds around me. As the invisible force moves through the pine needles of the ponderosa it creates a soft whisper. A few leaves hang on the oaks behind me, spinning, rustling, a natural wind chime here in the valley. My own body creates a disturbance of the moving air as it buffets my chest, resulting in more of a deeper tone. It all takes on a pleasant air as I embrace the wind in lieu of shuttering away from it. The force uses all that is in its way to create music in the outdoor world; my body, the trees, the contour of the mountain acting as reeds creating a symphony in nature.

From behind comes the now familiar sound of rustling leaves on the ground. All morning I have been slightly startled by the noise. The fallen oak leaves litter the spottedtowheeground, crunchy in texture as they sit on the dry mountainside exposed to sun, wind and drying elements. It sounds as though someone or some little thing is raking the leaves, persistent, moving about as the leaves take on a life of their own. There is a flutter of wings and I see the spotted towhee, somewhat difficult to pick out on the ground as it searches for food among the leaf litter. I’ve posted a photo to the right of one I saw from my walk in. Can you see it? Look for the unusually colored eye, then you might see the rest of it.

A hawk soars above the valley and flies north. At 36 minutes a hiker comes along the trail, merely 30 yards below me. I sit still and watch. He is intent on the trail, trekking poles in hand, click-clack, click-clack, a light pack on his back and a large brimmed hat on his head. He never sees me as he heads through the valley, lost in his own world enjoying the first days of March.

The spot I am in is so comfortable and cathartic that I could easily stretch out and nap. I’m brought out of my daydream by incessant chattering from a pine squirrel in the fold below. It is immediately met by the scolding of a steller’s jay. The jay silences the squirrel, a feat upon itself, and then flies through the valley allowing me a glimpse of this striking bird of blue and black with its signature crested head.

I scan back and forth taking in all that Elk Valley has to offer to the eye. To the west about 300 yards away I am sure I see some faint movement. Binoculars reveal a mule deer doe barely moving, almost imperctible as she forages in the dense cover of oaks moving toward a small grove of aspens. She blends in so well that I can not make out her full body, just a head, then the horizontal line of her back. Behind her another deer appears out of the brown oaks. As I check out this deer the other disappears not to be seen again this hour.

My time here ends and I know there will still be some snowy days yet to come. Yet my spirit lifts in knowing that as the days lengthen and warm in the coming weeks, that there will be an abundance of birth and growth in the world outside. Nature is about to begin its second act entitled Spring.