Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Berylline Hummingbird

Just now, the nest of a Berylline Hummingbird graces Cave Creek, next to the Stewart Campground bridge. The nest was discovered by a couple from Michigan (if you read this, please tell me your names!), then refound by Raymond VanBuskirk and Michael Hilchey. We've made a couple of pilgrimages to the spot, and Alan has shown the nest to other PortaleƱos.

The Berylline's nest is difficult to see, tucked amid the sycamore leaves. One good vantage point is from across the road, right in the campground entrance, where you'd be blocking camper traffic if there were traffic to block. Watch for the female to zip into the nest from a foraging foray.

Well-hidden nest of a Berylline Hummingbird (Photos by Narca)

Berylline Hummingbirds are among those species whose ranges seem to be expanding north from their stronghold in Mexico. In Arizona their initial discovery was in June 1964. Over the past couple of decades, they have become almost annual in the Huachuca, Santa Rita and Chiricahua Mountains. Their nesting efforts here, where Berylline partners are few, occasionally produce hybrids. Troy Corman in The Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas notes that the partner of several hybrids appears to have been a Magnificent Hummingbird.

In 1993, Alan and I found the first Berylline in New Mexico, a female visiting a feeder at our home next to the ranchhouse in Guadalupe Canyon. I spotted her from inside the cabin, at the same time that Alan spotted her from outside, and we both rushed to tell each other. Luckily, she roosted that night in a shrub right outside our window, and I was able to obtain this photo. (If the photo looks familiar, it's because Steve Howell used it in his superb book, Hummingbirds of North America: the Photographic Guide, and Rick Taylor used it in his just-released pocket guide, Birds of Southeastern Arizona.)

Female Berylline Hummingbird in Guadalupe Canyon, NM

The rancher for whom we were working didn't want us to tell anyone of the bird's presence until she had been gone for a month, as he feared the flood of birders that the sighting might bring to his doorstep.

Today the situation is very different. Beryllines are fairly easy to see in the Santa Rita Mountains at Madera Kubo and in the Huachuca Mountains at guesthouses like Beatty's Guest Ranch and Ash Canyon Bed & Breakfast, and thanks to these cordial proprietors, many a birder has savored this glittering avian gem.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Lifer

When you've birded for more than 40 years, the thrill of finding a species you've never seen before becomes a rare event indeed, unless you venture far from home into rainforest or remote oceanic islands. Yet most of the time we are right here, at home, in familiar surroundings. And the outdoors still calls, and the beauty of birds remains as fresh as ever. So we gradually shift our focus from the excitement of seeing a new species for the first time (after all, years can go by without a lifer in North America!), to an absorption in the behavior of these critters, in the patterns of their migrations, in the special chance encounters that each day in the field brings.

And while our loyalty may stay with the first organisms that inspired our wonder, we can find ourselves taking more notice of the other creatures around us. Then suddenly, we are experiencing anew the wonder of discovery, of seeing a species for the very first time, of seeing freshly, with original eyes (as Saul Bellow wrote).

One of the bonuses of taking up a new interest in some aspect of nature is that the lifers––those species savored for the very first time––come much more frequently. We also discover a new realm that has always been before us, little noticed, and that suddenly blooms in intricate detail and beauty.

Butterflies are now leading me down the garden path (even though I'll still focus first on an unrecognized bird song, or a feathered vagrant). This week brought a new lifer, right here, maybe 5 miles from my home in Portal: a Fulvia Checkerspot. And it's a beauty!

Fulvia Checkerspot (Photos by Narca)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Jeweled Lizard

Each monsoon season brings the marvelous Gila Monster out of its underground burrow in search of protein, usually bird or reptile eggs. Here in Portal near the eastern edge of its range, the beast is rather rare––or at least seen only occasionally. It was an exciting moment when Helen Snyder investigated the reason her dog was barking so emphatically. A phone call later, and several of us are braving the gnats to photograph this beautiful lizard before he decides to retreat.

Gila Monster in noble profile (Photos by Narca)

Gila Monsters are living fossils, little changed over a span of more than 10,000 years. Although their movements are usually sluggish, their potent venom generally protects them from predators. Gila Monsters can't inject venom the way snakes do; they have to release it by chewing. Once a Gila Monster grabs hold, its very powerful jaws are almost impossible to dislodge without killing the animal.

A herpetologist professor of mine once said that anyone bitten by a Gila Monster deserved it, because the victim had to have been harassing the lizard! This sentiment is echoed by Dr. Ward in the Arizona Graphic, 1899: "I have never been called to attend a case of Gila Monster bite, and I don't want to be. I think a man who is fool enough to get bitten by a Gila Monster ought to die. The creature is so sluggish and slow of movement that the victim of its bite is compelled to help largely in order to get bitten." There are actually no confirmed cases of humans being killed by a Gila Monster bite, although the bite is painful and the venom neurotoxic. The venom has been extensively studied, and one of the active peptides may inhibit tumor growth in lung cancer! Another substance based on Gila Monster saliva is effective in helping diabetics.

Tasting the air with a dark blue tongue

The beautiful lizard with its beaded scales exerts a strong fascination. Gila Monsters spend about 95% of their time underground. During mating season––May and June––males search for females by scent, using receptors in those flat, blue tongues. Female choice rules: if she rejects the male's advances, he'll get bitten for his troubles. Females lay up to a dozen eggs in July or August, and the young hatchlings emerge the following spring. They are fully venomous upon hatching. They are thought to live up to 20 years in the wild.

These are protected animals, the first venomous creature to receive legal protection, more than a half-century ago. A good telephoto lens is needed to get closeup photos without harassing them.

On my way to see the cause of the dog's frenzy, another Gila Monster crossed the road in front of the car––a very small, colorful individual. Yes, it is indeed monsoon season!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Today Alan, Noel and I seek out a spot recommended by Carol Boggs, a butterfly expert at Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. We return to Crested Butte, then head over Kebler Pass (where the myriad flowers are strangely devoid of butterflies) to Erickson Springs, a national forest campground bordering Coal Creek in the Paonia Valley.

The Springs' extensive riparian habitat brings us a couple of new prizes: a Sylvan Hairstreak and a pair of mating Aphrodite Fritillaries. Plenty of willows––the hairstreak's host plant––grow along the creek.

A worn Sylvan Hairstreak, superficially resembling a blue 
(Photo by Noel Snyder)

Aphrodite Fritillaries (Photo by Noel Snyder)

Onward, to the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison! Now a National Park for part of its length, this spectacular canyon drops an average of more than 95 feet each mile, over its 12-mile length within the park. At Chasm View, the Gunnison River falls 240 feet in a single mile. Formed of very hard metamorphic rock––Precambrian gneiss and schist––and liberally crosscut by lighter-colored dikes, the canyon was carved by the entrenched river at a rate of about an inch every 100 years.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison (Photo by Narca)

Along the entrance road, one early patch of Rabbitbrush is blooming and attracting good numbers of Mead's and Small Wood Nymphs, and Sonoran and Branded Skippers.

As we stand at the canyon's rim, gazing down more than 2700 feet to the churning river, Turkey Vultures, White-throated Swifts and Violet-green Swallows sail effortlessly above the abyss. In the distance a serious thunderstorm is building, spawning flash flood alerts over a wide area of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah.

Hoping to outpace at least part of the storm, we continue driving the 53-mile length of the Black Canyon toward Lake City. The road is bordered by extensive stands of Big Sagebrush. The storm is looming. And suddenly, along the edge of the road, is the bird I most wanted to see in southwestern Colorado––a Gunnison Sage Grouse! The female is picking at bits of gravel, and when we stop for a quick look (noting her black belly) and quicker photo, she scurries across the road. Soon the storm is upon us.

Female Gunnison Sage Grouse (Photo by Narca)

Above Timberline

Noel, my sister Lisa, and I venture up Nellie Creek today in a rental jeep, under brooding skies. The summer rains hold off for the entire time we hike in the alpenfields at the foot of Uncompahgre. For most of the day, the tip of the peak is swathed in cloud.

The four-mile road up Nellie Creek is narrow and rough, with few places for passing an oncoming vehicle––luckily, we don't meet any! Nellie Falls is exactly as Lisa and I remember it, a lovely two-tiered waterfall glimpsed through the aspens.

Nellie Falls (Photo by Narca)

At the end of the road is the major trail for hikers to climb 14,319-foot Uncompahgre. Lisa and I climbed it as teenagers, but we have no intention of doing that today! The tundra at the foot of the peak is too inviting.

Narca, Lisa & Uncompahgre (Photo by Noel Snyder)

The hike from the trailhead to above timberline isn't difficult. We must be adjusting to elevations in the 12-13,000 foot range. A muddy spot shows us that a Lynx has preceeded us along the trail.

Lynx tracks––see the shape and the lack of claw marks? 
(Remaining photos by Narca)

Once the day warms a bit, butterflies emerge in excellent numbers, especially the dark blizzard of Theano Alpines. Along with the Theanos are several Rocky Mountain Parnassians, Purplish Coppers, Mormon and Purplish Fritillaries, a few blues, Mead's Sulphurs, Queen Alexandra's Sulphur, and Scudder's Sulphurs.

Theano Alpine

Our main goal is the endemic Uncompahgre Fritillary, but chances are poor, and we don't find any. We are probably too late for their short, 2-week flight period. The annual census failed to turn up any at all this year. Closely related to the Dingy Fritillary of more northern climes, this butterfly is only known from the base of Uncompahgre at about 13,000 feet elevation and at a similar elevation on a nearby mountain, Red Cloud, where access is far more difficult than at Uncompahgre.

Uhler's Arctic

We do find a single weak, tattered individual of a species new to us, the Uhler's Arctic. We are also here after its main flight period, and count ourselves very lucky to have seen it. (I'm very glad to have some other association with the name "Uhler" than the blood-sucking Uhler's Kissing Bug, or Western Conenose, which inhabits the southwest!)

Marmots are lounging on a rocky ledge. We join them, creating quite a stir for the inquisitive family. One adult ignores us, continuing to gather mouthfuls of grass, while the two nearly-grown youngsters perfect their techniques of sunning and staring at strangers.

Noel suns with Yellow-bellied Marmots

Nesting right at timberline are White-crowned Sparrows, Mountain Chickadees, Gray-headed Juncos, and Gray Jays. We see a couple of uncooperative rosy finches foraging on the ground and clouds of Pine Siskins amid the fluffy seeds of composites.

Paintbrush on the Uncompahgre tundra

Friday, August 6, 2010

North Henson Creek

Alan, Noel and I take the intrepid Highlander up North Henson in the San Juan Mountains today. All day it is partly cloudy and cells of rain are drenching nearby regions, although the rain never falls on us. After about four miles, the road becomes rougher, and we hike, soon finding a beautiful trail that winds along streamside meadows, in the midst of mixed conifers. We are still a good 500-1000 feet below timberline. Uncompahgre Peak peeks over the closer ridgeline.

Noel at North Henson meadow (Photos by Narca)

Berries are ripening, and I gather the tiny wild strawberries, currants and a few raspberries. Chipmunks are also feasting on strawberries.

An unidentified fritillary

Fritillaries are a difficult group, worse than Empidonax flycatchers or Old World warblers (at least they talk!). The one above has defied our efforts to identify it. Unfortunately, we never saw its underside. If anyone can shed light, please comment!

Abundant Mormon Fritillary

Chryxus Arctic

Today a favorite of mine is the Chryxus Arctic––several are perching on the ground on a slightly drier meadow-slope above the creek. They show a lot of orange, especially in flight.

Ruddy Copper, a close cousin of the Grail butterfly, Lustrous Copper

Another exquisite copper, the Purplish

A single Margined White graces the day.

A pair of Hermit Thrushes and families of Green-tailed Towhees and MacGillivray's Warblers highlight today's birds. An American Crow calling at Capitol City seems very out-of-place. (Mary Price had told us that the first crow ever found in Gothic appeared this year.)

Capitol City, for many years a ghost town, was once in contention with Denver to be the site of the capitol of the new state of Colorado. And where, we wonder, would the airport have been sited? At 13,000 feet on American Flats?

Ghost town of Capitol City

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Big Blue

Big Blue ––a watershed flowing from Uncompahgre Peak to the Gunnison River––and the nearby Alpine Plateau score high on several points. For one, they offer about the levelest hiking anywhere in Colorado's San Juan Mountains. Count us in!

Big Blue Creek flows from Uncompahgre's northeastern flank
(Photos by Narca)

First Noel and I hike along Blue Creek, its meanders lined in willows. Quickly the trail enters the Uncompahgre Wilderness, more than 100,000 acres of forest and tundra. Here in the trail's lowest reaches, a Clark's Nutcracker scrutinizes our progress. Back near the trailhead, Alan finds a family of Red-naped Sapsuckers in the aspens. 

Clark's Nutcracker

Clouds begin to build very early today, and flowers and butterflies are unaccountably scarce––we see a few fritillaries and a sulphur or two. Finally, with lunch calling insistently, it is no tragedy when the rain drives us out.

Purplish Fritillary

Soon the rain lifts as we retrace our route along the narrow 11-mile road. Near the top of the pass another less-traveled road takes off to Alpine Plateau. It's time to explore!

Meadows and conifers intersperse at Alpine Plateau.

Flowers and butterflies pick up considerably at Alpine Plateau. Among the many, Noel identifies a Boisduval's Blue (a new species for me), and we find several Rocky Mountain Parnassians. A juvenile Pine Grosbeak is a highlight.

Boisduval's Blue (large for a blue)

Rocky Mountain Parnassian, a swallowtail relative

Reluctantly retracing our route, we traverse mixed conifer-sagebrush country before returning to Highway 149 and Lake City. Exploring has paid off, again!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Gothic Moods

Flush with our success at finding the Lustrous Copper, Alan, Noel and I embark on a daytrip into the Elk Mountains, in the hope of encountering something new and extraordinary, and also with the intention of visiting our friends, Mary Price and Nick Waser, who spend their summers teaching and doing research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado. Noel nearly went to RMBL ("Rumble") as a tenderfooted biology student, and I have heard about it for decades, but none of us has ever been there.

The lab was founded in 1928 amid the ghostly ruins of an old mining town. Their mission is "to advance the deep scientific understanding of nature that promotes informed stewardship." Labs like RMBO (and the Southwest Research Station in Portal) foster a community of scholars and students, engaged in investigating the wild and in finding ecological patterns that underlie our native habitats, our place.

In 2009 alone, RMBL hosted 44 scientists from 35 institutions, and 60 undergraduates from 48 schools. This independent research station offers full and partial scholarships. What better way is there for students to learn the techniques of field investigation, in a superb high-mountain setting?

You can read more about doings at RMBL on their website: http://rmbl.org/rockymountainbiolab

Rocky Mountain Biological Lab at Gothic (Photos by Narca)

After a couple hours' drive via Gunnison and Crested Butte, we are soon lunching at Galena Cabin with Mary and Nick. The cabin's outhouse boasts quite the view. (An interesting photo essay could be fashioned on the reading material that plasters the wooden walls of western outhouses.)

This summer Nick continues to ponder the mysteries of pollination. Mary is deep into editing a textbook, An Ecology of Place, which sounds like a work we must read, once it is published. They both have a profound familiarity with lives small and large, here in the Elk Mountains.

Judd Falls near Gothic

Nick and Mary join us for a steep climb to Judd Falls and a short hike along the East Maroon Trail (which crosses a pass in the Maroon Bells and eventually ends near Aspen). We find floral differences between the mountain range here and the San Juans: here a tremendous bloom of tall Green Gentians spikes between clusters of buckwheat and deer-munched Pedicularis. I spot a lovely mariposa lily.


Gunnison Mariposa Lily

The same Mormon and Purplish Fritillaries are abundant in both ranges, but we do find a new butterfly––a Dotted Blue.

Dotted Blue near Judd Falls, Copper Creek

Red Crossbills sing. Young Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels peer at us from the safety of a gnarled tree trunk.

Young-of-the-year Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

Building clouds threaten rain, and we withdraw from our ramblings, well content.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Quest for the Grail

To find the Grail, that quarry of legend, a quest is essential. And Noel and I have quested, for years. (For Alan, it is more of a diversion from ice cream, not so much a quest.) We have sought our Grail––the Lustrous Copper––at Slate Peak in the Washington Cascades, in the high Rocky Mountains of Montana and Wyoming––and right here at Engineer Pass in the San Juan Mountains, where today we return, with my brother Brandon and his family.

Noel at Engineer Pass, looking southwest (All photos by Narca)

From our vantage point at 12,800 feet, the air is thin and our footsteps slow. A wilderness of jasper-laced peaks and high rolling tundra billows beneath us. To the northeast jut the San Juan's crown jewels: Uncompahgre, the Matterhorn, the Wetterhorn. To the southwest are arrayed the San Miguels: Mt. Sneffels, Teakettle. A Golden Eagle soars over, on its own quest for Picas and Yellow-bellied Marmots.

A sentinel Pica in talus at Engineer

Such diversity of flowers emblazons the high country: Pink Elephants, Purple Fringe, a zillion composites, Skunk Cabbage, Parry's Primrose, paintbrush of many hues, geraniums, Monkshood, Delphinium, Colorado Columbine. Wouldn't a Grail butterfly be found here, wanton amid the flower fields? Actually, no.

Trail across talus slope at 12,800 ft

We turn to the treacherous talus slides, and I find a nearly-level trail that crosses one. Soon one of Noel's lesser prizes appears, a Rockslide Checkerspot, and he is setting up to photograph it, when I call out "Lustrous Copper!" (Uh-oh: dilemma.) Within about a half-hour, we've found at least nine of the beauteous coppers scattered about the talus trail.

Rockslide Checkerspot at Engineer Pass

Male Lustrous Copper

Two views of a female Lustrous Copper

Next my nephew Torin (in a miraculous visual feat) spots a fox, and then another, probably denning in some crevice beneath the huge boulders that tumbled into the talus slope. They are Red Foxes, but of a very unusual melanistic coloring. The first is a variant known as a Silver Fox, all slaty-silver with a white tail tip.

Silver Fox in the boulder fields

The second is a Cross Fox, with big blonde patches contrasting with blacks and grays. From this great distance, I can only manage poorer-quality photos, but here they are. No doubt the foxes are raising their kits on Picas, which are abundant in the rockfields.

Cross Fox at Engineer Pass

When we are nearly back to the jeeps, Brandon's sweetheart Aimee finds this exquisite butterfly:

Milbert's Tortoiseshell in the San Juan Mountains

Back to the Lustrous Copper... how does one celebrate this pinnacle of achievement, this finding of the Grail? Why, with ice cream. Of course.