Friday, September 27, 2013

Devil's Backbone

Devil's Backbone
We visited Devil's Backbone for the second time on Wednesday this week.  It was an absolutely gorgeous day to be outdoors!  Devil's Backbone is located in the foothills west of Loveland, just north of Hwy 34.  It is the southern access point to an extended trail system that extends north, running along the hogbacks that run between Loveland and Fort Collins.

The trail can be shared by hikers, mountain bikes and horses.  The trail initially goes to an outlook point, where you can look into the next valley and see the entire front range.  It is an easy trail, with a gradual incline, and it is about 1.6 miles roundtrip from the parking lot.  You could easily continue to hike northward, and do the whole circuit - about 5 miles or so?  This picture above shows the strata quite well.  The hogbacks are made up of sandstone, upheaved eons ago.  It is very easy to study the strata on this hike.

Here we are at the lookout.  There is a nice sign to name off the peaks in the distance.  Long's Peak is to the left of Jordan's head.  The mouth of the Big Thompson Canyon is above my head, behind that distant ridge.  The flooding that happened from the rains two weeks ago has caused widespread damage all along the river basin.  You can't see it from this vantage point, but just a quarter mile to our south is where the Big Thompson river runs south of Hwy 34, and the flood has most certainly left it's mark.  After our hike we drove a short ways until we reached the road closure, and were just amazed and saddened at the destruction we saw.  Mud and debris everywhere...  Shortly after a group of hikers took this picture of me and the kids, another lady arrived and chatted with us a bit.  She was from Baton Rouge, LA, and was here volunteering at the Loveland shelter with the Red Cross.  She was enjoying a day off and seeing the sights.

Since this was technically a girl scout hike (even though Rylan was the only scout in attendance), I covered with her some more backcountry advice and worked on naming plants with her.  We saw several Lacy Tansyasters (above) along the trail, which can be easily identified by their trademark daisy-like petal formation and delicate, lacy, sage-green foliage and round bushy habit.  We also identified yucca, pear cactus, sage, cottonwood, chokecherry, golden currant and yellow rabbitbrush (below).

I didn't get any pictures, but we also watched two bald eagles circling, as well as a red-tailed hawk and a kestrel.  The only other creatures we saw were beetles and pesky grasshoppers - including a monster-sized one that was four inches long! 

The biggest win for this hike was the fact that both Owen and Colin made it the whole way.  Usually Colin requests to be carried, but here he is, almost near the end of the hike, still going strong!  Owen was fueled by something else - he really, really, really needed to go potty.  ;)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Must be something in the water...

Based on a subject study that was recently discussed on Handbook of Nature Study, I thought it would be interesting to gather samples of water/soil from local watersheds to compare them.  Specifically - Horsetooth Reservoir and Cache la Poudre River, since they have been impacted by the recent wildfire - the High Park fire.

We collected water samples from Horsetooth Reservoir and the Poudre on June 25th.

Public swim beach, on the east side

A comparison sample from the Big Thompson River (about 15 miles south) on June 26th...

And another comparison sample from the Poudre River - two miles downstream, on June 29th.

Then the jars sat on my kitchen counter for days... waiting to get their picture taken.  So I moved them outside to the front porch railing, shook them up and snapped their picture on July 7th.

Horsetooth Reservoir (swim beach)

Poudre River

Big Thompson (This was not shaken - it has sat undisturbed for 11 days.  No idea what that stuff is growing on the sides)

24 hours go by...

River 1

River 2 (note the presence of ash particles from the fire)

Horsetooth Reservoir.  Would you swim in this?  Yuck.

Another 48 hours go by...

From L to R: Big Thompson, Horsetooth, Poudre River 1 & 2

So, what have we learned so far?  Horsetooth is really dirty.  I don't know what that hazy stuff is...  Here's a close-up:

This was the jar before I shook it up again to take my pictures.  It has sat for 11 days, and the water is still hazy.  Interesting layers... but I have no idea what all of this fine, light brown hazy material is.  All I know is that I would not be too gung-ho about swimming in it.

We learned that the Poudre River is really clean.  Errr... should I say - was?  (more on that in a moment..).  This water is CRYSTAL clear.  Here is a close-up, pre shake-up.

Those big black particles are ash from the fire.  If you aren't familiar with the area, the High Park Fire jumped the canyon that the river flows through, so there was fire for several miles, on either side of the canyon (and river) - hence the fire debris.  There is also a lot of rose quartz and granite in the sand particulate - pretty uniform size throughout, save the pebbles on top.

And then we have the *ugly* sample from the Big Thompson (see above).  This is where my sparse geologic knowledge fails me - I don't know how to explain the difference between the two river samples.  The rivers are only 15 - 20 miles apart.  They cut through the same geologic strata in the foothills.  Yet one is full of quartz and probably some limestone, and the other is silty... granite and slate perhaps?  If you are reading this and you know a little about it, could you tell me why they are so vastly different?  The only possible explanation I can think of is that the Big Thompson was subjected to a catastrophic flood 36 years ago on July 31st, 1976.    The flood, due to 7.5 inches of rainfall above Estes park, pushed tons of debris down the canyon.  The location that we took our sample from was about 5 miles downstream from where the river exits the canyon.  No idea if I am on to something, but that is just my guess...

We took a drive down the Poudre Canyon on July 10th to survey the fire damage and take a water sample from the Cache la Poudre River.  We stopped at Stove Prairie Landing to wade into the river.  The mud had a very strange feel to it.  You can see how much ash is in the water by looking at Rylan's feet.

The mud is sparkly like powdered charcoal (well it is ash...)

This the jar after it settled overnight. (sorry it so fuzzy...)

All of the jars.  The fifth jar from the left is another comparison sample that we took on 7/10 as well.  It was upstream from where we collected the ashy sample, just before the burn area began.... (7/11/12)
All of the jars on 7/18/12.  The Horsetooth sample is finally clear.

We will routinely take samples through the rest of summer and fall to see how long it takes the ash to clear.  We haven't had much rain in the past week, so I think it will take a full season of rain and snow to clear the hillsides completely.  This will be interesting to see what happens!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Dragonfly's Lair - First Visit (4/16/12)

Last week we visited Dragonfly's Lair, just a hop, skip and a jump from our house.  It was built through community effort and the organization Trees, Water and People about 8 years ago.  You can read more about it here.

This was technically our second visit.  We first came here three years ago, when we attended an aquatic insect class with our homeschool group.  We used field microscopes and looked at several water samples, counting all of the different life forms we could find.  The more you find, the healthier the aquatic ecosystem.  We enjoyed using the microscopes so much, that we bought one as a Christmas gift to the entire family.

We take it with us on every outing - it is very lightweight and portable.  You can order all sorts of extras to suit your needs.  Here is the model we own.  I highly recommend it!

Unfortunately, this outing yielded disappointing results.  Jordan took about six different water samples from different locations around the edge of the pond, and could not find any aquatic insects.  That is not to say there isn't any there, but judging from the visual survey of the pond, it did not look very healthy.  Yet - it must hold at least some degree of sustainability, because this couple was watching us the entire time...

A. Platyrhynchos

I still can't understand what is going on with my camera, because I tried to zoom in, and this was the best I could do.  I was only standing about thirty feet away!  Certainly I can turn out a better picture of Mallards, but for now this will have to do.

There is an interpretive trail with ample signage that identifies all of the local plants they installed years ago.  There also used to be a large deck unit, with a walkway that crossed over the entire marsh/pond, but it is gone now.  I searched around on the internet to look for any stories about it, but there doesn't appear to be any.  We were sorely disappointed about that too - that was one of the best features of the area.  You can get an idea of what it was like by clicking on the link I posted at the beginning.

We were able to see some good examples of blooms on native plant life...

Common Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana vars. demissa & melanocarpa)

Golden Currant (Ribes aureum )
We will make the effort to return in a couple on months to see if things have improved.  I might even call the city's outdoor education office to see if they still offer the class (and ferret out the reason why the walkway was removed).  The funny thing - after we got home, I realized that one of our shrubs out in front of our house looks exactly like the one above.  Ha!  At least now I know what to call it!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012



Great Plains yucca

Spanish bayonet


small soapweed

soapweed yucca

In these parts, we just call it 'yucca'

Cathy Fromme Prairie, 1-31-2012

KingdomPlantae– Plants
SubkingdomTracheobionta– Vascular plants
SuperdivisionSpermatophyta– Seed plants
DivisionMagnoliophyta– Flowering plants
ClassLiliopsida– Monocotyledons
FamilyAgavaceae– Century-plant family
GenusYucca L.– yucca
SpeciesYucca glauca Nutt.– soapweed yucca

The above information came from this site.  The yucca is a native plant to this area, and is obnoxious enough that it has garnered 'weed' status.  I think it deserves a better classification than that.  It is an iconic plant in this region, and it is very pretty, IMHO.  My grandpa Orin thought so too, because I would venture to guess he photographed at least a hundred of them as he criss-crossed all over Colorado and the southwest years ago.

A yucca plant grows to be about a foot tall and produces beautiful white blooms in the late spring/early summer.  It retains the beautiful green foliage all year long, and it is such a pretty contrast when it is covered with snow.  The plant isn't very tasty to animal or human, but it isn't toxic, either.  Many Native American tribes used the fruit/seed pods/roots as a food source.  The fruit was a preferred item, and the root was a last-resort item used in time of famine.  The Keres (Pueblo Indian Tribes of New Mexico) even used the fruit to boil it down into a syrup and make hot chocolate.  I'll take their word for it.

I found a long list of various maladies and medical conditions that the Native American tribes of the midwest region used different parts of the yucca to cure.  The Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Dakota, Kiowa, Lakota all used it to treat baldness or promote hair growth.  They must have been on to something, or else it was the same medicine man that traveled from tribe to tribe pitching his natural cure for baldness.  I find it hard to believe that baldness was a true concern at the time...but according to the ethnobiologists that studied these tribes, it was.  The root, after a good pounding, produces a nice soapy froth that was used as a shampoo (hence the name, small soapweed) and as a way to treat lice or sooth the effects of poison ivy.   The juice from the leaves was used as a poison on arrowheads and for fishing - which flies in the face of the claim that the plant is not poisonous.  There are contradictions all over the place on the internet! (So don't you dare use me as a primary source!!)

One very interesting fact is the symbiotic relationship between the yucca plant and the pronuba moth.  Neither one can exist without the other.  The moth, in its pupal stage, will remain underground in its cocoon until the yucca is in bloom in the late spring.  The white flowers fully open at night and give off a very particular scent.  The moth detects the scent, emerges from the ground, and begins to pollinate the plants.  The female will gather pollen from the stamen of one plant, visit another, and deposit her eggs in a very specific spot in the ovary, and then shove her ball of collected pollen (3X the size of her head) into a receptacle on the tip of the ovary's stigma.  Pollination then occurs, and when the larvae emerge a few days later, their singular food source (the seeds) is right there, ready to go, housed within the seed pod that also serves as protection for the larvae.  When the larvae emerge from the seed pods, they drop to the ground after a rainstorm (when the ground is soft), dig down a couple on inches and build a cocoon and start the whole process over.  They can remain underground for just a few weeks or for years, until the yucca blooms again.  Fascinating!  If you want to see a pronuba moth, you can find them (when the yucca is in bloom, of course) resting on/within the blooms during the daytime, and between the hours of dusk and midnight, flying from yucca  to yucca as they gather pollen.  They are silvery white in color and about an inch in length. 

We have our work cut out for us this coming early summer.  I want to document a yucca in bloom, watch for pronuba moths, and collect a seed pod for study under the microscope.

Good stuff!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

When you give a kid a camera...

(in tribute to Laura Numeroff)

If you give a kid a camera,

He'll want to go outside to take pictures.

If he goes outside, his sister will want to come along.

If his sister comes along,

They'll pose for the camera.

As they get into position,

they'll spot interesting things by their feet.

As they look at their feet,

They'll find other things.  Like poop.

(*nice*, Jordan...)

And feathers.

And leaves.

And grass.

As they walk through the grass,

They'll watch out for goose poop.

Because the geese are everywhere.

Since the geese are close by, he'll want to take a picture.

Why?  Because he has a camera.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why is nature study a priority for our family?

I have lived here for 36 years.  Locally speaking, I love to hike in the foothills, bike along the trail system, visit Horsetooth Reservoir and go up the Poudre Canyon and watch the rafters on the Cache la Poudre River when it is full to the hilt with spring runoff.  We are very fortunate to have such a wide variety of outdoor activities within a fifteen mile radius of our front door.


I can count on one, maybe two hands, the different number of local trails I have been on.  We hike the same trails, over and over, because familiar is comfortable.  It feels safe, and I know what to expect.  I've rafted - once.  Most of the hiking and exploring that I have done is when I was single and stupid.  I had my dogs with me, but that was not really smart.  I have a cursory working knowledge of the plants and animals in this area.  I can sum it up this way:

1.  "Leaves of three, let it be."

2.  If it makes a rattling sound, get the hell out of there.

That is not much to go on.  So I purchased a wonderful book, Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Botsford Comstock.  I bought it two years ago.  Baby Steps!  I've read about five pages.  It takes up about as much shelf space as Gone With the Wind.  I bought a bird guide with last year's Christmas money.  Baby steps!  We used it to identify a bird about a month later.  I can't remember what it is now... the point is, I am not getting anywhere very fast in closing this knowledge gap.

I just feel that it is time to get the kids 'out there'.  Jordan is in Boy Scouts, and a wealth of knowledge about all things natural will help him immensely.  We are more mobile - we are down to one child in a backpack, so that makes it possible for me to foray out on my own with the kids in tow.

Here are some things I want to be able to accomplish:

* Locate milkweed later this spring, so that we can also locate some butterfly chrysalises.
* Start nature journals and have the kids work on sketching.
* Take some water samples and determine the health of the marsh by the variety of insects present.
* Study a prairie dog town.
* Become familiar with different animal tracks
* Research with the kids so they know what a rattlesnake sounds like.
* See a rattlesnake.  (Yes, you read that correctly)
* Watch a beaver.
* Watch an elk herd.
* Do a bird count (next month!!) - build up our knowlege about local birds
* Be able to identify local plants

And a host of other things.  Most of all - I want to know what I am seeing, hearing, smelling...and so forth.  I don't like answering the question, "Is this poisonous?" with an, "I have no idea".  I want to know more about where we live - and what else lives here too.  It is very sad (in my mind) that I don't really know much about the area, despite living here for so long.  Sure, I've been on numerous field trips over the years with school, Camp Fire Girls, Master Naturalists and so forth... but none of it has really stuck.

We have some tasks to do before we can make a real 'go' of this. 

1. We need to assemble our "Nature Outing" backpack.
2. I need to print off and familiarize myself with our Winter nature studies book.
3. Make a short-term plan for the next few weeks of what we want to accomplish before winter turns to spring.
4. Make a long-term plan.. have a family meeting and determine where our particular interests lie.
5. Get in the habit of going outside, EVERY DAY - even if it means just a quick walk around the neighborhood.  Realistically, there will be days where the weather is going to be nasty.  Those are the days that I need to have a backup - a video queued up on Discovery Ed. that discusses a topic we are learning about.

That is all I can think of right now... I am pretty excited about this.  This can go in all sorts of interesting directions, and I can't wait to get started!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Fossil Creek Reservoir Regional Open Space - First Visit

For background information and directions, go here

So.  I made it a New Year's 'intention' to get our feet wet in nature study.  I down-loaded the Book 2 Winter 2012 ebook from the Handbook of Nature website.  I shuffled our school schedule around so that we would have a dedicated time of day to do this - EVERY day.  I even built a new blog to show and tell about our adventures!  Now comes the hard part.  The actual DOing.

In our new schedule, Mondays are dedicated to Project Wet.  Years ago, I spent about $30 bucks and attended an all-day training with my fellow teacher-ed students and we all did a couple of lessons out of the manual and got to take the book home at the end of the day.  I haven't looked in this book since, except to teach a co-op about the water cycle a few years ago.  The projects are all interesting, but not all are doable for us (like, for instance, we don't live near a saltwater marsh or the ocean).  So, to get the ball rolling, each Monday we can visit a local natural area that involves water (and around here, there are an incredible amount to choose from - river, stream, wetland, lake...) and improvise.

Last Monday's choice (mine) was to revisit the Fossil Creek Reservoir.  We've been here once before, with our homeschooling group, for a Bald eagle talk/watch a couple of years ago.  Back then, we did see an eagle as it soared over the water.  We didn't see much else.  When you are in a crowd of about 10-15 chatty families with busy children, the wildlife is going to duck for cover.

This time around we made our visit in mid-morning.  Our nature walks are timed to be a good break after an intensive early morning of math and reading lessons.  Everybody is in need of some wiggle-time and fresh air by that point.  It also lessens the chance of there being scads of other people about.  I like it when it is just me and the kids... we all enjoy ourselves much more and there is a lot less distraction.

I brought my camera and Jordan brought his new camera that he purchased with his Christmas money, and his assignment was to take a decent picture of every bird that he could find.  I also brought our binoculars, since this is a rather large lake.

Fossil Creek Reservoir is a favored habitat for Bald eagles in our area - along with several other species of birds.  We went with the high hopes that we would spot one.  We did, but it was on the far side of the lake from the viewing area we were watching from, and we couldn't get a photo of it before it veered off into the distance.  We didn't see any other birds (besides the ever-present Canada Goose) - quite surprised and disappointed by that... but it is January after all.

We did learn some things:


As we made our way from the car to the viewing area, the gigantic stillness began to take hold, and the kids realized how noisy they were actually being.  Noisy 'shushing' ensued...  but finally, we were all quiet enough that we could listen to what was going on around us.

* constant tiny 'cracking' noises coming from the icy shoreline
* the honking sounds from the geese, which carried over the water and ice
* a very strange, but distinct 'booming' sound coming from across the lake
* Noisy traffic from the interstate to our east, and the road to our south
* air traffic from overhead as the planes landed or took off from the Loveland Airport.


We were very puzzled by the booming sound.  My only reasonable guess is that it was a frog (well, several of them, actually).  After investigating on the internet and combing through the list of amphibians native to our area, the only one that (sorta) fits the sound is the Bullfrog.  I have never heard a frog in the wintertime - let alone the middle of January!!  Even after listening to each and every species of local frog call on youTube - I still think that it must have been bullfrogs we were hearing.  It seemed to surround the northern side of the lake.  We will be going back next Monday (we didn't go yesterday because it was freezing and threatening snow, and Dean was home for MLK day... and we were in the midst of a dryer repair that Dean was doing - so skipping out of the house to go on a nature walk was not in the cards...)

What we liked:
* We were one of three vehicles in the parking lot - but we didn't see anyone else.  It's nice to have the place to yourself.
* The paved walkways.  I still like to take Colin in the stroller when I can - we can go further and it kills my back to carry him very far.
* The signage.  Lots of information about what you are looking at.
* The sightings board - up-to-date info about the latest eagle sighting.
* The public restroom - nice and clean!
* The viewing platform

What we didn't like:
* The traffic noise.
* The limitations posed by the limited number of trails - but it also goes with the territory.  Wildlife is 'king' here - and they limit your mobility to give the wildlife maximum habitat.

Wildlife we saw:
Bald eagle (maybe)
Canada Geese

Wildlife we heard:
Canada Geese
Bullfrog (Rana catesbiana )

So, as our first official foray into all things nature... I would say it went pretty well. We didn't drag out the sketch books or identification books yet, but those days are coming. We just have to keep practicing the fine art of being quiet. (yeah... that'll be the day!)