Weblog of Leland Rucker
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Category — Animals/Nature

Three Weeks Past the Olde Stage Fire 2009

I walked the North Foothills Trail on an organized hike Saturday with naturalist Dave Sutherland through an area heavily burned by the Olde Stage Fire 23 days earlier. Sutherland pointed out that the area north of town along the hogback is known for its occasionally swift, intense fires. Sutherland is a great guide, and I learned a lot even though I didn’t do the entire loop. The trail begins off U.S. 36 just north of the Broadway/36 intersection and crosses under the highway heading west.

Here are some photographs and comments from the hike. Click for larger versions of the photos.

We saw a lot of burned yucca plants. Some would break off while burning and become airborne, which is one way the fire jumped U.S. 36.

We saw a lot of burned yucca plants. Some would break off while burning and become airborne, which is one way the fire jumped U.S. 36.

Sutherland pointed out that the fire in this field just north of the subdivision, was set by firefighters to keep the main fire away from the homes.

Sutherland pointed out that the fire in this field just north of the subdivision was set by firefighters, called a backburn, to keep the main fire away from the homes.

This view from higher on the trail shows that backburned area and the erratic nature of the fire's destruction.

This view from higher on the trail shows that backburned area and the erratic nature of the fire's destruction.

This wooden post along the trail shows the intensity of the fire in some places.

This wooden post along the trail shows the intensity of the fire in some places.

A piece of firehose was burned by the fire. Next to the rock on the left, however, are plants that will bloom again in the spring.

A piece of firehose was burned by the fire. Next to the rock on the left, however, are plants that will bloom again in the spring.

Other posts on the fire here and here.

February 1, 2009   No Comments

Foxes Rule in Boulder

Fox Trot: A red fox in east Boulder.

Fox Trot: A red fox in east Boulder looks up at the snow Sunday afternoon.

It is not unusual to see a fox in Boulder, but lately I seem to be running into them everywhere I go. We dropped a friend off over on the Hill just south of Columbia Cemetery a couple weeks ago and watched one trot across the street and into a neighbor’s yard. Our friend said it was a regular in the neighborhood. We watched one cross Sunset Avenue in front of our car on its way the golf course after visiting friends in Longmont. Several people on the Martin Acres email list have written of foxes in the neighborhood.

Last week I was riding my bicycle when I surprised one in a front yard at the intersection of Osage and Pawnee drives. It spotted me and began to run ahead across front yards along Pawnee Drive. It turned east on Shawnee Place, and I followed and lost it – actually it lost me – as it raced behind a fence into a backyard on Ricara Drive.

Red Fox munching on a mouse.

I first found this one munching on a mouse.

I knew that foxes were fleet of foot, but I was really impressed by how fast this little critter was in short bursts. It was like it was playing with me. I was disappointed that I couldn’t get my camera out in time to even get close to a photograph.

Sunday afternoon I was on Walnut Avenue about four p.m. getting ready to pull into the KGNU studio parking lot when I spied this fox just below the Foothills Parkway bridge. I stopped the car and came out with my camera in hand to try and catch it before it ran away, but this one just looked lazily down at me while chewing on a mouse. It was about three feet in length, and its white tail and black legs and ears identify it as a red fox, one of four fox species in Colorado. Gray foxes are about the same size as red ones, and swift foxes and kit foxes are smaller.

Foxes were almost killed to extinction, civilian casualties in the war humans waged against the wolf and the coyote. Like coyotes, foxes have adapted to life with humans. Foxes live near riparian areas, and Boulder Creek is only a couple hundred yards from here. This fox is well-known to KGNU folks, who see it (or others) on the bike path that leads down to the station close to where I saw it. There is obviously plenty of food in the area, judging from the mouse it was eating when I first saw it and the rabbit I watched running outside the KGNU studios a few minutes later.

Looking for something.

The fox puts its nose into the snow before walking off.

As I shot pictures from about thirty feet, this one walked down the hill and seemed to be enjoying the snowflakes before it disappeared along the sidewalk under the bridge, its white tail sashaying behind.

January 26, 2009   No Comments

Teddy Roosevelt’s River of Doubt

I love books about people who do things that I wouldn’t. Whether it is Lynne Cox, who swam a mile in freezing Antarctic waters, the mountaineers who climb into air thin enough to stop bodily functions or the astronauts of Apollo 13 returning to earth in a crippled spacecraft, I am fascinated by these exploits.

Candace Millard’s The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey certainly fits into this category. I knew nothing of the former president’s trip down an uncharted Amazon tributary called, aptly, the River of Doubt, after his final political defeat in 1912. As Millard tells it, tribulation, poor planning and a hostile environment led the expedition to a place that killed expedition members and seriously taxed Roosevelt’s survival skills. He would never really recover, and the journey would contribute to his death six years later at age sixty.

Millard paints the story vividly, drawing on journals, accounts, books and photography. Here comes the famous American ex-president, Theodore Roosevelt, and Col. Candido Rondon, Brazil’s most celebrated explorer and a national hero, to navigate and chart a river never before navigated.

Millard makes us feel what it would have been like to spend six weeks in an environment almost completely hostile to humans. Her descriptions of Amazonian ecology and evolution bring you into this colorful, alien world, which, at least in the first days, brought only awe and admiration from the travelers. “Far from its outward appearance, the rain forest was not a garden of easy abundance, but precisely the opposite,” Millard writes. “Its quiet, shaded halls of leafy opulence were not a sanctuary but, rather, a the greatest natural battlefield anywhere on the planet, hosting an unremitting and remorseless fight for survival that occupied every single one of its inhabitants, every minute of every day.”

Without giving anything away, those inhabitants — flora, fauna, reptiles, insects, mammals, fish, and a formidable aboriginal tribe – and the weather gather in a kind of perfect storm of a story that I couldn’t put down until I finished. Billie said it right when she handed it to me after she had finished it, “It’s a page-turner.”

December 15, 2008   No Comments

Journey Through Dark Heat

One of our volunteer datura plants in the front yard goes back to earth.

One of our volunteer datura plants in the front yard goes back to earth.

Well, we made it through the end of November without turning on the heat. But Sunday, when the temperature never got above freezing during the day, we finally turned on the heat for the first time.

Like everybody, we are reluctant to turn on our heat for the first time. Two weeks ago, on a day when the temperature was 19 degrees and I was ready to give in, Billie talked me out of it, and we decided to tough it out since the forecast called for sun and temperatures in the 60s for the next few days.

Gotta love that Colorado sunshine. Things warmed up that week, and as long as temps got into the 50s during the day, the mornings would be cold but the house would warm up by mid-afternoon. It wasn’t until the holidays, when temps didn’t get out of the thirties and the sun stayed behind the clouds for a couple of days that we finally gave in.

That same datura plant was beautiful back in mid-August.

That same datura plant was in full bloom in mid-August.

I have become more wimpy about being cold as I’ve grown older; Billie seems the opposite. I always tend to turn the thermostat toward 70˚, but this year, in deference to the economic situation etc. etc. we’re going to try to keep it no higher than 65 this winter. It feels downright cozy in here this morning. Billie says high temps are supposed to be in the sixties tomorrow. Hope springs eternal.

December 1, 2008   2 Comments

The Lord God Bird Comes to Film

The Nature Conservancy put out this hat in 2005 after birders said they saw an ivory billed woodpecker.

The Nature Conservancy put out this hat in 2005 after birders said they saw an ivory billed woodpecker.

We caught a screening of The Lord God Bird up at CU Sunday night. The director, George Butler, was there to answer questions afterwards, and the director of Pumping Iron and The Endurance: Shackleford’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition hopes that the documentary about the ivory-billed woodpecker will be in theatrical release and on television sometime next year.

The Lord God Bird is required viewing for anyone interested in endangered species. The demise of the ivory bill, a black, white and red woodpecker larger than a crow with a three-foot wingspan, is certainly one of the most compelling, saddest chapters in American history. In a capricious example of wasting natural resources, the United States clear-cut the great forests of the American Southeast in the late nineteenth century to satisfy a nation’s urge for wood products. The ensuing loss of old-growth habitat doomed the  ivory-bill, which was considered extinct by some in the early twentieth century.

The ivory bill reappeared in Louisiana in the late 1930s, when W.W. Allen and James Tanner conducted the only studies of the bird, and sightings of ivory bills have persisted into the 21st century, most not officially reported because, especially if you are a professional, you are considered a little wacky to say you have seen one. Saying so out loud can ruin a career.

Tim Gallagher, the editor of Living Bird magazine, and Bobby Harrison, know something about that. The pair reported seeing an ivory bill fly before  their canoe in Bayou de View in eastern Arkansas in 2004. The sighting and a short video taken by David Luneau that seemed to show an ivory bill in the same area convinced the prestigious Cornell Lab of Ornithology to authenticate and announce the rediscovery in 2005.

Though nobody is calling Gallagher and Harrison liars (at least out loud), not everybody agrees with Cornell’s conclusions when it comes to Luneau’s film. Some, like noted bird author David Sibley, saw a pileated woodpecker, a slightly smaller, ubiquitous bird mistaken for an ivory bill, in the film. Jerome Jackson, a respected ivory bill researcher and author, said he thinks the Arkansas birds are pileated.

The plot deepened. An ornithologist named Geoff Hill and a small band of researchers, though offering no proof beyond visual sightings and some interesting nesting cavities, say they observed a group of ivory bills in a remote, western Florida old-forest swamp.

That’s where Butler enters. The black-and-white footage of Tanner’s scientific study and the mammoth destruction of the forests graphically tells the story of the birds’ startling decline.  Butler mixes breathtaking aerial footage of what’s left of the deep swamps with on-location shots of the researchers themselves, capturing the rapture that deep obsession brings in a forbidding world of water moccasins, alligators and shifting currents.

Although Butler said he has no reason to disbelieve Gallagher and Harrison’s visual sighting, the film leaves the question of whether ivory bills are still with us open. There has been no further evidence from Arkansas after four seasons of well-funded expeditions, and nothing beyond enthusiasm in Florida. I know that the researchers and obsessives want to help this incredible bird, but deep down I kinda hope they don’t find evidence, and that remaining colonies, if they exist, can live their lives without our interference. We’ve done enough damage already.

Earlier posts on ivory bills here and here.

November 18, 2008   No Comments

Common Sense Should Dictate Wolf Policy, But No …

The federal government has been trying to turn over management of gray wolves to the individual states where the restored carnivores reside. One of the stumbling blocks to getting them under state control is that Wyoming’s management plan placed wolves in two categories, depending on where the wolf was at a given time. Inside Yellowstone National Park, they would be managed as trophy game animals, with hunting seasons and regulations like any other hunted animals. Everywhere else they would be listed as predators, and could be killed for any reason by anybody who could get close enough with a rifle.

Utah and Montana, the other two states with wolves, classify wolves as trophy game animals. Wyoming’s insistence on the two classifications was a major reason that a federal district judge recently overturned U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting plan. The judge rightly noted that classifying 90 percent of Wyoming wolves as predators might isolate them from other wolves, a genetic guarantee that wolf populations would plummet below the numbers necessary to keep the species thriving, which would trigger another listing, etc. ad nauseum.
The solution seems so simple, yet opinion is split in Wyoming over what to do. Rep. Keith Gingery of Jackson has actually proposed the sensible solution: Make the wolf a trophy species state-wide. But there are others, says the Casper Star-Tribune , who would prefer suing the government to force it to accept the state’s plan.

Evidence that Gingery’s proposal is the right choice and his opponents are still living in a 19th-century mindset can be found in federal government records, which I found through Ralph Maugham’s indispensable Western news aggregator.

The Wyoming Wolf News Report for Oct. 13-17, includes this item: “On 10/18/08, Wyoming Wildlife Services investigated a dead calf in the Big Horn Mountains near Ten Sleep, WY. The calf died from causes unrelated to wolves; however, a wolf was seen scavenging the calf carcass. One set of wolf tracks was found near the carcass. A local resident recently took a photograph of a single black wolf walking through his cattle in the same area. Trapping efforts to radio collar this wolf will proceed after big game hunting season ends.”

This seems a reasonable response, from the perspective of the rancher and the wolf alike. But under the management plan that the state of Wyoming had in place after delisting, the outcome likely would have been different; that wolf could have been killed by the resident who took the photo or anybody else, for that matter. And since the wolf was scavenging the carcass, the killing of the calf could be blamed or at least associated with the wolf, in this case guilty of nothing more than following its nose to a possible meal site.

Here’s another item: “On 10/18/08, Wyoming Wildlife Services confirmed a calf injured by wolves in the Upper Green River drainage. On 10/20/08, WGFD confirmed a second calf injured by wolves in the same area. The calf was later euthanized due to the severity of the injuries. Control actions are ongoing to remove the 2 wolves that were involved in several depredations in the Upper Green River drainage this summer.”

Again, this would seem to be a sensible way to proceed. But under Wyoming’s management plan, the entire pack could have been hunted and exterminated and branded cattle killers.
Or this: “On 10/11/08, a local coyote trapper caught a yearling female wolf in the Upper Green River drainage, and reported the incident to the WGFD warden in the area. Wildlife Services was able to place a radio collar on the wolf and release it unharmed. The USFWS appreciates the help and coordination between the trapper, WGFD, and Wildlife Services.”

Again, the outcome would almost certainly have been different under the state’s management plan. The trapper could have legally killed the wolf as it struggled in the trap.
The Billings Gazette reports  that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to have another plan in place by next year.

If defies common sense that Wyoming wouldn’t draft a proper management plan that balances protection and management. Then again, don’t hold your breath, either.

October 22, 2008   No Comments

Will the Wolf Survive?

Good news today in the West.

Tuesday U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy signed an order in Missoula, Montana, that reinstates the gray wolf’s status on the Endangered Species list.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Four early victims of Wyoming's Wolf Management Plan.

Four early victims of Wyoming's Wolf Management Plan.

had delisted the wolf in February of this year.

What led to this unfortunate situation is best described elsewhere, but basically the Feds are trying to move control of restored wolves back to the states. Over the last few years, they have tried to get the three states involved, Utah, Montana and Wyoming, to come up with individual plans to deal with future wolf populations. These efforts that have mostly fruitless because, especially in Wyoming, the management/hunting plan would guarantee that wolf numbers would plummet back to the minimum required levels as quickly as possible.

The governor of Utah publicly proclaimed he would be at the front of the line to kill the first wolf of the new hunting season. Wyoming made it legal to kill a wolf anywhere, anytime, for any reason, in 90 percent of the state – everywhere except in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Two hundred and twenty five of the estimated 1200-1500 U.S. wolves have died already this year.

This is protection? Several environmental groups, whose only recourse in a situation like this, is in the courts, sued the federal government because state’s management plans obviously wouldn’t sustain wolf populations. Judge Molloy saw the Wyoming plan for what it was and ruled accordingly.

I can understand the government’s desire to get wolves under state jurisdiction and be able to call wolf reintroduction an Endangered Species Act victory. But until it can force the states to create sensible management plans that guarantee the wolf’s present and future place in their ecosystems, the wolves will need to remain under federal protection.

October 15, 2008   1 Comment

Temporarily Turkey Vulture

So I’m taking out the trash Friday morning, stepping out the front door a few minutes before seven. A couple of ravens or crows (I couldn’t tell) flew right over my head heading south. They rose as I watched them move away, their wings silently floating across the Moyers’ yard.

I walked off the porch, still watching the birds, who were settling into a tall tree fifty feet away, three front-yards over. That’s when I noticed the visitors. Two birds about four or five times the size of the ravens perched on the same branch.

Turkey vultures. I had seen ten of them circling above the CU property south of town Tuesday morning while walking up to the bus stop. The vultures are a part of the springtime experience in Boulder and other areas along the Front Range at this time of year.

I grabbed the binoculars and headed up the street, where I finally got a view of what turned out to be seven vultures in the tree. One seemed to be lying on the limb rather than standing. They were about forty or fifty feet from the ground.

Went back to get Billie, and there we both were, in our jammies, running up the street for the cheapest of thrills. A neighbor bringing out her trash saw us, and looked a bit askance at our attire. I pointed up to the birds. She knew them from living in Ontario. Not exactly fashionable-looking birds, we agreed. But magnificent nonetheless.

Took a shower, and I heard the sounds of our trash hauler coming down the street, sounding like a combat battalion, metal against metal. I ran back out after the truck passed, and though a couple had changed positions, all seven were still there. I saw one flapping huge wings circling for another perch.

I walked beneath them on the way to the bus stop and then caught a last glimpse as the bus took off on Table Mesa. I wondered how many times I had walked beneath them and never even knew they were there.

I was up early Saturday again, but no vultures. Kept watching all weekend, but they never came back. A temporary roost.

April 14, 2008   1 Comment

With the Sandhill Cranes 2008: Part Two: A Good Friday

It is the day after the equinox, Good Friday to boot, and I suppose this is our celebration, since watching wildlife is as close as we get to spirituality. We are in the viewing area about quarter to seven this morning. There are three or four cars and a few people with cameras and scopes already set up in the pull-out. The sun is still behind the Sangre de Christos, but it is light enough to see the birds roosting. Steam rises around them.

Sandhill cranes begin to stir with the sunrise in Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge.

Sandhill cranes begin to stir with the sunrise in Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge.

Most aren’t moving yet, or if they are, just beginning to stir or preen. (Click on the photo at the top to get the idea. La Veta Pass is between the two ranges, Mt. Blanca on the left.) But as the minutes wear on, they begin to move around more freely. From the further reaches of the refuge, cranes begin to rise. A few from in front of us join them. Others are jumping in anticipation. The energy level rises with the sound of their cries, and soon it is as if the ones in the air are screaming at the others to get off their cartilages and join them.

About 7:15 we drive over to Eight Mile Road, pull off the side of the road and just let the birds waft over us. This is the greatest thrill, to see the birds honking overhead, getting into formation, occasionally running into each other as they head off. They rarely fly directly overhead, but sometimes they are low and close enough that you can hear the quiet, almost mechanical whoosh-whoosh of their wings beating. Wow.

Our friend Kathy, who first turned us on to the crane phenomenon, had suggested driving farther south on Gunbarrel Road. We took off, passing more small farms and ranches. Behind one ranch house, there are literally thousands of cranes standing out there amongst the cattle – a real sight. The pavement ends. The ranches disappear. A sign offered lots two miles off a dirt road near the foothills. We wind up next to a field with junked cars lined up to the horizon. In front of the trailer home where, I assume, the owner lives, there are some metal crane art pieces. I didn’t get a very good photo with the iPhone.

I really had fun with the iPhone camera app, though. It is desperately simple, takes excellent photos, and I found it an invaluable device for recording a trip like this. The photos came out better than I expected, and for someone who likes to document travel, this is as easy as it gets.

After breakfast at the Mountain View Restaurant, we head back out to the refuge. Last year we found a large group of birds along a road in a field and watched them during the day as they mingled, ate and danced in the high grain. But today there is no high grass and no birds, either, on the eastern road inside the refuge.

It was top for a nap, but soon, after stopping for some coffee and a donut at Don Thomas Bakery, we were back in the refuge. Arriving about four p.m. at the circle area on the south end on Eight Mile Road, we set up and get more than an hour’s worth of intense crane interaction. Birds are flying in and out all over the place; it kinda reminds me of a SXSW afternoon schmoozing session for cranes.

We get ample opportunity to watch the birds take off and land. It seems so effortless. Some glide in from high above, falling out of the sky, dropping their legs as they get closer to the ground to slow their descent. Just before they hit, they flop their wings a couple of times and land in a quiet flutter. Some glide in like bullets on a straight line across the field not fifteen feet off the ground before the characteristic leg dropping, fluttering and landing.

Taking off seems just as easy. A couple of hops and they are airborne, and those flapping engines take them easily into the air and upward. They bark at each other as they organize their formations. Sometimes one bird, sometimes two, often many more, head off together. Apparently, cranes, who mate for life, also travel in family groups.

Far above us, another group of maybe 50 cranes are circling. They are up high enough that they are difficult to spot with the naked eye unless the sun is just right. With the binocs, you can watch them speeding up, gliding and slowing down so each can maintain his/her position in the circle. It’s mesmerizing to watch, a crane merry-go-round in the sky.

After asking a guy to move his car and stop approaching the birds with his camera, a ranger walks over and watches the high flyers with us for a few minutes. Nobody really knows what they are doing up there, but his theory is that the birds are circling to check the winds, and if they find a good thermal going in the right direction and the time is right, some might take off for the north, toward their breeding grounds.

Dinner tonight is at Baldo’s, the Mexican restaurant Kathy suggested. It was great. And then back out to the refuge for the fourth time today. It is still warm as the sun pokes in and out of clouds above the peaks before setting, and again we get to watch waves of cranes taking off and dispersing into the night. You can’t ask more; the cranes have behaved perfectly all day.

March 21, 2008
Monte Vista, Colorado

March 29, 2008   No Comments

Cheeta Rules the Ape-Stract Art World!

Billie gave me something special for Christmas. It’s an abstract painting by an artist who just celebrated his 75th birthday in April. Like many former movie stars, he now lives in retirement in Palm Beach and has his own page in the Internet Movie Database.

He is one of the earliest actors I can remember. He co-starred with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Hara in several Tarzan films and worked with Bela Lugosi and Ronald Reagan. His last movie was 1967 with Rex Harrison. When he grins, he can pull his top lip to his nose.

His real name is Jiggs, but he’s best-known by his stage name, Cheeta. And yes, I’m speaking of the chimpanzee that played opposite Weissmuller, who today. Besides his artistic bent, is also the world’s oldest chimp. Chimps in the wild generally are lucky to live to the age of 40, which makes him a wonder of nature, the Methuselah of Chimps. He specializes in what is being called in art circles, “Ape-Stract” painting.

I have been fascinated with Cheeta since I first found out he was still alive some twenty-five years ago. His real name is Jiggs, and he lives with Don Westfall, the nephew of the man who plucked him from the Liberian jungle when he was six months old and began training him for the Tarzan films. Westfall and Cheeta have been inseparable for the last sixteen years.

I was moved to tears by the wonderful J.R. Moehringer piece in the Los Angeles Times, written earlier this year to mark Cheeta’s 75th birthday. Cheeta is a lucky exception to what happens to most ex-animal actors, many of whom wind up in cages, traveling shows or worse.

Cheeta lives at Westfall’s C.H.E.E.T.A. Primate Sanctuary with several other ex-animal actors, and he even helps pay the rent with his paintings.

I’ll hold his work up against anybody’s.

Although Cheeta has a star in Palm Springs, several efforts to get him a place on the Hollywood Walk of Fame have been unsuccessful. Click here to sign the online petition to give Cheeta a richly deserved honor – Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, hell even Donald Duck all have plaques. Cheeta Rules!

The Moehringer pieceis easily the best thing written about Cheeta, but here is a scene with Bela Lugosi. Tell me this isn’t a brilliant performance.

December 26, 2007   No Comments