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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

The Natural Resources of the Pawnee Grassland

October 12th, 2014 · No Comments

The Pawnee National Grassland has considerable natural resources besides birds and wildlife. In fact I was so concerned about one of these resources that I almost didn’t return there this year.

Returning to a place that we have loved can bring great disappointment as Tom Wolfe wrote in his great novel You Can’t Go Home Again. I ​had ​previously regretted returning to several places and didn’t want my return this year to the grassland to override the ​good ​memories that I had of my 2008 and 2010 trips there.

Fracking specifically was what concerned me. The terms fracking, ​shale, ​horizontal drilling,​ ​oil, and natural gas go together. Fracking creates fractures in rock formation by injecting fluid into cracks to force them further open and extract gas or oil.​ ​Shale is ​source rock formation ​where plankton turned into hydrocarbons. However, over millions of years some oil and gas gradually seeped up from the source rock into sandstone and coarse-grained limestone that until recently provided most of our oil and gas. ​But very recent advances in horizontal drilling ​have now made ​oil and gas wells in shale formations practical.

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​​One of these important shale reservoirs of oil and gas ​is the Niobrara Formation of western Nebraska, southern Wyoming, and northern Colorado, particularly Weld County. This county now has more active wells — more than 18,000 of them — than anywhere else in the United States, according to ​Weld County Commission Chairman Sean Conway.​

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History of the Pawnee Grassland

October 11th, 2014 · No Comments

Reading a novel is t​he best way to appreciate the colorful history of Weld County, Colorado, which includes the Pawnee National Grassland that Sharon and I visited for three days​ in September​. That novel is James A. Michener’s epic saga Centennial, originally published in 1974 and reissued just last year.

In 1936, well before Michener published any of his more than 40 books, he moved to Greeley, Colorado, the county seat of Weld County, which includes what is now the Pawnee National Grasslands. He went there to study at Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado) and graduated the next year with a master​’​s degree​. Then, he taught social studies at Colorado State’s College High until 1941.

Raised in Pennsylvania, Michener fell in love with the West during his years in Greeley. “For the first time I caught the fire and the fury that characterizes life in the West,” he ​said​ as quoted in Robert V. Hine’s The American West: A New Interpretive History. “A new type of man was being reared in the West. He was taller, ate more salads, had fewer intellectual interests of a speculative nature, had a rough and ready acceptance of new ideas, and was blessed with a vitality that stood out conspicuously to a stranger from the East.”

Michener captured that fire and fury in Centennial, which made ​famous ​the Pawnee Buttes, the prime landmark​s​ of the grassland. Except ​that ​in the book he called them “Rattlesnake Buttes,” mentioning them 68 times.

​For example, w​hen he describes the settling of the grassland a century ago, he has the developer and promoter tell his prospects that “‘The free land extends in every direction, but I​’​​ll tell you frankly, if I was choosing, I​’​d take one of those half-sections in the northeast sector, up beyond Rattlesnake Buttes.’” These buttes tower about 350 feet over the plains at an altitude of 5,375 feet.

The Pawnee Buttes in Midday

The Pawnee Buttes in Midday

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Pronghorn

October 10th, 2014 · 4 Comments

Because ​the P​ronghorn ​is​ the only mammal that ​can eat ​much ​sagebrush, ​it is to me the ultimate animal of the American West and the Great Plains.​ ​To me sagebrush is a prime symbol of the ​land that I ​call home and ​love. But to ​the ​Pronghorn it is even more. It’s their diet.
No other large animal can tolerate eating much sagebrush. That’s because ​the Pronghorn are the only one that evolved along with that plant. it is the sole surviving member of an ancient family dating back 20 million years.​ ​Other large herbivores are more recent arrivals from Asia. That makes ​the ​Pronghorn another truly Western icon.

“Although pronghorns are native to grasslands, they do not eat very much grass,” writes Candace Savage in​ Prairie: A Natural History. “In lieu of grass, pronghorns prefer a diet of shrubs and forbs, using their small, dainty muzzles to nip off the choicest morsels. This ability to forage selectively, one mouthful at a time, is important because many of the pronghorns’ favorite foods are laced with poison…sage and sagebrush contain turpentinelike compounds…Cattle avoid sages, and even mule deer can’t eat too much, but pronghorns have completely mastered the challenge. Sage and sagebrush are among their staple foods and feature in their diet throughout the year.”

The Pronghorn diet isn’t obvious, but their prongs are. ​The most noticeable ​Pronghorn​ characteristic​ is also the source of their common name. Both males and females have a pair of short horns on the top of the head. ​Females ​have small ​horns​, usually only ​the size of ​a bump. ​But ​the horns of ​males​ are a​bout 10​ to ​12 inches long. The​ir shape is unique because​ they point backwards.​

We saw a Pronghorn couple on the afternoon of the first of three days that Sharon and I were at Pawnee National Grassland. Even though the sky was overcast, I like this shot because it epitomizes the protection that a male Pronghorn offers to its female.

​​​​A Curious Pronghorn Pair

A Curious Pronghorn Pair

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That timing of this photograph could have been better, and timing is a key to nature photography. We learn timing with experience, which is why going back to the same place again and again is important. As Sharon and I drove the roads of the Pawnee Grassland we kept noticing a Pronghorn herd a few miles north of the Crow Valley Campground along Weld County Road 77. Since they were to the west of the road, that meant a morning shot to have the light at my back.

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Crow Valley Campground

October 9th, 2014 · No Comments

During our three-day visit to the Pawnee National Grassland, Sharon and I birded every day at Crow Valley Campground. While a campground might sound like an unlikely place to find birds, it is in fact the premier place in the entire grassland.

​This oasis “is one of the state’s premier migrant traps,” says Colorado County Birding in the strange terminology that birders use. “​I​t is isolated in the middle of the prairie and is bordered on the south and west by nice groves of trees, in places quite thick, with extensive trails and underbrush.”

​​​Crow Valley Campground from the Trail of the Mourning Dove​

Crow Valley Campground from the Trail of the Mourning Dove

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The Birdwalk Trail through the large grove of old cottonwoods on the southwest side of the campground has the most birds. I got one good shot there when this warbler came out of the thicket and into the sun.

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Pawnee National Grassland Birding Tour

October 8th, 2014 · No Comments

The birding tour in the Pawnee National Grassland is self-guiding on 21 miles of dirt road. We went in Sharon’s Subaru because it has a little higher clearance than my Prius.

We drove sections of this route on each of the three days we visited. One of the two prime birding areas in the grassland, it starts 90 northeast of where Sharon and I each live in Boulder. But those 90 miles make a huge difference in the landscape. Boulder lies at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. The Pawnee National Grassland is on the shortgrass prairie with mountains a speck on the horizon, if that.

This and other national grasslands exist because of the tragedy of the Dust Bowl. The U.S. government created the national grasslands in the 1930s after a long drought withered the Great Plains and the Great Depression left farm families destitute. The program purchased submarginal Great Plains grasslands and resettled farm families. About 3.8 million acres of the 11.3 million acres purchased became the original nineteen national grasslands in 1960. The Pawnee National Grassland consists of 193,060 of those acres intermingled with private land in two separate sections of Weld County in northeast Colorado.

​The Sky on the Prairie Has Character

The Sky on the Prairie Has Character

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Sharon and I had good resources to help us search at the most likely places to find birds. Besides the Forest Service’s map, we used the Colorado County Birding website, the Colorado Birds group to which we each belong, eBird, and Hugh Kingery’s book, Birding Colorado. We carefully planned our trip to get the most out of the three days we explored the grassland.

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West Pawnee Ranch B&B

October 7th, 2014 · No Comments

Six years ago during my first trip to the Pawnee National Grassland of northeastern Colorado I visited the West Pawnee Ranch Bed and Breakfast. I met Louanne and Paul Timm, who own the ranch, and they showed me around. ​

I decided then that I would return to stay in the Prairie House, which is adjacent to the ranch house. This two room house with separate bathrooms is ideal for traveling with a friend. Last week I finally got to stay there for two nights accompanied by Sharon, my friend and hiking and birding buddy. During our visit we were the only guests.

West Pawnee Ranch is a working ranch four miles from the Pawnee National Grassland. Paul told us that they have 8,000 acres of land. I forgot to ask Paul and Louanne how many head of cattle that they have, but he told me that each cow and calf need 35 acres and he would like to have even more land than they have now.

This is big country. The ranch is isolated, about 13 miles from the nearest paved road. The ranch is 4 miles south of the Wyoming state line, and Cheyenne, 35 miles distant, is the nearest city. The ranch’s address is Grover, Colorado, where a total of 137 people live at the time of the 2010 census 22 miles east of the ranch.

​As we came within view of the ranch this sign welcomed us. The last line of the sign is the ranch’s brand. Paul told us that they call it a “lazy C 5,” since the C and the 5 are lying down.​

​The Trees in the Distance Show that We Are Near the Ranch​​

The Trees in the Distance Show that We Are Near the Ranch

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​The photo below shows Foxy, Louanee and Paul’s sweet little dog, and a bit of Sharon’s car parked next to the house that Sharon and I had all to ourselves.

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Rocky Mountain Raptor Program

October 6th, 2014 · 4 Comments

While Sharon and I went to Fort Collins to get out in nature, as I wrote in my previous post, after we hiked the Environmental Learning Center’s Wilcox Trail, we finished near the public facility of the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program. ​This is the northern Colorado program for ​the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of injured birds of prey.

While its main raptor rehabilitation center isn’t open to the public, its Environmental Learning Center​ at ​2400 Ziegler R​oad in​ Fort Collins​ is open ​and free to the public ​during daylight hours​. At this center are the birds who need our continuing care. We were able to get close to the birds there who serve as “educational ambassadors.” While I have seen birds of all of these species in the wild, seeing them just a few feet away was educational for me too.

The raptor that we see the most often in Colorado is the Red-tailed Hawk. Through illness this one has lost its fear of humans, not a healthy thing for it.

​This Hawk Got As Close to Me As It Could

This Hawk Got As Close to Me As It Could

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​The Golden Eagle is one of the least common raptors.

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Cache la Poudre Corridor

October 5th, 2014 · No Comments

The best route from Boulder to the Pawnee National Grassland passes through Fort Collins at about the midway point. So Sharon and I stopped there last week en route to a three day trip onto the high plains of northeastern Colorado.

We picked the Cache la Poudre River Corridor Natural Areas as the first places to explore. Just 6 miles east of downtown Fort Collins, where about 150,000 people live, these natural areas attract wildlife to the many ponds and the river. The Cache la Poudre, which means “hide the powder” in French, flows through Fort Collins into the South Platte River out onto the prairie. Its name refers to an incident in the 1820s when French trappers, caught by a snowstorm, were forced to bury some of their gunpowder along the banks of the river.

We started at the Running Deer Natural Area, but in spite of its attractive name, quickly decided to move on to areas with more trees. Prospect Ponds had the trees and the birds.

A Prospect Pond Reflects an American White Pelican

A Prospect Pond Reflects an American White Pelican

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Walden and Sawhill Ponds

October 4th, 2014 · 2 Comments

Just west of Boulder County’s Walden Ponds Wildlife Habitat is a privately owned pond. This photo of the pond and the trees beyond will serve as the establishing shot for the visit that Sharon and I paid to Walden and Sawhill Ponds early this morning.

A Touch of Fall Color Near Walden Ponds This Morning

A Touch of Fall Color Near Walden Ponds This Morning

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Sharon and I started our morning hike at what the county calls Cottonwood Marsh, which is actually a lake. Just as we got there, a coyote was scouting the far bank while four Killdeer patrolled the shore.[Read more →]

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Meyers Homestead Trail

October 3rd, 2014 · No Comments

Sharon and I took full advantage of a sunny and warm day right after the first snowfall of the season to hike the Meyers Homestead Trail. It is in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains just 10 miles from my apartment, but the only convenient way to get to the trail is to go up Flagstaff Road, which is closed from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday for repairs to the road from the flood a year ago. So we went on Saturday.

The trail starts at 7,400 feet and follows Meyers Gulch much of the way to its end 2.6 miles later at 8,100 feet. The gulch takes its name from Andrew R. Meyers, who homesteaded here in 1890 and made his living by logging some of its trees.

​The Ruins of a Historic Sawmill Are Near the Start of the Trail

The Ruins of a Historic Sawmill Are Near the Start of the Trail

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​Since I’ve hiked this trail several times since August 2006, I didn’t expect many birds. So I took only my 18-200mm lens on my Canon 7D and my 60mm macro lens on my Canon 50D. My Canon 100-400mm lens is too heavy for me to carry this far.

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