Common Goldeneye

Recently I came across a bird I’d never seen – the common goldeneye. They are members of the family of water birds (ducks, geese, etc.) and have apparently come to Colorado for the winter. Personally I would’ve kept flying south, but I suppose it’s downright balmy here compared to Canada.

I like ducks of all varieties, but this one caught my eye because of its striking black and white markings. It also provided a measure of amusement as it dove down and disappeared in the creek. Where would it reappear? There? There? No, there! Endless entertainment. It even dove under sheets of ice, then popped back up on the other side (they can apparently dive for up to a minute).

A little more investigation also revealed that, during breeding season further north, the females will lay their eggs in other ducks’ nests when sites are scarce (and it can be any duck nest – doesn’t have to be another goldeneye nest). As it turns out other ducks do this, so it seems as though a goldeneye might end up raising a very diverse group (this diverse brood is called a crèche)!  The eggs are then incubated by some feathered mom for about 30 days. After hatching the common goldeneye young are ready to leave the nest in only 1-2 days! Gets even better…goldeneyes nest in the boreal forests of Canada in tree cavities up to 40 feet high. That means the chicks must jump to the ground where their mother (either biological or foster) waits and calls. Then they are led to the water.


Winter Solstice

Unlike many people, I am not one to celebrate the arrival of winter. I DO, however, celebrate the solstice. HOORAY, we made it! At last, the amount of darkness will wane. The amount of daylight will begin to increase once again. The sun will climb a little higher into the sky each day. Ahhhhh.

In the northern hemisphere, the solstice marks the beginning of winter and the day on which our side of the planet is tilted furthest from the sun. On that day, my region will receive only 9 hours and 21 minutes of daylight. Not enough! From this point, though, the Northern Hemisphere will see more and more sunlight each day. And while the tilt of the earth does change slightly, its axis always points in the same direction, and is not the reason for our different seasons. What changes is earth’s position in its orbit around the sun.

So, today at noon stand outside and cast your longest midday shadow of the year and celebrate the return of sunlight.

Wolves Coming Back to Colorado!

Copyright Gunnar Ries

Among the other excellent election day news, Coloradoans voted in favor of a ballot initiative to reintroduce gray wolves in the state. It’s been 80 years since Colorado has had an established population. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, as European expansion and settlement in the West increased, wolves were poisoned and hunted to the point of extirpation (local extinction).

The vote to bring them back was close, just about split down the middle between rural and urban areas. Voters in urban areas were the ones in favor, rural voters were against. Ranchers are concerned that wolves will kill livestock. This is certainly a reality. However, ranchers do get compensation when wolves kill their livestock.

Yet as the Yellowstone wolves have clearly shown, they are a vital part of the ecosystem. More importantly, reintroducing the wolves to their native habitat is a step toward repairing the damage we’ve done; if they hadn’t been hunted to extinction, they’d still be here and we wouldn’t need to vote on it. But we did need to vote, and the first wolves will be back in Western Colorado in 2022.


Elephant Heads (the flowers, not the animals)

Yes, I know it is not wildflower season right now. However, I’m in the process of developing a book about the adaptations of alpine wildflowers with a publisher. One of featured flowers will be elephant heads. For starters, they are amazing. Look closely. Each tiny flower actually looks like a mini pink-purple elephant head.

I’ve also learned that these flowers are hemi-parasitic. That means this beautiful, delicate flower is a thief. Deep underground, elephant heads attach their roots to the roots of other plants to obtain some of their nutrients and water.

Yet the absolute best geek-out fact I learned is about how they pollinate. Look at the “trunk” of an elephant head flower. When an insect lands on this trunk, there’s a spring-like mechanism that causes the stamen to shoot out. In doing so, it slaps the insect with pollen. It’s brilliant! I’ll never look at an elephant head the same again.