‘Tis the season for ghost and goblins, everything pumpkin spice, and bears. I realize that’s not a combo you often hear of, but bears are VERY active right now as they fatten up before winter. I hope the bear in my neighborhood enjoyed the bird seed last night. Yup. I woke up to my bird feeder bent in unnatural directions. Poor birds were so confused.
Around here we only have black bears, though Colorado did once have grizzlies. You can guess what happened to them. Black bears, though, are thriving. These guys are mostly herbivores. They do also eat insects and will scavenge on carcasses of other animals. Apparently at this time of year bears need about 20,000 calories EVERY DAY to gain enough fat to sustain them through the winter. Can you imagine trying to get the calories you need to hibernate on mostly nuts, fruits, and berries? WHOA. That’s a lot of food.
Bears have amazing noses to find that food and are able to smell a food source up to five miles away. Makes you wonder what their noses tell them when they are in suburban areas with a menu full of options from humans. Why did last night’s bear want my birdseed and not the neighbor’s trash (which should be in their garage, by the way)? For now I’ll bring the feeder in every night through November. The bears will hibernate through the winter. During these 5 or so months, the bears will not eat, drink, defecate, or urinate. The females will, though, give birth during that time! The cubs will start nursing right away.
So while it’s bear season, be bear aware. Don’t leave food (like bird seed!) for them. And be on the lookout…you may be lucky enough to see one lumbering through the woods.
I’ve lived in Colorado almost 30 years now and I don’t recall ever seeing a Rocky Mountain bee plant. This is odd for a lot of reasons, including the fact that I’m outside all the time and I love flowers. Or, for some reason maybe I never noticed them. If that’s the case, though, how could one not notice these plants? They’re spectacular! In fact, the US Forest Service refers to them as “one of the showiest wildflowers in the western and prairie regions of the United States.”
I happened upon acres full of them a month or so ago. And yes, the flowers were FULL of bees. Other pollinators such as butterflies, hummingbirds, and wasps also enjoy the blossoms. The whole plant can be four-feet high (or taller) and have dozens of stems that each contain a cluster of dozens of flowers. And, see the pods drooping down? Those pods contain the seeds.
This plant also has a lot of nicknames! It’s referred to as stinking clover, skunk weed (no, the plant does not smell very good at all), and Navajo spinach. Native Americans eat the fruit and leaves of the bee plant, which are apparently a good source of vitamin A and calcium. The plant was also used medicinally in teas, to treat fever, stomach aches, and more. And, if all that isn’t amazing enough, the plant is also used to make dyes for rugs, blankets, pottery, and baskets.
While the Rocky Mountain bee plant has a very long blooming season, fall has arrived. But next year, I’ll be on the lookout for sure!
As I continue to watch the bees in my yard moving around on the fall flowers, I started to wonder what bees do in the winter. I should know this, right? Well, in Colorado they don’t migrate, and they don’t hibernate (apparently in other places, some species do). So how do they survive the cold around here?
They cuddle and shiver to keep each other warm. Okay, the more precise, scientific explanation is that they cluster tightly together in the hive. To generate heat, they vibrate their wing muscles. Worker bees circulate through the cluster, sometimes on the edges and sometimes in the warmer center. The queen, of course, remains in the center which can be as warm as 90° F! The size of the colony is also important; the more bees in the colony, the better the hive’s fate will be.
As you can imagine, this requires a lot of energy, so the hive must be adequately stocked with honey. According to Colorado State University, that amount is 80-100 pounds. That is a lot of honey! Another fun fact, on warmer winter days, bees may leave the hive. And, ahem, when they do, that’s when they go to the bathroom! That is also when they remove dead bees from the hive. Who knew bees were so tidy?
Alas, as the days get shorter and the air cooler, the bees will start to hunker down. But now that I know they might be active on warmer days (approximately 50° F), I will be on the lookout for bees this winter!
The sunflowers at the end of my driveway are volunteers – I didn’t plant them or water them, they just appeared. And, they are a very welcome addition, especially now that they are in full bloom. One morning when I stopped to admire them, the cluster was literally buzzing. As I watched the bees moving this way and that, I leaned in even closer. It was then that I realized that the bees were literally dusted with pollen! The pollen covered their legs, heads, and bodies.
That should not have been all that surprising. Yet, as I watched the bees at work, I realized that I was witnessing a small miracle. I considered that this small miracle plays out on flowering plants all over the world, every day, thanks to the more than 20,000 known bee species (yes, you read that number correctly), as well as butterflies, hummingbirds, flies, and other pollinators. Thinking more about bees, a little research revealed that bees have been around over 100 million years, meaning bees (as well as flowering plants) avoided mass extinction during the event that killed off the dinosaurs. I am in awe. So the next time you pass a sunflower (or any flower for that matter), lean in. Look for the bees. Prepare to be amazed.
Last year, Colorado experienced two of its worst wildfires in state history. One of these, the East Troublesome Fire, exploded on October 14 and swept through the mountains and forests at an unprecedented rate. It quite literally was a firestorm. And it was devastating, especially for the Grand Lake community on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Historically, fires have been nature’s way of cleaning house and rejuvenating the ecosystem. In fact, there are some species of pine trees that need fire to release their seeds for propagation. In other words, there are many ecological benefits of low-intensity wildfires. Unfortunately, decades of fire suppression by humans and global warming have created conditions where the wildfires that do occur are catastrophic, as in the case of the East Troublesome Fire.
And yet, in many places, the forest is recovering. I hiked a remote part of Rocky Mountain National Park yesterday and saw firsthand the power of nature to heal itself. Clearly the area I walked through was not one of the hardest hit, unlike places that burned too hot for too long, killing everything from treetops to root systems. But where I was, the forest was full of life not even a full year later. While there were thousands of dead trees along the trail, there were many trees that had scorched trunks, but were still alive. In just the short growing season, there were also new trees growing. And there were wildflowers. This is common after fire because the ground has been cleared of competition, nutrients have returned quickly to the soil, and trees that had once blocked sunlight from reaching the forest floor are gone.
I wrote last week about fireweed, which is one of the flowers I came across. It reestablishes itself quickly and easily in disturbed areas. I also saw blankets of yellow arnica. The flowers in that blackened landscape created a distinct juxtaposition between destruction and recovery. Next year I will go back to witness firsthand another year’s worth of healing.
There is something magical about hiking to a high alpine lake in the summertime – the towering mountains, the crystal clear water, the bluebird-colored sky, and the wildflowers. But in late summer at high elevations, those flowers are dwindling, and the signs of fall are everywhere. And yet, there is still fireweed.
This hardy plant got its name because it is one of the first to grow and bloom again after a disturbance, specifically wildfires. Beautiful, yes, but also important. This colonization plays a key role in soil stabilization after fires, mudslides, and avalanches. It has long roots that are able to reach deep into the ground for minerals. Not only that, but the plant itself is highly adaptable. One plant can produce thousands of tiny seeds (up to 80,000!) that disperse in the wind; these seeds have tufts of white hairs that act like parachutes and can carry the seed far from its parent plant.
I witnessed firsthand the importance of these plants to bees, providing nectar in late summer – the meadow was literally buzzing. Other animals also use fireweed as a food source, including bears, muskrats, moose, deer, and elk. Long ago, the plants were important to native people worldwide. It was used as to make tea, and the shoots apparently are tasty and full of vitamins A and C. I’m not sure I’ll taste a fireweed myself, but I do enjoy them!
I’ve done a post before about hummingbirds to bring attention to the amazing discoveries scientists are making about their beaks and tongues. This time I want to celebrate national hummingbird day coming next weekend – Saturday, September 4, 2021 (celebrated annually on the first Saturday of September). There are over 300 species of hummingbirds in the Americas who are now sensing the end of summer and are about to make an epic migration south for the winter.
Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash
Hummingbirds fly hundreds of miles (the Rufous hummingbird may migrate up to 4,000 miles!), beating their wings 15-80 times per second depending on the size of the bird. They fly alone on this epic journey – even juveniles. They stay low, just above the trees or water, to keep an eye out for food sources. Surely such a journey requires a lot of calories! These tiny birds can fly over 20 miles per day; but do the math – that’s a lot of days in flight.
Safe travels hummingbirds – I wish I could go with you. I am already looking forward to your return in the spring!
Photo credit: Tracy Abell
While visiting the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge with friend, we spotted a large bird in a tree near a lake. As we approached, it was clear this was not a hawk. It was much too large. Based on the brown coloring (including the brown head), I then assumed it was a golden eagle. I was wrong! We actually saw a juvenile bald eagle. And, as research revealed, that bird is about a year and a half old. It was magnificent and I feel lucky to have see it.
Bald eagles were nearly driven to extinction in the 20th century in the contiguous United States. The first protection of eagles came with the Lacey Act in 1900, making it illegal to take, disturb, transport, sell, import, or export eagles, their nests, eggs, or feathers. Then in 1940, the Bald & Golden Eagle Protection Act strengthened the protections and penalties for harming bald eagles in any way. Still, eagle numbers across the US continued to drop.
The silent killer was the pesticide DDT used by farmers. This chemical made its way into the soil and water, and into the prey of eagles. Eagles that ingested DDT produced very weak eggs, most of which did not hatch. It was not until Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962 that this truth was revealed. Nonetheless, a full decade passed before DDT was banned.
When the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1967, and later the stronger Endangered Species Act of 1973 were passed, bald eagles were on the list. The ESA finally provided the legal backing to actively initiate conservation efforts for bald eagles. This included captive breeding programs and reintroductions, protection of nesting sites, and increased law enforcement, as well as targeted and enforced habitat protection. The efforts were resoundingly successful. By 1995, bald eagles’ status was moved from endangered to threatened. In 2007, bald eagle populations had recovered so well the bird was taken off the Endangered Species List. This is just one of many success stories of the ESA. And even though bald eagles are thriving, I feel lucky every time I see one.
On a recent hike I had the luck to run into this guy and the rest of the herd at about 12,500 feet. It’s hard to believe they can live up that high, eating only alpine grasses and plants – adult males can weigh up to 300 pounds! Somehow they find enough to eat though, and staying up that high keeps them safe from predators (though they do drop lower in the wintertime).
Interestingly, mountain goats are not goats at all. Instead they are more closely related to antelope and gazelles, though they clearly are much woolier than their cousins. You can see that this guy was still losing his thick winter coat. Both male and female adults have the horns, which can be as long as 12 inches, and both have the neat goatee (pun intended). Yet perhaps the most interesting thing about mountain goats cannot be directly observed when you cross paths with them but marveled at when they hop acrobatically from rock to rock. All mountain goats have specialized hooves that allow them to grip the rocks. The hooves have a hard outer margin and a flexible, grippy inner pad. In addition to being nimble climbers, mountain goats are powerful and can jump up to 12 feet in a single bound!
We kept our distance and they kept theirs. And by the time we came back down, the herd had disappeared. Not sure where they went on that terrain, but then again…the hooves. They could’ve gone anywhere!
As we enjoy the last days of summer (where did the time go?!?!?) before school starts up again, thoughts turn to shopping – clothes, shoes, supplies, etc. And believe it or not, the choices you make when you get ready to go back to school can help the planet if you SHOP responsibly.
Consider school supplies – what do you already have around the house? I know that in my house you are never more than 10 feet from a pencil or eraser at any given time. You may have to look for them, but they’re around. Look around your own house. What else can you find? An old binder that you can snazz-up? Spiral notebooks that only have a few used pages (that can, of course, be ripped out) and with a cover you can redecorate? Make it a challenge to see how many things you can find in your house before going to the store!
Now for the clothes. This is a bit harder because most people like new things, kids especially. Yet is there a thrift store near you? Or maybe a consignment store? While there are certainly questionable items in these stores, experience has shown that there are also many treasures to be found. Not only can you save loads of money, but it’s the ultimate in recycling. Also, are there items in your closet you can repair or repurpose?
If you do want to buy new (and this includes school supplies and backpacks), there are few more things to consider when shopping mindfully. Buy items with as little packaging as possible. Shop locally to avoid shipping (which includes both packaging and transportation). And buy items that are good quality because when we buy cheap, these items end up in landfills quickly and we just have to replace them.
The choices you make about consumption really do make a difference. Be mindful, no matter the time of year, and shop responsibly because it’s #YourPlanetToo.