Just back from the Western Slope and crittering at Colorado National Monument. The warming weather is bringing out the small mammals including white-tailed prairie dogs, rock squirrels, hopi chipmunks, desert cottontails, and white-tailed antelope squirrels, all of which we saw during our trip. I was after a better photo of a hopi chipmunk, in which I succeeded, as well as a photograph of a white-tailed antelope squirrel, in which I did not. We briefly saw some antelope squirrels during our last day there but it was already late and they did not return from their burrows. That’s a bit frustrating but I’ll know where to look when I am able to return.
One of the unexpected highlights of the trip was coming across a band of desert bighorn ewes with two young lambs. I found out at the visitor’s center that they were born in late February, which makes them almost a month old. You could tell they were still trying to figure everything out, nursing from mother but also eating grass and sagebrush. I think the most impressive bit was watching them pick their way up a steep rock face just like the grown ups. These are things bighorns need to learn fast in order to survive.
The desert bighorns at Colorado National Monument are descendents of sheep transplanted from Arizona, Utah, and Nevada in 1979. These animals are generally smaller and paler in color than Rocky Mountain bighorns. Keep your eyes open as you drive through the park, especially around Balanced Rock, and you just might spot these desert dwelling sheep.
Lastly, my apologies for being so slow to approve comments on my recent posts. I’ve been getting tons of spam and seperating the wheat from the chaff can be a real chore. I always enjoy hearing from you and will try to do better!
“Find the prey, find the predator“. That has been one of my mantras while working on photographing bobcats and other elusive species. Bobcats are generally doing one of three things; eating, sleeping, and something else I won’t get into right now. If you want to see them you need to meet them at the dinner table. I’ve been seeing cottontails daily at Bobcat Ridge and often snap a photo as a consolation prize when my bobcat efforts don’t pay out.
There are three different species of cottontail in Colorado; mountain cottontail (Sylvilagus nuttallii), desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii), and eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). I’m pretty sure I have photographed all three species as part of the critter project, but they have proven to be one of the more difficult identification challenges. They are typically identified by range and elevation but ear length can also be used to make the call. Desert cottontails typically have longer ears that are full of capillaries to disseminate heat whereas mountain cottontails have shorter ears to reduce heat loss and frostbite.
My best guess is that this individual is a mountain cottontail.
According to Google, lots of people find their way to my site looking for an answer to the question “are there turtles in Colorado?” The answer is yes, there are most definitely turtles in Colorado.
In a previous post I shared some photos of a couple of the more common turtles in my area; the western painted turtle and the infamous snapping turtle. Today I’d like to introduce you to the ornate box turtle. I have yet to see or photograph one of these reptiles in the wild (hopefully that will occur this summer) but I recently had the pleasure of meeting “Rex” at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs for a little Q&A session.
JB: It’s nice to meet you Rex. I’ll start with the question that everyone is asking – are there turtles in Colorado?
Rex: Of course. Besides box turtles like myself there are western painted turtles, snapping turtles, yellow mud turtles, and spiny softshell turtles.
JB: Most people associate turtles with wetlands and riparian ecosystems. Do you live in a swamp?
Rex: No, not at all. We box turtles prefer the prairie and high plains of eastern Colorado where we can burrow into the sandy soil among the yucca and prickly pear.
JB: Ah, thanks for clearing that up. I’m sorry to have interrupted your dinner. What is that you are eating?
Rex: Well, tonight I’m having crickets. Insects make up most of my diet and I do enjoy a tasty beetle or grasshopper. Sometimes I need to eat small stones to held me break down tough insect parts.
JB: How old are you?
Rex: That is not a very polite question, but ornate box turtles can live to be 30 years old or longer.
JB: If you were not in the zoo what would you be doing right now?
JB: Before we go is there anything else you want to say?
Rex: Please protect the uncultivated areas of prairie in which we ornate box turtles make our homes!
I photographed this white-tailed deer during the autumn rut at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. I’d posted myself on the edge of a clearing and it wasn’t too long before a doe came blasting out of the brush and stotted across the meadow. With love being in the air, I knew a buck was sure to follow so I got good and ready to pan my lens with his trajectory. Sure enough, within a minute this six-point buck made a dramatic entrance and I was able to freeze him in the peak of his flight.
White-tailed Deer. Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado.
Hiking Mount Democrat
Let me take you back to the beginning. Back to the very first wild critter I photographed upon arriving in Colorado….
Here in Colorado we are obsessed with mountains. We have 53 of them that are over 14,000′ in elevation and they are dubbed “Fourteeners”. Climbing a Fourteener is one of the few ways that an outsider can become a citizen here. My first Fourteener was the humble talus slope of Mount Democrat, not too far from Breckenridge. Typcially, when attempting a Fourteener, the prudent peak bagger begins their hike well before dawn in order to summit and return to the safety of the forest before the standard afternoon thunderstorms roll in. Mount Democrat is an especially easy Fourteener so we did not deem this necessary and enjoyed a leisurely hike in the daylight before summitting and then racing back down to the car amidst thunder and lightning and snow. On the way to the summit of Mount Democrat I photographed a Yellow-bellied Marmot and an American Pika with my point and shoot film camera. So, here it is…the first photo of the Critter Challenge, circa June 2005:
See him? No? He’s right in the middle. Kind of on the right side of the big rock…he’s sorta pointing up and left. See him now? Well, it’s a marmot, okay??!!!
Introducting the Marmot
The Yellow-bellied Marmot (Marmota flaviventris), sometimes referred to as a rockchuck, a whistle-pig, or more commonly “that $#@% animal that chewed a hole in my tent”, is a common resident of alpine talus here in Colorado. Spend some time above treeline and you are all but guaranteed to see a marmot sunning itself on a boulder or scurring across the trail. Marmots are members of the Sciuridae family, which makes them basically very large ground squirrels. They are most closely related to their flatlander cousin, the groundhog (Marmota monax), aka woodchuck.
Marmots are herbivores and they eat grasses, flowers, and whatever other vegetation is available to them. They burrow beneath rocks and spend an estimated 80% of their life below ground. Winters are long and food is scarce on the tundra and the marmot hibernates from 4-7 months of the year.
Photographing the Marmot
Marmots are relatively easy to locate and photograph. You are likely to see them on nearly any alpine trail, but the best places to photograph them are where they are plentiful and accustomed to people. The Rock Cut on Trail Ridge Road and the Summit Road on Mount Evans are two good bets. No matter how charming they might be, resist the urge to feed them!
I met this bear yesterday on Mount Sanitas while I was out running. He had climbed up a pine tree and was using his position to pick apples from the top of an adjacent apple tree. Today he got himself into a bit of trouble because this morning he was rummaging around in the trash near Eben G. Fine Park and now he’s up a tree. Hopefully sitting out 90 degree weather in a cottonwood tree has taught him his lesson and he will go back to foraging for apples.