Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Return of a Native

One of the most amazing aspects of this place is its natural diversity. The riparian areas along the major creeks are filled with alder, birch, red-twig dogwood, narrow-leaf cottonwoods, not to mention all the small shrubs and forbs.

Beyond the riparian areas is the naturally sub-irrigated meadow which contains an amazing variety of native grasses, sedges and rushes plus rare plants like blue-eyed grass. In the late summer and fall, some parts of the meadow have standing water which creates small pockets for water loving insects. 

In addition to ponderosa pine, the upland ­­forest is home to gambel oak, various small fruit producing shrubs like currants and raspberries, and native grasses which offer foods and forage to everything from turkeys to deer, elk and bears.

And the jewel of the place is the wetland. This ten acre area is fed by waters from the two creeks which are held just below the surface by a layer of sub-surface rock. The wetland is home to blue spruce, Engleman spruce, alder, birch, numerous small shrubs and an amazing collection of rare and endangered  plants. Prior to its discovery here, the yellow star grass had not been seen in Colorado since 1959! Though located at 8000 foot elevation, the wetland area is characterized as sub-alpine because of the flora found here. In most Colorado locations, sub-alpine would occur at 10,000 foot elevation.

With all the natural water elements of this place, one would expect a healthy collection of aquatic species but after searching for several years we realized that one key species was missing – the northern leopard frog. Native frogs have been on the decline due to a variety of problems from loss of habitat to agricultural chemicals but since neither issue seemed to be the problem here we were puzzled by their absence.

After several conversations with an aquatic biologist from the Division of Wildlife, we were given permission to re-introduce the species. The only caveat was we had to find a healthy population of the frogs within a two mile radius to collect our specimens. Undaunted, we surveyed surrounding areas and spoke with landowners. Then the following year a neighbor in the two mile circle called to tell us that the summer monsoon season and recent irrigation had created a small catchment area that was filled with young frogs.

Armed with buckets, small fish nets and irrigation boots we arrived to collect our transplants. Two hours later, covered in mud, in a scene that will thankfully never be shown in a National Geographic special, we had about two dozen one-inch sized frogs. We released the little guys around our pond and congratulated ourselves on a job well-done.

That was five or six years ago and since then we had not seen a single frog and had about convinced ourselves that our effort had failed. Then this spring Don was working at our irrigation head gate when a movement caught his attention. Before he could focus, something hopped from the stream bank into the creek and disappeared in the silt. A month later I was cutting and collecting noxious weeds around the pond when something jumped from the pond edge into the pond. I took a step closer to see what it might be just as another one jumped into the pond right in front of me. This time I saw it clearly – it was a full-sized northern leopard frog. Since then we have had several other frog sightings in different locations on the place and now realize that we did succeed. We have returned a native to its key habitat and taken another step to making this amazing place whole.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Of Bugs and Birds

We’ve had the pleasure of watching a group of black paper wasps spend the summer building a large paper nest right out the study window. Over the course of the summer the nest grew from barely noticeable to basketball sized. While we couldn’t see what was going on inside the nest, we could watch the wasps working away on the outside adding layer upon layer. 

According to the experts, the paper is actually chewed wood fiber mixed with saliva then applied in hundreds of layers. Considering the size of the nest and that rarely were there more than 5 – 10 wasps working on it at any one time, the accomplishment is even more impressive.

Since wasps are not known for their friendly personalities, we pretty much avoided the area under the nest all summer. The only plants growing there were penstemons and they don’t care for special treatment anyway. 

And then several weeks ago a Stellar’s Jay discovered the nest. The clever Jay would sit on an oak branch patiently waiting for a wasp to appear then fly in and pick the unsuspecting bug right off the nest. When the temperatures starting dropping and the wasps remained inside more, the determined Jay started tearing into the base of the nest looking for the bugs. When that didn’t work the bird tore into the side of the nest exposing the inside chambers full of immature wasps. 

I haven’t seen the Jay or the wasps in several days. All that remains is the forlorn nest. It’s been an interesting lesson of nature where there are neither villains nor victims but only the ongoing circle of life. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

End of the Grazing Season

It’s a fine line determining when to send the cattle home after the spring and summer of grazing. Too soon and the cattle miss out on some good grass and we miss out on some additional weight gain. Too late and early snows could make it hard to move them out. The last two years have been dry and without irrigation water so that adds to the challenge. 

Three weeks ago we moved the cattle to fresh pasture on the west side of our place which had not been grazed for several years. We had planned to move them sooner but discovered some heavy fence damage in the northwest corner from the windstorm last November. Two huge spruce trees had blown down, one on the fence line and the other in the opposite direction lifting the fence up out of the ground. It was impossible to get any equipment to the location so the only option was to hand carry in a chain saw and some minor fencing supplies. After several hours of work and a unique repair job, the fence was cattle tight again.

While the grass was holding up well, last week’s weather report looked concerning with temperatures dropping in the low to mid 20s. Precipitation was a possibility so we made the decision to herd them back to the corrals and call the owners. Everything went smoothly and last Thursday afternoon, the trailer pulled out loaded with the cattle. Three of the heifers are bred and will join the main cow/calf herd, two steers and one heifer are destined for the freezer and ole’ Red will be retired from calf raising. The calf on her will be her last but because she is a favorite she will remain on the owner’s ranch for the rest of her life. Not a bad deal for a cow.

I spent the rest of the afternoon pumping down stock water tanks and turning them over for the winter, coiling up hoses and electric cords and taking down temporary electric fencing we use to manage the grazing areas. I’ve never done this before because we have always had our horses remaining after the cattle had left. That changed the end of June when we put Mandy, our last horse, to sleep. Now the pasture is empty, the corrals are empty and a part of my heart is empty. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Fall Colors

I thought you might enjoy some photos of the spectacular display of fall colors we are enjoying. 

And here is Don feeding the local wild turkey flock. Mom and her brood stop by almost every morning. The youngsters were small fluff balls when they first showed up. Now they are nearly as large as their mother.  The flock will disappear when the snow gets too deep and head to a lower elevation.