Sunday, December 8, 2013

Kebler Pass Aspen Auto Tour

Kebler Pass with aspen foreground
Photo by: Matt Brincka
The Rocky Mountain region of Colorado is jam packed with GORGEOUS auto tours. One is hard-pressed to actually find a horrible drive through the mountains (unless you are stranded on I-70 thanks to construction, mountain goats, blizzards or run-away tractor trailers). My wife and I love to go for drives and no matter where we go, we are just awed by the beautiful scenery.

The beginning of October rolled around this year and I kept on hearing about the Aspen fall foliage in the mountains. Being from the east coast, fall foliage was the one thing other than water my wife and I were truly missing. We knew we wanted to get into the mountains one weekend this autumn to see the golden aspens, but we were hard-pressed on time and only one weekend popped up where we could actually do some exploring.

So before we went, I did a little Google Search on the best fall foliage in Colorado. The first thing that popped up on my radar was Kebler Pass, home of Colorado's largest aspen grove. The one problem? Kebler pass is down by Crested Butte, CO, which is quite a hike from where we live in Longmont, CO. That weekend we could actually go fell into the early time-slot of peak foliage season, so we risked being too early for the colors and just went for it

What was ultimately decided was we were going to take a full day road trip through the Rockies to Kebler Pass. In all, Google Maps was telling us to expect our loop to take 10-11 hours of driving, so we packed a lunch, left super early in the morning, and drove drove drove!

Red line indicates Kebler Pass. Blue lines indicate the there and back again driving trip

There is a lot to see between Longmont and our first stop, Crested Butte. We hopped on I-25 to I-70 and instead of going straight into the Rockies, we hooked south on I-470 to route 285. Route 285 is a drive filled with dynamics. You first push through the Front Range and once you get past Bailey, your surroundings change drastically - you've made it to South Park Basin. South Park is flat grassland basin that encompasses around 1,000 square miles and antelope and cattle are aplenty. Fairplay is the largest town found in the basin, with a booming population of around 600. Within Fairplay is a very interesting historical western town called South Park.

After passing through Fairplay, you skirt around the outskirts of Buena Vista and by-pass Salida (a cute artsy town) and turn right onto route 50. This is where things start to get a bit more interesting. On route 50 you cross Monarch Pass (one of the snowiest places in Colorado). You start to get small pockets of fall foliage and even some snow once you get to the peak of Monarch Pass. After crossing the Continental Divide you then roll into Gunnison, CO and make your way north to Crested Butte. The drive between Gunnison and Crested Butte has some great fall foliage itself, but we were racing against the clock so we didn't stop to admire!

Once you get to Crested Butte, CO there is a small visitor center on the main route with bathrooms. After 4.5 hours in the car... we were ready for them!

The entrance to Kebler Pass, to me, almost seemed like a forgotten back road through an older housing development on the west end of town. Which is completely A.O.K. with me, but to the layman trying to find Kebler Pass, it might take a bit without a map.

From Crested Butte to route 133 the drive is an absolute joy. This is the Kebler Pass we came to see. Most of it is unpaved and there are plenty of areas to stop and just... drop your jaw in amazement. Enjoy the following photos...

Lost Lake Slough in Kebler Pass
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Driving the Kebler Pass
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Once you hit route 133 and start your drive north you are still in some beautiful country. The most breathe taking part of the drive is when you go through the ever popular White River National Forest. If you EVER get a chance to explore the White River National Forest, make sure you go to the iconic Maroon Bells, one of the most photographed mountains in Colorado (yet to go there... so no pictures from me yet! If you google Maroon Bells you will find them).

The rest is kind of a blur; zooming down I-70 back east. You do pass some cute (and often unique) ski towns, such as Aspen, Vail, Eagle, and Avon. If you ever make it to Vail in the spring and summer, make sure you go during their Farmer's Market. It is full of interesting crafts and wonderful food vendors. Kebler pass is also the perfect drive for individuals visiting Aspen during fall.

Overall, if you are visiting Colorado during peak fall foliage and have a day to spare... don't rule out Kebler Pass because it is 5 hours away. Actually, rule-in Kebler pass because any 5-hour drive in the Colorado Rocky Mountains is a drive worth taking.

Aspen grove in Kebler Pass
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Rocky Mountain Blue Columbine

Rocky Mountain blue columbine (Aquilegia saximontana)
Photo by: Matt Brincka

A jewel of the sub-alpine, the Rocky Mountain blue columbine (Aquilegia saximontana) is typically found at elevations of 10,000 to 13,000 feet. The latin word aquila, which can be found in the genus name, means 'Eagle', which refers to the claw like structures at the flower base. The common name, Rocky Mountain blue columbine, is ofter shortened to Rocky Mountain columbine and is then confused with Aquilegia caerulea goes by same common name (Rocky Mountain columbine)... to add to that confusion, check out the interesting facts section at the end of this post!

The flower itself, which blooms in Late June to August, is a beautiful combination of blue-violet and white petals and a bright yellow center. Each part of the flower symbolizes a part of Colorado. The blue-violet outer petals represent the sky, the white inner petals symbolize the snow and the yellow center is a symbol for the gold mining history of Colorado.

Rocky Mountain blue columbine (Aquilegia saximontana)
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Interesting Facts
  • Aquilegia saximontana is commonly thought of as Colorado's state flower, however, Aquilegia caerulea is considered the official state flower of Colorado. Historically, the original document identified the flower as being lavender and white - which is a better representation of Aquilegia caerulea - and not of a specific columbine species. There has been debate that A. saximontana was suppose to be given the title of Colorado's state flower originally, but A. caerulea now holds that honor.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Toys"R"Us vs Environmental Education

When I was told about the new Toys"R"Us commercial by one of my students today I thought they had to have been mistaken. They informed me that Toys"R"Us basically said (without words) that learning about nature is boring and kids receive no joy from it.

I immediately said "what? I highly doubt that."

My student insisted that I pull the commercial up onto my computer and watch it. So I did... and this is what I saw...

I am an environmental educator at heart and practice. I thrive on people's enthusiasm towards experiential learning in nature. I've provided outdoor, educational, nature based events for children between the ages of 3 and 83, of all backgrounds, socioeconomic status, and interest levels for over 8 years. From these experiences I can state one thing... the vast, vast, vast majority of people love environmental education. I've witnessed maybe 5-6 people of the hundreds I have taught who wouldn't hop into a stream with a dip net to collect macro invertebrates to understand water quality. Even individuals who freak out when you pull a snake from under a log to talk about thermoregulation end up saying it was one of the coolest experiences of their life (obviously... there are some people who are highly phobic to specific aspects of nature and as an educator we remove them from the situation if needed until it is safe).

 Environmental education has the ability to reconnect our disconnected youth with what matters most... care taking and understanding our planet.

That being said, I have witnessed horrible "environmental education" programs where the educators acted more like the actor in this commercial playing "name that leaf" game.

I think the absolute WORST thing about this commercial is that this group of kids is (supposedly) an actual group of disadvantaged children. I've worked with children like this before. I've worked with children that didn't know FROGS existed. These children should be attending a good environmental education program because it would probably change so many of their lives. I've seen good environmental programs change the lives of so many children of all backgrounds.

Does this commercial bash the idea of environmental education? I'll let you decide. For me... I think it was probably made in good faith, but could potentially leave a poor imprint of the importance of toys over nature on young-impressionable minds (is that me being too idealistic? maybe). I think it probably should have never hit people's television set. I'm not sure how the commercial made it past trial runs because there is a lot of backlash within the general public.

There are multiple petitions out there looking for Toys"R"Us to pull their add. There are some that are actually looking for Toy"R"Us to back and fund an environmental education program/identity. They aren't hard to find if you google for them... but here is one of the main ones.

While conducting an environmental education event
 at Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, NY with a group of inner-city youth,
I had to tussle with a bowfin and got quite a reaction.
Photo by: David Lassman/Post Standard

Want to read a news release about the program pictured above? Find it here.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

NASA | Ancient Mars Video (Conceptualized)

Since childhood, I've always been fascinated with Mars. I owe that passion to my sci-fi junkie novel addiction. Just the idea that life evolved elsewhere triggers hope that all my childhood (and maybe some adult) fantasies of flying a Y-wing bomber for the rebel alliance, or running with the Fremen in Arrakis could come true... for my great great great... great? grandchildren.

That childhood obsession has evolved. Space and space time are fascinating to me. Our solar system has changed drastically over the course of its life and understanding that past is the largest treasue hunt of them all. Uncovering any hints, or speculations, just make me excited.

NASA posted a great short video to their YouTube page on what Mars might have looked like in the past... enjoy the video and here is their description (found on YouTube):
"Billions of years ago when the Red Planet was young, it appears to have had a thick atmosphere that was warm enough to support oceans of liquid water - a critical ingredient for life. The animation shows how the surface of Mars might have appeared during this ancient clement period, beginning with a flyover of a Martian lake. The artist's concept is based on evidence that Mars was once very different. Rapidly moving clouds suggest the passage of time, and the shift from a warm and wet to a cold and dry climate is shown as the animation progresses. The lakes dry up, while the atmosphere gradually transitions from Earthlike blue skies to the dusty pink and tan hues seen on Mars today."

Thursday, September 26, 2013


As a kid camping in the Adirondack Mountains, hoverflies (family Syrphidae) were a common sight, buzzing around the campfire. They receive their common name due to their ability to hover (really? never would have guessed that...). They are often mistaken as bees or wasps due to their mimicry coloration, but are completely harmless to humans. The most common species of Syrphidae in North America goes by the family's common name of Hoverfly (Toxomerus geminatus). Adults emerge in mid-summer to feed off of flower nectar, while the larvae actually feed on aphids, eventually pupating in the soil. Since aphids are huge pests in agricultural systems, both in America and abroad, aphidophagus (aphid consumers!!!!) hoverfly species are increasingly being recognized as potential natural biological control agents.

Hoverfly on top of Estes Cone in Rocky Mountain National Park
Photo by: Matt Brincka 

Hoverfly on top of Estes Cone in Rocky Mountain National Park
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

American bison

The American bison (Bison bison), also call buffalos (even though very... very distantly related to true buffalo), are often known as the face of the American west. They are one of the few species in North America that are both raised in captivity (not domestic) for their meat and roam in wild herds. Bison can grow to massive sizes, with wild individuals reaching 700 to 2,200 pounds and captive individuals reaching upwards to 3,800 pounds. Males tend to be slightly larger than females.

American bison in Yellowstone National Park
Photo by: Matt Brincka

The American bison roam the plains, sagebrush and lightly wooded areas of the mid-western and western North America. They are migratory, traveling between foraging sites. On average, a herd's daily routine consists of foraging and chewing cud for roughly two hours then traveling to the next site. Sometimes, this traveling can amount to around 2 miles per day. Similar to other herd animals, females live is maternal heard consisting of other females, juveniles, and sometimes elderly males. Males will often leave the materinal herds when they are around three years of age, joining other males in bachelor herds (parrrrtaaay). During the breeding season, males will gather females into a small harem for mating. These bulls will ward off other males who get too close.

American bison often use man made roads as route of easy travel... often delaying traffic.
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Bison partake in a variety of interesting behaviors. During the fall, herds usually wander into more forested areas, preparing for the winter months. at this time, bison partake in a behavior where their rub their horns against aromatic trees, saplings and even utility poles. The tree release an aroma after being horned which is connected providing a deterrent against biting insects. Bison also participate in a wallowing behavior, where they wallow, or roll, in a shallow depression of soil. There are many hypotheses as to why bison wallow, including shedding, rutting, group cohesion, play, scratching their insect bites, removing of ticks, and to keep cool.

Locking horns
Photo by: Matt Brincka

When Columbus first step foot in the New World, there were an estimated 60,000,000 (yes... 60 million) American bison that roamed in herds as far as the eye could see. Many native plain cultures based their societies around the American bison, traveling with the herds, utilizing every part of the animal. When European settlers came, all did not bode well for our friendly, roaming plain goliath. Bison hunting turned into a continent wide cull. In the 1800s, western expansion was in full swing and it has been told that men would sit on the top of trains and shoot the bison herds as they passed. The option to shoot buffalo was often provided by train companies to tourists because they wanted the herds culled. A single bison herd could delay a train for days. The main reason of the American bison decline was because the US Army actively endorsed the wholesale slaughter of the herds. Hunters would shoot hundreds of buffalo at a time, skinning them, allowing the meat to rot, then shipping the bones back east. The federal government had multiple reasons to promote the mass cull of bison, but it is said it was mainly to allow ranchers to range their cattle without competition from the herds and (the probable real reason) to weaken the North American Indian population by removing their main food source.

Wallowing in a dust hole
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Interesting Tid-Bits
  • Sometimes bison give birth to a white juvenile, which are of spiritual significance to Native American culture
  • Several American coins have featured the bison, including the "buffalo nickel" from 1913 to 1938.
  • The city of Buffalo, NY originally was called New Amsterdam and resided on Buffalo Creek.... and yes, New York City was originally named New Amsterdam by Dutch explorers. Well guess what, it was a Holland Land Company that first established the Buffalo - New Amsterdam. Residents of New Amsterdam (Buffalo) didn't like the name much, so in 1808 they renamed their town as the "Village of Buffalo". There are a few theories as to why the village was renamed Buffalo, and it is often disputed. One is it related to a story that stolen horse meat was being passed off as bison flesh, with the area then remembered as "Buffalo," however, there is great skepticism towards this. Another is that the name "Buffalo" is a horrible butchering of the French saying beau fleuve meaning "beautiful river," which was used to describe the Niagara River. Another is that the town was named after Fort Le Boeuf, translated as "Fort Buffalo," but this fort ceased operation years before the settlement of New Amsterdam. All of these theories stem from the belief that the American bison once roamed Western New York, but there are only 1 or 2 historical accounts, which aren't 100% reliable. It is also widely accepted that if bison roamed Western New York, they were extirpated years before colonists made it there. Many believe it is the legend of the American bison that fueled the naming. However, without more historical discoveries that creates an indisputable generation story, the naming of Buffalo, and Buffalo Creek, will forever be debated.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Yellowstone National Park

A few weeks ago, the Mrs and I had the wonderful opportunity to utilize a 3.5 day weekend. Our trip of choice? Yellowstone National Park. It had been over a decade since both of us had been there and is almost 9 hours by car from where we live in Colorado. Since we wanted to spend as much time as possible to check out this natural wonder, there was no way a normal weekend would work. Hurray for vacation days!

Norris Geyser Basin at sunset
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Yellowstone National Park is out of this world in almost the whole literally sense, except for... well it is mostly in Wyoming. Yellowstone National Park sits on the Yellowstone Plateau and encompasses the Yellowstone Caldera, the largest volcanic system in North America and is sometimes called a "supervolcano." The current caldera was created around 640,000 years ago with an eruption that was over 1,000 times larger than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. The eruption was so huge, it left a caldera 0.625 miles deep and 45 by 28 miles in total area. The state of Rhode Island is 37 by 48 miles in area... this volcano is almost as big as the whole state of Rhode Island!

The caldera sits over a stationary hotspot in the Earth's mantle, where liquid rock (magma) fills a chamber roughly 37 miles long, 18 miles wide, and 3 to 7 miles deep. This magma chamber supports the geysers and hydrothermal system throughout the park. Since the last super eruption, There has been a series of smaller eruptions up until around 70,000 years ago. These eruptions have formed landmarks such as the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake and the Obsidian Cliffs. From current understanding of the geological eruption history of the Yellowstone area, it is predicted that super eruptions occur every 600,000 to 800,000 years.

If you have been paying attention, the last eruption was 640,000 years ago... could the next super eruption be in our lifetime? Who knows! Just have to wait and see!

**starts digging a fall-out shelter**

Yellowstone is mostly known for two things: geothermal activity (geysers, hot springs, etc) and wildlife. One could make the argument that there are actually three things, with the third being lots and lots of tourists, but I kind of clump them in with the "wildlife" category.

Geothermal Attractions

Norris Geyser Basin at sunset
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Cliff Geyser in Black Sand Basin
Photo by: Matt Brincka

As was stated before, the hotspot that sits below the Yellowstone Caldera fuels some of the most active and most prevalent geyser and hot spring basins in the world. There are four main geyser basins - Upper, Midway, Lower and Norris - with a few other smaller geothermal areas (i.e., west thumb, biscuit, black sand). I personally don't consider West Thumb Basin a main geyser basin because a lot of it is underwater, but you might hear otherwise. There are about 10,000 geothermal attractions, with around 300 of them geysers. There is also the Mammoth Hot Springs... but we will get to that. I had to narrow down this blog post somewhere. There is no way I could ever cover every geothermal feature/basin in the park, let alone everything in the larger basins... so I will cover some big names, along with a few other cool attractions.

Here is a map for your references...

Upper Geyser Basin
Main attraction: Old Faithful
Almost everyone has heard of Old Faithful, which is why it is one of the most developed and visited areas in the park. Don't get me wrong, Old Faithful is cool and you should definitely go see it once, but twice? Probably not. We actually skipped Old Faithful because we both have seen it before. There are many other geysers in the basin that have a lot of character. Upper Basin has the highest concentration of geothermal features in the park.

Other attractions: Castle, Lion, Grand, Daisy, and Beehive geysers, Black Sand Basin, Biscuit Basin, along with other smaller geothermal attractions

Run-off at Biscuit Basin into Firehole River
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Midway Geyser Basin
Main attraction: Grand Prismatic Spring
Grand Prismatic Spring is one of the coolest features to see... from the air. From the ground? Not really. The spring is actually the largest individual hot spring in the park.

Other attractions: Excelsior Geyser (which pumps 4,000 U.S. gallons into Firehole River per minute!) and other smaller geothermal attractions

Grand Prismatic Spring
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Lower Geyser Basin
Main attraction: Fountain Paint Pots
The Fountain Paint Pots are actually mud pots, which are hot springs with boiling opaque mud made of dissolved minerals. They remind me of something magical, like a witches brew.

Lower Geyser Basin
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Other attractions: FIREHOLE LAKE DRIVE! I can't believe how many people actually skip this. Two awesome geysers are on this side road - Great Fountain Geyser and White Dome Geyser - and it saddens me that so many people miss it. White Dome Geyser erupts almost every 20 minutes. The eruption is short and relatively small, but it is still an awesome geyser. If you can see the Great Fountain Geyser erupt at sunset, do it. End of freaking story.

White Dome Geyser along Firehole Lake Drive
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Norris Geyser Basin
Main attraction: Steamboat Geyser
Steamboat is actually the tallest active geyser is the world, with major eruptions reaching up to 300 feet. The problem is, the eruption timetable is erratic, sometimes laying dormant for anywhere from a month to 10 years! The geyser actually was dormant from 1911 to 1961. The last major eruption was July 31st, 2013... good luck timing a visit for when it is erupting at full force! Minor eruptions are much more frequent, but only shoot up around 10-40 feet. Snore fest!

Other attractions: Too many to count. Norris is awesome. If you can go to Norris during a good sunset or sunrise, it is beautiful. If you can't tell, Norris is my favorite (by far).

Norris Geyser Basin at sunset
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Mammoth Hot Springs
Main attraction: Mammoth Hot Springs Complex
Mammoth Hot Springs is actually a large complex of hot springs located in the north-west corner of the park. The hot, calcium carbonate filled water actually comes from Norris, where it travels to Mammoth Hot Springs via a fault line. The water gets it calcium carbonate from the limestone it travels through. When the water surfaces at Mammoth, the calcium carbonate falls out of solution, forming the cascading feature of the complex.

Mammoth Hotspring
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Non-geothermal Attractions
There are plenty of non-geothermal attractions that I could never possibly cover. Like before, I will pick a few of the larger ones, and a few I like.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
This large canyon on the eastern side of the park is.... breath taking. There are plenty of overlooks, but to get to some of the coolest views, you will have to walk down lots of steps or switch backs. It is worth every step. Lower Falls is probably the most well-known waterfall in the park, for it has been photographed and painted more than anyone can recall. I can't really describe anything more about this, but pictures will say what words can't.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Lower Falls in Grand Canyon
of the Yellowstone
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Gibbon Falls
Gibbon Falls is cute. I use cute because nothing really compares to Lower Falls in the park. Gibbon falls is located between Madison and Norris and falls roughly 84 feet. The naming of Gibbon Falls is actually some what of a mystery. In the mid-1800s, government and commercial documents started referring to Falls of the Gibbon or Gibbon Falls. When we were there, we got to see an Osprey fish in the pools at the base of the falls.

Gibbon Falls
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Yellowstone Lake
It is a lake. Go boating. See geothermal features under water in West Thumb. The End. Need more said?

Bucktail Plateau Drive
This is actually a cool, dirt road in the northern section of the park. It goes through some short-grass and sage prairie. People usually spot pronghorn antelope here, yet alas, we say nothing. Still pretty though!

Wildlife: Fauna and Flora
Yellowstone is literally a wonderland and not only because of the geothermal formations. You can see all of those animals you only see on T.V. or read about in text books. It is one of the last places in the U.S. to see the Big-4 predators in one location: mountain lion, black bear, grizzly bear and wolf. There are also the charismatic herbivorous megafauna: elk, moose, bison, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, mule deer, white-tailed deer. It is also one of the only places to see the threatened lynx in the lower 48 states. There are 311 species of birds known to pass through Yellowstone, including extremely rare sitings of whooping cranes.

There are over 1,700 species of trees and vascular plants in the Yellowstone area, some of them only found in the park. The Yellowstone Sand Verbena is only found on the shores of Yellowstone Lake.

Even the geothermal formations are diverse ecosystems! Those bright colors in the hot springs and pool run-offs? Bacterial mats, which yes, are trillions of individual organisms who rely of the geothermal activity to survive.

American bison
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Grizzly Bear
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Yellowstone is truly a geological, biological and ecological wonderland. Enjoy it before the supervolcano explodes!... and basically covers the continental U.S. with ash.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What caused the Colorado flood?

Many people have reached out to my family about the recent flooding in Colorado. Thankfully, we live on a hill away from any stream or river, so we stayed relatively un-flooded. We were isolated for only one day, but we did venture out to view some of the flooding damage and high water marks. Many people who reached out asked questions like "don't people know to not build in an area that floods?" While these questions are innocent, they are a bit misguided, for floods like this rarely happen and could actually happen anywhere. The real question that should be asked is "how did this happen?" Though we can't pin-point a specific cause, many experts are indicating that it was probably a combination of many factors and just a spell of bad luck. Let me 'splain....

Colorado is the following: dry, many times too dry. On average, Colorado as a whole only receives 17 inches of measurable precipitation per year. "But Colorado gets so much snow!" you say. Well, part of that is correct. The mountains do get a lot of snow. The plains do not. Also, on average, 10 inches of snow (not slush) equals 1 inch of precipitation. So when the city of Denver receives an average of 30 inches of snow per year, that only accounts for about 3 inches of precipitation.

Though most of it is dry, what prevents Colorado from becoming a desert state is actually quite dramatic... the Rocky Mountains. Many locations above 10,000 feet receive 25 to sometimes 50 inches of precipitation annually. Monarch Pass, considered one of the snowiest places in Colorado, receives on average 350+ inches of snow, or roughly 35 inches of precipitation from snow per year. That means Monarch Pass receives double the average precipitation for the state in snow precipitation alone. All of this precipitation that falls in the mountains conveniently fill the plethora of reservoirs throughout Colorado and is then pumped and drained based on historical water rights (which is a whole separate disaster). Without the engineering behind those reservoirs holding the precipitation from the mountains, the major cities along the Front Range would not exist. It is simply too dry. This, in itself, is a blessing and a curse.

So, as you can see, Colorado is dry. Even with the precipitation in the mountains being held in the reservoirs, Colorado has a history of drought. For the past few years, Colorado has had drought conditions that have lead to water rationing and some of the worst wildfires on record for the state. This parched landscape was begging for water, but like all things, too much of a good thing isn't always a good thing.

Last week, Boulder experienced something it hasn't in recorded history. As of 7am on Monday, September 16th, Boulder has experienced 17.07 inches of precipitation for the month of September. The September average? Just 1.7 inches. This 17.07 inches literally crushes the previous record of 9.59 inches in May of 1995. On September 12th, Boulder received 9.08 inches of rain in a 24 hour period. This also literally smashed the single day record set on July 31st, 1919 when a measly 4.8 inches fell. So to put that simply, a lot of water fell, doubling the previous records for the area. To bring this all home, Boulder has already broken its yearly record for precipitation with over 3 months left to go. What is even worse is that Boulder got as much rain in a week as it typically gets in an entire year.

That, is a lot of rain. That is so much rain that multiple reservoirs overflowed, with some even bursting, which added to the flooding. Due to all the water, many dams are now structurally damaged and in need of drastic repair. Lyons, CO became completely cut off after a dam burst in the mountain behind it. Helicopters have been airlifting people to safety.

You may have heard on the national news that Colorado is experiencing the 100-year or 1,000 year flood, or a "flood of biblical proportion." This is very misleading, for this doesn't mean this flood actually happens every 100 or 1,000 years (and no, there is no Noah's Ark in the Rockies). What it actually means is that there is a 0.1% chance that this can happen in a year. A low pressure system literally trapped a tropical Southwest monsoon system against the Front Range and Rocky Mountains. The rain had to fall, meaning it did so in buckets. Luck be (not) with us, it just happened at a time and place where there is 1) drought conditions so the ground system was not ready, able or willing to hold that water and 2) steep valleys and creeks that are lined with solid rock walls creating a literal funnel for the water to go through.

Other things could have added to this "perfect scenario". There have been a series of tree kills because of the pine borer beetle and forest fires over the past years. These leave slopes of hills and mountain barren, increasing water run-off, which in return increase any flood or mud slide size.

Overall, it is a disaster. Entire towns are isolated and will stay isolated for months. Estes Park, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, has one road open. That road will close soon when snows in the mountains will make it impassible. Homes are destroyed and entire bridges and roads have just disappeared. Colorado will rebound, but thanks to all the rain, we are officially not in drought conditions anymore (cue in dark humor)!

If you want to read more about Colorado's drought history and how that could affect the future, check this out.

Here are some areal photos posted by the Denver Post. To see more, click here

Here is a popular photo used of an overpass flooding at CU Boulder. I currently do not have a citation source for this. If you know it, let me know.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain bluebirds (Sialia currucoides) are a member of the thrush family (also home to the American robin). Bluebirds are one of the most recognizable songbirds, and one of the most sought after. There are three bluebird species in North America. In the east, there is the eastern bluebird, and in the west, there are two species of bluebird: western and mountain bluebirds.

Male and female mountain bluebirds
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Adult males are a beautiful turquoise-blue with a lighter blue chest and belly, where females are a duller blue with grey. In the fall, females can show a slight re-orange on the throat and breast. It isn't common to see a bird that is pure blue in color in North America, making the mountain bluebird an even more attractive site. Their range spans from Mexico to the as far north as Alaska. Northern birds will migrate down to the southern reaches of the range, while birds found in Mexico are often year-long residents. They can be found in open rangelands and meadows above 5,000 feet.

Male mountain bluebird with a snack
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Mountain bluebirds were once considered threatened due to an increase in agricultural land, destroying habitats. However, thanks to an overwhelming effort by landowners in the West to provide bird boxes for these cavity nesters, their numbers have dramatic increased. Little is know about native nesting requirements, for the vast majority of couples that are studied use nest boxes.

Male mountain bluebird
Photo by: Matt Brincka

Interesting Tid-Bits
  • Usually hunts from perches, flying to the ground to catch prey. Does exhibit fly catcher behavior (hunts from perch and catches prey in the air).
  • Only females make nests. Males pretend to help, but usually either drops or just shows up with no nesting material at all.
  • Mountain bluebirds are sometimes credited with halting or slowing the advance of eastern bluebirds into the west because the out compete them for nesting sites.
  • A very slow migrator, stopping often to feed (fatty).
Sorry it took so long for an update, I've been rather busy (and Colorado has been a mess lately!) I'll be posting another 2-3 post over the next week or so to make up for it! Including a post on Yellowstone National Park and American bison!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Elk: The Animal Whose Name Actually Means Moose

The majestic elk (Cervus canadensis) is one of the largest species of Cervidae, or deer family, in the world. Natively found in North America and eastern Asia, their great adaptability has lead them to threaten some endemic species and ecosystems in countries they have been introduced in, including Australia, Argentina and New Zealand. There are currently one overall subspecies (Cervus canadensis canadensis) found in North America, with eight groupings, two of which are extinct. Those groupings include:
  • Roosevelt Elk
  • Tule Elk
  • Manitoban Elk
  • Rocky Mountain Elk
  • Altai Wapiti Elk
  • Tianshan Wapiti
  • Eastern Elk (extinct)
  • Merriam's Elk (extinct)
Male elk in Rocky Mountain National Park
In North America, their historical range covered most of the United State and Canada, but several subspecies went extinct at least 100 years ago due to possible over hunting and habitat fragmentation, resulting in a modern range now limited to mainly the mountains of the west. Of all North American subspecies, there is an estimated number of over 1 million individuals. Prior to European colonization, there was an estimated 10 million individuals.

The Rocky Mountain elk subspecies has successfully been reintroduced in small populations in the Appalachian region of the United States, including North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. Those populations have now migrated and expanded to patches in Virginia and West Virginia. Elk have also been reintroduced in small populations to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and two islands in Alaska.

Male elk in Rocky Mountain National Park in late July. Notice the soft, velvet layer on the antlers.

Male and females show sexual dimorphism; where males grow antlers, females lack. Males start growing their antlers in the spring and shed them each winter. While actively growing - as much as 2.5 centimeters per day - antlers are covered with a protected velvet, a layer of vascularised skin. The velvet is shed after the antlers are fully developed, usually towards the end of summer. Antler retention is actually connected to testosterone levels in male elk. When testosterone levels drop after the breeding season, this triggers the shedding of antlers in late fall/early winter.

Three male elk grazing in an alpine meadow located in Rocky Mountain National Park

Adult elk usually roam in single-sex groups till mating season. Formally know as a rut, the mating season occurs in late summer through fall, where mature males (bulls) perform some intense and... interesting... behavior. Bulls will join female (cow) groups and will try to defend and ward off other males. Opponents will bellow bugle calls (see below) and parallel one another, basically sizing the other up. If a bull doesn't back down, they will lock antlers, which can sometimes lead to serious injury. To attract females, bulls are known to dig holes in the ground, urinate is said holes, then roll in said urine. This urine soaks hair gives them a distinct oder which attracts cows. Bugling is also often associated to attracting females, where they gravitate towards males that bugle the loudest, longest and most often.

Elk's bugle call

Interesting Tid-bits

  • Elks migrate with the changing of seasons, moving from higher country in warmer weather, to lower elevations during colder months.
  • Elk are ruminants, meaning they have a four-chambered stomach. Elk will graze on grasses and shrubs, regurgitate the semi-digested plant matter, known as cud, and chew it again.
  • The name elk actually is the early European name for moose, which comes from Old Norse elgr and German elch, which all refer to moose. When early European settlers came to the Americas, they thought the animal resembled a moose. Elk are not moose, but the name is still used in North America, while the name elk is still used in Eurasia for the moose (confusing... I know).
  • Elk are also known waapiti, or wapiti, meaning white-rump in Shawnee and Cree. To try and help with the whole elk-moose fiasco, the name is mostly used for the Asian subspecies, since elk in Eurasia means moose! What a pain in my waatipi.
  • The extinct Irish elk is actually not a member of the genus Cervus, therefore are technically not an elk at all, in modern terms.
  • The gestation period for young is typically 240 to 262 days and offspring are born at the ripe weight of 33-35 pounds. Calves are actually as large as an adult white-tailed deer by the time they are six months old!
  • Elk are a highly sought after game species, prized for its lean and flavorful meat.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

House Finch

House finches, Haemorhous mexicanus, are one of my favorite bird feeder birds. The general curious nature and spark of color provides an enjoying viewing experience. They tend to collect at feeders in small groups and sit perfectly still while they shell seeds with their large beaks, making them great birds for children and adults alike to sit and watch for extended periods of time.

Male house finch harvesting some food

House finches can now be found across the continental United States, however, that is not their natural range. They are actually native to the deserts, grasslands, shrub lands and open forests of the western United States. In 1870, they were introduced to Hawaii from San Francisco and became abundant on all major island by the early 1900s. In 1940, a small group house finches was released on Long Island, New York, where they spread quickly and have now become a staple siting at feeders. They are commonly found in city parks, backyards, and urban centers across the continent. They are so prevalent, scientists predict there is somewhere between 260 million and 1.4 billion individuals across North America!

Two male house finches

House finches show sexual dimorphism, meaning males and females are noticeably different. Males have a beautiful rosy red coloration on the head and breast, while the females are a plain gray-brown. All birds, however, can't make their own red and yellow colorations directly. Male house finches actually get their red color from the pigments contained in its food during molt. The more pigment in the food, the redder the male. The redder the male, the sexier, for females typically mate with the reddest male the can set their eyes on.

Interesting tid-bits
  • Nestling's diets are not supplemented with insects, but instead are fed only plant materials. This is a relatively rare behavior compared to other bird species.
  • Male house finches are known to feed their female counterparts during courtship rituals
  • Usually breeds 2+ times between February and August.
  • To combat casualties due to nest mite infestations, the mother will often lay eggs of one gender for each brood, increasing the chance of survival.
  • A victim of Brown-headed Cowbirds, a brood parasite, but since cowbirds require a supplement of insects in their diet, the young rarely survive in house finch nests.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Hummingbirds: The Little Birds That Could

Probably one of the most sought after bird family and probably the most recognizable, hummingbirds are almost a thing from a fantasy faerie world. The majority of hummers fall into the pint-size category between 3-5 inches, however, the Bee hummingbird is a ridiculously scant 5 cm in size, making it the smallest extant bird species known. There are 17 known hummingbird species within North America, 356 world wide and 51 of them are endangered.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird © Matt Brincka

For being so small, they are packed with an arsenal of adaptations. They are able to hover in mid-air while beating their wings an exhilarating 12-80 times per second (depending on the species). They can reach speeds of nearly 35 mph and are also the only known group of birds that can fly backwards. That's right... backwards!

Broad-tailed Hummingbird © Matt Brincka

Since they are so small, they have an amazing heartbeat of roughly 1200 beats per minute and have the highest metabolism of all animals (except insects); a necessity to support the rapid beating of their wings. A high metabolism requires a lot of food, in which they consume more than their own weight in nectar each day, visiting hundreds of flowers to get the needed food. It is said hummingbirds are always hours away from starvation... so what do they do when food is scarce? What do they do during the night? Hummingbirds are capable to go into a state of torpor, a hibernation-like state. Topor is not hibernation, but it is similar. When going into topor, a hummingbird can lower their metabolic rate to nearly to 1/15 of its normal rate, with a heartbeat of only 50-180 beats per second.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird © Matt Brincka

To attract these beautiful litte buggers, go grab a hummingbird feeder at your local store. Don't, however, buy the dyed humming bird food. It is much healthier (no artificial dyes) and easier to make your own.

Fool-proof hummingbird food recipe
4 cups of water (filtered if possible)
1 cup of white sugar
  1. Bring water to a boil
  2. Take water off of heat
  3. Add sugar and stir to dissolve sugar
  4. Let nectar cool to room temperature
  5. Place in a clean humming bird feed
***Make sure you check your feeder for mold periodically. If mold is found, dump food and disinfect with warm water and soap. Rinse thoroughly with fresh water once clean.

Interesting tid-bits
  • The Aztec god Huitzilopochtli is often depicted as a hummingbird.
  • They are able to assess how much sugar is in the nectar they eat, and often reject flowers with less than 10% sugar.
  • Hummingbirds don't only eat nectar! To meet their needs for protein, amino acids, vitamins and minerals they prey on insects and spiders.
  • Many hummingbird species make their nests out of spider silk.
  • Longest recorded lifespan is 12 years.
  • Some hummingbird species in North American are known to travel hundreds of miles during migrating. The ruby-throated humming bird actually flies non-stop over the entire Gulf of Mexico!

If you need a larger version of this very interesting infographic, click the picture or find an even larger version here.

Record your sitings and help with hummingbird conservation at National Audubon's Hummingbirds At Home website or phone application and at eBird.

An interesting website to learn anything from hummingbird first aid to hummingbird stories is the World of Hummingbirds. Enjoy!

Pictures in this post were taken with a Samsung Galaxy SII... only proving you don't need a $10,000 camera to get awesome pictures. You just need brave wildlife!