Monday, July 22, 2013

Mount Evans: The Casual 14'er

Hiking a 14'er isn't for everyone. The term 14'er is used to identify a 14,000 foot mountain in the Rocky Mountains. I will admit, some of them can be a rough hike depending on your physical shape and/or if you are coming from lower elevations. Even coming from 5,000+ feet in Denver it can be a literal "breath taker" while going up (I'm here all night people... my jokes are hi-larious). Once you're up at the summit of one of these gems, you have a front row seat to miles and miles of "breath taking" views (like I said... real knee slappers). With that being said, I would recommend to anyone, and everyone, to go up at least one 14'er in your life.

"But I'm not as young as I used to be" you say? "I'm only in Colorado for two days, there is NO WAY I will be adjusted to the elevation in time to go up a 14'er" you explain? "I just don't have the time" you affirm? "Uh..... BABIES!" you declare? (I take it you mean you have a or multiple babies... unless you... are a baby?)

That doesn't have to stop you! Thanks to relatively-modern-ish engineering you can experience a 14'er by driving to the top! This is a great opportunity for anyone and everyone, even if you are physically able to climb a 14'er but don't have the time to do one.

View of Summit Lake from the peak of Mount Evans

This marvelous high peak of Colorado is called Mt. Evans (you can also drive up Pike's Peak, but if you ask me, it costs too much cash-$$$ and the view doesn't come close to that of Mt. Evans). When you turn onto Route 5 by Echo Lake Park south of Idaho Springs, CO, you'll come across a typical gift shop where you can find anything from shirts to books (except you can't find any good picture magnets... and being a picture magnet collector myself, that was highly disappointing).

When you go past the gift shop you come to a typical pay booth you see at so many recreational areas and national parks. The nice thing about this booth, however, is you can completely skip it if you want! That's right... free access! There is a catch though. Along the way up to the peak, there are three "developed" areas, which include a nature center, Summit Lake (which might be worth $10 alone) and the Peak itself. In order to park and enjoy those features, you have to pay a $10 user fee. Otherwise, driving on the road and using the un-developed pull-offs are completely free of charge. Honestly, the entire fee goes to maintaining this wonder, so you might as well pay the equivalent to two coffees at Starbucks and get over it. It is going towards a good cause.

But I digress...

As you drive down Colorado Route 5, you will pass a nature center run by the Denver Botanical Society. The center is small itself with a room with some diagrams, but it has some hiking trails and the Walter Pesman Alpine Garden are attached to it with some ever awesome bristlecone pine trees (known to be the oldest living things on earth). I suggest stopping and checking it out on the way down the mountain.

Bristlecone pines (right) at the nature center on Mount Evans
Once you get past the nature center you are beyond the tree line and it is all view after view after view.

View east from the road going up Mount Evans
When you find a pull off, make sure you stop and get out of the car to walk around. If you are visiting in June-July, make sure you check to see if the alpine wild flowers are in bloom. There are dozens of species, all hugging the ground so they don't get ripped up by the wind. To preserve this beautiful habitat, make sure you only walk on rocks and don't step on any vegetation. A single step could kill the plants in this fragile ecosystem.

Spring bloom in the alpine
The next developed site you will pass is Summit Lake. You can either hit this on the way up or down. I prefer doing things in reverse order, so I suggest hitting it on the way down (especially if you are there early in the morning; you will want to get to the top before the crowds come). Summit Lake is beautiful and is a great opportunity to get some amazing photographs. The Summit Lake drainage is an alpine marsh land. The summer melt seeps into the still frozen soil (called permafrost) where the melt water then pools towards the surface. Since Mt. Evans can experience freezing temperatures throughout the year, this constant melting and freezing of the summer melt and permafrost layer creates a very wet, undulated landscape, which has in turn provided lots of road damage for visitors to navigate. :)

Summit Lake Mountain Park

Before you leave Summit Lake though, make sure you at least take the short walk to the Chicago Lakes overlook. Summit Lake and the immediate surroundings is a great place for Rocky Mountain goats and bighorn sheep, so keep an eye out!

Mountain goat at the peak of Mount Evans

Twinnies playing near the peak of Mount Evans
You can't technically drive all the way to the summit, but there is a parking lot at 14, 130 feet. To get to the summit, you have to walk the last 134 feet on a 1/4 mile switch-back trail. The views from the top are just breath taking. There are a few landmarks by the summit parking area. The Crest House was originally built in 1940 and was at the time the highest structure in the world. It was designed to resemble a star with giant windows overlooking the Denver area. Sadly, in 1979 a propane explosion destroyed this piece of history, leaving only it's rock wall ruins behind. Now, it has been converted into an look out and is widely used as a wind block for visitors. The other landmark is the University of Denver telescope observatory built in 1996.

View north-east from the peak of Mount Evans overlooking the observatory and Crest House ruins.
Mount Evans can be hiked, instead of driven, for those who would rather climb this great mountain. Even if you are only walking the last 1/4 mile trail, maybe people who are not adjusted to the altitude will experience altitude sickness, so drink lots of water and take it easy.

If you only have a short visit to the Denver area and want to get up a mountain to see 360 degree views but don't have time to hike a mountain or just physically can't, go check out Mount Evans... you won't be disappointed.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Rocky Mountain Goats

Mountain goats grazing on alpine vegetation

Goat? Nay. Not even close actually. The mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus), also know as the Rocky Mountain goat, is actually a member of the antelope family. Yup, "home on the range" antelopes. This large-hoofed mammal is only found in the subalpine to alpine zones of western mountain ranges in North America. Predators aren't a problem due to extreme alpine conditions during the winter, but they have to be wary when the snow melts. Thanks to sure-footedness from pliable hooves with rubbery pads and muscular forequarters, these mountain champions can conquer craggy rock surfaces where predators cannot follow. More mountain goats actually die from avalanches and rockslides than predation. Being herbivores, they spend most of their time grazing herbs, grasses, lichen, sedges, ferns, mosses, twigs and leaves. A double layer fur coat helps it survive extreme cold temperatures at high elevation over winter, with the overcoat molting and falling off during warming months.

Mountain goats typically live in herds, which they change seasonally after mating. Nannies (females goats) tend to herd together for most of the year with their kids (yes, baby mountain goats are called kids), while males, known as billies, either go lone-wolf or travel in groups of 2 or 3. In summer, herds tend to be smaller and travel between salt licks and water sources. Nannies can be extremely territorial, fighting other nannies within the herd over food.

A nanny with her twinnies

Nannies in a herd typically undergo synchronized estrus in October to December, which means they all go into "heat" at the same time and are ready to mate. Knowing sexy-time is around the corner, mature males join the female herds at this time. Males often go through mating rituals that includes staring at the females (I mean, who doesn't), digging ruts in the ground with their hooves and showy fights with other males, often involving locking horns. Both males and females are highly promiscuous and will mate with multiple individuals over the course of the entire mating season. However, males will often try to fend off other males from mating with females they've already mated with.

Gestation takes around 150 to 180 days, or 5 to 6 months. After separating itself from the herd, a nanny typically gives birth to a single kid, with twins (called twinnies) typically a rarity. After birth, kids are expected to get on their feet within a few hours before the nanny heads back to the herd. Kids stay with their for about a month, with some staying as long as till the next breeding season. If the kid is still around by the following breeding season, the mother will chase it away. When observing a herd, one can often see kids playing and jumping around with each other.

Month old twinnies resting at midday

Interesting tid-bits
  • After the age of 22 months, you can tell how old a mountain goat is by counting the number of rings on its horns
  • Can jump nearly 12 feet in a single bound.
  • Both males and females have horns.
  • Both sexes are not sexually mature till 30 months, old compared to other hoofed megafauna.
  • Eagles may occasionally try to chase a kid off of a cliff for a meal. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed magpie seen at Cub Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park
Corvids are extremely, if not obnoxiously, smart; being considered the most intelligent of birds and among the most intelligent animals we know. Corvidae members include crows, ravens, magpies, rooks, jays, nutcrackers, jackdaws, treepies and choughs. With a brain-to-body mass ratio equal to great apes, many have shown signs of self-awareness in mirror tests and demonstrated their ability of tool-making.

Black-billed magpies (Pica hudsonia) find themselves in this unique family of birds. Almost strictly found in the western United States and Canada (saving a few wandering souls), black-billed magpies have a wide-ranging diet, eating just about anything they can get their beak on. They'll consume basic songbird/passerine  diet materials, including fruit, grain, and insects (evening flipping cow dung to find a tasty snack). However, they don't simply stop there. Oh no they don't. They will kill small mammals, such as mice, voles and squirrels. Carrion is also a staple in their diet (and the fly maggots that find their home on carrion), even stealing meat from kills of coyotes, fox, and wolves (puppy dogs even).

However, I can't even stop there. Black-billed magpies are often given the nic-name "camp robbers" due to their habit of stealing food from campers, and will even tease a dog to give chase just to fly quickly back and grab some food out of the dog bowl. When they come across a relative food abundance, like all corvids they are known to cache food for short periods of time.

Black-billed magpie seen at Fern Lake Fall, Rocky Mountain National Park
You typically find magpies among meadows, grasslands and sagebrush plains in the west. They are often associated with barnyards and livestock areas because there are readily available food sources where livestock roam (who would give up a free, easy meal?). They stay relatively close to cover and can be found on forest edges, but almost never in dense thickets or woods.

Black-billed magpies pairs are known to mate for life (unless one dies) and will remain with each other through the year. When nesting, they are quite different from many other birds. Both sexes seem to choose a nesting site together, but sometimes disagreeing and begin building two separate nests. Their nests are large domes with an average size of 30 inches high and 20 inches across and are typically found by a source of water, be it streams or small ponds.

Black-billed magpie seen at Pikes National Forest
Black-billed magpies ofter have a clutch size of nine eggs, but due to asynchronous hatching (not all the eggs hatch at once) late hatchlings often die from starvation, resulting in a usual yield of 3-4 fledglings (a young bird who just got its flight feathers). After 3-4 weeks of being feed by both parents, they will fledge and fly with the adults for about another 2 months, feeding with adults and learning some tricks of the trade before flying off to join others their age.

Interesting tid-bits:
  • Lewis and Clark reported that magpies were caught entering their tents to steal food
  • It typically takes a magpie pair 40-50 days to make their nest
  • The longest-living magpie recorded is 9 years, 4 months.
  • Indulges in "anting" - placing ants on their plumage to aid with the cleaning process