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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Herring Gulls

Herring Gulls are thick as thieves in Maine. When I first moved there I wondered why we called them "herring" gulls? Why not, oh, something like "gray-backed gull", something more descriptive of their appearance?

I found out during the Herring run just how these gulls got their name - be warned, these pics are not for the fait-of-heart (or stomach).

This Herring Gull just caught a herring.

And yes, the gull is consuming the herring whole...

These gull certainly love their fish VERY fresh!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Rough-Legged Hawk

Rough-Legged Hawk, hunting rodents near Louisville, CO

When the winter storms begin to sweep across the high arctic of Canada and Alaska, thousands of Rough-Legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus) move south ahead of the cold. They migrate to central North America, some to as far south as northern Mexico, where the hunting is easier and the storms and cold not quite as intense.

The arrival of these smallish hawks signal to me that the cold winds of winter are sweeping in. They fly down to Colorado as early as September and stay until the Spring thaws creep northward into Canada. Feasting mostly on small mammals such as voles and mice, wintering Roughies here in Colorado often hunt from power poles or fenceposts along open fields or farmlands. Some, such as the one pictured below, hunt the greenways adjacent to major highways looking for a meal, which puts them in danger of being hit by passing cars and trucks.

Roughie hunting along the toll road near Louisville, CO

As with many types of hawks, Roughies appear to mate for life. During their breeding season in the high arctic (summer), hawk pairs build their nests on available cliffs or rock outcrops. They hatch up to 7 young in a season.  Young, flightless hawks are at the mercy of the arctic's other dangers: storms, Arctic Foxes, bears, wolverines, other hawks, falcons, and eagles, so relatively few survive to adulthood. 

Those young that do survive often head south into the sunbelt alone for their first winter. When the warmer weather of their first spring comes around, they'll head north looking for a mate, unfortunately without the benefit of online dating to help them out.

How can you tell these hawks apart from our more common Red-Tailed Hawks? Well, I always remember that Roughies look kind of, um, cute. 

Rough-Legged Hawk
They have more rounded heads and a smaller beak than a Red-Tail, plus their look is much less fierce:

Red-Tailed Hawk, note head shape

I love watching these birds hunt! These are agile hawks who can hunt as well from a perch or on the wing. In fact, I have seen a few of them actually hover-hunting, much as a Kestrel can do. Hovering in one place to hunt is a tough feat for such a large bird - it requires a lot of energy - but it can be the only option if prey animals are scurrying around a long way from an available perch.

Roughie perched on a power line near Louisville, CO

Rough-Legged Hawks seem to be a bit more shy and "spooky" than our resident Red-Tailed Hawks. Maybe being hatched and raised in the high arctic makes them unsure of what people are all about. Or maybe they've learned from their parents that some humans aren't very trustworthy, and therefore give us all a wide berth. 

No matter the reason for their shyness,  it's unethical and unhealthy for the bird if you harass them by trying to approach too close. If you come upon a bird and it flies off, let it go. A simple rule of thumb to remember when photographing or observing any wild animal is: if your presence causes a behavior change in the animal (such as moving off or sounding an alarm), you are too close. Back off. It is in your best interest, as well as in the best interests of the animal, to do everything you can to prevent it from feeling stressed by your presence.

As a photographer, I find it difficult to approach these birds without spooking them so I tend to photograph only those birds more used to people, and use a blind (usually my Honda). The bird on the power line, above, was hunting near a busy intersection near my home. I simply pulled my car off the side of the road in a large pullout, opened my window, and took several photos from inside my vehicle. The hawk glanced my way a few times but was much more concerned with hunting mice in the nearby field than it was with the photographer in the car.

All text and photos copyright Nancy Rynes, 2013. You may link to this page, but do not copy any content or images, for any reason, without my written permission.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Big Boys Comin' to Town

'Tis the season here in the Rocky Mountain State...but not for the holidays.

The Big Boys

The Big Boys are back in town!

It's the season so many Coloradans look forward to: the Bighorn Sheep rut. No, we're not voyeurs out here in the Wild West, but we are looking forward to some action. It's time for some good, ol' fashioned, head-slamming, fun!

Throughout the warmer months of the year, the female Bighorn Sheep (ewes), along with their new lambs and older "teenagers" form herds and stay up in the high country. A ram may stay with them...or not. The females define the social structure of the flock and the rams don't play much of a part in it. The Ladies do have a hierarchy within their group and from watching several flocks over time, it also looks to me like certain ewes have specific jobs or positions within the flock.

Lead Ewe
Leader (right): The lead ewe appears to set the pace for the group and keeps watch on the front lines.

Rear Guard (below): Brings up the rear and watches for danger as the flock moves. This particular ewe made it a point to always stay between me and her flock, even though the flock was safely out of the way up the hill. Trust me, I didn't want to mess with her!

Rear Guard
Auntie: Watches out for lambs who aren't hers. Maybe she's not old enough to breed, or maybe her lamb died earlier in the summer. In any case, there are ewes without their own babies who seem to watch out for others' lambs.

Auntie with a lamb (not hers)

The male sheep (rams) either move off and are solitary, or stay together in small bachelor herds for the summer. Some may stay with a flock of ewes. But come November and early December, all of the Bighorn Sheep move down from the high country to lower elevations both to get out of the snow and cold, and to join together to create the next crop of baby Bighorns.

The rams come out of their bachelorhood for a few weeks and mingle with a flock or two in order to vie for attention from the Ladies. Watching a flock at this time of year can make you recall those days of being in a singles bar. The Boys prance, display, scuffle, and sometimes even fight for the privilege of going home with his chosen girl.

The ram on the right is trying to pick a fight.

The Ladies tend to stay off to the side, watching all of this while trying to look disinterested.

And this is where it gets exciting: sometimes all of that pent-up testosterone and parading around results in a serious challenge...the dreaded Head Butting!

The winner is usually the prime-age, bulky Ram with a good set of horns, like this bruiser:

And while the younger, smaller rams tend not to win these scuffles, it seems to be a great way for them to learn strategy and the proper head-butting technique.

Older rams, past their prime, might sneak off with a victory now and then, but they seems to be slower and more prone to injury.

While it seems like they might be angry with eachother, many Rams who smash heads will nuzzle up to eachother afterwards. It's almost as if they are checking to see if the other is OK, or perhaps apologizing for a late hit.

And at the end of the day, tired from all of the activity, the only thing that matters is getting a little shuteye.

All text and photos copyright Nancy Rynes, 2013. You may link to this page, but do not copy any content or images, for any reason, without my written permission.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Mystical Rock Creek

Instructions for Living a Life:

Pay Attention.
Be Astonished.
Tell About It.

~Mary Oliver

I sweltered in the 97 degree heat of that August afternoon, my bike ride abandoned in favor of sitting along Rock Creek with my feet dangling in the water. I'll often do that, just find a quiet place to sit, allowing the world to unfold around me. Sometimes amazing things happen if you are patient and wait for them.

Rock Creek was quiet in that afternoon heat. Few birds braved the dry, oven-like air. A handful of American Goldfinches flitted in the shrubs along the creek and feasted on the abundant native sunflowers growing there.

Male American Goldfinch on native sunflower, Lafayette, CO

Overhead, a Swainson's Hawk circled, its wings catching an updraft that carried it further and further from my view.

Swainson's Hawk, Lafayette, CO

In the distance I heard the keee-keee-keee screeching of a small falcon - probably a Kestrel -  and the long whistle of one of the resident Red-Tailed Hawks. Occasionally, a crow or raven or magpie flew over, perhaps looking for a meal or a cool place to perch in the shade.

One of the resident Red-Tailed Hawks

Small dragonflies and damselflies zipped up and down the creekbed in their last-ditch efforts to look for mates. The dragonflies topped out at about 2.5 inches long, but their fiery orange and yellow colors lit up the reeds along the creek. They flew, hovered for a few seconds, then perched, then flew on again up and down the little valley. They reminded me of college kids trying to be seen on Pearl Street Mall.

Small dragonfly along Rock Creek, Lafayette CO

Every so often, a petite, graceful damselfly perched nearby. Damselflies are similar to dragonflies in overall size and shape, but have more delicate bodies and wings. They also hold their wings in parallel with their bodies when they rest, whereas dragonflies rest with their wings outstretched. Damselflies have a certain grace about them when compared to their beefier cousins. Dragonflies are relatively bulky and just look tough, like a Mastiff or Bulldog. Everything about damselflies is thin and delicate though - much like an Italian Greyhound or Saluki.

Small, blue damselfly

Damselflies are barely there - even with their bright colors, they blend in so well with the reeds that they are often difficult to spot.

After communing with the insects and birds for an hour or so, it was time to head home. Packing up my camera gear, I waded up the creek back toward the main trail and my mountain bike. Then something magical happened...

A very large, very blue dragonfly flew up to me and stopped, hovering in midair just a few feet in front of me. Judging by its size (about 5 inches long), color, and overall appearance, I believe it was a Giant Darner, Anax walsinghami. After 20 seconds or so, it flew off upstream toward a marshy area that I knew was about 75 feet from where I stood. The Giant Darner is not terribly common here in the Denver area so I felt blessed to have seen it.

I stayed in place, standing in the creek for a few minutes hoping against hope the large insect would be back. I really wanted a picture but in order for that to happen, the dragonfly would have to perch on a reed or branch for me. Even hovering, it constantly moved back and forth so getting a photo of it in flight would be next to impossible.

After maybe 3 minutes of waiting, the giant blue dragonfly came back. It did the same thing: flew up to me and hovered about 2 feet away, then flew back the way it had come.

I wasn't able to snap off a picture.

Again I stayed in place, and again came the giant dragonfly. It hovered, then flew back toward the marsh. This time I decided to follow it to see if it would perch somewhere along the way.

I slowly walked up the creek, stopping every now and then to try to locate the dragonfly. Each time I stopped and paused, it would come back down the creek and hover in front of me, seemingly wanting me to follow it, then would fly back upstream toward the marsh. If it had been a dog, I wouldn't hesitate to say that "it wanted me to follow it" because I have seen my own dogs do just this (usually to let them out to chase that pesky squirrel invading "their" yard). 

But this was a dragonfly! Everything I learned about animals taught me that insects didn't have the kind of thought processes a dog would have. Part of me felt a little silly for thinking it "wanted" me to do anything, let alone follow it. So I decided to experiment. I stood my ground.

The dragonfly kept returning, doing the same hovering act, then flying back upstream toward the marsh. Never did it fly past me or over me and go downstream. It somehow seemed to be keying in on me. Why? I have no idea.

I finally gave in and followed the blue ghost back, all the way to the marsh. Again, it never flew past me to go downstream, always going back and forth between me and the marsh. When I reached the marshy area I stood off to the side, but still in the water, and waited.

The dragonfly hovered in a constantly-moving arc around me for several minutes. I gave up trying to capture a picture of this blue jewel in constant motion and just enjoyed the experience of being touched by this little slice of Nature. Finally, after what seemed like a magical eternity but was really about 3 minutes, the blue dragonfly flew up high into the air, then disappeared from view.

I still don't know what the Giant Darner was doing or why it seemed to key in on my presence, but the experience touched on something almost-mystical for me. Sometimes these quiet times of communion with other people or other species can be more precious to me than the biggest, brightest jewel in the store.

I did pay attention, I was astonished, and now I am telling about it.

Sept 14, 2013, Post-disaster update: As you probably know by now, this area was hit very hard with severe flooding this past week, just after the photos above were taken. I will post a full update on Rock Creek soon, but just know that the dragonflies survived! I made a quick trip out there today and the Giant Darner came back and hovered around me for the entire time I was there. Several other, smaller dragonflies made their presence known so all is not lost :-)

All content copyright Nancy Rynes, 2013. Please respect my copyright. You may link to this article freely, but copying any of the content (text or photos) without my permission is not allowed.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Fire in the Western US - Lessons from Mesa Verde

As I write this, it's early July, 2013, another a year of more drought and fires in Colorado and the Southwestern US. Friends and former neighbors of mine in the Black Forest, near Colorado Springs, are recovering from damaged or destroyed homes during a recent human-caused fire. The Wolf Creek Fire Complex near Durango, ignited by lightning, still burns largely out-of-control, and sadly, 19 firefighters lost their lives in a monstrous blaze last week in Arizona. The Royal Gorge attraction in Canon City, CO, has been shut down due to a forest fire there several weeks ago. Fires burn in Nevada. It seems like the whole western US is up in flames.

I'm saddened at the loss of life, homes, and businesses in these and the other areas affected by fires this year. It's been a rough season already with a few more months of fire danger still to come.

Smoke from the Wolf Creek Fire darkening the canyons south of Mesa Verde.

But those of us in drought-prone areas also realize that naturally-caused fire is, and has been, a way of life here for centuries, if not millenia. As our human population grows and more people move west and want to live in the mountains and forests, we would do well to come to terms with and accept our surroundings. Perhaps even finding ways to adapt to them.

There's no doubt that we're in the middle of a regional drought here in the Southwest USA. Some areas are harder-hit than others which makes them more prone to wildfires. And the situation doesn't show any signs of going away any time soon. Drought here is cyclic and it's something we can't stop, much as we'd like. The Ancient inhabitants of this area knew this all too well. Cyclic water and resource depletion, due in part to drought, have negatively impacted the Ancient Pueblo People, the Aztecs, Hohokam, Mayans, and many other groups for at least 2,000 years (and probably more).

Draining the rivers to irrigate our fields, green our lawns, or fill our reservoirs doesn't solve the problem. Only Mother Nature can do that by delivering more rain and snow and cooler temperatures. When the rain and snow don't come, the risk of wildfire increases.

During this time of fires I took a trip to Mesa Verde, near Cortez and Durango, CO, a much more drought-prone area of the Colorado than where I live, near Boulder. Mesa Verde reminded me yet again that naturally-caused fire is a "normal" part of the cycle of forests here in the west.*

Mesa Verde has had a volatile record of droughts over the last 1000 or so years. Persistent drought may be one of the reasons that the Ancient Puebloans left these canyons over 800 years ago and moved south. Over that millenium, fire has been a recurring visitor to Mesa Verde.

Just looking at Mesa Verde teaches us that the forests will survive, the animals will return, and what we see happening now is really just a point in time in the natural cycle of life here in the Southwest US.

Mature pinyon and juniper forests gave Mesa Verde its Spanish name, "Green Table."

An unburned area of Mesa Verde National Park.

Mature pinyon and juniper trees near cliff dwellings.

Rainfall here is sparse but is enough to support a forest of pinyon, juniper, rabbitbrush, scrub oak, creosote bush, sage, and mountain mahogany. Native flowers include many species of penstemon, native sunflower, arrowleaf balsamroot, native buckwheats, and wild roses. 

But sometimes lightning from a dry thunderstorm sets off a blaze that consumes the forest and resets the cycle. Dead trees and shrubs, duff, and leaf litter are cleared.  Fires have consumed much of Mesa Verde's mature forests in the last 15 years. The large trees I saw in this National Park when I was a child have been mostly burned off since the late 1990s. 

Some burn areas are interrupted by stands of unburned trees, often due to the efforts of firefighters to contain the blaze:

Old growth pinyon and juniper (foreground) with a recent burn scar from 2005 in the middle ground, Mesa 

A recovering burn area. Large, burned trees are being replaced with shrubs such as oak and rabbitbrush.

After an area burns it's more prone to mudslides and flash floods. But this risk gives way as dormant seeds in the soil sprout and take root (see pic, above). These new plants send out roots that lock the soil in place and the frequency of floods and mudslides subsides.

And as with the Phoenix, with a forest fire comes eventual rebirth. Besides killing off live trees, the blaze clears off dead trees and shrubs, duff, and leaf litter that were blocking light and water from reaching the soil. Now that the soil has light and water, plants grow and flower from roots or dormant seeds, such as this penstemon blooming near Step House, Mesa Verde:

Some trees and shrubs, such as the Ponderosa Pine, Sequoia, and ceanothus, are naturally resistant to mild/moderate ground fires. Others, mainly conifers like the lodgepole and Bishop pines, need fire to force cones open to release their seeds. Without fire, these trees' seeds would never germinate.

From the human perspective, recent burns at Mesa Verde have done something pretty interesting for archaeologists and visitors to the park. Burned areas can give us an idea of what the region looked like when the Ancestral Puebloans lived here. At that time, around 1000-1300 AD, the mesa tops were cleared and planted with corn, beans, and squash. The landscape would have looked similar to the picture below, taken near the Long House ruin. The inhabitants of the area removed the trees in the canyons for firewood and building timbers, leaving the valleys relatively bare and clear:

A recent burn near Long House, showing what the area might have looked like 1100 AD.

But we know by just taking a look around Mesa Verde that, given a chance, the trees and shrubs do come back and the forest renews itself. We learn that  naturally-caused wildfires are part of the cycle of life here in the dry West. For Nature, fire isn't the end of the world, it's the start of the next cycle.

How do we humans deal with and perhaps even adapt to living with fire? More to come in my next post...

*Notice I write "naturally-caused" fire. I don't consider blazes like the one in the Black Forest, caused by humans, to be "natural," so this blog post does not apply to them. Human-caused fire is not really part of the natural cycle of a forest even if drought conditions were present at the start of the blaze. 

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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Quiet Time on the Front Range

This is the time of year around Boulder, Colorado, where the bird life quiets down a bit. Spring migration is over. The birds that winter here have flown north for the summer to raise their young.

So right now we have mostly the local breeding birds, including: robins, jays, hawks, a few bluebirds, grackles, eagles, tanagers, flycatchers, phoebes, swallows, and more...

For me this is a time to take a breather and concentrate on other things. Painting, hiking, visiting Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, photographing other animals like Mountain Goats, Bighorn Sheep, and lizards. Lots of lizards.

The Indigenous cultures of North America included depictions of lizards in their art for thousands of years. Check out these petroglyphs from Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado:

Animals were (as far as we know to date) the first subject matter for North American art. Take a look at this recently-publicized site in Utah where we now have documented evidence of Ancient Americans creating rock art depicting mammoths and ancient, giant bison:

Amazing that this rock art survived over 10,000 years out in the open, and even more amazing that someone actually found it.

So as I take a break from bird photography this summer, I try to enjoy the calm that's come and try to imagine western North America as it once was 11,000 years ago...not a land of sand and dust storms and cactus, but a greenscape where Mammoths, giant bison, saber-tooth cats, cheetahs, and camels made their home alongside the ancestors of the modern day tribes of First Nations People.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Human Need for Nature

I have a confession to make - I'm personally not much of a church-goer. From the time I was a small child going to Catholic mass on Sundays, I've always felt the church buildings too confining and too "human." I guess my thought was that if God made the Universe, He (or She) made it without buildings, right? Humans put the buildings in...the Creator built the mountains and forests and prairies and tundra. That's why I feel that Nature is my "church" - it's where I go to reflect, meditate, and ponder reality.

I suspect I'm not alone in this outlook...

This morning, a beautiful, sunny, Sunday morning, found me out communing with Nature in Loveland, Colorado. It was an odd little bit of nature - definitely "nature" with a small n - a man-made pond called Lower Hoffman Lake (or man-enhanced wetland, actually) on the eastern edge of town and surrounded by a hospital (McKee Medical Center) and upscale homes. Not your typical open space or huge vistas of the Rockies, no rolling prairie. Just a town pond, mostly frozen over but with a little open water on the side nearest the hospital.

It doesn't take much open water this time of year to attract wildlife in Colorado, whether that open water is surrounded by buildings or out on the prairie with only the mountains and blue sky as a backdrop. And today, large numbers of geese and ducks crowded the this little bit of blue water amid the larger swath of white ice coating the lake. Along with those geese and ducks were two rare beauties - migrating Trumpeter Swans that settled here earlier this month.

Trumpter Swan, Canada Geese, and Coots

I made myself comfortable along the Nature Path at McKee Medical Center, finding a spot in the sun with a good view of the swans, geese, and ducks. The medical center has set aside their lakefront (or is it pondfront?) to be a small "wellness park" with benches, a walking path, and meditation space (complete with labyrinth). The focus of this space is to give patients, visitors, and staff a quiet, nature-centered, peaceful place to unwind, reflect, relax, and heal.

It was Sunday, so the parking lot was nearly empty and I was the only person watching and photographing the swans. I loved that there was a little bit of Nature tucked in here next to the hospital - and that colorful, energetic birds converged here during the winter. Maybe patients in their rooms could look out a window and watch the daily comings and goings of animal life just a few feet away. I wouldn't blame them for preferring to watch the animals - they're a nice change of pace from watching the nurses come and go all day and night.

Adult and Juvenile Trumpeter Swans with Canada Geese, Coot, and Mallards

After about an hour, a gentleman of about 70 years old walked up and started asking me about the birds. He was joined by his daughter who looked to be in her early 40s. Both seemed tired and stressed, but they visibly relaxed as they started to watch the swans. I told them a little about the Trumpeters - how they'd just come in a week ago or so and that it was an adult and juvenile. They remarked how huge the swans looked in relation to all of the other birds on the pond - almost like an aircraft carrier sailing out of port accompanied by the fleet!

Then the gentleman told me he was here because his wife was very seriously ill, in ICU, and he and his daughter needed to think about something else for a while besides prognoses and tests and procedures and doctors. His daughter was nearly in tears as she listened to her father talk about her mother - but she still focused on the swans going about their morning, fascinated by this little bit of Nature next to the hospital. The woman didn't smile, but she did relax a little and seemed to de-stress for the 20 or so minutes she and her father stayed and watched the swans.

My heart went out to this man and his daughter. Seeing them put me in mind of the countless hours I spent visiting my father when he was in and out of the hospital for surgery, ICU stays, and chemo treatments. Hospital experiences can be horribly scary for the patient and stressful for family and friends - oddly enough, hospitals are not good places to truly heal. Anyone who's been admitted can attest to this! Even as a visitor I remember occasionally needing an escape  where I could just "be" - away from the medical smells and noises and people inside. A place where I didn't have to think or feel, just a space to unwind and realize that life was still going on no matter the turmoil my family was experiencing. I found an escape in the walking inner city neighborhoods near the hospital - it wasn't the best way to unwind, but it was better than nothing. I would have loved a healing garden or nature walk like this one, with plants and animals to focus on rather than white coats and IV lines.

Thankfully, hospitals like McKee Medical Center are beginning to recognize the benefits to humans of allowing Nature and medical facilities to coexist.

There is something about watching animals that takes my mind out of myself and my own life and problems for a while, and I doubt I'm alone in this. Just seeing what happened this morning reinforced how valuable Nature can be to us if we allow it space. Yes, Nature deserves to *be* for its own sake, but let's not forget that we need it in our lives as well.

I'm glad McKee Medical Center has seen the wisdom of bringing a little bit of Nature into the lives of its patients and visitors. It can't hurt and just might help provide a much-needed respite from the stress of hospital stays, both for patients and their famillies.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The (Un)Common Red-Tailed Hawk

Adult light morph (pale belly and tail; Lafayette, CO)

The Red-Tailed Hawk is our most common hawk here in North America, at least by numbers, but it's uncommonly beautiful in its variability. In this post, I just thought I'd share a few photos of the color variations in the Red Tails living around my home here in Colorado. This is by no means a definitive display of all of the color morphs I've seen, but simply the ones I have been able to photograph...

Adult light-morph (captive)

Adult light-morph (captive)

"Red-Tailed Hawk Study" Oil painting - Adult light morph (captive)

This gorgeous bird is a captive because of an injury that prevents it from living on its own in the wild. He is now an ambassador for his species and is cared for by the Vermont Institute of Natural Science.

Harlan's color variant (note pale tail and grayish streaking on the belly 
and underwing; Boulder, CO). Yes, this is a Red-Tailed Hawk even though its tail is a very light gray above and below. 

Another Harlan's variant (Weld County, CO)

Dark Harlan's (??) (near Firestone, CO)

Dark Morph (not Harlan's - note very red tail), adult (Erie, CO)

Juvenile light morph (Louisville, COO

Juvenile Light morph (note brown tail and pale eye) (Louisville, CO)

Adult light morph (Lafayette, CO)

Adult Light morph, bird from previous photo, in flight (Lafayette, CO)

Light Adult, Western morph (Louisville, CO)
Note the very buff-colored belly, dark "shoulders", and buff underwing coverts

I believe this is an Adult Light Harlan's (Weld County, CO)

And this poor adult light morph has some kind of skin condition - possibly mites - leading to a major loss of feathers on its head and belly. Note the poor condition of the skin around its eyes (near Erie, CO).

All photos and text are copyright Nancy Rynes, 2013