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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

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Winter Raptors in Colorado

A magical time has arrived in the Boulder area - it's the season of snow and cold weather, blizzards, chinooks, and crisp blue skies. And with the cold comes the birds of the north - overwintering birds of prey. Hawks, falcons, eagles, owls, and related birds from the far north make their appearance here for several months each year.

For many of these species, Colorado is their version of wintering in Palm Springs. It's hard to believe this when the thermometer here barely reaches the double-digits, but it's definitely warmer than spending the winter above the Arctic Circle.

Kestrel fluffed up against the cold

The species I look most forward to seeing each winter is the Rough-Legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus). While the plumage on Roughies isn't as variable as that on Red-Tailed Hawks, it does sport two very fetching and distinct color phases, light and dark, with gradations between. And while anecdotal evidence says that these birds tend to stay out on open farm and ranch land far clear of cities, I have regularly seen them soaring over towns and highways here near Boulder.

Juvenile Rough-Legged Hawk hunting near Louisville, CO

Light phase Roughies are quite distinctive both in flight and perched - short beak, feathered legs, and dark "wrist' patches under their wings are giveaways. Very dark belly-bands are typically present on the lighter birds, and hunting from a hover (similar to a kestrel) is another distinctive trait of these raptors.

In some years, winter can bring another beautiful visitor from the far north: Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus). A very large, diurnal owl (active during the daylight), Snowies are surprisingly difficult to spot after winter storms have dumped a foot of powder along the Front Range. While again tending to stay in more rural areas, Snowies will go where the food is: namely, small rodents. I have seen Snowies perched on fence posts in an active farm yard, on top of manure piles, garbage dumps, heavy construction machinery, road signs, and on the peaks of barns.

Snowy Owl on a pile of tires

Other raptors that winter in Colorado are more northern populations of  hawks, eagles, falcons, and owls.

Bald Eagle at Stearns Lake, Colorado

As with all wild animals, please take care when observing and photographing migrating birds of prey. Truly arctic birds like Rough-Legged Hawks and Snowy Owls come only as far south as they need in order to find food. If the rodent population is good to the north, few of these raptors come south into the lower 48. But if the rodent population has crashed that year, the birds won't have as much prey to eat so hunger will drive them south until they find food. By the time these Arctic birds reach Colorado, they're hungry, sometimes VERY hungry. Take care to disturb them as little as possible because their lives depend on their ability to capture food. On a cold day, too much human activity can cause them to expend a lot of precious energy avoiding us rather than tracking down and catching a much-needed meal.

Juvenile Bald Eagle feasting on a goose, Waneka Lake, CO

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