A Natural History of Trail Ridge Road Is Now Out

I am delighted to announce that my book, A Natural History of Trail Ridge Road: Rocky Mountain National Park’s Highway to the Sky, is now in bookstores.

I’d love to see you at a book signing. Please check this blog frequently for times and places of signings, because they do change.

2:00 May 16, 2015 Tattered Cover Aspen Grove
7301 South Santa Fe Blvd, Littleton, Colorado  http://www.tatteredcover.com/map-aspen-grove

7:30 June 17, 2015 Boulder Bookstore
1107 Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado http://boulderbookstore.indiebound.com/directionsandparking

4:00 June 20, 2015 Macdonald Bookshop
152 E. Elkhorn, Estes Park, Colorado http://www.macdonaldbookshop.com/home/

3:00 July 11, 2015 Estes Park History Museum
200 Fourth Street, Estes Park, Colorado https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/townofestespark/museumevents

Map http://estesparkmuseumfriends.org/contact-us/

A Natural History of Trail Ridge Road: Rocky Mountain National Park’s Highway to the Sky

As you’ve followed this blog, you’ve learned that I love to write about nature, especially what I can see around me in my home state of Colorado. One of my all time favorite places in Colorado is Trail Ridge Road, in Rocky Mountain National Park. With ten miles above 11,000 feet, Trail Ridge Road is unlike almost any other place in the country. Every time I go up there I see or hear or learn something that astounds me. It is an incredible place.Trail Ridge Road Pub Announcement

This is Rocky Mountain National Park’s 100th anniversary. http://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/100th-anniversary.htm

To help celebrate the Park’s Centennial, I have written a book about Trail Ridge Road. I am pleased to announce that  A Natural History of Trail Ridge Road: Rocky Mountain National Park’s Highway to the Sky will be published March 16, 2015 by The History Press. My hope is that Trail Ridge Road will help visitors understand the unique plants and animals they may see as the highway climbs to over 12,000 feet. But mostly, I hope that they will be as astonished as I am with the natural wonders of this unique place.   935.4 Trail Ridge Road PR

Trail Ridge Road traditionally opens around Memorial Day. The Park Service website should give the opening day.  I’ll see you there!

Birds flee drought areas

I have seen more different birds at my feeders

Male American Goldfinch on top of feeder.

than I ever have before in the summer. In addition to the usual house sparrows, house finches, American and lesser goldfinches,

mourning and collared doves, house wrens and dramatic raids by Cooper’s hawks, we’ve had white-crowned nuthatches, chickadees, spotted towhees and black-headed grosbeaks – birds that pass through our yard

Female Black-headed Grosbeak atop another feeder.

Female Coopers Hawk has breakfast

spring and fall, but don’t usually linger here in summer. Huge hordes of hummingbirds have come through our yard in the past few weeks, getting an early start on their migration. It’s been a treat.
And yet…I have to wonder why we are seeing so many different birds in our yard, birds that usually move on to richer nesting grounds. The answer, I think, is that the animals’ breeding grounds this year are in bad shape. Drought – we have had just 5 ½ inches, less than half the precipitation that we normally do at this time of year. Heat – while we normally have 26 days above 90 degrees, this summer we have had a blistering 70 days. Fire – huge infernos have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres in the mountains and High Plains. The state has taken a beating. And the wildlife have to adapt as well as they can to these harsh conditions. Competing with a dozen other bird species in suburban backyards must look like a good deal when compared to nothing to eat and no cover in nearby wildlands.

BioBlitz 2012 — Mountain Pine Beetles

For the afternoon session of Rocky Mountain National Park BioBlitz 2012, my son and I learned about mountain pine beetles from Dave Leatherman, retired Colorado State Forest Service entomologist. We met in an old ponderosa savanna near the Lawn Lake Alluvial Fan.
Mountain pine beetles have been in the news for the past few years as they decimate pine forests across the Rocky Mountains. As we walked, Dave explained why. The beetles bore under the bark and attack mostly lodgepole, but also ponderosa, bristlecone and limber pine trees. The trees need to be more than five years old because the beetles need thick bark to protect them in deep winter freezes.
The beetles use pheromones, or chemical attractants, to attract mates to the chosen tree. If there are enough beetles, they can jump to piñon pine or other conifers. In many areas, whole mountainsides are covered with rust-colored dead pine trees which, as they dry out, become perfect fuel for forest fires.
You won’t actually see mountain pine beetles unless you happen to notice them on the few days of late summer that they come out of one tree to fly to another, or you start pulling bark off of infested trees, as Dave did. Their entire lifecycle is lived underneath the bark of their dying victims.

The black fleck in the center of the photo is a female mountain pine beetle. The black curve to the left of the photo is the lens cap of my camera, for scale.

What you might notice are pink or yellow popcorn-like globs of sap stuck beneath pinprick holes in the bark of the tree. At the base of the tree, you’ll find sawdust. These signs are exactly what they look like: holes, called pitch tubes, where the female beetle burrowed in, the boring dust falling to the ground beneath the tube, and pitch or resin that the tree has oozed out in an attempt to pitch the beetles out (drown the beetle).
The beetles carry bluestain fungus into the trees on their bodies. We used to think that the bluestain fungus was what actually killed the trees. But instead, it seems that the bluestain fungus takes up nutrients from the tree and concentrates them. The beetles need those nutrients to survive. The beetles burrow through both the inner bark of the tree and the fungus. As the beetles eat, they cut the tubes the tree needs to move sap. Dave said that within three days after the first beetle arrives, they have done enough damage to the tubes that the host tree is doomed.
Because they live under the bark, spraying the trees with insecticide doesn’t kill the mountain pine beetles. Once tucked into an older tree, it takes five days of -30 degree weather to kill the beetles.
There are always mountain pine beetles in pine forests; they are a natural part of the forest ecosystem. In true predator fashion, in a healthy forest they attack trees that are weak or sick. But beetle numbers explode when pines get crowded, as they have over the last one hundred years.
Mountain pine beetles have killed over 3.6 million acres of pine in Colorado and southeastern Wyoming. The epidemic will probably end when there are no more lodgepoles older than five years to infect – an expected 90% of the lodgepoles will die. As the beetles run out of lodgepoles, ponderosa and limber pines are attacked as well.
But as the lodgepoles die, woodpeckers and other predators will feast on the beetles, and owls will have more nesting sites. As grasses and shrubs sprout beneath the dead trees, grazers like deer and elk will have more to eat. And in five years, as aspen move into the open space, the mountains will be dazzling in their autumn colors.

Pitch oozing out of a hole make by a mountain pine beetle.

BioBlitz 2012 — Climate Change in the Soil

Over the weekend, my son and I went to BioBlitz in Rocky Mountain National Park – twenty-four hours of counting plant, animal, insect, fungal, and bacterial species in the Park. As a bonus, we met hundreds of scientists passionate about species diversity. It was awesome.
BioBlitz is the brain-child of legendary evolutionary biologist, E.O. Wilson, to introduce the public to the importance of species diversity. This BioBlitz, like the previous five blitzs, have been hosted by the National Park Service in a premier park, and sponsored by National Geographic. There will be one BioBlitz a year for the next four years, up to 2016, the centennial of the National Park Service.
The first session that my son and I attended looked at bacteria in the soil of the Englemann spruce-subalpine fir community. The site was at the old Hidden Valley Ski Area, a place that holds many great memories for me. We recorded soil temperature and moisture measurements. The scientists then explained that their research was to investigate how climate change (including soil temperature and moisture) will change soil bacteria activity, and how that, in turn, will change the amount of CO2 that the bacteria produce.
Fun bacteria facts:
• Bacteria are some of the oldest living organisms on Earth.
• With billions of years to evolve, there are far more different types of bacteria than there are any other type of plant, animal, insect, or anything else.
• Bacteria in your stomach, intestines, on your skin and elsewhere account for an estimated seven pounds of your body weight. Blame them.
• Over 90% of bacteria have yet to be studied, or even named. Helpful, harmful or just amazing – we have no idea what their role in the ecosystem is.